Beauty, Evolution, and Joy

This past month, one of the runes we’ve been studying in the Rune Class is Wunjo–Joy. In one sense, it’s pretty simple. In another it’s an abstraction that’s almost impossible to define. The best image I could come up with to represent it on the altar was Snoopy doing the happy dance. In the class discussion, I tried to analyze my own feelings on the subject. Today I find myself still chewing on the question. When do I feel Joy? Why? What is the function of Joy in the scheme of things?

One of the things that stimulates the sensation I define as Joy most often and most easily is Beauty. The poet Keats says “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn” 49-50) He takes fifty lines to make his point, but the final two say it all. But what is that Truth that Beauty defines? Why does looking at something beautiful make us feel joy?

When I try to analyze why I find something beautiful, I seek beyond conventional definitions to come up with terms like pattern, balance, harmony, symmetry, order. I believe that we have been programmed by evolution to recognize and appreciate them. We find these elements in everything that exists—the dance of electrons, the spirals of our DNA, the petals of a rose or the folds of a mountain range. In these things we see an essential order that is profoundly reassuring. Even things that at first glance appear to be asymmetrical or disorderly can elicit that response. Artistic movements alternate between a controlled, formal esthetic and a celebration of the unpredictable and “natural”. In Europe, the Classical formalism of the 18th century was followed by the wild enthusiasm of the Romantic movement. We find both mathematically perfect patterned brocade and the apparent freedom of a brush-painting in Japanese art. We are hardwired to see beauty, though, as with many other things, we may need practice to exercise that skill. We are surrounded by beauty. The artist with a brush or camera learns to “frame” a picture to capture that beauty by including a balance of color, shape and movement, fix the moment of beauty for those who look but do not /see/.

I propose that the reason that we respond to something in which we find is because we all—redwoods, the chambered nautilus, the lark ascending, have evolved together. Our response to Beauty is an instinctive recognition that we are part of a unity. Whether or not there is an Intelligent Designer, the structures of Nature are an intelligent design. When we connect to the harmony around us we feel Joy.

The awe and delight with which I view an especially esthetic sunset are not a proof the existence of Truth, Beauty, or God, but they certainly make it easier for me to live without certainty. From our instinctive response to Beauty we derive an ideal of order, balance and harmony on which to model our lives.

Is Beauty real? In my mind, that is not a particularly useful question. But it is certainly a useful concept. Awareness of Beauty enables me to believe that the world can function in a positive, productive way. No matter what goes wrong, focusing on one thing that is working beautifully gives me hope. To align myself with order, balance, harmony, to move more gracefully, clear and clean a kitchen counter, contemplate the exquisite architecture of a flower, to be mindful in small things, is to strike a blow against entropy (although I have to recognize the possibility that entropy itself may be an apparent disorder in a pattern too large for us to see).

I also choose to believe that our response to this unity with Beauty includes something beyond the evidence of the physical senses, that a part of this order is Spirit, and that the capacity to respond to religious practice with joy is evidence that the Beauty with which we have evolved includes the Divine.