This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive
New York, New York: Basic Books, 2022.
Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, could just as easily have been titled On Earth We’re Briefly Brutal. The narrator (Little Dog), in a long letter to his Vietnamese mother (Rose), recalls the years of bracing violence he suffered at her hands. Things are complicated though, and we—the readers—are invited to bear witness to the events (among them the blistering decimation of mid-century Vietnam) that seem to determine the fate of this broken family—a grandmother, mother, and son—now living in the hazy fumes of American strip malls and their nail parlor prisons.
But Vuong’s isn’t a story of abuse or violence or victimhood. As the title of the novel suggests, it is one of recovery. Little Dog’s “ma” is also beautiful, and their life—not in spite of the violence and filth but, somehow, growing on the same vine—is gorgeous. Taken in the context of our cultural moment, one trained to be suspicious of beauty as at best a mirage and at worst a tool of financiers and fascists, Vuong’s declaration that life is gorgeous is more than bold. It’s not just that beauty exists alongside the scars of life. It justifies our existence. Little Dog writes:
It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation. We were all once inside our mothers, saying, with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more if it?
In his new book, This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive, Nick Riggle, associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, latches on to this suggestion. Like Vuong’s narrator, Riggle is familiar with this desire—the urge “to insist on the beauty of life.” But he wants to do more than just insist; he wants to understand how beauty can play such a role and, more importantly, whether it ought to play such a role. Writing out of a childhood marred by its own debts to Vietnam and in anticipation of the birth of his first child, Riggle asks: “This life is troubling and trying, but what if you could show that it is beautiful enough to ‘replicate’?” This Beauty is his attempt.
Beauty, Riggle argues, is the answer to a related but more general question—what he calls, “The Question”—“Why should I value this life that I simply find myself with?” This concern, unlike the one that preoccupied Albert Camus, is not about death or suicide. Nor is it wrapped up in worries about the environment or literal plagues. It is more fundamental than all of these. It centers on why a person who has no say in the advent of his existence should care about its continuation.
Riggle’s approach to answering The Question takes its lead from an unlikely source: the many and varied “existential imperatives” that litter popular culture. These include such mantras as you only live once (YOLO) and carpe diem and live in the now. His interest is piqued by these phrases not because of their obvious wisdom (in most cases they’ve devolved into inane cliche), but because they occasionally, if only fleetingly, for whatever reason, actually motivate us to dig into life. It’s this “for whatever reason” that grabs Riggle’s attention, and the opening chapters of his book are devoted to analyzing how these imperatives motivate us, with the hope that whatever we discover can set us on the path to understanding why we value life.
Riggle attempts to clarify what each of these slogans means, with charity governing the process. For instance, if it turns out that an interpretation of you only live once (say, the thought that “death is certain”) bears no clear and sensible connection to the desire to replicate life (because its application is too ambiguous or its meaning nonsensical or it is plain foolhardy), then Riggle rejects it. This method allows him to arrive, a little too conveniently, at an aesthetic interpretation of each imperative. In the case of YOLO, we are told the imperative works because it reminds us that we can “reach for something beyond our body and little self—toward love, creative achievement, community” and, most importantly for Riggle’s thesis, “a higher beauty.”
Riggle’s labor to give these pop anthems credible content is nice for those who want to carpe diem sensibly, but the methodology seems to contain a basic flaw. Namely, there is no reason to think that existential imperatives motivate only when coherent. A good old-fashioned “barbaric yawp” seems just as likely to get the existential blood pumping as a well-ordered, meaningful maxim. Locating a respectable interpretation of an existential slogan does not put us any closer to understanding why, in actual use, it works to get us off the couch. But it’s not obvious why Riggle needs to show this anyway. If he could just tell us what beauty is, perhaps this alone could set us on the path to understanding why it works as an answer to The Question. And, near the end of the book, he finally does.
Expanding on a brief remark from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Riggle offers what we might call a behavior-centered account. Beauty is that which compels us to imitate, share, and self-express in response to it. I see a dramatic sunset, and I’m moved to write a poem; I hear a powerful symphony, and I insist on sharing it with my friends; I see a ridiculous skateboard trick, and I decide to take up the hobby; I eat a gourmet meal, and I try to make it at home; on and on and on. “Beauty,” Riggle writes, “sparks this desire to live for, engage with, and recreate the aesthetic because that is what it means for something to have aesthetic value.”
There’s something undeniably right about this. Beauty is—as Plato long ago noticed—a self-begetting force. The worry, though, is that Riggle hasn’t said enough: He doesn’t move us any closer to answering The Question or, as he announced in the opening chapter, showing that life is beautiful enough to replicate. At best, Riggle has explained why beauty might move us to replicate life, but—as he well knows—this doesn’t amount to a justification. He still needs to explain what it is about beauty that distinguishes the compulsion to imitate and share from the same compulsion I experience after a session with a hypnotist or under the control of addiction. He still needs to explain what beauty is!
This is where an account like Plato’s—whatever you make of it—proves valuable. In addition to giving us a rich description of what beauty does to us, a Platonic account tells us something about the nature of that motive force so that we can judge whether we approve of it. For instance, what if we said that beauty is the goodness of an object (a table, a sunset, a person, a skateboard trick) made manifest? On this view, to see something as beautiful is to experience it as good. Notice how, in addition to giving us the resources for understanding why beauty compels replication, this definition also purports to justify the impulse. Why should I value this life that I simply find myself with? Because through its beauty I experience its goodness. Life is good!
But even this more robust account of beauty does not yet satisfy the philosopher’s burden. Ignoring for now whether it’s even correct, we could still ask: How can we know that something is actually beautiful or, just as relevant here, beautiful enough to justify my continued existence? Momentarily setting aside the first question, we’ll see how the second haunts Riggle’s account.
There are two aspects of Riggle’s depiction of what a beautiful life is that undermine its force as a compelling answer to The Question. The first is his emphasis on aesthetic choice. Not only are there a million and one things to find beautiful, he notes that we develop our “aesthetic individuality” by choosing some rather than others. “[Y]ou love dishes with numbing and zingy Sichuan pepper; I hate them but love the sharp, floral, earthy peppers in Mexican food. I love the Abstract Expressionists; you make fun of them.” Riggle is, of course, right that different people are compelled by different things—zingy or earthy—and, further, that there is something wonderful about the diversity of our responses, but he misdescribes the nature of these experiences. At its best, beauty doesn’t present me with a choice: It commands me; it arrests my attention; it evacuates my ego; it says “bow down and serve me.” The worn example from Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is still the best—It says, You must change your life! There is very little recognizable choice here, though perhaps something in the cul-de-sac of freedom. The really remarkable thing about an experience of beauty is that it both knocks me on my knees and makes me feel as though I’ve come into something bigger. In temporarily losing myself, I find myself.
And this feeling of losing oneself is connected to a related issue in Riggle’s account: an overemphasis on uniqueness. If his picture of the aesthetic life can be reduced to any one existential maxim, it’s You do you! For Riggle, one of the best things about our encounters with beauty is the way they shape us into people with individual style that we express not only in our taste for the high arts but also for our sneakers, favorite restaurants, and Spotify playlists. In turn, we form communities where our uniqueness flashes forth as an inspiration for others. My style begets your style in a cyclone of self-expression (and, one worries, late-modern consumerism).
But recall how we got into this discussion in the first place. We wanted to know why we should care about the continuation of our lives. Even if beauty is part of the answer, it is hard to see what beautiful sneakers have to do with it. Also, assuming that my choice of footwear manages to convince me that I’m unique or that you’re unique or whatever, is that enough to get me to care about my life? In my experience, at least, the best answers to The Question don’t succeed by proving the importance of my individuality, but something like the opposite: the importance of my participation in something bigger than myself. And this, it turns out, is part of Riggle’s experience too.
He describes a moment in his early twenties in which he became powerfully, overwhelmingly convinced that The Question has an answer. He was sitting in late-afternoon traffic, when something on the horizon caught his eye. In the distance, he saw the grassy hills framed by a plain blue sky. But when he turned his gaze upward, everything changed. He writes,
[I]t seemed to me, all of a sudden, that there was no real difference between me and everything else. This wasn’t confusion; it was a conviction, as if I were finally realizing the deepest possible truth…There was a distinct sense of timelessness or infinity that I struggle to describe, and along with it a profound clarity about death—death, I realized in that moment, was nothing, could not be anything, since I am timelessly one with the infinite universe…[My] body was flush with love in beholding a most profound experience of beauty.
This remarkable passage plays no serious role in Riggle’s study. It’s tucked away in a chapter on time and being present, and mentioned there even with apparent reluctance. All this despite the fact, that—I’m willing to venture—this experience of beauty was a turning point in Riggle’s life. This experience is the reason why he’s written this book, why he’s given his life over to the careful (and, yes, beautiful!) study of beauty.
Sometimes we eat a good meal or see a cool skateboard trick or watch the wind blow through the leaves of the silver maple in our backyard, and the beauty moves us to stylize our own lives. But other times, and they are much rarer, the silver maple catches fire with light and we stand transfixed before it. And in those moments, we are moved to say aloud, as Riggle himself did: “Oh, my god.” We stand there—bizarrely, outrageously, idiotically—convinced that it’s all worth it, and—even more—that life demands our devoted love: On earth we are briefly gorgeous.
And so we have to return to Vuong’s novel, because he finally understands that this insistent conviction is not the kind of thing the philosopher can “show.” Late in the book, Little Dog describes his own encounter with “luminescence.”
Three weeks after Trevor died a trio of tulips in an earthenware pot stopped me in the middle of my mind. I had woken abruptly and, still dazed from sleep, mistook the dawn light hitting the petals for the flowers emitting their own luminescence. I crawled to the glowing cups, thinking I was seeing a miracle, my own burning bush. But when I got closer, my head blocked the rays and the tulips turned off.
Our heads have a way of doing this. There is so much else in life that seems to tell against the reality of the light. The abuse, the violence, the filth. But, as Vuong insists, memory is a choice, and thus an act of trust. Trust that “Rose”—Little Dog’s “ma”—can shine with luminescence, but also—and more boldly—that we are “what the light says we are.” Not born from war, but from beauty.