Elaine Scarry’s Views on Beauty

Abstract: On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry consists of the Tanner lectures on Human Values delivered at Yale University on March 25 and 26, 1998. The two lectures are “On Beauty and Being Wrong” and “On Beauty and Being Fair.”

Keywords: nuance of beauty, liability of consciousness, area of aesthetic, abstract beauty

In “On Beauty and Being Wrong” Scarry dismisses ‘unattached beauty’ from the scope of her discussion and places attributes present across different objects like faces, flowers, birdsongs, men and poems in the scope of her discussion on beauty. So for Scarry, beauty is attached though she admits that unattached and abstract beauty is possible.

Scarry argues that beautiful objects prompt in the seer a desire to stare, replicate, reproduce, beget, or even to imitate and possess them. This willingness of the seer to place himself / herself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. Therefore beauty is a starting place for education for Scarry. The university is related to beauty for her. Scarry defends beauty by pointing out that usually beauty is disparaged not for the sake of its good outcomes but for the misguided version of its attributes and according to her it is a common error made about beauty.

The other two major errors made in respect of beauty are over crediting and under crediting. If over crediting beauty is a mistake on the side of perceptual generosity, under crediting in on the side of failed generosity. In both cases, the beautiful, desirable object vanishes, leaving the brain bereft.

After defending beauty from mistaken disparagement, Scarry goes on to affirm that beauty is sacred, unprecedented and life saving. Beauty quickens, adrenalises. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living. It is life affirming and life-giving. It incites deliberation. It fills the perceiver with a sense of conviction about beauty and it has a built-in liability or accountability directing towards self correction and self adjustment.

Scarry explains the nuances of beauty and errors we make about it by stating that people usually can’t recall their intellectual mistakes with sensory details, but they can do so about their errors in beauty. Thus beautiful things have a forward momentum by the way they incite the desire to bring new things into the world like: infants, epics, sonnets, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues and theological tracts. They also make us turn backward inciting us to rediscover and recover them in whatever new ways those things get made. This pliancy or elasticity of beauty moving us backward and forward is a model for the pliancy and liability of consciousness in education.

In “On Beauty and Being Fair,” Scarry considers the political arguments in favour of and against beauty. She says that political complaints against beauty led to the banishing of beauty from the humanities or made it to be discussed in whispers.

The first major political argument against beauty is that it distracts one’s attention from wrong social arrangements. The second argument of political critique of beauty is that staring at something beautiful is destructive to the object. For Scarry this critique is too general and weak.

She argues that these views, if seen properly can be used to assist us in defending beauty and its effectiveness in addressing injustice. Noticing beauty, according to Scarry increases the possibility that it will be carefully handled. For example the concern for a perfect vase as a beautiful object introduces one to a standard of care that one begins to extend to more ordinary and fragile objects. The recognition that a beautiful vase is fragile extends that recognition to other objects in the same category. This pressure towards the distributional is an unusual feature of beautiful persons or things. Again the moment of perceiving beauty confers on the object the gift of life. So perception does not reify or destroy the object at all as argued by the opponents of beauty. For Scarry the pleasure-filled tumult of staring at beauty is a prelude to acts of repairing an injury or a social injustice. Quoting philosophers like Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch. Scary affirms that beauty prepares one for justice.

One of the blows to beauty by philosophers according to Scarry is the bifurcation of beauty as sublime and beautiful. This has been then used to present beauty as diminutive, dismissible, and not powerful enough. Scarry feels that it is unjust. Citing Amartya Sen and Stuart Hampshire, she argues that beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a life saving reciprocity, to fairness, not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect, but in the sense of symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other.

After arguing how a beautiful object with its symmetry and generous sensory availability assists in turning one to justice, Scarry goes on to show how beauty exerts toward ethical equality. An encounter with the beautiful makes one undergo a radical ‘decentering’ or an ‘unselfing’. It is not being ‘self-forgetful’; but giving one’s space of protecting, guarding, advancing the self to the service of something / someone. Here one ceases to be the hero or heroine in one’s own story, instead becomes a ‘lateral figure’ or ‘donor figure’. One experiences a kind of adjacency. It is this sense of adjacency that gives one a state of ‘acute pleasure’. Thus Scarry empahsises that ethical fairness is assisted by aesthetic fairness.

Since beauty brings one face to face with one’s own powers to create, one knows where and how to locate those powers, when a situation of injustice calls on one. This creation of beauty involves perpetuating beauty that already exists, a kind of stewardship, and originating beauty that does not exist. It is similar to John Rawls’ or Socrates’ ‘duty to justice’ i.e, to ‘support’ just arrangements where they already exist and to help bring them into being where they are not yet established. So for Scarry, perception of beauty educates one at the levels of justice and ethics.

So Scarry’s book is a convincing and illuminating piece of scholarship in the area of aesthetics. She is able to weave together a number of arguments from various fields like Philosophy, Literature, Economics, Political Science and even common experiences of observation. Though it is a work in the line of many defenses of literature and art, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just is so comprehensive and so powerful. It gives for beauty and art a sure ‘name and a habitation’.


Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.


P.J. THOMAS. Is an associate professor at the Department of English at st. Berchmans College, Changanassery, Kerala. He has attended several academic events in India and abroad.

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Is an associate professor at the Department of English at st. Berchmans College, Changanassery, Kerala. He has attended several academic events in India and abroad.

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