Beauty Of Soul: A Conversation

This conversation between David E. Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and me I’m pulling out of the vault. It took place in 2012. I’d forgotten about it until I was speaking with someone recently about beauty of soul. It’s a beautiful conversation, and I hope you find it to be so also.

This week my wife Alexandra and I are on home sesshin. Therefore, this post, set to be published automatically, will be the last one coming out this week.

With kindness,



Andrew Taggart: David, there’s been a revival of interest recently in beauty and in its place in the good life. Can you tell me whether you think there’s a relationship between the good and the beautiful, and if so, what kind of relationship there may be?  

David E. Cooper: The Ancients certainly thought there was an intimate relationship between the two. Which is why, in ancient languages – Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese – the words we translate as ‘beautiful’ can also be translated, in certain contexts, as ‘good’. In ‘modern’ – let’s say, post-Renaissance – philosophy, this relationship has largely disappeared, with the ethical and the aesthetic being treated as quite separate realms. People who introduce moral considerations into their conception of beauty get accused of pious moralising and those who introduce aesthetic considerations into ethics get accused of a lack of moral seriousness, of ‘aestheticism’.        

But I think the Ancients were right: at any rate, they articulated a wisdom about beauty that’s worth drawing on and developing. In fact, they anticipated two particular connections between the good and the beautiful I’m concerned to explore. First, there’s the idea that in order to recognize and appreciate forms of beauty – particularly, perhaps, ones not familiar to you – there has to be an exercise of various virtues. They include impartiality, sympathy, and humility. I won’t appreciate the beauty of, say, Korean pottery if I’m prejudiced, unwilling to ‘empathise’ with the ideals such pottery invokes, and insistent that true beauty is the unique discovery of my own tradition.       

Second, there’s the idea – voiced by Plato, the Buddha and Kant among others – that things are found beautiful when they are experienced as expressive of, or as exemplifying, virtue. A face or a gesture, for example, is found beautiful when we see in it an expression of compassion. This is an idea, I think, that does much to explain differences, conflicts even, between cultural norms of beauty. These differences, I’d suggest, reflect competing conceptions of the good. For example, in a culture where humility is an admired virtue, people will be sensitive to aspects of beauty to which people from a very different culture won’t.  

AT: David, if I understand you rightly, then you’re claiming that there are at least two relationships that obtain between the good and the beautiful: one involving the subject who must exercise various virtues in order to appreciate certain objects as being beautiful; the other involving the object which must exemplify certain virtues if it is to count as beautiful. So, do you think that the two connections you’ve mentioned are themselves connected?   

DC: Yes, I do – and probably in several ways. One interesting connection is this. People exercising virtues like impartiality and humility in the appreciation of beauty will typically manifest these in their comportment – in their faces, their speech, their gestures. But in that case, if I’m right, there is beauty in this comportment itself, since it manifests and expresses certain virtues. So there is, you could say, beauty in the appreciation of beauty – beauty in the life of the person who is receptive to the beauty of things.         

This thought gives a fresh sense to the ancient – and periodically resurrected – idea of ‘the beautiful soul’. The problem has always been to see why, just because certain people are good, we should also be inclined to regard them as beautiful. Well, there are two reasons. First, there is, typically, beauty in the comportment, face, and speech that manifest a person’s goodness. This renders the person attractive to us: he or she draws us. So it’s no great mystery why we should speak of the person, not just their comportment, as beautiful. Second, the good person’s virtues include those exercised in the appreciation of beauty: as such, he or she is open to, indeed disposed to, the experience of beauty. And there’s beauty – beauty of soul, if you like – in being attuned to beauty.            

AT: I can think of three persons in my philosophy practice, two of whom, P and Q, I’d venture to say are on the path to becoming beautiful souls and the third, R, who does not appear to be. P and Q exercise the salient virtues in their appreciation of beauty, the virtues manifest themselves in a certain way in their demeanors, and their demeanors do strike the viewer as being beautiful. Their voices are soft and gentle; their faces are placid and calm; their words are simple and direct. 

However, the third person, R, does seem generally virtuous, does seem to be exercising certain virtues (such as restraint and disinterestedness) while he is perceiving this vase as being beautiful, yet he does not seem to be a beautiful soul. There’s something lacking in him that I can’t quite put my finger on except to say that I don’t feel at home in his presence and neither does P. I’m inclined to believe that a beautiful soul does draw us toward him, yet R does not draw me, is not so attractive.  

DC: The case of the third person, R, raises a real issue – one that invites two qualifications to what I said about virtue, aesthetic appreciation and the beautiful soul. First, the virtues exercised in aesthetic beauty aren’t the only virtues, and it’s possible for someone who has them to be strikingly lacking in other virtues – honesty, say, or courage. So maybe someone – R possibly – fails to ‘attract’ and ‘make you feel at home’, despite his exercise of virtues like restraint, because certain ‘vices’, like dishonesty, also show through in his demeanour.          

Second, a person’s virtues are typically, but not necessarily, manifest in their demeanour, expression, or whatever. He or she can, as it were, be unlucky: something may get in the way of natural expressions of their goodness – anything from a facial tic to a ‘Victorian’ upbringing that makes it very hard for someone to show their feelings. Maybe R is just unlucky. Perhaps he just can’t help a foxy or sly look in his eyes that in his case is not – as it typically is – a sign of scheming dishonesty.    

AT: Your qualification about the balance of virtues and vices seems to me quite relevant and points in the direction of my thinking as well. It strikes me as right that R’s vices might ‘tell against’ his virtues to such a degree that they might make his demeanor quite unlike that of the beautiful soul. It could be that one especially salient vice–arrogance, say, or vanity–could manifest itself with such force and directness that it would make being a beautiful soul impossible. The arrogant person reveals his arrogance in myriad ways to his fellows: not least, in the harshness of his demeanor, the brusqueness of his manner, the caustic bite of his words. 

Here, I’d like to draw out two further points about the beautiful soul. One is that the virtues exercised must be ‘salient’ ones, some of which you’ve referred to: humility, simplicity, patience, and compassion. Manly virtue may be relevant in the case of war but not in that of the appreciation of beauty. The other is that the beautiful soul would have to exhibit a second-order harmony of the virtues. What seems especially beautiful about the beautiful soul, it seems to me, is this lack of discord or absence of strife harmony envisaged in her demeanor. 

I think that there’s a further question raised by your account and this is the question of the ‘focus’ of beauty. Both P and Q could not make out how the beautiful soul account you espouse tracks their experiences. P spoke of a ‘general attunement to beautiful things,’ and Q, similarly, spoke of a ‘longing for beauty.’ Before, when P was in deep despair, she was not so generally attuned and nothing, she says, was beautiful to her. Q thought particular items were beautiful, but she felt no longing for beauty. Both, I take it, are trying to say something significant about a general outlook and are trying to point us to a general way of being in the world.  

DC: I think you and your friends P and Q are dead right here, and I’m very happy to amend what I’ve been saying accordingly. A real defect of accounts of aesthetic experience in Western philosophy is the focus on judgments of particular objects and the pleasure derived from these objects. This ignores what P calls a ‘general attunement’ to beauty, a life marked by a constant sensitivity and receptiveness to beauty. A good phenomenology of aesthetic experience won’t confine itself to describing responses to the Korean vase or whatever, but will articulate what you call ‘a general way of being in the world’. It’s in and through a way of being, rather than in this or that particular judgment, that the beautiful soul and the aesthetic virtues typically show up.          

And, yes, Q is right to invoke a notion like ‘longing’ in association with the experience of beauty. The familiar idea that what people find beautiful is what gives them a sort of pleasure is much too weak to explain why beauty is so important to us. If I’m right, of course, what makes it so important – what explains the ‘longing’ for it – is beauty’s intimacy with the good.   

AT: So perhaps we can say, by way of summary, that the beautiful soul (1) exercises the salient virtues in her appreciation of beauty, (2) is generally attuned to, and engaged with, beautiful things, and (3) has achieved a certain harmonyof the virtues so exercised, a harmony discernible to a sensitive observer in her demeanor or comportment.  

So far, we’ve been discussing what makes a beautiful soul beautiful, in the most general sense. I also wonder about what makes it possible for someone to become a beautiful soul in the first place. How, do you think, is this transformation brought about?  

DC: I’d first say that ‘transformation’ is indeed the right term here. Plato wrote that a true education is the ‘turning around’ of a soul in the direction of the good and beautiful. One name, maybe, for this transformation is ‘unselfing’, for arguably all the virtues – those involved in the appreciation of beauty, certainly – require some sort of release from the demands of ‘the fat, relentless ego’, as Iris Murdoch called it. I doubt if there’s a single big strategy for this. Having the right friends is important – ones who will ‘take you out of yourself’. And so is time spent away from the everyday pressure in one’s working, and even domestic, life to achieve, meet targets, make plans, be purposeful and so on – time spent, say, in the countryside or by the sea, in the company of plants, animals, birds.        

But I’d be interested to know what you think ‘transformation’ might involve, what an education of the beautiful soul might look like.  

AT: Your coinage, ‘unselfing,’ definitely chimes with my experience as does the importance of being around philosophical friends. When I think about how such an ‘unselfing’ or ‘dilating’ of the spirit comes about, I imagine it going something like as follows. 

To begin with, I’d say that the preparation for becoming a beautiful soul is a ‘humbling’ of one’s self-understanding. I thought I knew myself, one says, thought I understood my greatest cares and commitments, but now I realize that I don’t. My ‘arrogance’ was the stubbornness of believing that I had a lucid, final, and transparent knowledge of myself, yet now some event or some set of events has unsettled me, revealing to me my weakness. I can’t ignore what has transpired, I can’t remain stubborn or recalcitrant to change, and yet I can’t figure out what sense to make of it. Accordingly, my sense of humility is a recognition that I don’t really know myself and I dwell, for the time being, in the space of not-knowing.  

DC: Right – and this humility requires resistance to the blandishments of popular psychology, with its message that each person is the final authority on who and what he or she is. What I am, who I am – my identity, if you like – is largely a matter of how I engage with the world and with other people. On the nature of this engagement and my identity, I’m no more of an authority than the people, my wife say, who are familiar with my life. There’s no privileged ‘first-person’ access to oneself, and humility requires that one admits this. 

AT: That one admit this, yes. It’s humbling, not least, to know that there could be a better way of living but, at the same time, not to know what it is or how to live accordingly.  

This humbling opens me up to the possibility of re-evaluating my virtues and vices with the aim of learning how to let go of my vices and exercise the salient virtues. Through good practice with what Aristotle calls ‘friends of virtue,’ the incipient beautiful soul will undergo a slow transformation in her table of virtues. Friends of virtue, as you said, are indispensable because it seems inconceivable that a Robinson Crusoe could become a beautiful soul without the aid of the right kind of fellows. During this transformation, the pupil will move away, perhaps, from those of the market (industry, resolution, discipline, ambition), ‘society’ (refinement, delicacy, fame), sport (competitiveness, drive), or war (manly virtue) and toward those like openness, sincerity, and patience.  

Crucially, the beautiful soul will learn, with time, that he can’t exercise one salient virtue in isolation from another or in a way that is dissonant or discordant with another but will discover a delicate harmony of the salient virtues. This last point seems to suggest that there is ‘measure’ and calmness–neither too ‘precious’ nor overly coarse–that is discernible to a sensitive observer in the beautiful soul’s movements, gestures, and words. 

What you say about ‘unselfing’ strikes me as just the right conclusion. The beautiful soul will finally come to see himself as belonging to a beautiful world. By his lights, the world is beautiful, his soul is beautiful, and his soul, expansive and outward-facing, is in harmony with the world.   

DC: I’d go along with all that and maybe add a bit to your remarks on the beautiful soul and harmony. While not everything we find beautiful has harmony and balance, it’s certainly no accident that a very great deal of it does. Someone’s nose, eyes, lips may be beautiful, but they need to ‘fit together’ if the face as a whole is to be a beautiful one. And it’s the same with a soul, with a life. Someone may be honest – or patient, compassionate, or whatever – ‘to a fault’, and oscillate wildly between devotion to different virtues. This person’s life would, as Nietzsche put it, be lacking in ‘style’ – it would be without the cohesion, form and grace that make for a life of beauty. So the transformation needed for beauty of soul will have an affinity to the kind that an artist experiences when developing a style. That’s why Nietzsche described the big task in one’s life as that of becoming the artist of that life.       

AT: Your reference to Nietzsche as someone who sought to become an ‘artist of his life’ calls to mind one thing that’s implicit in our account of the beautiful soul but so far has gone unstated. It’s that the beautiful soul is also an exemplar who is attractive to those of us who long, in the spirit of humility and gratitude, to become beautiful souls ourselves. As you imply, the beautiful soul’s aesthetic sensibility is focused not on making this artwork or that sculpture, not on working in this medium or that genre but on making his life into a lifework. When he dies, he may leave no great work behind except his tranquil face and his final words. It’s in this way that he teaches us how to die with lightness and grace.

David E. Cooper is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been President of the Aristotelian Society and Chair of several other learned societies. Two of his books are A Philosophy of Gardens and Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective.

Andrew Taggart is practical philosopher and Rinzai Zen Buddhist.