We often think of beauty in terms of ‘nice’, like it’s something nice to have. But, we continue, it isn’t really necessary. It’s something that we add to our lives, if and only if everything else is in order. We have occasion to experience beauty during times of stress, but this is surely only accidental. While it’s true that beauty won’t fill a starving belly or cure diseases, it is necessary for a life to flourish. There is an interesting example from less than 100 years ago that shows the power of beauty in a dire situation.
Primo Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He barely had his basic needs met—food, water, and shelter. In his book, If This is a Man, Levi recalls that he and a fellow prisoner were walking to carry the soup for lunch. It was a pretty far walk that would take about an hour. They reminisced about their past lives. As they walked, Levi began reciting a piece from Dante’s Inferno. He made it through a few lines, but he got stuck and could not remember a connecting line. And he claims that he would have given up his daily food ration, which was not much, in order to remember these lines.
What could be so great about Dante that Levi would give up his only food for the day? The beauty of the verses allowed him to transcend, for a few minutes, out of his awful situation. He writes: “For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” It seems from experience that beauty increases our well-being, even if only briefly. People will continue to argue about which things actually are beautiful or their degree of beauty. But people will believe in the existence of beautiful things that make their lives better.
I recall this story that Levi told because it suggests that beauty is something more important for our lives and well-being than most of us think. It might be one of the reasons that helped sustain Levi in Auschwitz. In other words, it won’t solve all our problems, but beauty can help us endure the difficulty and absurdity of life. Thus, beauty is not something we merely add onto our lives once they are going well . . . once we have taken care of all our essential needs. Rather, it is something integral to a good life.
We know from experience and research that beauty makes our lives better. What makes beauty so important to us? What is it about beauty that helps our well-being? These are the next layer of questions we should explore. But, here, the point is simply that beauty is not frivolous; it is very important.