Scarry on Beauty

First delivered as a Tanner Lecture, On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry has two parts: "On Beauty and Being Wrong" and "On Beauty and Being Fair". The argument in the second part is etymologically driven and phenomenologically derived. It is a remarkable feat to link beauty with justice through subtle shifts in a semantic field.

The notion of a pact here again comes into play. A single word, "fairness," is used both in referring to loveliness of countenance and in referring to the ethical requirement for "being fair," "playing fair" and "fair distribution." One might suppose that "fairness" as an ethical principle had come not from the adjective for comely beauty but instead from the wholly distinct noun for the yearly agricultural fair, the "periodical gathering of buyers and sellers." But it instead — as scholars of etymology have shown — travels from a cluster of roots in European languages (Old English, Old Norse, Gothic), as well as cognates in both Eastern European and Sanskrit, that all originally express the aesthetic use of "fair" to mean "beautiful" or "fit" — fit both in the sense of "pleasing to the eye" and in the sense of "firmly placed," as when something matches or exists in accord with another thing's shape or size. "Fair" is connected to the verbs "vegen" (Dutch) and "fegen" (German) meaning "to adorn," "to decorate," and "to sweep." [...] But "fegen" is in turn connected to the verb "fay," the transitive and intransitive verb meaning "to join," "to fit," "to unite," "to pact." "Pact" in turn — the making of a covenant or treaty or agreement — is form the same root as "pax, pacis," the word for peace.
It would be a stretch to allow the argument to rest on this relay. Scarry will examine other links based on a typology of thing, beholder and creator.
When we speak about beauty, attention sometimes falls on the beautiful object, at other times on the perceiver's cognitive act of beholding the beautiful thing, and at still other times on the creative act that is prompted by one's being in the presence of what is beautiful. The invitation to ethical fairness can be found at each of these three sites [...]
It is easy to follow Scarry through this trajectory though I somehow find myself resisting her critique of those that invoke the danger of reification in regards to beauty. The old fashioned notion of idolatry is worth broaching.

And so for day 919