There was a time when Western culture was known for the many objects of beauty it created and the personal beauty it cultivated.
Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, Versailles, and even our Capitol building were monuments to greatness. Their pillars, porticos, and pure aesthetics still stun visitors, leaving them in a sense of awe because of their beauty and greatness.
Similarly, the West cultivated personal beauty. Watch The Greatest Showman, Mad Men, Peaky Blinders, or any other media production about the time from the American Revolution to the beginning of the Vietnam War. The best among us, and indeed many of middling importance, dressed to impress because they understood the importance of beauty. They stayed in shape, wore sharply cut clothes, and wore accessories that helped them craft a brilliant aesthetic. Men with coiffed hair, sharp, three-piece suits, and watches made of brilliant gold and sterling silver commanded respect and seemed worthy of the beautiful women at their sides. With their beauty, grace, and poise, it seemed fitting that they were on top of the world. How could the gods not favor such marvelous people?
And with art and culture it was much the same. The magnificent works of Beethoven, the amazing paintings of Rembrandt, the posh furniture of the Victorian Age — all of it was not just well done, but beautiful.
That cultivation of beauty, both physical and personal, stemmed from a long tradition in the West. Who can read the works of Homer without a tear coming to their eye, view the Pantheon or Parthenon without standing awe-struck in wonder, or examine a classical or Renaissance sculpture without wondering how the supremely talented craftsmen of that better age were able to make the marble figures seem so real and beautiful?
Virgil speaks not only of Aeneas’s martial vigor but also of the startling brilliance of his intricately crafted cuirass. Augustus ensured that only images of him in his youth were reproduced across the Empire, ensuring that he would be remembered for his handsome and stern youthful face. Odysseus, when he returns to Ithaca after his decade-long disappearance, stuns the unruly suitors when Athena transforms him from a wretch to a beautiful, vigorous man with rippling muscles, flowing locks of hair, and a proud countenance.
The point is, Western society, from the Ancients to the Victorians to the booming Americans of the 50s, understood the importance of beauty. They praised it, cultivated it, and admired it.
But then, when our society was ripped apart by the cultural Jacobins of the 60s, all of that disappeared.
Our buildings are no longer built to be beautiful, but to be functional. Just look at the FBI’s Hoover building or the vast rows of grey, concrete apartment blocks in Europe if you need examples. The Victorians would never have built such horrifically ugly structures, understanding the cultural decay that would stem from doing so, but we moderns did without a thought.
Our people are no longer beautiful, nor encouraged to be so. “Fat is beautiful,” as they now say. Or, as Ayn Rand put it in Atlas Shrugged:
“If you tell a beautiful woman that she is beautiful, what have you given her? It’s no more than a fact and it has cost you nothing. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty. To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is a real gift, unearned and undeserved. To love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake – and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.”
Helen of Troy and those like her aren’t praised anymore. Often, they’re scoffed at as vain or otherwise in the wrong simply for existing in their stunning beauty! But, Lizzo is praised for…something by the deluded, Jacobin left while porn stars are ogled.
We’ve corrupted the concept of personal beauty, replaced what was once glorious with affirmative nonsense and base lust. Quite literally, virtue has been replaced with sin, modesty and true beauty with lust, vanity, and even gluttony.
Even our art is far from beautiful. Modern art, in its squat ugliness and dripping cynicism, has replaced beautiful classical masterpieces. Vulgar rap songs glorifying degeneracy and base crime are sung by the youth and mindless pop music replaces what few silent moments there might otherwise be. Furniture might be sleek, but it’s no longer beautiful. Men no longer wear three-piece suits and instead lounge around in sweatpants while women have replaced the dazzling dresses of Southern Belles with yoga pants or revealing outfits that seem out of Mad Max.
That shift away from beauty is important. It symbolizes decay.
Beauty was once the beating heart of our civilization.
It took skill to craft and discipline to cultivate, thus building better, more responsible citizens. Craftsmen, artists, and even average people had to be good at their craft, judicious in their brushstrokes, and thoughtful in their wardrobes and daily routine. All were better for it; the people looked and acted more dignified, the works a society created inspired all those who saw them, and the discipline required taught people to be independent and responsible.
Operas told the stories of heroes, concertos glorified God, and beautiful buildings showed that man had not only conquered nature, but was so successful that he could afford to splurge on making that conquest glorious. Even the most savage of men can conquer the elements with a thatch-roofed hut or fire-warmed cave or hum a simple tune. It takes a striving of greatness to envision and create a monument for the ages like Hagia Sophia or compose a piece of musical brilliance like the Moonlight Sonata.
By regressing to simple tunes, efficient but ugly structures, we’ve replaced the civilized with the primitive, greatness with adequacy, magnificence with mediocrity. In his masterful The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon notes how, by the time of Diocletian, the famed architects of Rome had disappeared. So, when Diocletian went to build the palace in which he would retire, there was no one left to build a marvelous structure that would rival those structures erected by the Claudians; instead, he was left with a large but unadorned structure that got the job done but certainly wasn’t beautiful. Rome’s inability to build, it is hinted, showed its tremendous decline by the Fourth Century.
Is the West not now the same? Sure, we can still make things, but little of what we make today in any way rivals the titanic structures of the Victorians and Gilded Age industrialists. McMansions might slake the egoistic thirst of the nouveau riche, but they’re not beautiful or magnificent. Little of what we now make is; we’ve lost the ability.
Hence the gaping hole in the heart of man. Why does so much of what we do seem senseless, meaningless, and empty? Because there’s no beauty at the heart of it. Artists don’t create their music or paintings to glorify God and man, they produce only what’s necessary to sell a few more copies to a brain-dead populace. Architects don’t design monuments for the ages, they build simple structures that will last just long enough to get the job done and don’t have a single unnecessary frill. Forget pillars and sculptures, we’re pouring grey concrete! Again and again and again. Such are the blessings of modernity.
That shift away from beauty and toward sin and efficiency has been our downfall.
Chesterton said “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” And why did they love her? Because Roman civilization was beautiful. Augustus left her clothed in Marble, Virgil left her with a national epic to be proud of, and her ideals were beautiful in that they inspired countless young men to stand and die for her, their blood fertilizing her fields and saving that civilizational beauty for the next generation. When the beauty was gone, when all that remained was a dream that had been Rome, she faded and fell; the barbarians from the North, in all their ugliness and savagery, defeated her.
It’s much the same with the modern West. What made our culture, our civilization, our values great was not our battleships, colonies, or even industrial accomplishments, but that men could and did love what they were creating. They found beauty in their accomplishments in a way that we can’t and, as a result, succeeding far more than we have.
Compare the societies that did away with beauty completely, especially in architecture — The Soviet Union, Red China, the Khmer Rouge — with societies that held beauty in public life as sacrosanct — Victorian England, Classical Rome, Classical Greece. Which were more successful? The answer should be obvious, but for those that need a hint, Gibbon described Rome under the good emperors as the happiest time in the history of man; no such thing was said of the Soviet Union and its endless blocs of grey, sterile, identical apartment buildings. Beauty matters.
As a final example, just think about the company that has succeeded in a way that few others have in modernity: Apple. What made Apple products so much better than the competition? Aesthetics. They might not work as well as a Windows product for productive tasks, they cost far more than the competition, and they’re far harder to maintain or repair than other, similar products. Yet people line up to buy them. In these dark times, these days without beauty, we unwittingly grasp at anything that fills the hole in our soul. A consumer product won’t fill it, but, because its aesthetics remind us of the beauty that was once omnipresent, we subconsciously hope it will.
Beauty is not all. Vanity is a sin, and one of the seven “deadly” ones at that. But it matters. It propelled us along a path to greatness, a path we insouciantly demolished decades ago and are yet to rebuild. If we want to make America, and indeed the West, great again, then we need to make it beautiful again.
By: Gen Z Conservative