Bertrand Russell on Beauty

Even where none of the parts of a good whole are bad, or a bad whole good, it often happens that the value of a complex whole cannot be measured by adding together the value of its parts; the whole is often better or worse than the sum of the value of its parts. In all aesthetic pleasures, for example, it is important that the object admired should really be beautiful: in the admiration of what is ugly there is something ridiculous, or even sometimes repulsive, although, apart from the object there may be no difference in the value of the emotion per se.

And yet, apart from the admiration it may produce, a beautiful object, if it is inanimate, appears to be neither good nor bad. Thus in themselves an ugly object may be respectively just as good as a beautiful object and the emotion it excites in a person of good taste; yet we consider the enjoyment of what is beautiful to be better, as a whole, than an exactly similar ejoyment of what is ugly.

If we did not we should be foolish not to encourage bad taste, since ugly objects are much easier to produce than beautiful ones.(1)

– Bertrand Russell, “The Elements of Ethics” in Philosophical Essays

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Footnotes:


  1. p. 47 []

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Nico is a freelance writer, editor, and poet in Toronto, Canada. Nico tweets as @plutopsyche.