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On Beauty and Being Just
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On Beauty and Being Just

3.65  ·  Rating details ·  813 Ratings  ·  92 Reviews
Have we become beauty-blind? For two decades or more in the humanities, various political arguments have been put forward against beauty: that it distracts us from more important issues; that it is the handmaiden of privilege; and that it masks political interests. In On Beauty and Being Just Elaine Scarry not only defends beauty from the political arguments against it but ...more
Paperback, 134 pages
Published November 4th 2001 by Princeton University Press (first published August 1st 1999)
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Jun 01, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: own, theory
A poor copy of a Platonic argument, taking the profound and making it superficial. Essentially, take the word beauty, substitute it with ideal and you have the original argument. Here Scarry attempts to make the argument with quotes from literature on the ideal beauty, art masterpieces, and the author's own florid descriptions to fill a book whose argument could be made in less than ten pages. Throw in a few Kantian references and Seamus Heaney(?) and the argument is considered cogent.

Michael Austin
Nov 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013
Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just is the sort of book that ought to have been very good. Its author is a major cultural critic whose early books--including The Body in Pain and Dreaming by the Book have been exceptional guides to the topics they explore. And she has incontestable academic credentials in the field of aesthetic theory. And then there is the fact that she is writing about beauty and, hey, who doesn't like beauty?

Well, according to Scarry, modern academics don't like beauty--
Ruth Lahti
Jun 19, 2007 rated it really liked it
this brief defense of beauty and its relationship to justice was a pleasurable read. i think it lacks in the theoretically sound department, as some of the conclusions she makes, while having a logical set ups, don't seem to be quite founded. however, the writing was true to its topic and the subject brings up many points for meditation. scarry has a very positive view of human nature which i find refreshing, and it's great to read an academic who values beauty and believes that it has transform ...more
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Elaine Scarry is a professor of Esthetics in the English Department at Harvard. I enjoy her lectures on YouTube. And I especially like that she has decided to write a book proclaiming the power and usefulness of Beauty. As she says, "beauty is so often disparaged because it gives rise to material cupidity..." But still we want to capture it. This is especially true if you're my kind of artist. Wittgenstein says, when the eye sees something beautiful, the eye wants to draw it. I like this book be ...more
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
puzzled as to why this 180s some of the ideas from the masterful *body in pain.* got lost early on with scarry's insistence that beauty is "noticed" rather than the generally accepted idea (at least in my social circles, don't know about y'all) that it's constructed. the book makes all its points upon the bedrock of this alleged given. so i didn't get a word. i know elaine scarry knows about knowledge production-- *body in pain* achieves searing insight by bringing into relief the inherent munda ...more
Jun 27, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t believe in its purpose. I don’t think the author did either, for that matter. I’m convinced this book is secretly intended to be a beautiful thing, a piece of art, more than it is intended to philosophically argue the nature/virtue of beauty (if I’m wrong about that, then it’s a terrible piece of philosophy based on a plainly false issue with academia and it ought to be chucked, because it misses so many enormous and obvious points, repeatedly and with alarming ...more
Feb 12, 2008 rated it liked it
I want to love this book. So many people that I adore, and whose opinions I respect, love this book! But I do not. Even the second time around. For some reason, it annoys me pretty much from the get-go, for reasons both significant and petty (how can you not appreciate palm trees??). And although I want to agree with the main argument, and I might even believe it on some level, I don't find it at all convincing in the way it's presented here (it probably doesn't help to be thinking about it alon ...more
Carl Ingwell
Oct 16, 2014 rated it did not like it
What a bunch of pointless babble that went on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, for 100ish pages. If I didn't have to read it for a class (still didn't understand it), I would have Fahrenheit 451 style burned this piece of shit.
Ben Smitthimedhin
Argument is a little convoluted. Scarry is trying to do too many things at once here.
Dylan Grant
Scarry's prose is very easy to digest and very down-to-earth, such that even someone who is not accustomed to reading essays could read it. This is one of the book's greatest strengths. The arguments are expressed with great clarity and they usually point out things about Beauty which strike the reader as always having been true.

The book can be at times downright delightful, since thinking about Beauty, and what is True about it, is of course itself a very beautiful experience, since the Beauti
May 25, 2018 added it
Shelves: 2018
The first 33 pages of are worthwhile. The rest just ok , and suffers from a low-energy (Rawlsian) understanding of justice.
Nov 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
There are some really lovely moments in this book, but overall it fell pretty flat for me.

This book is, generally speaking, an argument in favor of appreciating the beautiful and accepting that a beautiful thing has its own agency and power.

Scarry opens the book with a brief discussion about the possible errors people can make about beauty. These are 1) a person not realizing that a beautiful thing is beautiful and then suddenly being struck by how wrong they were, and 2) a person slowly realiz
Nov 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Rather than addressing Scarry's argument explicitly, I will mention a selection of premises that I found useful and provide an overall rating.

In Part I:

Addressing beauty and truth, Scarry writes "The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction." She goes on to argue that experiences of "clear discernibility" and self-evidence, as well as those of "state(s) of certainty" provide pleasure that compels a person to engage and labor in the world
Aug 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: essay, philosophy
Scarry has many beautiful and insightful moments, but the first part of the essay is stronger than the second, as on the whole it becomes less and less concrete when it needs to be more and more concrete (when talking about beauty's relation to justice).

The logic in general is not very sound. I secretly got mad when 99.9% of her examples were from Western literature and culture and when there was an overemphasis on visually-perceived beauty. That said, I enjoyed her palm tree passages, poetic l
Oct 22, 2014 rated it it was ok
ух. книжка лежала в моєму списку до читання кілька років, ваблячи обкладинкою зі справді красивими яєчками. і всього за два місяці я впоралася з цією сотнею сторінок.
почати можна з того, з чого починається чимало відгуків: текст "про красу і справедливість" місцями буває дуже гарний. на жаль, майже вся чарівність кудись випаровується, коли скаррі починає говорити власне про красу і справедливість. розібратися з тим, де вона наполягає на красі самій у собі, а де – на сприйнятті краси, бува непро
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
I found the basic foundational premise to be flawed. She's essentially attempting to equate beauty with justice. Leaving aside the myriad complexities of subjective/objective distinctions and other philosophical disputes, it seems clear enough on its face that some things that people consider to be ethically justified are not also going to be what they would consider to be beautiful. E.g., winning the war against Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan (something many will call ethically justified ...more
Satine Dali
May 04, 2017 rated it it was ok
I feel like Oscar Wilde said it better in "The Picture of Dorian Gray", “Beauty is a form of Genius--is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”. However the similarities with justice and the differences in continuity of goodness, jus ...more
Jun 21, 2011 rated it liked it
I wouldn't say that this was the defining book that changed how I see beauty or justice, but it was interesting, and I'm glad I read it. I found some of her concluding arguments to be interesting and compelling, though I'm not sure I'm fully persuaded. Scarry talks about how the balance/symmetry of beauty encourages us to look for social balance and equality. She also talks about how beauty can take us outside of yourselves to see more than our limited perspective of the world and our obsession ...more
Josh Doty
May 03, 2012 rated it liked it
Scarry argues for a reinstatement of beauty as a coherent subject of discussion in the humanities and offers a description of the ethical qualities of beauty as a reason for doing so. However, her emphasis on ethics as "the just," "the fair," or, more tellingly, "the equidistant" indicates false equivalences between one thing and another, when it seems that beauty itself is precisely the opposite. Points for beautiful writing.
Aug 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
Thought-provoking examination and defense of Beauty (currently frowned on in much of the art world). Scarry proposes that enjoyment of Beauty aids in the formation of a sense of social justice in this deeply felt polemic. Though there are issues she skirts (the lust for possession which beautiful objects can inspire comes to mind), one can only admire her engagement with her subject and the breadth of her arguments.
Feb 06, 2010 rated it liked it
I think I give this one 3.5 stars.

First off, her writing style felt funny to me. She used academic prose for most of the book but often interwove sentences that were more poetic and artistic - I enjoyed both styles but felt like they didn't flow together well. I think I mostly agree with her thesis but I'm not sure I agree with how she arrives at it.
Jan 28, 2010 rated it liked it
Elaine Scarry's book on the benefits and pleasures of beauty is beautiful in itself. In saying so however, does not entail that the arguments behind beautys influence in justice are not flawed.
Apr 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Scarry’s book is an apologia for beauty and in some ways for secular humanism at large. Sometimes her specific arguments fail to convince, and while it can’t be true that beauty necessarily begets justice (as Scarry herself notes, the beautiful exists both before justice and after its removal), the book succeeds in dismantling the arguments against beauty, in part through its own skillful evocation of beauty.

What is most difficult for me to swallow in the book is the leap not from beauty to jus
Keith Beasley-Topliffe
I found this book frustrating. In her acknowledgements, Scarry thanks Harvard and Yale for inviting her to speak and teach on beauty, so one would expect that her presentation would be clear and polished. Instead, some points are pounded in until reduced to powder (opening discussion on recognizing beauty). Others are barely mentioned before she moves on (Kant's division between effeminate beauty (flowers) and the manly sublime (tall trees)). Being just, her second major topic, gets the short sh ...more
Mar 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My favorite quotes among so many others-

"The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction, to locate what is true."

"It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is "true", but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us with an electric brightness sha
I was assigned this book in class fifteen years ago and then we never really engaged with it. On reread it’s as frustrating as I remember it—meandering, often disingenuous, rarely as convincing as she thinks she is.

I think my favorite part was when she tried to wrap things up in the last few minutes/pages by citing the answers to a few questions that she asked her circle of friends, seeing no reason not to believe “that a larger group would not answer in a similar fashion” to her “informal and s
Barbara Barrow
Feb 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a lovely essay about how appreciating symmetry in beautiful things can lead us to strive for justice. Or, as Scarry writes, "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us" (81). That said, I am (and re ...more
Aug 10, 2017 rated it liked it
This is an interesting book, challenging to read and focus upon. The subject is beauty as it relates to symmetry and therefore (as Scarry sees it) justice, thus redeeming our attraction to beauty from being seen as a merely superficial value. That is Scarry's thesis. But as I read her book, I couldn't help arguing, constantly, against Scarry's emphasis on symmetry, its very static parameters for beauty. So little beauty that interests me is static and symmetrical, whether plant, animal, or human ...more
Jennifer Stoy
This is one of those books that really changed my thinking in graduate school with its attempts to define what beauty is and how it relates to seeing and how not wanting to share the see-ing is unjust. It's been a long time since I've read this, but it is a great work of theory.
Feb 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Elaine Scarry's philosophic assessment of Beauty is accessible and intelligent. Her writing style utilizes Beauty to make her points clear and bright, and her argument is convincing. I found this book a good reminder to look for Beauty in all things, and to especially keep it close in situations of inequality. Scarry believes Beauty to be an equalizer, and I don't disagree with her. She actively reminds the reader that Beauty is a necessity, and it would do the world good for her thoughts in thi ...more
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“This willingness continually to revise one's own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.” 14 likes
“This willingness continually to revise one's own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education.” 5 likes
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