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Beauty and the quest for justice

Beauty and the quest for justice

What does beauty have to do with justice? In an earlier post, I introduced this topic by considering some of Elaine Scarry’s arguments about how the experience of beauty fosters our desire for and commitment to justice.

Scarry argues that things we perceive as beautiful incite “an urge to protect it, or act on its behalf,” and that “it is the very symmetry of beauty which leads us to, or somehow assists us in discovering, the symmetry that eventually comes into place in the realm of justice.” Because of its feature of symmetry, beauty serves as a call toward harmony, order, fairness, and peace: “the term that is present becomes pressing, active, insistent, calling out for, directing our attention toward, what is absent.”

In this post, I want to explore how some of these mechanisms may have shaped prominent social reformers and activists. I draw on four examples: (1) MLK, (2) (2) Inge and Sophie Scholl, (3) Dorothy Day, and (4) Gandhi.

1. MLK

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Birth of a New Nation” sermon, delivered in 1957 upon his return from Ghana, recalls an account of a visit to London during which he was mesmerized by the sight of the great edifices of Buckingham Palace and the parliamentary buildings: "Look at the beauty of the changing of the guards with their beautiful horses. It’s a beautiful sight….Move into the House of Lords and the House of Commons. There with all of its beauty standing up before the world is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”

Following this, he speaks of visiting Westminster Cathedral, whose “great architecture” provokes a sense of “awe… about the greatness of God and man’s feeble attempt to reach up for God.” At at the same time, the same beauty of the cathedral and the palace evoked other thoughts: the power that the dying British empire once held in having conquered so much of the world, its hubris and arrogance, the humiliation and exploitation wrought by colonialism, and the disastrous consequences of this empire on much of the rest of the world. King continues:

All of these things came to my mind when I stood there in Westminster Abbey with all of its beauty, and I thought about all of the beautiful hymns and anthems that the people would go in there to sing. And yet the Church of England never took a stand against this system; the Church of England sanctioned it; the Church of England gave it moral stature. All of the exploitation perpetuated by the British Empire was sanctioned by the Church of England. But something else came to my mind: God comes in the picture even when the Church won’t take a stand. God has injected a principle in this universe. God has said that all men must respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, and if you don’t do that, I will take charge. It seems this morning that I can hear God speaking. I can hear him speaking throughout the universe, saying, “Be still and know that I am God. And if you don’t stop, if you don’t straighten up, if you don’t stop exploiting people, I’m going to rise up and break the backbone of your power. And your power will be no more!” And the power of Great Britain is no more.
Westminster Abbey (Dominika Gregušová, Pexels)

It is worth noting the transition that occurs in the above passage, and what it implies. We start with King’s experience of beauty, provoked by a marvelous religious edifice—and it is not only the sights that move him, but the imagined sounds of “beautiful hymns” that people would sing there, perhaps also the sense of community and collective pride that people would experience there. All of this is juxtaposed with images of injustice and cruelty.

Images of ugly injustice stand in stark contrast to the beauty of the religious edifices. Implied in the juxtaposition—and note that the audience must understand this, otherwise the effect would be lost—is the sense of dissonance or discord between the beauty of religious institutional worship and the ugliness of human exploitation that is not denounced by these institutions. Beauty seems to implicitly demand justice, which provokes indignation for King as a religious believer, who also believes that this indignation is experienced by God himself. What this awakens then is the idea that God, unlike people and institutions, will not forget or ignore injustice. Beauty thus seems to awaken both a commitment to justice and to a religious faith in which justice is protected and demanded.

Implicit in King’s rhetoric is an expectation of correlation between beauty and justice, and this is this expectation that leads him to denounce the travesty that the same institution which can generate such beautiful structures was complicit in grave injustices. But why should one expect beauty and justice to go hand in hand? At least for someone like King, the answer has to do with a source that ensures consistency: God. Both the beauty of religious edifices and of just social orders are constructions that are responses—for believers, both of them are experienced as responses to God and expressions of faith-commitments.

As King continues with his sermon, recounting the images of God’s justice that are provoked by the earlier experience of dissonance, he presents two other images which suggest a resolution to the discord—images in which beauty and justice are integrated. The first is an image of a God who “struggles with you,” sharing in our experience of human injustice and suffering, but also a God who will—King claims to believe with certainty—come in resplendent “glory,” referring to a final day of judgment, an assurance of justice. While the term glory usually has connotations of power—for example, in characterizing the glory of the British empire—the reference to God here emphasizes not power so much as radiance or resplendence, of which justice is a feature.

The second image is elaborated in the prophet Isaiah’s vision—an image which has profound meaning for King, and which he cites on several other occasions, such as his famous “I have a dream” speech: “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Citing this, he continues, “That’s the beauty of this thing: all flesh shall see it together.”

Unity serves as another source of beauty—the beauty of an ideal worth committing one’s life to (But see in the example from the Scholl siblings below how this very ideal can be compatible with evil). The togetherness and unity here aspired to here are coextensive with justice as equality, made clear by the contrast to a sense of ugliness in present social arrangements: “Not some from the heights of Park Street and others from the dungeons of slum areas. Not some from the pinnacles of the British Empire and some from the dark deserts of Africa.” And this theme of equality and unity resonates with Scarry’s account of beauty and justice.

It may seem like a pie-in-the-sky ideal that they are working towards: “there waiting with its milk and honey, and with all of the bountiful beauty that God has in store for His children.” But these ideals matter for the precise forms and means of justice pursued here and now. King ties all this in to Nkrumah’s nonviolent freedom-struggle in Ghana. Praising Nkrumah’s “positive action” approach, King says: “And it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? That here is a nation that is now free, and it is free without rising up with arms and with ammunition. It is free through nonviolent means.”

The themes of togetherness, unity, and harmony present an ideal of justice as peace and reconciliation, rather than as vengeance. They allow certain approaches and modes of action, and prohibit others. King notes that as a result of Nkrumah’s approach, “when the British Empire leaves Ghana, she leaves with a different attitude than she would have left with if she had been driven out by armies.” This example of beauty had clear implications for the vision King wanted his followers to live by: “We’ve got to revolt in such a way that after revolt is over we can live with people as their brothers and sisters. Our aim must never be to defeat them or humiliate them.” Revenge may be sweet, but at least according to King’s conception of justice, it is not beautiful.


Another example comes from the diaries of members of the White Rose movement, a resistance movement in Nazi Germany. The accounts of the Scholl siblings, who were part of this movement, suggest conditions under which beauty can serve ends that are antithetical to justice in the sense in which Scarry envisions. For instance, Inge Scholl speaks in her diaries of how she and her siblings were mesmerized by the unity and purpose of the Hitler Youth. Above we considered how this togetherness and unity was tied to goodness and justice, while here it was marshaled in service of evil.

Nevertheless, an engagement with beauty can serve as one of the conditions that also enables people to undergo conversions. Inge also speaks of how her brother, Hans, belonged to a boys’ club where he was nurtured by the pursuits of hiking, camping, music, sports, literature, and so on, until the group was arrested by the Nazis. She and her sister Sophie found themselves drawn to the Jewish people the more the Nazis denigrated them: “We felt attracted to people we had been commanded to spurn, and the harder we tried to spurn them, the more intensely they attracted us.” Sophie, in one of her letters, speaks as well of experiencing and being sustained by the beauty of nature and God, which was in stark contrast to the ugliness of the atrocities being committed by their country:

Isn’t it a tremendous enigma and, if we know the reason, almost frightening, that everything is so beautiful? In spite of all the terrible things that are going on. A great unknown has burst into my simple enjoyment of things beautiful, a faint vision of their creator, whom the innocent, created beings glorify with their beauty. Only man can be ugly.

Hans and Sophie became active members of the Resistance movement, publishing and circulating flyers that attempted to raise the awareness of their fellow citizens to the ugliness of the Nazi regime, until they were caught and beheaded.


More examples come from Dorothy Day, the American activist and anarchist who founded the Catholic Worker movement. She writes in her newsletter about how the recognition of beauty in the simple things and people around her enables her to serve them better:

I look back on my childhood and remember beauty. The smell of sweet clover in a vacant lot, a hopeful clump of grass growing up through the cracks of a city pavement. A feather dropped from some pigeon. A stalking cat. Ruskin wrote of "the duty of delight," and told us to lift up our heads and see the cloud formations in the sky. I have seen sunrises at the foot of a New York street, coming up over the East River. I have always found a strange beauty in the suffering faces which surround us in the city. Black, brown and grey heads bent over those bowls of food, that so necessary food which is always there at St. Joseph's House on First St., prepared each morning by Ed Forand or some of the young volunteers. We all enter into the act of hospitality, one way or another. So many of those who come in to eat return to serve, to become part of the “family.”

On another occasion she writes:

“Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky wrote. I just looked up this quotation in Konstantin Mochulsky's Dostoevsky, His Life and Work…In a paragraph on page 224, in speaking of art, Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, "It has its own integral organic life and it answers man's innate need of beauty without which, perhaps he might not want to live upon earth."

Day notes how “the thirst for beauty and harmony appears in [people] with its greatest force” when they experience a sense of discord with reality, and how art “pours in energy, sustains the forces, strengthens our feeling of life.” She continues to spell out what for her is the relationship between beauty and religious faith:

Man accepts beauty without any conditions and so, simply because it is beauty, with veneration he bows down before it, not asking why it is useful and what one can buy with it… Beauty is more useful than the simply useful, for it is the ultimate goal of being. On this height, the way of art meets with the way of religion.


Mahatma Gandhi in his writings also speaks of how art and the beauty of nature draw him towards truth and God—in ways that sound very much like Indian scientists I’ve interviewed:

These beauties [“a sunset or a crescent moon that shines amid the stars at night”] are truthful, inasmuch as they make me think of the Creator at the back of them. How else could these be beautiful, but for the Truth that is in the center of creation? When I admire the wonder of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in worship of the Creator. I try to see Him and His mercies in all these creations.

And elsewhere:

I see and find Beauty in Truth or through Truth. All Truths, not merely true ideas, but truthful faces, truthful pictures or songs are highly beautiful.

We see in Gandhi’s words a link between experiences of beauty and notions of truth. These articulations resonate with Iris Murdoch’s notion of unselfing experiences, and in this case, these seem to foster attachment to God as well as causes of truth and justice, to which Gandhi dedicated his life.


I can’t agree with Scarry’s claim that the experience of beauty necessarily fosters a sense of justice. History abounds with examples of how the pursuit of beauty not only can coexist with injustice but can motivate it. The Nazis, for instance, may have been moved by Wagner’s music but it did nothing to make them more just.

Yet from the above examples, we can see that the relationship between aesthetics and justice holds at least under some conditions. For example, beauty can be experienced dissonant with the injustice or disharmony one sees in the world, leading one to recommit oneself to rectifying such injustice (such as in the case of the example above from King). Experiences of beauty could be precursors to the desire to protect and not lose something valuable (such as one’s home or way of life—for example in the case of the Scholls under Nazi occupation). Experiences of beauty could also serve as sources of resilience in everyday life—in meeting one’s commitment to service in facing the ordinary day-to-day struggles of poverty (as in the case of Dorothy Day), or in reawakening one’s confidence in and love of the Divine during times of intense struggle and hardship (such as in the examples from Gandhi).

What mechanisms can aesthetic experience trigger that enable such commitment? Scarry, drawing on Plato, Kant, Murdoch, and others, has outlined several: an energizing and renewing capacity, its capacity to draw us out of ourselves, a certain inexhaustibility in the pleasure it brings, and the symmetry and equality which evoke in us a desire to preserve and perpetuate them. Such mechanisms are not universal laws; they are activated in some social contexts and not others, and may be counteracted by other mechanisms, and the task of analysis here would be similar to studying the effects of phenomena such as moral outrage.

An objection one could raise here is that some of these accounts are merely rhetoric—strategic constructions to evoke certain emotions among constituents. But even if such a cynical reading had some truth to it, it would still raise the question as to why symbols and arguments that evoke beauty are used, rather than, for example, fear or anger—to which today’s politicians and activists mostly resort.

Beauty does not necessarily orient us to justice; but we should ask when and how and under what conditions it might do so. More questions need to be raised: When and how might experiences of beauty coexist with and even contribute to perpetuating oppression? When and how might experiences of beauty inhibit justice commitments? What does it take for an experience of beauty to be meaningfully connected to a commitment to justice? And we can raise questions in the other direction too—for instance, can commitments to justice or perpetrations of injustice alter what experiences strike someone as beautiful?

Perhaps there’s already been some good work tackling these questions. And perhaps you might have more questions or insights that can move these considerations forward—please feel free to email me or let me know in the comments below.

Also, please let me know what other topics and questions you’d like to learn about on this platform.

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