In the “Symposium,” Diotima, who is described by Socrates as the women who taught him all he knows about love, but also as a sophist, describes a ladder of love. Desirous of beauty, she says that individuals ascend from limited and particular examples of beauty, like that found in a beloved’s body or a child’s soul, to things that are more universal and objective – the beauty of poetry, a beautiful ritual, even a beautifully written law, until finally they can ascend to point where they can gaze upon Beauty in and of itself. While we might be so astounded by the sight of the form of beauty that exists beyond the limitations of time and space that we forget about the lover and the child we left behind, surely part of Diotima’s sophistry lies in her suggestion that we can so easily, even naturally, leave these things behind as we scamper ever upward in desire for the sight of something more beautiful.
In “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry points to exactly this problem and implies a remedy. Having referenced Diotima in the preceding passages, Scarry begins what seems like a long digression on palm trees. Having initially thought that palm trees were ugly, to the point where she apparently went around muttering to herself about how ugly they were, one night she was surprised to discover their great beauty. Standing underneath one, she is struck by the beauty of the light as it lashes through the palm fronds. She then discovers that interlaced in the palms is an owl, hanging downward and looking at her. The palm tree, which is now beautiful, contains within it an owl, the symbol of wisdom.
So that we don’t miss the point, Scarry contrasts this image with what she had normally thought of as nests, upward curving bowls in which birds sat looking upward. Diotima imagines the lover of beauty as akin to a bird in one of these nests. We must climb the ladder, always looking upward, hoping to catch a glimpse of beauty and thus wisdom. Scarry, however, discovers beauty in a simple palm tree, and, even further, suggests that rather than something which we must chase after to the detriment of all the other things we love, wisdom is actually looking down at us, as though captured by the beauty of what she sees below.
Wisdom, Scarry argues, comes not from chasing the transcendent as it might exist in and of itself. As Diotima shows, doing this, means treating others and the world as mere means to an end, when surely lovers and children should count as ends in themselves. Wisdom, she suggests, is only found in attending to the beauty of all of the things and individuals around us, particularly those people or objects that we would normally not notice or consider as unworthy of our regard, even those that we might think ugly. Like Scarry, who discovers the beauty of palm trees and so comes to know that wisdom requires looking downwards and not just upwards, we will be surprised by he beauty that exists n the smallest, most trivial, even seemingly despicable things and places. In our approach to such beauty, Scarry says we surely don’t rush or scamper. Instead, we would move in a naturally cautious way, after all the precious vase might break, the frightened bird might fly away, the autonomy of the other might be infringed, and, at that moment, the beauty we loved, is destroyed.
Such destruction, Scarry argues, speaks not only to the devastation of the beauty of the other, but to our own devastation. For encounters with beauty, if approached carefully, with the reverence one would take for something sacred, are life-saving. In attending to beauty we are given a respite from the troubles that might plague us. In such an encounter, even if the moment is fleeting, we recognize something that is essential to our existence, and we are drawn into a community with it. A community, that places everything else, all of those troubles that plagued us, in a new perspective. After all, we know that even though we know that our problems and those of the world are real, we also know that beauty and truth can be discovered in the most unusual places, as long as we are open to its approach.
Further, just as beauty brings us perspective and knowledge, so it inspires us to share this with others. So it is that we try to capture an example of beauty with a paintbrush or a camera, not only so that that we might experience it again, but also so that we can share It with others, trusting that they too will know to approach it cautiously so that it and they might be preserved. In this way, beauty Scarry argues, leads to justice.
Importantly, at the end of the “Symposium,” Socrates is not standing alone on a porch contemplating the nature of the Beautiful. Instead, he is engaged in a discussion with Agathon and Aristophanes, about how the best poet will be one who can write both comedies and tragedies. In other words, a true composer of beauty will be one who has attended to all of the particularities of human life, attending to the beauty that exists in all aspects of our existence.