On Beauty and Being Just. by Elaine Scarry

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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 also argues that beauty does indeed press us toward a greater concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry offers up an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums, and classrooms.

Scarry argues that our responses to beauty are perceptual events of profound significance for the individual and for society. Presenting us with a rare and exceptional opportunity to witness fairness, beauty assists us in our attention to justice. The beautiful object renders fairness, an abstract concept, concrete by making it directly available to our sensory perceptions. With its direct appeal to the senses, beauty stops us, transfixes us, fills us with a "surfeit of aliveness." In so doing, it takes the individual away from the center of his or her self-preoccupation and thus prompts a distribution of attention outward toward others and, ultimately, she contends, toward ethical fairness.

Scarry, author of the landmark The Body in Pain and one of our bravest and most creative thinkers, offers us here philosophical critique written with clarity and conviction as well as a passionate plea that we change the way we think about beauty.


About Elaine Scarry

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Elaine Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her book The Body in Pain was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Published March 21, 2013 by Princeton University Press. 136 pages
Genres: Literature & Fiction, Law & Philosophy. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for On Beauty and Being Just.

Publishers Weekly

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In the long sections of the book devoted to the habits of a certain sparrow in Scarry's garden, or to charting every reference to vegetation in the works of Homer, Flaubert and Wordsworth, Scarry appears lost in her own lush imaginative world.

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London Review of Books

As the gap between high and low culture became ever wider, the beauty which mattered to intellectuals, when it mattered to them at all, came to seem different in kind from the beauty which mattered to the world at large, and, for that reason, irrelevant and empty: the higher the pleasure it provo...

Jul 22 2010 | Read Full Review of On Beauty and Being Just.

Boston Review

Beauty can "ignite" all sorts of desires, but American Beauty suggests that Stuart Hampshire has a point: some other alchemy of human nature, something more than beauty itself, is needed to draw virtue from the flames.

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The Oxonian Review

Since Scarry’s essay emphasises the generative, self-begetting nature of beauty throughout Western art and literature, it is wholly in keeping with Smith’s titular choice that her novel has a significant conceptual debt.

Dec 15 2005 | Read Full Review of On Beauty and Being Just.

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