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The Relevance of Beauty

Professional life involves both careful attention to the needs of the client and an awareness of the many complex circumstances in which the client’s needs are set. Moreover, the professional has a responsibility to secure the reputation of his profession, to fulfill his or her vocation to serve the common good and the natural world on whose well-being society depends. Maintaining an appropriate balance between them all is an art, not a science; it requires phronesis, practical wisdom. Aristotle offers the following account of the “man of practical wisdom”:

Now it is thought to be a mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of things conduce to health or to strength but about what sorts of things conduce to the good life in general. This is shown by the fact that we credit men with practical wisdom in some particular respect when they have calculated well with a view to some good end which is one of these that are not the object of any art. Thus in general the man who is capable of deliberating has practical wisdom. (Aristotle, 1984b, N.E., 1140a)

The practically wise person will calculate effectively in the light of his or her knowledge and, in addition, identify the situations that require deliberation and the exercise of calm judgment.

To do this successfully, at least two things will be necessary: regular reflection on past experience and openness to promptings emerging from new stimuli. The former should be a major aspect of initial education, whereas the latter is acquired through a lifetime’s development of the capacity to learn from and test experience. A major reason for this is the accidental and unpredictable nature of events that challenge trained assumptions and bring about changes in attitude that have a consequent impact on virtuous behavior.

Beauty can surprise us and, in so doing, revivify a sense of vocation; it can bring us into touch with dimensions of the world of which we are ignorant or ones that we are inclined, consciously or unconsciously, to put aside because we are absorbed with more immediate matters. The moral aspect of the experience of beauty reminds us that generous human relationships are rooted in love and justice. An affirming gratitude flowing from the experience of the mysterious beauty of a flower, a poem, or a person can have life-changing results. Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. They to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead: their eyes are closed.” The result might be a welcome change in attitude and lead to significant developments in our use of language, which can be revelatory. For example, when Jeremy Hunt, secretary for health in the United Kingdom, said recently that doctors “must stop thinking of patients as ‘bodies harbouring a pathology’ . . . and instead recognize them as people,” he pointed, as an example, to the importance of addressing a patient by name. In so doing, the doctor identifies, and points to, the mystery of the person for whose health the doctor and the patient are mutually responsible.

There are dynamic theological roots that illuminate the vitality of this personal experience, which I shall develop later. They are linked, I believe, to our “ordinary” delight in beauty and inspire our sense of the mystery of living human being, as Einstein felt. The beauty of God revealed in Christ informs our personhood, which is made in the image of God.

Eileen Scarry has an intriguing approach to the subject: she draws attention to four aspects of beauty. Beauty is sacred, unprecedented, and lifesaving; moreover, it encourages deliberation (Scarry, 2000, pp. 23-24, 28). Her use of the latter term suggests a relationship with Aristotle’s practical wisdom; beauty stimulates the desire to deliberate, to question who one is and what one should do. Beauty is revelatory, without parallel, life-giving, and meaningful in the sense that it promises the benefits that flow from contemplating its significance. It is never passively content with itself; rather, it is always demanding, stimulating, and encouraging. Scarry goes on to claim that “beauty is a starting point for education” (p. 31), a point emphasized by Caldecott (Caldecott, 2012).

So where does beauty figure in the debate about what constitutes good, just, and coherent professional practice? Good professional practice, as we have seen, requires not only that we give attention to the individual client but that in order to do so effectively, we call to mind as fully as we can the general circumstances that give rise to the particular case and pertain to the advice we offer. Precisely how this can be done is a serious question, given that the research demands presented by a client’s problem may be all-consuming. Moreover, there will very likely be external pressures on the professional to meet, for example, income targets set by the employer or time pressures in the case of the medical practitioner, which will further serve to distract.

How can we revivify our vision, come to terms with the inherent tension present in all ethical behavior, and keep in mind the depth and range of the perspectives specifically involved in professional life? Can we come to terms with the fact that we are responsible to society at large and to the individual client? I suggest that beauty offers an experience that can liberate the professional and assist in keeping things in perspective precisely because it is instantiated in the particular, and at the same time, draws attention to the mysterious.

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