What is Beauty?

I’ll begin with a quote from Confucius: “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone perceives it.” The definition of beauty is… You’ve heard the ancient adages: “Beauty is just skin deep,” “Beauty is not only skin deep,” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “Beauty comes from inside,” and so on. “I’m weary of all this crap about beauty being just skin deep,” observed American author Jean Kerr. Good enough for me. Do you want a cute pancreas or what? Those of you who have come because you believe the new adage that beauty is in a jab will be disappointed to learn that I won’t be discussing Botox, peels, or fillers. A poem by the Renaissance English poet Thomas Campion, of whom it was said, “He had the generous illusions of youth; devoted to the studies of poetry, music, and medicine, clothed with that finer tact and sympathy which comes to a good physician,” surely still applicable to today’s students, deserves your attention before you leave. But in his poem he said:

“Beauty is but a painted hell;

shee wounds them that admire it,

shee kils them that desire it.

Give her pride but fuell,

no fire is more cruell.”

But beauty is more than simply an aesthetic quality; it’s something that may be seen by the sight, the ear, the mind, the aesthetic sense, or the moral conscience. In this discussion, I’d want to zero in on the aspects that appeal to our visual, intellectual, and moral sensibilities.

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The late CP Snow, a real polymath, lamented the schism between the scientific and literary intelligentsia in a 1959 Rede speech and a book of the same name. When I was in school, and to a significant extent still, there was a clear divide between those who pursued a scientific or artistic path in their study. His idea received a boost when critic FR Leavis released his critique of the Two Cultures. He said of Snow, “his ineptitude as a writer is… absolute… his ignorance of history, literature, and the history of civilization is complete.” Besides the fact that he isn’t a genius, he’s about as unremarkable a thinker as one can find. Those of you who came here hoping for a mild reprimand will either be relieved or dismayed to see that I just cannot compete. One of the ironies of history is that over eighty years before, Matthew Arnold had made the opposite argument in the same speech. “So long as human nature is what it is, culture would continue to supply humanity with its fulcrum of moral insight,” he said in response to the claim that literature should and would be replaced by science. I’d want to argue that science and art both have important contributions to make to contemporary medicine and that they should be integrated into each other as part of medical education and practice.

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What, therefore, is the definition of beauty? To start, I’ll say something that may surprise you: beauty has a numerical definition. – 1.6180339887. The beauty lies in that proportion, called the golden ratio (fig 1). Pythagorean mathematicians noticed this ratio in things they considered beautiful, and Euclid was the first to put it in writing. It can be expressed as a linear relationship or as a shape, with the ratio being (a+b) is to an as an is to b, and it explains why many of the shapes we find pleasing, whether in architecture, form, or people, follow this pattern. These proportions and harmony may be seen in the Parthenon. The ratio is also applicable to humans; a study of today’s standards of beauty reveals that both facial and bodily symmetry play an important role. There are many examples of the golden ratio throughout the human body, including the shape of the head (a rectangle) and the placement of the mouth and nose (golden sections of the distance between the eyes and the chin). The ratio of the distance between the navel and the foot to the height and the ratio of the distance from the top of the head to the fingers to the height are also golden ratios. The Sutherland tapestry in Coventry Cathedral depicting Christ in glory has the same proportions.

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