A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)


This question requires that we examine our way to look at the world before us, as though it can contain something like beauty and ugliness.

Our gaze somehow ‘doubles’ reality (in this sense, it is platonic), as we commonly distinguish an object from its beauty.
For instance, we distinguish the lion from its beauty, as though there were two realities. We reserve the right to say something like “it is not the lion that I like, but its beauty”.

But we must understand that the lion is perhaps nothing but its beauty, viz. the lion is probably nothing but these powerful and soft curves, this imposing mane, these cold and quiet eyes. So it is wrong to say that we take pleasure in contemplating the beauty of the lion; in reality, we take pleasure in “the lion itself”, or a part of it. In other words: we must not say “the beauty of this thing pleases me”, but rather “this thing pleases me”.

Accordingly, beauty appears to be a mere useless redundancy. Could we not say that there is no beauty anywhere, but that there are simply objects that we like or not?
Most often, we do not like the whole object (the lion in all its characteristics) but only one of its aspect (its power, its mane, etc.), so that we believe that it is not the lion but its beauty that we like. But in fact, it is a part of the lion, a significant element in it, that we like, and not something which has another ontological status, and could be called its ‘beauty’.

So in the so-called aesthetic pleasure, what happens is a certain relation to the thing in itself, and not to its beauty. It may be asked: what is the exact nature of this relation? What do we mean when we say: this thing “pleases” us? I think we mean by this expression that this thing, or something in it, has a value.


In consequence, I think it is possible to re-examine the assumption momentarily dismissed that the concept of beauty is an empty shell, which has no meaning in itself and may be reduced to that of value.

Let us return to our example: suppose a worthless man (e.g. a murderer) who is however a handsome man. It seems that we must distinguish beauty from value.

In fact, I think the situation can be explained as follows. There is no beauty in this man, since beauty is nothing but an empty shell.
But there are two significant elements to which I attribute a great value: his square chin gives an impression of power, and his blue eyes an impression of gentleness. Gentleness and power are two consistent concepts, unlike beauty.
As I consider that they have a high value, I feel in the contemplation of this man a great pleasure; however, as another significant element (wickedness) is present in this man, an element to which I attribute a very negative value, I consider, in my final appreciation of this man, that he has no value – or is worthless-.
So we see that in this case, the pleasure that I find in the contemplation of this man is not an aesthetic pleasure derived from his beauty, but an axiological pleasure derived from his value (or rather from the value of two significant elements that I find in him).

My proposition may be summed up as follows: the so-called aesthetic pleasure is actually nothing but an axiological pleasure, caused by the value of the thing, and not by its beauty.