Beauty and Civilization Ruminations inspired by Hillman, Freud, Marcuse

For some time, I have asked myself what sort of life I want.

I always come up with the same answer: a beautiful life

It sounds cliché. So, I challenge myself to respond to this: what is a beautiful life?

In our society, the “beautiful life” is continually replaced by “easy living”. Having fun, filling up time, these are coercive commands delivered, nevertheless, with enticing trappings.

But if I must produce and then have fun, when will I have time for the beautiful life?

Where shall I find beauty?

Was there ever a time when beauty was the final goal of every day?

The question resounds from distant times, but I won’t hesitate to say my piece as I drink a beer at a table at a bar in this porous city.

The question of the “beautiful life” implies the desire of a society, which hinges on a search for beauty. Ours is dominated by a principle of performance. There is space for a walk in a park, there is a Raphael exhibition or a sunset, but these are experiences wedged between one moment and another in a regimented life, and they carry the mark of a style of consumption.


An ensemble of readings which helped me to find cues for unstable responses.

First of all, Hillman, who in La Politica della Bellezza affirms that the absence of beauty, the aesthetic response negated, is an arrogant insult to the presence of the world. According to Hillman, the world, in the absence of a culture of beauty, is negated. Tedium and social processes deaden consciousness: the cosmos appears ordered but void of life.

In the absence of beauty, Eros, which is the generating desire for life, flees.

Portman, visionary scientist, suggests that the forms of living beings do not respond solely to a criterion of functionality. Creatures at the bottom of the sea have forms that correspond to aesthetic criteria, of self-representation. Consequently, beauty is an end in itself, the very way in which the things of the world form themselves?

The cosmos aims to produce beauty, claims Hillman; if the soul, as Plotinus says, is always an Aphrodite, it always has to do with beauty, and our aesthetic responses are proof of the active participation of the soul in the world.


Here is Aphrodite, accompanied by Eros, in a classical image. Aphrodite literally twists herself toward him. Eros: a chubby baby who shoots arrows. Why did the ancients represent him in this way? I suppose it is because Eros is capricious and innocent, aims randomly for the pure pleasure of doing so.

Pleasure, indeed.

Does creation follow the pleasure principle?

If that is the case, we humans cannot do it, says Freud unequivocally: unless we repress our instincts, we cannot build up a society. The discontent of civilization is this: I put aside my libido, I become productive, and I lose a good bit of vitality (and beauty), but in recompense, I survive and I allow others to survive.

Marcuse in Eros and Civilization looks for solutions: can we aspire to a society that no longer represses pleasure? Following Freud, Marcuse knows all too well that civilization has its costs: the contemporary West, while not seeming authoritarian, produces a repressive tolerance. Sex is unleashed (Marcuse says desublimated, but it’s the same thing): sex is necessary to sell more, it becomes a pastime linked to profitable merchandising.


Yet, Eros does not coincide with sexuality. Eros is a creative principle, which requires freedom to express itself. It is energy in its pure state, unleashed, serving to create forms that did not exist before.

How, then, can Eros express itself in a society that has subjugated it, that exploits its energy in order to power the mechanisms of production?

Marcuse says that Eros expresses itself in art. More than just a notion of art as an ensemble of objects created by man through history, Marcuse understands art as an aesthetic dimension, an aesthetic comportment. In other words: play.

It appears to me that aesthetic, ludic comportment means acting in a way opposed to work, which is always a slave to some function and, thereby, according to Marcuse, alienated. Play, indeed, is a way of acting that has internal rules disconnected from a system; it is a dimension within which Eros can unleash itself and create.


Thanks to play, I live between a social reality and an imaginary one.

But the imaginary of which Marcuse speaks does not serve to nurture evasion.

It serves to build up a utopia.

I push myself to create new forms.

I undertake to shake the foundations of that which seems unshakeable: the social system with its crystallized forms.

The freedom of which Marcuse speaks is an interior liberty, which, nevertheless, becomes subversion (he speaks of the great refusal), when it unites under its banner rebellious singularities.

Beauty releases itself when I liberate time from the chains of productivity and I begin to play. (Imagination to power)

But that’s not all: in a spurt of optimism, Marcuse thinks that, thanks to technology, man will gain time to dedicate to the aesthetic dimension.

Sixty years after the publication of Eros and Civilization one has cause to reflect.

The contemporary world, extremely technological, is still full of slaves.

Slaves in mines, slaves of the image, slaves of cell-phones.

But optimist persists. I believe that there is still a great visionary force in the words of Marcuse.

The hour is late. My rule is: after two beers, finish the post.

But how to conclude?

Let me take up Hillman once again. He speaks of a practice of beauty. A beautiful life is made up of beauty. Beautiful streets, beautiful places, because everything has a portion of soul (Plotinus). Our society, founded on performance, has repressed beauty. But this has a cost, notes Hillman: to spend a day at the office beneath a blinding, direct light, on bad seats, victims of the constant, monotone buzz of the computer, our eyes passing over a worn and stained carpet, among artificial plants, moving about in the same, repeated gestures, pressing a button, repressing the movements of our body, in order to, at the end of the day, plunge headlong into the knot of traffic and public transportation, into a fast-food restaurant? (…) how much does it cost in terms of absenteeism, in terms of sexual obsession, abandonment of school, saturation and fragmentation of attention?

Hillman suggests, then, a way toward beauty: train the self to feel pleasure, to have one’s breath taken away, to suspend our irony, to have the courage to be afraid, to risk excess, to transform with an aesthetic regard even those things that appear ugly into objects of contemplation, and above all: to not forget the gods. His commandments lead into a rituality, which expresses an intentionality without intention, which suspends time, opens the heart (yes, Hillman speaks of the heart) to vision.

Can the ritual of Hillman be linked in some way to Marcuse’s play?

In both, the dimension of ordinary time is suspended.

The key, then, must be time.

A beautiful life is constructed by gaining time (more than money?).

Time that allows one to escape time. Quality time, which coincides with that which Marcuse calls the aesthetic dimension, and which Hillman calls beauty?

Certainly, an aesthetic education is necessary, something which leads us to the gratuitousness of actions.

It may seem absurd, but irrationality has a role here.

I wonder what those might say who, struggling along in their precarity, struggle with time, considering beauty a luxury. Could we say that there is a struggle for survival and a struggle that our Imaginary must undertake in order to maintain itself and, like Aphrodite, turn itself toward Eros?

Returning to where I began, I still wonder, what is a beautiful life?

A life with a wealth of time? A life in which excess time is dedicated to experiencing beauty?

I am on my last sip. I let my imagination work as night falls.