Friday, January 08, 2010

On Beauty and Feeling at Home in Spontaneous Orders

One of my regulars, Winton Bates, asked me how spontaneous orders and beauty were related, after I observed that in my Fund for Spontaneous Orders conference paper, I argued at the end that understanding beauty would help us to live well in a spontaneous order social system. Since the main part of the paper will appear later (and to which I will make a link when it does appear) in their online journal, and since I cut the entire section on beauty from it, I'm going to just share the section on beauty. It's an idea I want and need to develop further.

Beauty and the Spontaneous Order

Beautiful works of art and literature help us to both understand and live well within spontaneous social orders. Indeed, beauty may be the missing piece that has caused us to feel alienated within these orders. We do not have to feel that way.

In "On Beauty" Elaine Scarry argues that beauty brings us to justice because of beauty’s attention to symmetry, leading us to an understanding of “a symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another” (97, quoting John Rawls from "A Theory of Justice"). While symmetry is certainly part of beauty, it is in fact only one half of beauty, the other half being asymmetry. A perfectly symmetrical tree would be a ball on a column – hardly beautiful (equating symmetry with beauty also denies the fact that Japanese works, which focus on asymmetry, are also beautiful). Rather, a beautiful tree is one that has symmetry, yes, but also is ragged around the edges, uneven in its evenness, even in its unevenness. If this is the case, justice may in fact be distributive, as Scarry argues, but it cannot be purely symmetrical, as Scarry implies. Rather, it would exhibit qualities of symmetry and asymmetry simultaneously – as network theory in fact says happens in complex network systems. It seems likely that spontaneous orders are the only systems capable of exhibiting such qualities – and of doing so without prejudice. This claim would be strengthened if it turned out that spontaneous orders were, themselves, beautiful.

One aspect of spontaneous orders is that they allow for equal access to all (which is far different from equal outcome, as outcomes depend on many different things). In a truly spontaneous legal order, for example, there is equality under the law. In a truly spontaneous economic order, there is an equal ability to enter into economic transactions, broadly defined. Scarry observes that “the equality of beauty” in part resides “in its generously being present, widely present, to almost all people at almost all times” (108-9). Beauty is accessible to all, though the more engaged one is with the beautiful object, the more benefits one derives from it, the more beautiful it becomes. The same is also true of participation in spontaneous orders.

We see, using two different ways of defining both beauty and the nature of spontaneous order, a commonality: paradox. A beautiful object must be both symmetrical and asymmetrical. To have a just legal order, one must have equal treatment under the law (laws applying to all people equally), resulting in unequal outcomes. Contrariwise, to get equal outcomes, you must treat people unequally and, as a consequence, unjustly – as Vonnegut brilliantly demonstrated in “Harrison Bergeron.” The affirmation of paradox seems to lie at the heart of both the nature of beauty and of spontaneous orders. Beauty must contain both complexity and simplicity. Simple rules and feedback generate complex spontaneous orders (see diZerega, Hayek, and also Stephen Wolfram’s The Making of a New Science). Indeed, feedback, or reflexivity, is another feature of beauty. Both beautiful objects and spontaneous orders are ordered, evolutionary (changing over time), rule-based, simultaneously digital and analog, generative and creative (as Scarry also argues of beauty), scale-free hierarchies (what Turner calls heterarchies in The Culture of Hope) in structure, patterned/rhythmic, unified in their multiplicity, synergistic, novel, irreducible, unpredictable, and coherent (see Turner’s The Culture of Hope on these qualities of beauty and Christian Fuchs on these qualities of self-organizing systems). It seems, as I note in Diaphysics, that “there is a correlation between self-organizing complex systems and beauty. Each have the same attributes.” More, “all beautiful objects are information-generating systems. And to the extent that something is a self-organizing system, it is beautiful” (84).

If one of the problems with understanding spontaneous orders is that they are more complex than we are, we being nodes within the network, and a less complex entity cannot fully understand a system more complex than itself (Hayek, The Sensory Order, 185), then understanding the relationship between spontaneous orders and the nature of beauty (especially in regards to the internal structures of beautiful things, and how they interact to create the beautiful whole) could help us to understand the nature of spontaneous orders. More, learning to better appreciate and understand beauty – whether in nature or in works of art, music, literature, etc. – should help each of us to learn how to better live within the extended order and positively contribute to its health and growth. This then brings us back to the importance of the liberal arts. Plato saw beauty as a sort of master concept informing all the other concepts (or, ideas, to come closer to the Greek word) (Phaedrus). As we see here, there is much truth to that – and, as Keats reminds us, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). The truth-seeking orders, such as the scientific order, are more truth-seeking the more they are truly spontaneous orders – which is to say, the more beautiful they are. “Virtue aims at the beautiful” according to Aristotle (Nicomachian Ethics), and more goodness emerges out of the moral order the more it is a truly spontaneous order. And if beauty is fair, and the fair is just (Scarry), the closer the legal and the democratic orders are to being truly spontaneous orders, the more just they and the extended order will be. In fact, if beauty, truth, virtue, and justice are indeed so deeply related, it logically follows that spontaneous social orders, being beautiful, are going to generate people who are truthful, virtuous, and just – and if these are elements not typically associated with the market order, this is a failure as much of the critics of the market order as it is of the economy having yet become a full spontaneous order – or, more, the almost complete failure of money to have become a spontaneous order (which only serves to undermine the catallaxy).

If we come to embrace beauty, which is, as Frederick Turner observes, the “value of values” (Beauty), we can come to feel at home in the extended order. We evolved in the midst of an evolutionary drama – and this is precisely what a spontaneous order is (Turner, 131). We can find beauty in the social spontaneous orders precisely because they have all the qualities of the evolved, evolving natural ecosystem. Ironically, precisely as our social world has become more and more a set of spontaneous orders within the extended order, we have abandoned beauty as a value – thus cutting ourselves off from the very thing that would have helped us know how we fit in. As Roger Scruton says in Beauty, “When we are attracted by the harmony, order, and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty” (72). While I would argue against the inclusion of “serenity,” certainly the other two, and the list I gave above, equate beauty and spontaneous orders. Educated in beauty, we could learn to feel at home in the universe, including our spontaneous orders.
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