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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty ... In a Video

Author: Reilly Capps/Sunday, August 25, 2013/Categories: video

This video -- on the benefits of being awestruck -- ends with John Keats's line from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  

It's an immortal line. But is it, itself, true? Are things more beautiful if they're true?

After all, Grecian urns usually showed pictures of the Greek gods, which don't really exist. And so in that sense they're beautiful untruths. Maybe the gods show some larger, internal, metaphorical truths, but any painting of Zeus of Aphrodite is, in a sense, a lie. 

Keat's real sense of awe wasn't drawn from the picture itself, it was that the unchanging state of the characters painted on the urn give them a sense of immortality, and so give one to him. He was saying that art is immortal, or the closest we mortals will ever come to is. 

Nowadays, we have another medium through which to experience apparent deathlessness: pictures of the heavens. We know intellectually that the universe will eventually die -- but that death is happening so slowly (from our vantage point) that it might as well take forever. And so the pictures from the Hubble telescope of nebula and pulsars are views of the closest thing there is, in reality, to those deathless Greek gods. A picture of the Orion constellation can make us feel the same thing that an ancient Greek might have felt -- that there is something out there greater, more permanent and more powerful than ourselves. 

That awe -- thinking either about Orion the god or Orion the constellation -- is a powerful fuel for the engine of the mind. Great minds have always set their sights on something higher than themselves; images from NASA and our views of the stars can show us one of those higher, more beautiful things -- and they have the added benefit of being true. 

Keats -- who would die young -- loved the urn because it would outlive him, and teach its supposed lesson -- beauty is truth -- to generations far into the future. Pictures, which, especially in their new, digital form, are poised to survive far longer than anything physical ever could, will teach some lesson deep into the future. And the star ships that send them back -- the Voyager, for example -- might survive for a billion years, making that supposedly deathless Grecian urn by comparison as temporary and fleeting as the life of a butterfly that lives and dies in the span of one bright day. 

And, quickly: is beauty truth? I guess it depends on taste and time. Some people love the beautiful fictions of a vampire movie or a novel. But those works of art -- like the urn -- come and go, and each generation has its own beloved fictions. These fictions can hint at some larger truth, they can express true feelings, but they are subject to the whims of time and fate. But the beauty of real things in actual reality -- a stargazer lily, a waterfall, a shooting star -- have always been and will always be beautiful to the human eye. To appreciate them seems natural, eternal and possibly necessary -- the above video argues -- if we want ourselves and our children to thrive. 

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