Francois Cheng’s investigation of beauty is itself a beautiful work. These five essays stroll at a leisurely pace through the landscape of discovery and examination, inviting the reader to make wise use of time by slowing down and truly contemplating the ideas Cheng explores.
In the first meditation, he considers the idea of beauty as the opposite of evil. “…[E]vil and beauty are not just polar opposites,” he reminds us, “sometimes they are intertwined.” From this starting point, Cheng directs our attention to the sources and definitions of beauty, its inherent value, and the human assumptions about the distinction between beauty and evil.
Meditation two concerns the role of beauty in nature. Is the universe obliged to be beautiful, we might ask. Is it an unexpected benefit of the way our world is constructed, or is it, in fact, a building block of life? Cheng includes human beings in the natural world, and one of this essay’s branches reaches out to embrace the surprising topic of human faces as well as trees, mountains, and most other wild features that adorn our vision.
In Cheng’s third meditation, he asks “Is there an act of goodness that is not beautiful?” in equating the two. “Of course not all beauty attains perfect goodness, but all true beauty partakes of this essence,” he notes. Goodness, if defined as a stretch toward ‘supreme harmony,’ must be a fundamental of beauty if one presumes beauty to be good. Cheng, however, is careful not to make blanket assumptions and carefully examines the possibility that “the good is not valued in our times.”
Naturally there is not full accord between Eastern and Western views of beauty in all aspects, yet the chasm is bridged more often than not despite the cultural differences. When writing of ‘the dimension of the soul,’ which is common to all cultures, Cheng concludes “It is deep within interior space that one can… perceive the vision of the soul.”
With all this speculation about beauty and its essence, Cheng comes at last in his final meditation to the philosophy of art. “The purpose of artistic beauty in its highest states is more than ‘aesthetic’ pleasure,” he writes. “[I]ts function is to give life.” While that simple statement may seem anti-climactic, it still generates a flash of sudden understanding and recognition of the complexity of this deceptively simple term.
Is beauty really a topic worth considering? Should we turn our attention to more pressing issues and put action before contemplation? Is ours a world in which quiet observation and wonderment are obsolete? Cheng’s The Way of Beauty seems to prove that, in fact, meditations on beauty lead inevitably to what we may deem ‘the important things,’ embracing as it does the questions we should ask but seldom acknowledge. With a quiet joy in his discoveries, Cheng carries the reader along on his journey toward the center of the soul, making The Way of Beauty not only a personal vision but a collective experience in enlightenment.