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Only a Promise of HappinessReview - Only a Promise of Happiness
The Place of Beauty in a World of Art
by Alexander Nehamas
Princeton University Press, 2007
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Jul 1st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 27)

Only a Promise of Happiness: the Place of Beauty in a World of Art is a beautiful book.  I use the word 'beautiful' here with purpose, indeed with multiple purposes.  First, to the casual eye the book presents itself as a contribution to art history or appreciation.  Its cover (and who doesn't choose a book by its cover?) offers a color detail from Manet's Olympia, a work of some significant obsession on the part of the author; its more or less eight by ten inch dimensions; its thirteen color plates collected at the book's end and its seventy-nine black and white figures interspersed with the text; all contribute to this impression.  The book is beautifully put together.

Second, despite the author's erudite display of art history, his sensitivity to technique, and awareness of current disputes in the community of art criticism, the book is a serious contribution to the philosophy of art.  Nehamas's book is a sustained reflection on an analysis of the concept of beauty and its relation to our understanding of the nature of art, to the interpretations of various art objects, and, most importantly, to our lives generally.  It is in regard to the latter issue that Nehamas offers some of his more interesting and important comments.  His analysis of the relationship between beauty, desire, friendship, and love are not only insightful, they are, well, beautiful.

Only a Promise of Happiness is divided into four untitled parts consisting of seventeen chapters in all and is suitable for a generally intelligent reading audience who may have no particular experience with art history or philosophy.  But I suspect scholars would also benefit from this text, in spite of the author's reflections on the significance of TV programs like Alley McBeal and Frasier and his comments on popular entertainers like Bob Fosse.  In any case, Nehamas's sweep is grand, taking in the likes of artistic figures from Botticelli to Whistler, not neglecting literary figures from Baudelaire to Zola, and including well-known philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein.

Beauty has had a significant role to play in the history of ideas until fairly recently.  Nehamas would like to see this recent trend reversed.  The ancients, such as Plato, accepted that beautiful objects evoke passion, longing, and desire.  Consider Plato's Symposium in which the connection between beauty, Eros, goodness, and truth are provocatively explored.  But many influential philosophers, Schopenhauer and Kant among them, purged philosophy of such passion, creating a more sterile notion of beauty that, they allowed, might still be a part of art, if it is understood as merely one element in the overall category of the aesthetic. "The aesthetic made it possible to isolate the beautiful from all the sensual, practical, and ethical issues that were the center of Plato's concern" (3).  In other words, for many philosophers aesthetic pleasure is a pleasure we take in things just as they stand before us, without regard to their effects on our sensual, practical, or moral concerns.  In fact, this trend led to the conclusion that representation altogether has no significant role to play in art and the modernist preoccupation with color, form, and space.  This idea is summed up nicely when Nehamas quotes Newman as saying in 1948, "The impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty" (13).  But beauty, in the end, is about attractiveness.  But for this it is no less meaningful.  For such attractiveness is part of our world and our lives.  Any understanding of art that lacks this realization is somewhat misguided, according to Nehamas.

In Part II of Only a Promise of Happiness, Nehamas has a number of insightful things to say about the role of reviewing and its relationship to criticism and philosophy.  But it is his remarks on the nature of beauty and its role in human love and friendship that are perhaps the most intriguing in the book and provide the real core of the author's ultimate argument.  Our reaction to beautiful things, claims Nehamas, is the urge to make them our own, which is why Plato called eros the desire to possess beauty and when one finds someone beautiful, one is quite literally drawn to him or her.  When I find someone beautiful, it is not a judgment, a conclusion, a verdict.  It is an "expression of my need to become actively engaged with another person" (55).  In so doing there emerges the hope that life will be better to me with you than without you.  Thus, "beauty points to the future, and we pursue it without knowing what it will yield" (63). 

Those interested in the various psychological studies of beauty that seem to support the idea that "standards of beauty are remarkably consistent regardless of culture, race, age, income, or sex" (64), will be quite interested in Nehamas's comments about the limitations of such research.  For he notes that psychological and bodily features interpenetrate such that research on facial attractiveness actually shows that "beauty and attractiveness are not the same thing--but neither are they different--they are forms of each other" (70).  We must already "know" someone, more or less, in order to be attracted to him or her.  We label this phenomenon 'beauty' when our attractiveness is too "complex for us to be able to describe what it is and valuable enough to promise that what we haven't yet learned is worth even more, perhaps worth changing ourselves in order to come to see and appreciate it" (70).

Because beauty is everything we love in a person, and because what we already know about that person is never enough to explain the beauty that marks the object of love, love becomes inseparable from wanting to learn. Nehamas brings this lesson home to art when in Part III he says simply, "all that is also true of the arts" (73).  That is, "beautiful works spark the urgent need to approach, the same pressing feeling that they have more to offer, the same burning desire to understand what that is" (73).  In art, judgments of taste, then, contain a sense that there is more to learn about the object before me, such that the "art we love is art we don't yet fully understand" (76).  What is common to human beings, according to Nehamas, is our need to find beauty in some parts of the world we inhabit, not as Kant claimed, the ability to find beauty in the very same things.  Because every experience of beauty includes the question "Why is that thing beautiful?" our aesthetic judgments determine the course of our lives as they "direct us for their answers to other people, other objects, other habits and ways of being" (85).  Love can be provoked by almost anything, claims Nehamas, and beauty is the object of love.  So nothing else can play the role you hope a beautiful thing will play in your life" (99) as it "promises a happiness impossible to find anywhere else" (101).

Nehamas arrives finally, in Part IV, at the claim that beauty always promises more than it has given and thus the effort to understand what it promises is "forever  work in progress" (105).  Loving something and wanting to know it more and better, furthermore, leads us into the world, not away from it.  It means also that beauty as only a promise of happiness requires that we be willing to live with uncertainty.  It offers no assurances of success.  Nehamas not only endorses Plato's claim that life is worth living only in the contemplation of beauty, but more importantly emphasizes Plato's insight that this commitment amounts to a "mode of life that combines creative thought and considered action and transforms the desire to possess beautiful things into the urge to create in their presence beauty of one's own" (132).  Nehamas disagrees with Plato regarding his contention that the pursuit of beauty leads necessarily to virtue and happiness.  For Nehamas such pursuits always include risk of disappointment, loss, tragedy, or failure.  In any case, beauty is its own reward, such that "the promise of happiness is happiness itself" (138).

As I said at the outset, Only a Promise of Happiness is a beautiful book suitable for a wide audience.  The author delivers on his promises regarding the book's purpose and it offers a comprehensive, coherent, insightful, significant, and elegant argument.

© 2008 Ben Mulvey

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy, including the philosophy of art, at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network. 


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