Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Friday, March 28, 2008

Order from Chaos, Survival and Beauty

About a year ago I was doing shift work and I happened to catch one of those dodgy 2am make up infomercials. Another person present piped up "Why are they using the term aesthetician for applying make up?" I replied "Probably from the philosophical terminology for a person who studies beauty and art. They are now supposedly trained in the applications of beauty and art to the human face". The other person replied that the use of the word was a horrible misrepresentation from its original meaning. I didn't know the etymology of the word but I replied with "Well not really, look at all the words within that particular line of work; beautician, cosmetician ... Cosmetician is an interesting word in itself. I was reading a penguin classics a while back on early greek philosophy. It had a discussion on the word Kosmos. Which cosmetician is derived from. Kosmos was a word for an ordered arrangement in battle. The word also took on the meaning of a 'beautiful order' within Greek society."

That's pretty much the extent of that early morning conversation but I have thought some more about since then.

It is interesting that the word has gone from a military meaning to one infering beauty. Although I'm more interested in the transition of the word in the Greek world from an activity that was probably unpleasant to a word that meant "pleasant to contemplate" [1]. A shorter, more likely explanation is that the battle arrangements were symmetrical and hence beautiful because the mind likes symmetry. Which is the likely answer, however, what follows is a short stab in the dark at the linguistic transition from another psychological perspective.

The word at the time meant a tactical structure for the deployment of men to kill each other and defend themselves from being killed. It was a survival situation. Not long ago I re-read a book on the psychology of survival called 'Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why' by Laurence Gonzales. Gonzales posits that one, of many, psychological traits of survivors is being able to see beauty in the world. Gonzales reckons

"Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses. When you see something beautiful, your pupils actually dilate. This appreciation not only relieves stress and creates strong motivation, but it allows you to take in new information more effectively."
The Greek soldiers were in a most horrific survival situation: war. Some soldiers may have experienced that feeling of awe in the tactical arrangements of order and chaos around them. Perhaps surviving Greek soldiers brought back a meaning that came from this phenomenon.


1. Barnes, Jonathan, pg xx in 'Early Greek Philosophy', Penguin classics.

Addendum: Just to be clear, before I'm waylaid of claims to the contrary, I'm not saying war is beautiful. The more I think about it that might be a valid reductio argument against what I have laid out here. Hmmm, I might have to think more about this little foray into fictional history but feel free to rip into it.