Dr Andy Martin

A high level inquiry reported last month that more than half of the British public has a negative body image. Cambridge academic Andy Martin reflects on the idea of beauty and our pursuit of the unattainable.

Celebrity culture and iconic bodies – and not so iconic ones – go all the way back to the time of Socrates in 5th century BC Athens.

Dr Andy Martin

Published last month, the All Party Parliamentary Group’s report on “Body Image” blames our anxieties on celebrity culture and media images. But the problem of “body dissatisfaction” is not new. Celebrity culture and iconic bodies – and not so iconic ones – go all the way back to the time of Socrates in 5th century BC Athens. Socrates was famously ugly and pondered what it must be like to be Alcibiades, who was the matinee idol of his day. But Socratic ugliness is not just comic relief in an otherwise serious dialectic.

It is plausible to argue that philosophy begins right here, in the perception of one's own imperfections relative to some unattainable ideal. In fact the ideal (or “Form”) becomes a central tenet of Platonic philosophy – the problem being that you have to die to attain it. In Renaissance neo-Platonism, Socrates, still spectacularly ugly, acquires an explicitly Christian logic: philosophy is there to save us from our ugliness (perhaps more moral than physical). But the implication is already there in works like Plato’s “Phaedo.” If we need to die in order to attain the true, the good, and the beautiful (to kalon), it must be because truth, goodness, and beauty elude us so comprehensively in life. You think you’re beautiful? Socrates seems to say. Well, think again! The idea of beauty, in this world, is like a mistake. Perhaps Socrates’s mission is to make the world safe for ugly people. Isn’t everyone a little ugly, one way or the other, at one time or another? Who is beautiful, all the time? Only the archetypes can be truly beautiful.

In modern times, Jean-Paul Sartre is the closest equivalent to Socrates. As per the Parliamentary report, Sartre says that his body image problem started very young. He was only 7. Up to that point he had had a glittering career as a crowd-pleaser. Everybody referred to young “Poulou” as “the angel”. His mother had carefully cultivated his luxuriant halo of golden locks. Then one fine day his grandfather takes it into his head that Poulou is starting to look like a girl, so he waits till the boy’s mother has gone out, then tells his grandson they are going out for a special treat. Which turns out to be the barbershop. Poulou can hardly wait to show off his new look to his mother. But when she walks through the door, she takes one look at him before running up the stairs and flinging herself on the bed, sobbing hysterically. Her carefully constructed — one might say carefully combed — universe has just been torn down, like a Hollywood set being broken and reassembled for some quite different movie, rather harsher, darker, less romantic and devoid of semi-divine beings. For, as in an inverted fairy-tale, the young Sartre has morphed from an angel into a “toad”. It is now, for the first time, that Sartre realises that he is — as his American lover, Sally Swing, will say of him — “ugly as sin.”

“The fact of my ugliness” becomes a barely suppressed leitmotif of his writing. He wears it like a badge of honor (Camus, watching Sartre in laborious seduction mode in a Paris bar: “Why are you going to so much trouble?” Sartre: “Have you had a proper look at this mug?”). I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking — serious, sustained questioning — arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness. Philosophy, in other words, has an ironic relationship to beauty.

Sartre (like Aristotle, like Socrates himself at certain odd moments) is trying to get away from the archetypes. From, in particular, a transcendent concept of beauty that continues to haunt — and sometimes cripple — us. In trying to be beautiful, we are trying to be like God (the “for-itself-in-itself” as Sartre rebarbatively put it). In other words, to become like a perfect thing, an icon of perfection, and this we can never fully attain. But it is good business for manufacturers of beauty creams, cosmetic surgeons and barbers.

The beautiful, to kalon, is not some far-flung transcendent abstraction, in the neo-existentialist view. Beauty is a thing (social facts are things, Durkheim said). Whereas I am no-thing. Which explains why I can never be truly beautiful. Even if it doesn’t stop me wanting to be either. Perhaps this explains why Camus, Sartre’s more dashing sparring partner, jotted down in his notebooks, “Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair".

In the light of the thoughts of Socrates and Sartre, it seems to me the government has two options. Either we need to promote cosmetic surgery for all; or we can have a shot at becoming more truly philosophical.

Andy Martin is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge. He is author of The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus (Simon and Schuster, 2012).

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