A Brief Excerpt on Beauty From Rollo May

“Beauty is the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one’s sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a sense of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose—which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal…

“Early the morning in summers in New Hampshire I walk out to my studio on the far edge of the meadow as the morning mist hangs in the air. The sun rises and its yellow rays rest on the mist. There is no human sound, only the song of thrushes in the bushes. On every blade of grass in the meadow there is a pearl-drop of dew, and as I pick a blade and look more closely I see on each pearl-drop its spectrum of color reflecting the sun, creating a meadow filled with trillions of tiny sparkling rainbows.”

—From Rollo May’s “My Quest For Beauty” (1985). May was a pioneer in the existential and humanistic psychology movements whose thinking and works on anxiety, love, guilt, freedom, creativity and most every other aspect of the human experience had a profound effect on 20th century psychotherapists, philosophers and theologians. He died at age 85 in 1994, two days after completing the edit on the last of his 15 books.



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6 comments to A Brief Excerpt on Beauty From Rollo May

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Andrew, I remember reading May’s Love and Will as a young psych major in the later 60s . Along with Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning these writers had a Huge impact on my emerging world view! Really appreciate the opportunity to begin 2023 thinking about the beauty, wonder, and joy that is always available when we open our eyes, hearts, minds to them…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Kevin, I too was quite struck with the Frankl volume way back when but it’s always felt like it was almost too well-known and combed through to write about. That’s probably mistaken, inasmuch as every great work is most always worthy of considering & discussing again, so I think you’ve just added to my “Topic Ideas” list for 2023!

  • maryluttrell  says:

    Andrew, I am deeply grateful that you posted this excerpt from May’s work. I was not familiar with his definition of beauty, and it struck me as genius. It opens a new level of reflection about my own lifelong inclination to seek beauty, create beauty and celebrate beauty, in all forms. Thank you.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So very much my pleasure, Mary. I hope to return to May again in another, more expansive discussion of beauty, which has occupied this space before and will again, no doubt, given its centrality to human experience and the countless entry points it offers for reflection. Beautiful New Year to you!

  • kirkthill  says:

    Thanks for this post. It reminds me of how so many people want art to always be beautiful. During my art studies at CSFU, the discussions of “What Is Art” touched on one’s experience, positive or negative, as related to beauty and shock. Those pieces that leave you unnerved are rarely beautiful. Svetlana’s dance, was both beautiful, but to me, a little unnerving as I suffer from pain in my left foot, and to watch her dance on her toes like that freaks me out.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kirk, I must admit to much the same attraction-revulsion experience when I see ballet dancers en pointe. Part of me asks whether I even want to glorify an activity that places such grievous and ultimately debilitating demands on the human body. But then the almost breathtaking, ethereal beauty of it sucks me right in, and I (somewhat grudgingly) bow to its grandeur.

      Also: that beauty-and-shock rubric seems worthy of a thought or two, thanks! Haven’t really considered it before, and would welcome you saying more about it. For my part, sometimes, indeed, intense beauty can sear one’s soul, rather like the biblical tales of God appearing as overpowering light or a burning bush that hurts the eyes and singes the nostrils. Can something be so beautiful that it repels, becomes too painful to consider or allow oneself to fully absorb? Certainly transcendent or transformational moments can sometimes bring us to our knees and elicit an almost unintelligible—even to ourselves—response. Just where do we place the kind of beauty that so overwhelms us? A wordless world, yes? Similar to the kind of knife’s edge we sometimes experience between pleasure and pain. Tickling—has there ever been a wholly satisfying explanation for its dual nature?

      As I suggested to Mary above—more to come on this topic, I’m pretty sure!

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