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Whatever is true, just, pure… lovely… Think on these things

So wrote an early Jewish Christian writer to the church in the Roman town of Philippi. But what is meant by each of these things? Aren’t they too subjective and culturally-constructed to have any kind of universal meaning?

Nigel Pocock

Perhaps it is best to start with human commonality. For many years it has been fashionable to stress human differences in culture, and this is certainly important. But equally important, perhaps more so, are the things that people have in common. Indeed, it may well be that most supposed ‘differences’ are no more than different cultural expressions of a human universal, like the need for love and beauty.

Concepts of facial beauty have been shown to be universal, with men looking for specific traits in women, and women in men.

Physical features such as symmetry of face and body are universally desired. Much of this is no doubt best explained in terms of the need for a healthy partner with whom to raise offspring, and thereby evolutionary biology is important.

Good eyes, skin, physique, hair, mental aptitudes and social skills all tell the opposite sex that here is a potential partner that may make a ‘good buy’.

Of course, love (agape, rather than eros) can transcend the purely physical and evolutionarily conditioned responses; it is appropriate and truthful communication that is ultimately crucial to the strength of a relationship.

It is when humans exalt certain features, such as skin colour (‘pigmentocracy’), that things start to go badly wrong.

Regrettably, this characteristic seems to exist in all racial groups, and may even relate back to a human tendency to fear darkness, as studies on white and black clothing amongst footballers shows, in the way penalties awarded against them reveals (black clothing attracts stiffer penalties).

This deeply ingrained fear then becomes legitimised by an ideology, itself a strategy to maintain the power and privileges of a specific group.

What then is ‘pure’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘just’, and why should we seek to internalise these things? Some artists, such as Paul Gauguin, seem to have sought just such a universal. A man may look at a beautiful woman, and feel an immense gratitude for this beauty.

Another is filled with lust, and sees only an object. The former leads to praise; the latter to abuse and destruction of both the man and the woman.

Both can lead to idolatry, unless justice intervenes. For while people cannot avoid playing the role of God, they must at the same time, paradoxically, renounce this role, if they are not to become selfish tyrants.

What we have here is a tension between the quest for a universal good, itself caught in the biological drives that both make for altruism and for supremacy. People need to rejoice at loveliness, but not to make an idol of it. Both are universal.

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