II. Beauty & Bane



~ The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Venus is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, one of the twelve great Olympian deities. Being the loveliest of all gods, Venus presided over love and feminine beauty. Due to the popularity of the both elements that she controls, she has been a popular subject of art in both classical and modern time. In The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, she is shown as rising from the waves and blown ashore by the God of the West Wind on a seashell.

 

In December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The fall of the Russian Communist superpower under its own weight was dramatic and stunning. It changed the global political landscape and the balance of power among nations overnight. Astonishing as it was, signs of the internal rotting of the nation’s social support structure was already evident before its collapse. “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” said Will Durant and the slow decay of the Soviet Union before its collapse bears testament to the truth of his words.

From the mid-1980s, the signs of weakness within the giant Communist state became increasingly clear as economic growth slowed to a dangerously low level. The quality of life declined with the scarcity of consumer goods. There were virtually no shopping malls or supermarkets and small stores were often poorly stocked or not stocked at all. Long lines formed whenever word spread that there was a new shipment of fresh meat and vegetables. To add fuel to the fire, the nation faced a shortage of housing while inflation squeezed the citizens surviving on a fixed income.

The chief source of the problem was that the Soviet Union was built upon the philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx was a utopian thinker and like all different theories of utopia, his ideology was aimed to achieve the ultimate beauty and perfection possible within a nation. He believed that an ideal society was not only merely possible but also inevitable. He attacked the capitalist economic system with ferocious fervor, accusing it of producing social inequality, harsh working conditions and widespread suffering. He believed that the rich will continue getting richer and the wealthy elites would oppose social reforms to improve the living conditions of the impoverished working class.

According to Marx, the downfall of capitalism was a matter of time. The working class called the proletariat would overthrow the existing system and bring a stage in the revolutionary process called the dictatorship of the proletariat. The period controlled by the dictatorship would be accompanied by widespread reforms called the first stage of communism which will include the abolition of private property, a heavily progressive income tax, the abolition of the right to inheritance, the centralization of all credit in the state and of all means of communications and transportation, the introduction of free education for all children, and the abolition of child labor.

After the completion of the reforms, the government will wither away just as class differences will naturally fade away, and the state would become unnecessary. The death of the state and the natural demise of the government would usher the second state of communism called the classless society. In this utopian communist world, true human fulfillment would be possible and social bliss will blossom. A brotherhood of loyal, wise and incorruptible friends would be devoted to one another with absolutely unselfish benevolence. There would be cooperative rather than competitive labor aimed for the ultimate good of the society and a new morality of social responsibility would replace the struggle for survival of the fittest. Such was the beauty of the philosophy that Marx conjured that millions flocked to the banners of communism.

A thing of beauty is never a joy forever[1]. Beauty is but a blossom and it fades like a flower. And the fairer the flower the sooner shall it fade. Even the fairest of roses at last is withered. And so the Soviet Union that was built upon the beauty of Marxism collapsed before ever attaining the perfection of a classless society. While capitalism succeeded in making people unequally rich, communism succeeded in making everyone equally poor while the selected elites within the dictatorship became incredibly wealthy and overly powerful. “Peace, bread, land and all power to the Soviets,” said Lenin and the people obeyed his call. In the end, Lenin himself owned a fleet of nine Rolls-Royces while the people remained just as poor as before the rise of Communism in Russia.

What was the problem? The abolition of private property and the right of inheritance meant that citizens no longer have an incentive to work and open new businesses. There was no creative destruction[2] like those found in a market economy when a nation continuously revitalize itself from within by scrapping old and failing businesses and then relocating resources to newer, more productive ones[3]. Furthermore, there were no efficient markets and price signals to coordinate supply and consumer demand, resulting in a surplus of products that no one wants and a shortage of products that people do want. What is the point for a citizen to live in a nation with thousands of missiles but a shortage of bread?

The most perilous form of beauty comes in beautiful ideas. Our physical body is limited by time and space but our thoughts possess a far greater degree of freedom. And such freedom is more often than not channeled to produce ideas too good to be true. Unproven and misguided philosophical doctrines, ideologies, theological orthodoxy are but the tip of the gigantic iceberg of self-delusion. One must never confuse himself between what is, what should be and what can be. A classless society can be created only within the mind but not in a reality when most people work only for their self-interest.

Concepts and beliefs in utopias are but castles in the sky, built upon the illusion that an imperfect world can produce a perfect solution to all our troubles. There is no perfect solution for an imperfect world. The problems that we face change with every solution that we try to implement. Perfection is impossible as it is a state whereby no further improvement is possible. It is stagnant and static without time and without change. But we live in a world where change is inevitable and room for improvement is limitless.

Yet even knowing the impossibility of perfection, most men would still be attracted to idealistic theories of perfection. ‘Men are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain[4]’ said Aristotle and the thoughts of utopia and its like give us such hopes of eternal bliss. Their contradictions and self-delusions mask themselves behind the beauty of rhetoric and arguments designed to mislead individuals for a lifetime. In the face of such beauty, the only defense is wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

Beauty is the bane of almost all men. Although beauty is only skin-deep and only one layer, men would continuously seek her with an undying will. And even if no one can live on beauty, many are willing to die for it. Appearances are deceptive and things are not always what they seem. All that glitters is not gold; beware the bait that hides the hook. To those in search of the solution to all our troubles with beautiful ideas, remember that beauty and folly often goes in company.

 

Youth and Beauty

Thou art so fair, and yong withall,

Thou kindl’st yong desires in me,

Restoreing life to leaves that fall,

And sight to Eyes that hardly see

Halfe those fresh Beauties bloom in thee.

~

Those, under sev’rall Hearbs and Flowr’s

Disguis’d, were all Medea gave,

When she recall’d Times flying howrs,

And aged Aeson from his grace,

For Beauty can both kill and save.

~

Youth it enflames, but age it cheers,

I would go back, but not return

To twenty but to twice those yeers;

Not blaze, but ever constant burn,

For fear my Cradle prove my Urn.

~ Aurelian Townshend


[1] Adapted from the first line of Keat’s poem Endymion (1818).

[2] Attributed to the idea of Joseph Schumpeter (1942)

[3] See the Age of Turbulence by Alan Greenspan.

[4] A saying attributed to Aristotle.


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