“Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful.” — Vincent van Gogh
Legend has it that the island of Nisyros was formed during a fight between Poseidon and the giant Polybotes. Apparently the sea-god cut off a part of the nearby island of Kos and threw it at his rival, trapping him underneath the boulder. Thus this rock in the middle of the sea was born.
Wanting to explore this mythical playground of the gods, I put the island on my itinerary while vacationing in Greece two years ago. Villages made up of iconic blue and white houses dot the landscape, but its most prominent feature is an active volcano.
From the main port, we took a small bus to reach the mountain of fire. After much huffing and puffing along the curvy island roads, this metallic veteran finally brought us to the edge of the abyss. Descending into the caldera of the Nisyros volcano, a mix of yellowish, brownish, and greyish colors gave the entire scene an otherworldly look.
With fumes coming out of holes in the ground, you sensed yourself in the presence of the mighty gods underneath. I decided to share the experience with a girl I was chatting with over social media. I snapped a pic, and sent it to her. Despite being far away, thanks to the magic of modern technology she received the photo instantly.
“It’s ugly. I know so many more beautiful places in the Greek islands,” came back her response.
I was shocked. Still surrounded by the volcanic rocks, and smelling the sulfur, my reply was curt.
“How can you say that? It’s nature. Everything in nature is beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
She was probably thinking about the other island in the Aegean known for its volcano, Santorini. Renowned far and wide for its stunning views, many tourists trek there for romantic getaways. Yet, her statement boggled my mind.
A caldera is created when magma explodes, collapsing the ground above. This leaves a huge depression surrounded by a circular ring of volcanic rock. For me, what I was witnessing was beautiful in its own way. It showed the power of nature, with unknown forces bubbling deep under my feet.
The volcano I was exploring was still active. Having last erupted over a century ago, it was due for a repeat at any moment. Nicknamed the “sleeping giant”, a powerful explosion in the near future is almost a given. All this added to a sense of wonder and awe.
Being in the presence of such power, and hidden danger, you are reminded of the forces that shape our planet and the universe. Contemplating the marvels of nature, you realize that beauty isn’t just on the surface. It is often churning just below.
Perhaps ancient philosopher Plotinus was onto something when he defined an unknowable first principle of reality. Finding this essence requires you step outside your usual way of looking at the world. In his work “On the Beautiful”, the founder of the Neo-Platonic school of philosophy stated that beauty is often of a higher order, invisible to the naked eye.
“We must enter deep into ourselves, and, leaving behind the objects of corporeal sight, no longer look back after any of the accustomed spectacles of sense.” — Plotinus
Find things beautiful as much as you can
In 1874, Vincent van Gogh found himself in London. After leaving home, he started to write letters to his younger brother, Theo. This long-distance conversation would last until his death in 1890.
Long before he became an artist, Vincent was drawn towards the art world. While working in the back-office of an art dealership in the English capital, he came in contact with the works of the most prominent painters of his era. Inspired by the emotions that their paintings stirred in him, the young apprentice sent his brother an insightful piece of advice.
“Find things beautiful as much as you can.” — Vincent van Gogh
The future genius artist was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve. In any language, uttering the word beautiful incites powerful feelings. In writing this little snippet to Theo, he revealed the ultimate secret to living life.
“Most people find too little beautiful,” added Vincent. By blocking yourself from seeing the beauty in ordinary things, you are surviving on half-empty. Years before he decided to become an artist, the elder van Gogh brother knew how to live it on full.
This perhaps was the secret to his infinite inspiration. His artist journey led him on untrodden paths, allowing him to see things differently. Long before van Gogh found beauty in colors, he discovered it in common, downtrodden people.
Ugliness can be beautiful
Perhaps it sometimes helps to turn the definition of beauty down on its head. After all, as Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Ecco noticed, beauty can be boring.
“Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules. Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.” — Umberto Ecco
Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have tried to measure beauty. Pythagoras found it in order. It is manifested in the harmony of things, and can be described using mathematical formulas such as the golden ratio. According to the measurers, beauty has its laws, just like nature does.
Taking this as his premise, mathematician George Birkhoff tried to quantify it. He came up with a simple equation defining what is beautiful. Beauty equals pleasure which is derived from two variables: order and complexity.
Whereas the majority have taken up this view of beauty, it is not universal. This rebellion against equating beauty with order dates back almost two thousand years to the likes of Plotinus. The great philosopher of Late Antiquity found beauty in simplicity, arguing that simple things like light or earth are beautiful in themselves.
If you think about it, while the universe demonstrates order, more than not it is full of disorder. In fact, as the second law of thermodynamics states, the entropy in an isolated system will tend to increase over time. Entropy is just a fancy word for disorder and chaos.
For the above reason, it is hard to justify equating beauty only with order and harmony. Instead, a kind of chaos inherent in the cosmos can be considered beautiful too. Indeed paradoxically, ugliness can be beautiful.
Beauty is an emotion
The power of art is that it stirs a viewer’s emotions. An intense feeling can arise not just from the perfect proportions and perspective of Renaissance masters like Raphael, but also from the utter madness of a Jason Pollock.
Nature contains both. That’s why it has had such a powerful effect on creatives throughout the millennia. As Vincent van Gogh remarked, nature teaches you to see.
“Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.” — Vincent van Gogh
Our world is full of beauty. You just have to look around to notice it. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to orbit our planet is said to have remarked:
“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” — Yuri Gagarin
What some people find ugly can be a source of inspiration for you. Even the volcano of Nisyros has been a fountain of creativity for some. Greek film director Eleni Alexandrakis returns to the island almost religiously ever since she discovered it for the first time 30 years ago.
Yet beauty is not just a factor of the material world. It exists also on a person to person plane. We can even find beauty in the relationship between two brothers.
It is due to Theo’s support of his vagabond brother, both moral and financial, that we can bear witness to Vincent’s genius. Without his younger sibling’s aid, the elder van Gogh would never have been able to focus on his path to achieve mastery.
What can be more beautiful than that?
Don’t close your eyes to the different forms that beauty can take. Expand your horizons. Indeed, it is important to find your own source of strength and beauty. Don’t let others define it for you. Make it a personal choice.
Appreciating beauty, whether classic or more unconventional, will open up a passage to higher forms of being and connection. For as ancient theologian Augustine of Hippo wrote, beauty is linked to love.
“Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul.” — Augustine of Hippo
Find things beautiful.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.