We’ve just finished the 6th form musical; ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It felt like a truly magical production, with a very talented cast giving gutsy, passionate performances.

I gave a talk in chapel in the week before the run, musing on the theme of Beauty:


Beauty is not a word we actually use very much these days in its proper sense. In today’s world beauty is most often associated with cosmetics, beauty products; if you type in ‘Beauty’ to google images (as I did when writing this) literally the first thousand or so pictures are all of women’s faces, admittedly very attractive, but all wearing some sort of branded make-up. And cycling home past Boots last night I saw a big poster in the window: 20% off clothing and beauty; as if beauty is something you can genuinely buy off the shelf. If only.

It’s not exactly profound or original of me to argue that we should look beyond the cosmetics range in Boots and think of Beauty as something more than skin deep. We all know that beauty is really found within, and that we shouldn’t fall for the advertising campaigns which persuade us that we can all look like the photo-shopped models. Real beauty is in the eye of the beholder: anyone who has had children can attest to this, for most new-born babies are in reality very ugly, scrunched up little things (except my own of course, which were perfect), but to their new parents they are the most beautiful things imaginable. We all find different things beautiful, whether in art, music, literature, or even (I’m told) mathematical equations.

But I’d like to take the point further, for in its real sense beauty is something much deeper than either appearances or perceptions of appearances: it’s something utterly at the heart of the human existence. The French author Stendhal defined beauty as ‘The promise of happiness’; by which he perhaps meant a glimpse of heaven on Earth. The word itself comes to the English language via old French, and means goodness, as much as it means attractiveness. Beauty is therefore an essential part of the human existence, not just a luxury item for occasional trips to art galleries. A world which doesn’t value beauty for its own sake is a world in which we revert to animal characteristics, valuing only things which make our lives tangibly better in the short term. An appreciation of beauty is one of the things that truly sets us apart from the rest of animal kind.

If beauty is goodness, does that mean the beast represents evil? No: but he does represent human frailty. He is first cursed because of his lack of generosity, turning a poor beggar woman into the stormy night. In the original story he then selfishly imprisons Belle’s father for picking a single rose from his abundant castle gardens. It is only when Belle becomes his prisoner that the beast begins to realise the power of goodness: he realises that there is pleasure in acting selflessly, whether giving away his library of books or ultimately giving away his chance of salvation by releasing Belle.

On the one hand ‘Beauty and the Beast’ concludes with a predictable happy ending; the beautiful young woman and the handsome prince finally get together and live happily ever after (sorry to spoil the ending). And it’s not exactly surprising that the beast falls in love with Belle – she is, after all, the first animate female he’s seen in ten years. But what’s much more interesting is the fact that she falls in love with him: and it is the beast that Belle falls in love with, not the handsome prince. That’s why it’s a fantastic story – it’s not about the power of physical beauty, but about the power of goodness and love. The beast is redeemed by love, just in time, and so too is Belle. The beast may transform miraculously back into a man but Belle is also transformed into someone who learns to love unconditionally.

In one respect the cosmetic adverts are right, therefore: beauty is something we have to work at to sustain, whether or not you get your 20% off. As a history teacher I’m constantly reminded of just how awful humans can be to one another, which is why we’ve got to believe in good if we’re to reject the bad. Inhumanity, selfishness and anger – the hallmarks of a Beast – are human characteristics every bit as much as love and goodness, and it’s up to us to make sure our better characteristics come out on top. And it’s just as important to try to see the beauty and good in other people, even if they behave in a pretty beastly way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s