Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art

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9780691095219: Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art
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Book by Nehamas Alexander

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Winner of the 2007 Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers
"Mr. Nehamas sets about reclaiming something of beauty's lost meaning by showing how it is connected to our happiness. . . . That . . . a work could infuriate one age and become an icon to the next fascinates Mr. Nehamas, who is drawn to works where our aesthetic and moral obligations come into conflict. . . . Mr. Nehamas displays an admirable clarity of thought and language. . . . [W]e can enjoy this book as we might the conversation of a spirited and quirky friend whose most irritating pronouncements are the ones we find ourselves mulling over, with some surprise, a week or two later."--Michael J. Lewis, Wall Street Journal

"Alexander Nehamas seeks to reestablish the connections among art, beauty and desire and to show that the values of art are critical."--Publishers Weekly

"[A] marvelous book...Nehamas sets out to retrieve beauty on behalf of all those who still use the word 'beautiful' with everyday pleasure: of a child, a landscape, a vase of flowers, an automobile. He does so in a tone of easy familiarity and enviable gracefulness; this is the philosopher not as blunt pragmatist, like the great Richard Rorty, nor as dour sceptic like W. V. Quine, but as winning and witty guide, and genial companion."--Mike Hulme, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A wonderful, personal, and philosophic essay concerned with the restoration of beauty's place in art . . . a rich conversation of ideas and feelings."--Reamy Jansen, Bloomsbury Review

"Because our most meaningful encounters with beauty unfold over time, we can only ever say in retrospect that a beautiful object has not made our lives--or our culture--better. . . . Beauty is only ever that promise: There is no a priori judgment that might reveal what will prove evanescent and what sustaining. . . . In Mr. Nehamas's vision, the possibility of beauty is well worth the price of uncertainty."--Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New York Sun

"[A] gracious and insightful book. . . . The best parts of the book, which deal with the intimate love of beauty, are gloriously intelligent without being at all difficult and wise without being pompous."--John Armstrong, Sydney Morning Herald

"Nehamas . . . thinks that beauty has been too narrowly defined and that both the pro-beauty camp and the anti-beauty camp have painted us into a tight corner. Only a Promise of Happiness is his attempt to free us from the enclosure. . . . Nehamas feels that beauty deserves a second chance because he thinks that the war on beauty has restricted what we can hope to expect from both art and life. . . . [A] sane and provocative book."--Christopher Benfey, Slate.com

"The power of beauty, its call to our love and its capacity to move us, is the focus of Only a Promise of Happiness, a new and very welcome book by Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas."--John Armstrong, The Australian

"[Nehamas] writes with philosophical depth and great clarity and grace. His thoughts are lively and provocative, and he argues that the question of beauty (what is beautiful to me might not be beautiful to you) and the value of art are not rarefied topics, but part of the fabric of our everyday lives."--Nancy Tousley, Calgary Herald

Reseña del editor:


Neither art nor philosophy was kind to beauty during the twentieth century. Much modern art disdains beauty, and many philosophers deeply suspect that beauty merely paints over or distracts us from horrors. Intellectuals consigned the passions of beauty to the margins, replacing them with the anemic and rarefied alternative, "aesthetic pleasure." In Only a Promise of Happiness, Alexander Nehamas reclaims beauty from its critics. He seeks to restore its place in art, to reestablish the connections among art, beauty, and desire, and to show that the values of art, independently of their moral worth, are equally crucial to the rest of life.


Nehamas makes his case with characteristic grace, sensitivity, and philosophical depth, supporting his arguments with searching studies of art and literature, high and low, from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Manet's Olympia to television. Throughout, the discussion of artworks is generously illustrated.


Beauty, Nehamas concludes, may depend on appearance, but this does not make it superficial. The perception of beauty manifests a hope that life would be better if the object of beauty were part of it. This hope can shape and direct our lives for better or worse. We may discover misery in pursuit of beauty, or find that beauty offers no more than a tantalizing promise of happiness. But if beauty is always dangerous, it is also a pressing human concern that we must seek to understand, and not suppress.


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