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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"The quality of the thought and writing of Nehamas's book assures that it will be required reading for a long time to come. It is the achievement of a wise and literate thinker in whose thought and life the topic of beauty is a matter of urgent and abiding concern. It takes readers into a discourse that in its nature addresses issues that arise in their own lives. Like truth and goodness, beauty is one of the determinants of human life, a fundamental value whose pertinence rules out the possibility that anyone can put it to rest and settle, once and for all, the problems that belong to its essence."--Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University
"Alexander Nehamas is one of the most imaginative philosophers of our day, as well as one of the most learned. In the past he has written brilliantly about both Plato and Nietzsche. In Only a Promise of Happiness he tries to reconcile the two by showing how their accounts of beauty complement each another. His attempt is novel and very ambitious. It seems to me almost completely successful."--Richard Rorty, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
"Alexander Nehamas's brave ambition is to bridge the gap between philosophy and art criticism. Writing as a philosopher with a great interest in art history, he uses a wide range of examples, from high art and mass art, from the visual arts and literature. Most philosophers in the analytic tradition write in a detached way. Nehamas, by contrast, presents an account of great feeling. This is a great, bravely provocative analysis. There is nothing else like this in the literature."--David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Art
Alexander Nehamas is Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. He is the author of "Nietzsche: Life as Literature, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault," and "Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates" (Princeton).
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