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The Secret Power of Beauty Paperback – 27 Jan 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (27 Jan. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140294724
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140294729
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.9 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 746,055 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


'An elegant and discursive book' -- Waterstones Books Quarterly, February, 2004

'Good soul food for a hungry age' -- The Herald (Glasgow), January 17, 2004

'John Armstrong's apprach, compact, readable, anecdotal and discerning, is also morally optimistic' -- The Tablet, 6 March, 2004

'Like Alain de Botton, Armstrong writes translucently, intelligibly and thoroughly gracefully' -- The Sunday Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

John Armstrong was born in Glasgow in 1966. Previously a research fellow and director of the Aesthetics Programme at the University of London, he is currently a research fellow in the philosophy of art at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is author of The Intimate Philosophy of Art and The Conditions of Love, both published by Penguin.

Inside This Book

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First Sentence
The charm of a beautiful person or place is direct and immediate; our vision of success in life has the experience of beauty at its heart: we pursue happiness in sensuous loveliness. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 1 Dec. 2005
Format: Hardcover
John Armstrong lays out many of the arguments people have had over the years over what beauty is clearly and in an interesting way. But the very best bit of the book is near the end where he lets us in on his own views. When I got to the one key sentence that brought it all together I was really moved - things I have been wondering about for ages clicked into place. I know that this book has permanantly changed the way I will look at the question of beauty, and also the way I look at beauty in the everyday world around me.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John Peate on 7 Jan. 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A look at the timeless Fascination for Beauty - in many of its manifestations.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2 reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
defining the undefinable 13 Mar. 2008
By A. G. Plumb - Published on
Format: Paperback
John Armstrong catalogues the approaches philosophers and artists have made towards beauty. It's a topic that has puzzled me for a long while. I can remember when I was young watching a movie and being unnattracted to the leading lady at the outset, but by the end of the movie I was enchanted, captivated. And then I wondered why, of all the great melodies, rhythms and orchestration of 'The Nutcracker' ballet it is the 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' that is special for me.

There are ways of thinking about these puzzles in this book that had not occurred to me. But there aren't any answers. Mostly I liked what I read - but as soon as evolutionary biology gets a foothold I start squirming. It's not that I oppose evolution (change does take place after all) but it seems to me that the theory of evolution is misapplied by people either foolishly or else scurrilously. And let's face it - many 'unattractive' people are the heart of wonderful families, and many 'attractive' ones are total duds.

I liked this book, but much more I enjoyed and valued Mr Armstrong's 'The Conditions of Love'.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A Case for Aesthetic Education 30 Oct. 2010
By Donald Knowles Richardson - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book is something of an aesthetics reader, though a useful - and eminently readable - one.

An exposition of 18th-century English painter William Hogarth's theory of the S-curve is followed by David Garrick's doubting-Thomas equation of this 'line of grace and beauty' with the profile of his own ageing torso. Armstrong examines mathematical theories of proportion in music (Pythagoras) and architecture (Palladio), Keats's famous equation of beauty with goodness and truth and Kant's focus on the eye of the beholder. All are rejected as inadequate or in error. So, too, are the philosophies of Winckelmann, Schiller and Pater.

This will not surprise anyone who has tried to find wisdom in these writers. Yet, Armstrong accepts, like most of them, that aesthetics is the study of the 'secret power of beauty' - in spite of his noting that 'the most sophisticated attempts to discover [it] have been unsuccessful'.

Why did he bother to write the book then? Well, it is interspersed with his own attempts to explain his fascination with the concept - none of them very convincing, however. An example is his discussion of the relationship between beauty and pleasure. 'If I don't take pleasure in a particular object then it just isn't beautiful for me...', he says, but he goes on to add that this 'may seem to introduce more problems than it solves'. Indeed. The traditional religious equation of pleasure with evil is one such.

One weakness in his discourse is his adducing evidence from fictional literature rather than fact - which must expose his argument to the charge of circularity. Another is inherent in any system that equates the aesthetic totally with the beautiful - the inability to account for the appeal of works of art that cannot naively be accorded that honorific, such as Goya's Disasters of War and Shakespeare's King Lear.

Armstrong's theory is a one-size-fits-all procrustean bed. He fails to recognise our differential ways of regarding, understanding and valuing nature, humanity, works of art and works of functional design. But, nature has no inherent aesthetic qualities. We humans impose our aesthetic values on a sunset or a thunderstorm. In his second chapter, in which he discusses design, Armstrong attempts to establish - as some of the Bauhaus alumni did - that fitness to function is a valid explanation of 'beauty'. But, this thesis has long been invalidated: does it matter if a tractor is ugly so long as it works well? And the human body, although often considered an object of beauty for various - and different - reasons, has its own functional imperatives which can bear no relationship whatever to how it 'looks' because they are common to ugly and beautiful bodies alike.

However, one of Armstrong's concepts that everyone will agree with is that engagement with works should never be superficial - which implies that aesthetic education is basic to our civilization.

What Art Is - and Isn't: An Aesthetic Tract
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