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Beauty and Truth

Are beautiful words more likely to be true than plain ones?

The relationship between beauty and truth is not fundamental, but emerges from how we acquire knowledge from others. Often, we don’t have the time, inclination, or ability to acquire knowledge directly. For example, if unable evaluate a lawyer’s ability, we rely on a recommendation. Thus, we use other people’s beliefs to help us arrive at our own.

We don’t usually follow blindly. To decide whether someone is malicious or mistaken, we consider their motives and expertise. We trust the astronomy professor when he talks about Jupiter’s moons, we trust someone who is often proven correct, and we trust ten people more than two.

This last tendency—trusting the crowd—is one connection between beauty and truth. Beauty gets attention for its own sake, becomes widespread, and gains authority. An author’s words are beautiful, so they are repeated. Decades pass and the words become ubiquitous. Many will question and disagree—but most will not have the time to critique the author’s words, and will put faith in its ubiquity.

The Iliad, and its central position in Greek and Roman thought, exemplifies the connection between beauty and truth. Homer’s writing is beautiful and occasionally profound, but I believe its influence can only be understood as originating from its beauty. The same is true for the Divine Comedy’s influence. As a carefully tailored suite with quality fabric, matching polished shoes, and a clean haircut lends a person credibility, so does beauty lend words credibility.

We use clothing and beauty as shortcuts. These shortcuts are often appropriate, especially when busy and deciding mundane questions. But I think we should hesitate to use beauty, or the crowd, when considering the most important matters.