The trouble with using the phrase is that when employed, we have to wonder what we’ve said about every other thing that might not be beautiful in the same way – are they less beautiful because of the existence of that one thing?
At the same time, a clue about this is given to us by those who always stand like parents over us, and tell us we can’t use that phrase. “There’s no such thing as the most beautiful piano piece.” Our initial reaction to them is anger at their self-righteousness: “Really? I might have some taste, and that seems like a pretty good candidate for ‘best piano piece.’ Maybe you’d recognize it as such if you worked on your tastes and didn’t depend on a cheap ‘you’re not tolerant as I am’ argument to make your case.”
I think our initial reaction is spot-on. Something is indeed problematic about the phrase, but something that’s worse happens when moral considerations are immediately applied to the use of the phrase.
It looks like tastes are contingent on a searching: one is continually looking for what could be the best. What’s ironic about most people who would say “such-and-such is the most beautiful thing” is that yes, they will have in mind things that are less beautiful and not as worthy of attention. But usually those same people will have several candidates for “most beautiful thing” that they can’t so easily dismiss.
The purity of the searching actually seems to depend on the lack of considering the problem of whether something can be most beautiful or not. The possibility is left open that yes, indeed, there could be something so overwhelming that its beauty cannot be denied and all other things are vastly inferior. The possibility is also left open that nothing may be the most beautiful thing, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or that different things are beautiful in different ways.
The statement “this is the most beautiful thing” said by someone who has taken the time to cultivate taste and is not afraid to have his opinions challenged is a tribute to the openness of the problem. To say “nothing is most beautiful” is an absolute statement regarding the nature of beauty. To say “some X is most beautiful” refers not to the nature of beauty, but to contemplation of the thing itself.
There are those who are dogmatic who do make “some X is most beautiful” a statement about the nature of beauty. But what’s funny is that no dogmatist will ever say “this is most beautiful and you should concede its beauty,” if “this” really matters. They’ll put it in every other term except beauty, because how essential beauty is can be debated. Necessity and morality are much harder to debate.
It should also be noted that we’re human: anyone claiming to be completely open and priding himself on restraint in judgment only is a liar. We are open about what is greatest because we do need to resolve at some point, for ourselves, what we want to dedicate ourselves to. It’s impossible not to be dogmatic at some level.
The issue is whether we want to be dogmatic all the time, and assault people’s character immediately through their tastes, or examine tastes closely to see how they may or may not reflect people’s character. Ironically enough, in debating about beauty, even though the discussion will have to get dogmatic at some level, there is a suspension for a brief moment of most other considerations. It is as if the truth of the matter may come forth, and not be imposed from the outset.
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