Analysis

Steve Jobs, and the modern hunger for beauty

With yet another film released on the Apple visionary, it's striking just how deep his hold on our culture is

Quite a few people have noticed that the modern world sometimes generates a sense of anomie, or ennui, or purposelessness.

An insistent line of philosophical thought traces this problem to the modern world's supposed neglect of beauty. Whereas the ancient pagans saw the world as filled with spiritual agencies that gave the natural world a unique splendor, and Christians saw the world as a theophany, a revelation of God's beauty, modern persons are informed that beauty is merely a subjective feeling of pleasure, an accidental by-product of evolution by natural selection, which tells us that the real meaning of life is to reproduce and that our drive for beauty is just a sublimation of eros. The impact of the natural sciences, this narrative goes, has taught us to regard the world as nothing else but inert matter animated by purely mechanistic causes.

The reduction of beauty to subjective feeling has created an art world lost in an onanistic urge for pointless experimentation and political posturing. Meanwhile, the pressures of free market capitalism create a world which has room only for brute efficiencies — we used to build cathedrals, now we build megamalls. And so, an innate need of the human spirit, the need for beauty, has gone unfulfilled. Something is wrong, but we can't quite put our finger on it.

This sort of rhetoric now mostly comes from conservative intellectuals, but it is essentially the same complaint as that of the 19th century Romantics, who self-consciously saw themselves as a rebellion against the Enlightenment's dry rationalism.

But something more than just a nagging existential malaise may be at stake. After all, it's hard not to notice how concerned the totalitarians of the 20th century were with aesthetics. It's easy to read fascism and Nazism, and to some extent communism, as attempts to re-aesthetize the world, to remake it as a work of art in the face of a technological-capitalism that robs the world of beauty. If the ugliness of the modern world creates such a deep craving for beauty that nations can be bewitched by the totalitarian lure, that should concern us.

I have, as it happens, many philosophical bones to pick with this tradition, but it's hard not to think about this week, as we (apparently) commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Steve Jobs with the release today of yet another movie about his life. It's striking just how deep the hold of this man on our culture is and just how powerful the Cult of Apple is on so many people.

After all, it wouldn't be unfair to say that Steve Jobs' entire career can be summed up as the stubborn insistence that the stuff of everyday life, the stuff that surrounds us, shouldn't just be efficient or useful, but also must be beautiful. And countless millions of people have voted their assent to this with their cold, hard cash.

In a world of computers as dreary beige boxes, the (in many ways underfeatured) iMac appeared as a glass of water in an aesthetic desert, and consumers rushed to it with the energy of despair. When Jobs bought Pixar, the original business plan was to sell their impressive technology and use the groundbreaking animations simply as a showcase of what their technology could do, but Jobs found a much better business model making beautiful works of art. I'll bet you I'm not the only person who has found himself repairing to an Apple Store not to buy or even to peruse the merchandise, but simply because I wanted to be in a beautiful place.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said that when Jobs handed him the reins, he told him, "Don't try to do what I would have done. Just do what's right." And it's perfectly possible to imagine Jobs meaning the same thing by saying "Just do what's beautiful," unwittingly (perhaps) echoing the Platonic tradition's insistence that truth, goodness, and beauty are just different aspects of the same thing, the stuff of reality that gives structure and meaning to the universe and to our lives.

I don't know what the modern world's particular relationship to beauty is (we today find preserved and manicured Medieval towns touchingly beautiful, but their actual inhabitants found them oppressive and nauseous), but I do know that humans need truth, goodness and beauty to flourish. Whether or not it's the fix to some modern malaise, more beauty would be nice, and we're not going to get it from some policy agenda or activist shareholders.

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