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Only a Promise of Happiness:
The Place of Beauty in a World of Art
Alexander Nehamas

Winner of the 2007 Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

Paperback | 2010 | $24.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691177601
200 pp. | 8 x 10 | 13 color + 79 b/w illus.
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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.


"Mr. Nehamas sets about reclaiming something of beauty's lost meaning by showing how it is connected to our happiness. . . . That . . . a work could infuriate one age and become an icon to the next fascinates Mr. Nehamas, who is drawn to works where our aesthetic and moral obligations come into conflict. . . . Mr. Nehamas displays an admirable clarity of thought and language. . . . [W]e can enjoy this book as we might the conversation of a spirited and quirky friend whose most irritating pronouncements are the ones we find ourselves mulling over, with some surprise, a week or two later."--Michael J. Lewis, Wall Street Journal

"Alexander Nehamas seeks to reestablish the connections among art, beauty and desire and to show that the values of art are critical."--Publishers Weekly

"[A] marvelous book...Nehamas sets out to retrieve beauty on behalf of all those who still use the word 'beautiful' with everyday pleasure: of a child, a landscape, a vase of flowers, an automobile. He does so in a tone of easy familiarity and enviable gracefulness; this is the philosopher not as blunt pragmatist, like the great Richard Rorty, nor as dour sceptic like W. V. Quine, but as winning and witty guide, and genial companion."--Mike Hulme, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A wonderful, personal, and philosophic essay concerned with the restoration of beauty's place in art . . . a rich conversation of ideas and feelings."--Reamy Jansen, Bloomsbury Review

"Because our most meaningful encounters with beauty unfold over time, we can only ever say in retrospect that a beautiful object has not made our lives--or our culture--better. . . . Beauty is only ever that promise: There is no a priori judgment that might reveal what will prove evanescent and what sustaining. . . . In Mr. Nehamas's vision, the possibility of beauty is well worth the price of uncertainty."--Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New York Sun

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments xiii

CHAPTER I: Plato or Schopenhauer? 1
A Feature of Appearance? 13
Modernist Voices 22
Modernist Appropriations 30

CHAPTER II: Criticism and Value 36
Th e Role of Reviewing 44
Beauty, Love, Friendship 53
Beauty, Attractiveness, Evolution 63

CHAPTER III: Art, Beauty, Desire 72
Beauty, Community, Universality 78
Uniformity, Style, Distinction 84
Aesthetics, Directness, Individuality 91

CHAPTER IV: Love and Death in Venice 102
Manet's Olympia 105
CHAPTER Interpretation, Depth, Breadth 120
CHAPTER Interpretation, Beauty, Goodness 126
Beauty, Uncertainty, Happiness 131

Notes 139
Permissions 169
Index 179

This book has been translated into:

  • Greek

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Alexander Nehamas:

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File created: 7/11/2017

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