“I think therefore I am.” –Rene Descartes
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”- John Keats
“You don’t know you’re beautiful. But that’s what makes you beautiful.” – Harry Styles.
When One Direction’s song “What Makes You Beautiful” was released on September 11, 2011, it stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Chord progression, vocal harmonies and the easy marketability of the group conspired to make the track one of the biggest hits of the year. The video featuring group leader Harry Styles singing full noise into the face of the object of his affections without her ardor dimming even slightly was an instant classic. The tune issued like a dog whistle to young girls all over the world that a new movement was sweeping the globe.
But what remained hidden was the underlying philosophical complexity of the lyrics which turn Western thought on its head. Since Descartes – the father of modern philosophy – spoke his immortal maxim, the primacy of being went hand-in-hand with knowing. All states were attained and proven to exist through consciousness of them. That is until a radically different thesis was put forward by five X Factor also-rans, to be viewed 537 million times on YouTube.
For those who are not familiar with it, “What Makes You Beautiful” tells the story of a girl who lacks confidence and that is what the protagonist finds so appealing about her. That in itself is not remarkable. But the second line of the couplet: “You don’t know you’re beautiful / That’s what makes you beautiful” is revolutionary. It is not “I think therefore I am”, it is the precise opposite: “You do not think (you are beautiful) and therefore you are.” Translated, it is not knowing one is something, that makes it so. A lack of consciousness of a state has created it. It is the purpose of this essay to prove the notion to be true. Because truth is beauty, the statement is beautiful –at least it was – until you realized it just now.
Let us test the theory. Consciousness is defined as the quality or state of being aware of something, especially within oneself. We think ourselves to be conscious. We think animals have varying lower levels of consciousness, and it’s commonly thought plants and inanimate object do not share this state. However, is it necessary for a thing to know what it is and define itself before it is something? A dog, for instance, does not know it is a dog in a way that approaches full human understanding of the fact. Yet it is still a dog. Taking this point further, a flower does not know it is a flower, but despite not knowing, it is no less one. So in this way we may conclude that the 1D thesis is indeed correct (and Descartes is wrong).
Nevertheless there is a dilemma associated with such reasoning. It is similar to the one described by Socrates in the Euthyphro Conversations. In that dialogue, the two philosophers debate whether something is good because it is the will of God, or the will of God because it is good. If we applied the conundrum to the song, it goes like this: “Is the girl’s beauty created by ignorance, or simply preserved by it?” For ignorance to create beauty, to become beautiful one would simply need to lack knowledge of it. It is more likely what is being suggested is being devoid of self-consciousness prevents someone negating their attractiveness.
Beauty is a subjective judgement made by the beholder, and not an absolute concept. “What Makes You Beautiful” incorporates the notion, in that the aesthetic appeal of the girl is determined externally by onlookers: “Everyone else in the room can see it/ Everyone else but you.” It is a simple expression of the old Zen riddle “If a tree falls in the wilderness and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound?” To rephrase this for a tween audience in 2014: “If a girl is hot but doesn’t know it and Harry Styles isn’t there to sing about it, is she really hot at all?” The answer is of course – no.
This is true. It is not, nor has it ever been for us to describe our own attributes. We are not reliable judges of ourselves whether our conclusions are positive or negative. Self-appraisal is generally either too favorable or too harsh, and either way is usually discounted as untrustworthy because of that partiality. In this way, our talents, charms and foibles don’t really exist until they are apprehended by others.
This creates inertia around our ability to act on whom and what we think we are. It is Directionism’s most deflating aspect by far. Once one knows something one can never be it – essentially. The consciousness of a state leads to the construction of an idea of what something is or might be. An ideal of what a dog or a flower or beauty is arises out of thinking about it. Once the abstract concept is created, the theoretical and the actual will never again be fully synthesized. Education becomes a process of divorcing the self from its true nature. In this way the Tao of One Direction is closer to the Eastern thinking contained in the Bhavagad Gita or Buddhist teachings, where true knowledge is attained through remembering a transcendental state of purity and returning to that innocence.