Alumnus Harry Underwood Explores Beauty in his New Collection of Writing

"The book is meant for general readers of an aesthetic and philosophical bent who wonder about the meaning of beauty as they wonder about the meaning of life."

Book cover of Harry Underwood's "The Experience of Beauty."Harry Underwood took his time becoming a writer of philosophy – it’s been almost 45 years since he graduated from Trent University, after all – but has made up for this with a fascinating first published work on aesthetics: The Experience of Beauty: Seven Essays and a Dialogue. Published by McGill-Queen's University Press, Beauty is both a labour of love and a result of a long-held intellectual preoccupation from his undergraduate days at Trent.

From the McGill-Queen's University Press website:

The notion of beauty as a point of transit between the sensuous and the ideal is well-established in the history of Western philosophy. Describing this transition and seeking to rethink the ways in which humans understand the things they find beautiful in life, Harry Underwood’s The Experience of Beauty approaches the notion of beauty through the insights of major but distinctively individual philosophers and artists.

In seven essays and a dialogue, Underwood considers the principal instances of beauty as it reveals itself in everyday experience, as a concept in the mind of the philosopher, as the artist’s vision, and as the shining image of the ideal. Considering the perspectives of many notable figures in the Western canon of philosophy and literature for whom beauty and the imagination have mattered, including Plato, Nietzsche, Auden, Coleridge, Proust, and Iris Murdoch, Underwood draws out a rounded sense of beauty. It is shown, on one view, to be inherent in a perceptible order and, on another, to be an expression of the will to confer meaning on a meaningless world. In art, beauty reveals itself to be both perceived and created, and a world-disclosing, truth-relaying force. As a final matter, Underwood asks what it means to embrace your own vision of beauty and apply it to your life’s work.

A quietly provocative meditation on the mystery of beauty, this collection of essays contends that beauty serves life as an inspiration, not merely as an ornament.

While he gained a passion for philosophy during his undergraduate years, Underwood’s career took him in quite a different direction. After graduating from Trent in 1974, he attended Oxford and then U of T law school. He has gone on to practice as a trial lawyer for 35 years, first as a senior partner for a large Bay Street firm and now at the smaller boutique firm of Polley Faith LLP. It is little wonder that the return to philosophical writing came later in his career. Mr. Underwood has been a very busy man.

That philosophy bug, however, stuck with him. So did one of his Trent mentors.

"My book is about beauty considered as an ideal and, since an ideal is an idea that can govern a life, as an inspiration to life. It consists of essays as well as a dialogue between two defunct thinkers, and takes as its illustrations the works of various philosophers and artists. But it also meditates upon ordinary life."

TRENT Magazine editor, Donald Fraser reached out to Mr. Underwood for more on how he returned to philosophy – and on the results of his examination of “beauty.”

“I was an indolent, distracted student for my first three years at Trent,” Underwood recalls. “Notwithstanding the excellent teaching I received. But in my fourth year, I experienced, through philosophy, a charge of intellectual excitement. After that, for my sins and my pleasure, I undertook another (but abbreviated) undergraduate degree abroad. I was hooked. Philosophy introduces you to puzzles and then you can't settle down till you've figured out what you think about them.”

And despite his absorbing professional practice, there was some unfinished business to return to from his undergraduate days.

“I decided to publish a book inspired by the intellectual preoccupations I acquired at Trent,” he notes. “These have accompanied me through my working life – although work naturally led me in quite a different direction. With the passage of time has come the opportunity to reflect and finally to write.”

In a way that is common to many Trent grads, it was the continued relationship with faculty that helped inspire Underwood.

“I shared my private ambition with a respected former teacher of mine, Professor Emeritus John Burbidge (Philosophy),” he recalls. “And over several years, while I was working away, received his warm encouragement and advice. That has been in itself a memorable experience, one possible, perhaps, at few places apart from Trent.”

"Though the book is not autobiographical, or at least not more so than any book is, it reflects the desire I felt, after a lifetime of looking, striving, and pondering, to draw together the threads represented by these preoccupations."

We asked Mr. Underwood why he was drawn to the subject of beauty.

“Because it was important to me and yet I didn't understand what it is. Its mystery tugged at me rather insistently. Eventually I realized that it has the quality of a mystery because it is pregnant with a meaning which it only gradually discloses, through your experience of it, and that what it discloses is whatever is most deeply lodged within you.”

While the terms "beauty" and "beautiful" can take on myriad meanings and contexts, Underwood focuses on an almost archetypical form.

"That [beauty] is an ideal and, since an ideal is an idea that can govern a life, it is an inspiration to life. Ordinary life throws up such ideals, which we both cherish and pursue. This explains Aristotle's claim that, by achieving excellence, a person 'takes possession of the beautiful.' His or her own beauty, I would add.”

In the end, though, it was the source material that he drew upon that helped shape the notions of beauty that Underwood explored.

“Once I grasped the connection between beauty and the ideal, I appreciated I had been led there by reading Plato and Nietzsche, with their contrasting, but actually complementary, conceptions of the ideal (a heavenly one in Plato's case, an earthly one in Nietzsche's). But art is important too, and in the book I write quite a bit about painters and writers, for example Cezanne and Proust. Artists pursue their visions as they pursue beauty and can inspire us to do the same.”

From Publishers Weekly:

In this essay collection, Underwood aims to define beauty as a functional experience that shapes people's daily lives, as well as a philosophical concept with meaning that can enrich human development. He believes that subjectivity muddles beauty as an experience, rendering it hard for people to know it when they see it. "Our sense of beauty," he writes, "reflects what we have already managed to make of ourselves... and it will in turn contribute to shaping us." Throughout these essays, Underwood ruminates over art as an expression of beauty. He also examines how Nietzsche and Plato, despite their differences across time and thought, both contended that beauty transcended mere pleasure because it facilitated self-transformation. He finishes his study with a review of beauty as expressed by Marcel Proust, followed by a discussion of the idea of inner beauty. "Beauty enhances life not as an ornament but as an inspiration," he notes, summing up the theme of his book. Underwood's writing is clear, even whimsical at times, and despite the somewhat esoteric subject matter, this book should appeal to sophisticated readers with an interest in philosophy.

Harry Underwood, a Trent alumnus and trial lawyer in Toronto, is the author of The Experience of Beauty: Seven Essays and a Dialogue (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016). As a lawyer, he was educated at Oxford and the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and was called to the Ontario bar in 1981.

Trent University was happy to welcome Mr. Underwood back to present on "Two Conceptions of Beauty" for the Trent Philosophy Colloquium this past February. The Event was well-attended and lively. It was an experience that "made [Underwood] fall in love with Trent all over again."


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