, , , , , ,


As we can learn from Umberto Eco (and perhaps other aestheticians) symmetry is a constitutive feature of the concept of beauty. Throughout history, symmetrical objects (from human faces to buildings) have been considered more attractive than non-symmetrical ones. Even today, one of the defining criteria for taking somebody to be beautiful is the symmetry of their faces (and bodies).

But, what is symmetry? The basic dictionary definition says that it is a balanced proportion. More precise wording defines symmetry as the “exact correspondence of form and constituent configuration on opposite sides of a dividing line or plane or about a center or an axis”. But, can there ever be the exact correspondence of two sides that share a common axis? Is there such as thing as absolute symmetry?

Though geometry may makes us think that there is, a more careful reflection will prove the opposite. There can never be two parts of a whole that are exactly the same. One has to think and understand this notion radically: even if the appearance of an object divided in (or consisted of) two (or more) halves suggests that they are absolutely symmetrical, they will never be such on the molecular or atomic level. Absolute symmetry across all levels of physical existence (macro and micro) seems to be a conceptual impossibility – the absolute sameness of two parts of an object would undermine our ability to grasp the physical world and somehow cause the collapse of physically divided objects into oneness. The reason why this might be so is because physicality of things is experienced in human perception through discernment – the practice of recognizing differences between them.

This means that symmetry does not exist as an empirical reality, but rather as an ideal we use to assess objects in the real world. This goes for aesthetics, but also permeates other walks of life, including various physical and societal arrangements as well as inter-personal relations. However, this ideal very often turns into a rigid ideology, which prevents us in seeing and appreciating the beauty (and value) of non-symmetric relations between objects sharing a common axis. We may be aware of it intuitively, however. Many people are bewildered when they see a photographic manipulation by which one side of their face is replicated on the other to achieve symmetry: though facial symmetry is the ideal of beauty, there is something disturbing when we see a face with two identical sides along the central vertical axis.

This says something about humans, though. As a species, we hinge to ideal forms as ways to understand the world around us. We are never merely empirical, but ideational beings. There is Plato in every one of us. But, no matter how important forms and ideals are for our apprehension of reality, we have to be attuned to small (and sometimes not so small) empirical distortions of the ideal proportionality: beauty and value are often hidden in the aberrant detail. Here’s a non-symmetrical photo of a being that I love.

About these ads