Keynes thought he was ugly. What does that mean for political theory?

Throughout his life, John Maynard Keynes was plagued by the thought that he was ugly. In his diary, Keynes’s father notes that his six-year-old son “thinks no one ever was quite so ugly.” When he was 23, Keynes complained to Lytton Strachey that “I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive….The idea is so fixed and constant that I don’t think anything—certainly no argument—could ever shake it.”

Keynes didn’t lack for sexual partners. He kept a detailed list of his sexual experiences, and it’s long. Nor was he an unhappy person, prone to self-doubt. He was just convinced that he was ugly.

Interestingly, his lack of confidence in his physical attractiveness made no dent in his confidence more generally. In virtually every sphere of his life—academic, social, financial, political—Keynes had a sense of command.

It makes me wonder about the relationship between physical attractiveness and political authority. According to Annelien de Dijn’s new book Freedom: An Unruly History, the Greeks made a muchness out of the fact that the aristocratic ruling class was “kaloi” or beautiful and the people who were ruled were “kakoi” or ugly (kakoi also means bad). The aristocracy were the beautiful people. (There’s a connection between the fact that Socrates was low-born, the son of a mason, and constantly referred to as an appallingly ugly man.)

That idea survives today mostly in celebrity culture, less so in political culture. I mean, physical attractiveness can be a source of political charisma (see JFK or Obama; also see David Bell’s excellent book Men on Horseback), but it can also be a political liability. There’s a sense that someone who’s attractive may be a lightweight, and if the politician in question is a woman, the question of physical attractiveness gets caught up with all kinds of sexism and misogyny (see AOC).

It’s interesting to me that, outside of feminist political thought and maybe Nietzsche, modern political theory has so little to say on this question. It can’t be that that is due to any bias toward systemic or structural approaches to politics in modern thought. Aristotle, after all, was very much interested in the systems and structures of politics but was also interested in the relationship between a man’s physical bearing and his moral and political authority.

Actually, now that I think about it, the main place in modern political thought where you see issues of physical attractiveness come up is in racist thought, from the Enlightenment through fascism. These aren’t exactly structural theories in the way we ordinarily think of structural theory, but they do posit an underlying structure to physical beauty, and ascribe a political import to that structure.

Not sure what to make of it all.

17 Comments

  1. Stephen Brinson February 20, 2021 at 10:56 pm | #

    I wonder if it influenced either his selection of the beauty contest as a metaphor or his perception of the underlying market institutions. I’m not well-versed enough in his thought to speculate on how so, but at the very least it seems like an interesting link.

    • V.L. February 20, 2021 at 11:36 pm | #

      Perhaps it influenced his selection of a beautiful ballet dancer for his wife. (And he apparently remarked to Lytton Strachey about his former lover, Duncan Grant, that he was the only person he’d found who combined beauty and intelligence.)

  2. V.L. February 20, 2021 at 11:13 pm | #

    I’ve actually wondered about this for some time, but I’ve always thought that it’s mostly on the right that issues of physical attractiveness predominate. Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush Jr. (and his wife), Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Josh Hawley, and a number of others have a certain kind of good looks (what used to be known as “regular features”) that are lacking in Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders. There are exceptions (Obama, John Edwards, Al Gore) but good looks seem to sometimes backfire on the left (as you note for AOC, and probably JFK as well). You piqued my curiosity, however, so I just did a quick search and turned up several articles on the topic that seem to support my observation: “The right look: Conservative politicians look better and voters reward it”: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047272716302201. There’s also “Effects of physical attractiveness on political beliefs”: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/politics-and-the-life-sciences/article/abs/effects-of-physical-attractiveness-on-political-beliefs/D5214D0CAE37EE5947B7BF29762547EE (nonpaywalled summary here: https://www.oregonlive.com/trending/2018/01/beautiful_people_more_likely_t.html) And looks certainly mattered to Trump — far more than anything remotely resembling qualifications.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 21, 2021 at 12:01 am | #

      Think about how a particular standard of good looks is upheld by the hiring practices of Fox News. I’m specifically thinking of the infamous tall blondes who embody the ideal of effeminate whiteness, presumably modeling the kind of fertile women who is supposed to bear the children for the survival of the white race. It is intriguing that ideology might match up with specific physical traits, according to the particular culture, although maybe some aspects transcend culture.

      But it would be interesting to measure various aspects of attractiveness more generally, such as among not only male media figures but in comparing authority figures on the left and right. As compared to liberals and leftists, do public intellectuals, preachers, etc on the poitical right also tend to gain position, get promoted, and be given respect based partly on having the right appearance? I’ve come across some research like this in the past, not that I’ve surveyed it carefully.

      There is the issue of importance within the conservative psyche, that of moral purity. It has much to do with appearances. Conservatives, when tested, show a stronger disgust response not only to rotten fruit but also moral repulsion to the suggestion of slapping one’s father. Such things are impure, as are perceived ugly people. The aesthetc sense is highly motivating to the reactionary mind, as Robin makes clear with his analysis of Edmund Burke’s thought.

      The complicating factor is attraction is not the same thing as mere beauty or handsomeness. Even among politicians and other successful people, they don’t always and necessarily appear attractive in the sense of a movie star or model. What seems to matter most is symmetrical features as a sign of early healthy bone development, in indicating general health, fitness, and fertility. It’s related why famous, successful, and powerful figures tend to be taller from having experienced healthy conditions in childhood and youth, such as good healthcare in the prevention of parasite load that stunts development.

      There is a fascinating work by Weston A. Price. He was a dentist who traveled the world in the early 20th century and studied traditional populations, from rural farmers in Europe to hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. He found that nutrient-density in the diet, specifically fat-soluble vitamins, correlated to well-developed bone structure and symmetry. Such people were healthy overall, not only physicially but also psychologically, as fuller skull development relates to better neurocognitve development. The traditional people he studied and photographed were not only healthier but also more attractive with wide jaws, straight teeth, etc.

    • N.H. February 21, 2021 at 2:49 pm | #

      It’s odd to me that you’d lump Bill Clinton in with Sanders, Carter and Kucinich, when he was a (relatively) young and conventionally attractive man during his presidency. In fact I think that “exceptions” like Clinton and Obama (or further afield like Trudeau and Macron) are instructive, because they were/are all young and attractive leaders with vaguely centre-left rhetoric but very much centrist politics. To me they fall into a separate category.

  3. Ellen Tremper February 20, 2021 at 11:53 pm | #

    Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.
    —John McCain

  4. LFC February 21, 2021 at 12:05 am | #

    I suspect that literary and “cultural” theory is more interested in this than modern political theory (apart from feminist thought, which you mentioned). One sort of obvious reference, a somewhat controversial book that “crossed over” from an academic to a broader audience, is C. Paglia’s _Sexual Personae_. I don’t own a copy and I never plowed through the whole thing (or anywhere close), but have dipped into bits and pieces of it.

    As for Socrates, my recollection is that he refers to himself as ugly or unattractive in the dialogues. His charisma lies elsewhere — namely, in his logical and rhetorical power, which, of course, is likely connected to the fact that many of his interlocutors are attractive young men (from aristocratic families).

    Fascism in certain versions, and/or fascist art, came with an ideal of physical beauty or perfection (see e.g. the somewhat boring sculptures of Arno Breker) but then so did some artistic traditions that one doesn’t associate, at least not in a strong way, with racism. Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and probably a bunch of other Renaissance artists. (For the record, though, I’m not an art historian, and I don’t even play one on TV ;)).

  5. lauren h coodley February 21, 2021 at 1:10 am | #

    for women, our appearance determines our fate. Every intellectual woman from George Eliot to Harriet Martineau was ridiculed for her appearance. Women often fall in love with ugly men, but men rarely fall in love with “ugly” women. Patriarchy and misogyny determine women’s lives. If too beautiful, we are likely to be stalked and harassed; if too “ugly,” we are demeaned and discriminated against.

  6. Joanna Bujes February 21, 2021 at 1:18 am | #

    That’s very interesting because on the whole, men overestimate their attractiveness (certainly their height). A male friend tells the story of how in fifth grade all the boys got together and discussed who was the best looking. And they all agreed about that. Then, it turns out, they all thought each of them was second best looking. And my friend thinks this is because their mother told each of them that they were handsome.

    But a Romanian saying gets it right: “A man doesn’t have to be handsome; he just has to be a bit better looking than the devil.” I think you have to be a woman to get it.

    And what do Romanians say about women? “If a woman isn’t beautiful by the time she’s 20, it’s not her fault. If she isn’t beautiful by the time she’s 30, it is.”

  7. Ed February 21, 2021 at 11:42 am | #

    Attractiveness has influence in politics, but shouldn’t be a metric of political philosophy. We already know the vast complex possibilities of the human genome makes physical features too unreliable for modern philosophy anchored in Science, as it should be in my thinking

  8. Gerard February 21, 2021 at 1:02 pm | #

    I wonder if physical attractiveness is a worthwhile trail to investigate when it comes to how it impacts political theory. After all, it seems physical attractiveness is no different than, more broadly speaking, beauty and our perception of it. And our beliefs about the origins of beauty, either subjective objective, or located in the relationship between both subject and object itself, do greatly impact our beliefs, art, culture etc.. Therefore it seems that beauty and more narrowly speaking physical attractiveness does play a role in political theory. I would assume ones own perceived level of physical attractiveness can be influential in the formation of their beliefs especially on the subject of beauty.

    According to Scruton we’ve abandoned a cult of beauty for a cult of ugliness and our art reflects that.

    • Ed February 21, 2021 at 3:26 pm | #

      Philosophy is like a hypothesis about Truth – which requires universal validity

      Until attractiveness and beauty can be shown as objective they remain in the political realm and shouldn’t dilute the aspirations of Philosophy.

      As an adjective “Political” refers to a system of governing. “

      “Political” in normal usage is about gaining power by persuasion. Truth is just another weapon of the political when it serves the purpose of gaining power, rather than the ultimate authority.

      Aside from that, the discussion of attractiveness and beauty is a super worthy and interesting subject.

  9. userfriendlyyy February 21, 2021 at 6:27 pm | #

    Keynes never had to win an election, so not much. But the fact that physical attractiveness is just one of many entirely irrelevant issues that people use to decide who to vote for is quite depressing. But eventually you realize that the difference between both parties is so marginal that it hardly matters; because they are both ideologically opposed to doing anything that would help anyone who isn’t a billionaire. And sooner or later you almost envy the kind of person who can be so detached from everything else that they get to just float through the vast swaps of propaganda and make a decision based on some trivial bullshit.

    • LFC February 21, 2021 at 11:32 pm | #

      There are certain matters on which the two parties are largely in agreement, but an ideological commitment to help only billionaires is not one of them.

  10. Judith Siegel February 21, 2021 at 8:00 pm | #

    AOC a mixed case. Her great looks stimulate misogynist fear but without them she probably wouldn’t have won the election.

  11. Christy February 22, 2021 at 9:33 am | #

    There is an entire cottage industry about the impacts of physical attractiveness and its influence on most aspects of life. Furthermore, we can perceive attractiveness without even being aware of it (for example, back when I was in the cognitive neuroscience business, a friend of mine and I did a series of studies where we showed faces that were attractive or not at 15 millisecond viewing times. The research participants were not aware of having seen faces, yet they could rate how attractive they were, the ratings correlated highly with unrestricted viewing times, and faces shown at those “subliminal” exposure times elicited robust priming effects. Even newborn babies show a preference for attractive faces. Teachers rate attractive kids as smarter and call on them more often. How does that influence political thought? Well, the world is a kinder place if you are physically attractive, so that’s where I would start.

  12. Benjamin David Steele February 22, 2021 at 10:17 am | #

    This isn’t complicated. Most attractiveness has to do with health, including environmental, transgenerational, and epigenetic health. If you and your family for generations have had clean water, clean air, nutritious food, and good healthcare from conception through young adulthood, you will have healthier and fuller development of bone structure, neurocognition, etc.

    You will look healthier and generally more attractive with symmetrical features, well-proportioned bone structure, straight teeth, wide jaw, and good posture. You will also have higher IQ and more pro-social psychological traits from a healthier brain, caused not only nutrient-dense and organic foods but also from lack of heavy metal exposure and parasite load. The less fortunate will be stunted and shows signs of maldevelopment and uneven development.

    In a high inequality society, the social and economic conditions of health are concentrated among the privileged classes. So, for those in such a society, attractiveness is not only a sign of health but a sign of the wealth and power, resources and opportunities that made possible the conditions of health. It is not surprising that those on the political right both promote attractiveness and promote the conditions that mostly limit health-caused attractiveness to be limiited to the prvileged elite.

    As for Keynes, I looked at several photographs of him. I wouldn’t call him ugly in the slightest, even if he does have a unique look about him. Still, he looks reasonably healthy with a strong jaw, straight teeth, and symmetrical face. And actually, in a younger photograph, he looks quite handsome. Two things come to mind. Although raised middle-class, he socialized with kids of the upper class and so maybe he was comparising himself to their greater health, development, and attractivenss.

    The other thing is his sense of ugliness might have had to do with a general sense of being sickly. When he was a young child, his health was so poor that he had long absences from school. That was an era when the industrialized diet began to take over and certain nutritional deficiences were beginning to become more common. During the late 19th to early 20th centuries, there was a sudden moral panic about health and development. Whatever the cause, something was making him sick early on and maybe it did effect some aspect of his development that he was hyper-aware of, if less noticeable to an outside observer.

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