A few days ago I happened to read one of the original versions of Beauty and the Beast. I love fairy tales, especially when they haven’t been chopped up and made saccharinely sweet and absolutely devoid of meaning; and this particular version particularly struck me. I trust that you all know the story of Beauty and the Beast: to save her father’s life, the virtuous Beauty agrees to live in the palace of the Beast and gradually falls in love with him, despite his hideous appearance. When she finally declares her love he is transformed into his former shape, that of a handsome prince, and they live happily ever after. Clearly, there is a strong message in this fairy tale that we ought not to base our judgments of people on their outward appearances.
However, the particular version I just read added one more detail. The prince has not only been changed into a hideous form; he has also been forced to hide his intelligence, so that the only thing attractive about him is his virtue and good sense. This twofold warning about superfluous attributes is continued as the writer describes Beauty’s two envious older sisters, who desire only wealth from their father and do not care when he is in danger of death. After Beauty leaves, they both marry—one to an extraordinarily handsome man, one to an extraordinarily witty one. However, their husbands do not make them happy, because one only cares about his own appearance, and the other only mocks everyone around them. In this particular version of the tale, it is not only appearance that can seduce us into bad judgments of character, but also intellect.
I don’t think that this is something we think about often enough. In our culture, we at least say that we shouldn’t judge people by what they look like (though we usually fall woefully short of our own ideals); but I can’t remember the last time that someone told me that we shouldn’t judge people by how smart they are. It seems such a natural thing; of course the brilliant, the witty, the intellectual are better than everyone else (they were able to get into Harvard, after all). We rarely allow ourselves to remember that we didn’t decide what sort of brains we got, any more than we chose our own faces. Intellect can be a useful tool for all sorts of things—just as beauty can be a useful tool—but it doesn’t ultimately matter. It is not strength of mind but strength of character that we should care about, not wit but virtue. This is a difficult shift to make, because intellect is immediately and flamboyantly attractive in a way that virtue sometimes isn’t. But this is the point of Beauty and the Beast—when we can teach ourselves to go beyond that which is superficially compelling, we will see the true beauties that lie hidden.