For a few years in the 1630s, the Dutch went tulip-crazy. The reason we associate the flower with Holland has its roots in this period, when single tulip bulbs commanded astronomical prices. Adriaan Pauw, a director of the newly formed Dutch East India Company, built a special mirrored pavilion in his garden to showcase the most stunning of his collection—the Semper Augustus. He received numerous offers to buy offsets of his flower—offsets being the only reliable way to reproduce the color and pattern of the parent plant. During the height of the tulip craze, it was claimed that 10,000 florins was offered for a single Semper Augustus bulb, enough to purchase a luxurious home on one of the best canals of Amsterdam.
The Semper Augustus was a beautiful, variegated flower—red streaks on a white background. A tulip’s coloration is based on the presence of anthocyanin, a pigmentation that overlays and mixes with the base white or yellow of the petals. Usually, the combination of anthocyanin and base color is even, and the petals are a uniform color. But on occasion, a tulip will “break” from its expected color and produce a gloriously streaked and mottled flower, like the Semper Augustus. Since the flower would not pass on this special coloration through its seeds, the only way to enjoy it was to have an offset, which made the production of these flowers exceptionally limited, increasing their rarity and their desirability.
Something else contributed to their scarcity. The Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius had identified this “breaking” pattern in 1576, and also noted that the “broken” plant slowly degenerated over time. “Any tulip thus changing its original colour is usually ruined afterwards and so wanted only to delight its master's eyes with this variety of colours before dying, as if to bid him a last farewell.” What Clusius and others didn’t understand at the time was that the “breaking” tendency was caused by a virus that infects the bulb of the plant. Tulip Breaking Virus, or TBV, suppresses the anthocyanin randomly in the petals, producing both the variegated streaking and the inevitable mortality of the bulb.
It is a tragic irony that the most desirable flowers of the Dutch Tulipmania were the most frail. It’s poetic, but Clusius grants too much agency to the flower, implying that it chooses to display its most glorious color before dying off. But it does almost seem as if the Semper Augustus had made a Faustian bargain—incomparable beauty in exchange for its vitality. Today, TBV is considered a pathogen, and tulip producers take extensive precautions to keep it out of their fields. Variegated patterns in modern tulips are a result of breeding and are stable as a result. But connoisseurs feel the modern flowers fall short of the beauty of the seventeenth century jewels—proving again the point that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, since all we have to go on are illustrations of the Semper Augustus.
Beauty is an admirable quality, but in the end it becomes subjective to the point of meaninglessness. What is beautiful other than what we decide is beautiful? Vitality is much more objective. Either the flower lives and passes on its traits to the next generation, or it doesn’t. And in a survival sense, vitality is far more useful than some subjective idea of beauty. The traits we value are an indication of our own values. Unfortunately, we may choose poorly when it comes to what we value. As the Tulipmania of Holland illustrates, a certain idea of beauty doomed certain tulips to dead-end infections. For a few years, all that mattered was how they looked. Their survival wasn’t considered as valuable.
The agency Clusius poetically attributes to the tulip is something that we actually possess. We can choose certain traits over others, and through those choices, we display our values. And we can trade something of lasting value for the fleeting benefits that entice us. In 2019, the retail analytics firm Edited estimated the value of the beauty industry at $532 billion. Over a hundred and twenty years ago, the Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term “conspicuous consumption”—the practice of purchasing luxury goods so they can be displayed and stimulate envy in others. The proliferation of supercars and luxury mansions is an indication of what our culture values—if the Timex keeps time as well as a Rolex, then what purpose is served by the more expensive watch other than to display what we value?
The problem with prioritizing the external appearance over a substantive vitality is that beauty doesn’t last. The Semper Augustus is a perfect illustration—each bloom only lasted a season, and the bulb itself was fatally infected. Jesus Himself points out the fleeting nature of beauty in Matthew 6, where He notes the beauty of the wildflowers which are here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire. Classic ideas of beauty are symbolic of all that we chase after that ultimately prove to be ephemeral. It could be beauty that fades, riches that are corrupted, or like the religious leaders in John 12:43, it could be the praise of people that tempts us. Regardless of what it is, there are things we value that last, and things we value that don’t. And sometimes we trade the things of true value for the fleeting gratification of the stuff that dies too quickly.
In Luke 9, Jesus contrasts the life of discipleship with one that chases after the things of the world. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Jesus offers what is of eternal value, but we have to understand that in the world’s accounting, it will look like we’re giving up what everyone else is chasing after when we “take up our cross and follow.” It is unlikely that a life of humble service will lead to fancy cars, flashy homes, or a fat 401k. And if those are the things we’re after, we may have to choose a different path than the one Jesus took. But like the Semper Augustus, choosing what the world values comes at a price. Worldly values too often are infected, corrupted by a virus of selfishness. And as Jesus says, what good is it to gain it all if we lose ourselves in the process?