Beauty (a few thoughts & more questions)

Beauty. What is it? says beauty is “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else.”

Roger Scruton asks, “Why do we call things beautiful? What point are we making, and what state of mind does our judgment express?”[1]

“The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice.”[2]

Objective or Subjective?
At the head of the conversation over beauty is whether beauty is subjective or objective. The subjective view holds that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder;” beauty is determined by the subject.[3] The objective view holds that beauty is in the object. That is, there are some things that are objectively beautiful. However, it seems to me that there are actually problems with both of these views.

It seems apparent that certain things appear to be beautiful across time and cultures. Think for example of sunsets. This would point to beauty being objective. Beauty is a component of the thing observed and is not determined by the observer. Also, if beauty is merely subjective, then to say that something is beautiful is only to say that you personally like something.[4] Further, there are works of art that have been considered beautiful for hundreds of years so it seems they have reached something close to an objective standard.

There also seems to be a general sense that something just looks wrong or is just off somehow. It may not even be explainable and may seem very objective. However, sometimes things just lack order or lack something and so we do not find whatever the thing is under question beautiful, we know it is just not quite right, even if we don’t know what the problem is 

On the other hand, people (subjects) clearly have preferences. For instance, I have an affinity for heavy music and actually find some of it quite beautiful. However, others do not understand my enjoyment of that genre and prefer classical music. We also have other aesthetic tastes that lead us to think that beauty may be, at least to a degree, in the eye of the beholder. 

Is beauty subjective or objective? This is a difficult question. It seems like beauty is subjective in some ways. Think about our different ideas about what constitutes a beautiful tree, for example. We have different opinions.

However, what if beauty is subjective (at least partially) relative to us, but objective relative to God? Imagine two people see a shape from a distance. One person says that what they see is a circle and the second person says it is a triangle. However, what does God say it is? God says it is a cone. We see from our own vantage point and so maybe there is truth to what we see but perhaps there is also truth from other people’s perspective (though I am not saying thing are ultimately relative). We also see in part, in a mirror dimly. 

It seems to me that beauty cannot be strictly subjective. If we believe in the Creator of beauty, and the one for whom all beauty points, then I don’t believe we can think that beauty is finally subjective. Why? Because God is objectively beautiful. He defines beauty. 

Hodges has said, “Beauty has to with order, appropriateness, fittingness, right relationships.”[4] Others have thought that beauty has to do with proportion and symmetry. For example:

“The Canon was not only a statue deigned to display perfect proportion, but a now-lost treatise on beauty. The physician Galen characterizes the text as specifying, for example, the proportions of “the finger to the finger, and of all the fingers to the metacarpus, and the wrist, and of all these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the arm, in fact of everything to everything…. For having taught us in that treatise all the symmetriae of the body, Polyclitus supported his treatise with a work, having made the statue of a man according to his treatise, and having called the statue itself, like the treatise, the Canon.[5]

However, beauty does not seem to be located in symmetry and proportion alone because there are many things that do not seem perfect in this respect and yet are considered beautiful. For example, Edmund Burke said,

“we find nothing there so beautiful as flowers; but flowers are of every sort of shape, and every sort of disposition; they are turned and fashioned into an infinite variety of forms… The rose is a large flower, yet it grows upon a small shrub; the flower of the apple is very small, and it grows upon a large tree; yet the rose and the apple blossom are both beautiful… The swan, confessedly a beautiful bird, has a neck longer than the rest of its body, and but a very short tail; is this a beautiful proportion? we must allow that it is.”[6]

Beauty, many people think, has to do with that which is fitting. “A beautiful ox would make an ugly horse,”[7] for instance. 

“A cathedral is not as such more beautiful than an airplane, … a hymn than a mathematical equation. … A well-made sword is not more beautiful than a well-made scalpel, though one is used to slay, the other to heal. Works of art are only good or bad, beautiful or ugly in themselves, to the extent that they are or are not well and truly made, that is, do or do not express, or do or do not serve their purpose.”[8]

It seems to me that it is true that beauty has to do with what is fitting. Context is a factor. Yet, extravagance also seems to be a factor. It seems there are levels of beauty. We can see many things as beautiful and yet there are some things that stand out as more beautiful. Why is this? I think it is because beauty has to do with what is fitting, and certain things fit in certain contexts (a wedding dress, though beautiful, is not always fitting. There needs to be an appropriate order to things). Extravagance is not always fitting. Sometimes what is commonplace is fitting and so beautiful.

In The Lord of the Rings, think of Hobbiton (where hobbits live) and Rivendell (where elves live). I think most people would agree that they’re both beautiful (mythical) places, but what is more commonplace and one is more extravagant. On the other side, you have orcs and their abode. I think most everyone would agree that there home is not beautiful, it’s ugly (also interesting is that beauty often represents innocence and good whereas ugly often represents guilt and wickedness).

Beauty, as we saw at the beginning, has to do with enjoyment. Beauty is objective. There is a good God and a good (though fallen) creation behind our enjoyment. We also see that we as subjects get to personally enjoy beauty. It seems this is for various reasons, not least is our different contexts in which we are situated. However, this does not mean that beauty is not finally objective even if we (at least now) enjoy beauty to varying degrees. We also see that beauty has to do with that which is fitting, and what is fitting in one setting may not be appropriate for another context. 

There’s much more to be said and thought but that’s what I have initially. 


[1] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.

[2] Crispin Sartwell, “Beauty” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Winter 2016 Edition]).

[3] So, Hume has said, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others” (David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral and Political, 136).

[4] “If beauty is a subjective pleasure, it would seem to have no higher status than anything that entertains, amuses, or distracts; it seems odd or ridiculous to regard it as being comparable in importance to truth or justice, for example” (Crispin Sartwell, “Beauty” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Winter 2016 Edition]).

[5] Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship,” 63.

[6] Quoted in J. J. Pollitt, The Ancient View of Greek Art, 15.

[7] Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime.

[8] Aristippus: Why then, is a dung-basket a beautiful thing? Socrates: Of course it is, and a golden shield is ugly, if the one be beautifully fitted to its purpose and the other ill. (Xenophon, Book III, viii)

[9] Ananda Coomaraswamy, Traditional Art and Symbolism, 75.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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