Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?
It has been said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That the beauty of a person or thing is not intrinsic to that person or thing, but is determined by the person who views it. That beauty is subjective, relative, referential. What you find beautiful, I may find ugly but neither of us are right. What matters is that you like it, you take pleasure in it, and if you like it, it may be deemed as beautiful. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. I like Bach, you like Brittney.
Basis for Beauty
But does personal taste actually determine beauty? Is beauty really just a matter of taste, what you like, what pleases you, or does it possess more objective qualities? In his scintillating and illuminating book The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay offers a definition of beauty in line with Science: “the beautiful is that which has unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness, and radiance.” During South by Southwest I saw M. Ward at the PASTE showcase. He opened his set with a 10 minute instrumental, during which he manipulated five strings, a guitar, volume, and silence that evoked an eruption of applause. His songs contain proportion, unity, harmony. Then, I drove down the street to hear a raging metal band screaming at the top of their lungs as they shouted and played indiscernible notes. Very little proportion, unity, and harmony. Which is more beautiful?
Morality of Beauty
It was Plato that described the opposite of beauty as the unpleasantness of seeing a body with one long leg excessively. A disproportionate, asymmetrical person. They say that leading actors must typically have proportionate, symmetrical facial features. Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, regardless of how short they are, they are still considered beautiful, in part, due to the symmetry of their faces. Is beauty, then, not merely a matter of taste, but a matter of symmetry? Of Science? What then are we to do with Tom Cruise’s Scientologist judgment against fellow beauty Brooke Shields, who took medication for her post-partum depression? And what of Gibson’s drunkenness and anti-Semitism? Is there not a moral component to beauty? We should admire a person of great personal beauty, not merely based on their form but also on their substance. Personal beauty extends well beyond possessing physical symmetry. Beauty is moral. It is a virtue, an image of goodness as well as an image of proportion. And we still recognize this kind of beauty. We celebrate the music of Amy Winehouse but bemoan her drug addicted lifestyle. Fans roar when Barry Bonds hits a homerun, while jeering at the sight of his performance-enhanced head. A beautiful performance necessitates honesty, integrity, no cheating. Even a dishonest person appreciates honesty, but appreciation for morality does not require cultivation of morals. However, just because we can recognize the moral component of beauty does not mean that we are, in fact, beautiful.
How do you think Beauty should be defined? Eye of the Beholder? Scientifically? Morally? Why?
For more thinking on Beauty: