Why Beauty Isn’t In the Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

We’ve all heard the phrase. The idiom is culturally ingrained and familiar…but is it true? I’ve wrestled with this question for the better part of a year and arrived at the unexpected conclusion that not only is this teaching false, but it’s also dangerous.

What is beauty? To determine where it’s located, we must first establish what it is. This is no easy task. We use the word in many vastly different contexts—something physical (a snow-capped mountain), but also something immaterial (the innocence of a child). We speak of a person’s outward and inner beauty, and don’t expect that the two will always agree. So, what is beauty? To answer this, we have a choice between two starting points:

Option 1: Beauty is an objective reality. Something out there. A property that exists in the world waiting to be discovered. A universal standard which isn’t dependent on human judgments or opinions. Beauty simply is.

Option 2: Beauty is a subjective experience. Something in us. Beauty is not intrinsic in objects but is a product of our personal experience of objects. Without humans (a “beholder”) beauty would not exist.

In my experience, most people—including Christians—begin with the second option. Their reasoning is simple: nobody agrees on a standard. Different cultures have vastly different conceptions of physical beauty and artistic beauty. With so much diversity of opinion, how can we possibly claim a universal standard?

This conviction is built, in part, on the mistaken tendency to conflate two related but distinct concepts—beauty and aesthetic preference (or what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant called aesthetic taste). That people have tremendously different aesthetic preferences does not conflict with an absolute standard of beauty. To prefer a realistic Rembrandt painting over an impressionistic Monet painting is an aesthetic judgment based upon our particular fancy and mood, not a judgment of beauty. Aesthetics will always be colored by our experiences and circumstances, but beauty involves far more than paint on a canvas or certain physical qualities of the body. But, if I’m to claim that we don’t determine the standard for beauty, then who does? I suggest the same person who determines the standard for everything else in the Christian life—God.

The ancient Greek thinkers, and later the early Church Fathers, had a helpful philosophical concept of three transcendentals—the good, the true, and the beautiful. Each represented facet of human existence and, according to the later theologians, an aspect of God’s character and being. The three transcendentals were seen as intertwined and inseparable—goodness was true and beautiful, truth was good and beautiful, and beauty was good and true. This framework, although not perfect, helps to demonstrate the danger in reducing beauty to the eye of the beholder. Many people in today’s culture have  rejected the existence of an absolute standard for all three transcendentals and Christians have, for the most part, pushed-back against the relativism of only the first two; standing firm that goodness and truth are universal absolutes, defined and grounded in the character and commands of God, while embracing a relativistic attitude toward beauty. In doing so, we’ve compromised the foundation and unity of the three, allowing some in our culture to attack and redefine both goodness and truth. We’re beginning to see the consequences of a world where goodness and truth are no longer held in balance by beauty, and the picture is far from pleasant.

The philosophy has more immediate consequences, however. I believe that many Christians have bought into the teaching assuming that it promotes a positive and biblical message. But the ideology actually proclaims the opposite message than the one intended. The saying is meant to be empowering—but it gives power to the wrong people. Take, for example, a father impressing the words on his daughter hoping to instill self-worth and to teach her that other people’s opinions of her appearance do not matter. Yet, he is actually affirming the opposite. Her beauty now depends entirely on what other people think. We’re educating her that there is no absolute beauty in her. Rather, her beauty derives only from the eye of another person who sees it in her. Another “beholder”, however, may instead see her as ugly, and this verdict is equally valid and authoritative as the first. Beauty becomes a fleeting whim. We’re left at the mercy of others who stand over us waiting to pass their judgment. This is not the message Christians should be affirming.

Instead, let’s proclaim that there is an absolute standard for beauty. People might place greater value in certain physical attributes, but the possession or absence of these attributes says nothing about a person’s beauty, only the preferences and tastes of that particular beholder. The assessment of beauty is measured against a higher, unchanging, and perfect standard. Beauty is not our creation. Beauty is gift and a reality which finds its perfect and full expression in the person and character of God. As Christians, let’s not cheapen beauty by reducing it to our personal fancies. When it comes to beauty, God’s opinion is not just one among many—it’s the only opinion.

He is the standard.

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