Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?
We have often heard it said that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This is often said in response to a disagreement in artistic preference and does help maintain a sense of “agreeing to disagree.” Being able to look past disagreements and maintain civilized, social order is a habit that many of us would do well to nurture, but is there any truth to the old adage? Is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder? Is there any such thing as objective beauty? Something that’s beautiful even if no human had ever said, “Wow. Pretty.”
One way to pursue an answer to this question is by studying patterns in philosophical thought. The three major branches of philosophy are: Metaphysics (the study of stuff and its origin, whether physical, spiritual or otherwise), Epistemology (the study of knowledge and how mankind comes to acquire knowledge), and Ethics (the study of the evaluation of human conduct). Theologian John Frame makes a wise assessment when he generalizes this third branch into “Value Theory” instead of just “Ethics”. Value theory steps beck from merely assessing rules and codes of conduct to encompass traditional descriptive, normative and applied ethics, as well as aesthetics (the study of beauty) and economics. Aesthetics fits nicely as a sub-category of “value theory” but might be a tight fit under the category of “ethics”, or would it?
Here’s what I mean by patterns in philosophical thought. As Christians, when it comes to metaphysics, we do not leave the answers to the big questions about reality, existence, minds, bodies, God, space, time, causality, etc., up to the one asking the questions. If someone says, “what’s true for you is true for you. As for me, reality is in the eye of the beholder.” That’s not an answer that receives much support from orthodox Christianity. In fact, most folks would scoff, right before questioning the person’s sanity.
And what about epistemology? How can I have knowledge of myself, the external world, and God? As Christians, is there some other point of beginning for knowledge and wisdom besides the revealed Word of God? If God has said, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, do we allow for some neutral zone where people can acquire knowledge on their own terms? How is it that we have the possibility of knowledge? Should we be rationalists or empiricists, or both, or neither? Tertium quid, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
What about ethics? Is moral human conduct up to the individual? Is it a social contract? Is it the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Is the greatest good even recognizable? When it comes to ethics, Christians are famous, if not notorious, for not allowing ethics to remain in the eye of the beholder. We have the ten commandments, the two greatest commandments, Psalm 119, which is a really long song about loving the law, the entire Pentateuch, the law of God written on our hearts, etc. The answer to this question of value theory rests in the revealed Word of God which contains His Law. No eyes of any beholders here.
So, I mentioned a pattern earlier. Metaphysical questions? Objective answers revealed by God. Epistemological questions? Objective standards revealed by God. Ethical questions? Ditto. What about questions about beauty, another branch of value theory? Does God have an opinion on what is beautiful and what isn’t? Does He delight in some things and find others detestable? If ever there was an opportunity to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this is it. God sees. God assesses. God beholds and declares beautiful or ugly. God weighs in the balances and finds some things wanting.
Once we’ve rejected the myth that all beauty is subjective, we can make some real progress towards a Christian aesthetic. So where do we begin? There is the difference between “beauty” and “preference” to consider. The smell of anchovies or the texture of sushi may come up in the conversation about preferences. There is the fact that everything that God finds beautiful may not tickle our fancy. Author Nate Wilson commends us to the reproductive patterns of the leopard slug, if we want to expand our horizons of aesthetic study. God created leopard slugs with all their mucous and odd protrusions, and God created bunnies and kittens. However, we often see bunnies and kittens on posters containing bible verses, but we never see posters with leopard slugs reproducing. Is there a verse somewhere in the Bible that extols the blessings of bunnies and kittens while condemning leopard slugs to eternal perdition? Maybe we do not yet see creation through the new eyes that we have been given.
Are questions concerning objective beauty the easiest questions to answer? Obviously not. Does the present author have an entire system of biblical aesthetics worked out? Uhhhh, nope. Is beauty one of those square inches of creation about which Jesus Christ says with great affection, “Mine!”? Yep. So, for those interested in embarking on the journey of Christian aesthetics, there’s a great article by Justin Hawkins over at FareForward. Here’s a sample…
In the Christian understanding, humanity was made for the contemplation and enjoyment of God, and since the beauty of creation is the shadow of the radiance of the divine beauty, it is no mystery that we are attracted to it as to the echo of a lover’s voice. In the beauty of creation, our Creator is speaking to us, and that is why we love beautiful things.
Ethics and aesthetics are too closely linked in value theory for one to be objectively true and the other to be left to individual preference. The non-Christian would agree with me and say that ethics and aesthetics are very closely linked, and they both ought to be based on individual preference. What should the Christian say?