The Eye of The Beholder (Part Two)

37999875_c9c62bd8fe_oIn the first part of this discussion, I explained why it is reasonable to think that truth is objective. I then noted that many people think that beauty, unlike truth, is totally subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder.” But if beauty is purely subjective, and standards of beauty vary from one person to the next, then we have two problems: First, we have no explanation as to how our notions of beauty could correspond to God’s. Second, we often want other people to agree with us, and find it hard to understand how a friend could not appreciate the beauty of this piece of music or that movie. Is it vain for us to think this way?

The American philosopher Mortimer Adler provides us with a promising explanation for the objectivity of beauty.1 Adler divides beauty into two categories: enjoyable beauty and admirable beauty. Enjoyable beauty is subjective. It occurs “in the eye (or mind) of the beholder.” To appreciate enjoyable beauty is to have an immediate appreciation of an object that strikes one as beautiful, or to simply enjoy the disinterested contemplation of the object. For example, someone hears a tone from a chime and it is pleasing; someone is struck by the beauty of a painting. He is disinterested; he need not want to buy the painting even though he enjoys it. He simply has an immediate appreciation of what he sees.

To this discussion of the first category of beauty I must add: Some immediate judgments of taste are more universally agreed upon than others, particularly judgments about unique natural objects such as the sun and the evening sky. Practically everybody agrees that these things are beautiful. This widespread agreement suggests that all of us are made to appreciate the beauty of some things.

On the other hand, there is another kind of beauty that is not subjective. Admirable beauty is objective. Admirability comes because of a judgment of some qualities that an object bears as a member of a particular kind of thing. For example, an English teacher might train his students to write admirable sentences. In this case, there are certain kinds of words, placed in a certain order, that make a good English sentence. Those who know English well are in a position to judge the admirability of the sentence. A carpenter is the judge of the admirability of the table. A botanist is the judge of the admirability of a flower. Experts are in the best position to judge about admirability in their particular fields. Conversely, someone who honestly says that a practice squad player for a college basketball team is better than LeBron James simply does not understand basketball.

God gave us the capability to appreciate the fineness of things. Each individual cannot be expert about all kinds of objects, but a human being is capable of achieving a level of competence in a field; as soon as he does, he knows which objects in that field are beautiful. For example, a clockmaker appreciates the beauty of clocks in ways that the average person cannot.

While experts often disagree about objects’ admirability, it is nevertheless true that objects possess qualities (proportion, clarity, order, etc.) which determine their admirability. So, a judgment about beauty is no longer “in the eye of the beholder” (i.e., the beholder’s immediate, non-conceptual response), but is rather a considered, rational opinion based on conceptual understanding of a thing’s objective properties.

Distinguishing admirable beauty from enjoyable beauty allows us to explain some judgments of beauty as objective. Not all judgments of beauty are purely subjective, or up to “the eye of the beholder.” But what about the eye of the divine beholder? Is it the case that God has made judgments of beauty with which we must agree? Consider the following three points:

All judgments of beauty (and, more broadly, judgments of goodness) make reference to God insofar as all value is from Him. Judgments of admirability make sense only because God gave us a sense of appreciation for order and pattern, as well as the organizational sense that allows us to sort things into kinds. And our judgments cannot be entirely erroneous, for God’s creation itself is beautiful (Ecclesiastes 3:11). There is not a total disconnect between our assessments of beauty and the way the world really is. And, the fact that we generally agree about the beauty of some things (sunsets, the evening sky) is suggestive of God’s role in shaping a universal aesthetic sense, variously conditioned as it may be.

We must agree with the judgments of beauty that God has already made. Whenever God says something is beautiful, we must concur. For example, God’s position is that, at one time, Assyria was like a cedar with beautiful branches (Ezekiel 31:3; cf. Exodus 28:40). The Bible teaches this, and so when we encounter the teaching, we agree with it. (And if we are to agree with it, we must be capable of understanding correctly that there is such a thing as cedar with beautiful branches; see the previous point.)

The Bible teaches that there is not only outward beauty (or “fairness”), but also inward beauty which is goodness or righteousness. For example, God told Samuel that while man “looks on the outward appearance,” “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Those who are faithful to the Lord are portrayed as having a “good heart” (Luke 8:15). Another word for good-heartedness is beauty. Beauty is associated not only with a condition of the heart but also with good deeds: “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Romans 10:15).

May our assessments of beauty—particularly spiritual beauty—be in harmony with what God thinks.

  1. Six Great Ideas (New York: Collier, 1984), 99ff. 

- 2017