Families that Discuss together, stay together

Families that Discuss together, stay together
Families that Discuss together, stay together

Monday, August 17, 2015

Is Beauty Truly in the Eye of the Beholder?

I do not know if beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It suggests a democratic idea of bringing down the heavenly ideal to earthly reality. The phrase was coined by Irish novelist, Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in the nineteenth century during the Romantic period, which favored a new moral relativism. Followers of Karl Marx believed the common man was morally superior to the rich man and that the criminal was spiritually superior to the law-abiding citizen. Later, Friedrich Nietzsche influenced a degraded world. Religion and belief in God declined and set the stage for a society of disillusionment and decay. It is no wonder that the true meaning of Beauty was lost upon the world at this time. The person who perceived beauty in Marcel DuChamp's’ 1917 Urinal knew little of the meaning of Beauty. He regarded anything he fancied as some great piece of art. If something pleased him, it must be beautiful, he thought. This idea that beauty is relative to a person’s taste is a misuse and abuse of the true meaning of Beauty. Not surprisingly, the current dictionary caters to this idea of moral relativism; beauty is modernly defined as “a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.”[1] Conversely, what happens when we do not have moral sense? Or, what if our intellect has lost the capacity to reason because we have no standard of what is right or wrong from our lack of moral sense? Before we answer this, let us consult some of the great philosophers on Beauty.

Plato would not have approved of the phrase in question. For him, Beauty indicated an eternal value; Beauty was an unchanging form; universal and consistent. If Man A thought a woman was beautiful, but Man B did not, one would have to be right and one wrong. According to Plato, Man A understood the natural form of Beauty and recognized it in the woman, whereas Man B had not the understanding nor could he recognize it in its true form. English philosopher, Roger Scruton wrote, “If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.”[2] Beauty could be described as an ideal akin to virtue. In the Aristotelian sense, virtue meant something that was in its most pristine condition and achieved the purpose for which it was created.

Kant was interested in both Beauty and the Sublime in not only art, but in nature. Like Hutcheson and Hume, he believed Beauty and Sublimity were not attributes of objects, but the means in which we respond to objects. Kant wrote not about the Form of Beauty, as did Plato, but about taste. He wrote, “beauty is not a concept of the object.”[3] This focus on the subjective, Kant carefully stated, was not a function of individual or personal taste. Therefore, he also, did not believe that “beauty was in the eye of the beholder.” Unlike Kant, but also opposed to the phrase, St. Augustine believed that Beauty was an attribute of God and any observer could receive it unto himself by Divinity. He believed that Beauty was manifested through order and proportion.

I believe Beauty is a Truth. And what is Truth, you ask? Truth is something that is always available, always accurate, always genuine and authentic. Truth never changes. Truth means the Sun will appear in the morning and disappear at night; Truth means the seedling will grow into a plant and that a child will grow into an adult.

The poet, John Keats wrote, “Truth is Beauty, Beauty truth.” A student of the liberal arts is on a quest to find the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The three words are inseparable and form the foundation of all goodness in heaven and on earth. Each have a part in the power to move individuals and societies toward a higher good. C.S. Lewis describes this power. “We do not want merely to see beauty... we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.”[4] I have felt of the power of this Beauty as I have stood on high mountains looking down, with awe, into lush valleys; I have experienced it from a balcony gazing into a clear blue lake or feasting my eyes on La Pieta in Rome or Bernini’s David in the Borghese Museum. I have observed men and women taken in by the power of Beauty in the same manner. A liberal mind recognizes truth more and more as they are exposed to it. Beauty is a humbling experience. Beauty is Truth.

My husband and I recently moved to a different state and we were fortunate to find a house near a dear old friend, who happens to be an interior decorator by trade. She knew we had only four days before we would have a large gathering at our house and graciously lent her expertise to beautify and get our house in order. As the movers brought in each large piece, she carefully arranged it just right. Soon, the paintings and portraits were unwrapped, whereupon my talented aunt and friend consulted together and placed the art in beautiful arrangements on our walls. Our home looked remarkable and more beautiful than any of our previous homes had been. Even more astounding have been the compliments we receive continually from our friends and neighbors. My friend understands and perceives beauty. Her mind and heart have been trained. There is no question that Beauty follows universal laws. We may not yet understand those laws fully, but we feel them when we are surrounded by them.

In this paper, I have attempted to make a case for Beauty. Because Beauty is Truth and we are students of Truth, we must cultivate a moral sense for the Good, the True and the Beautiful, if we are ever going to perceive True Beauty in anything. As for the phrase above, it is not beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. It is the ability to see Beauty and that ability must be within the beholder in order to sense Truth. This ability is trained through the Liberal Arts and practiced by the Virtuous and sanctioned by God. Lewis says, ”Beauty is not democratic -- she reveals herself more to the few than to the many”[5] Liberal minds are developed through constant exposure to Beauty. When there is a dearth of true beauty, we are in danger of losing the meaning of life. “Beauty matters,” writes Roger Scruton, “that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”[6] Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” Let us save the world by cultivating Beauty, by molding ourselves to Beauty, rather than molding Beauty to ourselves.

[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[2] Roger Scruton, Beauty, Oxford University Press, (2011)
[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Cambridge University Press, Jan 1, 2000
[4] C.S. Lewis, “Transposition and Other Addresses” (1949)
[5] C.S. Lewis, "Democratic Education" in his "Notes on the Way" from Time and Tide, vol. XXV (29 April 1944), pp. 369-70
[6] Roger Scruton, Beauty
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