Allow me to present the following:
Ugly, aren’t they?
Now how about this:
Aren’t these beautiful?
Now, if you’re one of those rational people I keep hearing about, you probably had a reaction somewhere along the lines of “are you nuts?” to both of my assertions.
Funny, I thought standards of beauty were arbitrary and subjective? You know, just an expression of opinion; of things we happen to like. But the odd thing is that a lot of people seem to express the same personal, subjective opinions regarding both Grace Kelly and the open sewer. As a matter of fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who reversed their opinions regarding the two; who said that Princess Grace was ugly and the sewer was beautiful (and you’d find even fewer who weren’t just trying to be contradictory).
Now, you might find someone who says “I just don’t find Grace Kelly very attractive,” but that wouldn’t be the same thing as saying “I think she’s ugly.” I personally don’t find Marilyn Monroe very attractive, but I’d never claim she was ugly; that’d be too obviously false.
The trouble is that we’ve somehow concluded that the two phrases “I find this attractive” and “this is beautiful” are interchangeable. They aren’t. To say “I find this attractive” means that I am drawn to it; that it is the kind of thing I would like to ‘have.’ So, when I say that I find Audrey Hepburn more attractive than Marilyn Monroe, I mean that Hepburn comes across as more like the kind of woman I would like to get to know and spend time with and Monroe doesn’t. To say “This is beautiful” means that it possesses the quality of beauty to an appreciable degree; that it is pleasing to the senses and to the soul. So, while I don’t personally find Marilyn Monroe very attractive, I can’t help but acknowledge that she was a beautiful woman.
Attraction is subjective; Beauty is objective. The two very often overlap, of course (very few people are ever attracted to something ugly), but they are not the same. You might say that attraction is the subjective aspect of beauty, as enjoyment is the subjective aspect of goodness. Everyone and everything is possessed of some level of beauty, since everything comes from God. But some things posses this more than others and in different aspects: a woman may be physically gorgeous but have a lousy voice (see Singing in the Rain) or vice-versa. A man may be physically handsome but rotten to the core, or may be homely yet with a soul of purest gold.
But the interesting thing is this; typically you will find that your attraction to someone will lessen or increase depending on the level of goodness you discover in them. A plain woman may grow, on acquaintance, into the most entrancing figure you’ve ever beheld (for more information read the Lord Peter Wimsey novels) and a supermodel may become nauseating to look at. We become attracted to things by perceiving the beauty within them; if, in digging deeper, we find more beauty, we become more attracted. If we find ugliness, our attraction fades.
This is the truth behind that insufferable nonsense “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“No it isn’t! Run!”
(So many needless deaths...)
No, beauty is in the object beheld. The eye of the beholder may be more sensitive to beauty, or it may be better able to discern beauty underneath apparent ugliness, or it may simply have had the time and the will to discover beauty, but beauty is never in the eye of the beholder. It isn’t something you impart to what you see (if that were the case, then why on earth would we have a concept of ugliness? Who would want to see ugliness if he could, if he chose, see beauty?). It is something you recognize and acknowledge. It can sometimes be hard to recognize, just like it can sometimes be hard to figure out an anagram, but it’s not something that comes from within your own perception.
“Ah!” you may be saying, “but what about the different standards of beauty that different cultures have had at different times? Doesn’t that prove that it’s subjective?”
You might as well say that there is no such thing as a tree because different languages have different words for it. As I noted above, all objects by dint of the fact that they are made by God, contain some beauty. At different times and in different places, people have recognized it through different elements: at one time plump women were generally considered more attractive, at another skinny women, at another athletic women, at another weak women, and so on. This doesn’t mean that “oh, well, they’re none of them really beautiful.” It means that fallen man, searching for beauty, has lurched back and forth trying to pin it down, rather like a carpenter trying to balance a stubborn cross-beam by adjusting first one side then the other. And note this; at no point and in no culture (as far as I know, and I have good reason to assume this to be the case) has the standard of beauty been universally accepted. There were men who were on fire for skinny women when plumpness was all the rage and men who preferred athletic women when weakness was in fashion. The mere fact that we can discern beauty contrary to societal norms indicates that beauty is not simply a subjective social construct.
Yes, I did just use fetishes to prove the reality of beauty. Eat that, relativism!
So beauty is obviously not a social construct, and my initial examples pretty well demonstrate that it’s not a personal construct either. Therefore, it is something objective; something inherent in the beautiful object. It’s not always obvious: “All that is gold does not glitter” and it’s sometimes very superficial, like gilding: “All is not gold that glitters.” Like gilding, though, the beauty is real even if it’s only skin-deep.Now, to go all the way back to attraction, you can’t be attracted to something that isn’t good, true, or beautiful. No one is attracted to something ugly. To be attracted to something (or someone) who has a less-than-stellar appearance means to find some other beauty within them that attracts you. So my point, as usual, is simply let’s be honest: there are such things as beauty and ugliness. We ought to be attracted to what is beautiful and spurn what is ugly. Calling something ‘beautiful’ is not a superficial or subjective statement; it’s saying something about a specific object that is either true or false. The same thing with calling something ‘ugly.’ There’s no need to be shy about it: beauty and ugliness exist and are real, tangible realities. It’s just that sometimes the one hides under the other.
Vive Christus Rex!