Beauty and the Beholder

In a recent blog post, John C Wright discusses beauty and where it is located. Now, there is nothing wrong with what he says, but I do submit that he is somewhat taking the meaning of a person who says the words to be overly related to the words that they say. You can see a similar thing when people criticize doing evil that good may come of it with the words, “the ends don’t justify the means”. Taken literally, this is nonsense. Of course means are justified by ends, because nothing else can justify means. There is no such thing as a self-justifying means. Pushing a sharpened piece of steel into somebody’s bodies is justified or not entirely on the basis of why you’re doing it. Is it to shiv him in revenge for a minor transgression? Or are you a surgeon cutting out a cancer to save his life? Plunging the metal into him is merely a means, and as such must find its justification in the ends for which it is used. What people really mean, of course is one of  “this end don’t justify those means” or more commonly, “remote ends do not justify proximate, intermediate ends”. But it’s less catchy, so you can see why people don’t say what they literally mean. Plus most people would have to look up what proximate means (in the proximity of; right next to, approximate meaning an estimate by way of analogy to not-right-next-to).

I submit that the same thing applies to the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Taken literally, it is as Mr. Wright says a denial of beauty as a concept. But many if not most people do not mean it literally. (I’m on relatively safe ground here; when discussing anything less practical than passing the salt at dinner, people rarely mean what they say literally.) There is a real thing which is being described, which is that beauty is a direct perception of the goodness of God as reflected by the goodness in creation, and each person is given a different (if largely overlapping) perspective on the goodness of God, and hence what precise goodness each man is able to perceive does vary. Thus when beholding any particular beautiful thing, one man may see the goodness of God revealed clearly in it because it matches what he was made to see, while another may see it only dimly because he was given something else to see clearly. To generalize, there are those who like roller coasters and in them appreciate the power of God in velocity and turning; this is an aspect of God’s goodness I see only dimly, while I appreciate the stillness of a forest and the loudness if leaves falling to the ground in it quite a lot. Now, my inability to perceive God’s goodness in the rush of the roller coaster does not mean that it is not there, any more than a deaf man’s inability to hear the beauty in Mozart’s music does not mean that it is not beautiful.

It is quite wrong to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is quite accurate to say that perceiving beauty depends on the eye of the beholder. But the second phrase is harder on the ear, and when it comes to expressing truths most people are far more traditionalists than they are philosophers, and those of us who are capable of saying what we mean should always look out in charity for those who are not. On the other hand, it is always good to give people who misuse common phrases a (metaphorical) hard slap upside the head to try to bring them to their senses, which I think is what Mr. Wright intends. So please take this post as an elaboration on the subject Mr. Wright is speaking about, and not a contention with Mr. Wright’s post.

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