Is beauty something that is objective? As I speak with people today, many answer with a quick "no." "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," they say. However, the thought may be a bit too easily dismissed. Certainly, we all would have serious questions about a person who upon observing a radiant sunset over the Grand Canyon would exclaim "Ew! That's so ugly!" There's something universal in our appreciation for the beauty of that vista.
In his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Roger Scruton tackles this point. He explains:
There is an appealing idea about beauty which goes back to Plato and Plotinus, and which became incorporated by various routes into Christian theological thinking. According to this idea beauty is an ultimate value-something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations. Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful. In some way, philosophers have argued, those answers are on a par: each brings a state of mind into the ambit of reason, by connecting it to something that it 1s m our nature, as rational beings, to pursue. Someone who asked 'why believe what is true?' or 'why want what is good?' has failed to understand the nature of reasoning. He doesn't see that if we are to justify our beliefs and desires at all, then our reasons' must be anchored in the true and the good.1Scruton then begins exploring the question in more depth. He notes that the good and the true would never be at odds with each other, yet someone can be so charmed by a mythical account, they choose to believe it "and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth."2 However, as he unpacks just what the beautiful entails, Scruton demonstrates that real beauty is more than attraction. It goes deeper, to a deep appreciation for the thing as it is. We appreciate the sunset not because of what it can do for us, but what it is in itself. "When our interest is entirely taken up by a thing, as it appears in our perception, and independently of any use to which it might be put, then do we begin to speak of its beauty" (emphasis added.)3 Scruton defines this appreciation for the thing itself as a "disinterested interest," meaning we are disinterested in what they thing can do for us, but what it's intrinsic essence is. In this sense, the sunset is truly beautiful while a myth is not. The myth is a false beauty, for it is not true, it's intrinsic essence is built upon falsehood.
There is much more that I could write in this regard, but I will leave it to those interested to grab Scruton's book and explore the ideas further. I do think, though, that the case for the beautiful to be placed beside the true and the good as objective ultimate categories is compelling. As such, we should understand that just as the good and the true are rooted in an all-good and all-truthful God, the ultimate grounding of the beautiful would too be found in a God whose nature is the source of all beauty.
2. Scruton, 2011. 2.
3. Scruton, 2011. 14.
Image courtesy Todd Petrie and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.