Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

The symmetry of a smile, the balance of nature, the golden color of a sunset, the symmetrical pattern of a butterfly’s wings, the harmony of a piece of music: these are some of the things we might call beautiful. But what exactly makes something beautiful? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or is there an objective standard for beauty?

For much of history, philosophers have tried to answer these questions. One famous debate revolved around whether beauty was an intangible thing that only exists in the mind, or an objective thing that can be discovered by the human senses. The empiricists, led by Locke, believed that beauty is a perception created by the individual’s brain and conditioned by his thoughts and feelings. In this view, if two people perceive the same object to be beautiful, their reasons for this must be identical.

Aristotle, in contrast, believed that the objects of beauty are a matter of proportion and harmony, which are measurable. He also argued that beautiful things must possess a definite form that is characteristic of the kind of thing they are, and that this shape gives the object its distinctive appearance. His ideas were Christianized by Thomas Aquinas, who compared beauty to the Second Person of the Trinity. This view of beauty was rooted in the idea that beautiful things are part of God’s plan for creation.

In modern times, researchers have used computers to study the aesthetics of a face, and have found that certain features are more attractive than others. For example, both men and women prefer a strong jawline, high cheekbones, and smooth skin. But it’s not just the physical features that are important for people to find attractive: studies have shown that people who are perceived as beautiful by others have better health, are wealthier and more dominant socially.

These results raise interesting questions about the relationship between beauty and goodness. Some scientists have even proposed that beauty can be a measure of a person’s moral character. But the philosophical significance of this idea has yet to be determined.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the question of what beauty is. Some philosophers have suggested that the way we experience and define beauty is influenced by our culture and our environment. So perhaps the best way to think about beauty is not as a scientific measure but as a cultural phenomenon that we can understand and appreciate through our experiences with art, music and nature. Maybe if we understand the way that people see and feel about beauty, we can find a common definition of beauty that is universally accepted. But that is a very difficult task to accomplish. In the meantime, we will continue to appreciate and admire the beauty of the Mona Lisa, a sunset on the beach, or the perfect curl of a child’s hair. And hopefully, we will continue to enjoy the pleasures of these things, regardless of our disagreement about how to define beauty.