On Beauty

A reader asked me a good question about thoughts shared at my post “Why am I so Vexed?

“Is this any more complicated than saying that you personally prefer more traditional architecture to modern architecture? You do realize that there are people who disagree? I like the first church better than the second. I find it more spiritual. On what grounds do you say that I am wrong?”

We can, at least to some extent, define beauty objectively, just as we can define and know truth. There are guidelines that can help us form conclusions about what is beautiful and what is not. Of course there is also the validity of personal taste. The Stanford Library of Philosophy offers this helpful analysis in the entry “Beauty”:

However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful —then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.

On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.

The rest is here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty/

Aristotle’s definition of beauty also serves as my guide: beautiful objects have order and symmetry.

An ugly Catholic church can offer a small bit of consolation as there is usually a crucifix located on the central axis. Even if I am denied other forms of aesthetic pleasure, I can still find an anchor for my contemplation and cast my gaze upon the corpus and the cross. Though the lozenge shaped backboard, in this particular instance, is an odd distraction. And what are those pieces of cloth draped on the altar, err, I mean table: bath towels?

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

I respond favorably to objects that are symmetrical because they echo the human form. This is why I feel at ease and comforted by the presence of columns. The base of a column is referred to as a pedestal, a direct allusion to the human form (“ped” is the root of foot in Latin). When I visit The Palace of the Legion in Honor in San Francisco

palace of legion of honor

I experience a rush of visceral pleasure as I pass through the colonnade—my view is obscured momentarily as I proceed by each column. In rhythmical fashion I am once again rewarded with a slightly different vantage point at the furtherance of my movement through the colonnade. My vantage point of the San Francisco Bay, the skyline of the city or the other aspects of the building is revealed depending upon my position in relation to the columns.

The rhythmically ordered columns at Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, along with the The Palace of the Legion of Honor, also follow Aristotle’s definition that beautiful objects adhere to a plan of order and symmetry. The columns lead my gaze toward the front of the church, the classical grammar of the architectural elements connects me to two millennia of Christians who have worshipped in similar buildings.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Yes, there is room for folks to disagree about beauty but as I further my exploration through reading, pondering and looking, I anticipate that I will continue to find grounds in which to state objectively that some things are more beautiful than others. I have just started reading Roger Scruton’s, The Aesthetic Understanding. I plan to share my findings in future blog posts.

Can we not agree that the Aztek is an ugly car?


Can we not agree that Chase Finlay’s beauty, in addition to his accomplishment as a dancer, adds an element of transcendence to his performance in Balanchine’s Apollo?

4 thoughts on “On Beauty

  1. Boils down to taste. Which you are entitled to. I don’t agree about the car. Or about endless lines of columns in buildings. I don’t much like “classical” columns. You do. Just don’t generalize about “objective” standards of beauty and then insist that we all must agree with your taste.


  2. I do find myself in agreement with Aristotle, and contemporary philosophers like Roger Scruton; I share their contention that there are objective standards of beauty. Philosophers in the field of aesthetics seek ways to articulate why many human beings find some aspects of material culture more pleasing than others. In fact Mr. Scruton has written a great book on the subject:

    Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

    Of course you are free to enjoy whatever you find pleasurable.


  3. When I hear comments like drycamp’s, I somewhat understand the impulse to reduce everything to a matter of taste, but I always remain unconvinced. I think one reason is that people who deny objective standards almost immediately begin using imperative verbs. Never fails. Apparently, despite the presence of any objectivity other than human taste, many still feel the need to issue commands and absolute statements.. “Don’t generalize”….”you are entitled to your opinion” and so forth. Is it simply a matter of individual taste to think that people shouldn’t generalize? If so, those of us with different tastes can feel free to generalize away I suppose. And upon what grounds is it possible to assert that anyone “entitled to” their opinion? Objectivity seems to be inconveniently unavoidable.

    Kathleen, your blog is an absolute treasure. I’m delighted to have found it while browsing this evening. You provide a rare combination of intellectual engagement with honest piety.

    I’m a would-be scholar of the Reformation era in England myself, and the more I learn about that time, the more I’m convinced that Vatican II was simply the implementation of the Protestant Reformation after a 500-year delay. If you want to be even more vexed, read the testimonies of Catholic martyrs during the reign of Bloody Elizabeth, and consider their willingness to die in opposition to the very same changes that their own Church would later authorize and promote.

    Also, many thanks for your introduction to the work of Robert Orsi – I’m going to order his books immediately.

    Please keep up the good work here!


  4. Tim, thank you for stopping by and taking your time to share your insights; I am greatly encouraged by your kind words.

    I am pleased to be able to share the beautiful work of Robert Orsi with you. Orsi is not constrained by the methods of much critique that tends to hinder the work of those writing within the disciplines of religious sociology and anthropology.

    I intend to get back to reading more of Roger Scruton’s work on aesthetics in hopes of clarifying my thoughts of those who think that individual taste is the final arbiter of all that is beautiful but I tend to get distracted by other areas of interest.

    Recently I traveled to England with visits to Oxford, London and Canterbury. It was not only pilgrimage to place but also one back in time. I intend to write more about it in the days ahead. My travels also stimulated further interest the Catholic Martyrs of England and Wales.

    With your encouragement I will keep pressing forward. Thanks so much, Tim.


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