Beauty Is Objective

Is beauty subjective or objective? Is it a thing defined by us, or a thing that exists apart from us? I guess it all comes down to this: Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder, or is that particular maxim a particularly boldfaced lie? For those of you thinking this is a boring excursion of a non-controversial nature, let me tantalize your intellect – if beauty is objective, there is a God. If it isn’t, there ain’t.

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Oh we’ll get there, you studly individuals, don’t you worry. Now then, when people say “beauty-is-what-we-make-it”, or “we-define-our-own-beauty” or what have you; they don’t actually mean it. They think they do, but they don’t. For instance, a man might say, “Darling, you are beautiful, by which I mean you are beautiful to me,” and simply be taken as a relativistic jerk, slapped, and left with massive child-support expenses. But if a man were to say, “Darling, you are beautiful, by which I mean panda,” he would be insane.

My point is that when a man says, “We define beauty”, he doesn’t actually mean that he has created an alternative definition for beauty that he alone abides by. “Ah yes, sir, I see that you believe that sunset to be beautiful. But for me, beauty is defined as the vague feeling of nausea before I throw up. This sunset – therefore – is not beautiful to me.” No. Beauty is not defined by us, because we all agree – by our very nature, it seems – on St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition: Beauty is that which when perceived; pleases. Even the dictionary agrees!


  1. A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight.
  2. A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.

So ignoring insanity, we have clearly a recognition of an experience. This experience is universal. All men agree on the existence of this experience, and have given the cause of this experience a name – Beauty.

Also known as Grace Kelly.

The question that remains – and the point the aesthetic relativists are really making when they say “we define beauty” – is: What is beautiful? Everyone agrees on the definition of beauty, but surely not everyone agrees on the things the definition applies to? The axiom of proof for the relativist was first confirmed in high school. It went like this.

“Dude, she’s hot.”
“What? She has a overwhelmingly massive nose!”
“What are you talking about? Her nose is fine!”
“You’re an idiot.”

If the experience of beauty varies from man to man, beauty cannot be objective. A nail in the coffin, it would seem.

Just kidding, the coffin thing was a rhetorical device used to augment the wrong view with false strength, credibility and respect, making it all the more epic when IT IS CRUSHED BY EXISTENTIALISM MWHAHAHAHA -

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- wait, what were we talking about? Ah, yes:

The fact that men disagree over what is beautiful in no way denies the existence of objective beauty. After all, it seems that if two men are gazing at the sunset, and one mutters “awesome”, while the other scoffs “foul”, it could be equally true that one of them is simply wrong as it could that there is no such thing as beauty. And indeed this seems to be the case, especially when taking into account another of the three Transcendentals – Truth.

In case you were worried I only see beauty in pretty girls, this portrait strikes my heart.

If one man says, “3 + 4 = 18″, in all sincerity and belief,  while another man says “No, you moron, 3 + 4 = 7″, it would be a madman who concludes that there is no such thing as Truth. For if this disagreement amongst men negates the existence of Truth, than the statement that Truth is therefore ‘defined by us’ is irrelevant – it cannot held to be true.

So it is with Beauty. To deny objective beauty is to deny the existence of “that which when perceived; pleases.” But if you deny this existence, you have to account for the fact that indeed – men perceive and are pleased. This is the point where the relativist will say, “Ah, but it is all subjective.” But what is subjective? Beauty? You cannot apply the adjective ‘subjective’ to a noun you’ve claimed does not exist. It becomes entirely nonsensical: “That-which-when-perceived-pleases does not exist, and is defined by me.” This silliness is besides the fact that to deny the existence of Beauty by this logic – that because men disagree with it, it is subjective – is to deny Truth by the same logic. And then the question remains, “Are you truly saying that beauty is subjective, when there exists no beauty and no truth?”

Contradictions upon contradictions. But the real reason I believe Beauty is objective is an existentialist one. When a man experiences beauty, there are two components to his experience. There is the responsive side, which simply says, “This is beautiful.” Then there is ridiculous and seemingly irrational side, which asserts that all men should find it beautiful. Think about it. What sunrise is viewed with the confidence that the man next to you could be simultaneously finding it hideous? If we are gazing upon the Pieta….

…and a man behind us says, “that’s absolutely ugly,” our innate, immediate response is not to say, “Beauty in the eye of the beholder,” it is to say, “Are you stupid? Look at it!” (This is not to say that, with a couple years of relativistic philosophy you can’t suppress this response, turn to the man and say, “I value that opinion as much as my own.”) C.S, Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

I say, “If I find in myself the innate, natural desire to declare beauty as universal and objective, I can only conclude that there exists such a Beauty.” There is no rational reason why what is inherently real in me would be at odds with reality.

That, in gross oversimplification, is why I believe that Beauty is objective. Oh crap, I almost forgot that whole God thing. It’s like this. If Beauty is objective, then it is a Non-material Thing that exists outside of us, and outside of matter. If that is possible, than it is entirely possible that there exists the being we call God, a non-material being outside of matter. In fact, God would be beauty, and beauty God – but that’s another post.

I realize there are some noteworthy objections, but every time I came across one worth exploring – like if this is true, why are there differences in what people consider beautiful? – but each would require writing a separate post. I’ll make sure to.

I’ll leave with another form of beauty, because why not? It’ll make your day.

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  • Patrick Hoelscher

    Spot on as always, good sir

  • Hannah

    This is exactly what my literature class discussed today! *has a Holy Spirit moment* :) This is an excellent summary of the authors we have been discussing the last few weeks. I wish I could print out your post to hand to my classmates who were leaning decidedly on the subjective side…

  • Rosemary M

    I think the “subjective” element of beauty is simply that each individual human being is a completely unique and unrepeatable thought of God, and the way we perceive the world is also unique and unrepeatable; thus, we will be able to perceive God’s beauty (and the beauty of His creation) in a unique and unrepeatable way. So you may be bored by something that completely takes my breath away with its beauty. This is an expression of our subjectivity, but not a contradiction to the objective quality of beauty. Rather, we as human creatures are limited, whereas Beauty, as an objective reality, is unlimited (“God would be beauty, and beauty God”).

    • Marc Barnes

      Yes! You are very wise.

    • Beatrice

      That is truly well put! Thank you for your comment because it has been incredibly helpful for me to make the distinctions necessary in order to be able to flush out the reasons why I hold that beauty is objective.

  • Christopher Mathieu

    I really like the note you ended on. I think everyone should have a dose of wub every day, even if it’s just a few minutes.

    • Marc Barnes

      Oh, you know it.

  • Anonymous

    Beauty is objective, but which particular beautiful things are preferred will vary between individuals and cultures.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    “if beauty is objective, there is a God. If it isn’t, there ain’t.”

    It took me about 10 years of reflection to accept that beauty existed independently of any viewer, and that therefore God also existed.

  • Oregon Catholic

    If you define objective beauty as the experience one has and the emotions one feels when they behold something beautiful to themselves I would agree with you. The ‘thing’ which causes the experience/emotion is subjective.

    I think humans have common experiences and emotional reactions of what we find beautiful, e.g., the face of our child, images from nature, a poem, a melody, justice, love, etc. and that probably has much to do with what God has written in our hearts as well as our nature. But I don’t think you can say that any particular one of the things that generate the experience/emotion are objectively beautiful. That’s why we can’t say everyone should find a sunset or a rose or an exquisitely elegant sequence of computer code ;-) beautiful. In those cases, beauty IS in the eye, heart, mind, of the beholder.

    • Marc Barnes

      No, that’s exactly what I don’t believe! Beauty is objective. Your child is beautiful even when you close your eyes. And not just to you. RECOGNITION of beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, absolutely. But beauty itself is not. Rosemary M’s comment above will put you on track reconciling those differences between what we recognize as beautiful…and i plan to post on it.

      • Oregon Catholic

        If that is how you want to define beauty then I think you might as well say that EVERYTHING God created is beautiful, which it is. Only evil and sin are ugly. However, placing this discussion as you have around beauty in art, the body, etc. makes it about subjective RECOGNITION of beauty.

        Are you sure you’re not getting Truth and beauty mixed up? For sure there is objective Truth which is not dependent on the perception of the beholder and is always beautiful.

      • Oregon Catholic

        I’ve been thinking about my earlier comment and came up with an example to clarify (I hope) the distinction I make between subjective beauty and objective Truth.

        Consider photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who created many photos of homoerotica. I can look at some of his B&W photos and find the shape and form and play of light and dark to be exquisitely beautiful. That is my subjective opinion and many other people would not feel as I do. But I don’t find the subject he portrays beautiful at all because it offends Truth – the Truth of how we were created to be.

        So when I look at some of his photos I experience a subjective sense of physical beauty that thrills me and I can glory in the beauty of God’s creation and in the rare artistic gift He gave Mapplethorpe. At the same time I experience an objective sense of repulsiveness that makes me pity the artist because I believe what he is ‘saying’ by his art offends God, which makes it ugly and a misuse of the talent God gave him. And the Truth of that ugliness and wasted talent is beautiful because it comes from God and turns our minds to what is Good.

  • Jay E.

    For the most part, this is a fairly good defense of how beauty is objective. But it could definitely be a lot stronger.

    1. I would have tried to show, philosophically, that beauty (along with the One, the True, and the Good) is equivalent with Being. That would definitely build up your argument that if beauty isn’t objective, then God doesn’t exist. And also… if Beauty is equivalent with Being, then you bet it’s real and objective.

    2. Ultimately here, anything beautiful points back to He who IS beauty. It’s an icon, a signpost. An image of Christ, who is the ‘image of the invisible God”. It gives us a glimpse of the invisible infinite Being who simple IS.

    2. Keep in mind that the definition from Aquinas is the “accidental” definition of beauty. It doesn’t actually define beauty, more what it does. Like the accidental definition of goodness – that which is desirable. His essential definition is a bit heavy and I don’t think it’s a really great one, but still the best definition so far: “the know-ability of goodness”.

    3. Using that definition though, I think we have to conclude that beauty must be objective and not purely “in the eye of the beholder”. Because if it’s in the eye of the beholder, that means beauty is something akin to the act of seeing. But then you can never see beauty, which can never (upon being seen) please… so it doesn’t work. You can never see Sight. You see with sight, but you don’t see sight. Consequently, you don’t see with beauty, or rather don’t project your own ideas and preferences onto what you see (which was Hume’s argument from relativism), but you see something that has the quality of being beautiful. If there’s an effect (pleasure) there must be a cause (beauty).

    4. Obviously there’s a subjective aspect to beauty though… but that results from the subjective experience of beauty. I think it’s tough to deal with because beauty is so hard to pin down and define. So the best way to deal with beauty is to judge it as Aquinas does, by its effects – it causes pleasure. But I think it doesn’t do just that, because I think beauty really hurts. It causes intense longing and a painful desire, sehnsucht. It makes us wonder. It’s both agony and ecstasy. We catch a tiny glimpse of the fulfillment of all desire, and it awakens an even fiercer desire for that object. That’s probably why the saddest things strike us as the most beautiful – because beauty hurts. It’s like fire, as Augustine makes clear: “Thou touched me!—I tasted thee, and now I burn to live within thy peace”. But anyway, because it produces this subjective experience of wonder, awe, desire (and ultimately a form of contemplation, by drawing us outside of ourselves to gaze upon something) it seems very subjective. Different things will have different results in different people. But we can’t judge beauty by its effects – the agony and the ecstasy.

    Anyway, those are my current thoughts on this. This is pretty much the number one issue I philosophize and think about more than any others. If you’re interested, you can read what I wrote here on the vocation of Christian artists.

  • Donalbain

    No. That is YOUR response. I, and many people I know, are perfectly happy to look at something beautiful and also know that other people do not find it beautiful. I have no desire or expectation that the person behind me will agree with me on any particular aspect of beauty other than the expectation based on experience. Most people I know have found sunsets to be beautiful and so if I meet someone who disagrees I will be surprised. But I will not think he is wrong, or somehow deficient. I will simply think that he has different tastes to me.

  • Mark

    You had me until the last video – definitely not beautiful in the Catholic sense. But great article! :-)

    • Marc Barnes

      haha, alright so maybe i was looking for an excuse to post it.

    • Anonymous

      What? The dude’s poetry in motion.

      “Beautiful” means simply “good knowable to the senses”. Since you can tell he’s dancing well—objectively—and that good is knowable to the senses, you must concede the beauty of the dance.

      Whether or not it’s to your taste is another matter. I can concede that someone plays baseball, golfs, or dances ballet well; but nevertheless you’d have to take my family hostage to make me watch any of them.


    Objective. For sure.

  • Nemo

    Using the existentialist criterion vitiates your entire argument. If someone doesn’t agree that a particular sunset is beautiful, simply telling him that it is proves nothing.

  • barefoot cinderella

    have you seen the video interior semiotics? lol

  • satan

    chuck noris worships god because god warships chuck noris because chuck noris worships god because god warships chuck noris because chuck noris worships god because god warships chuck noris because chuck noris worships god because god warships chuck noris, and so on.
    you all see were im going here right?

    • Chuck Noris

      be of non-making sense you!
      but then Satan is stupid

  • Juan

    Like said below just because we all perceive beauty as being different doesn’t mean it doesn’t truly exist it just exists in everyone differently. Beauty is subjective, in this sense like said above we may experience the same things in different ways both being true. The same way THE higher power is viewed in the world. God is represented in many beautiful ways around the world, all amazingly alive and true in each way. To say just because there are different perspectives for each individual that its principle is not true is foolish.