Beauty Through the Eyes of the Beheld
No doubt there are few souls in America unfamiliar with the hackneyed phrase “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Likewise are most people accustomed to hearing that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The former is true – sappy and not a little poetic, but true – whereas the latter is a statement of subjectivism bordering on nonsense. That is not to say people do not recognize beauty differently or that they do not hold different standards of beauty. Some men perceive the beautiful only in the physical, and such men are everywhere acknowledged to be shallow; two men can recognize beauty in the same person, but disagree as to its quality. Contrariwise some individuals have little conception of physical attractiveness and are supplied with their ideals of a human person’s bodily beauty by societal conventions. Others can discern the interior, spiritual beauty of a person, often overcoming what might be considered physically ugly. Though this lattermost carries nobility, it lends to an unwarranted denigration of the physical, an egalitarian reduction of all physical being to a single, flat, unvarying plane of inherent quality; though the interior beauty is indeed far more essential to a person than the exterior, all people are not equally beautiful exteriorly, individuals cannot decide how beautiful a thing is, and attempts to characterize physical beauty as such is absurd. Veritably, beauty is an objective truth which comes from the object itself.
This seems in many way an impossible notion to prove; perhaps even absurd. No one would doubt, of course, that there are certain standards of beauty, but that there are significant deviations, to the point that saying beauty is itself objective is ridiculous. Naturally, as with all subjectivist positions, there is a small grain of truth that, deprived of its greater metaphysical context, is utterly misleading.
Nonetheless, beauty is oftentimes listed among the transcendental qualities of being: good, true, active, unified, and beautiful. As with any topic of metaphysics, it is prudent to remember that nothing said means any one exact, definite thing, and the amount of distinctions which can be made is nigh limitless; when the transcendentals are spoken of, there is an analogous quality to the speech which demands awareness; the good and the true, for instance, are ultimately one and the same thing, as are activity and unity and beauty. The reason different terms are used is not to distinguish different aspects from one another in themselves, but for the comprehension of man, and as such is an important distinction to make. Some would, however, distinguish these transcendental modes of expression rather strictly from their analogous immanent referents – e.g., that what is meant in speaking of transcendental beauty, which most adherents of this thought consider to be synonymous with “spiritual beauty,” hardly relates at all to immanent, or “physical,” beauty. This dualism is erroneous; for the spiritual is certainly immanent, within us, around us, and to the extent that everything which is a being is participating in Being Simpliciter, the power of standing-forth that is properly God’s alone, within everything that exists. In other words, spiritual and physical do not correlate exactly to transcendent and immanent; rather, what is transcendent is that which is above all particulars, in itself not limited but capable of being possessed in limited form, as in any particular being. Thus, beauty simpliciter would be none other than Being Simpliciter; but beauty, as transcendent, can be, in a like manner as it is simpliciter, within limited, finite, non-absolute beings; the worldly, immanent aesthetic can only be because there is a transcendent aesthetic; and when beauty is spoken of, be it transcendentally or immanently, there is a single referent to which the terms are related.
These are complex issues, which beg for much further discussion; but not here. However, it was vital to explain that beauty is an analogous term with a single referent. When a man calls a woman beautiful, regardless if he is talking about her physical shape or her compassionate disposition, he is predicating that in some part of her there is a particular instantiation of the transcendental quality of beauty present within her immanent being. He may, of course, be mistaken, and the less essential the particular quality upon which he bases his predication, the less he is complimenting her as a person. Nonetheless, a woman often finds a compliment to her hair or eyes pleasing; they are, after all, parts to the whole of her being.
It is indeed only through the physical aspects of a person that his non-sensible aspects may come to be known. Unless a man hears a woman’s words or sees her actions, he cannot know if she is a charitable person. A vicious action is never beautiful; it shares nothing in common with that transcendent aesthetic; it does not, as an isolated act, participate in beautiful being. But no act is every purely vicious, entirely without good – for there is a fundamental unity between being and good, and so long as an act is, it is good. There are many other factors involved in the potential viciousness of a thing or an act; again, a discussion that is worth consideration, but not here. More importantly, from the human perspective, to the human person, who is whole only when spirit and body are united, things are most beautiful, actions are most beautiful, when both the corporeal and the spiritual participate in transcendental beautiful being.
But what does it really mean for something to be beautiful? As aforementioned, it is, transcendentally speaking, identical with goodness, amongst other aspects ordinarily identified. However, in the realm of human understanding, the beautiful ought to be defined as that which, through its evident goodness, elevates the mind to the transcendent; it is the quality which draws the knower through the immanent and into contact with the unlimited.
Unfortunately, many people cannot recognize beauty in many forms. They do not see the whole, they do not see the coherence, and thus they are not moved beyond the immanent. Most who fail thus have been consistently formed to appreciate things other than the beautiful: raw emotion, spectacle, self-gratification, so on and so forth, rejecting all things that do not fulfill some baser need within themselves. Others yet have not taken the time to develop tastes for the good or beautiful things – as those who do not have a developed taste for beer cannot discern the things that make a beer good or bad, or wine, or any food, so too those who have not made the leap outside of themselves to take in something for what it is on its own; a woman may be seen as “beautiful” but only insofar as she gratifies a lustful desire for ocular gratification; but a truly beautiful woman is one who is unified inside and out, imbued with the transcendent quality, appreciable for the way she looks in line with the way she acts, the latter much more than the former, and all of it pointing to something greater.