Beauty—the pre-modern understanding

The notion that beauty is a merely private, “subjective” phenomenon rather than a real mind-independent feature of the world is such a popular opinion nowadays that it virtually has its own slogan: namely, its “all in the eye of the beholder.” Despite being a patent cliche, this statement presents a real philosophical proposition that most people today commit themselves to. But if beauty is, as the saying goes, all in the eye of the beholder—if there is no portion, part, or aspect of beauty that lies outside of the beholder—then does it really make sense to talk about there being beautiful things or objects in the world at all, or must this word “beauty” refer only to one’s inner feelings or experiences? If I say Durham Cathedral is beautiful, am I ascribing some feature to the Cathedral itself, or only describing my experience of it? If the latter is the case—if I am referring only to my own feelings when I say the Cathedral is beautiful—then I must ask the further question why the Cathedral in particular causes this feeling rather than any other building (Dunelm House, for instance). Even if I identify beauty as nothing more than the experience which occurs within me when I come in contact with the Cathedral, I must admit that the Cathedral itself (rather than my subjectivity on its own), is the cause of my experience of beauty. 

It seems to me for these reasons that we cannot give a sufficient account of what beauty is if we focus only on the subject that experiences beauty—only on the “eye of the beholder”—rather than the beheld thing itself. I believe, in other words, that beauty is not a mere subjective experience, but an objective feature of the world. I’m sure there are countless philosophical arguments for and against my view, but I’m not interested in expounding or refuting arguments at the moment. All I intend to do now is introduce you to a much different understanding of beauty—an understanding that relocates beauty from the subjective realm of experience to the objective world of being. 

The vision of beauty I am interested in would have been more familiar to the pre-modern mind than its modern or (even more so) postmodern successors. It was the vision shared by the minds who built the Durham Cathedral (both the Romanesque edifice of the early Norman period, and the Gothic additions of the high middle ages), as opposed to the unhappy souls who built Dunelm House in the dreary mid-twentieth century. In the pre-modern theory of aesthetics, the beauty of each particular thing consists in that thing’s success in being the kind of thing it is. A beautiful tree, for instance, is a tree that best instantiates, reflects, or participates in the ideal nature of tree-ness. This pre-modern theory of beauty is accompanied by a more practical and concrete focus on the objective features of the beautiful thing (brightness of color and symmetry in dimensions for instance), but undoubtedly its most distinctive feature is its highly metaphysical, or even mystical focus on the exemplary forms or natures of beings. 

But what about things that don’t have inherent natures? Trees, seashells, cats, and human beings might plausibly be called beautiful insofar as they radiate the specific natures or forms they instantiate, but what about art? Are there ideal forms of statues, paintings, or Cathedrals in the same way that there are forms of natural things? Perhaps not; at least not in the exact same way. Although the forms of being that shine forth through art are not the exact same forms that show through nature, the pre-modern theory of beauty widely regarded artistic beauty as the shining-forth of forms or natures that are re-cast and enriched by the artistic genius of the human mind. The beauty of art, therefore, is rooted in the essential structure of being just as much as the beauty of nature is.

This notion of beauty obviously has its weak-points. Relying as it does on a hierarchical and quasi-mystical understanding of being, it does not fit naturally with most modern people’s way of thinking; nor does it offer a clear or satisfactory account of the aesthetic dimension of non-visual art, like music. But this, I would argue, is hardly a reason to reject it. If we look at this theory “from the inside,” that is, if we look at beauty from the inner vantage of aesthetic experience rather than mere theoretical description, do we not find that there is a deep resonance between our experience of beauty and the account given of it by the pre-modern theory? In the height of aesthetic experience, does it not feel like beauty puts us in touch with something not just within ourselves, but beyond ourselves? Something which commands the attention of our subjectivity like a magnetic force from outside, rather than an ephemeral feeling that wells up from within? Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps the pre-modern account of aesthetics is too foreign or otherworldly to tap into your own experience of beauty. But next time you walk past Kingsgate footbridge—next time you take in the glory of Durham Cathedral and the drear of Dunelm House in a single gaze, please take a moment to reconsider. 

Image: Durham Cathedral (photo by author)

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