The popular expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is used frequently but without much thought given to its possible meanings. What is instinctively implied, of course, is that there is no such thing as universal beauty; that beauty is relative, depending on the environment, such as the culture, the personality, or the sex of the “beholder”. In this view, beauty is always particular since it depends on circumstance. Thus, in extremis, what may seem very beautiful in one case, may well elicit merely indifference or even disgust in another.
However, this expression can also mean that beauty requires the existence of a “beholder”. Just as there is no shout in a forest unless someone can hear it, beauty then depends on an aesthetic reaction. In other words, beauty is not a physical quality of a thing, even though it is always perceived as such. George Santayana defined beauty in this way in his influential work from 1896, The Sense of Beauty: “beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.” For instance, a healthy observer usually qualifies an object as being “beautiful” in the same way he qualifies it as being, for instance, red or warm. The latter two qualifiers are purely physical attributes whereas beauty is not. If this sense of beauty is true too, then there are also some general agreements about what is beautiful and what is not. That is, here the perception of beauty is not subjective, but guided by certain universal principles.
At first glance these two views of beauty seem contradictory; the first is specific, the second is general. Yet, since both interpretations seem true it would be interesting, therefore, to try to reconcile them in a way which is consistent with experience. The obvious observation that man is susceptible to beauty is a good starting point precisely because it is obvious. Indeed, without trying for the moment to determine the reason, some things are always more aesthetically pleasing than others to every individual, regardless of their inherent value. Man is thus always unfair and biased in his perception of the world, since he cannot avoid to spontaneously discriminate objects, events and people that surround him, based solely on his perception of their external characteristics.
There are countless examples from everyday life that testify to the fact that this sensuous discrimination is relative and specific; there is an evident variety of tastes and opinions. Indeed, different people find different things beautiful, and a person’s sense of beauty can even change depending on his actual physical or mental state. There are also significant cultural and historical variations in what is considered beautiful, for instance with regards to architecture, art, fashion, and the ideal shape of the human body.
Yet, this variety of aesthetic tastes and opinions does not imply that beauty is purely subjective; it can also depend on differences in individual capacities to perceive beauty. Man tends to specialise; each individual is capable of perceiving beauty in some things but not in others. Further, many objects and events are complex in form and structure, and what is beautiful is thus not always evident. The appreciation of beauty often requires a certain preparation, education, sensitivity, or frame of mind. Indeed, many people are almost dead to beauty; they can hardly feel or enjoy art for instance. Others have only a very primitive sense of beauty; they may only be able to perceive beauty in the most natural forms, like in a sunset or a lark’s song. It should also be admitted that certain cultures, like the Italian one, are far more sensitive to beauty than others; that is, not all people are as well prepared to make aesthetic judgments.
Furthermore, it seems difficult to deny that a least some affinities with regard to beauty do seem to exist between individuals. Though individual tastes undoubtedly vary, experience shows they often have many points in common. Thus, the wide and general popularity of many works of art is due in part to the existence of common aesthetic feelings in mankind. Such affinities also often unite different cultures, once they get accustomed to other modes of artistic expression. For example, the beauty of traditional Asian silk and scroll art has been appreciated in the West for a long time; and today, every year, millions of Asians tourists travel to admire the artistic masterpieces of
Europe. Studies have also confirmed that attractive individuals are usually perceived as such even across cultures.
Thus, despite undeniable and innumerable individuals variations, there are arguably signs that there are underlying aesthetic principles which guide man’s perception of beauty. Indeed, certain shapes and combinations of colours and sounds are pleasing to all human beings. This, after all, is not suprising considering how the sense organs, including the brain, are identically constituted in all individuals. The physiology of the human body necessarily influences not only what strains the senses, but also what soothes and attracts them. For instance, one of these aesthetic principles is the love of symmetry. It is well known that man is naturally attracted to symmetry, and in particular to horizontal symmetry. Studies have shown that it is an important factor determining whether a human face is considered beautiful.
Moreover, when a material structure is symmetrical, ordered and harmonious in design and construction, like a well-built bridge for instance, it needs less internal energy to hold together. Similarly, the sphere is the most perfect and natural shape in the universe since it needs the least amount of energy to exist; it is the most efficient way for matter to arrange itself around a center. The diamond, when cut and polished, is widely considered one of the most beautiful objects known to man, and it is surely not a coincidence that it is also the most compact and efficient way for carbon molecules to pack together. In all these cases, the existence of inherent order is essential for an object to be considered beautiful.
If this idea of the inherent efficiency of an object’s structure is extended to any other medium, like liquid, light and sound, it is possible to say then that something is beautiful in inverse proportion to the internal energy that it needs in order to exist. The closer an object’s constitution comes to its optimum and ideal state, the more beautiful it is according to this aesthetic principle (and vice versa). Indeed, the beauty and the symmetry of a human face or body are thought to be closely related with not only the apparent physical health but also the underlying genetic health (i.e. the inner structure) of the individual to whom this face or body belongs. In one sense then, beauty can be felt in that which exists with the least tension, with the least inherent conflict, with the most inner harmony.
There seem to be, therefore, a set of general aesthetic guidelines, which form the basis for a perception of beauty that is inherent in all human beings. Indeed, babies naturally tend to be attracted to, and give more attention to people whose faces are generally perceived as beautiful. Ugliness is lack of beauty, but it also has its place among other inherited aversions, such as the many instinctive fears and revulsions that human beings have learned to feel over time for their own benefit. As a child grows however, the relative side of beauty quickly gains in influence, since the particular environment inevitably tinges the way this innate faculty is developed and used. Each society, and often each community, has its own implicit aesthetic criteria. These criteria are always subjective and incomplete and, combined with individual idiosynchracies, therefore lead to unique, imperfect, and infinitely varying ways of perceiving beauty.
Beauty can thus be said to have general traits when seen from the height of mankind, and specific ones in a particular individual, culture or historic period. This duality of general principles of beauty and actual aesthetic sensations is of course reminiscent of Plato’s theory of ideal Forms, of which earthly things are but lesser copies. The general aspects of beauty are like the laws of physics that define a shiny and perfectly smooth surface seen from far away. As this surface is inspected ever more closely, as through a microscope, the general progressively yields to the specific, as myriad irregularities and imperfections gradually become visible. Thus the general and the relative aspects of beauty correspond to different aesthetic perspectives, and are complementary in creating the sense of beauty in man. To say that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is therefore particularly appropriate since, in its full meaning, it captures the two sides of beauty.
G. Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, p49. (Dover Books, 1955)