Saturday, September 01, 2007

De Forma Humana

(or Concerning Human Beauty)

Over the summer, I heard many people talking about several movie and pop stars and how beautiful they are (or were, in the case of Audrey Hepburn). I was asked at one point who I admired, and I honestly could not give an answer. Reflecting on this has raised some interesting questions about the nature of beauty.

An important thing I realized is that I find the women I worked with on staff to all be far more beautiful than whatever I see in Hollywood. I think the reason as to why this is has to do with the fact that the ladies on staff are, to me, real people. I do not know any movie stars and maybe if I did, I could speak otherwise about them, but they all seem fake and phony. The obvious moral here is that beauty is about more than proportioned flesh. Much like love, beauty has been reduced to basic physical algorithms in our culture. Instead of "I feel this way around him/her, therefore I am in love," you have "I see these things I like about his/her body, therefore he/she is beautiful." The case I make here is that there is something more to beauty than this, just as there is more to love than feelings. Just as love is based on a commitment, perhaps beauty can be considered as being based on something else?

The second thing of note is that if beauty is anything like goodness and truth, then it most certain is not relative. One's axiology (theory of values) is either referential or relative. Either values such as goodness, truth and beauty have an independent source or they do not. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a common line tossed around by many. This is hardly the case, I think, if you are trying to be a consistent Christian. Again, either are values are subject to our wills or independent of them. Since I know that truth and goodness are sourced outside of my opinions, I am inclined to think that beauty must be as well.

While it is fairly easy to come up with armchair definitions, it is very hard to actually apply them to real life. How do we decide if a person is beautiful or not? Assuming for the moment that we actually should try to discern human beauty (which certainly could use some justification itself), how do we do it? Cultural wisdom has the easy answer of "each man is his own critic," but if we are committed to beauty being absolute, along with truth and goodness, then we cannot write it off as a matter of taste. That said, we cannot deny that different people find different things (and people) more beautiful than others. Now, simply because something happens to be a matter of fact does not mean that all facts ought to be the case. Simply because some people find different things morally permissible that others do not does entail that morality is up to the individual.

The best I can come up with at this point in my thought exercises on this topic, is that beauty isn't something physical and it isn't something that is "on the inside." Rather, it is both. There is a physical and, dare I say it, a metaphysical element to beauty. In my senior thesis, I looked at Aquinas' understanding of the soul and body. The human, in his view is both material and immaterial, but the soul, while immaterial, is located in that physical place. Soul and body are not two separate things, but they make one complete thing. Perhaps thinking about beauty in a similar way will be beneficial. There are physical elements and non-physical elements of beauty, and neither can be exalted over the other. To do so would cause us to become materialists or gnostics. To stay in the saddle, we need to acknowledge both.

So when I look at movie starts, yes, maybe they demonstrate some physical elements that compose beauty, but they, over all, lack that metaphysical element that the poets seem better equipped to talk about than philosophers. Thus, I sit myself down and await the parade of poets to enter and complete the puzzle.


Christine said...

I found the link to this on the Boundless Line.

I appreciated your discussion on the axiology of beauty. It's interesting to think of a set standard for beauty - this was not a concept I had thought of before. Would you say that there is a standard for physical beauty?

I would most non-Christians would rate a woman like Mother Theresa. I would imagine that she would be found beautiful by most people because of the nature of her life. Yet, her beauty doesn't seem at all tied to her looks.

Thanks for a thought provoking post.

Jacob Douvier said...


First, thanks for stopping by and reading.

The topic of my post was on human beauty in general, which I concluded by saying that it must be something physical and non-physical.
I think you are asking if there is a standard for that physical part. If beauty is a value, then that value has its root in something. Meaning is given to something by God. God's Word tells us in many passages that different people were beautiful or handsome. Since God does not lie, if his Word says that someone was beautiful, they must have been. Now, we don't have pictures or descriptions of these people, so we're hard-pressed to figure out what it looks like. Thus we have the problem. The armchair philosopher and theologian can make a case for there being a standard for beauty, but because there is a lack of information, we cannot say what it actually looks like.

Your thoughts on Mother Theresa are, I think, touching on something key, and that is that beauty is more than just about flesh. That is why I think beauty in human beings has two components which cannot be considered independently, but only as one whole. I tie this back into my philosophy of soul/body, in which case it does not do me any good to talk about a human being unless I have both the matter and the soul that order the matter into me. How human is my soul or my matter apart from the other? It makes no sense to talk about it, because a human is a composition of the two.

phoebe said...

I found you from boundless also, and I appreciated your article. I think you have indeed hit on something which I had not yet grasped in my own questions about whether absolute beauty exists.

Jesus our Lord is definitely the most beautiful person who has ever existed. On this earth, though he was not outwardly attractive, his soul attracted many people. In his resurrected body, he is now beautiful in every way.

Jacob Douvier said...

I'm glad you found it thought-provoking. Your thoughts on the resurrected Christ are good...

Christine said...

If we define beauty as a composite of internal and external (which I think it is fair to do), is it then justifiable for a Christian to make a decision about a romantic relationship based on physical appearance? It seems as though physical appearance shouldn't matter since Isaiah tells us that Christ was not exactly physically beautiful but, at the same time, Song of Songs seems to encourage attraction between spouses. What are your thoughts?

Jacob Douvier said...


I do not think that it is wise to make a decision about a romantic relationship soley on the basis of physical appearance. Now, I'm not saying that it cannot be a factor, but but it should definitely not be a sole factor.

You brought up Song of Solomon. I think to address this book, we need to understand that the nature of love is not butterflies in one's tummy, but is a commitment to that person. I have heard that in many arranged marriages, where the commitment comes first, that the affections and emotions do follow. Because of this, I think that if one wisely chooses and commits to a spouse on the condition of character and spiritual maturity alone, attraction will follow. Now, I am not married, nor have I yet ventured into the dating scene, so I can only speak as an armchair philosopher!
Thanks again for stopping by!

Nathan Winslow said...

Jacob, well written and thoughtful. I appreciate your approach, and especially like that you don't discount the physical nature of beauty. It seems that some completely discount the physical and spiritualize the issue. I am glad that you did not.

Jacob Douvier said...

Thanks! I recently thought of another avenue of approach to this issue, so we will see if they can be developed enough to be worth posting.