The Objectivity of Beauty

Edmund Burke Against Aesthetic Relativism

The idea that beauty is objective is not widely shared today. Aesthetic relativism is so widespread in our culture that even those who are firmly non-relativistic in other areas (religion, morality, etc.) are likely to have given up on the claim that beauty in art, music, architecture, clothing, and so on, is objective. Everything has been turned into a matter of preference or pragmatics. Should one believe a painting by George Innes is more beautiful than a Jeff Koons statue? Or that Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA is more beautiful than a brutalist office-building masquerading as a church? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

This is all nonsense, of course. Beauty is objective because it is a reflection of the glory, majesty, and beauty of God’s being. Some things, insofar as they reflect God’s glory, majesty, and beauty, are truly more beautiful than other things. There are many ways this can be defended, but one that may prove particularly helpful today is the revival of an idea found in an early writing of Edmund Burke. Burke, though famous for his political writings and career, first made a splash in the literary world of 18th century England with a treatise on aesthetics entitled A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

Burke’s argument is simple. Beauty is objective, but human powers of perceiving of beauty are not. This fact, and not the absence of an objective basis for beauty, is what accounts for the radically divergent claims people make about whether something is beautiful or not:

So far then as taste belongs to the imagination, its principle is the same in all men; there is no difference in the manner of their being affected, nor in the causes of the affection; but in the degree there is a difference, which arises from two causes principally; either from a greater degree of natural sensibility, or from a closer and longer attention to the object. (31)

Recognizing beauty, in fact, requires several things: a developed ability to discriminate between what is beautiful and ugly, and sufficient knowledge and experience in such discrimination. “For sensibility and judgment, which are the qualities that compose what we commonly call a taste, vary exceedingly in various people,” Burke maintains (33). “There are some men,” he continues

formed with feelings so blunt, with tempers so cold and phlegmatic, that they can hardly be said to be awake during the whole course of their lives. Upon such persons the most striking objects make but a faint and obscure impression. (33)

And

there are others so continually in the agitation of gross and merely sensual pleasures, or so occupied in the low drudgery of avarice, or so heated in the chase of honours and distinction, that their minds, which had been used continually to the storms of these violent and tempestuous passions, can hardly be put in motion by the delicate and refined play of the imagination. (33)

In our rabidly egalitarian age, it is not polite to point such facts out, but some people simply aren’t capable of recognizing beauty. This, Burke insists, is due to a variety of factors: stunted powers of discrimination, carnal and materialistic living, an obsession with living for the applause of the world, or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” in recognizing beauty (33). “The cause of a wrong taste,” in short, “is a defect of judgment” (33). Burke also points out that what is commonly mistaken for total subjectivity with regard to beauty is the fact that there are gradations of beauty. Beauty is on a scale from less to more beautiful. But that is very different from saying that beauty is subjective.

Burke ultimately grounds the objectivity of beauty in God himself. There would be no way to claim that beauty is objective otherwise:

The more accurately we search into the human mind, the stronger traces we everywhere find of His wisdom who made it. If a discourse on the use of the parts of the body may be considered as an hymn to the Creator; the use of the passions, which are the organs of the mind, cannot be barren of praise to him, nor unproductive to ourselves of that noble and uncommon union of science and admiration, which a contemplation of the works of infinite wisdom alone can afford to a rational mind . . . we may be admitted, if I may dare to say so, into the counsels of the Almighty by a consideration of his works. (53)

Burke also recognizes that most people are able to perceive beauty when they see it, even if they can’t give a wholly satisfactory explanation for it:

It is, I own, not uncommon to be wrong in theory, and right in practice; and we are happy that it is so. Men often act right from their feelings, who afterwards reason but ill on them from principle: but as it is impossible to avoid an attempt at such reasoning, and equally impossible to prevent its having some influence on our practice, surely it is worth taking some pains to have it just, and founded on the basis of sure experience. (54)

This is an important point, since we live in a world in which aesthetic relativism is relentlessly put forward as an unquestionable and universal first principle. Most people know better, recognizing beauty from their hearts, if not their heads. Burke simply helps us articulate the grounds for what we know instinctively to be true.

Christians are not immune to the relativistic pressures of our day, whether moral or aesthetic. We should know better, however: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). Perhaps we simply need a little nudge in the right direction, a boost of confidence, to say what the entirety of God’s creation tells us so clearly: the emperor of aesthetic relativism has no clothes.


Image Credit: Unsplash

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

2 thoughts on “The Objectivity of Beauty

  1. This is a highly informative post! Your explanations were clear and thorough. I especially appreciated the way you discussed the latest research findings. Thank you for sharing such valuable information

  2. No one thinks beauty is relative. You’ll find universal condemnation of bland office buildings like you described.

    The most left wing people in this country live in gorgeous places like Laguna Beach, Oregon, Greenwich Village, Ann Arbor, etc. They’re the relativists, and yet…

    What has happened – and you fail to address this – is an acknowledgement that beauty isn’t that important. An aesthetically pleasing church may not be a theologically worshipful one. A beautiful building may have been built by slaves. My church is extremely and objectively ugly. But I’m intelligent and godly enough to know that isn’t of utmost importance. If we get to the point where all churches are God honoring in word and in deed, then we can worry about the beauty of their buildings. But we’re so far away from that.

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