Beauty: Eye of the beholder?

The question was raised on a C. S. Lewis listerv I belong to, “What is beauty?”  One answer, from Lewis scholar Jim Prothero, was that beauty is “holiness made visible.”  Another correspondent questioned the adequacy of that formula: a Prostitute may be beautiful but is hardly holy; Jesus’ mangled body on the cross was holy but hardly beautiful.  How do we sort through all this complexity?  It would be impossible to attempt an answer in a short essay that anyone would be willing to plough through.  But I will attempt to steer my way between the Scylla of adequacy and the Charybdis of silence by offering a few random thoughts, inadequate (this I know) as they are tantalizing (this I hope).

Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory, as they are found in the world He has made.  Thus I try to summarize the matter in my longish scholarly essay on the topic, “A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C. S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty,” now published as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  Because the world is cursed and our minds fallen, we can be mistaken about all three.  But it hardly follows from this either that they are not real or that we are utterly incapable of recognizing them truly.  In the case of Beauty, our minds can be, as I put it in one of my poems, “abused / By surface prettiness the eye can see” (Stars Through the Clouds 353).  Even the surface prettiness partakes of some faint hint of the real thing, however twisted.  For, as Augustine teaches us, Evil is always a parasite on the Good.  But true Beauty in its deepest form must be consistent with Truth and Goodness.  The surface prettiness of the Prostitute is thus a perversion of Beauty, related to it by the real presence of good form and proportion, but not partaking of its fullness.  And the surface ugliness of the Crucifixion hides the beauty of God’s holiness from those who do not penetrate deeper to see the meaning of His love.  Instead of that they see only “cosmic child abuse.”  Thus they miss the Beauty of Christ’s sacrifice precisely by missing also its Goodness and its Truth.

Prothero wants us to pursue “something higher and more beautiful than beauty, which, like joy, is not an end (a frequent mistake made in our culture) but a sign of higher things.”  Yes; I see what he means.  I think I agree, though I would not say it quite like that.  I would put it this way:  We only see Beauty in a partial and distorted way unless we see it as related to Truth and Goodness and see their unity as abiding in God.  The Prostitute’s beauty is not unreal but it is partial and therefore distorted; physical only.  Because Beauty in its fullness is related to Truth and Goodness, it cannot be seen with the eye alone, but only with the mind—and only fully by a mind renewed and enlightened by grace.  The Prostitute still has the part that the eye can see—but only that.  And the mind enlightened by grace can see the deeper Beauty in something like the Crucifixion where the eye’s part is missing.

So Prothero’s formula, “Beauty is visible Holiness,” is I think true in an ultimate sense, but it is not a truth that we can hope to see on first inspection, and never when the inspection is made by the eye alone.  I don’t ever expect to see Mother Teresa’s face gracing the cover of Cosmo; but I’ll bet she was very beautiful to the poor of Calcutta, and I’ll bet they saw that beauty even in the specific features of her face: the compassion in her eyes, the love in her smile.

Inadequate?  Surely.  Tantalizing?  We shall see.  You can always read the larger discussion in Reflections from Plato’s Cave.

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at

Donald T. Williams, PhD



4 thoughts on “Beauty: Eye of the beholder?

  1. I have enjoyed Eliane Scarry’s _On Beauty and Being Just_. She also looks at the objective truth about beauty. She equates beauty to God’s justice and Order, which how something as visibly ugly as Christ on the Cross is ultimately beautiful.

  2. Beauty is a wonderful thing but it is more or less an attribute that is to be appreciated and little more. On the other hand, concepts such as Truth, Efficiency, Endurance, Innovation, etc., are far more useful than Beauty (and one can claim that these concepts are in fact beautiful). I feel that the pursuit of Beauty is chasing after a shadow while the real object is far more practical and important. Beauty sweetens life, and it’s not the bedrock on which to build a life. I believe that a life lived solely in pursuit of Beauty is a wasted life, unless the result is a change in peoples’ lives for the better. In the end, who cares if something is beautiful? The important questions are: is it real? is it good? is it useful? does it affect the world in a positive way? Physical beauty, artistic beauty, poetic beauty – these are simply things that make people pause and say, “Wow.” In my opinion, Truth and Usefulness are the criteria for beauty. Imaginative beauty is important but holds a lower value, and should not be the goal of one’s life.

  3. Mark, there are things that let us live, and there are things that make life worth living. One does not want to lose the former, because they support the latter. Without the latter, though, the former would become pointless. Are you sure you are not confusing which is which?

  4. Reblogged this on metanoia in progress and commented:
    I ran across this short post on What is Beauty? Such a loaded question for sure, but I did like the following line:
    “So Prothero’s formula, “Beauty is visible Holiness,” is I think true in an ultimate sense, but it is not a truth that we can hope to see on first inspection, and never when the inspection is made by the eye alone.”

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