What is beauty

Somebody asked me for my thoughts on a concise definition of beauty, so here they are: 

First, it’s terribly unfair to ask for a concise definition because the more concise you make it, the more people will understand the words differently.

Second, if you are going to define beauty you have to believe that it actually exists, which means that it is not merely “in the eye of the beholder.”

Third, I do believe that it exists and that it is an essential property of all that is good, just, right, appropriate, etc.

Fourth, that doesn’t make it easier to define.

Fifth, Thomas Aquinas gave a great description of the elements of beauty: wholeness (also translatable as purity, an interesting fact in itself), balance, and radiance (sometimes called clarity, but this confuses the issue – radiance is better).


Beauty therefore is a quality of an object that is most easily perceived when the object is whole/pure, balanced, and radiant.


A word on radiant: for an object to be radiant, there must be something that is “radiated.” That something is the idea being embodied in the object. For example, if you want to see a beautiful painting of a tree, then you must look for a painting in which the idea of a tree is embodied well.

 A beautiful tree itself is one that is healthy (whole/pure), balanced (it grows in a proportionate manner, which all trees are created to do so far as I can tell), and radiant (you can see the idea of a tree clearly in this tree because it is a wonderful type of the idea of a tree).

 That radiance bit is tough for moderns because we don’t value “ideas” in the Christian classical sense anymore and that is why our culture has experienced an aesthetic meltdown. We think something is beautiful merely because we enjoy looking at it or listening to it.

 The entire history and notion of artistic criticism and even moral judgment, however, arise from the notion that there are ideas and that those ideas need to be expressed well (appropriately) for a work of art to be successful.

 Art is, in short, not self-expression, but expression of an idea (not a concept in the head, but an idea woven into the fabric of reality).

 Beauty, therefore, is one of the most important ideas in existence. And it seems to be, as I said above, a quality in an object that is most easily perceived when the object is whole, balanced, and radiant, and when the observer has “eyes to see.”

 One final thought: the Greek word for beauty is Kalos, which can also be translated: the good, the noble, the fitting, etc. Very interesting.

5 Responses

  1. How does this definition relate to music? I’m a music teacher, and this is something I’ve thought a lot about but have not come up with very many good conclusions. I want to divest my students of the idea that beauty is in the eye~~or in this case, ear~~of the beholder, but I’m not sure how to go about it. I know there must be some objective criteria, but they seem so elusive! I know, for instance, that John Cage’s music doesn’t qualify as beautiful on objective grounds (seeing as it is based on an unbiblical view of the world), but most cases aren’t so clear cut. Any ideas?

  2. Here’s a definition of beauty from Gene Veith, probably paraphrasing an ancient author: A work is beautiful to the extent that it displays at the same time both complexity and unity.

    • I’ve heard Dr. Veith say that, and while I can see the value of it, I don’t know that it covers every case. Some things can be quite simple and yet beautiful, in my view. Of course, you can break down any simple thing into its component elements, but then anything other than an elemental particle in physics or maybe even a superstring is complex, in which case anything that has internal unity is beautiful, but what doesn’t and therefore what isn’t?

      Maybe I’m thinking too curiously.

  3. It’s not surprising the Greeks did not define beauty as ‘pleasing to the eye’ is it?

    • No, it really isn’t. They weren’t as self-centered as we are. Yet, to the pure, what is pleasing is beautiful. That might be one of the truly great motives for purity.

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