This is a short essay on Jonathan Edwards essay The Beauty of the World, written this month by one of my high school students. I found it to be compelling in its simplicity and insight. Reprinted with the permission of the author, for your pleasure and consideration…
What is beauty? Jonathan Edwards defines beauty as the combination of qualities that make something pleasing and impressive to look at, listen to, touch, smell, or taste. What is the difference between beauty being objective or subjective? Objective usually connotes having to do with facts about the physical, material world. Subjective means “in the mind of a subject”.
Jonathan Edwards believes that beauty is an objective reality (14, 15).* He argues that beauty is in the object and not in the opinion of the person looking at it. Usually, we look at something and think, ‘wow, this is beautiful!’ But is there anything which is beautiful objectively, that is, apart from a person making a subjective judgment? Does ‘wow, it is beautiful!’ mean no more than ‘I like it?’ This conflicts with conventional experience because when we say something is beautiful, we imply that everyone would think it beautiful. In contrast, however, it is a practical fact that different things are beautiful to different people (14). Therefore, it is argued, beauty is subjective.There may, however, be a thing that, being seen, should please. In other words, if an object isn’t pleasing to someone, that person is somehow at error. Such an object would, then, be objectively beautiful (pg. 15).
In Beauty of the World Edwards lays out his understanding of beauty (14-15).Although he is well aware of and enamored by the beauty of nature, he grounds beauty in proportionality and ‘suitableness (14-15).’ He says that modern light theory posits a proportionate relationship of vibrations, stimulating the optic nerve that makes the green grass and blue sky and white clouds agreeable (pg. 14). Colors are a source of ‘palpable’ beauty (pg.14-15). Edwards argues that beauty is the right relations of things to other things. They partake of a proportionately ‘sweet mutual consent’ (14-15). This definition of being frees us from having to say, ‘beauty is what people take delight in.’ We can freely say, ‘beauty is proportionate,’ and, ‘what is proportionate is often what people find pleasing (14-15).’ Therefore, beauty according to Jonathan Edwards is objective.”
The page references are to the Jonathan Edwards Reader, ISBN: 0 300 09838 3