Few maxims are likely to excite the concern of a classicist quite like, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The claim rings with the kind of subjectivity that eschews the transcendent and easily slips into radical relativism.
In various treatises on the subject, Roger Scruton argues that between truth, beauty, and goodness, beauty is something of an odd-man out. The irregular place of beauty among the three transcendentals owes to the fact that beauty must be experienced directly, while we are willing to acknowledge truth and goodness via proxy. We come to believe a man is a good man by the testimony of witnesses, even while we have not met him personally. Similarly, I am willing to recommend a certain auto mechanic to my friends even if that mechanic has not serviced my car, simply because I have heard credible testimony about the mechanic from others. “There’s a good mechanic over in Lakeside where you can take your car,” I say, even though I don’t him from Adam.
On the other hand, we are generally unwilling to grant a thing is beautiful unless we have laid our own eyes on it. If Tom tells Harry, “I was cold today and a stranger gave me the coat off his back,” Harry might reply, “What a good man!” However, if Tom tells Harry, “I saw a beautiful woman today at the flower shop,” Harry cannot reply, “What a beautiful woman!” When it comes to beauty, we say, “I have heard Beethoven’s 7th is beautiful,” or, “I have heard Friedrich painted beautiful landscapes,” but unless our eyes have actually beheld the beauty in question, we can only report what we’ve heard.
In this, the true meaning of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not that every man is free to determine beauty on his own terms. Rather, beauty is the point at which knowledge of God must be tasted, not merely acknowledged by way of rational assent. Proportion, harmony, and symmetry might be found floating around in the blue, ethereal realm of the forms, but beauty is only known through profound confrontation. For this reason, beauty has the power to pacify, to sublimate, and to terrify. Understood rightly, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply means “Taste and see the Lord is good.” When St. Thomas said he would not believe unless he touched the wounds of Christ, he was refusing to leave beauty out of the picture, for without beauty, truth and goodness are mere fideism, mere moralism.