Why Does Beauty Matter?

And is it really subjective?

Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as “that which, upon being seen, pleases.” 

800 years later, neuroscience agreed:

Studies reveal that the brain processes beauty in the same region that processes both pleasure and disgust — so you experience the Sistine Chapel with the same part of your brain that activates with a bite of a delicious meal.

Beauty, however, is far more than a delicious meal. It’s the essential element that keeps culture alive.

But what actually is beauty, and why does it matter?

What Is Beauty?

Let’s begin by looking back to the 5th century B.C.

Plato and Aristotle identified three properties — truth, goodness, and beauty — which have the unique ability to take you to the brink of the human experience. 

They are the points at which our experience, which is limited by time, space, and our fallible minds, touches the eternal — something that exceeds our ability to understand.

In other words, these qualities are what endow our lives with spiritual significance. They took on the name “transcendentals,” from Latin transcendere, “to exceed,” or literally “to rise beyond.”

This link between beauty and spirituality is summed up in the words of Catholic priest Thomas Dubay: “The acute experience of great beauty readily evokes a nameless yearning for something more than earth can offer.”

In Plato’s understanding, beauty is more than an intellectual recognition. It’s a holistic experience of wonder, awe, and even humility.

What sets beauty apart from the other transcendentals is its ability to slip under your intellectual radar. You don’t have to analyze the meter of Beethoven’s Cavatina before it brings tears to your eyes. A sunset’s glow or a lovely face makes you catch your breath instantly, not after a long examination.

Beauty is hard to define precisely because it bypasses your analytical shields and grasps directly at your heart.

Isn’t Beauty Subjective?

Take a look at this picture:

Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya (c.1823)

Now compare it to this one:

Flaming June, Frederic Leighton (1895)

Would you say one is beautiful and one is not? If so, can you define the difference?

Beauty is notoriously difficult to pin down empirically. Not only that, but its manifestations vary across cultures, so it looks different depending on time and place.

This leads to the relativist assumption that the experience of beauty is completely subjective. In other words, you’re led to believe something is beautiful only because you’ve been taught or conditioned to deem it so. 

However popular that proposition is, it doesn’t explain the fact that people respond to beauty with predictable neurological changes. When exposed to beautiful images and architecture, your body releases oxytocin and endorphins. Your heart rate lowers, as does your blood pressure. 

In other words, the physiological response is anything but subjective. There’s something about actual beauty that impacts people regardless of what they’ve been conditioned to like.

Treasured works of architecture around the world all rely on mathematical patterns to create visual harmony. That harmony makes us feel safe, calms our nervous system, registers as aesthetic beauty, and even reminds us of the longing for spiritual peace. 

But that doesn’t mean beauty is restricted to one style of architecture. Cultures of the past brought forth a dizzying array of breathtaking buildings, incorporating mathematical concepts from geometry to fractals:

  • Islamic design, both in mosques and palaces, incorporates complex geometric patterns

  • Egyptian pyramids use precise angles and proportions including the golden ratio

  • Hindu temples (like the great Virupaksha Temple) use fractals as the basis for its high spires

Each of these epic designs tells a unique story. The fractals of Virupaksha Temple, for instance, convey eternally-rising spiritual consciousness. You might assume that the design of the pyramids is simplistic, but their eternal magnetism comes from the complex angles that make their simple shapes so harmonious — making you feel the weight of eons as you gaze at them.

So, what’s the lesson in all this architecture?

Beauty differs in its manifestations, but it follows predictable patterns.

What Is the Role of Beauty in Culture?

We already touched on the way beauty functions as the meeting place between the limitations of our lives and the invitation to the infinite.

In fact, you could say this is the primary role beauty serves in every culture. 

In this sense, beauty is the link between culture and spirituality. It lifts our eyes above our immediate concerns, putting us in touch with the greater purpose of our lives.

How can culture survive without a sense of transcendence? It’s no accident that the great cultures that shaped history — Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and more — left behind vivid mythologies as well as great art. Their spiritual reality was immediate to their daily life.

What’s more, beauty is an essential mode of passing on culture.

What inspires you more, a list of rules, or a beautiful ritual? It's probably the latter, which is why cultures enshrine their most sacred truths in beautiful stories, songs, objects, buildings, and even garments. One of beauty’s crucial roles is to keep its people united in their collective identity and safeguard truth for future generations.

That’s why beauty is such an effective way to measure the health of a culture. 

And it also begs the important question:

What Happens When We Lose Touch With It?

The Renaissance saw an outpouring of beauty that flowed from princely palaces down to homely churches. Ornamentation bloomed on vases, swords, doorknobs, and picture frames. It was a culture in touch with its spiritual life.

We can’t quite say the same for today’s world. Modern production is optimized for efficiency, not illumination. Cobblestone streets give way to interstates. Once-enchanting cities fill with strip malls, and items are produced to meet the demands of fast-shifting fashions. Without the unifying force of beauty, culture begins to unravel.

Is beauty all that’s required to repair the cracks, though? Perhaps not, but it feels certain that cultural revival will never occur without it.

Beauty Is the Bridge

Yes, beauty is “subjective” — in the sense that it speaks to us as subjects. It resonates with us in an individual, personal way.

But the power of beauty is that it’s rooted in an objective ideal, and is therefore a bridge between individual experience and objective reality. That’s what gives it the power to connect our lives with the eternal and imbue culture with meaning.

Orienting our cultural efforts toward something beyond ourselves keeps us striving, healthy, and united. It’s when our confidence in our culture’s deeper meaning falls apart that ugliness creeps back into our public — and private — spaces.

So, how can you make the world more beautiful?

It all begins at home, with how you live: the way you dress, the books you read, the music you listen to. The way you decorate your home, and whether you prefer to spend your spare time looking down at a screen or up into the outdoor sky.

All of these are opportunities to add order, harmony, and beauty to your life.

More than that, they’re opportunities to tap into a deeper, more spiritual existence — one that restores both your life and the culture around you to harmony and meaning. 

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Art of the Week

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (1665)

No email about beauty is complete without Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Sometimes called “the Mona Lisa of the North,” Vermeer’s masterpiece is endowed with an arresting beauty. And, like the Mona Lisa, it seems to offer more questions than answers.

For instance, we don’t know the identity of the model — a startling irony, since her direct gaze makes you feel like you and she have just recognized one another. Her expression is half-dreamy and half-curious, as if she’s about to ask a question, or maybe give you the answer to one. No matter how long you gaze, though, the answer never comes, and the aura of silent mystery keeps you pondering.

What we do know is that Girl with a Pearl Earring isn’t a portrait in the conventional sense. It’s a tronie, which is a work meant to study the facial expression and aura of a person rather than simply convey their features. In this sense, the oriental headdress and iconic pearl could have been purposefully donned to communicate the subject’s exotic sense of mystery, rather than to provide an accurate depiction of the woman’s wardrobe.

Of course, it’s the pearl that has come to define this painting. Some argue that the earring is actually made of tin. But regardless of historical detail, it’s the way that the earring’s curve echoes the pale curve of the girl’s face, and how its brightness illuminates the brightness of her eyes, that showcases Vermeer’s genius. He seems to want to compare his model to a pearl: lovely, yet somehow waterbound and far away.

Is Vermeer simply portraying a breathtaking moment of beauty? Or is he also capturing the experience of encountering a person whose gaze catches you off guard and suddenly disarms you?

What do you think this figure’s liquid gaze is meant to convey?

One More Thing

Here's a good find for you this week. You probably already know Rewire the West on X (a must-follow). He just posted an interview with Eduard Habsburg — descendent of the Holy Roman Empire — and it’s a fantastic watch:

How to start your own dynasty and live life like a royal… (just click the image):


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