Theology and Beauty: The Other

It’s perhaps in the area of the other person that beauty gives us the most help. For the ontological reality of beauty helps us to value and love those not like us. There are a number of ways in which aesthetics actually motivates ethics.

This relationship has been perceived and discussed throughout the history of philosophy. Elaine Scarry notes:

Plato’s requirement that we move from “eros,” in which we are seized by the beauty of one person, to “caritas,” in which our care is extended to all people, has parallels in many early aesthetic treatises, as when Beothius is counseled by Lady Philosophy, and later, Dante is counseled by Virgil to listen only to a song whose sensory surface will let one move beyond its own compelling features to a more capacious sphere of objects. The metaphysical plane behind the face or song provided the moral urgency for insisting upon this movement away from the particular to the distributional…[1]

The truly beautiful, it has been argued, prompts us to move beyond a singular experience of beauty to the overall greater good. In particular, Scarry suggests that the relationship between justice and beauty is actually rooted in their notions of “fairness,” “equality,” or what we might call “proportion.”

One of the most emphasized qualities of beauty is “symmetry,” she says. This same quality is at play in the realm of justice, especially as we think about concepts such as “fairness.” In particular, she says, “equality is set forth as the thing of all things to be aspired to” (98). This relationship between beauty and justice is more than just an analogous relationship. For in seasons prior to the composition of legal codes and systems, beauty remained and this symmetry in beauty calls for a symmetry in justice. Add to this the reality that the laws are not manifestly apparent to us at all times. Beauty, however, is always apparent and it, once again, points us to justice. Symmetry in one calls for symmetry in the other.

We see too how beauty can help us to give due, or fitting, respect to others. We can see this particularly by a brief exploration of the difference between beauty and pornography. It has long been documented that pornography shapes the mind, it influences, in particular, the way men relate to women.[2] The long-term exposure to graphic imagery lends itself to the devaluing of women. They are no longer viewed as people but as things, objects to be used and abused. This occurs not simply because of the way women are treated in pornographic images and videos, though that is no small thing. The devaluing of human life happens also because those who indulge in porn have lost a sense of beauty.

Sean Fitzpatrick has seen this happen particularly among the young boys at the boarding school he oversees. He suggests that the loss of beauty is a significant loss. He writes:

Pornography, and the accessibility of pornography, cheapens the most hallowed of domains to a young mind and can render any object of beauty a dubious and dirty thing, nothing to take seriously, nothing to respect, and nothing to be in awe of.[3]

In this case pornography takes what is beautiful, sex or the female form, and turns it on its head. It degrades and devalues it. It morphs it in the mind of the long-term user. Porn desensitizes boys “to beauty, robbing boys of their innocence through the elimination of the mysteries of the heart, severely impairing their ability to be awed or find pleasure in the beautiful.” Beauty is directly impacts the role of the other in our world. When we lose a sense of this beauty we lose a solid foundation for caring for and respecting others. Beauty compels us to justice for others.

The relationship beauty and the “other” is more pronounced when we consider the ways in which beauty “decenters” us. We constantly live as though we are the center of the world, and this selfishness restricts our ability to love and care well for others. It hinders our justice and compassion. But when we are confronted with something truly beautiful it moves us from the center of our world. As Scarry says:

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center…A transformation then takes place at the very roots for our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions.”[4]

With poetic beauty Scarry describes this decentering suggesting that the beautiful thing acts “like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space, or they form ‘ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world…’” Ultimately, in the face of beauty we “willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.”[5] This “radical decentering” pulls us out of ourselves and opens before us the rest of the world. Beauty prompts us to give up our selfishness and in those moments we are prepared to see rightly our place in the world and rightly the place of others in the world. We need beauty to understand others.



[1] Scarry, 81-82.

[2] William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. Downers Grove: IVP, 2010.

[3] Sean Fitzpatrick, “Boys, Porn, and Education,” in Crisis Magazine. October 31, 2014. Accessed 9/2/2015.

[4]Scarry, 111.

[5] Ibid. 112.

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