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What Does "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder" Mean?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” appears to have a nearly literal meaning. It indicates that beauty means something different to each individual. What one person finds beautiful, another may not. As English philosopher David Hume put it, “Beauty in things exists in the mind that contemplates them.”

The concept of beauty being in the eye of the viewer may date as far back as ancient Greece. In another age, Shakespeare, in Love’s Labor Lost, wrote “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye/Not uttered by base sale of the chapmen’s tongue.” The exact phrase was first used in the 19th century by Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in her book Molly Brawn.

As to human beauty, there is some research that indicates that the human standards for beauty may be genetic. It is nature’s way of ensuring the best reproductive selection. Poets and painters tend to disagree, arguing that human beauty encompasses more than biology. It is contained not just in the body but also in the mind. Inward beauty enhances outward appearance.

Some scientific research on what makes us find someone beautiful points to our DNA. Perceptions of beauty are essentially a function of evolution. They are mostly uniform and help to ensure the selection of a healthy mate for reproductive purposes.

Long before discoveries about genetics, Greek mathematicians were finding, not that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in geometry. Human beauty could be gauged by how closely it conformed to the “Golden Ratio.” The formula states that a longer triangle should have a ratio of 1.618 to its shorter base. It was applied by the Greeks in architecture and art and used in succeeding ages.

More recent research has applied the formula to people’s faces and to women’s waist to hip ratios. One study found that faces that conformed closest to the Golden Ratio were found by participants to be more attractive. The same was true of waist to hip ratios. Findings such as this are also linked to innate reproductive selection, based on choosing the best body structure for child bearing.

Uzbekistan painter Abdulhak Abdullaev devoted a lifetime to painting portraits of people who created beauty or that he felt had an inner beauty. He concluded that, “Every person is a flower with its unique aroma of personal charm.” Beauty of mind is worn on the face. Physical beauty and inner harmony combined produce an effect that nature alone cannot. He found this true regardless of his subject’s age or station.

In his Sonnet 103, Shakespeare may have rendered one of the best interpretations of the meaning of beauty is in the eye of the beholder. He contrasts his mistress’ beauty to things more beautiful, listing some of her imperfections. He still manages to find, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare.”

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Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Jan 31, 2014

I've always regarded that phrase as proof of one of the great truths of human existence -- beauty (and a lot of other things) are totally subjective. That is because we are, ultimately, individuals and it is impossible to view beauty in a subjective way.

Thank goodness for that, huh?

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