‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – Origin, Meaning and Expansion
Origin of this proverb
This proverb, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is attributed to Margaret Hungerford who was an Irish novelist. Hungerford lived between 1855 and 1897, and she tended to write using a pen name: ‘The Duchess’.
In her novel ‘Molly Bawn’ (her most well known book), she included the idiom ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
Hungerford was well known in her time for coming up with catchy sayings and proverbs, however this proverb is by far her most famous one.
Meaning of the proverb.
This proverb means that ‘what may appear beautiful to one person does not necessarily appear beautiful to others’. If one person finds something very beautiful and the other doesn’t, this would be an appropriate time to cite the proverb.
The proverb also suggests that ‘beauty is something subjective rather than objective’. When beauty is objective, it exists in the beautiful object – and everyone ought to find that object beautiful.
However, when beauty is thought to be subjective, beauty exists in the thoughts and opinions of the person looking at an object. This object may not be said to be beautiful unless it is deemed to be so by people who look at it.
Thus, on this view of beauty, something is beautiful because others find it beautiful. And, to reiterate, what is not particularly beautiful to one person will be stunningly beautiful to another.
In summary, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ signifies that:
Some people find things beautiful that others do not.
Beauty can be said to be subjective and dependent on observation and opinion.
Expansion of this idea.
Of course, the idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ does not exclude the notion that beauty can also be objective. Just because some people find something beautiful whilst others do not does not mean that those people’s opinions are all equally valid. For instance, someone may take a cursory glance at a painting and state that it is not beautiful. Another person may spend years studying that painting and discover in it objective qualities that lead them to pronounce it beautiful. Surely the second person’s opinion carries more weight than the other? And surely this is because the painting is objectively beautiful?
The significance/relevance of the proverb is discusses below:
1. Appreciating others’ viewpoints: When we do not understand why other people are passionate about topics that leave us cold, remembering this proverb will teach us that often others find beauty in things that we do not.
2. A philosophical argument: This proverb neatly captures some philosophical ideas about the subjectivity or objectivity of beauty.
3. Empathy: This proverb encourages us to be empathetic and to try and look at the world through others’ eyes.
4. Expanding our horizons: When we try and see the beauty that others see in things, our appreciation of the world will become so much more expansive.
5. Avoiding being dogmatic: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ tells us that everyone sees the world in a different way, and so relieves us of the misconception that ours is the only right way of seeing things.
6. Revolutionizing our mind: This proverb encourages us to change the way we see the world, and to look for beauty in everything, safe in the knowledge that we will find it.
7. Being polite: If we do not understand why someone likes something so much, citing this proverb is a polite way of saying so.
In existence for over a century, the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a great phrase for reminding us that everyone appreciates the world in a different way.