What is “beauty”? What makes a piece or art or music or a landscape beautiful? Certainly we are dealing with something pleasing to the senses, something visually and/or audibly pleasing to us. And what pleases us is something more than the object’s utilitarian value. I have a beautiful desk set, given to me as a gift. It is a fantastic piece of equipment, a great place to work – but then, an ugly desk is also capable of being a sufficient place to do work. So the beauty of my desk must involve more than the use it serves. Its beauty is something I appreciate in and of itself.
The same is true, at a much deeper level, with what makes someone beautiful to us. There is an element of sensual delight in those we find beautiful – they are visually appealing to us. This differs from person to person, of course. You may not find a woman whose hair “is like a flock of goats” to be particularly appealing, or a man whose locks are “wavy, black as a raven” to be your type, but Solomon and the Shulammite were wildly attracted to those features!
So there is an aspect of beauty in people that involves our senses, something that the Song of Solomon celebrates. The lovers in that story revel in how one another looks, smells, sounds, and feels. He says to her, “You are beautiful, my love” (2:15), and she says the same thing to him (2:16). But there is more to the story.
As you read the various individual poems in the Song of Solomon, one thing that stands out is how much each lover delights in describing the other. Sometimes they also mention the pleasure they receive from the other, but most of the descriptions are highly idealized portraits of how wonderful the other person is. In other words, what makes the other person “beautiful” to them is not simply the pleasure they derive from them, but the delight they take in them. Just as I see beauty in my desk apart from its utility, the lovers see beauty in each other.
This is a universal human experience.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade… (Sonnet 18 of Shakespeare)
Whether in Scripture or Shakespeare, what makes someone beautiful is not merely the sexual pleasure we derive from his or her body. It is the delight we take in that person – as an embodied person – that constitutes our sense of beauty. I don’t have to think a desk is beautiful to use it. A desk can be an end in and of itself. But a fellow human being is more than a tool to be used. As Roger Scruton writes,
Pornography, like slavery, is a way of negating the moral demand that free beings must treat each other as ends in themselves. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, p. 133
And this is why pornography distorts and desiccates the concept of beauty. There is no delight in the person as a person – only as an object. No other woman is as beautiful to me as Kristi because it is Kristi as a person that I find so beautiful (and for some inexplicable reason, it’s also why she thinks I am beautiful). But pornography (like prostitution) eliminates any sense of the uniqueness of human personhood. People become objects, tools for selfish gratification, and thus as replaceable and as interchangeable as any other piece of equipment.
The case against pornography is the case against the interest that it serves –the interest in seeing people reduced to their bodies, objectified as animals, made thing-like and obscene. This is an interest that many people have; but it is an interest at war with our humanity. Scruton, p. 138
I recognize that many people in the world view the moral constraints of Christianity as prudish and repressive. But the real truth is the exact opposite. It is the Christian view of humanity, sex, and beauty that provides the only coherent basis for true pleasure as human beings. The real deprivation is the counterfeit versions of sexual love, which not only lack beauty, but at a more profound level, humanity.