aesthetics beautiful

Inner beauty

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

Our modern culture tends to overemphasize the value of external beauty. Magazines, television, and internet advertisements all broadcast the same thing: the glorification of an impossible standard of beauty. This is embodied in thoroughly photoshopped images of models. It also comes to light with the importance placed on style as propagated by the fashion industry.

Some thoughtful observers have rightly pointed to the priority of "inner beauty" for man. What you are wearing or how you appear matters less than the kind of person you are. What is the measure of your charity? How do you behave toward others? And what good have you done? These point to a more profound human beauty. Why do we call this "inner beauty"?

These traits are not readily available to the eye -- they are not immediately visible. It is easy to misjudge someone based upon their external appearance. Hence the saying "Don't judge a book by its cover." The quality of a human person cannot be reduced to their external appearance. There is much more to the human person.

In his writings on beauty, Dietrich von Hildebrand makes a distinction between metaphysical beauty and visible or audible beauty. He spends much time delineating the nature of visible or audible beauty: the sublimity of a masterful painting, the glory of a striking landscape, the purity of the voice in choir. Having grown up in Florence, Italy, an epicenter of art, von Hildebrand was surrounded by and continually inundated with beauty of this kind.

Metaphysical beauty, on the other hand, is rooted in the very being of a thing. A thing can be beautiful based on the kind of thing that it is. There is a certain beauty which every human person possesses on the basis of their human nature; they have inalienable dignity and nobility. In addition, man has a beauty that can grow and develop through virtuous action.

The choices we make and the actions in which we engage do not leave us unchanged. In the 2005 movie Batman Begins, a recurring theme is enunciated by Rachel Dawes to Bruce Wayne when she says “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Personally, I would not set these in opposition to one another. Perhaps this could have been expressed more clearly, but the core idea is that our actions temper and mold us. Who we are depends in part on how we live -- how we act. Our ontology, our personal being, is transformed by the acts that flow from our personal center. I would say that who you are underneath is in large part determined and defined by what you do.

Metaphysical beauty is an aura, a refulgence, a radiance of the inner quality of virtue.

The virtue that one develops over time by virtuous action is a source of great beauty. Among the many virtues which contribute to this inner grandeur are courage, purity, fortitude, and humility. Von Hildebrand touches upon the beauty emanating from these virtues in his essay “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption.” There he describes metaphysical beauty as “an aura, a refulgence, a radiance of the inner qualities of these virtues" (1). Familiar as he was with visible and audible beauty, von Hildebrand also became acquainted with many individuals who excelled in this inner beauty of virtue: namely, the saints.

He became enamored with such saintly men and women as Augustine of Hippo, Catherine of Siena, and Francis of Assisi. Let us take this man from Assisi as an example. Francis was a wealthy man, the son of a merchant, and had a particular aversion to leprosy. One day he was passing by a leper on the road. In a moment of grace, he overcame his abhorrence of the disease and embraced the man, showing him how loved he was. There is an exceeding beauty here in Francis’ humility and love. Despite one's first reaction of shock, this generous act opens one's eyes. The dignity of the leper, too, shines forth in this moment as the radiance of Francis’ virtue moves us to look deeper. The beauty of a saint’s virtue attracts our hearts and engenders love in us. (2) We are motivated to reflect the splendor of such inner beauty in our own lives by living in the way of love.

1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption” in Logos 4:2 Spring 2001, 78.
2. 79. Image: The Triumph of Virtue over Vice, c. 1554-1556. Paolo Veronese. Doge's Palace, Venice. (source) Image: St. Francis of Assisi, 1642. Jose de Ribera. (source)

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  1. Hi Chase,

    I enjoyed your entry. To briefly introduce myself, I am a philosopher, currently at the University of South Carolina. I would like to add that I think it is equally a mistake to emphasize 'inner beauty' at the expense of 'external beauty'.

    These are reflections of each other, and they influence each other. However, it is seems true that, in an ultimate sense, inner beauty is more important. But we often use this as an excuse to undermine or disregard external, physical beauty.

    As an example, I believe that it is the duty (at least loosely speaking) of each person in a marriage to maintain a certain level of physical attractiveness, which is a part (and only a part) of each persons' overall appeal or attractiveness. Physical desire for one's spouse is important as well, not just spiritual or mental desire.

    Just a thought to add to your entry,


    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

      I agree with you that external beauty remains important. How we dress and present ourselves plays a significant role in interpersonal relationships and it should not be neglected.

      I suppose I emphasize inner beauty here as an attempt to correct a horrible imbalance in our culture toward a superficial sense of external beauty. A woman, say, who knows her true inner beauty and strives for virtue will better understand and approach external beauty. She will be able to approach style as a way to express her inner beauty. She will carry herself confidently and dress in accord with her dignity.

      As persons we are embodied souls. Thus how others view our bodies and how we ourselves treat our bodies in a very real sense impacts how we relate to our *selves*. So I think you rightly indicate a needed balance between inner and outer, ontological and visible, in understanding human beauty, but in the context of the current culture I would still affirm a priority for the consideration of inner beauty.

      Thanks again!


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