The Secondary and Inferior Kind: Of Beauty

Author: Jonathan Edwards  | Date: 1758

The Secondary and Inferior Kind of Beauty

THAT consent, agreement, or union of Being to Being, which has been spoken of, viz., the union or propensity of minds to mental or spiritual existence, may be called the highest, and first, or primary beauty that is to be found among things that exist: being the proper and peculiar beauty of spiritual and moral Beings, which are the highest and first part of the universal system, for whose sake all the rest has existence.

Yet there is another inferior, secondary beauty, which is some image of this, and which is not peculiar to spiritual Beings, but is found even in inanimate things; which consists in a mutual consent and agreement of different things in form, manner, quantity, and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony. Such is the mutual agreement of the various sides of a square, or equilateral triangle, or of a regular polygon. Such is, as it were, the mutual consent of the different parts of the periphery of a circle, or surface of a sphere, and of the corresponding parts of an ellipsis. Such is the agreement of the colors, figures, dimensions and distances of the different spots on the chess board. Such is the beauty of the figures on a piece of chintz or brocade. Such is the beautiful proportion of the various parts of a human body, or countenance. And such is the sweet mutual consent and agreement of the various notes of a melodious tune. This is the same that Mr. Hutcheson, in his treatise on beauty, expresses by uniformity in the midst of variety. Which is no other than the con- sent or agreement of different things, in form, quantity, etc. He observes, that the greater the variety is, in equal uniformity, the greater the beauty. Which is no more than to say, the more there are of different mutually agreeing things, the greater is the beauty. And the reason of that is, because it is more considerable to have many things consent one with another, than a few only.

The beauty which consists in the visible fitness of a thing to its use and unity of design, is not a distinct sort of beauty from this. For it is to be observed, that one thing which contributes to the beauty of the agreement and proportion of various things, is their relation one to another; which connects them, and introduces them together into view and consideration, and whereby one suggests the other to the mind, and the mind is led to compare them, and so to expect and desire agreement. Thus the uniformity of two or more pillars, as they may happen to be found in different places, is not an equal degree of beauty as that uniformity in so many pillars in the corresponding parts of the same building. So means and an intended effect are related one to another. The answerableness of a thing to its use is only the proportion, fitness, and agreeing of a cause or means to a visibly designed effect, and so an effect suggested to the mind by the idea of the means. This kind of beauty is not entirely different from that beauty which there is in fitting a mortise to its tenon. Only when the beauty consists in unity of design, or the adaptedness of a variety of things to promote one intended effect, in which all conspire, as the various parts of an ingenious complicated machine, there is a double beauty, as there is a two-fold agreement and conformity. First, there is the agreement of the various parts to the designed end. Secondly, through this, viz., the designed end or effect, all the various particulars agree one with another, as the general medium of their union, whereby they being united in this third, they thereby are all united one to another.

The reason, or at least one reason why God has made this kind of mutual consent and agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent Beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty which has been spoken of; consisting in Being’s consent to Being, or the union of minds or spiritual Beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. The other is an image of this, because by that uniformity, diverse things become as it were one, as it is in this cordial union. And it pleases God to observe analogy in his works, as is manifest in fact in innumerable instances; and especially to establish inferior things in an analogy to superior. Thus, in how many instances has he formed brutes in analogy to the nature of mankind? And plants in analogy to animals with respect to the manner of their generation and nutrition. And so he has constituted the external world in an analogy to things in the spiritual world, in numberless instances; as might be shown, if it were necessary, and here were proper place and room for it. -Why such analogy in God’s works pleases him, it is not needful now to inquire. It is sufficient that He makes an agreement or consent of different things, in their form, manner, measure, to appear beautiful, because here is some image of a higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual Beings. It has pleased him to establish a law of nature, by virtue of which the uniformity and mutual correspond- ence of a beautiful plant, and the respect which the various parts of a regular building seem to have one to another, and their agreement and union, and the consent or concord of the various notes of a melodious tune, should appear beautiful; because therein is some image of the consent of mind, of the different members of a society or system of intelligent Beings sweetly united in a benevolent agreement of heart - And here, by the way, I would further observe, probably it is with regard to this image or resemblance, which secondary beauty has of true spiritual beauty, that God has so constituted nature, that the presenting of this inferior beauty, especially in those kinds of it which have the greatest resemblance of the primary beauty, as the harmony of sounds, and the beauties of nature, have a tendency to assist those whose hearts are under the influence of a truly virtuous temper, to dispose them to the exercises of divine love, and enliven in them a sense of spiritual beauty.

This secondary kind of beauty, consisting in uniformity and proportion, not only takes place in material and external things, but also in things immaterial; and is, in very many things, plain and sensible in the latter, as well as the former; and when it is so, there is no reason why it should not be grateful to them that behold it, in these as well as the other, by virtue of the same sense, or the same determination of mind to be gratified with uniformity and proportion. If uniformity and proportion be the things that affect, and appear agreeable to this sense of beauty, then why should not uniformity and proportion affect the same sense in immaterial things as well as material, if there be equal capacity of discerning it in both? And indeed more in spiritual things (coeteris partbus), as these are more important than things merely external and material.

This is not only reasonable to be supposed, but it is evident in fact, in numberless instances. There is a beauty of order in society, besides what consists in benevolence, or can be referred to it, which is of the secondary kind. As, when the different members of society have all their appointed office, place and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and every one keeps his place, and continues in his proper business. In this there is a beauty, not of a different kind from the regularity of a beautiful building, or piece of skilful architecture, where the strong pillars are set in their proper place, the pilasters in a place fit for them, the square pieces of marble in the pavement, in a place suitable for them, the panels in the walls and partitions in their proper places, the cornices in places proper for them, etc. As the agreement of a variety in one common design, of the parts of a building, or complicated machine, is one instance of that regularity, which belongs to the secondary kind of beauty, so there is the same kind of beauty in immaterial things, in what is called wisdom, consisting in the united tendency of thoughts, ideas, and particular volitions, to one general purpose: which is a distinct thing from the goodness of that general purpose, as being useful and benevolent.

So there is a beauty in the virtue called justice, which consists in the agreement of different things, that have relation to one another, in nature, manner and measure: and therefore is the very same sort of beauty with that uniformity and proportion, which is observable in those external and material things that are esteemed beautiful. There is a natural agreement and adaptedness of things that have relation one to another, and a harmonious corresponding of one thing to another: that he who from his will does evil to others, should receive evil from the will of others, or from the will of him or them whose business it is to take care of the injured, and to act in their behalf: and that he should suffer evil in proportion to the evil of his doings. Things are in natural regularity and mutual agreement, not in a metaphorical but literal sense, when he whose heart opposes the general system, should have the hearts of that system, or the heart of the head and ruler of the system, against him: and that in consequence, he should receive evil in proportion to the evil tendency of the opposition of his heart. - So, there is a like agreement in nature and measure, when he that loves, has the proper returns of love, when he that from his heart promotes the good of another, has his good promoted by the other; as there is a kind of justice in a becoming gratitude.

From all that has been observed concerning this secondary kind of beauty, it appears that that disposition or sense of the mind, which consists in determination of mind to approve and be pleased with this beauty, considered simply and by itself, has nothing of the nature of true virtue, and is entirely a different thing from a truly virtuous taste. For it has been shown, that this kind of beauty is entirely diverse from the beauty of true virtue, whether it takes place in material or immaterial things. And therefore it will follow, that a taste of this kind of beauty is entirely a different thing from a taste of true virtue. Who will affirm, that a disposition to approve of the harmony of good music, or the beauty of a square, or equilateral triangle, is the same with true holiness, or a truly virtuous disposition of mind! It is a relish of uniformity and proportion, that determines the mind to approve these things. And if this be all, there is no need of anything higher, or of anything in any respect diverse, to determine the mind to approve and be pleased with equal uniformity and proportion among spiritual things which are equally discerned. It is virtuous to love true virtue, as that denotes an agreement of the heart with virtue. But it argues no virtue, for the heart to be pleased with that which is entirely distinct from it.

Though it be true, there is some analogy in it to spiritual and virtuous beauty, as much as material things can have analogy to things spiritual (on which they can have no more than a shadow), yet, as has been observed, men do not approve it because of any such analogy perceived.

And not only reason, but experience plainly shows, that men’s approbation of this sort of beauty, does not spring from any virtuous temper, and has no connection with virtue. For, otherwise, men’s delight in the beauty of squares, and cubes, and regular polygons, in the regularity of buildings, and the beautiful figures in a piece of embroidery, would increase in proportion to men’s virtue; and would be raised to a great height in some eminently virtuous or holy men; but would be almost wholly, lost in some others that are very vicious and lewd. It is evident in fact, that a relish of these things does not depend on general benevolence, or any benevolence at all to any Being whatsoever, any more than a man’s loving the taste of honey, or his being pleased with the smell of a rose. A taste of this inferior beauty in things immaterial, is one thing which has been mistaken by some moralists, for a true virtuous principle, implanted naturally in the hearts of all mankind.

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Chicago: Jonathan Edwards, The Secondary and Inferior Kind: Of Beauty Original Sources, accessed May 26, 2024,

MLA: Edwards, Jonathan. The Secondary and Inferior Kind: Of Beauty, Original Sources. 26 May. 2024.

Harvard: Edwards, J, The Secondary and Inferior Kind: Of Beauty. Original Sources, retrieved 26 May 2024, from