The Elusive Concept of Ugliness

Harvard University Press
10 min readDec 18, 2019


In Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, Nicholas of Morimondo laments, “We no longer have the learning of the ancients, the age of giants is past!” To which the protagonist, William of Baskerville, replies: “We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.” On the Shoulders of Giants is a collection of essays based on lectures Eco famously delivered at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan over the last fifteen years of his life. In these playful, witty, and breathtakingly erudite essays, we encounter an intellectual who reads comic strips, reflects on Heraclitus, Dante, and Rimbaud, listens to Carla Bruni, and watches Casablanca while thinking about Proust. On the Shoulders of Giants reveals both the humor and the colossal knowledge of a contemporary giant.

Whereas in almost every century philosophers and artists have written down their ideas on beauty, important texts on the concept of ugliness amount to only a handful, one being Karl Rosenkrantz’s 1853 Aesthetic of Ugliness. Ugliness, however, has always been present as the foil to beauty — Beauty and the Beast has taken many forms. This is to say, once you set a criterion for beauty, a corresponding criterion for ugliness always seems to present itself pretty much automatically: “Only beauty orders symmetry,” Iamblichus tells us in Life of Pythagoras, and “conversely, ugliness disorders symmetry.” Thomas Aquinas teaches that three qualities are required for beauty — first among them wholeness or perfection — so that incomplete things, precisely because they are incomplete, “are ugly.” William of Auvergne adds: “We would call a man with three eyes or one eye ugly.”

Like beauty, therefore, ugliness is a relative concept.

Ugliness was defined very well by Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 as something that was only meaningful in the absence of money or, as we might understand his words, of power. Marx wrote:

I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness — its deterrent power — is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and hence its possessor. . . . I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

As for this last point, it is not always true — many people with money have bought only stupid people — but that’s another story. So, over the centuries, there have been many texts on the relativity of ugliness, and of beauty. In the 13th century, Jacques de Vitry wrote: “Probably the cyclopes, who have only one eye, marvel at those who have two, as we . . . judge the black Ethiopians ugly, but among them the blackest is considered the most beautiful.” A few centuries later, Voltaire wrote: “Ask a toad what beauty is. . . he will reply that it is his toad wife, with her big round eyes protruding from her little head, her broad, flat throat, her brown back. . . .Question the devil: he’ll tell you that beauty is a pair of horns, four claws, and a tail.”

When Darwin wrote that feelings of contempt and repulsion were expressed in identical ways in most parts of the world — ”Extreme disgust is expressed by movements round the mouth identical with those preparatory to the act of vomiting” — he added that, in Tierra del Fuego, a native reached out to feel the “cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.”

Are there universal ways in which people react to beauty? No, because beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion. Let’s try to understand this point, in light of others’ earlier observations that there cannot be an aesthetic judgment of ugliness. In other words, an aesthetic judgment implies detachment. I can consider a thing to be beautiful even without feeling I must possess it. I silence my passions. It seems, however, that ugliness does imply a passion — namely, disgust or repulsion. So how can there be an aesthetic judgment of ugliness if there is no possibility of detachment?

Probably there is ugliness in art and ugliness in life. There is a judgment of ugliness as a non-correspondence to the ideal of beauty, for example, when we say that a painting of a vase of flowers is ugly. Who painted it? Hitler. We are talking about a work by the young Hitler. While instead there is a passionate reaction to what we consider to be unpleasant, repellent, horrible, disgusting, grotesque, horrendous, revolting, repugnant, frightening, abject, monstrous, horrid, hair-raising, foul, terrible, terrifying, nightmarish, ungainly, deformed, disfigured, simian, bestial. . . (in the thesaurus there are more synonyms for ugly than for beautiful).

Contrary to Plato, who said that the representation of ugliness should be avoided, from Aristotle onwards it has been admitted in all periods that even the ugliness in life can be beautifully portrayed, and that it actually serves to make beauty stand out or to support a certain moral theory. And, as Saint Bonaventure said, “imago diabolo est pulchra, si bene repraesentat foeditatem diaboli“ — the image of the devil is beautiful if it is a good representation of ugliness.

And so, art has given of its best in representing the ugliness of the devil. But the competition to portray ugliness well makes us suspect that, in reality, some have, however covertly, taken true pleasure in the horrendous, and not only in the various visions of hell. You cannot tell me that some hells were conceived only to terrify the faithful: they were also conceived to give us a hell of a kick. If we consider the various Triumphs of Death, with the beauty of the skeleton, or Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ, we can see the horrifying as a source of pleasure. Friedrich Schiller wrote in his 1792 essay “On the Tragic Art”:

It is a phenomenon common to all men, that sad, frightful things, even the horrible, exercise over us an irresistible seduction, and that in the presence of a scene of desolation and of terror we feel at once repelled and attracted by two equal forces. . . . Any ghost story, however embellished by romantic circumstances, is greedily devoured by us, and the more readily in proportion as the story is calculated to make our hair stand on end. . . . See what a crowd accompanies a criminal to the scene of his punishment!

Consider all the countless descriptions of executions — for which there was no real call other than the enjoyment of describing an execution, because otherwise it would have sufficed to say “the guilty man was put to death.” See the Annals of Niketas Choniates for this description of the torments inflicted upon Andronikos, who was deposed as basileus of Byzantium at the beginning of the 13th century:

Bound in this fashion he was paraded before Emperor Isaakios. He was slapped in the face, kicked on the buttocks, his beard was torn out, his teeth pulled out, his head shorn of hair; he was made the common sport of all those who gathered; he was even battered by women who struck him in the mouth with theirs fists, especially by all those whose husbands were put to death or blinded by Andronikos. Afterwards, his right hand cut off by an ax, he was cast again in the same prison without food and drink, tended by no one.

Several days later, one of his eyes was gouged out, and, seated upon a mangy camel, he was paraded through the agora . . . . Some struck him on the head with clubs, others befouled his nostrils with cow-dung, and still others, using sponges, poured excretions from the bellies of oxen and men over his eyes. . . . There were those who pierced his ribs with spits.

But not even after having hung him up by his feet did the idiotic mob leave the martyred Andronikos or spare his flesh. Having torn off his shirt, they butchered his genital organs. One villain sank a long sword into his guts through his mouth, others used both hands to hold their swords aloft, and bring them down at his backside, competing over who could make the deepest cut and boasting over the best-dealt blows.

Some centuries later, in the early 1950s, Mickey Spillane, the poet of McCarthyism and master of the hard-boiled novel, tells us how private eye Mike Hammer kills communist spies in One Lonely Night:

They heard my scream and the awful roar of the gun and the slugs tearing into bone and guts and it was the last they heard. They went down as they tried to run and felt their insides tear out and spray against the walls.

I saw the general’s head splinter into shiny wet fragments and splatter over the floor. The guy from the subway tried to stop the bullets with his hands and dissolved into a nightmare of blue holes. There was only the guy in the pork-pie hat who made a crazy try for a gun in his pocket. I aimed the tommy gun for the first time and took his arm off at the shoulder. It dropped on the floor next to him and I let him have a good look at it. He couldn’t believe it happened. I proved it by shooting him in the belly. They were all so damned clever!

They were all so damned dead!

But let’s take a step back. The Greeks, by identifying beauty with goodness — kalòs kai agathòs — identified physical ugliness with moral ugliness. In the Iliad, Thersites, “the ugliest man who had come to Ilium, twisted, lame in one foot, his shoulders curved over his chest, his pointed head covered with wispy hair,” was bad. So were the sirens, who were disgusting, birdlike creatures and nothing like the sirens portrayed later by the European Decadents, who cast them as beautiful women. The harpies, who were equally ugly, were bad — and they continued to be so in Dante’s forest of the suicides. The Minotaur was hideous, too, as were the Medusa, the Gorgon, and the cyclops Polyphemus.

But, after Plato’s time, Greek culture found itself faced with a problem: how was it that Socrates, who had such a great soul, was so ugly? And why was Aesop an eyesore? According to The Aesop Romance of the Hellenic period, the fabulist was “a slave. . . of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity.” What’s more, “he was dumb and could not talk.” A good thing he could write well.

For Christianity, apparently, everything is beautiful; in fact, Christian cosmology and theology expatiates on the beauty of the universe, so that even monsters and ugliness fall within the cosmic order, acting like chiaroscuro in a painting to make the light stand out. Countless pages have been written about this, by Saint Augustine above all. But it was Hegel who pointed out that it was only with Christianity that ugliness came into the history of art, because “Christ scourged, with the crown of thorns, carrying his cross to the place of execution, nailed to the cross, passing away in the agony of a torturing and slow death — this cannot be portrayed in the forms of Greek beauty.” Christ can only appear ugly because he is suffering. And likewise, according to Hegel, “the enemies are presented to us as inwardly evil because they place themselves in opposition to God, condemn him, mock him, torture him, crucify him, and the idea of inner evil and enmity to God brings with it on the external side, ugliness, crudity, barbarity, rage, and distortion of their outward appearance.” Nietzsche, extreme as usual, offered his own view: “The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”

Above all, in this ugly world, the penitential humility of the body takes on a particular value. In case you thought this was limited to medieval penances, here is a 17th-century text in which Father Segneri reports on the penances and painful self-inflicted torments of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

wearing a garment of sackcloth over a rough hair-shirt, binding around his loins a girdle composed of prickly nettles, sharp thorns, or points of iron; fasting on bread and water every day, except Sundays, and then allowing himself no other indulgence than a dish of bitter herbs mingled with earth or ashes; passing sometimes whole days, three, six, or even eight at a time, without partaking of any food at all; scourging himself five times a day, and always to blood; cruelly beating his bare breast with a heavy stone. . . .Seven hours daily he spent in profound contemplation; his tears were unceasing, his mortifications continuous.

This was the unbroken tenor of the life he led in the cave of Manresa, which he did not moderate despite the tedious and painful infirmities that soon resulted — the “languors, swoons, paroxysms of pain, attacks of devility, and even dangerous fevers” that would eventually prove fatal.

Of course, the Middle Ages abounded with monsters, but it is our sensibility that leads us to see medieval monsters, as I noted regarding beauty, as ugly. They are strange, made with only one foot and with a mouth on their chest, well outside the norm. They are portenta, but were created that way by God to be the vehicle of supernatural meanings. Every monster comes with its own spiritual meaning. In this sense, medieval people did not see them as ugly — if anything, they saw them as interesting, fabled creatures. They saw them the way our children now see dinosaurs, which they know by heart so well that they can tell the difference between a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus with ease. They saw them as traveling companions. Even the dragons of the Middle Ages were viewed with this fond curiosity, because they were faithful emblems. They had a place on Noah’s ark, albeit with a deck to themselves — but still, together with animals who were not monstrous, all saved by Noah himself.