Aspects of Beauty

Beauty is a combination of qualities that please the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. It may be a physical feature of the human body, an object of art, or a combination of qualities that appeal to our emotions.

Some philosophers believe that beauty is an objective quality, while others think that it is subjective. The question of whether or not beauty is objective or subjective is perhaps the most debated subject in Western philosophy, and it has influenced the development of many approaches to aesthetics.

Aspects of Beauty

The most basic aspect of beauty is the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, and symmetry. This is a primordial Western conception of beauty, and it is reflected in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music wherever they appear.

Aristotle’s Poetics describes the process of making art as “a series of putting into place, one by one, the parts of a beautiful thing.” He defines beauty as “a quality of beauty which is a necessary element in a good” (Aristotle, 428). The notion of a beauty as a quality of nature also finds a place in Western thought: a gold coin is considered to be beautiful, for example, because of its beauty of symmetry and the light it emitted during the day.

This view of beauty, which is largely embodied in Western philosophical and artistic traditions, is not entirely unproblematic, and it is worth taking time to consider some of its key formulations and their possible pitfalls.

Until the eighteenth century, most accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. Augustine in De Veritate Religione, for example, asks explicitly whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful; he emphatically opts for the second (Augustine, 247).

Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire, but locate beauty itself in the realm of the Forms, and the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Form.

Another basic aspect of beauty is the arrangement of integral or symmetrical parts into a coherent whole, as in a painting by Fragonard or a composition by Bach. The notion of a beauty as a principle of symmetry and order is echoed in the writings of many other European philosophers, including Kant.

Some of these formulations of beauty have elements of hedonism and other pleasure-seeking views of the human mind, while others are more closely connected to the transcendental theory of truth and goodness. Transcendental conceptions of beauty often connect it to a kind of ecstasy, expressing a deep appreciation of the unseen and ultimate qualities of reality and calling out something good or true.

The twentieth century, however, saw a sharp decline in the role of beauty in the arts and a move away from aesthetics as the dominant goal. A variety of reasons were cited, but it seems clear that the political and economic associations of beauty, particularly with power, became increasingly discredited over the period.