Beauty is one of the most important, defining concepts in human culture. While it’s often taken for granted, a close look at the concept of beauty can reveal a lot about our worldview and what drives our thoughts.
The idea of beauty comes from many sources and different cultures. It can be a physical characteristic that is observed in a work of art, or it can be an inner quality that gives people happiness and satisfaction. Regardless of which aspect of beauty you choose to focus on, it can be useful to understand how to define it and how to recognize it in others.
In the classical West, beauty is conceived of as the arrangement of parts into a coherent whole according to principles of proportion and harmony. This idea is reflected in the aesthetics of architecture, sculpture, music, and literature. The mathematical conception of beauty, for example, is expressed by the golden ratio and a symmetrical relationship between parts.
Aristotle also held a similar perspective and used it to argue for the moral value of beautiful works. Aristotle argued that beautiful works should be arranged to present a sense of order and harmony.
While the classical conception of beauty was rooted in the Western world, philosophers began to question it around the eighteenth century. During this time, the Enlightenment created an emerging sense of inalienable rights and a culture of feeling. This led to a shift in thinking about beauty from the mathematical and divine to the subjective.
Hume and Kant criticized the idea of beauty as a purely subjective state, seeing that it would be impossible to establish a universal standard of beauty that could be applied to all things. This is because each individual would have a different experience of beauty, and even within an individual person there are differences between a woman’s perception of beauty and a man’s.
However, Hume and Kant were willing to tolerate variance in sentiment and volition, as long as individuals did not attempt to regulate others’ feelings. It is this gentleness and willingness to permit variance that makes Hume’s account of beauty a valuable contribution to our understanding of how we evaluate the beautiful.
Santayana likewise challenged the idea of beauty as a purely objective state, viewing it as the response to an object that incites a certain kind of pleasure. This view was more adamantly subjectivist than the classical conception, but it is still a philosophical approach that has been influential in philosophy and aesthetics since its heyday.
Burke’s definition of beauty is a little different from the classical conception, though it still involves proportion and harmony. In his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke wrote that beauty consists in a series of qualities that make something meaningful only when they act on our minds through the senses.
In Burke’s view, beauty consists in a luminous, clear eye, a graceful body, and posture that’s slow and languid. He likes people who are not angular or hard-edged, and he appreciates colors that are soft, subtle, and gradual.