What Is Beauty?


Beauty is the quality of something that pleases or satisfies our senses, as by line, color, form, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc. The word “beauty” is derived from the Latin bellus, which means fair. It has been used in a variety of different ways throughout history, with varying interpretations.

Ancient philosophers have had different ideas on what constitutes beauty. Some viewed it as a property of an object, while others argued that it was dependent on our emotional response to it.

In the classical period, a common conception of beauty was that it depended on harmony of proportions, often expressed in mathematical ratios. For example, the ‘golden section’ was held to be a reliable guide to harmonious proportions. The art of sculpture was also a form of aesthetic training, with the practice of constructing ‘canons’, or ‘perfect’ sculptures, considered an essential skill for students and masters alike.

Aristotle, who is known for his theories of aesthetics, took a relatively conservative approach to the definition of beauty, though he interpreted it as “the good” rather than a “spiritual quality.” In addition to harmony and proportion, Aristotle also believed that something was beautiful if it had integrity (i.e., if it was complete by its own interior logic), and that something was beautiful if it was clear and concise.

Other classical conceptions of beauty focused more on the qualities of an object, such as purity and transcendence. Plotinus’s account in the Enneads, for instance, connects beauty to the underlying unity of objects and to a response of love and desire.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in its qualities, or both. Augustine’s De Veritate Religione, for instance, ascribes the goodness of things to their beauty; and Plato’s Symposium and Plotinus’s Enneads both locate beauty in the realm of the Forms and connect it to a response of love and desire.

In contrast to the traditional view, many contemporary philosophers are concerned with defining beauty as an “objective” quality that is a function of a beholder’s experience. Several theorists, including George Santayana and Jean-Paul Sartre, define beauty as an “objectified pleasure” that can be attributed to an object.

This view, which has been criticized as a form of subjectivism and hedonism, holds that the judgment that an object is beautiful depends on the beholder’s experience of the object’s qualities. Some theorists believe that the ability to perceive and judge beauty can be learned, or that judges converge in their verdicts over time.

Still other philosophers are concerned with beauty as a moral quality that can be attributed to an object. Some theorists see beauty as an expression of our highest moral ideals and therefore a reflection of the Creator’s design for creation, while others deem it to be a negative emotion that can lead to unhappiness.

In the twentieth century, the concept of beauty began to decline as a central goal for artists and as an important aspect of art criticism. Part of this was due to its trivialization in theory and as a result of its political and economic associations with power. Nevertheless, there have been recent attempts to reintroduce the concept of beauty into philosophy. These include feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept and new approaches to understanding beauty within contemporary culture.