Often a central topic of philosophy, beauty is the quality that aesthetically enhances the appearance or value of something. Its definition and use have varied throughout history and across cultures.
The ancient philosophers considered beauty objective and omnipresent in the world, even though it could only be perceived with the mind. In Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, he writes that “the best of all things are those which have a pleasing arrangement of their parts.”
Some classical theories of aesthetics argued that beauty was based on the harmonious arrangement of parts, according to symmetry and proportion (see below). This conception found its most prominent articulation in the Renaissance.
Kant, for example, saw beauty as a way of motivating human action and expressing our purpose in life. But he could not account for how this would work in practice and thus was unable to see how to achieve an objective or universal theory of beauty.
Another view, espoused by Schiller, held that beauty is the process of integrating the realms of nature and spirit in a harmonious whole, allowing us to reach a state of freedom between these levels. This was a more direct and less abstract interpretation of the ‘ladder’ of Plato’s philosophies.
Santayana, on the other hand, argued that a beautiful object is one that makes us happy. This is a less abstract view of the concept than that of Schiller, but it still retains some elements of the former.
This view is also associated with an hedonistic or pleasure-centered approach to beauty, in which one identifies the object or experience that causes pleasure as the source of beauty. The problem with this approach is that it ascribes subjective states to an object or experience that in many cases is not capable of having these subjective states.
Other philosophers, such as Aquinas, argued that the beauty of a thing depends on its integrity and on the fact that the parts should stand in definite proportion to each other. This conception is more precise and clear than that of the classical conception, but it is also difficult to explain in terms of a universal or objective idea of beauty.
Aquinas explains this through the notion of the ‘golden ratio,’ which he describes as “an orderly recurrence or alternation of parts and relations in the whole. It is the law of harmony, of proportion, and of clarity which governs beauty” (Summa Theologica I, 38, 8).
Several later philosophers, such as Locke and Montesquieu, tended to treat color as a set of qualities that depend on a person’s perceptions, and therefore were located in the perceiving mind rather than in the external world. This view, too, was influenced by the empiricists’ belief that some qualities are necessary for a person to be happy but cannot be obtained without a certain level of human intelligence.
These accounts are all important, but none of them fully explains or reconciles the diverse ways that beauty has been understood and used. Nevertheless, they all provide a basis for understanding why and how people have responded to and incorporated beauty into their lives.