Beauty is a quality or combination of qualities that gives pleasure to the senses and mind. It is usually associated with properties such as harmony of form or color, proportion, authenticity, and originality. It may be found in music, art, or in something that evokes an emotion or positive feeling.
It is a characteristic that many people believe to be unique and important, but in reality, it’s something that can be found in all cultures. The world is full of examples that show how the same object can be deemed beautiful in different places and at various times.
In the West, beauty is typically thought of as a subjective experience. The question of whether it is objective, a property of an object or simply a subjective judgment has been the subject of a long and scholarly debate.
The Greeks and Romans, for instance, recognised that beauty was the result of order and symmetry. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that it was the effect of the harmonious interrelationships between the parts, which formed the ‘forms’ of things.
Later, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was accepted that beauty could be a ‘property’ of the ‘forms’ that represented something like a whole, but not a ‘property’ in the sense of being a definite property of an object. This distinction made it possible for the concept to be used in an ethical context, for example, as in the notion of ‘good art’ or ‘good design’.
But as time passed, it became increasingly clear that aesthetics was a very subjective process. The philosopher David Hume, in particular, argues that beauty is no quality of things themselves; it is merely the exercise of human will.
Hume explains that ‘each of us, according to his nature, wills what is most agreeable in others.’ This explains why the idea of a unified theory of beauty has been so difficult to develop: there is a wide range of individual and collective perceptions, and if the same thing is regarded as ‘beautiful’ by one person, it may be seen as ‘ugly’ by another.
By the 18th century, however, it was becoming apparent that beauty was a very subjective phenomenon, even in the Western world. This was a problem, not just for philosophy but for aesthetics itself. It was the reason that ‘the beautiful’ was the subject of such serious meditations, and why the idea of it as an ‘impartiality’ in some way had to be abandoned, or at least tempered.
That was in the process of being done, by a series of philosophers who were trying to make sense of the phenomenon and, ultimately, to give it a meaning, purpose or value. These were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hume.
Although these men were very different, they shared the same basic approach to beauty. Using their understanding of the nature of human nature, they sought to answer the question ‘What is beauty?’ They emphasized the importance of beauty in a world where there was an excess of material and power. They hoped that if we could understand beauty, we would become more aware of its importance and use it to our advantage.