Beauty is an object, quality or person that pleases the senses, especially the eyes. It may also arouse the intellect or moral sense. The concept of beauty has been a source of debate throughout the history of philosophy. The debate centres on whether beauty is objective or subjective, and on the nature of the objects and qualities that are beautiful.
The ancient Greeks regarded the symmetry of the human face as beautiful. They also believed that beauty was found in a balanced proportion of the various parts of the body. Later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle followed these ancient ideas of beauty. They also developed mathematical proportions of the human face and body, which were designed to give a harmonious whole. This was the ‘classical conception’ of beauty. This theory of beauty has been criticized because it is difficult to describe and because there are many variations in beauty that exist between individuals.
There are different theories of what makes something beautiful, but most agree that it depends on the response of the viewer. This is sometimes called the ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ theory. However, it has been argued that the ability to judge beauty, often called ‘taste’, can be learned, and that the verdicts of experts tend to coincide in the long run. This suggests that the experience of beauty is not merely subjective, but involves a communal judgment.
A number of other views have been put forward, such as the Kant treatment of beauty, which emphasises the pleasure that is experienced when an object is admired. This is quite close to hedonism, but it also has elements of the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, which stresses the unity of beauty and the fact that it provokes a desire for love or adoration.
Another view is that beauty depends on the function of an object, or the way it serves its purpose. For example, a work of art or craft might be considered beautiful if it expresses something about the world or the human condition. This view has been criticised for being philistine, but it is possible that it avoids sheer hedonism by enriching the concept of beauty by adding the idea that it might inspire a kind of devotional response.
In the twentieth century, the concept of beauty declined in popularity. This was partly because it was viewed as trivial, and artists were urged to pursue more serious projects. It was also because the concepts of aesthetics and beauty were being linked to power, and this was not conducive to a healthy philosophical culture. However, the concept of beauty is making a comeback in our times, with a more positive and inclusive perspective on diversity and individuality. In this new age of social media, we are learning to define beauty differently and appreciate more of the unique characteristics that make each of us beautiful. This includes a wide range of physical traits, such as skin colour, gender, race and body shape.