The Philosophy of Beauty


When you hear the word beauty, it can be hard to think of anything other than pretty colours and chiselled abs. But it wasn’t always like that – philosophers have long grappled with the concept, which has both objective and subjective aspects. It’s often argued that a certain capacity on the part of observers is necessary in order to judge whether something is beautiful, and that this is why different people tend to have wildly different opinions. However, some philosophers have argued that beauty is intrinsically objective and can be determined by the consensus of multiple judges.

Historically, most philosophical treatments of beauty have focused on its objective side and viewed it as a property of objects or the qualities of those objects. For example, Aristotle describes beauty in terms of the symmetry and proportion of parts towards each other and to a whole and considers that a beautiful object is always pleasing and satisfying to the eye, whereas ugly things are unpleasant or even threatening.

In the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas takes Aristotle’s aesthetics and adds a religious dimension. He argues that beautiful things are created by God and exist for the sake of His glory. He also explains that, in order for an object to be beautiful, it must have integrity, which means that it follows its own internal logic. For example, a realistic portrait of a woman can be beautiful, but it will not have integrity if it includes a three-eyed head or some other surrealist element.

The ancients also considered the pleasure derived from beauty, sometimes in quite ecstatic terms. Plotinus, for example, writes that beauty is a kind of divine delight, and that it induces “a wonderful trouble and longing and trembling”.

More recently, philosophers have tended to abandon the notion of beauty as a central concern in favor of more pressing issues. This occurred during modernity and postmodernity as the rise of science required a reappraisal of many concepts that had previously been taken for granted. Today, however, beauty seems to be making a comeback as a more empathetic and inclusive concept. Confident young women pack their closets with mini-skirts and smart suits, and feminist and anti-racist attacks on dominant body norms have shifted cultural perceptions of beauty.

The debate over what is beautiful continues to this day, and will continue to do so for as long as human beings have a desire to express themselves creatively and communicate with one another. Beauty is an ever-evolving concept that’s a part of our shared humanity, and it will always remain one of the most enduring questions in philosophy.