Beauty is a value that appears to be universally recognized, yet it also seems to be highly subjective. We are awed by a gorgeous sunset, a majestic mountain, or a beautiful work of art. Beauty is also a central concept in philosophy, although it has been more prominent in the past than in modern times. While philosophers have debated the nature of beauty, most agree that it is a combination of aesthetic pleasure and moral sense.
After Christian thought receded, philosophers began to explore beauty in new ways. Eighteenth-century thinkers like Hume and Kant found that when beauty was treated merely as a subjective state, it lost its power. If beauty is a matter of opinion, it ceases to be something that can cause us to be moved or gratified in a general way by objects that are not our own.
For Kant, it was necessary to treat beauty as a combination of two elements: sensuous and rational. He believed that it is only in a world where the natural and the spiritual or mystical can coexist that people can be free. This view is somewhat similar to Plato’s idea that beauty provides a ladder for a soul to ascend from earthly things to the higher level of Ideas, or heavenly forms.
Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, also viewed beauty in terms of harmony and proportion. He argued that the most beautiful things are those that have “proportion in respect of the whole, and arrangement in respect of the parts.” In other words, they have an ideal proportion of shape, size, color and movement that makes them pleasing to the eye.
In the twentieth century, philosophers refocused on beauty in relation to human experience and culture. The rise of social-justice oriented philosophy led to a renewed interest in the concept. In this philosophical tradition, beauty has often been a vehicle for critiquing oppressive standards and values that treat certain bodies and people as inferior or less than beautiful. For example, some philosophers have used beauty to argue against the use of anti-abortion posters that depict the destruction of innocent human beings.
In recent years, philosophers have also focused on the role of beauty in our interactions with each other and the environment. They have explored the relationship between our personal and professional lives, how we define beauty in our everyday experiences, and whether there are any common characteristics of beauty that may be shared across cultures or persons. In addition, they have examined the relationship between beauty and pleasure, the ways we are affected by beauty in our everyday life, and how this relates to ethical and moral decisions we might make. These issues have brought new depth and complexity to the understanding of beauty.