Beauty is a topic that has long engaged philosophers and theologians. It is central to a range of human values, including love (caritas) and acquired dispositions for truth, goodness, and justice. The beauty of the natural world also serves to bolster arguments for divine design. Moreover, art in many forms reflects a concern for beauty. Beauty is present in a snowy mountain scene photographed and shared with family, in an oil painting displayed in a gallery, or in a music score written in crotchets and quavers.
The classical conception of beauty focuses on the relation between an object and its parts. The beauty of an object is achieved by the “right proportion” of its parts and their harmonious integration into a whole.
Aristotle, Plato, and the medieval philosophers emphasized the “rightness” of beauty. The classical ideal of beauty, for example, was a woman with a waist-to-hip ratio that favored a straight figure in men and a curvy one in women. The rightness of a person’s features also includes their harmony with the rest of their body and appearance.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, empiricists focused on pleasure as beauty’s cause or origin. This view led to the development of theories such as Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and Kant’s account of beauty as a feeling. The problem is that if beauty is a feeling, it ceases to be a value that can be recognized and cherished by all individuals.
Even so, eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume and Kant realized that something important was being lost by treating beauty merely as a feeling. Beauty may be a feeling, but it is not a primitive one like pain or hunger. It is a complex feeling that resembles the French concept of reconnaitre, or grateful recognition, more than it does the sensation of enjoyment that is associated with a pleasure.
Today, scientists have boiled down the factors that determine visual beauty to a handful of key determinants. Although the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ remains true, people tend to respond to certain facial characteristics with fairly tight consensus across time and cultures. In addition, attractiveness appears to have some social consequences: a recent survey found that good-looking people are more likely to be rewarded for their efforts, to receive higher grades in school, and to be believed when they report on crimes committed against them.
But perhaps the most significant finding is that physical attractiveness does not automatically translate into a high quality of life. For instance, in a study of what makes people lovable, confidence, kindness, happiness, and dignity ranked highly for both men and women. Strength, sexiness, and facial appearance ranked lower. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that beauty can only be truly appreciated when it is not entangled in oppressive ideals and images, and when its pursuit does not contribute to oppression and exploitation.