When someone says that something is beautiful, they usually mean that it is pleasing to the eye. But beauty is much more than that, and it can be found in the world around us. The way we treat people, animals, and objects can be beautiful as well as the things we create.
The classic conception of beauty is the notion that it consists of the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole according to principles of proportion, harmony, and symmetry. This is a primordial Western concept and can be seen in architecture, sculpture, music, art, literature, and other cultural expressions.
Aristotle, for example, argued that the “most excellent and perfect” things were those which were harmonious in their parts and wholes. This view of beauty explains why so many ancient philosophers, from Kant to Plato, emphasized the spiritual or transcendent dimension of beauty, and it also suggests why we may experience the pleasure of seeing beauty in an object or in nature even when that object has no practical value for us.
It is conventional in ancient treatments of beauty to pay tribute, too, to the pleasures that beauty brings us, often in ecstatic terms, such as those of Plotinus: “Beauty must always induce wonderment and a delicious trouble, love and longing, adoration and trembling” (Plotinus, The Divine Comedy, Book III, Part 2, 2322 [1450b34]). Kant’s treatment of beauty in the same book includes some elements of this kind of hedonism, although he was careful not to confuse pleasure with mere aesthetic enjoyment.
For the medieval philosopher Aquinas, however, the idea of beauty combines the classical notion with a more utilitarian perspective. He argues that beauty is what gives us the sense of purpose that human beings need to achieve goodness and well-being in the world. Aquinas’ explanation explains why so many modern thinkers have combined the idea of utilitarian beauty with the idea of the spiritual and transcendent dimensions of beauty, and it also helps explain how we can experience pleasure in the presence of things that have no practical value for us at all.
In the 1990s, there was a revival of interest in beauty as a philosophical concept, both in art and philosophy, that reflected a recognition that it can be as liberating as it has been deemed to be enslaving. Confident young women today pack their closets with mini-skirts as well as sensible suits, and feminist philosophers have been involved in a number of new reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept of beauty.
The beauty that people find in others and in nature varies from person to person, and opinions on what is considered beautiful will shift over time. It is important, though, that we understand that the impulse to seek beauty can be just as important in transforming conventional standards and norms of social and political life as it has been in reinforcing them. As our understanding of what is beautiful continues to evolve, we can hope that it will help bring freedom from the shackles of narrow-minded ideologies and encourage the exploration of the vast riches of human diversity.