What Is Beauty?

Whether beauty is found in a person, place or object, it can make someone feel happy and confident. It’s an emotion that comes from inside and radiates outward.

Many philosophers have tried to describe what beauty is. While some have focused on the idea of aesthetic pleasure, others have looked at an object’s function or referred to its innate qualities. The subject has been debated by theologians and philosophers, with some believing that it is a spiritual feeling while others think that it has nothing to do with religion.

A basic tenet of the philosophy of aesthetics is that beauty is subjective, which means that people’s ideas and reactions to a thing differ greatly. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas believed that certain things are beautiful because they have an independent quality that appeals to all of humanity. Others, like Santayana, argue that beauty is the result of an individual’s feelings and reactions to an object.

In the twentieth century, there was a revival of interest in something like the classical philosophical sense of beauty in both art and philosophy. This was fueled by feminist-oriented reconstruals and reappropriations of the concept, as well as by the emergence of new theories in aesthetics that were based on new research and theories of cognition.

The Classical conception of beauty was based on the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole according to proportion, harmony and symmetry. This was a primordial Western notion of beauty, embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, and literature as well as music. Plato, Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers held that a thing must have true proportions to be beautiful, as demonstrated by the golden section in sculpture or the mathematical ratio of a triangle’s sides.

This view of beauty was criticized by empiricists, such as Hume and Kant, who felt that it could never be objective because it depends on the subjective experience of a perceiver. It also tends to make beautiful things mere gratification, rather than an object of true value. Other philosophers, such as Diogenes Laertius and the hedonist Aristippus of Cyrene, have taken a more direct approach, identifying beauty with suitedness to use.

This treatment of beauty tends to avoid sheer philistinism by enriching the idea of ‘use,’ such that it might include not only an object’s utilitarian functions but its ability to perform those functions with especial satisfaction or elegance. The modern phenomenologist Ananda Coomaraswamy has argued that even a dung-basket can be beautiful, so long as it is used in an appropriate way. However, this approach is no longer a popular view of beauty, and it has been largely superseded by a more inclusive and positive vision. In this view, inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, and one can achieve true beauty by finding one’s own inner peace and being true to oneself. Even those with perceived disabilities, such as Down syndrome or a wheel chair, can be considered beautiful by simply living their lives to the fullest.