Beauty is a subjective quality that varies from person to person. It is the result of a complex interaction between our emotions and the objects of our attention. When viewed through a sexy lens, beauty can be evil. However, in most cases, it can be a pleasant experience. Aristotle described it as a handmaiden of order.
In the classical tradition, beauty is defined as a harmonious whole, with parts in proportion. Euclid, for example, uses the golden ratio to explain this concept.
The most elegant articulation of this idea, however, can be found in Italian Renaissance art. Indeed, it was in the Renaissance that a formal definition of beauty was reached.
In the eighteenth century, a number of thinkers sought to define beauty, though it was often treated as a purely intellectual concept. David Hume, for instance, believed that beauty was a subjective state that could be improved upon, and that it should be regulated by individuals’ desires and needs. He wrote in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1758). While he argued against the tyrannical nature of taste, he did concede that it should be allowed to stray from a rigidly confined definition.
In the twentieth century, many philosophers were confronted with the problem of defining beauty in an age of wars, genocide and wastelands. Many of these thinkers were unsure how to make the connection between the art of creation and the art of destruction. This was especially the case in the context of the invention of the pacifier.
The most important question to ask is not whether or not the item in question is beautiful, but rather what it is. Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with beauty and aesthetics, can provide a valuable understanding of the complex relationship between art and the human psyche.
There are three major strands of thought in the field: ancient philosophy, modern philosophy and contemporary thought. While the ancients sought to understand beauty through a mathematical framework, modern thinkers have explored it in terms of psychology and neuroscience.
One of the earliest philosophical attempts to tame this beast was the Greek Aesthetics. These philosophers of the time sought to understand the art of creating the perfect balance. Thus, they favored the idea of proportion and harmony. They also liked the fact that the concept of beauty is a symmetrical relation between parts and the whole.
In the twentieth century, the debate over the concept of beauty sparked the rise of the Surrealists. During this time, Dadaists planted urinals in art shows. Some thinkers, such as the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, deemed this a step in the wrong direction. Others, such as the French poet Stendhal, asserted that beauty was the promise of happiness. Unfortunately, his assertion did not get to the heart of matter.
In the twenty-first century, the best we can do is to try and understand the concept of beauty in a context where it is no longer the sole property of the rich and famous. As a cynical observer once commented, “It’s not enough to think of beauty as a quality, it’s a condition of being.”