Throughout history, people have held beauty as a basic value. It can be found in all walks of life, from music and art to clothing and physical attributes.
The term beauty is also used to describe things that please the senses or exalt the mind or spirit. For example, a beautiful painting can be very pleasing to the eyes and make you feel good about yourself.
In the West, we can find a number of different theories of beauty that have evolved over the years. They range from the classical conception of beauty – which argues that a beautiful thing must have a certain order, proportion, and symmetry – to the more subjective account that beauty is something we find in our minds.
Aristotle’s ‘Classical Conception’ of beauty defines a beautiful object as a coherent whole that is composed of integral parts, each with its own specific purpose. Aristotle argued that these parts must be properly related and in the proper proportion to each other, so as to form an integrated harmonious whole.
David Hume and Kant both held to this view in their writings about beauty, but they disagreed on the extent to which it is meaningful or objective. In Hume’s case, he argued that beauty is a subjective pleasure and not an immediate sensible experience.
Some philosophers, like Edmund Burke, believe that beauty is a series of qualities that are meaningful only insofar as they act on the human mind through the senses. These qualities include: ‘a sense of proportion, symmetry, and harmony’, ‘a sense of definiteness’, ‘a sense of clarity’, and ‘a sense of unified perfection’.
This account of beauty was rejected by 18th-century philosophers, who moved to the more subjective and culturally-rooted understanding of beauty that is associated with the Enlightenment and the emergence of the notion of inalienable rights. The 18th-century philosophers who took up the subject of beauty included the French philosophes, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and René Descartes; the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; and the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and William Wilberforce.
Despite the fact that beauty is often regarded as a subjective pleasure, there are some who argue that it is a good thing to strive for. This is because it is a way of developing personal character, which is important to a happy and productive life.
Another aspect of the concept of beauty that many people struggle with is the way it has been connected to hedonism and decadence in society. In the nineteenth century, beauty was closely connected to wealth and luxury, with every inch of a house filled with decorations or ornaments. This was in contrast to the poverty and ugliness of some parts of society, especially in poorer countries.
In the twentieth century, most philosophers were more wary of beauty and its ability to distract from real problems. They were uncomfortable with the idea that the beauty of a painting could hide the suffering or destruction of other people, even in a world of wars and destitution.