Beauty is a complex and multifaceted idea, encompassing physical objects and ideas, as well as psychological and emotional experience. Some philosophers view beauty as an objective quality, while others understand it as a response to something beyond ourselves and an expression of our good desires.
Plato conceived beauty as objective in the sense that it does not depend on our interpretation, but is instead “not of this world,” meaning that it comes from a realm beyond our experience. This realm is known as the Forms, and it is a place where beauty is manifest.
In the Poetics, Aristotle states that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must… present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34].) This classical conception of beauty influenced Western architecture, sculpture, music, and literature throughout the ages, and it was revived in the twentieth century as an aesthetic goal of the arts.
Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. Augustine, for example, in De Veritate Religione asks: “Is this thing beautiful because it delights me or is it beauty because it delights me?” He emphatically chooses the second option, recognizing that both pleasure and beauty have a connection to goodness.
Aristotle also linked beauty with art. He wrote: “The beautiful, in the art of making things and in the nature around us, has this quality which is not purely pleasant, but in some way that is related to the good.”
Another perspective on beauty was that of Plotinus, whose account appears in his Enneads. Here, as in the Symposium and other early neo-Platonic texts, beauty is seen as the manifestation of Goodness as Truth.
This posits that beauty is the result of the union of Goodness and Truth, a union which must be ordained by God. In this sense, even fictional worlds are beautiful, since they must be conceived as participating in the Forms.
In a more idealist conception, beauty is also the result of the union of Goodness and Wisdom. This conception is reflected in the theory of forms formulated by Plato, whose account of beauty is a fundamental Socratic text and a key element of neo-Platonism.
Similarly, in the Enneads, Plotinus identifies the beauty of a particular object in its participation in the Forms. This is the opposite of Plato’s account of beauty in the Symposium, which conceives of it as the result of a response to something outside ourselves and an expression of our good desires.
The idealist approach to beauty was based on a deep conviction that all good things must be in harmony with each other. It also emphasized that beauty could not be constructed out of parts; it must be a coherent whole, or else it would lack beauty. It was this conception of beauty that gave rise to the classical aesthetics of integral parts and a coherent whole.