Beauty is a quality or combination of qualities that gives pleasure to the senses, especially the sight. It is often associated with properties such as harmony of form or color, proportion, authenticity and originality.
The Aristotelian conception of beauty requires that something is perfect or complete, that it has integrity or a correct identity, and that it has due proportions and consonance. It also requires that a thing be brightly colored, and that its lines and contours have symmetry.
Aquinas agrees that these requirements should be fulfilled to qualify a thing as beautiful, but adds a third requirement: “it must have clarity.” In other words, it must have a definite shape, which is to say it must have the symmetrical and harmonious shapes characteristic of its kind.
Another important aspect of the Aristotelian conception of beauty is that it must be based on experience. As a result, it must be an immediate sensation. This was not a good idea for Hume and Kant, who argued that the subjective state of beauty could become an unreliable basis for value judgments, if it were simply the product of the individual experiencer’s imagination.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this aspect of the Aristotelian conception: it is the foundation for much of modern aesthetics. It is the source of many important debates and passionate thoughts, including those that continue to this day.
From a philosophical perspective, there have been many different accounts of what it means to be beautiful, from the classical tradition to neo-Platonism and idealism. Each of these approaches has its own distinctive characteristics.
Kant argued that the quality of beauty should be objective: it should have a measurable feature that makes it better than the rest. This he interpreted as a form of utilitarian ethics: it should be an object that could be useful and whose use should be recognized as being valuable by its own right.
Although this is the most popular account, it may be worth pointing out that other philosophers have taken a more or less similar view. In addition to the hedonism of Santayana, for example, there was an ecstatic neo-Platonism that saw beauty as a matter of perfect unity.
This account was reflected in the Platonic account of justice, where beauty is the rule of reason, and in neo-Platonism’s account of political order. Similarly, the neo-Platonic account of love sees beauty as a calling forth of love or adoration.
Aside from these more or less common views, a number of other more divergent views have been developed over the centuries. They can be divided into three major groups: those that associate beauty with disinterested pleasure, those that treat it as a moral and political virtue, and those that see beauty as an object of worship.
Although these three groups of views are all related in a few ways, they are incompatible with one another. For instance, Kant’s account of disinterested pleasure has elements of hedonism in it, while the idealist account of beauty is largely a matter of perfect unity and calls out love.