Beauty is a topic that has enthralled people for millennia. From Plato to modern neuro-psychological studies, different aspects of beauty have received a tremendous amount of attention and debates.
Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty and its values, and expressions of beauty in artistic creations. It aims to understand the ways in which we experience beauty and why it affects our lives.
Throughout the Western world, philosophers have developed a variety of approaches to beauty. Some are more anthropocentric than others, while others approach it from a metaphysical or spiritual standpoint.
The classical conception of beauty involves a combination of perfection and harmony. A beautiful object must have a definite form that is distinctive of its type and that reflects the underlying nature of the object. It must also be proportional to its parts and harmonious in general.
Ancient Greek aesthetic theory was shaped by two major thinkers: Plato and Aristotle. While both agree that beauty is objective, Aristotle emphasizes a craftier understanding of it than Plato does, and he ascribes less danger to it than does Plato.
For Plato, beauty was a ladder that led to a higher level of thought or reality. By climbing this ladder, we could ascend to the realm of the soul or spirit (Plato’s ‘world’), and thus attain transcendent wisdom.
In contrast, for Schiller, beauty is not a ladder at all but a way of rendering compatible the sensuous and the rational; he argues that we must be in an integrated state of nature and spirit to enjoy true freedom.
Early-modern philosophers, such as Aquinas, saw beauty as the manifestation of Goodness and Truth; they argued that God is the source of both. Consequently, they believed that all things are beautiful in God’s image.
The concept of beauty was reshaped in modern philosophy, which shifted its focus from ontological principles to the sphere of human sensibility. In this approach, the study of beauty became an autonomous discipline, titled aesthetics.
One major change in the concept of beauty came in the 18th century, when Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined the term “aesthetics” to describe the study of beauty as an autonomous discipline. This move, which he advocated, de-emphasizes moral beauty and emphasizes the subjective evaluation of aesthetic qualities as expressed in artistic creations.
Although this shift may seem counter-intuitive, it was a necessary one. Aesthetics, as a philosophy that focused on the subjective experience of beauty, was more compatible with social justice movements than was traditional philosophy, which was oriented more toward a rigorous analysis of universal ontological concepts such as truth, goodness, and being.