Beauty is the combination of qualities that makes something pleasurable to the senses and is often associated with properties such as harmony of form or color, proportion, authenticity, and a connection between the object and the observer. It is a value that has been the subject of many major philosophical debates over the course of history.
The earliest treatments of beauty were metaphysical and focused on the nature of the thing itself. For example, Thomas Aquinas distinguished beauty and good in terms of their ratios (integritas sive perfectio, debita proportion sive consonantia).
These accounts tended to place the source of beauty in God, who was thought to have a divine idea of what something should be like. It is therefore a quality of being that exists outside the material world and is not simply the result of our perceiving it.
Later, philosophy moved away from a metaphysical approach to beauty and instead shifted the study of beauty to the human faculties themselves. This was largely a response to the flourishing of the arts in the Renaissance and the emergence of the scientific method.
This move towards the sphere of human sensibility led to the development of an autonomous discipline called “aesthetics.” The word aesthetic comes from Greek, meaning “love of art.”
Aesthetics was originally considered an ontology-based discipline, but it soon became clear that it needed to be a more specialized discipline. The first philosopher to develop an autonomous theory of beauty was Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s account of beauty was in a sense an extension of his metaphysical views: the concept of beauty is not a natural phenomenon, but a “subjective” experience. The idea of beauty was that the things it made us appreciate would be a kind of receptive esoteric form of reality, a sort of “phantasm” in the mind.
One can also find a variety of philosophical accounts of beauty that are more grounded in practical concerns. For example, Plotinus’ neo-Platonism, which emphasizes the unity of the beautiful object and its ability to call out love or adoration, is not unlike Kant’s view, though it has an important hedonic element that Kant does not address.
Other early ideas about beauty were rooted in theology, and they reflected both an understanding of God’s idea of what things should be like as well as an awareness that the material world is fallible. The neo-Platonic account of beauty is also the basis for much of the later nineteenth century’s understanding of beauty as an expression of morality, and it was a strong influence on aesthetic theories in the twentieth century.
The idea of beauty is also central to a number of works of music, visual art and performance. For example, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are regarded as beautiful because of their symmetry and a sense of grace that makes them seem to float gracefully in the air.
The beauty of a person’s face, body or a work of art can vary widely across cultures and countries, and it is difficult to pin down a common experience of what beauty is. This is especially true when it comes to beauty in music, where the different styles and genres have their own set of norms that influence the perception of what a piece of music is “beautiful” and what it should be perceived as.