The Nature of Beauty


Throughout human history, people have been fascinated by beauty. They have interpreted beauty as an array of aesthetic qualities, such as symmetry, proportion, harmony, and a certain charm of color. These motifs are often found in classical art, architecture, music and literature.

The Classical Conception of Beauty

In ancient Greece and Rome, beauty was conceived as a perfect unity, containing three elements: integrity or perfection, due proportion and consonance, and clarity. This unified conception of beauty is reflected in works of art, architecture and sculpture.

The modern period saw a shift of the study of beauty from ontology to a humanistic focus, called aesthetics. During this time, philosophers such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant began to develop a philosophical discipline devoted to examining the nature of beauty.

According to Santayana, for example, beauty is a subjective experience that takes place in the mind. This approach, which Santayana took in The Sense of Beauty (1896), was one of the last major treatments of the subject in English until a revival of interest in the topic occurred in the 1990s.

Although Santayana thought that the experience of beauty could be profound, he believed it was not sufficient to account for the meaning of life. In his book, he argued that the experience of beauty was a kind of mistake: one attributes subjective states to a thing which is not capable of such states.

He also held that beauty was the expression of an individual’s morality. The concept of beauty, then, was a way for individuals to express themselves, especially in a world that is often difficult or unfriendly to them.

Aquinas was another philosophic thinker who had a similar view. In his Summa Theologica, he says that beauty consists of three aspects: Integrity or Perfection (for without integrity or perfection no object is beautiful), due proportion or consonance, and clarity.

Moreover, Aquinas explains how these three requirements are satisfied in a physical context. He argues that beauty is the result of good design: “A thing that is beautiful is one in which the parts have been formed in a proper relation to each other and to a whole” (Summa Theologica I, 39, 8).

The Modern Philosophical Aspects of Beauty

The most important modern philosopher to study the concept of beauty was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who made it an independent discipline called aesthetics. He espoused the theory that all knowledge is ultimately founded on our own sensibilities, and that these sensibilities can be studied by scientific inquiry.

His premise that all truth, goodness and being are the product of our own human faculties and that they can be studied by science was a crucial step in developing the field of philosophy as an autonomous discipline. He also embraced the idea that art is a way to bring about good and to enhance the human condition, and he argued that there was a correlation between art and happiness.

However, he was criticized for ignoring the fact that art is not an independent entity. As such, he did not understand that all art is not necessarily beautiful. This was especially true in the work of his contemporaries, such as David Hume (1711-1776) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who both viewed beauty as largely subject to the judgments of the individual.