The question of the nature of beauty has been a recurring theme throughout the history of philosophy and aesthetics. Beauty has been considered a universal, ultimate value, but also a source of individual and cultural differences. As such, it has often been associated with pleasure. However, the nineteenth century and early twentieth century brought a shift in thinking about beauty. This new perspective was shaped by a growing sense of inalienable rights, confidence in human capability, and a burgeoning culture of feeling.
Traditionally, the ancient Greeks and medieval philosophers considered beauty to be a form of ultimate value. Plato recognized beauty as harmony and splendour, while Aristotle regarded it as definiteness and order. Ultimately, beauty is thought to be a matter of proportions. It is also thought to be an ideal of unity. Among the classical conceptions of beauty are symmetry, proportion, and colour. These are seen to express the harmony and perfection of a part towards its whole, and of the parts towards each other.
In the seventeenth century, David Hume argued that beauty is not a quality of things but an act of gentleness. Colors, he claimed, are only meaningful to individuals if they are observed and perceived by their mind. By contrast, Locke believed that colors depend on a person’s response to the color. Although both thinkers emphasized the importance of individual will, the former’s account is more willing to permit variance in the definition of beauty.
Similarly, Berkeley defined beauty as “the knowledge and use of a suited thing to the end of satisfying a purpose,” requiring a practical activity and intellection. He also pointed out that the first requirement for beauty is integrity. Therefore, it is not possible to achieve beauty by creating something that is not beautiful.
During the 18th century, thinking about beauty was transformed from a mathematical and quantitative approach to one that was more subjective. Various scholars were able to develop a number of different approaches to the nature of beauty. Some philosophers, such as Edmund Burke, saw beauty as an empirically based series of qualities. Others, such as Thomas Aquinas, interpreted it as the Second Person of the Trinity.
Another important approach was the work of George Santayana, who saw beauty as an experience that is pleasurable and that produces an ineffable pleasure. His account is ecstatic in its nature. Unlike most of the other treatments, he does not use the word “beauty” to describe the experience itself, but to suggest that it is a form of gratification.
In the twentieth century, philosophers wrestled with how to reconcile beauty with the age of war, wastelands, and genocide. They were unsure of how to define and understand beauty in the context of a world of sabotage, riots, and death. At the same time, they were suspicious of other forms of distraction that tarnished the aesthetic virtues of art.
While subjectivism and cultural relativism have their advantages over universalism, it is hard to say how much beauty is lost in these types of philosophies. Certainly, many artists have retreated from beauty as a primary goal for the arts.