Among the most contentious debates in literature is the one over the meaning of beauty. While some argue that it is a purely visual experience, others claim that it is a subjective state. In this article we will explore the history of the discussion of the meaning of beauty, and look at the main theories of the subject.
First, we will examine the earliest philosophical treatments of the topic. Usually, these treatments describe pleasures associated with beauty in ecstatic terms. These pleasures range from delight to delicious trouble.
One example of a good definition of beauty is that of David Hume, an eighteenth-century philosopher. Hume’s definition is a retort to tyrannical notions of taste and beauty. He argued that the individual’s will and sensibility are of the utmost importance, and that we should acquiesce to this if it will lead to happiness.
Aristotle is another early philosopher who considered beauty. However, his views differed from Plato in that he ascribed less danger to beauty than Plato. On the other hand, he was more dispassionate in his analysis of beauty than Plato.
The classical conception of beauty was that it was a matter of proportion. This is illustrated by the use of the golden ratio. The Golden Ratio is a Fibonacci sequence. It can be found in many religious texts, and can be seen in the Islamic geometric design of mosques, buildings and interiors.
During the eighteenth century, beauty thinking moved from a mathematical to a more subjective conception. Some thinkers such as Edmund Burke were resolutely opposed to the idea of a purely objective beauty. Others such as Locke argued that color is an experiential response and that our perception of color is highly dependent on the mind.
During the nineteenth century, there was a burgeoning culture of feeling. Beauty was no longer limited to aesthetics, and the concept of inalienable rights emerged. Those who were unsure about how to reconcile the subject of beauty with the era of war and genocide faced a dilemma.
In the twentieth century, a number of thinkers attempted to redefine beauty. But these debates were often based on a lack of clarity. For example, the definition of the ‘best’ beauty is contested. Often, one’s perception of the best is influenced by social norms, such as the use of stereotypical ideas of beauty.
Rather than define beauty in mathematical terms, the ancients often sought to understand it in ecstatic terms. They described the joy of ‘beautiful trouble’, the wonderment of ‘dancing to music,’ and the pleasure of ‘delicious trouble’ as a result of an object’s beauty.
Beauty is a very subjective concept, and each mind perceives it differently. Therefore, while it might be a ‘better’ description than the ‘worst,’ it is still not infallible. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how people perceive the same object.
Throughout the twentieth century, however, it was not clear how to reconcile the concept of beauty with the era of genocide, wars, and wastelands. So, in the 1990s, Arthur Danto proposed that we abandon the concept of beauty as a “prelude to a new age of indignation,” where we would need to focus more on our lives as individuals rather than on other people.