Beauty is the quality that satisfies our senses and calls forth feelings of pleasure. It is a universal quality that reflects the essence of nature and its underlying design.
In ancient philosophy, beauty was a matter of proportions and symmetry. Polyclitus described the Canon, a statue that displayed perfect proportions. His treatise on beauty was a key text in the development of neo-Platonism.
Modern philosophers sought to dissociate the study of beauty from ontology and develop it as an autonomous discipline called aesthetics. The shift of the focus from ontology to the sphere of human faculties brought with it a host of problems, including the problem of how to treat beauty as an objective concept.
The problem of how to define beauty, and its importance as an object of moral and political value, was a central concern of the eighteenth century. While the idea of beauty as a subjective pleasure had its merits, it was also perceived that if the only factor determining what is beautiful was the subjective experience of the observer, then no value could be established by consensus.
Hume and Kant believed that while a single, unified account of beauty was not possible, there were ways to balance the subjectivity of the concept with respect for the principle of individual volition. In a treatise published in 1758, David Hume argued that a consideration of beauty should be taken as an exercise of the will rather than as a dictum to which one must acquiesce.
This view, however, was criticized by some. It was argued that even the most symmetrical face was not always pleasing. The fact that people grew to find certain features attractive was also seen as problematic.
Others argued that beauty did not need to be determined by any particular characteristic, and that it was in fact an ineffable or mysterious quality. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between beauty and good in terms of ratio; but he argued that they were indistinguishable.
He argued that God alone is the source of Beauty, and he enumerated elements of its composition: Perfection (integritas sive perfectio), Harmony (debita proportion sive consonantia), and Clarity (claritas).
The idea of beauty as a divine manifestation of goodness and truth has been an important theme in Christian theology since the time of Aquinas. It is a manifestation of the Divine Goodness and Truth that exists in both the created world and in the soul, and it involves both order and purpose in the creation of the world and in the conceivable knowledge of human experience.
In the nineteenth century, beauty was still seen as a powerful and important object of philosophy. George Santayana, for example, argued that beauty is an essential component of life and was a source of morality and spirituality.
But in the twentieth century, the concept of beauty was abandoned as a dominant goal for the arts. A major factor in this decline was the politicization of art and literature, which led to a suspicion that beauty was able to distract attention from more urgent and significant issues. This suspicion was reflected in the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists, who sought to sabotage beauty.