What Is Beauty?


Beauty is the quality of a thing or person that pleases the aesthetic senses. A good face, a beautiful sunset or a magnificent building all create a chemical reward in the brain and bring us pleasure.

Throughout human history, humans have sought to express and promote beauty in various forms. This includes the art of architecture, sculpture, painting, literature and music, among others. Aristotle and other ancient philosophers defined beauty in terms of the order and symmetry of its parts, as well as proportion and harmony. These conceptions are now largely lost, but they can be seen in classical and neo-classical architecture, art and music of all periods.

Aristotle defines beauty in terms of a mathematical law: “The chief form of beauty, as we have already noticed, is that it must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]). This idea of beauty as a mathematical law is also reflected in Aristotle’s description of the ideal human body as being “orderly and proportionate, with the arms in a regular line and the limbs evenly disposed around the middle” (quoted in Pollitt 1974, 15). The idea of beauty as a mathematical law has influenced most modern theories of beauty.

Kant, who was a student of Aristotle, developed a conception of beauty that is closely related to the classical conception. In his essay “Beauty and Taste”, he says that “to say that something is beautiful is to say that it satisfies the sense of taste. Hence, when an object is perceived to be beautiful, it is because the feeling of taste has been satisfied”.

Schiller, another German philosopher, argues that beauty is the process through which we experience the integration or rendering compatible of the sensuous and the rational realms of nature. He argues that it is beauty and art that allow our spirits to ascend to the higher levels of spiritual reality.

The beauty of a landscape, for example, can be the result of the skill and craftsmanship of a renowned artist or simply nature itself. But it can also be the result of an anonymous photographer who has captured a magnificent scene on film.

In the seventeenth century, philosophers such as Kant and Hume began to argue that beauty should be treated as a subjective state. This view did not necessarily mean that beauty is not a valuable or worthy thing in and of itself. But it did suggest that if beauty is purely relative to the individual, it loses much of its broader significance as a value.