Beauty: A Short History (Opens in New Tab)


Throughout history and across cultural traditions, beauty has been recognized as a core value. But, as Alan Powers notes in Beauty: A Short History (opens in new tab), the senses and standards of beauty differ from one period to another.

The definition of beauty is a very subjective one. How we experience beauty is based on our own individual preferences, as well as the culture and tradition that we grew up in. So, it’s not surprising that many people can’t agree on what constitutes beautiful art or design.

Aesthetic appreciation is a form of positive emotion that reflects the aesthetically pleasing qualities of things or events. It can be triggered by any mode of perception, such as looking at a painting or tree in bloom or watching Puccini’s “La boheme.”

But aesthetic appreciation does not depend only on our senses; it can also arise from the imagination and the intellect. For example, we can appreciate a sculpture or a city skyline as if it were already there in the real world. And, we can even rejoice in imagining a house that has never been built, or in grasping the details of a complex theorem in algebra.

This is the essence of what Aquinas called a universal theory of beauty, which he developed in the Middle Ages. It satisfies the criteria for a unified theory of beauty: it can exist empirically, accounts for the rules of aesthetics in relation to good design and explains why Kant’s intuition that beauty inspires purpose is valid.

Modern philosophers have shifted the study of beauty from ontology to the realm of human sensibility, establishing the discipline of aesthetics. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) coined the term “aesthetics,” and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed a systematic approach to aesthetics as an autonomous discipline, dissociating it from the ontological components of truth, goodness, love and being.

The philosophy of aesthetics was primarily shaped by the work of Aquinas and Plato, but it was only in the eighteenth century that it was fully developed as a separate discipline. In that era, philosophers such as Hume and Kant felt that when beauty was treated only as a subjective state, something important lost.

As we move forward into a culture where women feel increasingly pressured to look a certain way and men are constantly reminded of their own unattractiveness, the concept of beauty is more important than ever. A woman who has a strong, intelligent and thoughtful character, who is able to communicate her feelings in an honest and straightforward manner and who has a deep desire to please others is more beautiful than a model or actress with the most perfect features.

It is the one thing that can really help keep a relationship alive and well, regardless of whether she’s hot or not. A woman who is confident and doesn’t mind putting her points across can make a man’s heart flutter, and that’s just about the most beautiful thing you can have.