The concept of beauty has been discussed in a wide range of contexts throughout history. Medieval and Renaissance philosophers often wrote about it without reference to art, as if it were simply an attribute of a physical object or person. During the 18th century, however, philosophers started to focus on the idea of taste and how it influenced art. These writers were a significant influence on Western aesthetics and the development of art theory.
The Ancient Greeks considered the qualities of beauty as an expression of harmony and proportion. For example, Aristotle in his Timaeus recognised that there are particular mathematical proportions and ratios that produce aesthetic excellence. He also argued that certain things, including the human body, have a certain order and symmetry that make them beautiful.
Similarly, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570-495 BCE) believed that certain whole number ratios made things aesthetically pleasing. The Pythagorean school regarded beauty as the result of numeric harmony, which manifests pervasively in the universe.
In the Western world, many people have a neo-Platonic conception of beauty, where it is defined as ‘the order and proportion of parts’ or ‘the definiteness and clarity of forms’. These are not the only qualities of beauty; neo-Platonism also saw beauty as an expression of love or adoration, a manifestation of transcendence.
Some of the earliest writings on the subject were by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who believed that beauty was the harmony and proportion of parts, the ‘forms’ of objects or ideas, as a form of Goodness and Truth. The most important requirement, according to Aristotle, was integrity or perfection.
As we move into the 20th century, however, we see that traditional theories of beauty have been discredited as a consequence of their association with power and politics. As such, the concept of beauty began to lose its status as a dominant goal in art and philosophy.
One way to rethink the idea of beauty is to consider it as an empirical phenomenon, which can be verified by observations. This is the approach that most twentieth-century philosophers took.
If we take the example of a painting or photograph of Mont Saint-Victoire, for instance, we can be assured that it is indeed aesthetically pleasing. Its sculpted lines, soaring height, and other physical properties are all aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
The brain, in fact, is a major contributor to our perception of beauty. Scientists have discovered that the medial orbital frontal cortex of the brain is activated when people are viewing beautiful art or music. This part of the brain is thought to be responsible for the reward and pleasure centers that are involved in the enjoyment of art.
It is interesting to consider how the aesthetic principles or philosophers we adopt affect our own understanding of beauty, and how these influences are reflected in the ways we perceive the world around us. For example, we might find that we have a preference for symmetrical faces. Alternatively, we might prefer the appearance of people who are more confident or happy. We might even have a preference for people who are intelligent and kind.