What Is Beauty?

Beauty is a complex concept that has been subjected to many different philosophical and sociological treatments over the centuries. Generally, it has been associated with a form of pleasure that can be derived from an object or experience, although it can also be regarded as an objective quality, such as harmony and symmetry.

The classical conception of beauty identifies an object’s beauty with its arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole. This is a common Western conception that can be found in the architecture, sculpture, literature and music of the classical period.

Aristotle’s Poetics and Metaphysics state that beauty is a matter of proportion and harmony, and it is often connected with mathematical formulae like the golden ratio. This idea of beauty is still at the core of Western aesthetics, and it is reflected in our modern day perceptions of nature as well.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophers tended to treat beauty as an objective quality that could be identified with an object, for example, a portrait of a woman or a work of art. In contrast, Augustine, for example, located beauty in a response to the divine; and Plato, for example, in his account of beauty in the Symposium, links it to a response of love and desire.

Thomas Aquinas, however, connects beauty to the Second Person of the Trinity, and he gives three qualifications for a thing to be beautiful: it must have integrity (that is, it must follow its own internal logic); it must have perfection; and it must be of the highest order.

As the social significance of beauty became more concrete and as politics and commerce entered into its mix, beauty began to take on a political connotation that often questioned its purity. Its entanglements with race and gender became more prominent, while its centrality to politics and commerce also led to the appearance of hedonist expressions of wealth and decadence in art.

The hedonist associations of beauty that appeared in the nineteenth century were often more problematic than those of the classical and neo-classical eras, as they became associated with capitalism and its destructive effects. This is a problem that continues to this day, and it is the reason that philosophy in this century has taken up the issue of beauty as a political one.

Some of the most recent research into human beauty suggests that facial features that are symmetrical, average and harmonious can be seen as attractive. This is probably a result of the way our brain processes and evaluates the visual images we see, particularly in face-to-face interactions.

Another important factor is the shape of the face and body as a whole. This has been correlated with the perception of beauty and attractiveness by the human brain. Symmetry, for example, is considered desirable in both men and women throughout the world and is a common theme in popular culture.

Facial characteristics that seem to elicit positive emotions are also rated as more attractive than neutral faces, particularly when these are combined with eye contact or when the smile is perceived as directed at the person rating the picture. This is likely a result of natural selection and has been shown to be a key reason why people who have smiling faces are more successful in their relationships.