The Philosophy of Beauty


Beauty is a quality of objects, including landscapes and humans, that appeal to our senses. It can be objective, such as in art or architecture, or subjective, such as in the emotions of people.

There are many ways to define beauty and there are different philosophers who have shaped the concept over the years. It is important to understand that all the definitions are not created equal and each person will have their own idea of what is beautiful.

Some of the major approaches to the philosophy of beauty can be broken down into four categories: symmetry, proportion, harmony and elegance. These concepts have been the basis for classical aesthetics, and are often embodied in Western philosophy and artistic culture.

Symmetry: A common definition of beauty states that it is the harmonious or proportional arrangement of parts that creates a coherent whole. This is a primordial Western conception of beauty and is reflected in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature and music wherever it appears.

This is a very familiar axiom, and was used by Plato in Timaeus to explain the origin of beauty (and he also says that ‘to be beautiful is to have the proportions of perfection’). In his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness’.

Others, such as Aquinas, say that there are three essential requirements for beauty: integrity or perfection; due proportion and consonance; and clarity. These are essentially Aristotle’s pluralist notions of beauty, and it is important to distinguish them from a religious conception of beauty which focuses on a creator God’s image or ‘form’ in things.

The ‘forms’ of things may be physical, such as the way a plant grows, or they can be mathematical, such as the symmetry of a tree or the relationship between the length and width of limbs in well-proportioned human beings. In either case, the symmetry is the principle that provokes pleasure in the human who encounters the object.

Almost everyone agrees that symmetry is a key to the pleasure of beauty. It’s the ‘rhythm’ of an underlying perfection, or order, and it can be seen in every element of nature.

It’s a very popular theory in the Islamic tradition, too. It’s often found in the decorative arts of mosques and in Islamic interior design, and it takes its inspiration from geometric patterning, where each individual element models a pattern that reflects or represents an ultimate perfection.

As a result, this theory can be seen as one of the oldest and most fundamental theories of beauty. The human desire for order, patterns and symmetry is the heart of a person’s desire to see beauty in the world around them.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. They also sought to account for the apprehension of beauty in terms of a response of love or desire.