Beauty (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Beauty, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 42747 B.C.E.), is the most accessible of the Forms. Forms are transcendent sources of the essential qualities of things, the qualities that make things what they are. The proper relation among these qualities, their harmony, is what makes a thing beautiful. We are naturally drawn to beautiful things, wanting to possess them and to perpetuate their beauty in creations of our own. Our love of beauty leads us to seek it in increasingly more enduring forms of enjoyment and creation: from particular physical objects to friends and children, to public institutions and societal laws, to scientific theories and philosophical systems, and finally to Beauty itself. Thus Beauty is the harmonizing structure that give things their integrity, we desire it above all else, and in its presence we are able to create things of enduring worth. It is both the measure of our good and the enkindling agent for its accomplishment. Western notions of beauty since Plato are but a series of footnotes to these linked notions.
Aristotle emphasizes the notion of structure: The beauty of a thing lies in its formal and final causes, in the imposition of appropriate ordering principles of symmetry and unity upon indeterminate matter. He argues that for a work of art, such as a tragedy, to be excellent it must adhere to proper unities of time, place, and narrative sequence. Plotinus (20570 C.E.) emphasizes the notion of beauty's lure, the ascent by its means to the timeless. Beauty is not merely symmetry and unity; it is a power irradiating them, for which we yearn and through which we can transcend that about us which is perishing. The early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (35430 C.E.) identifies this power as God, through the beauty of whose Word our restless selves find salvation's rest.
Hence in Christianity, as in most religions, the actions and objects associated with worship are as beautifully crafted as possible, their beauty having the power to draw believers into the presence of the holy. Islam excludes the use of images, however, as did early radical Protestantism, finding them distractions rather than inducements. Contrast, for example, the severe elegance of Islam's Dome of the Rock mosque, or a clear-windowed New England Puritan church with the sculptured figures on the facade of the Roman Catholic cathedral at Chartres, or the ballet of icons and censors at a Russian Orthodox Eucharist.
Thomas Aquinas uses the beauty people see in the world around them, their sense of how things fit together, as a proof for the existence of God. Because they act together so as to attain the best result, they must be directed by a purposive being, as the arrow is directed by the archer. The ultimate source of such purposiveness is God. In the eighteenth century, William Paley (1743805) revived Aquinas's "argument from design," adapting it to the natural order described by Newtonian science. The well-ordered mechanistic intricacy of the world results from laws that cannot be fortuitous: the precision of a watch entails a watchmaker; the precision of the universe entails a God. People were no longer brought into God's presence through beauty, but from the beauty of nature at least it could be inferred that there must be a God who had created it.
The tendency since the rise of modern science, however, is to claim that nonsensible principles such as Beauty, although still timeless and necessary, are no longer understood as supernatural: they are the laws of nature. The Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot (1713784), for instance, defines beauty as the relations things possess by virtue of which we are able to understand nature in its genuine objectivity. Classicism in the arts is the claim that the timeless laws manifest in nature imply that there are rules derivable from those laws that apply to each artistic genre and that only if those rules are respected will the artist's work be beautiful. Similarly, scientists often argue that a machine works beautifully if it has been well designed, if its parts operate so that it fulfills its function smoothly and efficiently. The laws governing what works beautifully are themselves beautiful, and therefore laws that lack beauty are not likely to be adequate descriptions of what works. In this sense, a criterion of simplicity is often included in the conditions by which to assess a scientific hypothesis. For many purposes, Ptolemy's (9068 C.E.) astronomy may be descriptively and predictively accurate, but its array of circles and epicycles are unnecessarily complicated and mathematically awkward compared to Johannes Kepler's (1571630) elegant ellipses. As William of Ockham (c. 1280. 1349) insisted, one should not multiply theoretical entities beyond necessity. Truth and Beauty, it would seem, have much in common after all.
Many thinkers, however, including most non-Western theorists, reject the notion that beauty is a universal objective reality. They argue that it is different in each of its instances. Beauty is the unique character of a thing, the way in which its specific elements are specifically related. The creation or the study of beautiful things is not a science but an art: conducting a tea ceremony, achieving inner peace through meditation or in action, freeing a statue from the marble block, telling an edifying story. For G. E. Moore (1873958), beauty is undefinable precisely because it is particular; it can only be directly experienced, like seeing the color red. Contemporary philosopher Mary Mothersill argues that a judgment of beauty is a logically singular judgment, based on radically contextual properties.
Although there have always been those who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, modern science and the Cartesian separation of mind and body combined to reserve objectivity for physical bodies and their publicly-verifiable quantitative features. Beauty was therefore relegated to the realm of private mental things, to ideas and the sentiments. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711776) says that beauty is a matter of taste, a disinterested pleasure we take in certain of our sensations. The twentieth-century American poet and philosopher George Santayana (1863952) says beauty is pleasure objectified: pleasure experienced as the quality of a thing, our subjective responses projected onto their source.
The extreme version of subjectivism is found in the claim by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, made in the 1950s, that aesthetic judgments have no truth functional significance: They are neither true nor false but rather emotive ejaculations akin to saying "wow." Marxist and Postmodernist forms of relativism make this subjectivism a function of race, ethnicity, religion (ideology), economic class, political power, or gender, critiquing objectivity claims as attempts to hide their self-serving character.
People often agree about what is beautiful, however, so even if beauty is a subjective feeling it can be argued that it has an objective cause. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694746), for instance, argued that on the basis of our sense perceptions we discern by a sixth sense a uniformity pervading their variety and call our pleasure in this beauty. Immanuel Kant (1724804) calls this sixth sense our common sense. As with all our other experiences, the experience of beauty involves both intuition and understanding, both sensations and concepts. But whereas for scientific and practical purposes the concepts are imposed on the sensations, ordering them meaningfully, when we experience something as beautiful we allow the free play of imagination to associate our perceptions with notions of meaning yet without their being imposed. We take what we experience as fraught with meaning but not any specifiable meaning. We take delight in this experience and so appreciate the world as involving more than what we can know about it or achieve by our actions upon it. Because these judgments involve conceptual and intuitive faculties that are the same for all human beings, they can be valid for others as well as ourselves: We have a common sense of beauty and hence our disputes about it can be rationally resolved.
Back to Plato
So Kant opens a way other than through politics, or religion, or scientific or philosophical theorizing for getting at the deeper realities underlying the world as it appears to ushrough aesthetic appreciation and through the creation of works of art. Thus in the nineteenth century, Alexander Baumgarten (1714762) claimed that beauty is the sensory recognition of a transcendent unifying perfection. In the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889976) argued that the beauty of a work of art, by disclosing the workly character of things, unconceals the creative source of the world's beings, their Being. We are back once more with Plato: There is a nonsensuous Reality disclosed by sensuous beauty, toward which we are drawn because of Beauty's power to break us free from the constraints of scientific understanding and our practical endeavors, to open us to the Good they obscure.
See also AESTHETICS; KANT, IMMANUEL; ORDER; PLATO; VALUE
Heidegger, Martin. "The Origin of the Work of Art." In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. New York: Modern Library, 1964.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment (1790), trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Haefner, 1951.
Mothersill, Mary. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
Ogden, C.K. and Richards, I. A. The Meaning of Meaning: The Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
Plato. Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. In Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1997.
Plotinus. The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (1896). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.
Watts, Alan. The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East. New York: Grove Press, 1960.