The Sense of Beauty

by George Santayana

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

After teaching for many years on art and aesthetic pleasure, George Santayana was encouraged to pen a book to describe his ideas. The result was The Sense of Beauty.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Much of the work tackles the subject of perfection and what it means to find something aesthetically perfect. Santayana believes that beauty and aesthetics are far more complex than the idea of something simply looking beautiful. According to Santayana, for something to be aesthetically perfect, it has to provide more than just physical beauty: it must provide a representation of values, an experience of emotions, or a sense of divine presence, among many other things. Perfection may be a vague concept, but Santayana believes that true aesthetics can strive toward a perception of perfection.

The Importance of Duality in Aesthetics

Santayana explores the inherent duality in aesthetics. He specifically uses sound to explore this idea, but the general concept holds true for art and beauty of all kinds: something that has true beauty encapsulates a duality of some sort. For instance, with sound and music, there is a dichotomy between simplicity and variety; simple sounds and melodies create beauty and "purity," but variety gives freshness and novelty to the experience, which is another form of beauty.

Art as Self-Expression

One of the subsections of The Sense of Beauty is centered on the concept of expression—the idea that beauty is a way for individuals to express themselves through works of literature, music, and art. By creating art in its various forms, we can portray beauty in the world, which spreads some of our own experience to others. At the same time, in works of art, even the expression of evil and negativity is a form of beauty, because it is the expression of shared experience which helps us understand the world.

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