Beauty is a concept that’s often difficult to define. It’s the thing that makes a person, object or experience attractive and appealing to other people. It can be a defining characteristic of a work of art or a particular aesthetic sensibility, but it is also a powerful psychological force that can affect how we feel about ourselves and other people.
We often think of beauty as something that’s “in the eye of the beholder,” and this may be true in the most general sense, but it can also be true within certain types of work. A good example of this is the work of Alan Moore, a former designer and typographer who focuses on beauty in design. He argues that beauty is a very important quality to be considered when creating a design, whether it’s a piece of letterpress typeface or a new brand identity.
The problem with this idea is that it’s based on the assumption that beauty is an entirely subjective thing. The only way that a work of art could be beautiful is if it appealed to each individual who saw it.
This would be an impossible task, however, and the problem is that it ignores a key tenet of aesthetic philosophy: that beauty is objective. For example, Aristotle argues that beauty requires the presence of a certain proportion of parts to be valid, or to have an adequate appearance of being whole and complete (see below).
It is therefore impossible to make something more beautiful than it actually is, or to make something more aesthetically pleasing than it is. And it is precisely this skepticism that led eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume and Kant to oppose the idea of ‘pure’ or ‘objective’ beauty.
They argued that if beauty was only a matter of the taste of a particular beholder, then it could not be a value. It might even be a devalued value, because it was not universally recognizable as such across people or societies.
But this idea of beauty as an objective property of things, a property that can be measured or tested, is very similar to what Aquinas argued. He cited the three requirements for beauty: integrity, proportion and clarity. The first of these is a property of integrity, the second a property of proportion and the third a property of clarity.
Aquinas’s account of these qualities is surprisingly similar to the accounts of other philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, though in different ways. For Aquinas, the requirements for beauty are that the parts should be in harmony with each other; that they should fit together into a unified whole; and that the whole should be bright and clear.
Plotinus, a fifth-century thinker, also held that only a compound can be beautiful: it must have all the parts working in synchrony, and if any part is out of harmony with the other parts, it will be ugly. But in a very subtle way, he added that there is nothing in this requirement that cannot be accounted for by symmetry or concordance.