In the Western world, there are several conceptions of beauty. The most prominent is the classical conception, which identifies beauty as a matter of proportion, harmony, and symmetry, resulting in a unified, whole form. This notion is embodied in many aspects of art and music, in architecture and sculpture, and in literature.
Definitions of beauty have varied throughout history and across different cultures, from aristotle’s description of it as “the arrangement of integral parts in a coherent whole” to the more recent definitions by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre that emphasize its effect on the human mind and senses. There are also theological definitions that take God himself as the foundation of beauty or as the ultimate instantiation of it.
Plato’s definition is that it is the arrangement of parts whose arrangement makes a harmonious whole and provokes pleasure in the human. The human’s desire for order, patterns, symmetry, unity, and equality is the basis of this view. It is reflected in the ‘golden section’ of the human eye, and in the mathematical theory of symmetry.
The classical conception of beauty was a product of the Pythagorean philosophy and the early works of Plato, which influenced later Platonists. It was developed in the ancient world and was largely accepted and used in Europe through the Renaissance and the Reformation.
This conception of beauty was in contrast to the hedonist interpretations of beauty that some ancient philosophers had, such as Aristippus of Cyrene, which saw it as the suitability of an object for use or enjoyment, rather than its aesthetic qualities. This would make gold a beautiful object, for example, as long as it was suited to its use.
Another variant of this concept of beauty is that it is the result of an external stimulus, rather than something innately within an object itself. It can be the result of a natural process, such as the way that flowers grow or the sunlight hits a rock. It can also be a cultural or social process, such as the way that art is created and valued.
Moreover, the classical conception of beauty is often used to describe the ideal of art, which is an art form that has been imitated and copied throughout the ages. This has led to a sort of parlor-trick that borrows from the form, but never from the real.
Some philosophers have criticized this approach, and argue that art has nothing to do with real beauty at all. They point to the fact that most artists do not intellectually apprehend their work, and often merely go into a trance-like state when they begin creating art.
These arguments raise the question of whether or not it is a good idea to exclude the rational side of beauty from our philosophy. The philosopher Jacques Rougemont in his book The Emotional Response to the Beautiful argues that this is not only unwise, but also dangerous: it could deprive us of beauty’s “inner life,” or its emotional aspect, which we experience as a reaction to certain things that are outwardly beautiful.