Philosophers have long debated the nature of beauty. Kant and Hume offered differing accounts. The eighteenth-century philosopher Augustine explicitly asks the question: Is something beautiful because it gives us pleasure? Augustine chooses the second option. Plotinus, on the other hand, places beauty in the realm of Forms and its participation. In contrast to Kant, who places beauty in the realm of truth, Santayana focuses on pleasure.
Ancient treatments of beauty often pay tribute to the pleasures of beauty, describing them in ecstatic terms. Plotinus wrote about the pleasures of beauty as delight, wonder, delicious trouble, longing, and love. Even trembling is an expression of delight. These are eloquent descriptions of the joy and satisfaction we get from beauty. The experience of beauty is not limited to the mind or the body; it transcends all boundaries and can reach beyond our own.
Classical conceptions of beauty often relate beauty to its arrangement of integral parts that form a coherent whole. This is the primitive Western view of beauty and is reflected in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music. According to this conception, the appearance of a living thing must show order and harmony in its arrangement of parts. Those who disagree with this view might argue that it is not beautiful. Socrates, on the other hand, suggests that beauty is a function of how a living thing is used.
Throughout history, beauty has been associated with political values. Beauty has been central to commerce, politics, and the concrete manifestations of oppression. The classical conception of beauty is meaningless when the building process is violently exploitative. It has become an object of political critique and social destruction. In the early twentieth century, the concept of beauty was linked to capitalism, and ‘great art’ was often dedicated to furnishing the homes of the wealthy.
Contemporary art works also explore beauty. Whether it is in the form of a nautilus shell or the color of a eucalyptus tree in bloom, women’s artwork has been exploring the nature of beauty. From the most ordinary objects, such as a eucalyptus tree in full bloom, to the most complex images of swirling galaxies, the world’s molecules, cells, and organisms speak to our imaginations and sense of wonder.
Western beauty standards have become highly selective, based on the idea that the “beautiful” race is the most beautiful. Early racial theorists defined “white” as the most beautiful race. The fact that beauty standards are deeply rooted in class, however, does not make these decisions any easier. Many cosmetic surgery procedures cost more than the cost of a facial or braces. They also exacerbate a person’s self-image and devalue their intrinsic value.
Beauty was also linked with anti-capitalist and Marxist movements. The Nazis, for instance, adopted a strict aesthetic politics that was reflected in the films of Leni Riefenstahl. This further forged the association between beauty and right-wing politics. Aesthetic politics are often interpreted as a form of cultural expression, but they must not be mistaken for aesthetic taste. But as long as they are true, beauty is still important.