From the smile of the Mona Lisa to a sunset on the beach, the concept of Beauty entices us with its aesthetic pleasures. Yet it is a difficult concept to define. What criteria do we use when we declare one rainbow more beautiful than another? And is this a universal standard that can be defined in terms of aesthetic principles and philosophers?
Plato recognised beauty in the symmetry and proportion of parts, as evident in the arrangement of leaves on a plant or the ratio of the lengths of limbs in well-proportioned human bodies. Aristotle, following Plato, also identified beauty in the ‘forms’ of the world – in landscapes, buildings, and works of art.
Hume argued that great examples of beauty emerge and persist, despite the fact that people have different tastes. He suggested that respected authorities tend to agree on what is beautiful, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone shares their opinion.
At the end of the eighteenth century, new gendered connotations positioned the beautiful alongside the sublime in the Western mind. This alignment of the beautiful with feminine virtues shaped subsequent associations of women with nature and of men with the order and harmony of the natural world.
Kant’s ‘subjective universal’ turn in philosophy kickstarts a more romantic understanding of beauty. John Keats adored the ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’, the Grecian urn in his poem ‘On a Grecian Urn’ (1820), imagining its ‘leaf-fring’d legends’ and’men or gods’ in mad pursuit, evoking the poet’s deepest reflections.