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Concepts Of Beauty In Philosophy

There are many different perceptions of beauty. Some believe that beauty comes from within; some believe that it is simplicity, and some believe it lies in perfection. I am going to explore some of the more famous concepts of beauty from philosophers prior to the Renaissance. I believe that in any study of philosophy, Plato is a good starting point. Plato expressed his beliefs on the topic of beauty in his text ‘Symposium’. The general theme in ‘Symposium’ is love. Socrates sets forth his view through a conversation with Diotima of Mantineia, who believes that you should be taught to appreciate and love true beauty. The theory is as follows. At an early age, you should be taught to love beauty represented by a beautiful body, a human body. When this is realized, you can see that this body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies and this becomes the basis of loving all beautiful bodies and not just one.

Then the learner should realize that the beauty of souls is superior to the beauty of bodies. The second stage is to love beautiful practices and customs and to recognize that all beautiful customs share a certain charm or beauty. Then, the learner should recognize beauty in all different kinds of knowledge. Socrates thinks that the final stage should be experiencing beauty itself as something not embodied by anything physical or spiritual. In ‘Symposium’, Plato draws a clear line between beautiful things in the world of sense and beauty itself in the intelligible world. This runs parallel to Plato’s dualist theory that there are two worlds, the world we inhabit and sense, and the world that we can’t know of.

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When analyzing Plato’s theory, it is quite obvious that this is quite unlike the conception of beauty today, where people would say it is quite impossible to ‘experience beauty itself’. I also believe that people would say that knowledge isn’t beautiful, but powerful. For Plato, beauty transcends the worlds of sense, meaning that to experience beauty is quite unlike what would quantify an aesthetic experience today. This belief has a way of dismissing artwork and art as beautiful because Plato dismisses sight as illusory. Plato does not appear to have had a very sympathetic view of art because of this belief. Having said this, Plato does have an interest in beautiful things in the world, although he dismisses them as ambivalent. He also tries to discover what the beautiful things in the sensory world have in common, and he believes that there are two types, the simple and the complex.

He believes that the simple things have unity in common, and the complex has measure and proportion in common. This he expresses as a kind of unity. Having taken this into account, he does not believe that beauty and unity are synonymous, just that they always accompany each other but do not define each other. Plato’s basic philosophy on the concept of beauty is this: that beauty is simple and un-analyzable. I feel that this concept is quite similar to the beliefs we have today, because no one, to this day, can really define beauty to the satisfaction of everyone. The next philosopher who has views on the beauty that is known is Plotinus. Plotinus’ views are a form of Platonism that explores the mysticism of Plato’s theories. Perhaps the most pervasive result was the establishment of the notion of contemplation as the central focus in the study of beauty.

Most theories of beauty since Plato and Plotinus have maintained that contemplation is necessary for a true aesthetic experience. However, the definitions of contemplation differ. It is believed that Plato and Plotinus meant contemplation as a kind of meditation that involves focusing on an object or being. Aristotle believed that there are not two worlds and this was more sympathetic towards beauty and art. Aristotle’s belief is that everything exists in this world and amongst everything in this world there are some things that are truly beautiful. This provides the basis for an interest in beauty and art. I believe that Aristotle was very important in paving the way for the modern concept of beauty as he is the first philosopher to really believe that art and beauty are real.

St. Thomas Aquinus is the final philosopher that I am going to explore. Aquinas’s conception of beauty is not unworldly like Plato’s. He defines ‘beauty’ as ‘that which pleases to be seen’, and ‘the beautiful is that which calms the desire, by being seen or known. He narrows down these categories by concluding that there are three conditions of beauty; perfection, proportion or harmony, and brightness. The conditions mentioned are objective features of the world of experience, but the idea of pleasing as part of the word ‘beauty’ introduces a subjective element to the theory. Being pleased is the property of the subject, not the object being viewed. This subjective theory is explored more in the 18th century. Aquinus stressed the knowing aspect of beauty and believed that there is no property of beauty that is common to all beautiful things, simply the way the mind grasps the Form which causes an object to be what it is.

He believed that the experience of beauty is a cognitive one but there is more to it than that and that the object isn’t transcendental and neither is the form of beauty. Of all the theories studied, I believe that St. Thomas Aquinus’ is the one that both I agree with most and most modern philosophers have something in common with. He is the first philosopher that I have studied to believe that has both a subjective and objective belief in philosophy, and this is parallel to the modern belief that beauty is something that you can see or know. In summary, I would say that there are many different conceptions of beauty, even before the Renaissance. This is reflected in the way that everyone today has slightly different notions of beauty, as well as finding different things and beings beautiful.

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