From ancient philosophers to modern social-psychologists thinkers of various disciplines have contributed much to enrich and confuse in order to characterise the coinages ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’. Philosophically the terms offer many “Absolutes” but no certainties. The entire Western ethos provides ample scope to witness applications of theories in multitude related to the ‘beauty’ and the ‘beautiful’. A coalescence of the classical, romantic, modern and postmodern approaches envelops us into the classes and categories of beauty, where the idea of the ‘beautiful’ is framed time and again by philosophy, religion, social-psychology and cultural anthropology. A rational approach to the terms will prompt an attempt to focus on the ‘classes’ and ‘categories’ of beauty instead of listing quotations on beauty by renowned thinkers down the ages. It is also known that even after any exposition the elusiveness and counter arguments will remain, as Nobel Laureate French scholar and artist Anatole France perhaps rightly inferred, “I believe that we shall never know exactly why a thing is beautiful.”




All things are beautiful that possess the quality of beauty. To Plato, “if anything is beautiful it is beautiful for no other reason than that it partakes of absolute beauty.” The term ‘essence’ involves seeking ‘common quality’ in all works of art. “Significant from” (Clive Bell) and “aesthetic emotion” create rousing of the sense of beauty. Aesthetic emotion is “an emotion about form” (Roger Fry) which is not analyzed but only felt. Beauty is also considered as the product of genius in terms of ‘essence’ by French philosopher Henry Bergson.



Popularly, art is seen to be an imitation of nature. This shifts the problem of beauty from art to nature, unless beauty is considered to reside in the fact of imitation. The relational base of beauty is even identified by Aristotle as “the pleasure of recognition,” which, to Dryden and Coleridge seemed “too near a resemblance”, and craved for an “improved imitation.” Nietzsche and Kant are of two opinions on the relational base of beauty. The former holds, ” … from an artistic point of view, nature is no model,” and the latter opines that “beauty is the character of adaptation to a purpose without any actual purpose.”Beautiful results from successful “exploitation of a medium that exhibits a nice adaptation to its function.”






The subjective interpretation of beauty remains in the ideas of Hume, Ruskin, Santayana, Kenneth Burke, Coleridge, Konrad Lange and others. We have Hume’s famous assertion: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them.” Ruskin’s idea runs close to the psychology of the ‘pleasure principle’: “any object is beautiful which in some degree gives us pleasure.” It is also believed that anything that is beautiful produces illusion. This is most explicitly stated by Coleridge in “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The doctrines of ‘empathy and synaesthesis’ are also put forward as causes. Empathy is a thought that makes anything beautiful that draws us into its being. Synaesthesis is a concept that balances reason and emotion, absorption and detached contemplation: “…it sees beauty as lifting at once both ends of the see-saw polarities of being.”



In discussing the effect of beauty critics tend to reverse the concepts initiated to ascertain the causes of the sense of beauty. Beauty is taken to be a product in terms of the artist’s skill. At same time, beauty is regarded as the effect of man’s activity upon nature. Beneditto Croce’s notion of “all expression is art” has already met with limitations that beauty is  “the perfect expression of a felt interest.” Beauty is thus closely associated to the concepts of love, art, contemplation, form, content, possession, creator and receiver. Dante’s words in this respect will not be irrelevant:

…. .I am one who, when love

Inspires me, note, and in the way that he
Dictates within, I give the outward form.




The concept of beauty arose in ancient Greece and was the offspring of a particular philosophy of life. To Herbert Read, nature of that philosophy was “anthropomorphic; it exalted all human values and saw in the gods nothing but man writ large.” To the Greeks both art and religion were an idealization of nature, specially of man as the culminating point of the process of nature, and specially of man as the culminating point of the process of nature. The type of classical art is the Apollo Belvedere or the Aphrodite of Meios –perfect or ideal types of humanity, “perfectly formed, perfectly proportioned, noble and serene, in one word, beautiful.”  This type of beauty was inherited by Rome, and revived at Renaissance. The pre-Socratic Greeks sought to define beauty in spatial and quantitative terms. Plato called beauty as “a privilege of nature” and merged the beautiful in the sublime identity with good. Aristotle held that beauty is symmetry, proportion, and an organic order of parts in a united whole. Theocritus treated beauty as “a delightful prejudice” and Carneades considered it to be “a solitary kingdom.” Beauty, to Homer was “a glorious gift of nature” and to Ovid “a favour bestowed by the gods.”



The view still exists that we live in the tradition of the Renaissance and beauty is inevitably associated with the idealization of a type of humanity evolved by an ancient people in a far land, remote from the actual conditions of our daily life. As an ideal it is as good as any other. Immanuel Kant and Schopenhauer add something new to the ideal. To them, beauty becomes that quality whereby “an object pleases us regardless of its use, stirring in us a will-less contemplation, a disinterested happiness.” To Schopenhauer, “…in this objective and impartial perception aesthetic appreciation and artistic genius lie; the intellect is for a moment emancipated from desire, and realises those eternal forms, or Platonic ‘Ideas’, which constitute the outward aspects of the universal Will.” Hegel takes us back to the Greek perception of beauty as “unity in variety, the conquest of matter by form, the sensuous manifestation of some metaphysical ideal.”



It is wrong to think that we alone are conscious of beauty. Animals often value auditory, visual and instinctive sensations. Experiments in the Zoological Gardens showed that with the exception of some seals none were indifferent to music and all felt a discord as offensive. A tiger was soothed by the violin, infuriated by the piccolo. Most animals preferred the violin and the flute. It was also seen that an experimenter’s dog whined and howled at a nocturne by Chopin, but went to sleep when a cheerful piece was played. Certain birds, says Darwin, adorn their nests with gaily coloured leaves and shells, with stones and feathers, and bits of cloth or ribbon; the bower bird builds for his mate special nest covered with brush-wood, white pebbles, red berries, bright feathers; the magpie, the raven and other birds steal and select bright objects, silver, jewel etc. It remains uncertain whether animals are driven by vanity or curiosity or greed, or aesthetic taste. Schopenhauer in his essay on The Metaphysics of the Beautiful asks a relevant question in this context: “How are satisfaction and pleasure in an aesthetic object possible without any reference of the same to our Will?” Perhaps the answer lies in Darwin’s proposition written in The Descent of Man: “With the great majority of animals, the taste for the beautiful is confined, as far as we can judge, to the attractions of the opposite sex.”



The sense of beauty has close relation to desire, pleasure and man and woman in particular. In elucidating the term ‘primary’ beauty’, the thinkers initiate with the proposition-” A thing is beautiful, first of all, because it is desired,” In the words of Spinoza, a 17th century Jew and one of the greatest of the modern philosophers, ” ….we desire nothing because it is good, but call it good because we desire it, so we desire nothing originally because it is beautiful, but we consider it beautiful because we desire it.” A plateful of food must be beautiful to a starving man, the first published page is beautiful to an author struggling for years, but the same page may be a bit of waste to a labour or fanner, whose ambition rests elsewhere. The beautiful is thus, in the lowest level a sensory aspect of that which satisfies a strong desire. It differs in the intensity of our need.

To Nietzsche, “the beautiful and the ugly are biological.” The explanation goes like this: we do not eat sugar because it is sweet, but we consider it sweet because we are accustomed to find in it one main source of energy. Will Durant says in this context: “All useful things become, after a time pleasing…     again green grass and the blue sky are beautiful, but habit could as well have made us take pleasure in a green sky and blue grass.” Theoreticians argue that “anything takes on beauty if it stimulates and invigorates the organism,” just like money is rather beautiful than useful to the miser. Both Santayana and Hobbes see beauty through the principle of pleasure; the former says, “Beauty is pleasure objectified” and the latter says “beauty is a promise of pleasure.”

Coming to individuals proper, we see that our susceptibility to the beautiful tends to rise and fall with the curve of generative potency. Love creates beauty as much as beauty creates love, thinkers put it quite flatly. Will Durant puts the idea with spicy humour: “…. every Quixote believes his Dulcinea to be the sweetest of the fair.” Clearly, beauty is bound up with love that it depends, in the humans, or organism identified with secondary sexual characters. It has been seen that to make them beautiful men and women of lower races artificially enlarge their reproductive structures and higher races by concealment. In fact, in psychological terms, “concealment attracts as successfully as exaggeration. Clothing enhances beauty because it is a form of resistance, and resistance increases desire.” Man’s beauty rules our senses with the ideal of Sparta and Athens : the virile youth, beautiful and brave in one. It is strength which woman instinctively craves in man. In the popular western perspective, the loveliness of woman is “the highest form of beauty, the source and standard of all other forms.” Woman becomes the fount of beauty because man’s love for her is stronger than her love for him. It is also man’s intensity of desire that creates her surpassing loveliness. Here, the psychology of woman is significant; the psychologists opine that woman accepts man’s judgment in considering herself more beautiful than man. “… she loves to be desired rather than to possess, she learns to value in herself those charms which intensify desire.” This rush of desire has different resultant characteristics: when the desired object is securely won, the sense of beauty sometimes languishes, sometimes withers, and sometimes stays hanging.

pic-11 pic-10


There are things that seem beautiful to our touch: round things, smooth things, curved things. We take pleasure in the wholesomeness of clean bodies, the fragrance of flowers, the intoxication of perfume. It is also beautiful to hear the song or speech of the desired one. A great number of theoreticians consider memories of sex as associations in taking delight in all these. Only the pleasure of rhythm is an auditory beauty of a different kind. Will Durant handles this idea most absorbingly: “…. the pleasure of rhythm enters as an independent element. Inspiration and expiration, the systole and diastole of the heart, and even the bilateral symmetry of the body, dispose us to the rhythmic rise and fall of sounds. We make a rhythm from the impartial ticking of the clock and even stamp of marching feet; thpic-12us we like rocking, dancing, verse, antistrophes, antitheses and extremes. Music soothes us with its rhythm and lifts us on its lullaby to worlds less brutal than the earth. It may relieve pain, improve digestion, stimulate love and even help to capture escaped lunatics.”

In the world of visual beauty architecture alone seems to be  independent. It is because “the secret of its power lies not in the beautiful but in the sublime. The delight in sublimity is not in the desired loveliness but in the coalescence of strength and loveliness that offers an expansiveness to human thought and feeling.

In aesthetics the appreciation of landscape has much to contribute to the sense of beauty. Theoreticians opine that much of the joy which natural scenery gives us is due to masculine sublimity, and others add that much of it comes from a restful beauty akin to the warm repose which every fair bosom promises. Modern psychologists assert that the ever-growing strength of sex may spend its surplus in scenic admiration.


Historically, art has taken its origin in the decorative painting, clothing or mutilation of the body among savage tribes. Art has also its biological origin in the song and dance of mating animals, and in their efforts to enhance with artifice, that efflorescence of colour and form with which nature marks the season of love. After identifying something as beauty, man carries its picture in his memory. He weaves from many fair things seen an ideal beauty that binds into one vision the partial perfections of them all.

Primitive man decorated both his body and objects. Paleolithic man painted on the walls of caves with pictures of the animals which he hoped to capture in the hunt, or worshiped as totems of his tribe. Religion has indirectly contributed to the development of the arts. Sculpture and architecture began with pillars placed to mark a grave and tombs that housed the dead. Drama was born out of  religious rituals and festal processions. The close bondage between religious art and love is evident in the holiest pictures of the Renaissance. Will Durant significantly observes, “as even religious art drinks at the fount of Eros to sustain itself, so with every other element that enters into the creation of beauty, rhythm enters, but at once associates itself with love to generate the song, the dance and poetry. Imitation enters, and helps to beget sculpture and painting…. Combine rhythm and imitation with the love-motif and you have nine-tenths of literature.” It is perhaps Herbert Read who has placed the relation between art and beauty in a most uncertain perspective: “We always assume that all that is beautiful is art, or that all art is beautiful, that what is not beautiful is not art and that ugliness is the negation of art …, we find that art often has been or often is a. thing of no beauty.”

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The sense of beauty tends to vary with geography and history, that is, the ideal of beauty varies from people to people and from time to time. The native of Tahiti found beauty in flat noses and compressed nostrils, the Mayas in pierced noses and in squints; the dark-skin boys label the white man as the white ape and a white man considers a Zulu as a black gorilla; the African Hottentot man prefers a Hottentot women with projected posteriors while some negro and Asian tribes prefer the opposite. It has been seen in painting that Ruben prefers stout ladies; Rembrandt, the buxom lasses; Raphael, physically prosperous Madonnas; Reynold, modest belles; Whistler, slender feminine architecture. Thus, the principle of uncertainty remains in the air of beauty and the beautiful.

Perhaps artists have a common intention: the desire to please. Art is, thus, an attempt to create pleasing forms. It has also been already mentioned that art might not at all be a thing of beauty but it is true that we respond to pleasurable sensations. It is the very sense of pleasurable sensations and relations that creates the sense of beauty in man.








About author

Avik Gangopadhyay
Avik Gangopadhyay 1 posts

Avik Gangopadhyay has both critical and creative writings to his credit published in esteemed journals and leading newspapers. A post-Graduate in English Language and Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, he excels equally in English and Bengali. Already an author of 21 published books on aesthetics, on the theories of art and literature, language and criticism, dead languages, not-so-discussed historical issues, philosophical and religious ‘ISMS’ and Indological studies, his endeavour in editing six books of poems and short stories in Bengali and English has received critical attention in home and abroad. Awarded the Editors’ Choice Award for his ‘Achievement in Poetry’ from the Library of Poetry, USA, in April, 2002, he also devotes time to answer queries across the globe as an Expert on T.S.Eliot, on the esteemed webzine on Classical Literature. His writings are flavoured by his interest in the fields of psychology, philosophy, history, eastern and western classical music, fine arts and ideational treasures of antiquity. A glimpse of the titles and themes of his books and the treatment of the corresponding themes in them will bring to light his efforts to unravel the not-so-discussed regions in interdisciplinary studies. Besides being a teacher by profession, he takes additional interest in Sanskrit, French and German Languages. Book reviews and Profiles of Avik frequently surface in leading newspapers like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Statesman, Anandabazar Patrika, Daily Observer (Bangladesh), Dhaka Review (Bangladesh), Boier Desh, Saptahik Bartaman including other leading literary columns of newspapers, e-journals and in the internet.

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