“Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the infinite” said once the historian George Bancroft. The nature of beauty is one of the most fascinating riddles of philosophy. Is beauty universal? How do we know it? How can we predispose ourselves to embrace it? Nearly every major philosopher has engaged with these questions and their cognates, including the great figures of ancient Greek philosophy such as Plato and Aristotle.
The Aesthetic Attitude
The appreciation of beauty takes place in an aesthetic attitude. This is the state of contemplating a subject with no other purpose than appreciating it. For most authors, thus, the aesthetic attitude is purposeless: we have no reason to engage in it other than finding aesthetic enjoyment.
Now aesthetic appreciation can be carried on by means of the senses: looking at a sculpture, some trees in bloom, or Manhattan’s skyline; listening to Puccini’s La bohème; tasting a mushroom risotto; feeling some fresh water in a hot day; and so on. However, senses may not be necessary in order to obtain an aesthetic attitude: we can rejoice, for instance, in imagining a beautiful house that never existed; in discovering or grasping the details of a complex theorem in algebra.
In principle, thus, the aesthetic attitude can fall under any subject via any possible mode of thought –senses, imagination, intellect, or any combination of them.
Is Beauty Universal?
The question arises of whether beauty is universal. Suppose you agree that Michelangelo’s David and a Van Gogh’s self-portrait are beautiful; do such beauties have something in common? Is actually the one and the same quality, beauty, that we come to find in them? And is this beauty the very same that one experiences gazing on the Grand Canyon from its edge or listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony?
If beauty is a universal, as for example Plato maintained, it is reasonable to hold that we do not know it through the senses. Indeed, the subjects in question are quite different and are also known in different ways (gaze, hearing, observation); so, if there is something in common among those subjects, it cannot be what is known through the senses.
But, is there really something common to all experiences of beauty? Compare the beauty of watching a horror movie or visiting a haunted house with the one of picking flowers in a Montana field over the summer or surfing a gigantic wave in Hawaii. It seems that in each of those case there is no single common element: not even the feelings or the basic ideas involved seem to match. It’s on the basis of those considerations that some prefer to believe that beauty is a label we attach to different sorts of experiences.
Beauty and Pleasure
Does beauty necessarily go along with pleasure? Do humans praise beauty because of its pleasure? Could it be the other way round, instead? Is a life dedicated to the quest for beauty one worth being lived? These are some fundamental questions in philosophy, at the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.
If on the one hand beauty seems linked to the aesthetic pleasure, seeking the former as a mean to achieve the latter can lead to one of the worst forms of consequentialism: egoistic hedonism, the typical symbol of decadence.
But, beauty can also be regarded as a value, one of the dearest to humans. In Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist, for instance, the protagonist escapes the desolation of WWII by playing a ballade by Chopin. Art therapy offers another example of the importance of beauty to our lives. The appreciation of beauty, to sum up, is something that is worthwhile to cultivate, for its consequences and in itself.