This is part 2 in a series of blogs which is more or less following my search for how to describe what beauty is. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, go here and check that out!
This is going to be brief explanation of some thoughts that Plato and Aristotle had on what beauty was, based primarily on Hippias Major and Metaphysics II. It is often said that Plato was an idealist, while Aristotle was a realist. Philosophically speaking, this means that Plato thought things had to be grounded in ideas, and that those ideas had primacy over the physical “stuff” that we experience. This is where his ideas about the Forms came from, and this explains where he gets his ideas of beauty. As a realist, Aristotle was more concerned about the physical stuff that we encounter than he was about ideas (in the sense explained above). He was critical of Plato’s ideas about the Forms, and his ideas about beauty are more grounded the physical stuff around us.
In Hippias Major, Socrates is talking with Hippias, a guy known far and wide for being really smart on everything. In typical fashion, it’s a dense dialog that ends up showing the superiority of the questioning of Socrates. There is movement in the discussion about labeling what is objectively beautiful. Originally, Hippias simply states things which people usually don’t argue with being beautiful, but this soon falls into a problem. In saying that a maiden or a horse is beautiful, one has to acknowledge that there is greater beauty still in the gods, or that even a certain type of wood ladle would be more beautiful to use than a golden one. From there it’s postulated that what is beautiful is whatever is appropriate, or at least that something becomes beautiful when it is used appropriately. However, is it the appropriateness of something that makes it beautiful, or is it beautiful once it becomes appropriate? Is appropriateness itself more beautiful than beauty? And has that really answered the question?
SPOILERS: They never actually come to a resolution on what “the beautiful” is. However, there are points where Socrates manages to get Hippias to realize that whatever the beautiful is, it must transcend something that we simply find to be beautiful (like gold), especially since there are instances where things we may find beautiful in one setting, we find ugly in another.
In contrast, Aristotle believed that whatever is beautiful must be in the substance of things we encounter. He didn’t exactly get rid of the idea of the Forms (or the Ideals) altogether, but rather, that the beautiful must be in the substance of the Ideals just like it must be in the substance of, say, gold. While there was some confusion between “the good” and “the beautiful” in the Hippias Major dialog, Aristotle is clear to make the distinction between the two. The good, he says, always implies conduct, whereas the beautiful can be found in motionless things. Aristotle lists three essential forms of beauty: order, symmetry, and definiteness. This comes from the fact that his realism was somewhat rooted in the field of geometry (think of the “golden ratio”).
Beauty, he said, transcends mere usefulness or personal preference, and exists in the fabric or substance of reality. The physical and mathematical stuff that makes up what we experience in daily living. However, because most of his observations about beauty were mathematical in nature, he talked a lot about beauty being the relation of parts, one to another. A tree has both a trunk and leaves, and these things can be analyzed mathematically. The beauty of the tree is intrinsic to the fact that there are mathematical relations between its parts.
So, while he didn’t exactly say that order, symmetry, and definiteness were themselves beauty, he did say that they are basically signifiers to what beauty is or where to find it. In other words, if you find these things, you will find something beautiful.
The two main things I’ve taken from this are similar to points we talked about in the first part. That beauty is both objective (and therefore transcendent) to human ideas and physical reality, while still existing in the created order (including us) and interpreted subjectively. So while we are getting closer to the answer to the original question of what beauty is, I think we still have a long way to go. Next, we’ll take a look at some theologians who thought about beauty, and while they were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, they had ultimately different ideas about what beauty is.
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” – Psalm 50:2