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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. The Objective Existence of Beauty.
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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1. The Objective Existence of Beauty.

For Plato the
individual forms of beauty partake in Absolute Beauty
which transcends them. Beauty as Idea is a Being by
itself, beyond the limitations of space and time, and
independent of relativities; it reveals the Ideal and the
Universal. It also has the metaphysical property of
reconciling the finite with the infinite, and it manifests
itself in proportion and symmetry, in the harmony of
the parts in relation to the whole, and in measure. The
individual, single judgment stating that something is
beautiful ultimately refers to an underlying, general
quality of beauty. If it does not, it only expresses the
fact that something pleases us.

The notion of symmetry and due proportions more-
over links beauty with the Good, and inasmuch as
beauty reveals Being, it is related to Truth. This link
can also be defined by saying that Truth guarantees
Beauty or gives Being to Beauty.

Beauty's relationship to Being is expressed in terms
of light and of making it appear, making it visible.
Beauty is light in that it manifests Being. Measure,
proportion, light are not understood to be simply in-
herent characteristics, but are meant to have an effect
upon the soul and the mind.

The soul before entering into life contemplates
Being; the soul cannot behold Truth or the Good, but
it can behold Beauty, and it remembers the vision when
it sees individual beauty in this life. In this conception
of remembrance is the root of the Platonic idea of
ascent from sensuous beauty (beauty appearing in
color, sound, and form) to inward and intellectual
beauty, and thence to the ultimate vision.

There remains, however, the question whether
beauty has, so to speak, a substance of its own, or
whether it only makes qualities appear, qualities which
are also those of Truth and the Good. Plato did not
answer this question clearly. It is, however, certain that
he does not refer to art in his metaphysics of beauty.

Some of the ideas set forth here can be found also
in the writings of the Pythagoreans and pre-Socratics,
in Hesiod, Polykleitos, and Xenophon. For a further
discussion of Plato, see below Section II, Paragraph
1, Metaphysical Foundation.

Although Aristotle did not establish a theory of
beauty and although he neither deduced the principles
of the arts from the idea of the beautiful, nor tried
to determine the idea of the beautiful as a fundamental
problem of art, he made a major contribution to this
issue: he separated the beautiful from the good and
linked on principle the beautiful with the creation of
works of art. The component elements of beauty are,
according to him, order, symmetry, and definiteness.

In his Poetics Aristotle also uses formal relationships
as a foundation of beauty; the mimesis of action in
a story must represent an integrated whole, i.e., there
must be the multiple, the parts or incidents, and the
unity, a connection so close “that the transposal or
withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislo-
cate the whole” (Ch. 7). Beauty is thus defined in terms
similar to those of Plato; at the same time these terms
are used in a way which is opposed to Plato, for a
work of art is no longer twice removed from the truth
of things, but is the image of a reality which fulfills
nature's unachieved possibilities or intentions. The
world of appearance which the artist creates is no
longer judged by the standards of the truth of Being
(with regard to which it is inferior) but is judged by
the standards of the perfection of form.

A conclusion not drawn by Aristotle, but implicit
in his ideas, is that the artist who follows the norms
of beauty (order, symmetry, and definiteness) and ob-
serves the formal relationships will create a form of
beauty which corresponds to objective criteria; how-
ever, these are not metaphysical.

Plato's conception of beauty is at the origin of much
of Western aesthetic thought; however, it often was
not the original conception which exerted an influence,


but the modified form which Plotinus and Saint Augus-
tine gave to it. Plotinus dealt with the ideal of beauty,
not only as a problem of metaphysics (as Plato did),
but also as a fundamental problem of art (which Plato
did not). His combination of the two perspectives
considerably influenced the interpretation of Plato's
ideas in the subsequent centuries.

The starting point of Plotinus' theory of beauty is
the dualism of mind and matter, or form and matter.
Matter is metaphysically described as a principle of
privation; matter is undetermined, indefinite; it is
non-Being. This negative definition is made, however,
with regard to Being, i.e., it implies that matter is the
want of form, order, determination.

When the mind penetrates matter, it imposes form
upon it, i.e., order, number, proportion, quantity, qual-
ity. With regard to our topic, it is particularly signifi-
cant that Plotinus called the determining principle,
which he conceives as a forming force, beauty, and
that he called matter, which is amorphous, ugly. (The
connotations of beauty and light, respectively matter
and darkness, are equally important.) In this way Plo-
tinus introduced a dialectics of beauty and ugliness and
conceived of beauty as creativity and a plastic force.
The notions of harmony, order, measure, and propor-
tion establish the link between the beautiful and the
good. Inasmuch as the objects which we perceive par-
ticipate in form, they are beautiful, and their beauty
is an image of the ideal form. This notion of partici-
pation is important in Plotinus; he emphasizes at times
that beauty does not consist in symmetry, proportion,
and the relationship of the part to the whole, for if
it did, beauty could be identified with it and would
be sensuous. Beauty is, however, an idea which, being
one, creates unity; by their participation in the idea,
things are beautiful. With regard to the arts this means
that the artist's mind must ascend toward the vision
of the beautiful, where he finds the model for his
creation. This vision, however, is not the highest degree
of which the soul is capable. The highest degree is
reached in the intuition of the intelligible, an intuition
through which the image of the intelligible is formed
and created within the soul itself.

For Saint Augustine God as the absolute beauty is
the principle and source of all that is beautiful in this
world. All that exists does so through form, measure,
and number; God has ordered all according to inalter-
able proportions. Unity, order, and proportion are the
elements of beauty.

Saint Augustine conceives of God not only as unity,
but also as multiple in His infinite virtues. With regard
to beauty this means that the unity of beauty admits
variety, a variety subjected to divine measure.

Saint Augustine follows Plato in adopting the dia
lectical method of ascent; he differs, however, in the
conception of the stages; the mind rises from the sen-
suous appearance of beauty, an appearance to which
Saint Augustine gives full significance, to the contem-
plation of the soul; from there to measure and propor-
tion, to the idea, and ultimately to God. Of great
significance is the context in which these ideas are
developed. In De Trinitate the idea of beauty is con-
nected with the Word. É. Gilson gives a concise ac-
count of the pattern of ideas:

Thus it is in the Word that we find the root of unity and
being; moreover we can find in it the root of the beautiful.
When an image equals that of which it is the image, it
brings about a perfect correspondence, symmetry, equality,
and resemblance. There is no difference between the model
and its image, hence no discrepancy, no inequality; the copy
corresponds in every particular to the original; hence its
beauty and the name of form (species) by which we desig-
nate it. Now this original beauty based on resemblance is
to be found again in all the partaking beauties. The more
the parts of a body resemble one another, the more beautiful
the body. In general, it is order, harmony, proportion, i.e.,
unity produced by the resemblance which engenders beauty

(Gilson, 1929).

In Augustine's De musica we find detailed discussions
of meter, rhythm, intervals, and more generally, of
numerical relationships which are the source of musical
delight. Throughout many of his writings, Saint Au-
gustine dwelt on the beauty in color and sound as well
as on the fitness and loveliness of the spectacle of
nature. The importance which he gave in his thought
to the question of beauty is still further emphasized
by the fact that he composed, as he informs us himself,
a work entitled De apto et pulchro (“On Fit Proportion
and the Beautiful”), a work which was lost.

The pronounced religious character of Plotinus' ideas
on beauty and Saint Augustine's renewal of Plato's
thought, as well as his fusion of the Platonic tradition
with Christian doctrine, played a decisive role in the
continuity of the thought of classical antiquity in re-
flections on beauty.

It has been asserted that the conception of beauty
as developed in classical antiquity and the post-classical
period dominated Western thought throughout the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to the beginning
of the eighteenth century, when there occurred a radi-
cal shift in the manner of raising the issue. This state-
ment is valid only as far as the key concepts and the
fundamental positions are concerned; they remain
constant. There exist, however, variations of meaning
and stress. Saint Thomas Aquinas' triad of integrity
(perfection), consonance (fit proportion, proportion of
the parts and the whole), and clarity (the radiance of


form communicated to matter) summarizes Saint Au-
gustine's ideas; still, the resplendentia formae is em-
phasized and becomes a highly significant feature of
the beautiful.

During the Renaissance, the rapid and glorious de-
velopment of the various arts, the detailed elaboration
of art theory and literary theory, the accentuation of
the role of the artist as creator and of nature as his
model, led to a close connection between speculation
on beauty and art theory. Though the metaphysical
and objective idea of beauty is in essence maintained,
it undergoes important modifications. We cannot trace
these here, since they can be studied only in their
specific forms. Instead we shall deal briefly with three
authors who maintain the objective and ontological
conception of beauty at a time when the shift in per-
spective took place.

Père André's Essai sur le beau (1741), a defense of
the objective existence of beauty, is written against the
Pyrrhonians, i.e., those who make the idea of beauty
depend upon prejudice, upbringing, imagination, and
caprice of individual liking. Rejecting the question:
What things are beautiful? and asking: What is beauty?
Père André follows Saint Augustine and through him
Plato, and sees in unity, order, proportion, and sym-
metry the essence and form of beauty. Then he goes
beyond his models and distinguishes three orders of
beauty: an essential beauty which is absolute, i.e., not
instituted; a natural beauty, which exists in the world
and depends on the will of the Creator, but is inde-
pendent of human taste or opinion; a beauty instituted
by man and arbitrary to a certain degree, since it
depends on custom, individual or national taste, and
manners of representation in the arts. The variations
in judgment, feeling, and standards of taste (the main
tenets on which the skeptical arguments are based)
apply only to the third type of beauty.

All three types of beauty are considered with regard
to the mind and its creations, to morals, and to the
body. The chapters dealing with this application con-
tain many detailed observations which are original,
pertinent, and sensitive.

The Essai sur le beau had a marked influence on
the eighteenth century and also, through Victor Cous-
in's new annotated edition in 1843, on the nineteenth
century. It renewed the metaphysical and ontological
conception of beauty at a time when the very founda-
tion of this conception was being undermined. The
Cartesian elements of the Essai may have contributed
to this effect, but there is no doubt that Père André's
conception of the beau géométrique, his high evalua-
tion of structure, his analysis of light and color, and
in connection with it his praise of Newton, strongly
appealed to his contemporaries. Père André admirably
combined a metaphysical foundation and structure
with empirical analysis and a sense for relativism. Last
but not least, the fact that he sharply criticized the
Pyrrhonians and yet included the beau arbitraire in his
system proved that he considered a reform of the
theory of beauty necessary and that he tried to recon-
cile the Ancients and Moderns.

Francis Hutcheson's influential Enquiry into the
Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue
offers a striking example of the attempt to reconcile
an objective conception of beauty with the theory that
beauty is a subjective, inward experience. He empha-
sizes that “the word beauty is taken for the idea raised
in us,” and “a sense of beauty for our power of receiv-
ing this idea” (I, 9), that by his term of absolute or
original beauty (i.e., beauty in an object without rela-
tion to anything beyond it), he does not understand
“any quality supposed to be in the object which should
of itself be beautiful, without relation to any mind
which perceives it.” Beauty, like other sensible ideas,
“denotes the perception of some mind” (I, 16). He
concedes, using John Locke's distinction of primary and
secondary qualities, that “the ideas of beauty and har-
mony being excited upon our perception of some pri-
mary quality may have a nearer resemblance to objects
than sensations in our mind,” but hastens to add: “were
there no mind with a sense of beauty to contemplate
objects,” they could not be called beautiful (ibid.). The
fluctuation in these statements between two different
views—(a) that beauty is not a quality in the object
and (b) that every statement on beauty presupposes
a perception of the mind—is apparent.

We notice the same incertitude in the definition of
the sense of beauty: it is called an internal sense, but
is different from our other senses; it receives “those
complex ideas of objects which obtain the names of
beautiful, regular and harmonious” (I, 8). Although
Hutcheson calls the internal sense “a natural power
of perception, or a sense of the beauty of objects,”
“antecedent to all custom, education or example” (VII,
1), he conceives of it as “a passive power of receiving”
(VI, 10; italics added). The remark on the antecedents
is directed against those followers of Locke who main-
tained that in the absence of innate ideas only utility,
custom, and education can form the basis for our judg-
ment of beauty. The followers of Locke play for
Hutcheson a role similar to that which the Pyrrhonians
played in Père André's essay. There is, however, this
difference, that Hutcheson accepts Locke's sensa-
tionalism, his rejection of innate ideas, and the princi-
ple of starting from the beginning, i.e., from the gener-
ally, naturally human. The polemics as well as the
acceptance account for Hutcheson's stress on imme-
diacy and his insistence that the internal sense is in
its nature a sense like the others.

Although pleasure may accompany the perceptions


of the external senses, the pleasure which accompanies
perceptions made by the inward sense is higher. This
notion of higher pleasure is linked to the fact that the
internal sense is capable of perceiving a compound of
simple perceptions produced jointly. The pleasure at-
tached to the perception is immediate (it does not
presuppose a process of cognition), and disinterested.

That which excites in the internal sense the pleasant
idea of absolute beauty is, according to Hutcheson, “a
real quality in objects” (I, 9); Hutcheson identifies it
as uniformity amidst variety; the more variety the
better, provided uniformity ties it together. This is the
foundation of the beauty we perceive in nature gener-
ally; in individual things in nature proportion of the
parts (the integrated whole) also is a source of beauty.
The perception of unity amidst variety is to be found
as well in theorems and in the laws of nature, e.g.,
gravitation. Relative beauty springs from imitation of
original beauty, when a conformity or unity is dis-
covered between the idea (perception) of the imitated
object and that of the original; the latter may also be
some established idea. With regard to relative beauty—
Hutcheson adds rather oddly—it is not necessary that
there be any beauty in the original. There also exists
relative beauty derived by means of comparison.

The qualitas which elicits the perception of beauty
in us and constitutes the foundation of all judgment
on beauty is, as Hutcheson stresses, objective and real;
it is there, even when it does not appear, and it is
universal. In addition to uniformity amidst variety, it
is called proportion, order, harmony, and symmetry.
The action of eliciting comes from the outside, and
the process of eliciting is strictly empirical; the internal
sense functions immediately and necessarily; our mind
receives necessarily ideas from the presence of objects
(VI, 10).

Uniformity amidst variety, order, harmony, and
symmetry have, as shown above, originally an onto-
logical meaning and can only be “perceived” by a
discursive, rational process. Hutcheson employs the
concepts with the full prestige of their traditional
meaning (it is significant in this context that he speaks
of qualitas when he means relationship), but disavows
this meaning by his principle of empirical foundation
and his axiom of immediate sense response. Nowhere
does he show by what operation the beautiful is consti-
tuted and why the sensation of “greater pleasure,” of
“a positive delight,” accompanies it. What we experi-
ence through our senses as a different kind is said to
be objectively different. Since the object that arouses
the pleasant idea of beauty is sui generis, Hutcheson
must introduce a special sense.

The mixture of subjective and objective, empirical
and ontological elements is fully apparent in Hutche-
son's Enquiry and permits us to seize directly what
in other authors is concealed by vague or brilliant
terminology. One may say that Hutcheson can no
longer combine the various elements of the aesthetic
content, nor can he keep them apart.

In only one case does Hutcheson mention a medi-
ating factor: in the case of a kind of beauty which is
neither absolute nor relative in the sense of imitation.
It is the beauty “arising from correspondence to inten-
tion,” which we can observe in nature when the mech-
anism of the various parts “seems adapted to both the
perfection of that part and yet in subordination to the
good of the whole” (IV, 7). The intention we recognize
is that of the author of nature, who thus mediates the
relationship and our response in the judgment of

Hutcheson's Enquiry and Père André's Essai are the
starting point for Denis Diderot's article “Beau” in
Volume II of the Encyclopédie (published early in
1752). The full title of the article is “Recherches philo-
sophiques sur l'origine et la nature du Beau.” Only the
central issue of the article can be presented here,
omitting the historical sections, and also the many
reflections on the difficulties encountered, according
to Diderot, by all those who seek to define beauty,
including himself. The article is a major contribution
on the present subject.

Diderot is more radical than Hutcheson on both the
subjective and objective aspects of beauty; he rejects
the obscure notion of a sixth sense and briefly traces
on empirical and pragmatic grounds the genesis of the
concepts of relation, order, proportion, symmetry, and
unity. They are formed when we begin to exercise our
faculties and to provide for our wants. If we call our
perception of a judgment on beauty immediate, or
believe it to be a spontaneous feeling, we forget or
ignore the long history of the formation of our ideas.

Considering not our response but beauty itself,
Diderot asserts that we can define it as that which
rouses in our mind the idea of relations (rapports).
Beauty is a notion of the mind, accompanied by pleas-
ure, but a notion founded on something real, existing
outside of us. The concept of relations comprises those
of order, symmetry, proportion; it is a general and
abstract concept, but only such a concept can comprise
all the various appearances of beauty. The relations
can be real, or perceived by the mind, or formed by
it; they can be considered with regard to the parts of
one object or with regard to several objects, or with
regard to nature, the arts, or ethics; they differ quanti-
tatively and vary according to their nature. The spe-
cifically beautiful is thus a matter of differentiation,
the differentiation of a universal formative law.

It is apparent that Diderot's concept of relations is
very close to the meaning given that term in the math-


ematics and physics of his time; however, it is not
simply copied from the sciences. Diderot uses the term
in the aesthetic-scientific sense for the first time in his
Mémoires sur différents sujets de mathématiques (1748),
where in a discussion of the general principles of
acoustics, he deals with the parallelism between the
mechanical relations (number of vibrations and length
of a chord) and the relations in music that please us
by their beauty.

Structure, symmetry, proportion, conceived as spe-
cial instances of relations, no longer have a meta-
physical meaning in the article “Beau”; however, they
acquire through the association with the mathematical
sciences a new ontological significance, for, in the same
way in which, according to eighteenth-century scien-
tific thought, relations and proportions make us under-
stand nature in its objectivity and real character, so
the rapports are for Diderot the objective foundation
of the beau réel and our judgment on beauty. By using
the principle of rapports in an analysis of specific works
of architecture, painting, music, and literature, Diderot
gives an illustration of the insights into structure, form,
and beauty to be gained by the application of a princi-
ple, which is general and abstract only in its definition.

Many more instances of the use of formal and struc-
tural characteristics in the definition of beauty can be
quoted from older or more recent authors. During the
modern period the characteristics are generally either
rationalized or brought into a scientific context. We
must omit them here and can do so since they are only
variants of the uses we have mentioned. It must be
decided in every individual case whether a metaphysi-
cal or ontological meaning is implied in the use of the