‘If beauty were not in us, how would we ever recognise it?’ (Ernst Haas)
There is something comforting about the notion of beauty residing ‘in us’, but is this true? For centuries philosophers have debated the nature of beauty, together with the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of an individual’s response.
Does beauty exist objectively in things and people themselves? For example, would a rose in the desert still be beautiful with no-one there to see it?
Does beauty exist subjectively, that is, in the eye of the beholder?
Do some things possess qualities which normally functioning human beings would perceive as being beautiful?
For Plato, writing around 400 BCE, our sense of beauty derives from a time when the soul was part of a perfect realm in which beauty and goodness and a host of other qualities (he called them Forms) were fully understood. But when the soul became embodied (in the shape of mankind) it lost touch with the realm of perfection, except on occasions when some happening or encounter with beauty triggers a recall of the prior state.
Aristotle, a student of Plato, was less ‘other worldly’ and focused more on the real world. For him beauty was concerned with order, symmetry and harmony; a marriage between function and form.
The concept of proportion as a key to beauty became an obsession during the renaissance period. Leonardo and Durer produced diagrams of the perfect human figure familiar to us all. Architectural manuals contained proportions that would create a beautiful building.
In the eighteenth century the philosopher David Hume rejected preconceived concepts and theories of beauty and wrote: ‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves, it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them. Each mind sees a different beauty.’
In other words, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – although he did seem to concede that if a number of people who have developed a faculty to be able to appreciate beauty in certain ways agree, this could confer a more universal judgement on the object, person or scene.
And so one could go on. All this is mildly interesting, but what is beauty? The dictionary tells me: ‘beauty. The quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestation (as shape, colour, sound etc), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest.)’
That seems to be an all-encompassing definition, until we notice that it is a ‘quality present in a thing’. Beauty has shifted back to the object from ‘the eye of the beholder’. We’re clearly on a circular journey, and I want to get off!
Experience tells me that my response to beauty, in whatever form, is a gut reaction guided by emotion, feeling and intuition. Attempts to intellectualise that experience invariably fail. I cannot adequately explain either what I feel or why I feel as I do. Beauty has its own language that will not be reduced to words and thoughts.
I am reminded of a quotation from Matisse: ‘To explain the mystery of a great painting would do irreplaceable harm, for whenever you explain or define something you substitute the explanation or definition for the original.’
Substitute ‘beauty’ for ‘a great painting’ and the statement remains valid. Let’s forget the philosophers and enjoy beauty in all its forms whenever the opportunity presents itself.