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Ancient Greece & You
Joe Greenwald, Champlain Valley Union High School, VT

Beauty

Since the beginning of human kind, we have struggled, among other things, with the definition of beauty. Different eras and different philosophers had their own ideas, yet no one was able to agree upon one single idea. The only thing that seemed consistent without being too cliche, was that "beauty was in the eye of the beholder." Today considered, everyone still has their own meaning. A mother may find her child with mud streaked across its face beautiful, where you see a mess. A scientist may find a certain mold beautiful, where you would look at it in disgust. Despite the differences in people's opinions it is important to explore their ideas on order to get a firm background on what beauty could be and what it is in your mind. Is it all appearance? Is it perfection? Is it what you are told?

In the earliest times, it was Socrates that first explored the definition of beauty, he felt that aesthetics was a form of purity. Things that are pure withing themselves evokes pleasure, thus beauty. Socrates' idea can be considered as a form of beauty, yet it far from the whole spectrum, it is not restricted to such a narrow theme. Plato was another mind in great interest in trying to pin point the role of beauty in society. Plato believed, among other things that relative beauty only exists when you compare objects to each other. If some aspect of an object is beautiful, the whole object is beautiful. After further consideration, Plato came up the most logical of all the philosophies, that beauty cannot be defined. Some things have the "ideal beauty" and no one can consider it not beautiful. It is also in agreement of Plato throughout time that beauty provokes pleasure. Following in the ideas of Plato, Plotinus also preached that there is no one object that beauty can be defined as nor is there one aspect of any object that beauty can be defined as. He also believed that "beauty is that which irradiates symmetry rather than symmetry itself." Plato created a trend in that beauty cannot be defined, yet philosophers continued to struggle with the meaning. Aristotle hypothesized that the senses most prone to recognizing beauty are sight and hearing.

The eighteenth century had philosophers such as Locke and Burke who made the comparison between sublimity and beauty. Locke believe that sublimity and beauty are not alike because sublimity creates feelings Hof wonder and awe, and beauty creates feelings of jot and cheerfulness. Where Burke said that beauty calms one, while sublimity intensifies one's emotions. Something can be ugly and aesthetically appreciated at the same time. In the same century there was Hutcheson who thought that "The word beauty is taken for the idea raised in us." There was Alison also in the eighteenth century who took off on Plato's ideas and said it was impossible to find a common property that all beautiful things contain.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the first to try and define beaut scientifically. Laws were attempted to be constructed that could be applied to the definition of beauty. It was discovered that this method was too restricting and many scientists soon gave up on the idea all together. Beauty was later defined as a "term of approbation", or a value, or higher stature, as apposed to "pretty". In the end the only thing that remain consistent through time in philosophizing beauty was that it was indeed to broad to define. What everyone agreed upon was that it is impossible to find a common property that all beautiful things contain, and that it is impossible to define.

Beauty II

The concepts of beauty were first described by the ancient Greeks. Beauty was a narrowly defined and a central concept for the Greeks. The classical values stressed order and serenity. As time went on, the concept of beauty became less central and is now called aesthetics. Today, the aesthetic notion of beauty is vague and subjective. We can see now the concept of beauty developed by tracing its historical roots. 

Classical Aesthetics

Aesthetics refers to beauty in an object. The Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates were the first at aattempting to define beauty. They thought of objects or nature as being inherently beautiful: beauty is inside an object. In all attempt to define characteristics of a beautiful thing they focused on simplicity and symmetry. Beauty is percieved through sight and hearing. Beauty is not relative, objects cannot be compared with one another. The beauty within an object is its pure and ideal beauty. This definition restricted objects that could be beautiful, such as paintings, tragedies and comedies, and living creatures. Beauty is excellent, perfect, and satisfying. The concrete and simple Greek concept of beauty was enlarged by Plotinus. He rejected beauty as being merely a formal property. He describes beauty as not just symmetry, but rather as a quality that "irradiates" and moves us. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, beauty was an object property which could be defined by rules. A person’s response to beauty could be described as "pleasure" but the observer’s reaction did not define what was considered beautiful.  

The Eighteenth Century

In the 18th century the broader concept of aesthetics was first established by British philosophers. Art and beauty were now defined based on the experience of the perciever. That is, beauty is in the eye’s of the beholder. John Locke's "Essay" describes the concept of the sublime; "amazement" and "awe" as contrasted with the concept of beauty, which is described as "joy" and "cheerfulness." Edward Burke added to this contrast, characterizing the sublime as "terrible" or emotionally intense. This is compared to beauty, which he described as pleasurable and relaxing. These two experiences are incompatible with each other. Burke went as far as to include ugliness in sublimity. He included a great diversity in the subject matter as qualifying for the sublime. 18th century philosophers, such as Francis Hutcheson, struggled with an inherent dilemma in their concept of beauty. If beauty is based soley on the response of the perciever, how can this response be documented or observed? They wanted to find a link between the classical concept of an observable property, like uniformity and the unobservable property of evoked experience.  

The 19th and 20th Centuries

The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a change in the view of aesthetics, due to attempts to analyze beauty scientifically. Experiments have tested the total experience of beauty, and looked at the levels of appreciation it arouses in terms of pleasure and displeasure. This approach has provided more conflicts than answers, however, as it does not take into account objective views and other factors related to the perception of beauty.

The present century has tried to draw a distinction between beauty when it implies the total aesthetic value of an object and when it represents only one aspect of an object. The first meaning gives an object, like a sculpture, a total value of its beauty, relative to the sculptures around it. The value represents the entire object and its experience as a whole. The second meaning looks at characteristics of an object to determine its beauty, such as symmetry. It values these classed types of beauty, rather than the entirety of an object.


Table of Contents >> Being

 

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The Heart of the Matter: Gods, Grief, and Freedom in Aeschylus' Orestia

The Classical Symposium in Greek Art

Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome

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Dress & Costume, Zeus, Colonization, Homer's Iliad & Odyssey, and more.

Teachers' Companions
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Other Resources
The Perseus Project

History of Ancient Philosophy

Exploring Ancient World Cultures

Global Glossary Terms
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- Ptolemy
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- Sophists

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