What is Beauty? Timeless Philosophies and Modern Perspectives

In this blog post, we will explore the groundbreaking theories of beauty developed by two of the most influential philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. We will delve into the central role of beauty in Hermetic philosophy, a fascinating ancient tradition. Finally, we will touch upon contemporary research and developments in the realm of beauty theory, revealing the ongoing quest to understand this captivating concept.

Plato’s Theory of Beauty

In Plato’s theory of beauty, the concept of Forms holds great significance, as they represent the ideal, unchangeable essences that exist in a realm beyond the physical world. The objects we perceive are merely imperfect imitations of these Forms. By engaging with and understanding these perfect archetypes, we can gain deeper insight into the nature of reality and the world around us. For Plato, Beauty is an eternal Form, an experience of the soul, and a connection to the Good. His thoughts on beauty can be found throughout his dialogues, particularly the Symposium and the Phaedrus.

Beauty as a Form (Symposium, 210d-211d)

In the Symposium, Socrates recounts the teachings of Diotima, who describes the ascent to the knowledge of Beauty itself. She says: And this is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two, and from two to all, then from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge of various kinds one arrives at the supreme knowledge whose sole object is that absolute beauty, and knows at last what absolute beauty is. 

In this quote, Plato is explaining his idea of Beauty as a Form, which is a perfect and unchanging idea that exists beyond the physical world. He suggests that we start by noticing beautiful things around us and use these examples to help us think about the bigger idea of beauty. As we explore more beautiful things, actions, and ideas, we get closer to understanding the perfect idea of beauty, which is the Form of Beauty. This journey helps us see that the true essence of beauty goes beyond what we can see and touch, and instead lies in the unchanging and eternal world of Forms.

Beauty as an Experience of the Soul (Phaedrus, 249d-250b)

In the Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the experience of beauty as something that affects the soul. He says: For when [the soul] sees a godlike face or form which truly expresses beauty, it is warmed and filled with a sense of fullness; it is stirred by the sight and brought back to memories of the beauty it once knew, and the sight of the beloved causes a shivering sensation and a peculiar awe, and the soul’s feverish longing is called Love. Here, Plato suggests that the experience of beauty is rooted in the soul’s recollection of the eternal Form of Beauty.

Beauty and the Good (Symposium, 205e-206a)

In the Symposium, Socrates discusses the relationship between beauty and the Good. He says: The person who used [love] rightly would turn to the vast ocean of the beautiful, and, in contemplation of it, give birth to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and thoughts in the abundance of philosophy; until, strengthened and increased in that contemplation, he would catch sight of a knowledge unique to that beauty, and would know at last what beauty really is.

In this passage, Socrates explains that when we truly appreciate beauty, it can lead us to think deeply and come up with great ideas and thoughts. This love for beauty helps us grow stronger in our understanding and eventually leads us to discover a special kind of knowledge about what beauty really is. In this way, beauty inspires us to seek wisdom and strive for goodness in our lives.

Modern Interpretation of Plato’s Forms

Plato’s concept of Forms has been debated and criticized over time. However, setting aside the assertion of an independent world of Forms, his idea can find a simple modern interpretation. The concept of patterns in today’s world can be seen as a representation of Plato’s vision of Forms. The term Pattern in its broadest sense encompasses arithmetical equations, geometric theorems, and laws of physics, as well as traditional geometric patterns. Such patterns, like Plato’s Forms, are abstract, perfect, and timeless entities that manifest themselves in the material world.

For example, arithmetical equations describe numerical relationships and patterns that can be found across various contexts, regardless of the specific numbers involved. These equations, much like Plato’s Forms, are not tied to any particular instance but exist as abstract concepts that can be applied universally.

Similarly, geometric theorems express patterns that govern the relationships between shapes and their properties. These theorems embody the principles of geometry, which, like Plato’s Forms, are eternal and unchanging. The patterns in geometry provide the framework for understanding the spatial organization of the physical world.

In the realm of physics, the laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy are also expressions of underlying patterns. These laws reveal the fundamental principles that dictate the dynamics of the universe. By uncovering the patterns that underlie these laws, scientists can better understand the nature of reality and its relationship to Plato’s concept of Forms.

When we acknowledge the timeless essence of patterns, we gain a deeper understanding of how Plato’s ideas on beauty and the Forms remain relevant in contemporary thought. Associating Plato’s Forms with patterns allows us to reinterpret his theory of beauty in a more modern context. In this view, beauty can be understood as a harmonious arrangement of patterns that transcends the material world and reflects the eternal and perfect nature of the Forms. The presence of these patterns in the physical world offers a glimpse of the divine order, inspiring our appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us. By contemplating the intricate patterns in nature, art, and mathematics, we can gain insight into the underlying structure of reality and strengthen our connection to the eternal Forms that Plato believed to be the source of all beauty.

Importance of Plato’s Theory of Beauty During the Renaissance and Beyond

Plato’s theory of beauty, with its emphasis on the eternal and perfect Forms, played a significant role in shaping the thoughts and ideas of the Renaissance, a period of cultural and intellectual revitalization that spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries. The rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts, including the works of Plato, inspired the Renaissance thinkers and artists to emulate the classical ideals of harmony, proportion, and symmetry in their creations.

One key figure of the Renaissance, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, was instrumental in translating and disseminating Plato’s works throughout Europe. He established the Platonic Academy in Florence, where his translations and commentaries on Plato’s dialogues, including the Symposium, helped to revive interest in the philosopher’s ideas on beauty and love.

Plato’s concept of beauty as a reflection of the eternal Forms resonated with the Renaissance artists, who sought to capture the divine order in their works. Painters such as Sandro Botticelli and Raphael incorporated Plato’s ideas on beauty in their masterpieces, striving to create harmonious compositions that mirrored the perfect world of the Forms.

In architecture, the influence of Plato’s theory of beauty can be seen in the works of renowned architects like Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti. Their designs were marked by a strong emphasis on geometric proportions and symmetry, reflecting the Platonic ideals of order and harmony.

Beyond the Renaissance, Plato’s theory of beauty continued to shape artistic and intellectual thought in various ways. The Neoplatonism movement, for instance, sought to reinterpret and synthesize Plato’s ideas with other philosophical traditions, further exploring the nature of beauty and its connection to the divine.

In contemporary art and design, the principles of harmony, proportion, and symmetry remain central to the creation of visually appealing works. Plato’s insights into the nature of beauty continue to provide a valuable framework for understanding and appreciating the aesthetic qualities that contribute to the enduring appeal of art across cultures and time periods.

Aristotle’s Theory of Beauty

Aristotle’s theory of beauty emphasizes the importance of order, symmetry, proportion, unity, coherence, purpose, and goodness in creating beautiful objects. His ideas can be found throughout his works, especially the Metaphysics and the Nicomachean Ethics. 

Symmetry, Proportions, Unity, and Coherence (Metaphysics, Book V, 1014a-b)

Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry; but the latter indeed is a greater bond, as being that which makes the parts dependent upon one another. But symmetry is the due proportion of the several parts to one another. 

In this passage, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of symmetry and proportion in creating a harmonious whole. The parts of an object must be in the right proportion to one another to create a sense of unity and coherence, which are essential for beauty.

Purpose, Proportion, and Order (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, 1078a-b)

The Good, therefore, is both starting-point and goal, and that is why the ancients represented it as a circle, a symbol of perfection; for that which proceeds in a circle returns upon its beginning, and the end and the starting-point are one. 

This quote connects the idea of the Good, which is the ultimate purpose, with  proportion and order as central to beauty – represented by the circle symbolizing perfection.

Golden Mean

Aristotle introduced the concept of the Golden Mean in his work, Nicomachean Ethics, as a key principle in ethical and moral behavior. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is the idea of finding a balance between two extremes in order to achieve a state of harmony, moderation, and virtue. For example, he described courage as a virtue that lies between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Similarly, generosity is a mean between stinginess and extravagance. By avoiding both extremes, a person can achieve a virtuous and morally correct behavior.

Though Aristotle did not explicitly discuss the Golden Mean’s application to aesthetics, his focus on balance, order, and harmony has led artists, architects, and philosophers to apply the concept in their work. The Golden Mean is often seen as a guiding principle for creating aesthetically pleasing and harmonious designs, which reflect a balance of elements, proportions, and relationships.

Importance of Aristotle’s Theory of Beauty During the Renaissance and Beyond

While Plato’s theory of beauty left a lasting impact on the Renaissance and beyond, Aristotle’s ideas on beauty also played a crucial role in shaping the thoughts and ideas of this period. Aristotle’s focus on balance, unity, and variety, as well as his concept of the Golden Mean, significantly influenced the thinkers and artists of the time.

The rediscovery and translation of Aristotle’s works, particularly his Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics, contributed to the development of new artistic and philosophical ideas during the Renaissance. Building upon the foundation laid by Plato’s emphasis on the eternal and perfect Forms, Aristotle’s ideas on proportion, order, and harmony provided additional dimensions for artists like Leonardo da Vinci, who sought to capture these principles in their creations.

In architecture, the works of Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti were heavily influenced by Aristotle’s ideas on beauty, along with the Platonic ideals of order and harmony. These architects paid careful attention to proportion, balance, and harmony, reflecting Aristotle’s notion of the Golden Mean as a guiding principle for creating aesthetically pleasing structures.

As the influence of Plato’s theory of beauty continued to shape artistic and intellectual thought in various ways, so too did Aristotle’s ideas on aesthetics. During the Enlightenment period, philosophers like Immanuel Kant engaged with Aristotle’s ideas on beauty, integrating them into their own theories of beauty and taste.

In contemporary art and design, the principles of balance, proportion, and harmony remain central to the creation of visually appealing works. Both Plato’s and Aristotle’s insights into the nature of beauty continue to provide valuable frameworks for understanding and appreciating the aesthetic qualities that contribute to the enduring appeal of art across cultures and time periods.

The Pivotal Role of Beauty in the Hermetic Universe

Hermetic philosophy traces its origins to Hellenistic Egypt, specifically the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. It is named after the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus, a fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, both associated with writing, knowledge, and wisdom. The Hermetic tradition represents a syncretic blend of Greek, Egyptian, and other philosophical and religious teachings of the time. The primary texts of this tradition are the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius. Their rediscovery and translation during the Renaissance led to the spread of Hermetic philosophy throughout Europe, significantly influencing the intellectual and cultural life of the period. Notable figures impacted by Hermetic philosophy include the mathematician and philosopher Giordano Bruno, the alchemist and physician Paracelsus, and the polymath John Dee.

Hermetic and Platonic philosophies share some common ground. Both Platonic and Hermetic philosophies emphasize the existence of a non-material, transcendent realm that is more real than the material world. In Platonic thought, this is expressed through the theory of Forms, while in Hermeticism, it is represented by the divine mind (Nous). Both traditions emphasize the importance of the pursuit of wisdom and the development of spiritual understanding. In Platonism, this is achieved through philosophical inquiry and dialectic, while in Hermeticism, it involves inner contemplation, alchemy, and magical practices.

In the Hermetic universe, beauty holds a pivotal role, deeply intertwined with the core principles of interconnectedness and divine order. Beauty, as a manifestation of perfection, reflects the divine essence permeating all aspects of existence, guiding individuals towards spiritual growth and enlightenment. Through the study of Hermetic texts and exploration of related movements like Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, we can gain a deeper understanding of the crucial role beauty plays in the Hermetic worldview.

The Emerald Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a foundational Hermetic text highlighting interconnectedness through the famous axiom, “As above, so below; as below, so above.” This statement implies that the material world reflects the divine realm, making beauty, as a tangible representation of perfection, an essential aspect of this relationship. Beauty guides individuals towards recognizing and appreciating the divine essence pervading all aspects of existence, ultimately leading to heightened spiritual awareness and enlightenment.

The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of Hermetic texts, identifies the divine mind (Nous) as the source of all beauty and perfection. Since the physical world is a manifestation of the divine mind, beauty emerges as a vital element of the Hermetic universe, reflecting the perfect qualities inherent in the divine source. Contemplating and understanding the beauty of the material world allows individuals to gain insight into the divine order underpinning the cosmos.

Rosicrucianism, influenced by Hermetic philosophy, also emphasizes the significance of beauty in comprehending the divine. Rosicrucians believe that beauty serves as a bridge between the material and spiritual realms, enabling individuals to access higher levels of consciousness and spiritual enlightenment. They view art, music, and other forms of creative expression as vehicles for spiritual growth and understanding, recognizing the power of beauty to elevate the human spirit.

Freemasonry, another movement with ties to Hermeticism, incorporates the concept of beauty into its teachings and rituals. Beauty is considered one of the three essential components of Freemasonry, alongside strength and wisdom. The emphasis on beauty in Freemasonry can be observed in the architecture and design of their lodges, as well as the symbolism and allegory used in their rituals. This focus on beauty aims to inspire individuals to contemplate the divine and pursue personal growth and enlightenment.

Modern Theories of Beauty

In recent years, various modern approaches to the theory of beauty have emerged, often incorporating mathematical concepts to analyze and quantify the aesthetic experience. These approaches attempt to provide a more systematic understanding of beauty by identifying patterns, structures, and properties that contribute to the perception of beauty.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio, approximately 1.618, is a mathematical constant that has been linked to beauty in art, architecture, and nature. It can be found in the proportions of many aesthetically pleasing objects, such as the Parthenon, the Pyramids of Giza, and the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Studies have suggested that humans are innately drawn to objects with proportions that adhere to the Golden Ratio, as it is believed to represent balance and harmony(Livy, S. H., & Diagon, J. (1998). The Golden Ratio and Aesthetics. The College Mathematics Journal, 29(5), 339-347).

Fractals

Fractals are complex geometric shapes that exhibit self-similarity across different scales. They can be found in various natural phenomena, such as coastlines, tree branches, and snowflakes. The fractal dimension, a measure of their complexity, has been used to study the aesthetics of visual patterns and the relationship between complexity and beauty. Research has suggested that humans find a certain degree of fractal complexity visually appealing, as it resonates with the patterns observed in nature(Taylor, R. P., Spehar, B., Van Donkelaar, P., & Hagerhall, C. M. (2011). Perceptual and Physiological Responses to Jackson Pollock’s Fractals. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 60).

Symmetry

In Hermann Weyl’s work, symmetry is a central concept in the study of beauty. Symmetrical objects and patterns are often perceived as aesthetically pleasing due to their sense of balance and order. In recent years, researchers have used mathematical tools, such as group theory and isomorphism, to analyze and quantify the symmetries present in visual art, architecture, and natural patterns(Weyl, H. (1952). Symmetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Computational Aesthetics

Computational aesthetics is an interdisciplinary field that combines computer science, mathematics, and art to develop algorithms and models for evaluating and generating aesthetically pleasing objects. Researchers in this field use techniques such as machine learning, computer vision, and optimization to analyze and quantify the visual properties that contribute to the perception of beauty. This approach allows for the development of objective measures of beauty that can be applied to a wide range of artistic and natural objects (Galanter, P. (2012). Computational Aesthetic Evaluation: Steps Toward Empirical Aesthetics. In J. McCormack & M. d’Inverno (Eds.), Computers and Creativity (pp. 89-111). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer).

Information Theory

Information theory, a branch of mathematics that deals with the quantification of information, has been applied to the study of aesthetics. Researchers have used concepts such as entropy, complexity, and redundancy to analyze the structure and organization of visual patterns, music, and language. This approach posits that beauty arises from a balance between order and complexity, where a certain degree of informational richness is needed to elicit an aesthetic response(Moles, A. A. (1966). Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (J. E. Cohen, Trans.). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press).

These mathematical approaches to the theory of beauty have provided valuable insights into the underlying structures and patterns that contribute to the aesthetic experience. By integrating concepts from mathematics, physics, and computer science, researchers are developing a more rigorous and systematic understanding of beauty that transcends the boundaries of traditional aesthetics 

Embracing Beauty: Unifying Themes and Timeless Inspiration

In this blog, we explore beauty through the lens of Plato and Aristotle’s influential theories, as well as their impact on art and aesthetics during the Renaissance and beyond. We also delve into the Hermetic philosophy’s central role in shaping our perception of beauty and its influence on related movements such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry.

As we navigate these diverse perspectives on beauty, unifying themes like patterns, symmetry, and order consistently emerge as central aspects in various theories. These themes reflect an innate human appreciation for harmony, balance, and the interconnectedness of elements within our experiences of beauty. By examining these common threads across various theories and modern research, we uncover the timeless nature of beauty and its profound impact on human culture and experience. This exploration encourages us to not only deepen our understanding of beauty’s complexities but also to recognize and embrace the ways in which beauty has inspired and captivated us throughout history.

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