The Meaning and Philosophy of Beauty

Beauty is commonly defined as the aesthetic quality of certain objects which makes these objects aesthetically pleasing to see. Such objects may include sunsets, landscapes, beautiful people and creative works of art. Beauty, along with aestheticism, is the most important topic of aesthetics, among the various branches of science. It is a subset of art, and beauty can be represented in many ways, including facial expressions, costumes, architecture, literature and music.


The word beauty as used in today’s English, refers more to the appeal of the appearance of an object rather than its utility or functionality. In fact, the word beauty was first used in relation to religion and philosophy, with reference to the immaculate form that everything takes in nature. In recent years the term beauty has become associated with the physical attributes of a living creature. In this narrow sense of the word beauty, human beauty has been defined as an attractive, symmetrical face, body and hair; and, where the concept of beauty encompasses bodily attributes more than mental attributes, the definition is made less specific by the fact that beauty encompasses all three aspects.

From an early period in European history, the concept of beauty began to acquire a more materialistic definition, focusing on the ability of objects to serve as a source of gratification for humans. The seventeenth century saw the flowering of artistic ability, with the rise of such artists as Titian, Rembrandt and copies of Michelangelo’s David. With the dawn of new technology, the quest for beauty became even more intense, with new ways of manipulating nature drawing new attention to abstract expressionism. This movement did not help towards the cultivation of a particular aesthetic sense but it did define a new way of interpreting nature through the medium of art.

Modern philosophy tends to define beauty according to a number of standard criteria, each contributing to the universal beauty which all humans share. According to the naturalist thinker, nature is seen as a whole, with all its parts working together to generate an overall effect. Humans are said to be designed to see the world in a language of colors and shapes, and to combine these elements into a creation which will ultimately communicate its meaning. In this way beauty – to some extent, the idea of beauty – comes to be seen as something that everyone shares, even though each individual sees it in a different light.

The modern era brought a new definition of beauty. In the wake of new mass marketing concepts, mass culture began to create images of beautiful, unique, virginal women. Beauty became a highly stylized object, dependent upon the desirability of a particular cultural product. A new definition of beauty was born.

The great French artist, painter, illustrator and poet, Paul Gauguin, can be credited with creating the most influential modern definition of beauty. In his painting, The Metamorphosis (ca. 1796), he combines the work of Botticelli with the notion of the dissolution of conventional beauty, established by the preceding centuries. His painting is a work of aesthetic art, and not a mere replication of nature – a reversal of the usual definition. His painting makes us see ourselves differently.