Defining beauty is no easy task. A definition of beauty or the beautiful has eluded the grasp of those who wish a definition with mathematical precision. This more than two-millennia-old discussion remains open, and no definition has satisfied its perennial participants or become the final word.
Among those who venture to define it, we can find roughly four kinds of definitions: classical, transcendental, subjective, and theological definitions.
Classical definitions use some form of the classical theory of beauty, which originated in Pythagoras and was developed by Plato, and later Platonists. Christians influenced by Plato developed similar versions of the same idea. Classical theories define beauty as essentially proportion. At the heart of this theory is the idea that the distinctive pleasure of beauty is the harmony of parts to a whole. Beauty is symmetry between composite parts or elegant relationships between parts that combine to make a unified, whole form. This symmetry is what provokes pleasure in the human who encounters it. Whether it is visual symmetry, or musical harmony, or mathematical elegance, this theory identifies the heart of beauty in a human’s desire for order, patterns, symmetry, unity and equality.
The triad of transcendentals is “truth, goodness, and beauty”. Transcendental definitions of beauty define beauty in relation to the unseen and ultimate qualities of truth and goodness, or as some combination of these. If truth is what corresponds to reality, and goodness is how reality ought to be loved, then beauty is some combination of these. It is truth and goodness radiating out or proclaimed. It is either a synonym for what is good and true, or the result of their synthesis. The transcendental theory has the power of explaining why beauty seems to have much to do with fittingness, and excellence. The overlap between goodness, which is to say, what ought to be, and beauty, shows that beauty must have a strong relationship to truth and goodness. This was well understood by the Greeks who fused the two concepts of goodness and beauty and coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. Transcendental definitions emphasise that beauty has to do with reality and morality: what truly is, and what it deserves.
Some definitions define beauty almost entirely as its effects or experience within the perceiving subject. These definitions expound beauty in terms of the peculiar aesthetic pleasure, or its ethical effect upon the subject. Of course, it raises the question: what are the attributes outside of the observer that provoke the response of pleasure? To be clear, proponents of this definition do not necessarily deny that objects of beauty have outward qualities that might be construed as beautiful. Rather, their claim is that beauty itself must be defined as the subject’s response to these qualities, not as something that exists entirely independently of observation or inherently in the unperceived object. Perhaps one might summarise the valid insight of this definition thus: what is experienced as beauty may exist separately from a perceiving subject, but it does not truly exist without a perceiving subject. That is, while beauty is not merely the inner experience of perceiving subjects, something’s beauty is impossible to speak of without perceiving subjects.
Theological definitions take God himself as the foundation of beauty, or as the ultimate instantiation of it. In these definitions, beauty is either an attribute of God, or a way of speaking of God’s being or relations. Importantly, theological definitions insist upon defining beauty with God’s revelation in Scripture, not primarily with philosophy or aesthetics.
This takes a few forms. One is to define beauty as being, or existence. Understanding beauty as being, and God’s being as the ground of all being, makes beauty equivalent to God. The idea of beauty as being prevailed in medieval Christendom.
A second is that beauty is the glory of God. Karl Barth saw the beauty of God as the more precise designation of the glory of God, “the sum total of the divine perfection in irresistible self-manifestation”. Beauty is the nature, character and will of God.
A third form of theological definition of beauty focuses on the Tri-une nature of God: seeing in the unity and harmony of persons in the Godhead the ultimate instantiation of harmony and symmetry.
A fourth form suggests that it is the relations within the Trinity that define beauty. Here, proportion, radiance, perfection, and pleasure can be united in light of the reciprocal love of the Godhead. In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart argues that “true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the mind of God, but is an infinite music, drama, art, completed in but never bounded by the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life”.
Theological definitions then insist that beauty is defined derivatively from what God is: his being, attributes, or relations. Beauty cannot be a concept to which God conforms; the very concept must be derived from the perfection within God.
All of this presents us with a bewildering array of options. How shall we decide between them? With Scripture as our final judge, and the intellectual and Christian tradition to draw on, we can suggest a definition which seems to unite these ideas in one. We’ll consider that next.