Beauty; the muscular, athletic bodies of the Gods, and the passive but pleasing faces of the Goddesses. The Gods and, more importantly, the statues of the Gods adorning the acropolis in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC gave everyday inhabitants the accepted view of what beauty was. To get anywhere in Athenian society required not only a good name, charm and intelligence but physical splendour. It was widely held as truth that beauty and goodness went hand in hand.
The assumptions that beauty was fitness and that Beauty and Good went together were dispelled by both Aristotle and Socrates. Aristotle said that “for the former [Good] always implies conduct as its subject, while the beautiful is found also in motionless thing”. Beauty according to Aristotle can be found in action and stillness, whereas Good is only found in action. Socrates’ arguments agree and he proposed the notion that Beauty was not found in something that simply gave delight as delight was able to be taken from Good also.
Socrates was convinced that physical beauty was not to be trusted. For example an evil ugly man wearing rich and fine clothes may appear attractive to the eye but the clothes only mask the true ‘beauty’ of the character. In his analysis of art Aristotle gives the view that the aim of paintings was to give only immediate visual pleasure and therefore was, although appealing to the eye, not true beauty.
According to Aristotle beauty is above the useful and the necessary. He argues that the useful skills, such as reading, writing and drawing, will allow one to experience beauty but are not beautiful in themselves. And objects to aid this, such as a book or a pen are not in themselves beautiful, but they lead to finding beauty. Contrary to this Socrates uses the usefulness of an object greatly enhances, if not defines, its beauty. For example a large leafy tree is beautiful not because of the attractiveness of the green leaves or the buds but because it gives shade to whoever sits beneath it. A gold shield however is ugly, because it does not function well at all as a shield. However Socrates dismisses the idea that something is beautiful because it functions well. As evil objects, although functioning well, remain nothing more than evil.
Both philosophers found beauty in mathematics and science. Aristotle said “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness ” and claimed that science proved this wherever you looked. He found great beauty in ‘the golden ratio’ which is a mathematical formula found all over nature, such as the growing of shells and the human body. Socrates argued that there are some things beautiful by their very nature alone. “The straight line and the circle and the plane and solid figures formed from these by turning lashes and rulers and patterns of angles”. These he says are not relative, but always beautiful. They give a pleasure, but nothing like the pleasure of scratching. They are constant.
Socrates draws many parallels between the pure and the beautiful. Sounds can also be beautiful in their simplicity and purity. A natural simple and smooth note can be beautiful. Aristotle believed that objects must be a certain magnitude for them to be beautiful, neither too large nor too small. He argues that you cannot fully appreciate the beauty of an animal that is a thousand miles long, nor one so small you cannot see it.
Today a stock answer to the question ‘what is beauty’ usually arrives in the notion that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. But as far as Aristotle and Socrates were concerned, beauty was embedded deep into science, mathematics and nature. Beauty can be found all around, but not if you only look where society once told you to look.
ARISTOTLE AND SOCRATES ON BEAUTY