Sunday, February 5, 2023

A First Look at Aesthetics


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

This is the first in a series on Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste. It necessarily touches on Truth also. "Beauty is an effect of Truth that manifests when the object closer to the Truth is perceived by the subject." This is why Aesthetics cannot be set apart from ethics.

Beauty is recognized where one is closer to Truth. Thus, Truth is fundamental and beyond subject-object duality. This approaches Plato's understanding of beauty as transcendent eternal Forms. In Plato's philosophy beauty is not about art or nature. Were we to ask Plato: what is beauty? he would answer: “Forms are beautiful, the perfect being is beautiful, and among these forms, the form of Good is the most beautiful.” 

For the Ancient Greeks, beauty was not a matter of personal taste. According to Aristotle, beauty could be measured. Literally. “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree,” he says in Metaphysics.

An expert on Greek and Roman art, Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer (1918-2009) explained, "Beauty was considered an excellence, like honesty or bravery. Physical beauty was important, but it had to be coupled with goodness of spirit as well."

The Neo-Platonist, Plotinus, insisted that beauty inspires an enquiry into its own source (ontology), and that this world is beautiful because it reflects the beauty of a supreme, undivided, transcendent "One". This One "is prior to all existents" and identified with the concept of Good and the principle of Beauty.

Plotinus has influenced those whose discontent with things as they are has led them to seek the realities behind the appearances of the senses. One of those persons is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).

Schopenhauer believed that art and aesthetic experience provide escape from an otherwise miserable existence, and that these allow one to attain greater objectivity than science or empirical knowledge. The more a person's mind is concerned with the world as representation, the less it feels the suffering of the world as will. Schopenhauer analyzed art from its effects, both on the personality of the artist, and the personality of the viewer.

When it comes beauty, either as Truth or as an antidote to misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that discernment of beauty is highly subjective. The Irish poet, Oscar Wilde, wrote, "Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world."

In this series on Aesthetics, we will consider three topics:

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