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Aristotle and Aesthetic Judgement

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Aristotle was a philosopher who wrote many works about ethics, politics, metaphysics, and aesthetics. His conception of beauty was classical, indeed he saw beauty as “an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry (…)” (Sartwell, 2016). The main idea of his concept is that beauty is a sort of middle between excess and deficiency; indeed, beauty is not the concept of sublime neither is the concept of ugliness, it is in the arrangement between those two.

Moreover, Aristotle used this conception of ‘middle’ for other concepts, such as virtue; virtue was described as the middle arrangement of boorishness and buffoonery (The School of Life, 2014). Aristotle relates the conception of beauty to science, where a perfect symmetry is the idea of beauty; he named this chief form of beauty summetria (Celkyte, 2013, para. 16).

This form of beauty is referring to a mathematical formula, something that is universal and that is following a rule. Aristotle believed that mathematics was closely related to good and beautiful (Celkyte, 2013); in ‘Metaphysics’ he wrote: “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (as cited in Sartwell, 2016, para. 36).

In some way, the idea of aesthetics is related to the idea of perfection; someone’s face has to be symmetric and uniform to be beautiful, to be perfect. However, Aristotle’s conception of beauty does not only include symmetry, but also body size. “In Nicomachean Ethics 4.3, beauty is said to imply a good-sized body, so that little people might be well-proportioned, but not beautiful” (Celkyte, 2013). To understand both of these theories, it is important to differentiate the first theory of physical beauty, and the second as internal, moral, beauty.

Concerning those concepts, some questions need to be addressed, like the fact that can someone be physically beautiful but not detain moral beauty? Moreover, are living things always morally good? Is beauty subjective since symmetry seems to be its universal criterion for it? Or, which beauty is found the most attractive, moral beauty or physical and symmetrical beauty?

With this said, I am going to look at what other scholars say about Aristotle’s concepts of beauty.

Beauty in Symmetry

Sartwell (2016) explains that Aristotle wasn’t the only one that believed in this theory, it was a classical conception of beauty that first come from the western conception of beauty. Beauty defined as perfection was an idea that was spread among many philosophers according to Sartwell (2016), and so beauty was perceives a mathematical formula.

Celkyte (2013) add that this form of beauty which is related to proportion and symmetry was called ‘summetria’, and was described as the cause of beauty. The Stoics described physical beauty the same way, as the harmony in proportion that brings satisfaction in the eye of the beholder (Celkyte, 2013).

Nonetheless, in his article ‘The Aesthetic Calculus’, Arntfield (2007) tries to show us how the Aristotle’s idea on beauty in perfect symmetry paired with technologies is corrupting the idea of beauty. He blames it to make beauty a synonym of ‘mathematical visuality’; he states that with this culture of beauty people are changing their body and face on their picture, ‘matrixing’ their body with numbers. He explains that this idea of beauty residing in numbers, in symmetry as Aristotle said, is changing the way people are seeing and expecting beauty in others.

Additionally, the way people think about beauty and perceive it may also be influenced by culture and other people’s perspective on beauty. According to Robson (2015), some cultures are more attracted to more ‘masculine’ looking men, while others are more attracted to ‘feminine’ looking men. In an experiment conducted in Business school in Baltimore people were asked to rank others on a dating app. During the experiment researchers show the users other people’s score, after that, the users’ taste changed and they were ranking the people on the app according to the score of other people (Robson, 2015). This experiment proved that our perception of beauty is affected by the ‘herd effect’, their conception of beauty shifted (Robson, 2015). Moreover, even though our conception of beauty can be shifted easily, it also appears that the attraction for symmetrical face is in some way universal because people unconsciously see it as a sign of strength, where non-symmetrical faces appear like a health weakness (Robson, 2015).

In fact, Meisner (2013) has proved with a number of studies that nowadays, people are more attracted with symmetrical faces. In a 2009 study, where people were asked to identify attractive faces, researchers discovered that everyone was attracted to symmetrical faces; all of these faces had in common the ‘golden ratio’, a number that appears to be our invisible reference to perceive beauty in others. It proves that Aristotle’s theory wasn’t as wrong as people thought.

For further support, Wargo (2011) argues that the faces that people find handsome are average; that is why symmetrical faces are found so attractive, because they average and not distinctive. As Aristotle thought, it is in a certain middle between the sublime and the ugly. People seem to find those faces attractive because they are easy to process for the brain, and have a ‘familiar looking’ component (Wargo, 2011, para. 10-12).

Beauty in Goodness

When it comes to the other theory of Aristotle of beauty in Goodness, Mirus (2012) explains that Aristotle’s judgement of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ was wrong in a way that living things can’t be good or bad in themselves, but for an appropriate thing. Moreover, he states that all living things are obviously not good, and so not beautiful; beauty seems to have no relation with goodness or the fact of being alive (Mirus, 2012).

Baker (2017), argues that Aristotle was seeing goodness in every living being, as a virtue. Aristotle’s perception of the existence of human being was focus on absolute goodness and virtue, he didn’t take into consideration the fact that people would want to do bad. By this mean, he saw goodness as the absolute end of human’s life; indeed, Aristotle wasn’t thinking of being good for something, but as being intrinsically good (Baker, 2017).

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Moral beauty was so related to virtue by Aristotle, and if a person is moral, it suggests that she is good. According to Diessner et. al. (2013), moral beauty may be a factor of attractiveness for people on the same level as symmetrical faces as we talked earlier; more than attract other people to us, moral beauty seems to reveal the good in us by dealing with our emotion as well as behave in a more social way ((Diessner, Lyer, Smith, & Haidt, 2013). A study showed that moral beauty is also engaging people to do good, which relates to Aristotle who was saying that with good comes beauty; it seems that they are actually related (Diessner, Lyer, Smith, & Haidt, 2013).

Discussion

The two Aristotle’s theories on the aesthetic judgment seem to be challenged as well as supported by multiple scholars and scientists. Beauty seems to evolve with culture and time, nonetheless, Aristotle’s theories suggest that the struggle of aesthetic judgment stayed the same through centuries; the importance of physical beauty and moral beauty is still discussed and overlooked today. Therefore, it is essential to look at what modern scholars and scientists are thinking about ancient theories of aesthetic as Aristotle’s.

The Judgement of External Beauty

Aristotle believed that external beauty was found in the average, in a sort of ‘middle’ between the concept of ‘sublime’ and the concept of ‘ugliness’ (Sartwell, 2016). Proportion and symmetry were the keys to beauty, a mathematical formula that proves the beauty in someone (Celkyte, 2013).

In his article ‘The Aesthetic Calculus’ Arntfield (2007) describes Aristotle’s idea of finding beauty in proportion and mathematic as something that is “engineering an insidious mathematical visuality for the world like never before” (p.37). He explains that he disagrees with theories that implies that beauty, whether it is of the body or the face, have to follow some mathematical rules. Arntfield (2007) follows up by stating that the idea of proportion ruined the idea of an attractive or unattractive person, “all things deemed attractive and unattractive are now part of a new mathematical milieu” (p.37). Indeed, the idea of proportion seemed to have influenced people to even change their bodies, “a digital camera transforms the human body into a matrix of numerical codes” (Arntfield, 2007, p.37).

However, a common ground can be found between those two ideas, moral beauty. Aristotle believed in moral beauty by relating aesthetics to virtue; moral beauty is also a kind of beauty that can’t be seen externally, so Arntfield would agree that it is not a question of perfection or visual preferences but a question of intrinsic beauty. Moral beauty is defined by loving, being empathic, and caring for others (Diessner, Lyer, Smith, & Haidt, 2013).

To engage in moral beauty is something that both Aristotle and Arntfield would agree on, it overlooks physical perfection to concentrate on intrinsic beauty; this beauty causes a desire to become a better person, and both Aristotle and Arntfield recognize the importance of virtue over physical beauty (Diessner, Lyer, Smith, & Haidt, 2013). Aristotle believed that the purpose of human life was to be good, to engage in moral. In fact, he stated that to reach happiness a person had to be virtuous and good, he never talked about having a symmetrical face to be happy. So, we can suggest that Aristotle estimated being virtuous and good more important than being physically beautiful.

Beyond intrinsic beauty, external beauty is still the first judgement of aesthetic that people make when meeting someone for the first time; so, the issue is, is beauty subjective since symmetry seems to be its universal criteria for it? It was scientifically proven that people are more attracted by “perfect” faces based on symmetry, which are defined by the ‘golden ratio’ (Meisner, 2013). In a 2009 study, researchers found that people are more attracted by faces matching this ratio (Meisner, 2013).

Unfortunately, not everyone has a symmetric face, so we need to ask which beauty is found the most attractive, moral beauty or physical and symmetrical beauty? I would agree with Arntfield (2007) about the consequences of those ratios on our own sense of aesthetic. Beauty is not something that we can find in perfection. Most people find beauty in flaws, and that is the reason why the idea of ‘perfection’ is rejected by many people in modern societies.

The Judgement of Intrinsic Beauty

In modern societies the meaning of intrinsic beauty shifted from Aristotle’s; it is now less related to goodness and moral perfection, and more related to personality. Aristotle, however, believed that every living thing is naturally good and beautiful. For him, something good is automatically beautiful; he relates moral virtues with the concept of aesthetic.

Mirus (2012) explains in his article on the beautiful and the good that “many living things are bad” (p.79). He is distinguishing that every living thing is not good, which according to Aristotle’s theory that relates the good and the beautiful to living things, also mean that every living thing is not beautiful. The judgement of goodness and aesthetic may not be as closely related as Aristotle thought. Mirus (2012) argues that “things cannot be called ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in themselves, but only good or bad “for” some sort of agent” (p.79). Through the way he analyzes the good by nature, he disagrees with Aristotle’s concept that all things are good, and that aesthetic is somewhat related to good or bad.

When it comes to the notion of what people call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ it is difficult to find a common ground, starting with the definition of good that defers for Aristotle and Mirus. Baker (2017) explains that Aristotle’s notion of ‘good as an end’ was not the same as being ‘good in a kind’, he believed in absolute goodness. For Aristotle, the only purpose of human life was to be good and virtuous, so obviously according to him every living thing is good and beautiful since he does not take into consideration the presence of evil or sin in human life.

I think that the good, as aesthetic, is subjective, but can someone be judged physically beautiful but not detain moral beauty? Generally, people reject the idea that beauty can be found in the ‘bad’, because they don’t want to associate a negative thing with something as positive as ‘beauty’. For instance, Ted Bundy was the perpetrator of multiple rapes and murders. His case was publicized, and a lot of women were saying that he wasn’t responsible for those crimes because he was so subjectively physically attractive. Yet, he was guilty. Again, is beauty necessarily related to good?

Conclusions

In order to understand Aristotle’s theories, it is important to comprehend the evolution of the aesthetic judgement in time. Beauty shifts according to culture, situation, and personal preferences. Aristotle’s first theory about beauty in symmetry was proven scientifically that it is true, people are more attracted to symmetrical faces. However, both Aristotle’s theory and the studies that was conducted base this fact only on appearance, in a real-life situation it would have been different. Beauty is in appearance, not in being, learning to know someone can shift the perception of beauty in the eyes of the beholder, and people can find someone beautiful for his being; that’s why people can be attracted by someone else’s flaws, because physical beauty is less important than intrinsic beauty.

The judgement of intrinsic beauty is the concept of the second theory of Aristotle, which states that the good and the beautiful are in every living thing. In today’s society it is difficult to define a person good and beautiful and good only based on the fact that she is living. Yet, in ancient culture the good was represented by beauty while the bad was represented by twisted and weird representation. Nonetheless, the representation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shifted with time and now it is clear that goodness and beauty are not related in any way, being beautiful does not mean being good; in fact in popular culture most of the representations of Satan, which is the incarnation of evil, in movies and series are men commonly described as gorgeous.

Finally, Aristotle’s concepts of beauty are not wrong or right, but they are subjective as the aesthetic judgement is. There is no perfect explanation for the aesthetic judgement, symmetry can be one as well as finding someone beautiful because she is good, but most importantly, everyone detain beauty but the eyes can’t detect every beauty in the world since our capacity of judgement is restrained by taste.

References

  1. Arntfield, M. (2007). The Aesthetic Calculus: Sex Appeal, Circuitry, and Invisibility. Bullentin of Science, Technology & Society, 27(1), 37-47.
  2. Baker, S. (2017, July). The metaphysics of goodness in the ethics of Aristotle. Philosophical Studies, 174(7), 1839-1856.
  3. Celkyte, A. (2013). Ancient Aesthetics. Retrieved March 2020, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://www.iep.utm.edu/anc-aest/#SSH2biii
  4. Diessner, R., Lyer, R., Smith , M., & Haidt, J. (2013). Who engages with Moral Beauty? Journal of Moral Education, 42(2), 139-163.
  5. Mirus, C. V. (2012). Aristotle on Beauty and Goodness in Nature. International Philosophical Quaterly , 52(1), 79-97.
  6. Robson, D. (2015). The myth of Universal Beauty. Retrieved April 2020, from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150622-the-myth-of-universal-beauty
  7. Sartwell, C. (2016). Beauty. Retrieved March 2020, from Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty/#ObjSub
  8. The School of Life. (2014). PHILOSOPHY – Aristotle. Retrieved March 2020, from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csIW4W_DYX4
  9. Wargo, E. (2011). Beauty is in the Mind of the Beholder. Retrieved April 2020, from Association For Psychological Science: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/beauty-is-in-the-mind-of-the-beholder

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