As any Platonist, the question of beauty is intriguing to me. I am not sure how best to define it, and I am not sure how it exactly relates to human aesthetic standards. I do have some opinions about the topic, however.
I am committed to the proposition that beauty has a basis in ultimate reality. God is beautiful, and that which reflects God—the creation—is beautiful insofar as it reflects God. Yet, what is beauty, as opposed to being or goodness or truth? The Platonic and later Thomist-Aristotelian traditions hold that these universals are united in God and yet perceived separately by rational creatures. If I remember the scholastic distinctions correctly, unity, being, goodness, truth, and beauty are called the transcendental properties of God—the good is being as desired and the true is being as intelligible and understood. What is beauty, then, which has a role in the good, as beauty is desired, and in intelligibility, as beauty delights the mind as it is apprehended? Thomas teaches that beauty is that which, when perceived, delights. This perception and delight appear to work both in the intellectual and in the moral realm. Do we then have a particular faculty for beauty, or do our various faculties delight in being as beautiful in their own way? Am I simply speaking metaphorically when I say that Thomas More’s actions are beautiful or when I say that Kepler’s laws of motion are beautiful? Or, rather, is there something akin in them to a beautiful landscape or to a beautiful face? Is beauty the manifesting of being through our perception of order? I do not know exactly how to delineate the boundaries in metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics, but I am convinced that there is something natural and supranatural about beauty.
Nonetheless, I do not think that the relativists are without reason when they claim that the human estimation of beauty is culturally conditioned. Many of them, fully tarred with oozing nominalism, think that such a position makes beauty an accident of human caprice, but we need not besmirch the proposition because of some of its proponents. To some extent, the human estimation of beauty is related to taste, and taste is fickle. Some philosophers of aesthetics wish to sterilize beauty of matters of taste and interest—for them, aesthetics must stand apart from such base values. Yet, they seem to revolve in the same orbit. Perhaps, taste is a parochial and chauvinistically selective estimation of beauty—taste narrowly claims its particular glimpse of the beautiful as the fullness of beauty. Perhaps, the aesthetes have a point in claiming that taste derives from lower human faculties—perhaps the bodily appetites overcome the soul’s perception of beauty and the result of such regicide is taste. Nonetheless, there is a real relation there between taste and the beautiful. It is possible that taste is to opinion as the perception of beauty is to knowledge, in the classic Platonic scheme—taste betrays some awareness of the beautiful, though it only faintly sees it at its own level and it is ignorant of the beautiful in itself.
The inability of most humans most of the time to acknowledge the beautiful in its fullness could explain the varying estimations of beauty in different cultures and according to different individuals. Nevertheless, culture in general and an individual human being’s life experience in particular are both human reactions to what is—culture is an aspect of nature, not an opposition to it. We cannot reduce the conventional to nothingness; rather, it is an incomplete and “mixed” reflection of reality. Custom is nature filtered through human limitation.
There also seems to be a relationship between beauty and utility in culture. What is seen as beautiful often is what is advantageous or a marker of what is advantageous. The common example is our estimation of a beautiful human body. When the rich and well fed were fat and pasty, fat and pasty were seen as beautiful. Then, when the rich and leisurely were thin and bronze, thin and bronze were called beautiful. Currently, we are moving slowly to the rich and healthy, who limit their cancer-causing sun exposure and work out, and now the “healthy” look, most accessible currently to the upper classes, is what is held as beautiful. It seems that the driving determination of what is seen as beautiful is something external to beauty itself. Yet, wealth, leisure, and health are real goods—they are desired rather than rejected by men. Still, it does seem to cheapen beauty by making it simply a slave to other goods.
Perhaps, then, we speak of beauty equivocally, just as we speak of good equivocally. Beauty in the case of fat rich Renaissance women or privileged tan thin Californian babes in the latter half of the twentieth century is something desired, as beauty is ever desired, but it is desired for the sake of other external goods. Yet, I do not think that people would use beauty in this context unless it had something to do with beauty itself. Maybe, the focus on the human form is enough to justify our use of beauty, to which people, in their customs and fashions, add other concerns. I am not sure.
Unlike the multiculturalists and relativists, however, I hold that our minds can rise above and judge convention, though it is terribly difficult to transcend one’s horizon and perhaps impossible to leave it completely. For example, mutilations of the human body are held to be beautiful throughout the world, though which mutilations are acceptable or flattering depend on the locale. East Asian Kayan and African Ndebele women extend their necks with rings of precious metal, rendering them giraffe-like, and one can see how such “beauty” originates with displays of wealth and status. Westerners pierce various parts of their anatomy, and folks in certain subcultures cover their bodies with tattoos. I would say that while all of these practices might be interesting, and while they may allow for their practitioners to assert a certain status—of wealth, class, tribe, or ideology—whatever additions to beauty are negated by their marring of the human body. The beauty of a well-ordered and unmaimed human body is superior to the conventionally inspired aesthetics that mutilate it. Of course, the homo acutorum would disagree and claim that I am simply declaring a matter of taste.
So, I think that the human estimation of beauty has some connection with beauty itself, which I affirm to exist in God and not merely in the beholder’s eye, but I admit that conventionality limits and colors the human appreciation of beauty, tainting it with concerns for other human goods such as wealth, status, survival, leisure, and so on. Beauty is truly seen; though, like righteousness or love, we get rather confused in trying to understand it.