Beauty, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.E.), is the most accessible of the Forms. Forms are transcendent sources of the essential qualities of things, the qualities that make things what they are. The proper relation among these qualities, their harmony, is what makes a thing beautiful. We are naturally drawn to beautiful things, wanting to possess them and to perpetuate their beauty in creations of our own.
Our love of beauty leads us to seek it in increasingly more enduring forms of enjoyment and creation: from particular physical objects to friends and children, to public institutions and societal laws, to scientific theories and philosophical systems, and finally to Beauty itself. Thus Beauty is the harmonizing structure that give things their integrity, we desire it above all else, and in its presence we are able to create things of enduring worth. It is both the measure of our good and the enkindling agent for its accomplishment. Western notions of beauty since Plato are but a series of footnotes to these linked notions.
Objective interpretations Aristotle emphasizes the notion of structure: The beauty of a thing lies in its formal and final causes, in the imposition of appropriate ordering principles of symmetry and unity upon indeterminate matter. He argues that for a work of art, such as a tragedy, to be excellent it must adhere to proper unities of time, place, and narrative sequence. Plotinus (205–270 C.E.) emphasizes the notion of beauty’s lure, the ascent by its means to the timeless.
Beauty is not merely symmetry and unity; it is a power irradiating them, for which we yearn and through which we can transcend that about us which is perishing. The early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) identifies this power as God, through the beauty of whose Word our restless selves find salvation’s rest.
Hence in Christianity, as in most religions, the actions and objects associated with worship are as beautifully crafted as possible, their beauty having the power to draw believers into the presence of the holy. Islam excludes the use of images, however, as did early radical Protestantism, finding them distractions rather than inducements. Contrast, for example, the severe elegance of Islam’s Dome of the Rock mosque, or a clear-windowed New England Puritan church with the sculptured figures on the facade of the Roman Catholic cathedral at Chartres, or the ballet of icons and censors at a Russian Orthodox Eucharist.
Thomas Aquinas uses the beauty people see in the world around them, their sense of how things fit together, as a proof for the existence of God.
Because they act together so as to attain the best result, they must be directed by a purposive being, as the arrow is directed by the archer. The ultimate source of such purposiveness is God. In the eighteenth century, William Paley (1743–1805) revived Aquinas’s “argument from design,” adapting it to the natural order described by Newtonian science.