In the realms of politics and business, the beautiful is oftentimes regarded as a subject of lesser gravitas and importance than, say, the mundane requirements of governance and strategy. Beauty, in the eyes of many, is something superficial and non-essential, secondary to allegedly more pressing and serious concerns of human conduct and collaboration. This ubiquitous view is, however, starkly at odds with the Western philosophical tradition. From the earliest textual sources of antiquity up to the grandees of contemporary philosophy, quite a different assessment prevails. In what follows, I am presenting these countervailing positions with the intention to shed a light on why we—individuals, institutions, and society—continue to have sound and strong reasons to care for beauty.
Let me begin with a qualification. In what follows, I am not presenting theorems that explain (away) beauty. Such efforts have indeed been frequently made, either by way of reductive materialism or through identificatory idealism, and both approaches can shed light on the issue. In the former case, for example, if one leans toward a social-Darwinist reading of the world (survival of the fittest), one sees the beautiful as emergent from and for evolutionary purposes (signaling fitness, supporting pattern recognition, identifying symmetries, recognizing boundaries). Ultimately, then, beauty is reduced to whatever assures species propagation. In the latter case, if one possesses idealistic proclivities, one may enjoy theories (by the likes of Kant, Schiller, and Schelling) that, by positioning the beautiful as the capstone of the architecture of human reason, tend to integrate the aesthetic domain with, and interpret it by, a larger narrative about the universe and its metaphysical/spiritual underpinnings. The beautiful turns into a worldly reflection of the Absolute. In both cases, surely, aesthetic theories gain more metaphysical oomph from their respectively invoked (material or ideal) realms, but that extra power comes at the expense of a prior acceptance of farther-going theories, thus mortgaging philosophy without, I fear, necessarily disclosing the phenomenon at hand—beauty and its effect on us humans—that much further.
So, instead of either, I take a pragmatist-cum-phenomenological approach by considering not so much what beauty is but rather what it does (socially, that is), as well as not so much what else the beautiful shows or points to but rather what it presents itself to be. As we will see, from age to age, philosophers have concentrated on different aspects of that phenomenon, centering at times more on beautiful objects, at other times on the subjects that produce or behold them and/or their relations. In stark simplification, we could say that, historically, the object commanded the center stage during antiquity and the Middle Ages; then, around 1700 CE, the object yielded to the subject; and lately, say, from the outset of the twentieth century onward, their relation moved increasingly into the foreground.
Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century
Up until 1700 CE, the beautiful was typically discussed in the context of the good and the true. The three notions—beauty, goodness, and truth: the transcendentalia of medieval thought—share interesting properties.
Countless thinkers emphasized proximities between the good and the beautiful. In antiquity, the good (agathon) and the beautiful (kalon) were fused into an ideal of how to live well (kalokagathia). In Hellenistic times, even the distinction between the elements of said ideal collapsed when kalon simply came to mean “morally good.” Even at present, we use terms like ugly and beautiful to express ethical disapproval and approval. What resonates across the divide of the aesthetic and ethical domains is the notion of fair-ness (fair itself being etymologically connected to both spheres), which merges the aesthetic notion of fit-ness/proportionality with the ethical stricture of suitability/appropriateness.
Thinkers identified similar analogies regarding truth and beauty, emphasizing mostly the transformative nature of their pursuit. To attain either truth or beauty, we let go of a self-centered perspective and engage in a lifelong process of learning, erring our way forward in increasing approximation of an ideal that we will never own but that instead gradually takes ownership of us: only those who submit to the immanent mandates of their (epistemic or aesthetic) domain will truly advance. The true masters disappear behind their works. Both truth and beauty share a revelatory nature; while work toward them is incremental, their unveiling often happens in leaps, fits, and bounds, leading to experiences of an ek-static (standing outside oneself) nature. Not incidentally, therefore, experiences of the beautiful have forever served religious communities as metaphors for and conduits to the Sacred.
The consonance of the beautiful, the good, and the true was seen as indicative of a primordial unity of life. In spiritual parlance, they emanated each and all from the Divine and were ultimately in harmony. This ultimate unity assured the commensurability of the transcendentalia in mundane life. While their eventual and perfect harmony, however, was often left for the end of time, they were believed to beckon humanity in the here and now to aspire to ever greater approximations in and through daily work and relationships. The reconciliation of conflicting elements through beautiful objects/works/creations was emblematic of both the Beginning and the Beyond of the world at large. Aesthetic enthusiasm is etymologically and conceptually linked to perceiving “God within.”
Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries
Even though many modern Western philosophers avoided such theological overtones, later notions of gift and creation remained closely linked to beauty. The coincidence of opposites that the beautiful accomplishes—the harmonious fusion of disparate elements such as order and irregularity in the beautiful object, the merger of toil and pleasure in the producer, the combination of concentration and relaxation in the beholder, and so on—are still seen as betokening something special (a grace, a faculty for bestowing life, starting afresh, creating something novel, combined with a spirit of elevation/generosity/superabundance or supererogatory giving) that enables human life to transcend itself and its animal nature. While ever fewer thinkers adduce the beautiful for proofs of the existence of God, the mundane grist and gist of such traditional theorems—the notions of both an original creativity/spontaneity and an eventual pacification/redemption of all existence—still lingers in modern notions of the beautiful as reinvigorating or soul-saving. Nowhere in modern philosophy do spiritual overtones linger as much as in the discourse on aesthetics.