< >





Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art


The Beautiful in the History of Aesthetics

Admiring a beautiful woman, Boris Pasternak said that to fathom the secret of her charm is tantamount to solving the riddle of life. The secret of beauty is the secret of life.
On a spring day of 1848, Heinrich Heine, who was gravely ill, walked out into the sunlit streets of Paris adorned with first greenery.
Fighting weakness, he made his way to the Louvre and stopped before the Venus of Milo. The poet came to that treasurehouse of art to take his leave of life. To part with life meant for him to part with beauty.
The secret of beauty has puzzled man for centuries. Debates concerning it have never stopped throughout the history of mankind.
Ancient civilisations have produced objects which give an idea of our ancestors' understanding of the world and their philosophical and aesthetic views. One of the world's oldest civilisations was that created by the Sumerians. As far back as in the 25th century B.C., they had a written language. A text dating back to that period contains one of the earliest disputes about the problem which even now has not been solved by aesthetics: the relationship between the beautiful and the useful. The text, called Summer and Winter, or Enlil Chooses the Patron of Peasants, tells about Enlil, the Air God, who decided to bring affluence to the earth and created two brothers, Emesh (Summer) and Enten (Winter). Each brother claimed to be the more handsome, and the father settled the argument by naming the more useful as the more beautiful:

The waters which bring life to all countries are the charge of Enten,
The tiller of land among the Gods, who produces all.
Emesh, my son, how can you compare yourself to your brother Enten!

The aesthetic doctrine expounded here is a forerunner of Socrates' idea that the more useful is the more beautiful.
The Sumerian poem Inanna Chooses a Husband also identifies the utilitarian and the beautiful. Utu, the Sun God, pleads with his sister Inanna to marry Dumuzi, the God of Shepherds. Inanna rather prefers Enkimda, the God of Land-Tillers, "who grows grain in
abundance". "But how is he better than I?" inquires Dumuzi and argues that he does more good than Enkimda, who can give only grain and peas. Finally, Inanna chooses the God of Shepherds, who can benefit people in more ways by giving them sweet cheese, cream, skins and wool, i.e. provide them with food, clothes and footwear.
In the text, the economic role of cattle-breeding and its singular usefulness account for the greater beauty of the God of Shepherds and, consequently, the greater weight of his claim to becoming a member of the family of the Sun God by marrying Inanna. Similarly, the ancient Egyptian civilisation left no treatises devoted solely to aesthetics. But scattered among its literary works, hymns to gods and pharaohs' life stories are many profound theoretical ideas on the nature of art and the aesthetic qualities of life. An
ancient Egyptian papyrus glorifying the beauty of the Nile says:

The ruler of the fishes, the leader of the birds,
Creating barley, creating emmer,
He brings feasts to the temples.
If he slows down, all breathing stops
And all people grow pale,
Sacrifices to gods are destroyed,
And millions of people perish....
When he rises, the earth rejoices
And everything living is filled with joy,
The teeth begin to laugh....
Bringing bread, abundant in food,
Creating all beauty....

This hymn to the Nile written in the period of the Middle Kingdom treats beauty as a product of life and the source of its continuation and its boons. Egyptians believed that beauty was life. The hymn to Aton, the Sun King, says,

You give life to the hearts by your
Beauty, which is life.

In antiquity, man's approach to the world was still quite uncomplicated; the aesthetic and the practical were not completely divorced, and therefore every relationship of man with the world can be considered aesthetic.
Classical Greek aesthetics was part of an undivided body of knowledge. Individual sciences had not yet formed independent branches of the single tree of human knowledge. Every characteristic of the universe had grains of aesthetic appreciation. The very idea of the world was essentially aesthetic. The first natural philosophers considered the aesthetic and the cosmological as one: the beautiful was a universal quality of beauty, the universal harmony and beauty of cosmos (the word means the universe, the world, adornment, apparel, beauty, order, harmony; it is no chance that the word cosmetics is derived from the same root).
Natural philosophers maintained that the world and its beauty were objective reality, and the idea has won many adherents among theorists in later ages. The Pythagoreans regarded the world as a well-organised system, "the whole heaven ... is ... a musical scale and a number". The interpretation of the very essence of the universe as resting on the combination of these two elements lies at the roots of the theoretical tradition of "measuring harmony by algebra", which has eventually led to modern structural methods used in the study of art.
Developing the problem of acoustics in music, the Pythagoreans for the first time ever implemented the idea of a mathematical approach to beauty. They discovered the dependence of the musical intervals on certain arithmetic ratios of lengths of string: at the same tension, 2:1 giving the octave, 3:2 the fifth and 4:3 the fourth.
Beauty is harmonious, and harmony appears where there is inequality, the unity of diversity. In the presence of equality and absence of contradiction, harmony is unnecessary, but where the opposites are mixed in equal proportion, there is well-being and health. Musical harmony is a particular case of universal harmony, its expression through sound. Beauty is the measure of harmony and reality of existence, the measure of concord with cosmos.
The Pythagoreans developed the idea of the harmony of spheres. Planets were supposed to be surrounded by air and fastened to lucid spheres. The intervals between the spheres relate as the intervals of the tones in the octave. The motion of the planets produces sounds whose pitch depends on the speed of the motion. But human ear is unable to perceive the universal harmony of the spheres. This fantastical theory reflects the naive and cheerful idea of the Universe as a gloriously sounding orchestra.
In the opinion of Heraclitus, harmony was not a static balance but motion and dynamics. In his teaching, the central and most powerful element is fire. He compared the life and destiny of all living beings to the flame which consumes everything and turns it into ashes thus making birth possible again, after which death will follow once more.
The beauty of life is the beauty of struggle, the beauty of perpetual death and perpetual formation and resurrection from the ashes in a multitude of new forms. Beauty is the nature of fire woven from contradictions and straining into the future. Contradiction is the source of harmony and the condition of the existence of beauty: that which diverges comes together; the most perfect harmony emerges from opposition. Straining apart, the two points of the drawn bow or a lyre produce coordinated action. Heraclitus saw the
structure of the beautiful in the unity of conflicting opposites. The image of the bow was a theoretical model of the dialectical structure of harmony, historically very accurate: the bow was the forerunner and the first source of musical sound; all stringed instruments can be traced back to it.
For the first time in the history of aesthetics, Heraclitus discussed perception of beauty which, in his opinion, can be understood not through calculation or abstract thinking but through contemplation.
How can one measure fire, that all-consuming element, which is never the same? According to Heraclitus, to grasp the essence of fire, i.e. beauty, the thinking and contemplating individual has to possess a highly delicate instrument – the ability to think dialectically, which is the quality of thought that likens it to fire. For Heraclitus, to understand the essence of life and the nature of beauty means to reveal the controversial character of existence, birth and death, struggle and harmony.
Empedocles, another Greek materialist, believed that the world was made up of four protoelements: fire, air, earth, and water. They are united by love, which produces harmony and beauty, and divided by animosity, which is the source of chaos and ugliness. The teaching of Empedocles is marked by a unity of cosmogony and aesthetics.
It also contains the idea of evolutionism. The initial period in the development of the living nature was the time when only disjointed organs existed – arms without shoulders, eyes without a face, etc.
Later, these organs began to combine, accidentally and chaotically. The epoch of monsters was in, whole beings who were devoid of harmony and beauty in the combination of their parts. Only the contemporary epoch has produced animals and people who were sensibly and harmoniously organised. The evolution of living nature was for Empedocles the aesthetic evolution of the world, the process of the emergence of beauty and harmony.
Democritus advanced the theory of measure and developed the doctrine of hedonism: life should be enjoyable; one should enjoy only that which is beautiful, and in moderation. Not any pleasure should be pursued but only that which has at least an element of the beautiful. To him who has become immoderate the most pleasant may become most unpleasant.
Plato's dialogues contain a comprehensive and profound analysis of the beautiful. In the Greater Hippias, the question he poses is not What is beautiful?' but 'What is beauty?' The interlocutors are Hippias and Socrates; the latter tries to show the former how to reach the correct solution to a problem.
Socrates: "What is beauty?" Hippias: "I assure you, Socrates, if I must speak the truth, that a beautiful maiden is a beauty." This reply clarifies the point of departure in the analysis of the beautiful: its concrete quality. However, beauty is not only concrete and individual but is a characteristic of whole categories of phenomena.
Socrates stresses this idea saying, "Is not a beautiful mare a beauty ... but what about a beautiful lyre ... what about a beautiful pot? ... Is not that a beauty?" He gradually brings Hippias to the conclusion that the beautiful is something individual inherent in a multitude, something concrete which is nevertheless universal. To Hippias, it seems awkward to mention a beautiful woman and a beautiful pot in a single breath, but Socrates draws his attention to the relativity of the beautiful: to determine the measure of the object's beauty, a comparison with other objects is necessary. Socrates quotes Heraclitus, who said, "...the most beautiful of apes is ugly compared with the human race.... The wisest of men, when compared to a god, will appear but an ape in wisdom and beauty and all else".
In an attempt to find absolute beauty, Hippias suggests that this may be a property of gold, "For I suppose we all know that if anything has gold added to it, it will appear beautiful when so adorned even though it appeared obly before." But Socrates objects that Phidias has carved a beautiful sculpture of Athena not out of gold but of ivory. Moreover, to supplement a clay pot, a fig spoon is beautiful while a gold one is ugly. But in that case the beautiful is the humdrum routine, the normal, the common, the age-old and sanctified by tradition? Hippias says, "Then I maintain that always, everywhere, and for every man it is most beautiful to be rich, healthy, honoured by the Greeks, to reach old age and, after burying his parents nobly, himself to be borne to the tomb with solemn ceremony by his own children." Socrates however notes that this does not embrace the exceptional: heroes born fron immortal gods or the gods themselves.
Finally, a definition is worked out: the beautiful is that which is beneficial, useful and has power to produce something good. But Socrates reminds his opponent, however, that there are things which are quite useful for perpetrating an evil deed, and these are far removed from the beautiful. Is not then the beautiful that which is useful for a good deed, i.e. the useful itself? This supposition, introducing a utilitarian element into the definition of beauty, is also rejected. "It looks as if the view which a little while ago we thought the finest result of our discussions, the view that the beneficial, and the useful, and the power to produce something good, is beautiful, is in fact wrong...."1 A new, sensualist approach to the beautiful emerges, which explains the significance of the latter as a source of pleasure: "Beauty is the pleasant which comes through the senses of hearing and sight", while the designation "beautiful" is denied "to that which is pleasant according to the other senses, that is, the senses which have to do with food, and drink, and sexual intercourse, and all such things". Further on, Plato draws a line between physical and spiritual beauty; using Socrates as his mouthpiece, he also poses very reasonable questions: what about brilliant actions and laws? Hearing and vision have nothing to do with the pleasure one derives from these.
Further still, he tries to blend the utilitarian, the sensualist and the ethical definitions: "beauty is that which is both useful and powerful for some good purpose". But Plato makes a distinction between the good and the beautiful. His Socrates says, "Then most certainly beauty is not good nor the good beautiful".
The dispute between Hippias and Socrates does not evolve a final definition of beauty, which does not at all mean that it was theoretically fruitless. In the course of it, a comprehensive and dialectical analysis of the beautiful is made, while the final result of the dispute is summed up by its last phrase: "All that is beautiful is difficult."
In Philebus, Plato says, "I do not mean by beauty of form such beauty as that of animals or pictures, which the many would suppose to be my meaning; but... understand me to mean straight lines and circles, and the plane or solid figures which are formed out of them by turning-lathes and rulers and measures of angles; for these I affirm to be not only relatively beautiful, like other things, but they are eternally and absolutely beautiful, and they have peculiar pleasures..." Plato looks for beauty in solids, in the quality of being proportionate. In the final analysis, Plato's beauty is a specific aesthetic idea man can grasp only in a state of obsession or inspiration, through the memories the immortal soul has of the time when it has not yet inhabited the mortal body but existed in the world of ideas.
Noting the beauty of a concrete object, Plato listens as it were to that which emerges in the soul of man in the presence of beauty. He was the first to treat the beautiful as the product of man's aesthetic and spiritual relation to the object and not as an innate property of objects. This interpretation of the beautiful points to its suprasensual nature. However, Plato sees the source of this quality of the beautiful not in social life or history but in the primacy of the spiritual.
The most valuable part of Plato's doctrine is its detailed characteristic of beauty and the idea that aesthetic experience has features which are all its own: contemplation of the beautiful is the source of a number of unique "pleasures".
Hegel noted in his lectures on the history of philosophy that the very trend of Plato's discussion concerning the beautiful and its qualities shows that Plato gave a dialectical interpretation of the beautiful as the product of man's spiritual, specifically human approach to the world.
As distinct from Plato, Aristotle regarded the beautiful not as an objective idea but as an objective property of things, saying that "beauty is a matter of size and order". "To be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also to be of a certain definite magnitude." Here, Aristotle gives a structural characteristic of beauty stressing the size, proportions and order as the elements of the beautiful. Developing the Pythagorean tradition, Aristotle maintained that these properties can be assessed with the help of mathematics.
Aristotle suggested the principle of comparability of man and a beautiful object, saying that beauty is "impossible either 1) in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or 2) in a creature of vast size ...as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the beholder".
According to Aristotle, the beautiful should be neither too small nor too large. This seemingly naive idea is nevertheless that of a genius. Beauty becomes a measure, and the measure of all things is man. It is in comparison with man that the beautiful object should not be out of proportion.
Aristotle's doctrine of beauty theoretically corresponded to the humanitarian character of the art of classical antiquity. As distinct from a pyramid, the Parthenon is neither too small nor too large; it is small enough not to overwhelm man but large enough to convey the greatness of the Athenians who created it.
In the Middle Ages, the dominating doctrine was that of the divine origin of beauty (Thomas Aquinas, Tertullian, Francis of Assisi): animating the inert matter, god renders it aesthetic. Sensual beauty was looked upon as sinful; enjoyment of it was prohibited. The humanists of the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare) glorified the beauty of nature and the joy it gives man. They regarded art as a mirror used by the artist to reflect nature. The aestheticians of classicism (Boileau) reduced the beautiful to the refined; not all flowering and luxuriant nature was considered beautiful but only the trimmed and groomed part of it, like, for instance, Versailles. Classicists insisted that the sublime object of art was beauty in social life seen as goodness and state expediency.
French Enlighteners (Voltaire, Diderot et al) expanded the realm of the beautiful, once more granting it to life in all its manifestations. For them, beauty was an innate property of nature itself, like weight, colour, size, etc.
The German classical aesthetics introduced a number of dialectical ideas into the notion of the nature of the beautiful. Kant said that beauty was an object of a disinterested relationship. Hegel's approach was the historic one. He saw the beautiful as a stage in the evolution of the Universal Spirit (the Absolute Idea). In the course of it, the Spirit is harmoniously united with the material form; the idea finds a complete and adequate expression in the form, and that is beautiful. Such state was attained by the Absolute Idea in the art of classical antiquity (Ancient Greece). For Hegel, beauty lies in the realm of art.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the Russian aesthetician, maintained that beauty is life as it should be. His doctrine treats beauty materialistically. At the same time, it bears a stamp of anthropologism: Chernyshevsky thought that beauty in nature anticipated man.
In the late 19th-early 20th century, aesthetics in Western Europe was dominated by subjective idealism. It maintained that in the process of aesthetic perception man spiritualises the aesthetically neutral world, making it emanate beauty. Only man can introduce beauty into nature, which, taken by itself, lies beyond the realm of the beautiful or the ugly and is outside aesthetics, morals or logic.
Nature is beautiful only if aesthetic perception has made it so. From the aesthetic point of view, it is rich only in that which has been lent to it by art.

Paradigms of Theoretical Perception of Beauty

Each of the numerous concepts of the beautiful advanced in the history of aesthetics leans towards one of the theoretical models which have been discussed above. In other words, they can all be reduced to five paradigms.
Paradigm 1 (Plato, Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Hegel): beauty is a manifestation of god (or the Absolute Idea) in concrete objects and phenomena.
Paradigm 2: life is aesthetically neutral, the source of its beauty is in the soul of man (Ch. Lalo, Theodor Lipps, E. Meumann), it emerges when man lends or loans (Jean Paul), emotionally penetrates (B. Croce), or projects (N. Hartmann) his inner wealth to life; beauty is a result of the intentional (purposeful, active, conscious) perception of the object by the subject (phenomenologists).
Paradigm 3 (Socrates, Aristotle, Chernyshevsky): beauty appears when the various aspects of life are brought into correlation with man as the measure of beauty or with his practical needs, ideals and ideas of life as it should be.
Paradigm 4 (French materialists): beauty is the natural property of objects and phenomena.
Paradigm 5 (Soviet aestheticians): beauty is a quality of objectively existing phenomena with their natural properties which have been involved by social production and human activity into the sphere of man's interests and acquired a positive value for man as a race. They have been spiritualised and humanised by labour becoming the realm of freedom, i.e. the field where man is the master of life. Let us analyse the principal theoretical ideas of this fundamentally new approach to the problem of the beautiful.
We perceive the harmony and symmetry in the world around us as beauty. They lie, as it were, in the very foundation of matter.
Particles and antiparticles in the microcosm form the basis of the structure of an atom. Antiparticles are mirror reflections of particles. This essential property of matter – the harmony and symmetry of its structure – is repeated in a leaf of a tree, the build of various animals, and the human face. This essential property of the world, its material
nature, the overall connection and interaction of its phenomena, comprises the natural basis of the beautiful. With the infinite variety and multitude of phenomena, they are correlated and linked with each other by millions of ties, and are adjusted to each other, and can therefore become the objects of study. Exploring the world, man is naturally guided by its properties and the laws governing it. The interaction of nature and society, which is the result of labour and production, creates beauty as the world's objective quality, as the value of its objects for humanity and as a sphere where man has mastered the world and is therefore free.
The first objects of man's aesthetic relation to the world were the tools he used. Man derived pleasure from a well-made tool whose shape suited its function and purpose. Labour itself became a source of aesthetic enjoyment which aroused man's pride, joy and amazement at his own capacity for creating. As human activities grew more varied, the range of aesthetic values also expanded. Man began to aesthetically appreciate nature, himself and the society he lived in. That which for a tribe was useful, desirable and important, that which symbolised power and wealth was considered beautiful. Labour is older than art. Utilitarian views were the first to be acquired by man, and it is only later that he came to form aesthetic views on the basis of utilitarian ones. It is labour that bears the stamp of the aesthetic. In contrast to the activities of animals, it is concerned with creative transformation of life. Animals create unconsciously, by force of biological necessity and according to the needs of the species they belong to. Building a dam, a beaver has no preconceived plan of construction but acts instinctively. Man creates consciously, first drawing up a plan and finally arriving at the result which corresponds to his intention. Using the natural properties of phenomena for his purpose he establishes himself in the world through material and spiritual values produced by labour.
Karl Marx wrote, "An animal forms objects only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty."2
What is then the measure which is inherent in the object? It is not the natural laws which govern the development of matter organised by the presence of an inner purpose, for nature does not have a purpose. Carving La petite fee des eaux out of marble, Rodin did not act according to the logical idea which marble as a natural material possesses. No purposeful evolution of marble outside society and human activity would be able to engender either a purpose or measure that would allow a block of marble to become a sculpture in the hands of man. Rodin created his piece by "cutting off everything superfluous", which was a search for precisely that inner measure of the natural material in its correlation to the social needs of man. That block of marble could not have been used to make a teaspoon or an ingot mould – in either case, the use of the natural material would not have corresponded to its measure.
Measure is the result of the discovery by man, in the course of his exploration of the world, of the object's inner potential for serving man and satisfying his needs.

The Beautiful as a Positive Universal Human Value

Only those natural properties of an object engender beauty which are correlated in the process of social production to man's needs and are determined by the level of social development. Beauty is objective, for it depends not on its perception by an individual but on the actual value of the object for man. This aesthetic quality is social, for it is determined by production which involves the whole world into the field of human activity and puts every object into a certain relation to man. Thus beauty is the broadest positive social significance of a phenomenon, its positive value for the human race.
The beautiful does imply that an object has been "spiritualised", but not by the Absolute Idea or an individual, but by society and its productive activity. Social production has made nature"the non-organic body of man" and left a stamp of the personality of modern man on the objects of the outside world; production has turned this world into a real embodiment of man's essential powers. Social production has embraced all the visible world; at present, all its phenomena have either been transformed by man's activity which has turned them into the "second nature", or are being explored, or form the arsenal of man's future and more impressive power. No phenomena exist which are of no consequence to society and are not correlated to society. This is where the "spirituality" of phenomena and their aesthetic qualities stem from. To make the world the kingdom of beauty means to spiritualise and humanise it.
Finally, the beautiful is the realm of man's freedom. It is phenomena which have been cognised and explored. They contain nothing frightening or repulsive: man has mastered them and is therefore free where his relationship with them is concerned. It should be stressed that here, no personal rule over the phenomenon is implied but only man's rule as a race, the rule determined by the development of social production.
Beauty in the life of society is manifested in political and social freedom; in nature – in man's free mastery over the object (the ability to understand, master, create, make); and in art or sports in possessing effortless skill.
Beauty is a product of history. The phenomena reflecting the mastery of man over the material world which is maximal at a given level of social development are considered beautiful. Free mastery over the powers of nature and the knowledge how to make their laws and properties serve a practical purpose give man high aesthetic pleasure.
The sum total of the definitions given above is necessary and sufficient for a characteristic of the nature and essence of the beautiful as a key category of the aesthetics. It shows that there is no difference of principle between the aesthetic properties of natural and of social phenomena. In both cases, these properties have an objective-material, social substance.
However, beauty in the life of society is the most complicated and delicate matter. Here, "the crystal lattice" of a beautiful structure is formed not by atoms but by people and their lives. It is no accident that the most elevated realm of aesthetic cognition of the world according to the laws of the beautiful is art as a social phenomenon. It remakes the experience of life into beauty. No matter whether the artist is concerned with suffering, heroic deeds, ugliness or comic occurrences, his work is a source of aesthetic delight.
Soren A. Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, gave a graphic characteristic of a poet: a deeply unhappy individual whose heart is filled with suffering but whose lips are formed in such a way that when a groan escapes them it turns into beautiful music. This image is a new interpretation, as it were, of an old Greek legend.
The sculptor Perilles presented a tyrant with a gigantic bronze ox. A man sentenced to death was placed inside it, and a fire was laid under the belly of the monster. The ox's throat and mouth were made in such a way that the agonised yells and groans of the dying man were transformed into melodious sounds. By the way, one of the first to die in this fashion was the sculptor himself.
The Greeks had a gift of turning everything into beauty. Their myths are full of it. Even the Gods' revenge on Niobe is beautiful. However horrible the occasion is, it assumes a beautiful form: the arrows which killed her children are sunrays.
Beauty in art is perfection of form, depth of meaning, profound knowledge of the subject, and the consequence of the artistic idea conveyed by the work.
An accurate and impassive copying of life does not produce beauty. The latter can be attained in art only by a creative approach to life."You are not a lowly copyist but a poet! " wrote Honore de Balzac."Otherwise the sculptor would have done his job by making a plaster cast of a woman. Very well, try then to make a plaster cast of the arm of the woman you love and place it before yourself – you will see an arm of a corpse without the slightest resemblance to the original, and will have to turn to a sculptor who, without producing an exact replica, will reproduce motion and life. We must grasp the spirit, the meaning, the characteristic shape of objects and beings."
Embodying the ideal of beauty, art awakens man's creative potential, fosters his ability to find the inner measure of objects and correlate their properties with his social needs, and teaches him to appreciate beauty and create according to its laws.

1 This distinction between the useful and the beautiful is made by Socrates – a character in Plato's dialogue. In real life Socrates maintained that the useful is beautiful for that for which it is useful.
2 Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", in: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol.3, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, p.277.