Inês Morais


[Versão em português / Portuguese translation]


The problem of beauty is vital to all those concerned with art. Even in an era in which a lot of the art that is produced seems divorced from the notion of beauty, the public and, with the public, common sense, is still sensitive to the beautiful creations of artists.

The problem with beauty is well summed up by Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just [1]:

beauty is sometimes disparaged because it gives rise to material cupidity and possessiveness; but here, too, we may come to feel we are simply encountering an imperfect instance of an otherwise positive outcome. If someone wishes all the Gallé vases of the world to sit on his own windowsills, it is just a miseducated version of the typically generous-hearted impulse. (p. 7)

On page 57 of the same book: “Beauty is, at the very least, innocent of the charges against it, and it may even be the case that far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, it instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries.” This urge for justice happens because, according to Scarry, beauty invites “generous attention”: “human perception, far from poisoning each object it turns toward, is instead fully capable of being benign” (p. 59). Those who delight in beauty engage in disinterested contemplation and naturally desire that everyone else enjoys the same fortune: “people seem to intuit that their own self-interest is served by distant people’s having the benefit of beauty” (p. 123). It is almost impossible not to be evangelical about beauty and yet misunderstanding (and, sometimes, abuse) persists against those who risk talking seriously about it. We recall Socrates’s words at the end of Plato’s dialogue Greater Hippias: “I think now I appreciate the true meaning of the proverb, ‘All that is beautiful is difficult’” (304e) [2].

In 1896, George Santayana, in The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of an Aesthetic Theory [3], had already expressed the thought that without the “sympathetic emotion” that is required to contemplate beauty, reality is not fully grasped: “Reality is more fluid and elusive than reason, and has, as it were, more dimensions than are known even to the latest geometry. Hence the understanding, when not suffused with some glow of sympathetic emotion or some touch of mysticism, gives but a dry, crude image of the world” (p. 154). In the last page of the book, beauty is given its merited moral dignity: “If perfection is, as it should be, the ultimate justification of being, we may understand the ground of the moral dignity of beauty. Beauty is a pledge of the possible conformity between the soul and nature, and consequently a ground of faith in the supremacy of the good” (p. 164).

David Konstan’s book addresses the linguistic roots of the issues around the notion of beauty and offers an impressive analysis and history of the “idea” of beauty, from Ancient Greece to the present day. Konstan’s erudition is striking: with knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, he offers a remarkable examination of the uses of the equivalent words for beauty in classical literature, the Bible, and beyond. His mastering of classical literature (particularly Greek literature), with detailed mentions of occurrences of words in myriads of difficult works, is most extraordinary. For example, in Chapter 2 he provides a notable palette of authors and works where the Greek candidate words for beauty, kalós and kállos, are used, from Homer to Sappho, and also to less well-known authors such as Simonides, Ibycus, Solon, Theognis, and several others. The tragedies of Euripides are “particularly illuminating” (p. 56) for the distinction between the uses of the adjective kalós and the noun kállos: in Hippolytus, kalós means ‘honour’ and ‘virtue,’ whereas in Hecuba, kállos is related to something ‘pretty’ and ‘desirable.’ His conclusion, regarding the modern suspicion that the Greeks did not possess a word for beauty, is that “there is an ancient Greek word for beauty, clear and unambiguous, although it does not correspond to all the uses of the modern English term” (p. 61).

The connection between beauty and goodness is also addressed in the book, especially with regards to Plato and the Neoplatonists: “According to Plato, we seek the good because the good is beautiful” (p. 122). Beauty is therefore presented as an excellence, a virtue, and this is, to my mind, what most matters for the case of art, that is in the foreground when we think about beauty. In fact, following Elaine Scarry and Alexander Nehamas, Konstan presents the desire to possess works of art (the “proprietary urge,” p. 166) as somehow (the choice of the word is mine, not his) aberrant: art lovers usually enjoy that art and its beauty be available to all, not to an exclusive group of people. Their interest is characteristically generous.

Aristotle’s conception of beauty in the Rhetoric, that Konstan addresses, is particularly enlightening: kalón is “[t]hat which is both desirable for its own sake and praiseworthy, or that which pleases because it is good” (1366a, pp. 33-34). ‘Beautiful’ is what is fine, as we would say in English today (pp. 32-33). The “moral flavo[u]r” (p. 43) of the beauty in question can be seen in the use of kalós in the Homeric poems: “Kalós most often (but not invariably) refers to the visual appearance of things and seems to attach particularly to things that emit a kind of radiance” (p. 42). It is, I would say, this radiant beauty that artists seek to create and replicate and art lovers wish to see.

Konstan’s book is a positive addition to the extensive bibliography on beauty. Well-informed, it provides the reader with copious erudition and numerous avenues for exploring the controversial aspects of a topic that is fascinating for all those concerned with aesthetics and art.

There is one minor disappointment that I need to mention. It concerns Thomas Aquinas’s definition of beauty, which (unfortunately to me at least) is referred to only in a footnote on page 232 (n. 18), with reference to a book on Hegel by William Desmond (1986). Aquinas puts forward a very interesting definition of beauty in the Summa Theologiae: id cuius ipsa apprehensio placet (“that of which the very apprehension is pleasant”), a definition which invites elaboration. Konstan quotes instead another definition (from Desmond’s book) that, if it is a genuine quote from Aquinas, is far less important, and far less interesting, than the one just quoted: id quod visum placet (“that which, when seen, is pleasant”). My disappointment is that Aquinas’s notion of beauty, to my mind one of the most instructive and thought-provoking ones available, is not given more attention in such a thorough book on this topic. 

Back to art, which is what interests mostly those caring about the defence and creation of beauty, for others to see and be inspired by it, in a virtuous cycle. John Keats’s line “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” is not only beautiful, but also true. Things of beauty (now thinking only of works of art) are desirable, yes, for the good of humankind, so they merit protection, promotion, and appreciation. This sort of things of beauty can change our minds and, therefore, the world, for the better. Beautiful creations move us all, unite us all, and this unity (in diversity) is a pleasure to see.


[1] Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
[2] Plato. The Collected Dialogues including the Letters. E. Hamilton & H. Cairns (eds.). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
[3] Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of an Aesthetic Theory. 1896. New York: Dover Publications, 1955.