Seventeen Philosophical Quotes on Beauty (With References)

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This page contains a collection of philosophical quotes on beauty, arranged in roughly chronological order. These quotes are all genuine and details about the author, book, chapter number, and translation are included where applicable. Quotes that begin with a section of bold text are my personal favourites. Without further ado, here are seventeen philosophical quotes on beauty:

Diotima: The true order of going, or being led, to the things of love is to begin with the beautiful things on earth and to mount upwards for the sake of the other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and then to beautiful thoughts until he comes to understand absolute beauty, and know what the essence of beauty is.

– Plato, Symposium, 211BC

We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things- though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally- still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind; so that if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure. And so he will see even the real gaping jaws of wild beasts with no less pleasure than those which painters and sculptors show by imitation; and in an old woman and an old man he will be able to see a certain maturity and comeliness; and the attractive loveliness of young persons he will be able to look on with chaste eyes; and many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but to him only who has become truly familiar with nature and her works.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 13, trans. George Long

As for bodily beauty, . . . it is likely that we know little about what beauty is in nature and in general, since to our own human beauty we give so many different forms. If there was any natural prescription for it, we should recognize it in common, like the heat of fire. We imagine its forms to suit our fancy.

– Michel de Montaigne, Essays, II, 12, Apology for Raymond Sebond, trans. Donald Frame

I cannot say often enough how much I consider beauty a powerful and advantageous quality. Socrates called it ‘a short tyranny,” and Plato, “the privilege of nature.” We have no quality that surpasses it in credit. It holds the first place in human relations; it presents itself before the rest, seduces and presupposes our judgement with great authority and wondrous impression. . . To one who asked [Aristotle] why people frequented beautiful persons longer and more often, he said: “That question is proper only for a blind man.” Most philosophers, and the greatest, paid for their schooling, and acquired wisdom, by the mediation and favor of their beauty.

Not only in the men who serve me, but also in animals, I consider it as within two fingers’ breath of goodness.

– Michel de Montaigne, Essays, II, 12, Of Physiognomy, trans. Donald Frame

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

– Bacon, Francis, Of Beauty

Ask a toad what beauty is . . . He will answer you that it is his toad wife with two great round eyes issuing from her little head, a wide, flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back. Interrogate a Guinea negro, for him beauty is a black oily skin, deep-set eyes, a flat nose. Interrogate the devil; he will tell you that beauty is a pair of horns, four claws and a tail. Consult, lastly, the philosophers, they will answer you with gibberish: they have to have something conforming to the arch-type of beauty in essence, to the to kalon.

– Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary: Beauty, trans. Peter Gay

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.

– David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a method of representing it by and entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.

– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard, p. 55

Now I say: the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good.

– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard, p. 250

It is true that in common life we are in the habit of speaking of beautiful colour, a beautiful sky, a beautiful river, and, moreover, of beautiful flowers, beautiful animals, and, above all, of beautiful human beings. We will not just now enter into the controversy how far such objects can justly have the attribute of beauty ascribed to them, or how far, speaking generally, natural beauty ought to be recognized as existing besides artistic beauty. We may, however, begin at once by asserting that artistic beauty stands higher than nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born—born again, that is—of the mind; and by as much as the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances, by so much the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature.

– Hegel, Philosophy of Fine Art, I, trans. Bernard Bosanquet

For as beauty itself, it has not absolute, it has only a relative existence. It depends as much upon the nature of the being in whom the sentiment is produced as on the nature of the being by whom it is produced.

– Jeremy Bentham, First Principles Preparatory to Constitutional Code

We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Considerations by the Way

With respect to the belief that organic beings have been created beautiful for the delight of man—a belief which it has been pronounced is subversive of my whole theory—I may first remark that the sense of beauty obviously depends on the nature of the mind, irrespective of any real quality in the admired object; and that the idea of what is beautiful, is not innate or unalterable. We see this, for instance, in the men of different races admiring an entirely different standard of beauty in their women. If beautiful objects had been created solely for man’s gratification, it ought to be shown that before man appeared there was less beauty on the face of the earth than since he came on the stage. . . .

On the other hand, I willingly admit that a great number of male animals, as all our most gorgeous birds, some fishes, reptiles, and mammals, and a host of magnificently coloured butterflies, have been rendered beautiful for beauty’s sake. But this has been effected through sexual selection, that is, by the more beautiful males having been continually preferred by the females, and not for the delight of man. So it is with the music of birds. We may infer from all this that a nearly similar taste for beautiful colours and for musical sounds runs through a large part of the animal kingdom. When the female is as beautifully coloured as the male, which is not rarely the case with birds and butterflies, the cause apparently lies in the colours acquired through sexual selection having been transmitted to both sexes, instead of to the males alone. How the sense of beauty in its simplest form—that is, the reception of a peculiar kind of pleasure from certain colours, forms and sounds—was first developed in the mind of man and of the lower animals, is a very obscure subject. The same sort of difficulty is presented if we enquire how it is that certain flavours and odours give pleasure, and others displeasure. Habit in all these cases appears to have come to a certain extent into play; but there must be some fundamental cause in the constitution of the nervous system in each species.

– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, VI

What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.

– Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata, V

‘That is Beautiful’, Kant proclaims, ‘which gives us disinterested pleasure’. Disinterested! . . . When our aestheticians tirelessly rehearse, in support of Kant’s view, that the spell of beauty enables us to view even nude female statues ‘disinterestedly’ we may be allowed to laugh a little at their expense. The experiences of artists in this delicate matter are rather more ‘interesting’. . .

– Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, III, 6, trans. Kaufmann and Hollingdale

‘No one,’ says Prof. Sidgwick, ‘would consider it rational to aim at the production of beauty in external nature, apart from any possible contemplation of it by human beings.’ Well, I may say at once, that I, for one, do consider this rational; and let us see if I cannot get any one to agree with me. Consider what this admission really means. It entitles us to put the following case. Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to increase the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting[p. 84] to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. Such a pair of worlds we are entitled to compare: they fall within Prof. Sidgwick’s meaning, and the comparison is highly relevant to it. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist, than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.

– G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 50

The enjoyment of beauty produces a particular, mildly intoxicating kind of sensation. There is no very evident use in beauty; the necessity of it for cultural purposes is not apparent, and yet civilization could not do without it. The science of aesthetics investigates the conditions in which things are regarded as beautiful; it can give no explanation of the nature or origin of beauty: as usual, its lack of results is concealed under a flood of resounding and meaningless words.

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, II, trans. James Strachey

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