Throughout the history of Western Culture, philosophers have always associated the good, the beautiful, and the true. These elements are known as transcendentals of philosophy. Furthermore, these transcendentals lead to associating beauty and morality.
This association has roots dating back to Ancient Greek philosophers such as Parmenides, Socrates (as recorded by Plato), and Aristotle. Running through Medieval philosophy, as seen in the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, reflected in the aesthetic musings of Kant, and even influencing later philosophers.
In fact, four branches of Western philosophy have developed to explore these fields.
Ethics explores issues of the good, the moral, and the just.
Aesthetics examines the meaning of the beautiful.
Epistemology and logic dissect various aspects of the truth.
Together, each of these branches contributes to our over-all metaphysical understanding: what it means to be a being in the world.
Parmenides – the father of metaphysics
The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides is considered the “Father of Metaphysics” for being the first Western philosopher to explore that which constitutes and coincides with being itself. His considerations laid the groundwork for the development of Western philosophy.
Socrates, and his disciple, Plato, held with the prevailing wisdom that happiness, beauty, was the telos of morality, the end to which all virtue was directed.
To live a virtuous life, a moral life, was to attain the highest state of well-being.
In his Symposium, Plato defines beauty in terms of the order. It is an objective principle external to both the object and the perceiver. Simply put, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.
Similarly, morality itself, virtue-based ethics, is objective. It is based on objective notions of what is good and what is just. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates demonstrates that it is always in one’s best interest to be just. Therefore, by extension, also striving to live the life of beauty.
Aristotle, while breaking with Platonic thoughts on many fronts, maintained the connection between beauty and morality.
His famous “golden mean” or “golden ratio” is applied to understandings of both beauty and morality. Both his Eudemian and Nichomachean Ethics speak of virtues as being lived in balance. An excess or deficiency of an otherwise virtuous behavior becomes a vice. An excess of courage, for example, is foolhardiness, whereas a deficiency of courage is cowardice.
Similarly, beauty is considered a physical manifestation of this golden mean. A beautiful object is an object in which all of its proportions are mathematically symmetrical. Thus, beauty and morality are measured by the same standard, albeit in different ways.
Influence of Plato and Aristotle to the concept of morality and beauty
The influences of both Plato and Aristotle continued to be felt throughout the Middle Ages. Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire, and continuing through to the dawn of the Renaissance.
Throughout this period, the Roman Catholic Church dominated philosophical thought.
One of the most notable philosophers of this period was St. Thomas Aquinas. In his Magnus opus, the Summa Theologica, Aquinas describes beauty as “that which gives pleasure when seen.” Therefore, according to his thinking, beauty serves as a function of cognition, as it takes discernment to recognize what does or does not give pleasure.
The function of moral discernment is similar to the function of aesthetic discernment, in this view. Aquinas builds his definitions on Aristotelian grounds, although he puts a distinctly Christian spin on his exploration of morality vis-a-vis sin.
Kant solidified the connection between beauty and judgment
During the Age of Enlightenment, German philosopher Immanuel Kant further solidified the connection between beauty and moral judgment in his 1790 Critique of Judgement. Aesthetics is again linked with teleology.
Beauty is considered in terms of absolute standards, although it is separated from cognitive judgments that seek to ascribe moral valence to even a beautiful object. Similarly, in his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant had previously established morality as being determined in absolute terms. It is clear to those who study Kant’s works that his absolutist methodology links both beauty and morality in a de facto association.
Modern-day phenomenologists, notably the “Father of Hermenuetics” Hans-Georg Gadamer, have continued to draw associations between beauty and morality in their works. The association of all that is moral, beautiful, and true, continues to be held as a standard for what it means to live a “good life.”
So, as a conclusion, we can see that morality and beauty have been going hand-in-hand since ancient Greek times. As a result, association so deeply entrenched in our philosophy that it continues to be revisited at every period of our philosophical development.