Beauty: In the eye of the beholder or is there something more to it?
This unit invites high school students to explore the meaning of “beauty”.
- Plato’s Symposium (available in many editions)
- Crispin Sartwell’s Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004)
- Puzzles About Art-an Aesthetics Casebook, by Battin, Fisher, Moore, and Silvers (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1989)
When it comes to discussions about what is beauty we go fairly quickly to the adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This relativist stance is reassuring in that it signals beauty can mean many different things and to different people. Our taste, whatever it might be, is thereby legitimizing and arguing about beauty in any manifestation (nature, art, human beings) becomes unnecessary and impossible. But is that too glib a response and too fast a move? What are we saying when we label anything as beautiful? That is, what are the markers that generate the response to something as beautiful?
- Certain qualities in the object? (clarity, order, balance?)
- Do beautiful objects elicit certain emotions or thoughts?
- Do they confirm certain cultural icons or ideal standards? (But how do those emerge or are chosen?)
- Are the personal and idiosyncratic associations enough to warrant the attribution?
Much as Socrates pushed his listeners to get beyond examples or personal likes, we find ourselves challenged to explain what about an object earns it the designation of being “beautiful,” even if we apply the term to wildly different examples.
We also tend to limit beauty to human faces or art, and possibly nature. But what do those all have in common?
These three units could each run for a week or a year, depending upon time or interest. It might serve as an excellent unifying theme to share throughout an entire elementary/middle school. The suggestions below can be adapted to specific situations and time constraints so please use what is helpful and adapt to fit your own community.
I. The Symposium: as drama with discussion
Read the Symposium by Plato out loud in class, assigning parts along with a narrator. Encourage costumes and a dramatic recitation. In preparation for this activity, offer an overview of the storyline as well as an account of culture in 5th BCE century Athens. OR focus on the final speech of Socrates and his account of learning about beauty and love from Diotima.
- Do we love the beautiful? Could we love the ugly? Why or why not?
- How many different kinds of beauty can you think of?
- What do we mean in the following uses of ‘love;”
- I love pizza.
- I love my mom.
- I love animals.
- I love math.
- I love it when you laugh.
- I love sports.
- I love The Walking Dead.
How many other types of examples can you offer?
- Socrates suggests that love and beauty are appreciated in their most pure way at the highest level. What do you think this means and does it make sense today?
II. Sartwell’s Six Names for Beauty
Sartwell examines six different words used to connote beauty from a world-wide cultural perspective. In each case he reflects how that particular conceptual notion of beauty emerges in a wide range of phenomenon, from art to perfume to rugs. Have the students break into teams and assign one chapter, one word for beauty to each team. (You can have them choose as well.) Have them work through their chapter and prepare a report with images and examples from some of the selections to share with the class.
- How does each word capture a special nuance for beauty?
- Are some concepts and their accompanying examples problematic or troublesome? If yes, which ones? If not, why?
- Are there any common themes that unit all these different words/concepts for beauty into one?
- Bring in something that you think is beautiful (or a representation of it) and present it to the class, associating it with one or more of the names.
III. Puzzles About Art-an Aesthetics
This textbook offers an overview and summary of particular problems in aesthetics but is particularly rich in examples. Each chapter ends with a set of cases for discussion. The chapter on Beauty offers ways to think about beauty as objective or subjective. You will find short accounts of historical and contemporary philosophers who have commented on the concept of beauty.
Activity and discussion
- Use examples from art, nature, objects in the room to discuss what makes something beautiful. Work on seeing if there are specific characteristics or criteria you are using.
- Is beauty simply “in the eye of the beholder?” Can anything be beautiful? What about:
Solicit other challenge examples and discuss.