When you look at a painting or a flower, how do you decide whether it’s beautiful or not? You might just like the way something looks and the way it makes you feel. But philosophers in Ancient Greece would not settle for that answer. For them, you would need a logical explanation about whether a thing was indeed beautiful.
Greek philosophers were known for bringing logic and rational thinking to phenomena that were previously explained by mythology and Gods. For example, people throughout history have wondered how the universe began. Many ancient civilizations (and a few modern ones) have myths or stories about godlike forces that created the universe. The early Ancient Greeks believed that a goddess named Gaia appeared one day and created the earth, followed by more gods who created darkness, air, love, and day. The Ancient Greek philosophers, however, took a very different approach to the beginning of the universe: instead of looking to the gods, they explained the universe using the laws of motion, elements, and mathematics. They observed the natural world around them and used their scientific knowledge to answer questions about the universe.
Ancient Greek philosophers applied this same rational thinking to questions of beauty. They believed that if an object was beautiful, then we needed to explain why it was beautiful using reason and logic. But what sort of rational laws can you apply to beauty? Isn’t beauty just a feeling, or an opinion that every person is entitled to have?
For Ancient Greek philosophers, beauty was a mathematical principle. You could basically use the laws of math, like proportion, symmetry, and size, to determine if something was beautiful. As Aristotle wrote, “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (Metaphysics). According to him, a beautiful figure was one that was well-sized, well-ordered, and proportional.
So what does this idea of beauty actually look like? Let’s look at an example: the Discobolos or Discus-thrower by Myron:
This statue is proportional, meaning that the various parts of the body are all in the right size relative to each other. That means that the head, for example, should fit into the overall height of the body seven and a half times. The statue is symmetrical, because the length of the arms and legs on the left size are the same length as the arms and legs on the right size. It’s also geometrically perfect in the way it shows all the various angles of the human body as it prepares to throw a disk (note the bent legs and arm). To an Ancient Greek, this statue is beautiful because it follows all the mathematical rules of what an ideal human form should look like.
If you think the Ancient Greeks were crazy for thinking of beauty in terms of angles and proportion, you should know that their notion of beauty as a mathematical principle went on to influence centuries of art. Roughly one thousand years after Myron’s Discus-thrower, a famous Renaissance painter named Leonardo Da Vinci sketched out a perfect human figure using geometric figures and proportion:
Notice how the figure, known as Vitruvian Man, fits into the circle and the square. If you had a ruler, you could also see that the head was exactly one-tenth of the man’s total height. For Da Vinci as for the Ancient Greeks, beauty could be explained through the rational laws of math.
So next time you’re wondering about what makes an object beautiful, just think of it as an Ancient Greek: beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but rather in our rational mind.
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