Beauty: Subjective or Objective?

The pursuit of physical attraction may depend on numbers, like the Greeks said, or on emotions.

In my last couple of columns, I suggested that beauty matters: not only do we associate all kinds of positive qualities with attractive people, we even treat them better than we do less attractive people.

But just saying that doesn’t do much to answer the question of what actually makes a person attractive.

In other words, what are the qualities that make a person physically attractive? To answer this question we need to go back in time.

Getty ImagesVenus de Milo
Beauty: Subjective or Objective?

In the sixth century B.C, the philosophers of ancient Greece began to search for a single law that would define the world as an ordered whole. One school of thought, led by Pythagoras, believed that everything—cosmology, the natural sciences, philosophy, even beauty— was simply a matter of proportion. Asked “what is wisest?” Pythagoras and his school are said to have replied, “Number.”

For the Pythagoreans, there was a simple mathematical order behind the confusion of the observable world. More than this, they believed that the key to understanding what made something or someone beautiful was likewise a matter of mathematical proportion. It’s not surprising then that Pythagoras and his followers are sometimes said to be the first proponents of an objective view of beauty. According to this view, if we want to understand what makes a building, a piece of music, even a particular face beautiful, we have to start with its mathematical proportions.

Here’s a very simple example: the Parthenon in Greece is often said to be magnificent building, but what exactly makes it beautiful? Well, some studies suggest that its proportions approximate what’s known as the "golden ratio." The Parthenon’s façade, the intervals between its columns, and elements of its interior are all said to have been designed according to this ideal mathematical ratio. So, what makes the Parthenon beautiful? The fact that it incorporates the right proportions in its architectural design.

MORE: Why is Beauty Valued?

And here’s the point of this history lesson: those who agree with Pythagoras sometimes argue that what makes a person attractive is, you guessed it, the fact that they have the right mathematical "proportions." How we define those proportions may vary (and in my next column I’ll discuss some recent suggestions), but the basic claim is that it should be possible to define beauty in pure, mathematical terms.

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