HUMS 211, Beauty and the Good Life

Meeting Time: 
W 9:25-11:15am

Course Description

How does beauty matter to who we aspire to be and how we desire to live together? Beauty has long been thought central to a good life; but beauty can be superficial, damaging, vain.

This course explores how ancient philosophers grappled with the challenges of beauty in a good life so that we can reflect on the ethical and political challenges of beauty today. We focus on the central place of beauty in ancient Greek ethics, asking among other questions: What is beauty, and is it good? What does it mean to pursue beauty and how are its pursuits shaped by culture? What is the role of love in a worthwhile life? Is beauty fake or does it show what is real? A dangerous ideal or a guide to happiness? How might appearing beautiful to others affect senses of self or shame and honor? How is beauty tied to norms of gender, class, and race—across different historical contexts?

We read several dialogues of Plato—including the Symposium and Phaedrus—with attention to their historical context before examining Aristotle, Stoics, and some modern legacies of and challenges to these ideas in virtue ethics, feminist aesthetics, and critical race theory. Other thinkers include Homer, Sappho, Smith, Shaftesbury, Dubois, de Beauvoir, Murdoch, Williams, and Paul Taylor. Course includes film screening and class trip to Yale Art Gallery.

Led by:

Professor Jonathan Fine is a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Humanities Program and the Department of Philosophy. His research and teaching focus on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, aesthetics, and ethics. He is currently working on a monograph, Virtues of Appearance: Beauty in and after Plato, and series of articles which examine how ancient Greek concepts can enrich our thinking about beauty in ethics and social agency. Interested in how material contexts animate philosophical values, He is also completing papers on Herder’s historicist aesthetics and the relation between autonomy and personal beautification. Before coming to Yale, Jonathan received his PhD from Columbia University, where he was named a GSAS Teaching Scholar and a Sidney Morgenbesser Fellow, and studied at McGill University in his native Canada. Beyond courses in the Humanities Program and Philosophy, Jonathan has had the privilege to teach skiing and tennis. He used to perform improv comedy onstage, now only in the classroom.


This course has not been previously offered. Testimonials are taken from student course evaluations of other courses by Professor Fine.

  • Professor Fine clearly organized each of the classes and created fruitful and meaningful discussions. Most of our discussions were student-led, though Professor Fine explained difficult concepts on the board when necessary (which was extremely helpful). (Directed Studies: Philosophy, Fall 2019)
  • I appreciated Professor Fine’s incisive essay feedback and his availability to discuss it during office hours and beyond. I found Professor Fine’s chalkboard diagrams and notes very useful. They helped me understand the structure of opaque and/or byzantine arguments. (Directed Studies: Philosophy, Fall 2019)