1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
A painting of Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy is the famous beauty of Greek mythology

Ancient concept

April 16, 2010

A prominent German literature scholar shares his thoughts on what it means to be beautiful, and why both the ugly and the good-looking can suffer due to their appearance.


Winfried Menninghaus has been hailed by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as one of the most outstanding thinkers of the modern age. He is a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin and a regular guest lecturer at Yale University in the USA.

In 2003, Menninghaus wrote "The Promise of Beauty” (“Das Versprechen der Schoenheit"), in which he seeks to unravel the secret of beauty on the basis of ancient Greek beliefs, the psychology of Sigmund Freud and Darwinian evolutionary theories.

DW-WORLD.DE: Winfried Menninghaus, is beauty a new or an old concept?

Winfried Menninghaus: I think it's a very old aesthetic concept. It can be found in most languages, in relation to the body and to artifacts. It is especially used in reference to sexual bodies - just think of Greek mythology. Helen of Troy is considered beautiful, along with certain other young beauties.

Your book "The Promise of Beauty" begins with the theme of desire for Adonis - the young man who is so handsome that even Aphrodite, the goddess of love, falls for him, despite the fact that he is a mortal. Is Adonis the first beautiful man in literature?

A painting of Adonis with goddess Aphrodite (known as Venus in ancient Rome)
Adonis was attractive to gods and mortals alikeImage: picture-alliance / akg

He is, in any case, one of the most well-known beautiful men of earlier times. In Greek literature, people's beauty is generally never described - it's only stated. Adonis, too, is only described as "kalos," which means "beautiful." Other figures are attributed just one distinguishing feature, such as "beautiful feet" or "golden hair." The literature provides one characteristic and the picture is completed in the reader's imagination.

Helen of Troy's characteristics include slim ankles and golden hair. Why these particular features?

Things that are relatively rare are emphasized. Beauty has to be something outstanding. A characteristic that is common to all people will never be classified as beautiful. If most women in a certain population are dark-haired, then blondness is beautiful.

How has the tradition of Helen of Troy, Adonis and other famously beautiful figures like Narcissus - who fell in love with his own beauty - continued in literature?

They remain the prototypes of beautiful bodies, but additional qualities have been attributed to them from the middle ages to modern times. Narcissus, for example, became an artist. The beautiful human characters, who in ancient times were quite dull in comparison to the gods, have been endowed with greater mental capacity.

The most beautiful people of ancient times died very young. Does this mean that only youth is beautiful?

The portrayal of Frankenstein in a 1931 film
Frankenstein took revenge on the society that rejected himImage: AP

The slogan "forever young" is the divine motto. When one doesn't have the divine privilege of looking like they're 23 forever, then it's good to die young, at the peak of one's beauty.

In modern literature, two characters of the 19th century are particularly interesting in respect to the theme of death and beauty. The first is Frankenstein. Wherever this ugly creature appears in Mary W. Shelley's book, everyone is overcome by surprise and fear. Frankenstein becomes a murderer because he is not accepted due to his appearance. The novel shows that in our world an ugly person is destined to become a criminal.

And you have the other extreme in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Dorian Gray becomes a murderer because he is so good-looking. When you put both texts together, you can learn a lot about the modern tragedy of beauty.

Do you think that a good-looking person gets further ahead in life than a less attractive person?

I don't believe that the influence of beauty on career success can be measured. Of course, there are these studies that claim that appearance is very important when applying for a job. But this changes very quickly once the first impression has subsided.

All the cosmetics advertising creates the impression that life satisfaction can be controlled by controlling one's appearance. I think this is a typical trap that many are caught in today.

With all the advertising that surrounds us, does literature still have any influence on our image of beauty?

In literature, beauty is a construct of the imagination. When the word "beautiful" appears there, this lack of details creates more scope for imagination than a color photograph.

There is a tendency today to define beauty in terms of physical measurements such as the body mass index. This is why grand notions of beauty no longer come from literature.

Is putting effort into one's appearance more important today than in the past?

An Indian bride painted with traditional make-up
Decoration of the body is a practice found in every cultureImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Extreme beautification practices have always existed in every culture. Already over 100,000 years ago people painted their bodies, and over 10,000 years ago there were ritual practices of shaping the head according to a cultural beauty standard. From the outset, people have taken advantage of existing techniques and resources to change their appearance. This is what distinguishes humans from animals.

However, beauty also plays an important role in the animal world. According to Darwinian theory, animals choose mates based on their appearance. Deer wouldn't have antlers today if animals with this decorative bodily feature hadn't been considered sexually more attractive in the past.

What's different about humans is that we are a cultural species and have techniques to change our appearance. People did this as soon as they were able to. But self-beautification was always a part of other, more important, judgment criteria. Today, I have the feeling that this is changing and that the tendency to judge appearance is gaining a greater significance than it had in the past.

Interview: Sarah Judith Hoffmann (ew)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A Ukrainian tank stuck in the mud

Ukraine counteroffensive: When will the mud season end?

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage