Review by Mac Stewart
The Roman Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) spent his childhood immersed in the highest artistic culture. His father, Adolf, was one of the most celebrated German sculptors of his day, and at his villa in Florence (where Dietrich was raised amid the beauties of the Renaissance) he regularly hosted some of the leading artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Although this early formation in high aesthetics came without any explicit reference to the person of Christ (Dietrich’s parents were not religious), after his conversion in 1914 Hildebrand would reflect for most of his life on the philosophical and theological importance of beauty. The fruit of this reflection was the two-volume Aesthetics, an “explosion of insights” (according to his widow) committed to paper at the end of his life.
One of Hildebrand’s purposes is to distinguish between a number of different kinds of beauty. The first distinction is between “metaphysical beauty,” on the one hand, and the beauty of the visible and the audible on the other. Metaphysical beauty is “the reflection, the irradiation, the fragrance” of a moral value (Aesthetics I, p. 84). Alcibiades said of Socrates that he was the most beautiful of men, even though he was physically unattractive, and Hildebrand takes this example as illustrating a kind of beauty that is ontologically prior to the beauty of the visible and the audible.
This kind of beauty is the “noble face” of virtue, and yet by describing this beauty as the “irradiation” or “fragrance” of other values, Hildebrand is emphasizing that what is lovable about a virtuous person is not beauty as such (not “beauty for beauty’s sake”), but rather the particular moral virtues (purity, humility, truthfulness) that ground the person’s metaphysical attractiveness. We can grasp the beauty only when we’ve grasped the moral value.
By contrast, the beauty of the visible and the audible — Hildebrand’s second kind of beauty — is not a gratuitous irradiation of a prior and more central value, but rather adheres directly to the material objects because of their form and color; their aesthetic value is their value as visible and audible entities. Following Thomas Aquinas, the beautiful in this sense is that which “pleases when seen” (p. 111).
But Hildebrand makes a further distinction. It is true that what grounds the beauty of visible and audible things is the pleasing arrangement of light, colors, space (for visible things), or tone, pitch, volume (for audible things). But Hildebrand calls this “beauty of the first degree” (or “first power”). The central problem of all of aesthetics, though, is that these visible and audible things have “the ability to be the bearer not only of beauty that appeals to the senses, but also of a sublime spiritual beauty” (p. 152).
When we experience “the beauty of the Gulf of Naples, or the view from the Capitol to the Campagna and the Sabine Hills, or San Marco in Venice, or Beethoven’s Quartet opus 59 no. 1,” we are experiencing a “beauty of the second degree” (or “second power”), a beauty at a higher ontological level than the particular material parts that go to make up the whole, and yet a beauty that still inheres in the material objects. It was this idea of a beauty of the second power that Hildebrand took to be his chief contribution to the field of aesthetics.
Hildebrand often shows in this book his indebtedness to the phenomenology of his philosophical mentors. He begins his analysis of the beautiful from what is “immediately given,” wanting to avoid taking his “starting point in theories” (p. 266). But this often leaves the reader wishing he would make a bit more of a sustained argument that the things he identifies as resonant with “sublime spiritual beauty” are in fact objectively so.
He regularly suggests that anyone who reflects “free of prejudice” on “Handel’s Largo or Bach’s Air, or … the dome of the cathedral in Florence” will have “no difficulty in perceiving” the beauty that inheres in them independently of how anyone reacts to them (p. 57). I do not deny that such things are beautiful; but I would have liked Hildebrand to say a little more than, “Duh, just look at it!” He is not afraid, as the book’s preface says, to violate with a vengeance Horace’s adage of de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste there can be no disputes”).
Hildebrand’s examples of beauty sometimes betray a touch of aesthetic elitism, such as his dismissal of jazz’s potential for profound spiritual depth (p. 242). Yet another of his works, Liturgy and Personality, might point toward a response on his behalf. Hildebrand’s purpose in this earlier book is to highlight the power of liturgy for the forming of personality, but he stresses that this sanctifying effect of the liturgy is not its primary purpose but only a providential byproduct.
The primary purpose of the liturgy is to praise and glorify God in fitting response to his gifts, and therefore we become personalities by way of the liturgy not when we make personal improvement our aim, but rather when we seek God’s glory (p. 2). This provides a helpful qualification to his analysis of beauty, for Hildebrand remarks that anyone seeking beauty (even in the liturgy) simply “in order to attain spiritual culture” or aesthetic refinement will merely be confirmed in egotism. Those, on the other hand, who truly breathe the spirit of the liturgy become true persons, not simply because it is pretty, but because it ushers them into the creaturely response of adoration due to God.