The Value of Beauty
Philosophical aesthetics tends to bend immediately to a discussion of beauty in the arts. The initial volume of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics (translated into English for the first time in 2016) takes up a distinctive approach to the question of beauty. Instead of beginning with poetry, literature, or architecture, von Hildebrand argues for a metaphysics of beauty. Beauty pertains not only to experience of the arts but immerses men and women into a world of value, the gift of creation itself.
His prolegomena to aesthetic judgment, though often difficult for the philosophical novice, is important for those involved in sacred architecture to consider. Although the second volume (published in 2018) discusses architecture directly, the first volume of the Aesthetics inoculates the architect against the fallacies arising from hyper-Platonism, functionalism, and subjective aestheticism.
Hyper-Platonism treats beauty as reducible to ideas, detached from the sensible encounter with nature or a sculpture. Functionalism is focused exclusively on how the object is used, essentially bracketing the question of beauty at all. Aesthetics is, though, most focused on responding to the problem of subjective aestheticism.
In most twentieth-century philosophy, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The first chapter of Aesthetics lays out its major missteps. Namely, the belief that beauty cannot be determined objectively, but is related to the subjective perception or affections of the one who perceives that which is “beautiful.” Those of us familiar with the state of the liturgical arts, especially architecture, in the last fifty years will recognize many of these arguments.
Not so, cries von Hildebrand. The beautiful object is not merely a matter of perception, of the senses, reducible to the experience of the encounter. Instead, beauty exists as a metaphysical value, a value that transcends the physical order. Aesthetic values are “that which shines out in the beauty of moral value, the morally good, and the individual virtues as splendor, as fragrance, as an irradiation of the moral value.” We can recognize the irradiance of courage, truth, and purity.
But, there is beauty that is sensed, perceived by the subject. It is the beauty of the human face, of art and poetry, of architecture, and of nature itself. Von Hildebrand calls this the beauty of the second power. This beauty is a mystery, since that which is visible and audible manifests a beauty that both pleases one’s senses and initiates one into a deeper spiritual beauty. Color, form, material, and sound all contribute to this beauty of the second power.
This beauty of the second power is von Hildebrand’s unique contribution to the field of philosophical aesthetics. He takes the middle way between the Scylla of a hyper-Platonism and the Charybdis of a subjectivism that reduces beauty to the experience of the beholder. Not surprisingly, functionalism is not considered within the work insofar as it dismisses the existence of beauty at all.
The first volume slowly unwraps this argument through attention to the way that the senses recognize beauty, an account of a hierarchy of beauty, and a deeper analysis of the “spiritual” fullness made possible through the beauty of the second power.
Thisness and Beauty
Aesthetics begins to bear fruit as he turns his phenomenological gaze to nature and human life. A cloudless, blue sky over a sun-kissed ocean provides the viewer with an experience of joyfulness that points toward metaphysical values that can only be expressed through this precise landscape. The “thisness” of the landscape mediates an encounter with that which is beyond perception. The beauty of the second power makes possible an appreciation for the sensible world as the “incarnation” of these values.
The beauty of the second power is concerned with truth. It points one toward metaphysical values that are nonetheless instantiated in this human person or landscape. Beauty is not subjective but is instead the way that human beings come to experience the gift of truth. Although it’s objective, von Hildebrand notes, that doesn’t mean everyone sees it. It is often only the lover who can recognize beauty. One must take the time to gaze with wonder at what is given truly to see it.
There are areas in which one may quibble with von Hildebrand. He seems far too secure in arguing for a hierarchy of beautiful creatures, for example. The slug or hippo is determined to be “less” beautiful than the butterfly or the lion. Perhaps, this may be the case for the viewer who has not been attuned to the beauty of these creatures.
After all, one must recognize that the ultimate measure of beauty for the Christian is revealed in the kenotic, self-giving love of the Word made flesh. Von Hildebrand knows this, of course. Aesthetic values don’t replace the gift of the saint, who manifests moral values integral to the process of religious conversion. Perhaps there’s something in the beauty of a slug that may actually attune us to see an aspect of beauty that the lion does not possess, a beauty that is revealed in Christ alone.
Gift and Creation
For those studying or working in sacred architecture, von Hildebrand’s first volume of the Aesthetics is an important read. It bestows a philosophical framework whereby those designing sacred architecture may learn to distinguish between the beauty of the second power offered by the church itself, and the beauty of the Christian assembly gathered for worship.
The latter is beautiful, because of the gift of Christ. The former is beautiful because God has created a world that can manifest the beauty of Christ. Much of the confusion in post-conciliar architecture, as it turns out, is really a philosophical problem.
Timothy O’Malley is managing director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and the author of Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life and other books.