Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? Is something beautiful simply because someone finds it subjectively satisfying?
Daring to defend good taste, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977) explained how objectivity is part of every experience of genuine beauty.
In the first volume of his Aesthetics (published in English translation in 2016 by the Hildebrand Project), he devotes more than 60 pages in Chapter 1 to defending the objectivity of beauty.
Hildebrand offers a passionate and original analysis of art and various aesthetic questions. He contemplates beauty in nature, in human life, and in every kind of artwork.
The range of his discussion is impressive, especially in light of the seriousness and detail with which he treats his topics. His pages brim with unexpected insights into things most people do not think twice about, such as the beauty of a blue sky.
Fleeing Nazi persecution, Hildebrand ended up living for the last decades of his life in New York teaching philosophy at Fordham University.
For Hildebrand, art was a gift of the Holy Spirit
But Hildebrand was “one of the last great representatives of the high culture of Germany, one for whom art was not merely a topic of philosophical enquiry, but also a gift of the Holy Spirit,” writes Sir Roger Scruton in his foreword to Volume II of Hildebrand’s Aesthetics in its forthcoming English translation.
Volume I takes some devoted study, but if you can find your way into it, you won’t be able to put it down. This summer, I returned to the volume after hearing a lecture on it in Austria by the scholar Bogna J. Gladden-Obidzińska.
Her exposition of the Aesthetics opened me up to better appreciating the book’s many profound insights. I devoted the bulk of my summer to carefully studying the first volume, more than 450 pages in English translation.
It was an exhilarating experience, as well as a reminder that a good teacher can help you appreciate important things in a book that you failed to notice in your first encounter.
Sir Roger’s introduction to Volume II also serves admirably to explain the significance of Hildebrand’s achievement. The Aesthetics is “a work that deserves to be widely known, not only by philosophers, but by the reading public generally,” writes Scruton.
Hildebrand offers an intelligent and cultivated survey of the arts
Hildebrand offers his “intelligent and cultivated survey of the arts” in a delightfully “easy-going style,” observes Scruton. We should prize this. A philosopher like Kant is famous for his treatment of aesthetic judgment, but still makes “little mention of art.”
As Kant’s great German successor Hegel realized, the arts are “indispensable expressions of the human spirit, providing knowledge and insight that cannot be obtained from scientific experiment or intellectual argument,” writes Scruton, and therefore the arts merit a “full exploration,” which only detailed individual analyses can supply.
Hildebrand assembles his painstaking discussions from a lifetime devoted to thinking about beauty. He was primed from birth for the task, growing up in Florence, Italy, as the son of a famous sculptor.
He makes a key distinction in Volume I about what he calls the two “powers” of beauty. This distinction allows his sophisticated yet accessible survey of the arts to embrace a keen discernment about objectivity in beauty.
The first power is exhibited in the sensory experience of beauty that affords “an unreflective sensory delight,” such as when we rejoice in the beauty of “flowers, landscapes, the symmetries and harmonies of animals and plants.” These experiences are absolutely nothing to disdain, but they remain nonetheless “merely sensory” delights, notes Scruton.
The second power of beauty achieves something further
But the second power of beauty achieves something further. When “a spiritual idea is expressed in artistic form,” we apprehend “deeper truths” along with the sensory experience. In these experiences, “beauty and truth seem to blend indistinguishably, as they do in the plays of Shakespeare or the Lieder of Schubert,” remarks Scruton.
By making this distinction, Hildebrand does not intend to separate such exalted experiences of beauty from everyday life. Rather, beauty “penetrates human life in its entirety, so that the idea of beauty enters our practical activity at every point,” affirms Scruton; therefore, as Hildebrand realizes, “we will always be motivated in our everyday activities by a fundamental need for harmony and an aversion to ugliness.”
Beauty matters, for everyone. Hildebrand’s studies of beauty pursue “a course that is uniquely his,” observes Scruton, but every one of us can benefit from reading the Aesthetics for its sparkling meditations on architecture, painting, music, and – in Volume II’s most significant contribution – how the problem of evil in the world is addressed by beauty in art.