Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was born in on October 12, 1889—125 years ago this year. He came of age in a converted 16th-century monastery situated on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. His father Adolf was an accomplished sculptor, who with his wife Irene raised five girls and a son. In Dietrich’s words:
I grew up in these glorious surroundings, sheltered in the superabundant love of my mother, and of my five sisters, all rarely gifted personalities. Everything was pervaded by the genius of my father who was, not only great as an artist, but also as a personality. My youth was one of the happiest one can imagine.
Dietrich was deeply influenced by exposure to the arts—sculpture, literature, music—as a child. To my mind, no other philosopher has been as fortunate as von Hildebrand to be surrounded by such a “superabundance” of love and beauty as a child. Dietrich would grow up to become, in the words of Pope Benedict, a Catholic philosopher “most prominent among the figures of our time.”
In his Aesthetics, von Hildebrand proposes that “love responds to the overall beauty of the person who is loved.” He considers the apprehension of beauty to be an essential element of our human experience of love. When asked why we love, many lovers are left speechless, finding words inadequate for expressing such a profound emotion. In love, one does not respond to a particular stirring of a singular feature of the beloved—Cleopatra’s nose, Marie Antoinette’s breast—but a totality of the features of the other that transcends the visible and audible. Our apprehension of the metaphysical beauty of the other “contains the reflection of all moral and spiritual values,” von Hildebrand writes. “How significant it is when Tristan, in his vision in the third act of Tristan und Isolde, cries out the ultimate word that sums up everything, the deepest word of love: ‘Isolde, how beautiful you are!’”
Von Hildebrand expresses the irreducibility of beauty found in the response of love in The Nature of Love: “The inability to indicate the reasons for loving someone” does not point to a lack of love for the beloved. The ineffability of our love is not a sign of an anemic, unfounded, or irrational love of another. Quite the contrary: Our love is as complex as the human person. To attempt to reduce it to a mere quality or set of qualities is a disservice to the “essentially indescribable, inexhaustible” topic of love. Pointing out this misguided vision of the human person—which von Hildebrand repeatedly refers to as a “seeing from without”—he writes: “How little attention is paid to the person’s being, his kindness, generosity, humility, patience?”
In my recent piece on love and marriage, I point to this phenomenon of the irreducibility and ineffability of our love for another person. If we attempt to attribute our love for another to, say, the beloved’s agility with words, once we find another person with a more developed poetic art, are we then justified in “leveling up” in our love? Is it inevitable for us to fall in love with the better wordsmith insofar as our love is founded upon our penchant for writers? Of course not. This would betray the value-response theme of our love of the other as a unique person. Should we seek to “upgrade” our love in the manner of “marrying up,” we are really interpreting our love through the lens of a consumer browsing a catalogue for the optimal kitchen appliance, and not through the lens of a human person confronted with a world of sensuous, loving, dignified souls open to the possibility of love. In The Art of Living, von Hildebrand writes:
We are led to believe that success in life lies primarily in our being able to bring credentials, and yet, who would dream of saying to another person: ‘I love you because you are the most efficient secretary I have met in my life,’ or because ‘you are the teacher who best organizes the material.’ Love is not concerned with a person’s accomplishments, it is a response to a person’s being: This is why a typical word of love is to say: I love you, because you are as you are.
The emphasis is placed not on attaining a vision of a person’s external character, but a deeper sight of a person’s innermost self, on the essentials that are “invisible to the eye.” Love is recognizing the beloved for himself: his intrinsic worth, his radical otherness. Personal love loves “because you are as you are.”
When words fail us, “we should not doubt,” von Hildebrand writes, “that love is a value-response simply because when asked why we love someone we cannot indicate the value qualities that motivate our love.” We do not love an amalgamation of a person’s characteristics; we love the person as a primary subject, irreducible to aesthetic particulars. We are not moved by his face alone; we do not respond to her eyes. The apprehension of beauty in love is a response to the whole person. While it is clear that the particulars of the beloved may in fact be aesthetically pleasing, when we speak of “metaphysical beauty,” we are speaking of a certain form of beauty that is beyond the visible and audible, in von Hildebrand’s words. This is the type of beauty that one cannot perceive with the eyes or ears—we can be blind to the world, and still “see” the metaphysical beauty of another. In the words of John F. Crosby:
The more you come to know and love some person, the less you find yourself able to express what it is that you know and love. You find something in the other that is unutterable, ineffable, unspeakable.
There is a philosophic line in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic children’s novel The Little Prince befitting a discussion of this phenomenon of seeing “from within”: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Josef Pieper reinforces the philosophical importance of proper vision in his work Only the Lover Sings, writing that “to see things is the first step toward the primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of a man as a spiritual being.” A genuine recognition of metaphysical beauty serves as a gateway to the realm of values that are beyond that which is invisible to the naked eye. If we learn to attune our vision, we can become perceptive to the often undisclosed beauty of others. When we become more perceptive, cultivating a deeper vision that enables us to see “rightly with the heart,” we become more open to love.
When speaking of the influence of love on beauty, I am not suggesting that love colors one’s vision of the beloved in a haze of unreality, or that love blinds us to the faults of the other. Love’s rose-colored spectacles do not lead to idealization in love. It is through the eyes of love that spiritual beauty is revealed. The metaphysical beauty—the beauty of the overall person—is beheld in a value-response to the beloved through the meeting of faces. “A certain way of disclosing a person’s intimate being and the beauty that the person takes on by loving goes far beyond all of this,” von Hildebrand writes. “It is a deeper and more intimate level that arises in the one who loves when he discloses himself to the beloved person.” Roger Scruton refers to this seeing “from within” as a meeting of faces: “When I confront another person face to face,” Scruton writes, “I am not confronting a physical part of him.” In the same vein, lovers are in communion, “the deepest level of communication,” Thomas Merton writes. Communion is “beyond the level of words,” “beyond speech; beyond concept.”
Our culture has become increasingly shallow in our vision. “Man’s ability to see is in decline,” Pieper writes. “We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” The Internet allows us to access a vast amount of data—words, images, sounds—but it has weakened our ability to read deeply and thoroughly. This has undoubtedly affected our interest in and ability to “see rightly”: to look beyond the qualities of the visible and audible in order to uncover deeper data that is not accessible with a cursory glance or swipe across our screen. Think of how technological our love lives have become. Texting, emailing, Facebook chatting, G-chatting; these are all forms of communication, but how often do we find ourselves in a face-to-face conversation with another, participating in a Mertonian communion of two souls? Love at first sight will become, if it hasn’t already, Facebook at first sight.
In Plato’s Symposium, we recall Diotima’s speech on the ascent of love that moves from the physical or temporal desire for the beauty of the other person to the metaphysical or eternal desire for Beauty in its transcendent form. Similarly, we are at first moved by the visible, sensible aesthetic beauty of the beloved apprehended by our sight “from without.” But our love moves us beyond the physical dimension toward the depth-dimension of beauty as we begin to apprehend the beloved “from within.” We begin to discover the metaphysical beauty of the beloved when our desire moves us to seek the inner source of beauty, the beauty found in Scruton’s communion of faces and in Merton’s communion of souls. It is not the superficial face we speak of here: It’s the face of Martin Buber’s I-Thou recognition of the other, subject facing subject. It is “the awareness of participation in an ontological or religious reality,” Merton writes, “in the mystery of being, of human love, of redemptive mystery, of contemplative truth.” Only in apprehending the other face-to-face can the mystery of the other be revealed to us:
“The human person is a mystery;” von Hildebrand writes, “love is a mystery; beauty is a mystery … these mysteries escape the kind of rational explanation which is to be found in logic or mathematics.”
Mysteries—God, love, and human persons—can never be known fully. We approach mysteries with a seeing “from within,” from the heart— in charity, humility, and reverence. They are subjects to be known gradually and loved continually, and if we approach them as such, these mysteries will never bore our restless hearts.