The 20th century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand stands out to us as someone belonging to an earlier age, one in which scholars did not hedge their bets through textual ambiguities, and lovers of art made no apology for their discriminating taste.
HIldebrand’s two-volume set Aesthetics showcases the author as someone who unified the scholar and the lover into a cohesive personality. You can glimpse the greatness of soul in the man by reading the account of the book’s creation from his wife Alice in the forward of the book. Alice writes:
“It was February 1970. We had just returned from California where we had been lecturing. Upon entering our apartment in New Rochelle, he said to me suddenly, ‘The time has come for me to write a work on beauty.’ He started the very next day.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes tells that there is no end to the making of books, and certainly books on beauty are a dime a dozen. Hildebrand’s work stands out because it brings the classical tradition into conversation with the phenomenological tradition. As James K. A. Smith (editor-and-chief of Image Journal) observes in his back cover blurb, this work makes phenomenology accessible and is therefore “philosophy for the sake of the world.”
On the Need for Beauty
As you might guess, Hildebrand is deeply invested in helping us see that beauty is objective, external, and disinterested. The first two points are fairly straightforward within the classical tradition, but I am especially intrigued by Hildebrand’s treatment of disinterestedness. He is not a Platonist and so he argues that the virtues do not exist independently of the moral agent. Courage exists inasmuch as it substantiated by human intention and action. On the other hand, beauty exists independently of us and our experiences. He thus writes that
“the beautiful can attract us and make us happy, but its importance is inherently and specifically anti-pragmatic. It penetrates very little into the realm of our own interests, whether into the practical conduct of our lives, our relationships and conflicts with other people, or the way we earn our daily bread.”
Throughout both volumes, HIldebrand is deeply concerned with how beauty enriches our lives but again and again he reminds us that beauty exists for its own sake, and that we do not measure beauty so much as beauty measures us.
In addition to vindicating beauty as a disinterested and objective reality that nevertheless provides us with personal happiness, Hildebrand helps us to recognize that it also “possesses a great significance for the development of personality, especially in a moral sense.” Like Kierkegaard, Hildebrand is critical of the aesthete who seeks to consume beauty as a commodity and who privileges subjective gratification over any meaningful receptivity to the objective weight of beauty. Similarly, he critiques the superficial person who affirms and maybe even celebrates the “greater and deeper things” but who “does not wish to move out into the depths that would make possible an appropriate response to these things.” Both the aesthete and the superficial person are generally “content with witticism” and are “unwilling to get involved” with anything that will demand that they risk their very self.
This description reminded me of Tomas in Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is precisely this state of uninvolvement (principally his rejection of authentic relationships) that leads Tomas to the hellish state of utter existential boredom. In direct contrast to this, we have the vision of the soul in C.S. Lewis’ aptly titled work The Weight of Glory. It is in this work that Lewis reminds us that we have never met a mere mortal, and in so saying, provides us with a recognition of that weight of being that is proper to our nature. HIldebrand thus argues that whereas aestheticism “undermines the personality and robs it of its ultimate seriousness,” beauty is ennobling. He writes that “contact with an environment permeated by beauty” is a “real protection against impurity, baseness, every kind of letting oneself go, brutality, and untruthfulness.” And he adds that this contact with beauty “has also the positive effect of raising us up...it opens our hearts, inviting us to transcendence.” As an aside, while I don’t have room to consider it here, this section made me wonder about the role of beauty in education and in the liturgy.
A Complicated Philosophy
Hildebrand studied phenomenology under Husserl, and you can see the kind of Heideggerian existentialism that informs the work, particularly as pertains to our human experience of space in Hildebrand’s section on architecture (more on that in a bit.) While I am partial to phenomenology myself, I do think Hildebrand’s project lacks a proper foundation in metaphysics. He speaks, for example, of works of art being “a curious quasi-substance of a spiritual kind” which strikes me as rather nonsensical statement. This lack in metaphysics becomes even clearer as Hildebrand seeks to distance himself from the Thomists. He writes that “Beauty presents itself unambiguously as a property of an object - more specifically, as a value.” And while I first read that to mean that beauty is ontological in the classical understanding, he later writes that “metaphysical beauty is not in the least a transcendental property of being in the sense that this term possesses in Thomistic philosophy.”
Instead, Hildebrand posits that beauty is a value - albeit one that is objective, disinterested, and that contains epistemic and ethical dimensions. He further attempts to distinguish between ontological values and qualitative values. This move allows him to say that the antithesis to an ontological value is simply absence whereas qualitative values like “the good” or “the beautiful” have existing antithetical devalues like “evil” and “ugly.” This view of evil gets shockingly close to Manichaeism, particularly when he doubles down on this view, writing that “the assertion that moral evil is non-being is a completely artificial construction” and adding that “moral evil, hatred, rebellion against God, envy, or resentment can never be interpreted as a lack of being.” To read Hildebrand charitably, one could say that he is not positing that evil has substantive being, but then if evil is in the same category as beauty, we are forced to say that beauty has no substantive being either but simply exists phenomenologically in a similar manner to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand that regulates the market.”
If Hildebrand’s departure from the Thomists complicates his metaphysics, it introduces even more problems for his epistemology. Hildebrand seeks to explain the way that visible (material) beauty is linked to spiritual (non material) beauty through analogy that reveals essence through intuition. He writes that “unlike the relationships of indication, meaning, and symbol, it is a relationship which exists intuitively, independently of all official declarations and conventions, and is grounded in the very essence.” But my question is, “quid est?” What exactly is the is (essence) that is revealed? He seeks to differentiate the analogical from the merely symbolic, but without a belief in “analogia entis” (analogy of being) that grounds qualitative essences in ontology not phenomenon, I’m not convinced that his account is sufficient. Thankfully, it is more than possible to sideline these metaphysical difficulties in order to enjoy the rich phenomenological insight Hildebrand offers in his concrete explorations of various art forms in the second volume of the set. It is to a brief consideration of these concrete explorations that I now turn.
On Art and Architecture
In his first volume, Hildebrand maintained that “the role of beauty for human happiness is not restricted to those moments in which one is consciously looking at beautiful things.” And he argues that prior to Modernity, beauty more deeply saturated the world, elevating our experience of daily life. He writes that “in the past when a person worked with his hands, bought and sold in the market, and celebrated feasts, he was surrounded by the poetry of these existential situations. This poetry nourished him.” It is with this vision in mind that I want to look at just two art forms treated in the second volume: aritcheture as the structure of the external world, and literature as the structure of an inner world.
In his forward to the second volume, Sir Roger Scruton observes that “buildings are our fundamental way of becoming part of the objective world, and they surround us in everything that we do.” He also notes that “space conceived in that way is both an object of experience and a subject of shaping and molding.” Hildebrand helps us understand that our experience of the built world is fundamental to how we orient ourselves, spatially and temporally and psychologically and spiritually. He writes that “human space..is self contained. It separates us from the vast, unlimited space in nature. It encompasses us and protects us in a special way.” And drawing from his phenomenological training, he also points out that “the feeling of space in this human space (which is different from the absolute space of geometry) is an experience all its own.” In other words, architecture provides a primary way by which we experience our Heideggerian “being-ness” and “being-there-ness” as something ordered rather than chaotic. This is a significant point because it means that all other forms of personal orientation (whether spiritual or sexual, cultural or national) require this baseline external structure. As Hildebrand notes, “all the arts, including literature and music, presuppose the human space that is created by architecture.”
Given the preeminence of architecture, the central question posed by Hildebrand is “whether a space is structured in such a way that it provides an adequate setting for the life of a human being as a spiritual person?” Naturally, Hildebrand is no fan of Modernism, but his critique is resonant with Marx’s critique of capitalism, namely that we have become alienated from the material world, alienated from our labor, and finally alienated from ourselves. Hildebrand describes the process this way: “as the practical life of the human being was robbed of its organic character and was mechanized and thereby depersonalized, so too the poetry of practical life was lost.” He further elaborates: “the practical requirements in residential homes became a prosaic matter that was radically detached from the affective and intellectual life we lead as persons. Railway stations, factories, airports, filling stations, and department stores were built to serve technical, neutral purposes.” In sum, he notes that “the building itself becomes an object of technology” rather than an underlying structure that can enrich and enoble our human experience of ordered space.
The “anonymous” and “barren” buildings of today represent zeitgeist of the industrialized world which Hildebrand argues is a substantiated lie that “contradicts the true, genuine, valid rhythm of human life.” He provocatively argues that this kind of architecture does more harm than any other works in other kinds of art like literature and music because “we can ignore the latter...we need not accept their summons to get involved with them, to hear them, to read them, etc. They do not poison our daily, real life in the same way.” Given this staunch claim, he emphatically declares that “we must fight against this zeitgeist [of modern architecture] and redeem man from this curse.” Hildebrand continues this section by examining types of buildings, various styles, the role of interior decoration, and the like, but always with the existential urgency present in this desire to overcome the poisons that affect human space.
From Art to Our Inner Life
Just as architecture is about ordering physical space, literature is about ordering the inner space that constitutes us as human subjects. As Hildebrand aptly notes, “only through language are our internal life and public life in common possible.” To relate this discussion to the previous one, we might say that words are to inner space what roads are to the external one.
Hildebrand argues that a “literary work possesses the ontological character of a mental structure.” He writes that when we read a novel, “a world of events, figures, ideas, and deeds is presented to our mind.” If the novel is well written and if we are properly attentive to it, (unlike the superficial person or the aesthete) we are deeply involved and perhaps also transformed by our encounter with the novel’s world. Hilderbrand writes stirringly of this experience: “ this [inner] world captivates us, thrills us, moves us deeply; takes hold of us, and enriches us through its quality. It enchants us through its depth, vitality, and truthfulness. It convinces us through its inherent logic and elevates us by the beauty of its poetic content.” Hildebrand also draws an interesting contrast between literature and poetry. He writes that "a play addresses the public, and the same is true to a lesser extent of a novel, a short story, and an epic; but a poem has a definitely intimate character.” He explains that poems “give their content and their atmosphere in a particularly immediate manner." In other words, even within the same broad category of language as a medium through which we experience interiority, HIldebrand is careful to show that our phenomenological experience of and relation to language differs depending on the form through which we encounter it. One wonders if we could infer principles like bad poetry is more directly harmful to us because we can experience it more immediately, while a bad novel might be more deeply harmful to us in giving us a distorted view of the world? On a more positive note, HIldebrand’s insight in this section should motivate us to seek out more encounters with good literature and poetry. After all, if our built world can nourish us, how much more nourishing is the poetry which infuses our thinking, or the literature that stirs our imagination and helps us to envision better ways of living?
As long as this review is, I have here only scratched the surface of what can be said. Hildebrand also provides us with an extensive consideration of sculpture, painting, and music. And woven throughout these considerations are passages that inspire or challenge the reader by turns. In his foreword to volume one, Dana Gioia (former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) writes that “there is no more important issue in our culture - sacred or secular - than the restoration of beauty.” Hildebrand’s writings are an invaluable aid to this restoration and it is my hope that many more readers will have the chance to grapple with his ideas.
Note Bene: I am very grateful to the Hildebrand Project for publishing this English translation of Hildebrand’s work. The Hildebrand Project exists to advance the rich tradition of Christian personalism, especially as developed by thinkers like Hildebrand and St. Pope John Paul II.