Late in life, the great German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand sat down to record his long reflections on aesthetics. Just as Immanuel Kant proceeded from his critique of reason and truth to that of moral will and goodness before concluding with his Third Critique (that of perception and judgment), so von Hildebrand’s book came not only at the end of his career but also rounded out and completed his philosophical vision. To that point, his work had been primarily dedicated to explaining how we, as persons, know the truth and will the good. Then, in a remarkably short span, he drafted these two volumes, books that play upon the ambiguity intrinsic to the neologism: “aesthetics.” Aesthetics may be a philosophy of perception, of how we receive and interpret phenomena; it may be, more narrowly, the philosophy of beauty; and, more narrowly still, the philosophy of the work of art, namely, the art of the beautiful.
Although these books are, strictly speaking, unfinished, von Hildebrand builds upon his whole career to give us a comprehensive account of aesthetics in all three of its acceptations. In volume I, he discusses the ways in which we perceive and judge beauty and other “aesthetic values,” while volume II is dedicated entirely to a philosophy of the work of art, one that gives us close investigations of each major art form, including architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music.
As the late Roger Scruton notes in his forward to volume II, von Hildebrand writes with such clarity, authority, and noble fluency, that one may at times forget one is reading a rather monumental philosophical treatise. One seems simply to have come upon the thorough and systematic notes of a connoisseur who has spent a lifetime contemplating works of art with precision. But, of course, one is reading both, for philosophy as von Hildebrand understands it really is nothing other than the reflections of a connoisseur of human experience. He writes not primarily with a dream of system-building, but of responding adequately to what we encounter in the phenomena of the world.
If the grace and specificity of observation tempt us to believe there is no system at all guiding his inquiry, however, we would be wrong. And indeed it is the subtle way in which von Hildebrand brings his philosophical system to completion in these volumes that accounts for the—very minor—difficulties the reader is likely to encounter in these pages and also for what I take to be their most enduring contribution. The books account for everything not holistically, as if all our experience of the arts must be reduced to a single commanding idea, but sensitively—that is, by observing what each and every phenomenon that comes to us says for and in itself. So precise is von Hildebrand in this sort of observation that one comes away from these volumes with a sense that all the arts have at last been seen as they really are: as their own personal, spiritual realities.
Von Hildebrand was one of the most distinguished of a generation of European philosophers who learned from the first phenomenologists, Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that the lay reader will most likely have encountered at least in a few of the gnomic pages of Martin Heidegger. At its most general, we may think of it as philosophy done in such a way that it sets aside the kinds of fundamental questions considered in the “methodical doubt” of Descartes and other modern philosophers, at least long enough to record what experience actually gives to us. Its currency and concern is first and foremost the phenomenon—the way in which reality presents itself to us.
Whereas Heidegger is perhaps best known for his critiques of the way in which human beings all too often hide from the authentic deliverances of experience, von Hildebrand may be best known for his careful study of the way in which we as persons—as embodied, spiritual beings receptive to and acting in the world—fulfill our personhood, our natures, by responding to what experience so richly and freely gives us. Heidegger has frequently been called a gnostic, for, in his work, it seems as if almost no one responds to the human condition authentically. Von Hildebrand was, in contrast, one of the leading Catholic minds of early twentieth-century Germany, and his work continues to be a cornerstone of the Christian personalism practiced by, among many, Pope John Paul II. In brief, he dared to think human beings might actually get things right now and again and live in a way pleasing to God.
In von Hildebrand’s account of things, human beings encounter the world in terms of being, and indeed we can perceive diverse instances of merely “neutral beings” in themselves. But experience also gives to us the perception of “value” and “disvalue.” A value is any reality or aspect of reality, that is important in itself, independent of our perceptions. As he portrays experience, it comes to us at once as saturated and yet oddly atomized, or at least disjointed. We perceive ontological values, moral values, intellectual values, and aesthetic values, as well as, when such is possible, their opposites. Values overlap on the same being, though some may be “thematic” while others are not, as we see in the simple example of eating a sandwich. When I eat it, the thematic value may be the taste, or its allaying of my hunger, but its nutrition is also a real value, present but unthematized.
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Because von Hildebrand seeks to record and respect the values we actually encounter, we do not always sense that they fit together into an intelligible order. His way of observing experience, therefore, manages to be capacious without becoming unified. It reminds me at times of the impressionists, who, in the effort to see the texture of reality genuinely, often slapped paint on with a palette knife or kept their individual brush strokes thickly visible on the canvas. To my mind, this technique has both advantages and disadvantages.
First, to a clear disadvantage: despite his faithful apprenticeship to the founders of phenomenology, especially Scheler, from whom he derived his theory of “value,” von Hildebrand is akin to Heidegger as an instance of what T.S. Eliot somewhat awkwardly called “the one-man philosophy.” By this, Eliot meant those cases in which a philosopher tries to build his system from scratch, individually, just as Descartes recommended in the opening pages of his Discourse on Method.
This may not sound extraordinary. Is it not, in fact, what constitutes much of modern philosophy, wherein Descartes gives birth to Cartesianism, Kant to Kantian idealism, and so on? And further, is it not the case that these particular schools really are meaningfully responding to and arguing with one another? The answer to both questions is, more or less, yes, but this is not the only or the best way in which to “do” philosophy.
Most of this modern “one-man” way of philosophical reflection occurred outside the Catholic tradition, even when, as in Descartes’s case, the philosopher was a Catholic. Within Catholic philosophy and theology there has been something a bit closer to a unified tradition, what the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen referred to as thinking “der Vorzeit,” of and with the tradition dating back to classical antiquity. Kleutgen viewed this tradition as fulfilled in scholasticism, and in Saint Thomas Aquinas above all. But, by this, “Thomism” is not understood as yet another philosophy of one man; it merely describes a tradition to which Aquinas gives particularly authoritative expression. One could call it, as I do, simply the broad “Christian Platonist,” or classical, tradition and still be referring to the same grand set of ideas and practices.
Von Hildebrand draws on this tradition and accepts many of its deliverances, but he also stands apart from it, and this leads to some odd details in his work. Let us consider one crucial example. As most famously articulated in book VII of S. Augustine’s Confessions, the broad Christian Platonist tradition names God as the Good Itself. All created things, insofar as they have being from God, are also good. Sin and evil are always depravations in being, holes torn in the cloth of reality that have a kind of negative reality only. They have no independent existence. As such, to be able to recognize an evil, which is an absence of being, implies that one would be able to identify its contrast, a good, which is a relative fullness of being. Furthermore, if one can recognize a fullness of being, then merely by encountering a being marred by evil, we are given some clue to what things should be, what they are called to become if their being is to fulfill its purpose.
The existence of any one thing points us toward the total order of what things are and also what they are for. We move from goods to the Good and back. For Augustine and the Christian Platonic tradition in general, this is something our intellect can and does do. It moves from beings to Being, from truths to the Truth, and from beauties to Beauty Itself. All things have their independent existences, but independence does not entail free-floating disconnections from the one source of all things that is God himself.
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Von Hildebrand’s way of recording experience is more static and less cohesive. Some beings we perceive as having the value of goodness, but the disvalue of evil is no less real. In ethics, this suggests that one could choose good or evil, without, in the case of one’s choosing the latter, understanding this as a mere negation in one’s being. By this, I do not suggest that von Hildebrand’s ethical vision is amoral, but only that his theory of “value” does not provide the best available account of goodness as it is found in the being of things.
In his Aesthetics we find something similar. We encounter the value (or values) of beauty in things, but ugliness has an existential reality proper to itself, such that some beings have its “disvalue” adhering to them. His favorite example is the hippopotamus. When we see hippos, we do not say that their ungainly appearances are the result of a negation of their being. Rather, von Hildebrand argues, when we perceive the hippo, we recognize its “value,” or disvalue, as positive ugliness. One has to admit that this is an elegant solution to a problem most shrug off as just part of God’s rather weird sense of humor. But it can also lead us to perceive our experience as a very loose omnium gatherum that does not correspond to our understanding of the world holding together as one, founded and completed in God, and intelligible in terms of being, truth, goodness, and beauty. Von Hildebrand’s vision is rich in meanings but poor in purposes, and that is a definite weakness in comparison with the Christian Platonist tradition, which shows us that all meanings are fundamentally rooted in purposes.
Von Hildebrand expresses his antagonism to the Christian Platonist tradition early in the volume, where he attacks the aesthetic theory of the Catholic philosopher and neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain. In Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), Maritain mentions in passing that the human experience of revulsion before ugliness is a consequence of our bodily existence and partial vision of things. Ugliness, that is, feels to us more positively existent or real than it actually is; God sees the depravity of ugliness, but does not experience it with “revulsion.” Von Hildebrand’s vehemence against Maritain is outdone only by his failure to understand what Maritain actually says. Ugliness is absolutely real, he replies; God does not perceive less than we human beings do. But this is hardly Maritain’s point.
This incidental grouse against Maritain leads von Hildebrand to conclude, “What I call metaphysical beauty is certainly not identical with Maritains’ transcendental property of being.” This seemingly obscure distinction in fact drives home how far von Hildebrand thinks he has separated himself from the Christian Platonist tradition’s account of beauty.
And this is unfortunate for a very specific reason. Yes, if you asked a contemporary undergraduate, “What is beauty?” he very likely would tell you, “Everyone has his own definition of it.” But this is not actually the case. In the long Christian Platonist tradition, from Plato and Aristotle, on through Thomas Aquinas, Maritain, and up to our present day, as represented by such figures as Joseph Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Stratford Caldecott, and D.C. Schindler, there is a rich and sturdy consensus about what beauty is. They all say, more or less, that beauty is the capacity of existent form to disclose itself and to do so in terms of its own existence, in its relationship to other beings, and in relation to the creative intelligence of God himself. For this reason, beauty is neatly defined as splendor formae, the splendor of form. In this definition, we account for the complexity of beauty (the beautiful has form, or its own integrity, but also splendor, its irradiating and innumerable ratio relative to things beyond itself); we also account for its relation to truth, goodness, and being—all of which are rooted together in the classical idea of form, meaning the intelligible, active principle of a thing.
Von Hildebrand’s view of things does come close to this traditional consensus; indeed his understanding of beauty borrows from Plato, to speak of a radiance or splendor of some value. He is closer to Maritain than he is willing to admit. And yet, he tries to hold it all at arm’s length, and to his own cost in at least one respect: beauty, like all values, floats rather freely in his phenomenology, and so seems to communicate less to us than it actually does.
This complaint notwithstanding, as an original thinker, von Hildebrand achieves something compelling in these volumes. I will list three aspects of his thought with which everyone who wants to think about beauty must reckon.
First, in his opening reflections, he demolishes all accounts of beauty that would render it “subjective.” The contemporary student who says “everyone has his own definition of beauty” really just means to say that, in his thoughtless account of things, he has concluded that there is no arguing over taste, and beauty seems to be something for which we have taste; beauty must, therefore, first, be just a “taste,” a subjective sensation, and, second, must be something about which we can have feelings and opinions but which does not amount to communicable knowledge. Von Hildebrand shows that this relegation of beauty to the interior, subjective realm of unaccountable feeling does not hold. Even at the level of feeling—experience itself, that is, at its most intimate—we intuit feelings in ourselves but intuit beauty as adhering to an object perceived. We as a matter of course can tell the difference, within our own experience, between what is “in” us and what is “out there,” and every such experience tells us beauty is out there. To say otherwise is mere sophistry.
The Christian Platonist tradition tells us that beauty is a property of being—a position von Hildebrand, again, rejects (and to his cost). Just as being is an analogous concept, so that to be an idea, a sandwich, a hippo, or a human does not mean exactly the same thing in each instance, so also with beauty. There is intellectual beauty, moral beauty, sensible beauty, and (perhaps) so on. The tradition acknowledges these analogous realities and moves on to other things.
Von Hildebrand is in no such hurry. His second great contribution to aesthetics is to linger over the different kinds by which the value of beauty appears in experience. Visible and audible things often appear intuitively (immediately) as beautiful. The blue of the sky is beautiful at its foundation; there’s no getting behind the phenomenon to justify it on terms other than itself. Non-sensible realities, such as ideas, moral actions, a well-achieved personality, and so on, can also have beauty adhere to them. This is what von Hildebrand (as opposed to Maritain) means by “metaphysical beauty.” Any beauty that appears as a radiance emerging from some other value, some other non-material reality, is called thus. Von Hildebrand gives us here a helpful account of why beauty is called, by Plato, the splendor of truth, and, as we said above, by the broader tradition as the splendor of form. Metaphysical beauty is a value that derives—is of—some other value.
To sensible and metaphysical beauty, von Hildebrand adds a third kind of beauty-value. Truly great instances of sensible or audible beauty—the Italian landscape, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Shakespeare’s King Lear—possess a beauty proper to their parts and to themselves, yes. But, when we encounter them, we sense a greater beauty, richer and more spiritual than that of the parts, and not merely the beauty of the whole. This von Hildebrand calls the “beauty of the second power.” This is the chief mystery of the beautiful. We can understand well enough why a moral action, which is in itself a spiritual reality, might irradiate also a spiritual beauty. We don’t need to explain why the sky is beautiful in itself; it just is.
But what is it that occurs when, listening to Bach, we have a sensation of transcendence, wherein the music seems to put us in contact with the whole orchestrated gravity, the seriousness and the substance of life? Why is it that works of art and nature seem to bear a mystery greater than themselves, as if something divine had come to rest upon the material and the created as upon a pedestal? In exploring the beauty of the second power, von Hildebrand helpfully captures this elusive but universal experience and comes close to understanding it. I think that, to fully account for it, he would have to feed his observations back into the Christian Platonist aesthetics he attempts to bypass. He would, thereby, recognize that beauty is more than a “value” adhering to things; it is a property of being itself. It is the richness of perception rather than the unified theorization that marks his advance here.
Finally, von Hildebrand’s third achievement is one to which I will not even attempt to do justice but which I commend to the reader to take up and explore. In volume I, regarding natural beauty, and in volume II, as he takes up each form of fine art, von Hildebrand shows himself the true connoisseur—or rather, the son of a great sculptor that he actually was. His patient attempt to describe the particular features that inhere in each art form are not only brilliantly and minutely observed, they have also the quality of genuine philosophical perception. This sets them apart from previous, similar attempts—such as those of Burke or Lessing—which seem more summaries of the tastes of a period than disinterested perceptions. Here, we find the one definite benefit of forging a “one-man philosophy.” Von Hildebrand takes it upon himself to look at everything with eyes cleared of prejudice and receptive of the value there to give itself to us in experience.
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. Wilson is a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in various magazines and journals and he has published nine books, including The Hanging God (Angelico, 2018). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, the series editor of Colosseum Books, of the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press, and is director of the Colosseum Institute for writers