Beauty, here and beyond
by Ken Myers
In 2016 the Hildebrand Project published an English translation of the first volume of Aesthetics, a late work by philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977). The book featured a Foreword by poet Dana Gioia and a Preface by Robert E. Wood, professor of philosophy in the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas.
The volume also included an Introduction to von Hildebrand’s aesthetic theories by John F. Crosby, who studied with von Hildebrand and who is one of the Senior Scholars for the Hildebrand Project. You can hear an interview with him on Volume 143 of the Journal.
Crosby concludes his essay with a discussion of “what Hildebrand regarded, and rightly regarded, as his greatest single contribution to aesthetics. It is situated within his discussion of the beauty of the visible and audible. Take the beauty of the streaked colors appearing in a clear sky at dawn; Hildebrand is struck by the depth and sublimity that can be found in this beauty and also struck by the fact that the beauty does not seem to be proper to, or proportioned to, the light and colors and spatial expanse from which it arises. He means that this sublime beauty surpasses by far the ‘aesthetic capacity’ of light and color and spatial expanse. He even suggests that this sublime beauty is somehow akin to the aesthetic dimension of the greatest moral value. But in the case of moral value we at least understand where it comes from; we understand the value, and the beauty of the value, of a person exercising his freedom and committing himself to the good. But with the comparably sublime beauty appearing in the sky at dawn we cannot achieve the same kind of understanding, for the visible appearance qualities seem to be ontologically too modest to give rise to such beauty. Hildebrand recognizes that visible and audible appearance qualities have some modest aesthetic value that is proper to them; he speaks here of Sinnenschönheit, or sense beauty, examples of which would be the beauty of a circle, or the rich mellow sound of a well-tuned cello. But this is for him a more primitive beauty, or what he calls a ‘beauty of the first power,’ which he contrasts with a ‘beauty raised to the second power,’ which is the beauty that mysteriously exceeds the aesthetic capacity of the visible and audible elements out of which it arises. The first and more primitive kind of beauty is the natural effluence of these elements, the second rests on them as on a pedestal. It is, of course, not only in nature but also in art that this mysterious beauty is found. Thus a haunting melody of Schubert, which moves us deeply and makes us shudder within ourselves, seems not to grow out of its musical elements but, as it were, to descend on them from above
“Hildebrand considers and rejects as un-phenomenological two ways of dealing with this phenomenon. There is first of all the view that all beauty of the visible and audible can only be a thing of sense beauty and that the feeling we have in some cases of an ‘excess’ of beauty must be an illusion. He objects that one is simply not letting this excess come to evidence, that one is suppressing it because one feels that it is so inexplicable that it ought not exist. But Hildebrand also rejects the idea that this excess of beauty is to be explained by associating it with some great reality other than the audible and visible bearer of it. For example, some say that the mysterious beauty of a mountain as seen in a certain light arises only for a viewer who is reminded by the mountain of the immensity of God; one thinks that the sublime beauty of the mountain is now intelligible as being grounded not just in a physical reality but also in a divine reality. Hildebrand objects that there is no phenomenological basis for such a supposition; a viewer of the mountain can fully experience its sublime beauty without any such theological thought in the back of his mind. Hildebrand ends by marveling at the ‘sacramental’ relation that exists between certain visible and audible things, on the one hand, and the sublime, unearthly beauty that is attached to them and exceeds them, on the other. The result he achieves displays a kind of paradox: by staying very close to the experience of this beauty, he discerns in it a mysterious ‘signal of transcendence,’ which does not, as one might at first think, come from some un-phenomenological construction, but which on the contrary is blocked by un-phenomenological constructions and is brought to evidence by letting the beauty show itself for what it is.”