For the beauty of the earth
by Ken Myers
“A misunderstanding also arises from the fact that all beauty is seen in the light of the beauty of the human face or body, and from the moral danger that can emanate from this, conclusions are drawn about the ‘sensuality’ of all beauty of form. These are, manifestly, false deductions. This beauty is accidentally attached to things that can appeal to the sensual appetites. It is possible that here beauty of form can psychologically aggravate the kindling of the sensual appetites; in the case of the beauty of a landscape, a work of art, a symphony, it can no longer come into question. To see beauty of form, in general, as an arousing of the sensual appetites is nonsense. If anyone has a feeling for it, there resounds a sublime voice from above in the beauty of the adagio of Beethoven’s ninth symphony; its quality speaks of a world of purity and incorporeality; and he who hears it senses the incompatibility of all that is base and morally bad with this world. Yes, the exalted beauty of form is so far removed from drawing us down into the ‘world and its pomp,’ that there is a profound connection between this beauty and the realm of moral values. The breath of a more exalted world, which dwells in beauty of form, is also a sursum corda from the moral point of view.
“Neither has all this been left behind and discarded by the redemption. On the contrary, our relationship with all this beauty of form in nature and in art, to be sure, becomes something different and something new in Christ and through Christ, as does the relationship with all created values; however, it does not grow less but becomes more profound and much greater.
“Here we come upon a mysterious paradox: the more we give ourselves entirely to God, the more we love God above all else, the deeper and truer is our love for all created things that really deserve our love. The inordinate attachment to earthly possessions, which can even degenerate into idolatry, is not a greater love, but a lesser, impure, perverted one. The love of creatures, whether it be father, friend, or wife, can reach its full measure only in Christ, only by loving them in Christ and with Christ, indeed, only by partaking of the same love with which Christ loves them.
“Thus, the sense of this natural, qualitative message from God is not suppressed by the redemption; it is set aright and transfigured by Christ. In all this beauty, which makes God known objectively, the redeemed will also consciously find God; he will draw out the line away back to its source; he will, indeed, seek and find in all the sublime beauty of the visible and audible world the Countenance and the Voice of the God-Man, Christ. The beauty of a landscape, of a great work of art is, thus, no less estimable, but, on the contrary, its comprehension is immeasurably more profound; it discloses more than it would to the eyes of the aesthete who idolizes it with an inordinate love. All possessions that appeal to our pride and our sensual appetites, indeed, all that are subjectively gratifying, lose their radiance for the redeemed, for the man, who has found the pearl of great price of the Gospel. All possessions, however, that have real value, that in themselves are honorable, excellent, significant, that fall like dew from above and ascend to God like incense, achieve a higher and new radiance in Christ. It is true that beauty of form does not belong to the unum necessarium; it is true that a person who has no feeling for it or who admires trivial and bad art can also become a saint and enter into heaven, just as one who is incapable of grasping philosophical truths and of distinguishing them from philosophical errors, who is intellectually limited and weak, could yet become a saint. However, merely because something is indispensable, it is not thereby prevented from possessing a profound and exalted value.
“It is true that beauty of form does not belong to that which we must seek before all else. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things will be added unto you’ applies here also. This does not mean, however, that all else is useless. In this case, also, we must not say that the redeemed do not seek beauty of form before all else, but that they are first seeking the Kingdom of God, and in the same measure as they do so, will they more and more appreciate this great gift of God and understand it. St. Francis of Assisi reveals this so beautifully. How profoundly did he grasp the beauty of form in nature. How mysteriously did he, who sought only the Kingdom of God (I venture to say, because he sought the Kingdom of God), inspire the art and poetry of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. How greatly did his spirit become the seed for one of the most important periods of florescence in art.
“To the eyes of him who is redeemed, however, not only are deeper dimensions of the beauty of form revealed; he also understands clearly the significance of the beauty of form in his life. He understands, first of all, that God is glorified by things with beauty of form. He understands how greatly the world has been enriched by a Mozart and a Beethoven. He understands that the appearance of the house of God is not a matter of indifference, whether it be a fitting structure such as we find in the cathedral of Chartres or in San Marco in Venice, where beauty speaks of God’s world, or whether it exudes a desolate and depressing atmosphere like the false Gothic of the eighties. He understands the claim that wherever anything makes Christ known, there nothing can be beautiful enough in the sense of beauty of form. He also understands the significance that beauty of form possesses as a spiritual nourishment even after the redemption. It is not a matter of indifference whether a hymn to the Sacred Heart or to Our Lady be sentimental and trivial, or whether it be of a sublime and exalted beauty like the Ave verum by Mozart, for triviality falsifies the world into which we are here to be drawn.”
— from Dietrich von Hildebrand, Beauty in the Light of Redemption (Hildebrand Project, 2019)
Another passage from this book is available here.
Some thoughts by John F. Crosby about von Hildebrand’s aesthetics are presented here.
Two interviews about the life and work of Dietrich von Hildebrand were featured on Volume 143 of the Journal.