Aesthetics: Volume I
by Dietrich von Hildebrand.
Hildebrand Press, 2016.
Paperback, 508 pages, $20.

Aesthetics: Volume II
by Dietrich von Hildebrand
Hildebrand Press, 2019.
Paperback, 608 pages. $20.

Reviewed by Andrew Thompson-Briggs

One of the rituals peculiar to commencement ceremonies at conservative liberal arts institutions is the exhortation to promote “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” Most of the graduates will have some idea what the good and the true are and will be able to recognize them in practice, but few would be able to define the beautiful, and fewer still would recognize it. Being able to name the attributes of the beautiful mentioned by Thomas Aquinas—unity, proportion, and clarity—will at least clarify that modern art is ugly, but it won’t help much in distinguishing the sublimity of Raphael from the paltriness of Bouguereau, or in demonstrating that the Laocoön is more beautiful than a cube. “It definitely lacks clarity,” one of my students declared about the Hellenistic masterpiece; “there’s too much going on.”

Formation in beauty requires theoretical study, but also immersion in beautiful things. For this, one needs guides who not only recognize that beauty is important, but who also have good taste. This quality—partly a gift, partly cultivated—is very much on display in the Aesthetics of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977), the second volume of which was published for the first time in English earlier this year by the Hildebrand Project.

Taken together, the two volumes of Hildebrand’s Aesthetics are a treasury of art and nature criticism. He describes, for instance, the sublime valediction of certain early evenings: “Those moments when the full light of the sun … is followed by a more delicate and spiritualized light that bestows on the phenomenon of evening a wholly special quality that lasts until sunset, a transfigured note that has an element of farewell about it” (I, 301). There are reminiscences of “classic human activities” that have passed away from the modern world, as “when all the upper classes drove in beautiful carriages drawn by noble horses along the Corso in Rome at one particular hour of the day” (I, 352). He contrasts the beauty of older dances like the minuet with the mere elegance of the waltz, the polka, and the mazurka (I, 401), and regrets the introduction of the “prosaic” long trousers for men (I, 400, n. 1).

The son of a great sculptor (Adolf von Hildebrand), he is alive to the beauty of the visual arts (Michelangelo’s Dying Slave is mentioned a dozen times) and of literature, but truly comes into his own in the chapters on music. In his operas Gluck “succeeds in transporting us into a Greek world, but not the world of Homer or the tragedians, nor that of Aristophanes, but a strong atmosphere full of poetry, nourished by the spirit of classical antiquity as seen with the eyes of the Baroque period” (II, 462). Across the one thousand pages of the Aesthetics, which were written at the end of Hildebrand’s life and which he never had the chance to perfect (the second volume especially is uneven), he provides hundreds of similarly incisive comments (the editors have provided helpful indices for locating names, places, and works). There are moments when the Aesthetics recalls The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, the collected aesthetic judgments of a courtier in classical Kyoto. In a formless age, both books may function as angelic guides to the refined enjoyment of life.

Hildebrand, however, is only secondarily a critic. His Aesthetics aim to analyze the nature and forms of beauty. In continuity with the Platonic-Christian tradition, and against Kant and his followers, Hildebrand recognizes both sensible and spiritual beauty. But whereas the tradition tends to locate the essence of all beauty in the splendor of the good and the true, Hildebrand makes a striking distinction. Purely spiritual beauty is indeed the splendor of another spiritual quality, but the beauty that we perceive through the senses inheres in the object; it is not the splendor of being or the good. Thus, the beauty of chastity is the “irradiance or fragrance” of chastity itself, but the beauty of an iris is in the form, colors, and fragrance of the iris.

Hildebrand is able to distinguish beauty as spiritual splendor from beauty inherent in art and nature because he rejects the convertibility of the transcendentals. Whereas for traditional metaphysics, being, goodness, and beauty are three modes of one reality, differing only in the mind (scholars debate whether Thomas considers beauty a transcendental, but Hildebrand follows Maritain in reading Thomas this way), for Hildebrand, being, goodness, and beauty are distinct values. (A “value” in Hildebrandian usage is something intrinsically important, without reference to being good for something or someone else.) And while Hildebrand agrees that nonbeing is the privation of being, he claims that evil is not a privation of the good, but a reality unto itself. Similarly, ugliness is not a privation of beauty, but a reality all its own. If all this sounds shocking to those committed to classical metaphysics, it is. The proof, says Hildebrand, is that experience shows us that evil and ugliness exist.

It must be admitted that, at least as far as beauty is concerned, Hildebrand’s theory solves some empirical difficulties. Traditionally, something higher in the great chain of being should be more beautiful. But then why, asks Hildebrand, are worms and hyenas ugly while cypresses and olive trees are beautiful? Or, since a virtue like wisdom is a far greater good than a landscape, why are we so much more moved by the beauty of the Grand Canyon than by the splendor of the nearest philosophy faculty?

For the Platonic tradition, perception per se is an aesthetic act; we grasp the truth because we perceive its splendor, or rather, we perceive the true and the good as beautiful. For Hildebrand, perception as such is not yet aesthetic, and we must perceive that something is true or good before we can perceive that it is also beautiful. The beauty of chastity is only apparent to one who has first perceived the goodness of chastity. Here again, experience does seem to substantiate Hildebrand’s claim. Does someone who does not perceive the value of chastity perceive a chaste person as beautiful? Is it not rather the case that the world considers chastity ugly because it considers chastity perverse? Beauty as splendor, then, which he calls “metaphysical beauty,” does not reveal the true or the good; it is revealed by them. The implications for cultural conversion are vast. If Hildebrand is correct, the beauty of holiness is not perceptible to the unbeliever. The beauty of art is.

The abandonment of the theory of beauty as a transcendental property of being gives a much greater importance to the beauty—and ugliness—that inheres in buildings, vineyards, paintings, symphonies, and the like, all of which Hildebrand analyzes in detail. Hildebrand argues that “in the loftiest works of art and in the sublime beauties of nature, the world above us discloses itself and we are drawn in conspectu Dei” (I, 384). He calls this capacity of great art and natural beauty to reveal a higher reality “quasi-sacramental beauty” because the material “accidents” bear a high spiritual “substance.” The material components—paint strokes or sounds or light—“do not generate the beauty. They are only conditions that permit it to appear,” like the condition of water for baptism or of bread and wine for the Eucharist (I, 212).

Not all sense-perceptible beauty mediates the spiritual; the beauty of pure colors or sounds do not reveal spiritual realities, but the higher form of visible and audible beauty both reveals and “kindles in us a yearning for the world of lofty immaterial realities … it draws us upward” (I, 210). Normally, the great painting, concerto, or landscape reveals “the world of natural values, of the fullness and the richness of life, of happiness, of joie de vivre, ascending to the profound happiness of love and to existence as a person” and it does this “in an indeterminate, hazy reflecting” (I, 213–14). With great sacred art, however, because the beauty is explicitly at the service of the glory of God, the beauty of form, color, and sound conveys supernatural realities. Thus Hildebrand argues that Beethoven’s Missa solemnis “could lead someone with a real artistic openness to conversion” (II, 507).

The theory of the unique anagogical capacity of visible and audible beauty surely inspires Hildebrand’s work as critic, whose role is to distinguish the beautiful things that can lead us toward God from the things that can mislead us. One of the strongest sections in the Aesthetics distinguishes ugliness from triviality, whose species include the kitsch, the showy, the cute (what the Japanese call kawaii), and the shallow. Ugliness rejects beauty, while triviality masquerades as beauty. Modern art since Picasso (whom Hildebrand excoriates) is ugly. Most lovers of tradition recognize this.

But trivial art abounds even in the homes and schools and churches of those committed to restoring the culture. Peonies share flowerbeds with garden gnomes (which Hildebrand deplores by name), Virgil is declaimed from particleboard podia, and Tenebrae is sung without extinguishing the electricity. These failures of good taste point to a deeper problem: the modern inability to grasp the importance of form. Despite his departures from traditional metaphysics, Hildebrand always defended the traditional forms of doctrine and liturgy, trying to persuade Pope Paul VI not to jettison the classical forms that draw us toward God. Encountering the acuity of Hildebrand’s discernment of form in his Aesthetics might be a first step towards a practical restoration of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Andrew Thompson-Briggs runs Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs Sacred Art with his wife, a traditional oil painter.