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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.2 (2001) 78-92
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Beauty in the Light of the Redemption*
Dietrich von Hildebrand
WHAT IMPORTANCE IS TO BE ATTRIBUTED to beauty in the life of a Christian? What role should it play in the life of those who have been redeemed? What is the relationship between redemption and beauty? Did beauty lose its significance after the redemption?
Here we are not speaking of beauty in the general sense of the word or, as I may say, about metaphysical beauty. When we are profoundly affected by the beauty of purity, when the Church in her liturgy exclaims, "How beautiful is the chaste generation with splendour," or, again, when we speak of the beauty acquired by a soul through humility, then we are concentrating on metaphysical beauty, which is an aura, a refulgence, a radiance of the inner qualities of these virtues. It is a beauty which St. Augustine calls "splendor veri," and which is, as it were, a radiation of every genuine quality that adheres to every good in the sum of its qualities.
This beauty is not our problem. Its relationship to the redemption, its function in the life of the Christian is not problematic. The [End Page 78] liturgy leaves no doubt in our minds as to the role due to this beauty in the light of revelation. Again and again it is spoken of in a great variety of phrases, thus:
"Listen, daughter, and see, and incline thine ear, for the king has greatly desired thy beauty."
"Give ear with thy countenance and thy beauty."
"Beautiful in countenance and more beautiful in faith."
There are many similar references in the liturgy. This beauty is not to be severed from the quality, whose reflection and aura it is. Therefore, it naturally has a conspicuous function in the life of the Christian, for this beauty is the foundation of love. The divine beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the Saint of all saints, inflames our heart. It shone resplendent on the apostles on Tabor; the beauty of His divine mercy melted the heart of Mary Magdalen. The irresistible divine beauty of Jesus not only moves our will, but it attracts our heart; as St. Augustine says, "We are attracted not only by the will but also by affection."
The great Lacordaire says that virtues become irresistibly victorious and constrain us to love only when, as in every saint, they are manifested in their beauty, when their inner nobility is revealed in their beauty.
In its dignity, this beauty, which is the reflection of the inner excellence and dignity of one who exists, is dependent on the dignity of the object. The beauty of a rich, profound mind like that of a Plato or an Aristotle, is greater than the beauty of an Achilles, which is peculiar to the vital fullness of an exuberant vigor, and the beauty of humility or love is greater than that of an eminent and profound intellect.
The status of this beauty with regard to the redemption, as we have already said, is not our problem, nor is this beauty really our primary theme. The beauty of humility is not the primary theme of humility, just as the beauty of truth is not the primary theme of truth. It is an excess, yet connected essentially with these values, an [End Page 79] efflorescence of them, their quintessence, their "countenance." Therefore, it is so much a part of redemption, that redemption is also a restoration of the original paradisaical beauty, of an even much greater beauty, as the liturgy maintains: "Who has wonderfully created human dignity and more wonderfully restored it"; and as a mystic says: "We would die of love if we could see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace."
Our problem is concerned with beauty in a narrower sense of the word, of beauty which radiates from visible and audible things. It is the beauty which unfolds before us when we look out from...