- Aesthetics by Dietrich Von Hildebrand
Von Hildebrand's Aesthetics, recently translated into English and published by the Hildebrand Project, is a monumental work applying the phenomenological approach and a Christian and classical focus to the field of aesthetics. It is important both as a contribution to philosophical aesthetics, and for understanding the philosophy and inner life of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the son of a prominent neoclassical sculptor (Adolf von Hildebrand), and a great lover of the arts in the classical tradition. It was the last major work that he wrote on a subject close to his heart, and he did not live to see its publication.
His intention in the work is to be attentive to the essence of beauty in all its breadth, distinguishing its various forms, both in nature and in the fine arts, as he explains in the introduction: "We ask the ancient Platonic question: ti esti, 'What is it?', with reference to the essence of beauty, to the basic forms of beauty, and to the whole realm of the beautiful." Von Hildebrand's approach is also marked by an attitude of wonder and reverence before the mystery of the dimensions of beauty, and is to be commended for the way it fosters the growth of a similar attitude in the reader.
The work is divided into two volumes, the first of which is a philosophical investigation of beauty. Here he argues for the objectivity of beauty; the distinction between metaphysical and artistic beauty; the distinction between the various aesthetic values and their antitheses; the interrelationship of truth, moral goodness, and beauty; and the importance of beauty for the good life. Since a phenomenological approach must be grounded in concrete experience, the second volume examines the fine arts and discusses many masterpieces of Western culture. It is divided into five parts that treat architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music. His analysis here should be of interest not only to philosophers but also to artists.
Von Hildebrand's analysis of beauty is situated in the context of his theory of values. He understands value not as a subjective aspect of being, as it might sound at first, but as an objective aspect of things according to which they are intuitively grasped as endowed with importance and not [End Page 386] merely neutral. Aesthetic values are a family of values centering on beauty, but they also include other aspects, such as the comic or elegant; they are distinct from other families, such as moral, intellectual, ontological, or technical values. Although moral and intellectual values are proper only to rational beings, beauty transcends all the categories and is found in all the grades of being.
A consequence of the breadth of beauty is the fact that other values, such as moral, spiritual, ontological, and personal values, each have a beauty of their own. Von Hildebrand refers to this with the term "metaphysical beauty," which he understands as the splendor, reflection, or irradiation of other values. Similarly, he speaks of a metaphysical ugliness that emanates from the disvalues, such as sin, opposed to the positive values that radiate beauty.
Metaphysical beauty is distinguished from the beauty that is contained directly in visible and audible being, whether in nature or art. When this sensible beauty manifests the beauty of spiritual realities, then he speaks of "beauty of the second power." These three types of beauty—metaphysical beauty, sensible beauty, and sensible beauty of the second power—are the principal structural categories of von Hildebrand's Aesthetics, and he analyzes how they interact with one another. For example, what makes a work of art transcend the level of being that is sensibly pleasing (beauty of the first power) and rise to represent the depths of the human spirit (beauty of the second power)? He sees the...