Recently I was asked by the Hildebrand Project to review the first volume of “Aesthetics”, by the late philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977). As a general rule, publishers like when I review books for them, because I can usually turn my reviews around fairly quickly. Such an approach is simply not possible with this book however, because von Hildebrand’s subject and his writing are too rich to be wolfed down like fast food: in fact, I have not yet finished reading this first volume, because I am savoring it.
To begin with, von Hildebrand’s subject, aesthetics, is the unifying theme throughout this book, and there is a great deal to say on this subject. Since the 1960’s, we have been living in a culture that, in its art and architecture, its attire, its music and entertainment, etc., embraces ugliness, cheapness, and baseness over beauty, dignity, and the transcendent. We see this for example in auction results, where a magnificent Old Master painting is auctioned for a fraction of the price achieved by the splattered emulsions of a diseased mind.
Yet although this is the present state of affairs, as von Hildebrand points out this does not alter the true, inherent beauty of a beautiful object itself. “The object does not cease to be objectively beautiful even if no one were ever to perceive it,” he writes, “but it is a characteristic of the value of beauty, and of its specific delectability, that it (unlike a moral virtue) demands to be perceived, and that it undergoes a new fulfillment when it is perceived.” The joy of perceiving beauty, particularly a true beauty that has been lost or forgotten by others, is something which cannot be put into words.
What may seem most surprising in a book about the philosophical concept of aesthetics is that the bulk of the text is not actually about art. In fact it seems that von Hildebrand took a broader view, and also wanted to look at that twin sister of beauty, truth, since the two always walk hand-in-hand. The pursuit of both in the text involves digressions to consider arguments made by other philosophers, but this does not mean that the book is something which can be appreciated only by those holding a doctoral degree.
In fact, von Hildebrand is not only very readable, he is absolutely on point about how contemporary culture has deteriorated. This is a top-down aesthetic phenomenon, and one that we can all easily recognize in the work of (so-called) cultural elites, which manifests itself in what von Hildebrand calls “pseudo-depth”:
[W]e encounter this pseudo-depth primarily in the sphere of the intellectual. It manifests itself when depth is confused with complicatedness, or indeed with incomprehensibility. This can even go so far that some authors employ incomprehensibility in order to create the impression of depth, and this can lead to intellectual imposture. But there are also self-deceptions where the author feels that he is immensely deep, thinking of the darkness of his confused and incomprehensible speculations as depth.
There is yet another form of false depth, namely, the tendency to import mysterious depths into everything that is not in fact deep, the tendency to “metaphysicize” everything. People who have this attitude see everything that happens as profound and important only because it takes its place of the rhythm of history and de facto occurs. They perceive in every event the breath of Hegel’s world-spirit. In their eyes, even the most stupid movements in history possess profundity as soon as these movements become an historical-sociological reality.
Writing before the age of the internet, von Hildebrand is nevertheless far more plugged in than most contemporary sages of social media, as to why we see the ugliness that we do all around us. I wonder what he would have made of Twitter. I shudder to think what he would have made of *my* use of Twitter, most of the time.
Elsewhere, von Hildebrand takes aim both at those who openly reject absolute truths, and those who privately reject them but who still want to appear respectable, by defining them as mediocrities:
The mediocre person shuns all that is absolute. He draws no distinction between the absolute and the relative. But it is interesting to note that his treatment of the relative – especially of conventions, and especially of the bourgeois element of the “proper” respectable man – is not nearly relative enough. This mentality of the mediocre, the philistine, is a poison which corrodes the attitude to every high good. It is a creeping sickness, a terrible danger to religion, to the relationship to God. Kierkegaard aptly describes this danger to religion when he says that the Dutch Protestant Church supplies the “faithful” with the necessary compromise, making it possible for them to live as pagans under the pleasant and expedient shield of the respectability provided by the Christian name.
If you feel offended by the forgoing, do not worry: there are more passages like that to make you feel even more uncomfortable. In fact more than once, I found myself squirming, as I realized that von Hildebrand was describing my own attitudes and behaviors. It is rather like looking in the mirror in the morning, when the light is harsh and you have not slept well. What you see looking back at you is you, but it is not the you that you normally choose to see.
This is a work to savor, collecting the wisdom of someone who has lived and known much in his life, whether studying art in Florence or speaking out against the Nazis in Germany and Austria. He not only looks back over human development in aesthetics and society, he also prescribes how we ought to be improving upon the mess which we all perceive about us today. Perhaps most importantly von Hildebrand keeps truth, and man’s relationship with God, at the heart of what he writes, and for this reason this is not simply a book of virtues with a secular core.
While Von Hildebrand may have won the battle to keep me from reading too quickly, in the end I have won the war. For now, I have a very precious resource, and one that I will likely be turning to again and again. I will be able to do so not only as a resource in my own writing, but also for the simple pleasure of a slow, and thoughtful, read.