aesthetics beauty

The Reality of Beauty

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

Is beauty a real thing, or is it simply a feeling? Or, to put it another way, when we say something is beautiful, are we reacting to something of real value in the world, or are we simply reacting to a pleasant feeling?

Dietrich von Hildebrand, right at the beginning of his Aesthetics, takes a number of thinkers to task for holding to the view that the beautiful is nothing but a feeling: “There is unfortunately a widespread prejudice with regard to all values; one says that they are not qualities of an object, but only feelings or effects that the object evokes in us. It is asserted that we cannot examine, observe and note in an object values that we ascribe to it, in the same way as we do with neutral qualities.”[1]

Hildebrand notes, however, that this is truly a prejudice, as it is always assumed and not proven. “It appears in various forms, but it always involves the positing of an antithesis between value (which is distorted beyond all recognition) and fact.”[2]

To confront this prejudice, it’s necessary to look at our own experiences. As Hildebrand points out, when we see a landscape or listen to a sonnet, we say that “this landscape is so beautiful” or “this sonnet is beautiful,” we do not say that either the landscape or the sonnet is “beautiful for me.”[3] Our language betrays the fact that we are pointing out some value in the object, and not simply naming a feeling that is associated with it. Surely we mean something different when we say that “this landscape is beautiful” compared to when we say “I find the landscape very pleasant,” or “it makes me feel good.”  

When we call something beautiful, we are trying to point out something that is true about the object, not something that is true about ourselves. The word ‘beautiful’ itself points out value, something “important-in-itself.”[4]

This makes sense. The other way-- in which the word beautiful means nothing but that a certain object gives rise to certain feelings in me-- is simply not workable. It makes any attempt to communicate beauty utterly fruitless. We cannot attempt to share what is not communicable to others, and our own feelings cannot be transferred to another. Beauty becomes something entirely private, our own little game within our heads.

Even more than that, beauty-as-feeling means that all of us are going around completely deluding ourselves about the nature of the world as a whole. When we attempt to say that something really is beautiful, that it in itself has value, we cannot truly mean what we say if beauty is nothing but feeling. That landscape, that melody, the flower, all of these things are not truly beautiful, any beauty associated with them exists only in us. When we say they are beautiful, we are really saying something about us, and deluding ourselves about the world. This delusion is especially odd, because it requires that we are deluded about our own selves, that all of our minds have created this category that corresponds to nothing in the real world.

If these consequences seem intolerable, it’s because they truly are. We cannot live as atoms with our own values, which completely shut off from our fellow man. Nor does it do to base our communication of values on a delusion. If beauty is nothing but a feeling, then it is completely private, and we are isolated in it. All the beauty and grandeur we perceive in nature is just figments in ourselves, while the world outside is cold, vast, and desolate. This is not a world that can truly be lived in, and I thank God we do not live in it.

[1] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, page 20.
[2] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, page 22.
[3] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, page 19.

[4] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, page 22.

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