aesthetics beautiful

Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone: The role of the beautiful in the life of the Christian

6:00:00 AMUnknown

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        Leading up to Easter break, myself and the other Student Fellows here at the Hildebrand Project hosted a debate one evening on the topic of beauty.  I spent several weeks pouring over the texts of Hildebrand (including a special edition of his soon-to-be-published Aesthetics!) in order to prepare for what my opponents could possibly say in order to defy Dietrich von Hildebrand’s position that beauty is a value. I went the “traditional” route; I prepared to face arguments from the relativist standpoint and to address the seeming problem of personal preference/taste in regards to the beautiful.


        I could not have anticipated the argument I would face.


        I expected to stand in the face of relativism and defend the realm of values in general.  Instead, I faced an argument that, to me, seemed both reasonable and hard to offer a quick answer to: as Christians, shouldn’t we only revere beauty insofar as we can use it to make us better people?  Or to help us pray?  Or to lead us to the moral sphere?  It was as if they were saying, isn’t beauty just a distraction by itself?


        This caught me off guard.  The argument was reasonable and well thought out.  It also appealed to our predominantly Catholic (enthusiastically Catholic) audience.  The error of this position is not very apparent at face value.


        Luckily, this position is nothing new (although it was relatively new to me).  Hildebrand already wrote an entire piece addressing it, titled Beauty in the Light of the Redemption.  While I didn’t spend much time reading over it before the debate, I did mention it and recommended that our audience give it a read.  Following my own advice, I decided to revisit Beauty in the Light of the Redemption after the debate.


        Beauty, according to Hildebrand, is a “reflection of the inner excellence and dignity” of a thing (Source).  The beauty of Christ arrests our affections and our will and inflames us with devout love.  The beauty of the saints has an irresistible pull on our hearts, raising them to higher things.  The goodness of this sort of beauty is clear because it inheres in the life of Christ.  But what about the beauty of audible and visible things that are not explicitly being used for spiritual devotion?  What is the purpose of this beauty?  Is it good just because it is?  Or is it only good if it serves some sort of purpose for us?  What value is there in gazing upon the vastness of the Grand Canyon or the skillful brush strokes in the dancers of Degas?


        Hildebrand rails against the notion of puritanism in regards to the realm of the beautiful.  The “puritan” standpoint holds that beauty of this sort is a luxury that has no place in the life of the Christian.  With so many economic and political questions and social justice issues coming to the forefront of the Christian agenda, who has the time for beauty anyways?  To this, Hildebrand powerfully and simply states: “utilitarianism is by no means the spirit of the Gospel.”  Contrary to the thought of many modern regimes and ideologies, the usefulness of something is not necessarily the greatest or the only standard by which one can judge the value or dignity of a thing.  In fact, there are many cases in which the utility of a thing seems to be nearly irrelevant.  Thus, Hildebrand touches on what Christ Himself taught by saying that man does not live by bread alone. 


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        While many proponents of the “puritan” position would cite the life of Christ as their main source of inspiration for their argument, they may be surprised to find that the key to refuting their own position can be clearly seen throughout the Gospels.  While Hildebrand is mainly remembered for his contributions to philosophy, his knowledge and application of the Scriptures should not be overlooked.  With the expert eye of one who is in love with the study of the Gospels, he points out that the superabundance that comes with life in Christ can be seen in His miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.  Some things are not strictly necessary.  Some things, like the superabundant gift of wine at a feast, are just good.  It is good to delight in things that deserve our delight.  It is good to laugh, to smile, to be lighthearted, to dance.  Some things are just superabundantly … good.  So while utility is certainly important, it is not sufficient for understanding the love of God from the Christian standpoint, because His love is an extravagant excess, an overflowing.  We see this in the beauty of creation.  There is no need for the loveliness of the lily, or the magnificence of a waterfall.  Rather, it is simply good that they are lovely and magnificent.


The penitent woman in the Gospels who anointed Christ’s feet with precious oils was also criticized for the seeming uselessness of her action, but Christ praised her for displaying the superabundant overflowing of her love.  So while beauty is not always useful, it is good.  It is a superabundant overflow of the love of the Triune Godhead for mankind.  It is only in this reflection on the Gospels and in this marveling at the excessiveness of God’s love that Hildebrand was satisfied in silencing those who seek to live by bread alone.             




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2 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post Hannah! I feel it was a much-needed follow-up to the debate. I feel that although our recognition or lack thereof of a beautiful object/subject as a manifestation of the superabundant outpouring of God's life-giving love, has no effect on the value inherent within that beautiful object, there is however an effect on its efficacy. In other words, I still feel that an object/subject of beauty is most radiantly experienced when seen in the light of the goodness of God and the transcendence of a grateful heart for the expression of such goodness in creation, etc. Do you have any thoughts on this? Would Hildebrand object to or encourage this? I look forward to further discussion!

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    1. Stephanie --- thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful response! These are just my thoughts, and not necessarily reflective of how Hildebrand himself would respond to your question. That being said, I would start with Hildebrand's definition of beauty to begin with. He defines beauty as being the shining forth of the inner excellence and dignity of a thing. As Christians, it's nearly impossible to discuss the "excellence" of a thing apart from this "thing's" First Cause and Final End, which is God. It is excellent because God made it excellent. It is made excellent because God is excellence. So, my opinion as it stands now (and is certainly subject to grow/expand/change upon further reading) is that the more that a "thing" reflects God, the more excellence "shines forth" from the thing; the more beautiful it is. So in other words, I would OF COURSE consider Dante's Paradiso or Michelangelo's Last Judgment to be more beautiful than classical pagan works of antiquity, such as Virgil's Aeneid. In fact, if I can recall correctly, I believe I wrote a blog post last semester along these lines. Here is the link: http://www.truthfromtheheart.com/2015/11/augustine-and-problem-of-beauty_10.html

      So I would indeed agree with you that if the perceiver of the beauty is in touch with the just value-response to be given and also happens to discern the presence of God within the "thing," then the beauty will be more well-received, and an even greater response can be given. While beauty is MORE than just being good INSOFAR as it leads us to God, allowing it to actually do so seems to be the MOST just response that can be given. We are responding MOST appropriately when something beautiful makes us think of Beauty Itself.

      Thank you, again, for your thoughts Stephanie! I hope this somehow helps and that I understood your question correctly!

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