I was about to take an hour hike up the Rocky Mountains in silence when a friend recommended that I be open to what is around me. He described how we spend so much time within ourselves. He asked that we spend this hour open to what is around us. As I began walking, I focused on what I was receiving from my sight. I let what I saw be the theme of my thoughts: the trees and plants that were surrounding me, surprising small lakes that the trail would open up to, and giant rocks covered in green, blue and white moss. As I continued walking, it became clearer that all I was seeing was beautiful and made for me to experience. It was my eyes, my mind, and my heart that was fit to encounter this beauty. This beauty was not merely a sensation or a “delight to the eyes”, but something completely objective and capable of speaking. It spoke not audibly, but through my sight to my mind and heart. It did not close me in on myself appealing only to my appetite. The objectivity of nature gave me the freedom to stand at a distance and discover it as it spoke to me truth about existence.
In Aesthetics by Dietrich von Hildebrand, he describes the role of the senses in comprehending beauty. I want to specifically focus on sight. Hildebrand describes the sense of sight as “the most spiritual of all the senses” (114) because of the unique role it plays as a bearer of beauty. Our sight is a gift facilitating many spiritual experiences, but these experiences do not impose themselves. Rather, they are the fruit of patience and openness to what is beautiful. Beauty is objective. It requires transcendence, and is distinct from a sensation or what is merely a “delight to the eyes”.
First, beauty appears to our sight as something objective. When we see something we stand at a distance and are conscious of it. Sight communicates beauty’s objectivity through specific things that are beautiful. For example, I see an ocean. It stands as an object in front of me. My sight gives me the capacity to come to know the ocean in an objective way because it stands as an object outside of me that I can come to know. This is different from coming to know something by touching or tasting it. With sight I receive the object as it is. With touching or tasting, I receive the object in light of its relation to me. For example, eating a pear touches me on one level of my existence, but seeing the Rocky Mountains touches me at a deeper level. It is a paradox that something that is objective touches me more deeply than an object whose appeal is dependent on its relation to me.
Second, seeing involves an act of transcendence, or going above what is natural. There are times when we are frustrated and have to make laborious efforts to see what the object is (114). This sensation of limitation in our sight leads to a consciousness of the function of our eyes (113). For example, when a person is nearsighted and struggles to read the paper in front of her, Hildebrand describes that her seeing is “thematic in the experience of unclarity” (112). In other words, her seeing is the point of frustration, not the daily paper. The paper remains able to be read and so she goes beyond her natural sight and buys glasses to help her read it. In a similar way, when we experience a limitation in seeing beauty there is no doubt that the beauty still exists. Learning about beauty, realizing its origin, and purity of mind and heart act as LASIK eye surgery to see beyond what is natural.
Third, beauty does not have a relationship to the body as a sensation or something that is a “delight to the eyes”. An example of a sensation in your eye is when you look at the sun. The burning in your eyes is a sensation, and the theme of this moment is the burning. An example of a “delight to the eyes” is a velvet green meadow “which ‘caress’ our eyes” (115), and this ‘caress’ is the theme of this encounter with the meadow. Something can be a “delight to the eyes” and beautiful at the same time, but the experiences are distinct. Unlike the experience of a sensation or something that is a “delight to the eyes”, beauty stands outside of a relation to our body. It is something deeper than the common experience of delighting in a sunset because it communicates truth to our minds and hearts. This brings us back to the objectivity of what we see. We see beauty as something outside of ourselves. We see it and with transcendence we come to know it. For example, the beauty of our backyard in the summer with the flowers blooming, the woods filled with green and healthy trees, and the grass freshly cut, communicates a specific truth to my mom. When she is doing the laundry or trying to handle a conflict between children, she described her gaze as something so narrow. “All I can see and think about it that one thing in front of me. When I go outside I see and experience a wholeness.” Nature is presented to her as a whole. It reminds her that reality has a big picture. There is a big picture involved in doing the laundry and being attentive to the kids. The landscape is a delight to her eyes, but its beauty penetrates her heart and mind with a truth about reality. This comes from her sense of sight and the objective beauty of the landscape.
Beauty is communicated to us through our sight. It is objective and involves a transcendent act of seeing. It is more than a sensation or a “delight to the eyes”. When we see beauty, truth about reality is able to touch our mind and heart. As I continued up the mountain, the landscape was speaking to me. Without saying a word, by its existence, the giveness of this beautiful landscape spoke to me. It was not that this landscape was given to general reality. It was given for me, for my good. This is the truth of reality. It is given for our good. My sight is seen in all its dignity in this moment. Through it, beauty was able to be communicated.