When I found out that beauty would be this semester’s topic for the Student Fellows at the Hildebrand Project, I laughed. Hildebrand (and many of the student fellows) have an admirable love for beauty. Beauty was their motivation for joining this project. But, this is certainly not my story. I love Hildebrand for his practical approach to life, wisdom on virtue, and engaging and practical moral philosophy of value response. Not his aesthetics.
From someone who has read Hildebrand and stumbled through his obsession with beauty with much confusion, I am intrigued as perhaps you are as to what this semester will hold. I have always avoided the topic of aesthetics because of its controversial nature. The subjectivity of beauty, that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, is a very popular ideal for modern man and I certainly see the benefits of this position.
But, the way Hildebrand argues for the objectivity of beauty, that beauty is a property of reality rather than stemming from the person, has endlessly confused me. Until now, I have been content with allowing the mystery of beauty to be my excuse for not seeking to understand the question of beauty. I have gotten very comfortable in avoiding the topic altogether.
As I was wondering what this semester would hold for my investigation of beauty, a friend asked me to go to a local Christmas concert. Assuming it was some version of a children’s nativity concert, I did not think much about it and agreed to going. When I arrived and saw a dozen professional string instrumentalists circled around each other, I was confused.
“It came a flow’ret bright, amid the cold of winter night”
The hopeful and longing lyrics of “Lo How A Rose E’Er Blooming” united a community fatigued by the holidays. The words echoed in our venue were guided by what I had been avoiding even thinking about. It was beauty that guided the resulting concert. From the musicians to the cantor to the atmosphere to the community to my own heart, all of us united in beauty. And it came to me just like “a flow’ret bright amid the cold of winter night”.
The tangible warmth in my heart was unavoidable. I was gently consumed, gladly taken outside of myself. Although powerful, it was not forceful. It was simply an invitation, the kind that you would be an idiot to turn down.The simplicity of being present was enough to begin to understand the guiding light so clearly at work. The beauty that was made was undeniable.
The concert did not fill me with any loneliness or isolation as may be suspected for an event that consists of you sitting in silence and just listening. Rather, I felt united to the community in our mutual appreciation and love of the music. It was as if the one listening ear of the community also provided a gateway to the heart.
Where did that gateway lead? Dietrich von Hildebrand says this about such experiences,
“It is directly attached to visible and audible things, but the reality about which it speaks qualitatively, the substance, whose quintessence it is, is a spiritual world which towers high above everything corporeal.” (88)
It was not just the sound I experienced. It was some mysterious sublime connection to something far above me. The language of music was for me that very gateway to the heavens. But this experience was not altogether my own, but one I enjoyed in union with others.
This is the power of beauty that I think changes the world. The natural community which comes through sharing a beautiful experience is not one to be scoffed at or overlooked. Whether or not violence would decrease, experiences such as mine at this concert certainly offer profoundly new hope because of their profound universality. There is a hope that man is not alone. There is hope that man as a member of a community can encounter that sublimity. It is this power of beauty that I believe is changing and has changed the world.
Beauty in Light of the Redemption, Dietrich von Hildebrand, 88.