I’ve always been a lover of crime shows.
From binge-marathons of Law and Order SVU to the ways in which Criminal Minds sparked my interest in human psychology (and even prompted me to study psychology for a while!), nothing on television could possibly rival my interest in these fast-paced and thrilling plot lines.
By far my favorite of these TV shows has been a show called Lie to Me. Rather than solving crimes through DNA evidence left at the scene, or through suspicious alibis which just didn’t check out, the specialists on Lie to Me solved crimes and cases simply by analyzing a person’s minute facial expressions while conducting their interview with them. While much of the show is based on real science, I never really paused to think about the mysterious nature of the human face until reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics.
Because I had studied psychology for so long, I hadn’t ever stopped to think about how mysterious it is that the physical attributes of the face disclose an interior movement of the heart — in other words, that the face discloses emotion. This is what we call expression. It is the nature of expression that I have taken for granted for so long.
Hildebrand, being a lover of beauty, naturally, gives us a rather fleshed-out exposition on the topic. I’ve organized his thoughts under three major themes:
1. The face displays two different kinds of beauty.
First, there is beauty in the purely physical and aesthetic sense of the word. In the sense, the radiant beauty of a person’s face, according to Hildebrand, can be found in the shapely proportionality of the person’s features. Put more simply, some people just have really beautiful faces.
But there is so much more to the story than this. In fact, this physical kind of beauty could even be said to be a more superficial beauty. This is because “beauty of the visible and the audible tells us nothing about the personality” (1).
However, the second way the face can be said to be “beautiful” lies in the fact that, mysteriously, the face discloses the person in the way that the foot, for instance, does not. In fact, Hildebrand even goes so far as to state that “the face is not just a bodily structure,” for the face expresses the personality (2). In order for the face to be more than a mere mask, “the face needs expression” (3). So what is this second kind of beauty called? Hildebrand declares that, “although the beauty expressed in the face is dependent in its visible manifestation on purely visible factors, it is itself the beauty of a human person, and hence a metaphysical beauty” (4).
2. “The human face is created for expression” (5).
The purpose of the face is to reveal the person. Due to the complexity, infinite interiority, and dignity of each and every human person, “a boring expression” upon one’s face “limits even the greatest beauty of the visible and audible” (5).
Think about it this way: even if a person has a “pretty” face by any physically aesthetic standards, a “narrow, or evil” or “cold” look upon the face makes the “beauty of the face become soulless. The face loses its full beauty” (6). The reverse can also be true. In her older years, the wrinkled skin and aging features of Mother Teresa were not what made her beautiful. Rather, the warmth expressed in her eyes, the kindness of her look, and the sweetness of her smile were enough to remind one of the beauty of an angel. This is the power of expression. Someone would have to be heartless to deny her beauty.
3. The human face is a mystery.
Ultimately, the face’s ordering toward expression is highly mysterious. While the unity of body and soul itself is a mystery, the nature of expression is different. While body-soul union consists of “the union of physiological processes with inner psychic and spiritual processes,” the mystery of expression consists of “some visible change in the face to permit something that belongs to a completely different sphere of being to become intuitively present” (8).
The fact that the face discloses something of the person’s psychological or personal life is given through intuition. This self-manifestation in a human face is rather unexplainable. By slight alterations in the face, things which are both significant and personal come to light.
In a unique collaboration between metaphysical beauty and the beauty of a visible form, the human face mysteriously and outwardly expresses what is interiorly experienced by that person.
I come away from Hildebrand’s thoughts with a much deeper appreciation for the human person, and a more authentic acceptance of my own beauty as a person. In a culture where people (especially women) seem to be reduced to the aesthetic value of their physical features alone, it is easy to look into the mirror and feel, well, a little less than aesthetically pleasing. We could even feel ugly on our worst of days. (I know that I definitely have those days!). Contemplating the mysterious nature of my embodiment in general, but in particular of my face’s power to express my personhood, helps me to accept and acknowledge the beauty that I do possess. I pray that you all can do the same.
So go ahead: look in the mirror.
You’re pretty incredible.
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 135.
2. Ibid, 135-136.
3. Ibid, 136.
5. Ibid, 138.
7. Ibid, 139.