Abandoning Mediocrity: Opening Our Hearts to the World of Beauty6:00:00 AMJonah Soucy
Every time I think I finally understand beauty and the way we encounter it in our lives, something happens to help me realize how much deeper I have yet to go. I’ve gotten into various debates over the nature of beauty, whether or not it is “in the eye of the beholder” or something objective, the nature of beauty in that it helps us transcend the everyday, how it baptizes the mundane. One such position that I’ve held in the past is that one of the greatest attributes of beauty is that it has no practical use. Beauty doesn’t help you accomplish work faster or make you more productive. It is not something that can be harvested and used for profit. Beauty is, and the world is better for it. It is pure gift and though it has the power to help transcend the humdrum of the day to day, I’ve discovered that the role that beauty plays in the life of man is also one that is completely transformative of man at the very core of his being. Unfortunately, it’s not something that any philosophic or scientific discourse can really teach about. One can only write about it in the hopes that his reader will go out and open themselves up to it, as it really can only be understood when experienced. And as I’m constantly learning, it can always be experienced at deeper and deeper levels.
Dietrich von Hildebrand writes in the introduction to his Aesthetics, “Beauty is the archenemy of mediocrity… Contact with beauty not only offers real protection against impurity, baseness, every kind of letting oneself go, brutality, and untruthfulness; it has also the positive effect of raising us up in a moral sense... it opens our hearts, inviting us to transcendence and leading us before the face of God” (1).
Sounds pretty neat, right? Protection against impurity, raises us up, face of God, yadda yadda. Cool. Is this guy even serious?
The answer to that question is yes. But in order to understand this, there are two incredibly important premises that we need to understand. First and foremost, beauty is objective (2). I’ve addressed this already in an earlier post, which can be found here. To summarize this position, when one sees a sunset or is struck by the majesty of something spectacular in nature, we don’t say that it is beautiful for me. We simply say, this is beautiful. Or even more simply, wow. When we truly affirm something as beautiful, we’re not just saying this is beautiful to me. We are saying this is beautiful, and if you don’t see it you’re missing out.
Now it should be noted that not everyone has the same capacity for beauty at the start. But with the proper disposition, such as a deep reverence for it or desire to encounter it, I believe that anyone can attain it. And it is well worth the work, as placing oneself within the realm of the beautiful and letting himself be moved by it is one of the greatest sources of joy we can find this side of life. There’s nothing quite like kicking back and enjoying a good pipe, fine bourbon, and a magnificient view, all while listening to the great composers. Keep it mind, however, that because of human weakness , there are times when we try to have the encounter and aren’t able to. Just because we have the proper disposition is not a timeless guarantee. The world of beauty is not something we can manipulate for selfish pleasure. All we can do is open ourselves up to it, time will do the rest.
The other aspect of beauty that we need to address is that beauty, by its very nature, is transformative. “It possesses a great significance for the development of personality, especially in the moral sense… even our soul itself becomes more beautiful when beauty comes to meet us, take hold of us, and fires us with enthusiasm” (3). A man who surrounds himself with beautiful things becomes more contemplative, more engaged in the world of values, more free. A man who takes the time to enjoy a scenic view or listen to one of Beethoven’s symphonies or admire a beautiful painting is going to become more “spiritually full” in a sense. Beauty will take root in his soul, and radiate forth from him in a way that others will find themselves questioning what it is that makes this man so warm, so peaceful, and so loving.
By taking on this attitude of openness and reverence towards beauty, man becomes more free and experiences a greater depth and appreciation for the joys of life. He becomes more grounded in who he is. He grows in virtue and good character. Taking initiative in this quest helps man to abandon the mediocre and the mundane, and start the process of becoming the best version of himself; to be who he is made to be.
Interested in joining the discussion? Feel free to leave a comment below!
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. 1 p. 7
- Ibid p. 13
- Ibid p. 5