beauty dietrich von hildebrand

Hildebrand’s Riddle: The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Beauty

12:04:00 PMAnne Foster


“Woah, what a nice looking large mass of rocky terrain. Doesn’t a result of a collision of tectonic plates just make you feel like writing a poem?” 

Pardon my facetiousness, but although no one speaks in this manner when beholding a majestic mountain range, I have found that many are greatly troubled by a reasonably baffling paradox which lies in them. How can a mere visible mass of rocks bear objective beauty: a beauty that is comparable only to that of the lofty beauty of supernatural virtues or the mystifying beauty of one’s beloved? (1)

At first, it wasn’t always easy for me to accept and then defend a position such as Hildebrand’s which claims that beauty exists as a reality and not only in the eye of the beholder. In our current epoch this is a bold statement. It only becomes bolder when Hildebrand insists that this immaterial beauty speaks of an immaterial spiritual universe. 

Many would like to resolve the issue by accusing Hildebrand of over spiritualizing everything, attempting to cast a divine glow upon what is only natural, all for the sake of appeasing his own romantic sentimentality. How else can you explain the musings of a philosopher who emphatically claims that a sunset bears objective beauty, a beauty which ought to be revered. He goes so far as to argue the sunset will bear this beauty whether we are there to see it or not.  

These objections used to catch me off guard. I believe in a spiritual realm and so have no qualms about agreeing with Hildebrand that the creation of my Creator undoubtedly is imbued with a heavenly splendor which speaks of higher things. It doesn’t even take a Christian to agree with this proposition, for it was Plato, the pagan, who was beauty’s first champion, claiming that it is through beauty that the soul is able to grow wings.  

Luckily, Hildebrand was no stranger to such objections. He was able to provide a solution which although it may not appease the empiricist, is compatible with our human experience. 

So what exactly does he say? 

He writes, that the discrepancy between the conditions within the visible and audible for the appearing of sublime spiritual beauty on the one hand, and the depth, importance, and immateriality of this beauty on the other hand, is so great that we are truly confronted by a unique mirandum, a wonder (2). In other words, that the visible and audible: rocks, light, and sounds, are bearers of supernatural beauty is a conundrum difficult to comprehend. 


He concedes that there is no highly intelligible link which explicitly explains this mystery of why rocky mountains, intricate brush strokes, and a movement within a quartet, draw us outside of ourselves. 

This point can be best understood by the fact that we do not experience beauty as something merely useful. The musician on the street corner stops us in our tracks … we get caught up in the complexity and harmony of the arrangement and in that moment there is no thought of how that melody is useful for me. I may stop at a food vendor to grab a snack on the way to work because I forgot to eat breakfast and know that I’ll need nourishment to finish out my busy day. In this scenario I stopped at the food vendor to appease a need and utilize the nourishing qualities of the food. Yet, how drastically different is my attitude toward the enjoyment of the street musician’s song? The notes are undoubtedly not helping me get to work on time, nor contributing to my long ‘to do’ list. Rather, it would seem that I stop to listen and enjoy the music for it’s own sake and the fact that it brings pleasure to my senses appears as a secondary effect. 

Aside from the apparent ‘uselessness’ of the beauty of the music, there is yet another paradoxical element worth noting. Clearly when a supernatural virtue is perceived, such as the humility of Mother Teresa, the fragrance of it’s beauty is a reflection of the essence of its bearer, the bearer being the virtue of humility. This experience therefore differs with that of the beauty of the mountain, for a great abyss lies between the value of a rocky formation and that of a truly genuine act of humility. Hildebrand would agree, and thus he would assert that difference lies in the fact the mountain or the melody is only a pedestal on which the beauty appears. Thus the beauty speaks not of the sublime essence of the mountain or music itself, but rather to something else … something incomparably higher (3). 


Hildebrand says that the mountain is not inherently clothed with the same preciousness which we discover in the beauty of our beloved’s soul. The beauty of a soul proclaims the dignity of that person’s essence whereas the beauty of the majestic mountain does not proclaim the glory of that particular mass of stone, but rather the glory of a much higher reality. The beauty of landscapes, paintings, symphonies enkindles in the human heart a yearning for a world of lofty immaterial realities, a longing for what is “above us” (4). 

Here in lies the answer to the riddle which I have found to be both enchanting and undeniably tied up in our human experience. And it was my beloved Cardinal Newman who expressed it most eloquently in his article “Music A Symbol of the Unseen”:

“There are seven notes in the scale; make them fourteen; yet what a slender outfit for so vast an enterprise! What science brings so much out of so little? Out of what poor elements does some great master in it create his new world! … yet is it possible that that inexhaustible evolution and disposition of notes, so rich yet so simple, so intricate yet so regulated, so various yet so majestic, should be a mere sound, which is gone and perishes? Can it be that those mysterious stirrings of heart, and keen emotions, and strange yearnings after we know not what, and awful impressions from we know not whence, should be wrought in us by what is unsubstantial, and comes and goes, and begins and ends in itself? It is not so; it cannot be. No; they have escaped from some higher sphere; they are the outpourings of eternal harmony in the medium of created sound; they are echoes from our home; they are the voice of angels, or the Magnificat of saints, or the living laws of divine governance, or the divine attributes; something are they besides themselves, which we cannot compass, which we cannot utter,—though mortal man, and he perhaps not otherwise distinguished above his fellows, has the gift of eliciting them (5).”

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1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. I, 203.
2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. I, 208.
3. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. I, 209. 
4. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. I, 210.
5. Blessed John Henry Newman, Music A Symbol of the Unseen.

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