aesthetics America

What America Could Learn from Europe: The Culture of Beauty in the Formation of the Personality

6:00:00 AMAnonymous

There’s something to be said for the gift that it is to grow up surrounded by the truly beautiful.  

The human person has an innate potential to flourish in atmospheres that are heavily saturated by cultures of beauty.  Steeped in mystery, antiquity, tradition, and reverence, a culture of beauty is vital to the formation of the personality.  Beauty opens man up to what is transcendent, beyond himself, and worthy of contemplation.  

In other words, beauty makes people thoughtful.

Beauty makes us slow down.

It makes us pause.


Take delight.

There is no better testament to the reality of this phenomenon than the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.  

Raised by two loving parents who were nominally Protestant, the young Dietrich’s “true religion…was at the altar of beauty.  As a result, he grew up living and breathing great art, and especially music, for which he had a great affinity” (2).  His father was a successful sculptor and architect, and his mother was a cultivated and soulful woman who delighted in whatever fascinated the hungry intellects of her children. 

What I find most intriguing about Dietrich von Hildebrand is the impact that his beauty-saturated upbringing had upon the formation of his spirituality and personhood.  Living in a relatively non-religious family, the sole locus of his “worship” revolved around the arts.  His innate receptivity to the beauty around him formed him in his search for truth within philosophy.  Reflecting upon his discovery of truth through beauty, he credits his search for truth for leading him into the Catholic Church: “It was not faith that determined my fundamental philosophical orientation…rather it was my philosophical orientation that leveled the path for my reception into the Catholic Church” (3).

Thus, beauty led Hildebrand to truth; and truth led him to Christ. 

Wittelsbacher Brunnen Fountain created by Adolf von Hildebrand, the father of Dietrich von Hildebrand

I could not grasp this impact of beauty upon the person until I left the United States to study in Europe for several months.  I took up residence in the country of Austria (the country so dear to the heart of Hildebrand), nestled in the foothills of the Alps.  My “home away from home” was a renovated Carthusian monastery from the 1300s.  

Needless to say, I found myself, for perhaps the first time in my life, truly surrounded by beauty.

The impact that antiquity, beauty, and tradition have upon European culture is undeniable.  My whole life, I had been convinced (by my well-intentioned and patriotic blue-collared American family) that Europe was simply a mess of atheist-minded, secular, and politically radical millenials.  However, while the political landscape of Europe was at times both frightening and messy, there was one thing (at least) which I found undeniably attractive about the European way of life: the air seems thick with beauty.

Walking around the great cities of Europe captured my heart in a way that the great cities of America simply have not.  The hustle and bustle that I found so exhilarating about New York City now paled in comparison to the kindness on the faces of the people I encountered in Vienna.  The tall, silvery sky-scrapers of my homeland left me amazed at their enormity, for sure; but the view from the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome left me with eyes full of tears, and awe in my heart.  The modern art exhibit passing through the Toledo Museum of Art in my hometown filled me with curiosity, while the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the façade of San Marco’s in Venice left me dumbfounded and full of praise for the God Who inspired such beauty.         

I love my country.  I love being an American.  I love our military.  I love our way of life.  I love all of the blessings and opportunities that this land has given me.  

But I think that the lack of emphasis on the classical understanding of beauty in architecture, music, and the visual arts is something that has left a gaping hole in our culture.  On the point of beauty, perhaps we have a thing or two that we could learn from the “lost” culture of Europe’s past.      

Think about it — students walk into the white-washed walls of their classrooms in America where efficiency, output, and standardization are prized over critical thinking, engagement, fostering a curious environment, or creativity.  What would our education system look like if our classrooms visually stimulated one’s desire to learn?  Or if our online media outlets prized the quality and truth of content over trends?  Or if the transcendent element of truly beautiful music was prized over its ability to convey what a hormonal man feels when he sees an intoxicated woman in a club (seriously, I mean, this stuff is considered music?).  Or if our artists prioritized the communication of genuine beauty over the glorification of self-expression?  

What would our world look like? 

Now, don’t get me wrong — Europe has its own set of problems, as well as many cultural trends which serve as dramatic counter-examples to the ideals that I have set forth in this post.  However, speaking to my own experience of the beauty that I encountered in Austrian, German, Romanian, Italian, Hungarian, and French culture as I lived abroad for four months, I can safely say that the air that is produced by classical architecture, music, culture, literature, and art impacts people whether they realize it or not.  In fact, Hildebrand even goes so far as to say that “all this [beauty] nourishes the soul… even of the simplest man or woman, entering into their pores even when they are not concentrating on it” (5).  In other words, beauty affects us, even if we are unaware of its presence in our immediate surroundings.  The “poetry [of life] nourished [the spirit of man,] irrespective of how far he consciously grasped it” (6).   

Never forget that beauty always has the capacity to kindle love (7).  It is love, and only love, which can transform our culture, and our individual lives as well.  It was beauty and the love which it fostered that transformed my life as I studied abroad.  Coming back to America was hard.  I felt like I was surrounded by people too busy to even notice that we surround ourselves with a lot of...ugliness at times.  

All I’m saying is, if you take the time to surround yourself with opportunities to encounter true beauty, you won’t come away disappointed.

You’ll come away changed.

Isn’t that a more authentic understanding of progress, anyways?

1. Image One
2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 6.

3. Ibid, 10.

4. Image Two
5. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 3.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 1. 

8. Image Three

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