Debating Beauty: Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand

Having taught both ethics and aesthetics many times in the course of my career, I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is a much more demanding task. In both cases, the enemy to be fought is the deeply rooted relativism and subjectivism prevalent in our society. But in ethics, there’s always a possibility that students will agree that in some cases, the evil nature of certain acts cannot be contested.

But when it comes to aesthetic appreciation of individual works of art — much as thinkers might agree on some basic principles — the disagreements are baffling. Two philosophers might agree that there’s a hierarchy among beautiful objects but disagree violently as to which one is actually more beautiful.

Is aesthetic appreciation a question of taste, as one can like or dislike beer? Tastes cannot be debated, and such debates would be totally meaningless.

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Just as mystifying is the fact that some great artists have often shown no appreciation for other artists. One is tempted to assume that artists are qualified to pass judgment on the works of their peers, but this is far from the case. It is amazing, for example, that an artistic giant such as Michelangelo "was singularly hard on Flemish painting," "which attempting to do so many things does none of them well" (Maritain, Creative Intuition). Just as amazing is El Greco’s judgment on the same artist: "Michelangelo was a good man, but he did not know how to paint" (Ibid.). These assertions are so shocking that one’s tempted to draw the conclusion that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and is therefore purely subjective.

Both Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand have written extensively on aesthetics. As close as these two devout Catholics were on central philosophical questions — the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, the capacity that man’s mind has to reach absolute truth — their approach to aesthetics was vastly different.

Both men were great devotees of art. As a young man and later with his wife, Raissa, Maritain enjoyed going to the Louvre and contemplating its treasures. Dietrich von Hildebrand was the son of a great artist, brought up in Florence, acquainted with leading musicians and artists. He wrote his two-volume Aesthetics (close to a thousand pages) when he was over 80 and completed the work in less than a year.

Maritain’s Approach

Maritain based his views of aesthetics on the philosophy of St. Thomas. In his early work, Art and Scholasticism, Maritain acknowledged his debt to his master. But aesthetics, as Etienne Gilson remarked, is a field in which the Angelic Doctor had made but few major contributions.

In his writings, Maritain distinguished between two types of beauty: The first was "beauty as transcendental," that is to say that beauty — like being, truth, and goodness — transcends all categories for the simple reason that it is a property of everything that exists. In other words, everything that is is beautiful. For God, Maritain argued, everything is beautiful, though he clarified this in a footnote:

Evil, it is true — the wound of nothingness by which the freedom of a creature deforms a voluntary act — is ugly in the eyes of God. But no being is ugly, as Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler) repeatedly points out.
Thus not only does Silesius claim that everything is beautiful, but he writes that "a frog is as beautiful as a Seraphic angel." Whether everything is beautiful is one thing. The claim that an animal is as beautiful as an angel is quite another. Let us assume for the time being that the first assertion is true, and the second is obviously false. As there is a hierarchy of being, there is also a hierarchy of beauty: To claim that a saint is as beautiful as the Holy Virgin is plainly false.
One can also ask whether man can really know how God experiences beauty. Being Beauty itself, He need not perceive it frontally, as angels and humans do. Maritain proceeds: "Thus, just as everything is in its own way, and is good in its own way, so everything is beautiful in its own way."
But this transcendental beauty isn’t what our senses perceive. And so we have another distinction that Maritain calls "aesthetic beauty," that is, the type of beauty that we perceive through our eyes and ears. While transcendental beauty is intellectually perceived, our senses play a vital part in aesthetic beauty. The result is that not all things are beautiful to us. Writes Maritain: "The presence of the senses, which depend on our fleshly constitution, is inherently involved in the notion of aesthetic beauty. I would say that aesthetic beauty, which is not all beauty for man but which is the beauty most naturally proportioned to the human mind, is a particular determination of transcendental beauty: it is transcendental beauty as confronting not simply the intellect, but the intellect and the sense acting together in one single act."
Maritain didn’t stop there. He further praises Jean Paul Sartre for having highlighted the fact that ugliness, filth, and their cortege of negative characteristics are a category in existence. In other words, ugliness is a human phenomenon: that which is ugly, being seen, displeases; "where there is no sense, there is no category of ugliness." For purely spiritual beings, "everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it." And if certain objects are experienced by man as noxious, "it is not because they are noxious, it is essentially because they are repugnant to the inner proportion or harmony of the sense itself."
Ultimately, then, the artist aims at absorbing aesthetic beauty in transcendental beauty.
One can question whether it’s really true that "for a pure intellect, everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it." Certainly, there is such a thing as a beautiful mathematical demonstration, but one can raise the question whether this beauty can trigger in us the enchantment and Sursum Corda that we experience in contemplating a great work of art or a glorious sunset. Once the mind has perceived the convincing luminosity of a geometrical demonstration, the latter is hardly an object that it will contemplate over and over again. What is typical of the aesthetic experience is the desire to go from a joyful acquaintance with a beautiful object to a contemplative attitude characterized by the desire to dwell on it again and again. Quantum notiores, tantum cariores, writes St. Augustine. The better we know it, the more we love it. He who does not wish to go back to Florence because he’s seen it once is either blind to its beauty or very foolish. We rate our love for a piece of art according to our longing to see or hear it again.
Which one of us would prefer to have a Pythagorean acquaintance with aesthetic beauty than the one granted to us through our eyes and ears? John Henry Cardinal Newman had a particular love for music. In his monumental biography of this great English writer, Ian Ker writes that, listening to Beethoven’s quartets, ". . . he thought them more exquisite than ever" — "so that I was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight." (Let us not forget that the English are well-known for controlling their feelings.) It’s hard to imagine that upon giving assent to the Euclidian proof that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, Newman would have expressed the same explosive joy.
A Very Different View
Von Hildebrand’s presentation is different. He rejects the notion that whatever exists is beautiful and justifies his position — partly — by appealing to what he calls "metaphysical beauty." This differs from transcendental beauty because it isn’t a characteristic of being. Rather it’s the radiance, the splendor, the glory of every value. But what is meant by value? Von Hildebrand distinguishes between two categories. The first he calls "ontological." These are characterized by the fact that a being either possesses them or not. For example, man has an ontological value that is shared by all men: They’re all equally men.
Moreover, ontological values have no opposite: Logically, the opposite of man is "non-man;" but non-man is a concept, not a real entity. The universe is a hierarchy, and ontological values are structured according to this hierarchy. At the top, we have God, then angels, then men, then higher animals, then lower ones, then plants, then inanimate matter. Each one of them, according to its value and dignity, possesses beauty.
Von Hildebrand remarks further that it’s vitally important for human beings to be aware of their ontological value — their dignity as persons made in God’s image and likeness. The pantheistic view that we’re but drops in an immense universe is fake humility, a subtle lack of gratitude for the fact that God — in His infinite bounty and generosity — has metaphysically "knighted" us.
Apart from ontological values that are more or less beautiful according to their ontological rank, von Hildebrand speaks about qualitative values, moral values, intellectual values, and aesthetical values, to mention the most important ones. These clearly differ from ontological values for the obvious reason that one can possess them more or less. Men are not equally just, or kind, or generous, or beautiful. Some are geniuses, some are intellectually talented, and some have a mediocre intelligence. Some are exceptionally handsome, some are pleasant-looking, and some have a physical appearance that only a mother’s love can appreciate. Moreover, qualitative values have opposites: Moral goodness is opposed to moral evil; stupidity antagonizes intelligence; ugliness is at loggerheads with beauty. He stresses the fact that moral wickedness isn’t just an absence of goodness, but, alas, a very real quality called sin, which, because of its reality, offends God. Stupidity isn’t just a weak intelligence but a full-fledged negative quality. And ugliness isn’t just an absence of beauty but wages war on it.
The author tells us, further, that qualitative values are beautiful and that once again, their degree of beauty depends on the degree in which a good incorporates this value. In other words, the moral value of a saint is infinitely more beautiful than the moral value of an honest man. Plato’s genius is more beautiful than the mind of a thinker of lower rank. Good is opposed to evil, intelligence to stupidity, beauty to ugliness. Qualitative values, as opposed to ontological ones, shouldn’t make us focus on our own persons. The saint doesn’t contemplate his own humility — that would be the best and fastest way to lose it. The person endowed with remarkable intellectual gifts should be concerned about using the gifts for God’s glory and not gloat over them. Similarly, the beautiful person who is narcissistic would inevitably lose one dimension of aesthetic beauty.
All values are beautiful, whether ontological or qualitative. But in all of them, except in aesthetic values, beauty isn’t the theme. Rather, it’s a halo, a perfume that necessarily accompanies them, but shouldn’t be the locus of our interest. Moreover, all of them (except some aesthetic values) are intellectually perceived. Whereas only persons can be morally good or intelligent, aesthetic values can be found in every single level of being: An animal can be beautiful, as can plants and inanimate matter. Beauty is the most universal of all values. It’s found both in ontological and qualitative values.
But some aesthetic values (should we call them artistic values?) need the integrity of our sight and hearing in order to be perceived. In this Maritain and von Hildebrand agree. The beauty that we find in art is "thematic." The philosopher worthy of the name should be a truth lover and a truth seeker. Neither his "brilliance" nor his style should be our concern in reading his works. The one question that is crucial is: Is what he says true? This does not prevent us from appreciating his stylistic gifts, but his work should not be rated according to it. The aesthete — that is, the person who makes of beauty his one exclusive concern — would have to rate Nietzsche above Aristotle because of the beauty of his style. This would clearly be a perversion.
The artist’s aim should be to create beauty. If he fails to do so, he is a bad artist. A writer whose novels are boring and clumsy is a bad writer. And a philosopher whose aim is "originality" and who cares not whether his claims are justified by agreeing with reality is a bad philosopher.
Two Ways
Clearly, Maritain and von Hildebrand have different approaches to aesthetic beauty. As mentioned, the latter makes no use of "transcendental beauty," arguing that the knowledge that something exists does not guarantee that this object is beautiful.
Moreover, both thinkers differ in their interpretation of sense-perceived beauty. Maritain considers it a purely human phenomenon, as it necessarily presupposes sense perception. Far from denying the importance of the senses, von Hildebrand differs from the French philosopher in his claim that whereas the beauty of a painting or of music is perceived through the senses, the message it delivers totally transcends the world of matter.
Whereas for Maritain, sense experiences are purely human, both Newman and von Hildebrand claim that though man’s senses are necessarily involved, the message they communicate radically transcends the world of pure matter. It transmits a message coming from above, some mysterious echo of "the eternal hills" that sharpen our longing for Beauty itself — that is, God.
In metaphysical beauty there’s a perfect proportion between the dignity of the object and its beauty. In sense-perceived beauty — and this is a mirandum — there’s a total disproportion between the material used and the result obtained. What, after all, are tones? What are colors and forms? What are canvasses and bronze? They rank low on the metaphysical scale, but by some mysterious artistic transformation, they can radiate a beauty that brings tears to our eyes. This is why von Hildebrand speaks of a quasi-sacramental dimension of sense-perceived beauty. In baptism, plain water is poured on the head of a child, while the priest pronounces some words, and lo, through these mediums, the Holy Trinity takes hold of the child’s soul and blots out the stain of original sin. Our response to beauty is awe, enchantment, gratitude — something that a meditation on purely abstract being cannot give us. Our senses are like windows opened to a sublime world — a sort of Promised Land. This explains the deepest stirrings of the heart, this profound emotion that takes the one whose eyes and ears are opened to the message of beauty.
The aesthetic difference between Maritain and von Hildebrand also finds its expression in their appreciation of concrete works of art. Maritain — a close friend of Georges Rouault — sees 19th- and early 20th-century French painting as a climax of artistic beauty. Echoing her husband, Raissa Maritain calls Rouault "the greatest religious painter of our time" and adds "one of the greatest painters of all times."
Maritain feels so strongly about this that he doesn’t hesitate to disparage the distinguished historian of art, Hans Sedlmayr, for criticizing Cezanne in his famous work Verlust de Mitte. (Maritain accused Sedlmayr and Fritz Novotny of being "biased doctrinaires" and of making "blind judgments" for detecting in Maritain’s favorite painter the germs of cultural degeneration.)
Von Hildebrand would certainly not place Cezanne, Rouault, Chagall, Braque, and some of the "most durable works of Picasso" on the level of Giotto, Giorgione, Titian, Leonardo, or Michelangelo (to mention some of the many geniuses that Catholic culture has produced).
The reader is free to draw his own conclusions. Disagreements between art lovers — much less philosophers — don’t prevent us from claiming that artistic beauty is a great gift, not only in our human life but in our religious life as well. Indeed, it’s a faint reflection of the Eternal Beauty.


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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