On our longings for beauty

David Bentley Hart considers human consciousness and the transcendent.



David Bentley Hart considers human consciousness and the transcendent.


Well, I have to confess, I’m something of a Christian Platonist. I mean, I believe that beauty points us towards God in the way that any transcendental does – the good, the true, the beautiful. I mean for Plato, it’s a simple thing; there’s a more proximate beauty that excites the desire of the soul, but the soul continues to long for the source of all beauty.

I think that, just phenomenologically, that’s true of all human consciousness. When we examine why we love what we love, why we do what we do, it turns out that there is a transcendental dimension to every employment of the will. If you love something that’s beautiful, you know that in doing that, you don’t love it just as a finite object within its … that is the own index of its value – you’re making a judgement about it in terms of a more constitutive, more primordial desire that moves you towards a transcendental end. And ultimately a transcendent end, that is, the beautiful as such. 

The will, desire, the intellect, the longing for the beautiful or the good or the true, is not just one aspect of consciousness. It’s at the very ground of it, it’s the very ground of human identity and human personality. And one of the phenomenologically odd things about possessing a rational nature is that all of reality comes to us within the embrace of these transcendental values that, whether we want them or not, guide us in every moment, and that lie beyond the boundaries of the natural world. 

Whether we like it or not, just as living rational beings, we’re always oriented towards the transcendent. And in beauty, we have one particularly privileged way in which one senses the limitations of a view of reality that’s mechanistic or materialist or values things only in light of their own objectivity, and is aware that these things somehow mysteriously reflect or let through a glimpse of something that you long for yet more, and that fulfils your longings yet more fully.