Reading Ancient and Medieval Texts After Hans Urs von Balthasar
by Oleg V. Bychkov
Catholic University of America, 349 pages, $79.95
The beautiful is difficult,” writes Plato. Oleg Bychkov, professor of theology at St. Bonaventure University, has written a difficult and demanding book that spans the chasm separating the modern science of aesthetics from premodern philosophical and theological texts. The book addresses two interrelated concerns. First, what is the meaning of the modern concept of aesthetics or aesthetic experience? Does beauty have anything to do with metaphysics, ethics, or biblical revelation? Second, there is the question of interpretation: “Is it at all possible to retrieve the meaning of ancient and medieval texts? What sort of meaning can we hope to recover? And finally, how should one proceed to recover this meaning?”
An extended argument addressing both of these issues is advanced through a dialogue with the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Bychkov confirms the originality and legitimacy of von Balthasar’s “aesthetic hermeneutics” even as he seeks to supplement or correct aspects of the latter’s interpretation of ancient and medieval texts. Whereas von Balthasar writes from within the Christian tradition and thus is guided by the “inner content of revelation,” Bychkov promises an analysis of four distinct premodern traditions (the Platonic, Stoic, Augustinian, and Bonaventurian) based on “the historically and philologically documented continuity of texts.”
The end result is mixed. Bychkov succeeds in showing how the modern discipline of aesthetics can be enriched through a careful rereading of premodern sources. At the same time, the book evinces a surprising lack of interest in the unifying center of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics: the generosity and poverty of divine love poured out in and through the crucified and risen Lord—a generosity and poverty that analogically structures the whole of reality as good, true, and beautiful.
Nicholas J. Healy Jr. teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.