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The Forgotten Voice of Dietrich von Hildebrand

  • JOHN F. CROSBY

I have picked out three main aspects of Dietrich von Hildebrand's legacy that speak to us powerfully even today:  witness, personalist, and philosopher of beauty and the heart.

Dietrich von Hildebrand as witness. 

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Dietrich von Hildebrand
1889-1977

He was a rare kind of philosopher:  he was not just a thinker who aimed at formulating truth — he was also a witness who testified to the truth.  Let me explain what I mean by giving you some background to his Vienna years.

Von Hildebrand was aware of National Socialism from the time of its first appearance on the German scene.  He must have been a well-known opponent of it already in 1923, for in that year, when Hitler tried to seize power in Bavaria, von Hildebrand's name was on a short list of enemies of National Socialism who were marked for execution.  He left Germany for good in March of 1933, just days after Hitler had taken office.  He moved to Vienna and founded an anti-Nazi journal.  He must have made his voice heard, for in 1937 the German ambassador to Austria, van Papen, denounced von Hildebrand to Hitler as the intellectual leader in Austria of the opponents of German National Socialism, and in fact suggested eliminating von Hildebrand and his collaborators.  Von Hildebrand stood his ground until Hitler entered Vienna in 1938.  For over four years he lived in constant danger of assassination as he bore witness in the pages of his journal.

Many of his friends seized upon "positive elements" in Nazism, such as the recovery of German national pride after the humiliation of World War I and Versailles.  In fact the German Catholic bishops, gathered in Fulda in 1933, stressed just such things as they took a welcoming stance towards their new chancellor.  All of these "positive elements" made no impression on von Hildebrand; they were for him just dust thrown in his face to distract him from the fundamental reality of Nazism; they never obscured, not in the least, his strong sense of radical evil at the heart of Nazism, nor did they keep him from speaking of the face of the Antichrist in Hitler.

It is fairly easy for us, at a distance of more than 70 years, to discern the profile of evil in Nazism.  Indeed, Hitler has become everybody's choice example of radical evil.  But not many of us, living in Germany in the early 30's, would have discerned it so clearly; most of us would have been like those German bishops of the time: we would have been drawn to the idea of building some bridge to National Socialism, of opening a dialogue with it, of discerning some "sign of the times" in the dynamic unfolding of the Nazi movement, and we would have thought that talking about Hitler in terms of the Antichrist was a gross oversimplification.  We would have felt superior to von Hildebrand with our more nuanced approach to Nazism, and we would have rebuked him for approaching it in such primitive black-and-white terms.  We might even have charged him with "fundamentalism."  Here, then, is the way he challenges us.  He was entirely capable of making fine distinctions, of preserving subtle nuance, of leaving difficult questions open, and in his rich philosophical writings he constantly does these things; but he also knew that there is a time to take a stand, to say Yes to good and No to evil.  He teaches us, in a way that must not be forgotten, that there is a time for the distinguishing of intellectual points, and there is a time for what St.  Ignatius called "the discernment of spirits."  There is a time for discourse, and a time for witness.

In today's intellectual climate, saturated as it is by relativism, we can have a hard time bearing witness; even we, who want no part in relativism, can be inhibited by it, so that we end up speaking in muted tones.  We need the example of von Hildebrand, who reminds us that there are times when we stand between good and evil, and not just between more and less good, and that at such times we are called to say with our whole being, Yes to good and No to evil. 


Dietrich von Hildebrand as personalist philosopher. 

Von Hildebrand's philosophy, like that of John Paul II, is centered on the human person, and it was phenomenology that gave him the resources to avoid reducing the human person to something lower, to capture the irreducible in human persons, to articulate what distinguishes the human person, what underlies the "image of God" in man.

I said that Dietrich von Hildebrand was not only a philosopher — now I hasten to add that he was also a philosopher, and a very eminent one.  He received his philosophical formation in the phenomenological school of Edmund Husserl, who immediately recognized von Hildebrand's philosophical gifts.  For von Hildebrand, phenomenology was first of all a resolute anti-reductionism.  Husserl had begun by showing that logic cannot be reduced to empirical psychology, and then proceeded to show that philosophy cannot be reduced to natural science.  Phenomenologists learned never to say that a thing is "nothing but" some other thing; they learned to let each thing "show itself from itself," so that it might be known not as a variation of something else, but rather as a thing "all its own."  Von Hildebrand absorbed this anti-reductionism and made it fruitful for understanding the human person. 

In fact, we will not go wrong if we think of von Hildebrand as a thinker in whom phenomenology becomes personalism.  Von Hildebrand's philosophy, like that of John Paul II, is centered on the human person, and it was phenomenology that gave him the resources to avoid reducing the human person to something lower, to capture the irreducible in human persons, to articulate what distinguishes the human person, what underlies the "image of God" in man.  He deployed his personalism not only in relation to the fearful depersonalization at work in the totalitarianisms of the time, but also in relation to his own Christian tradition. 

For centuries Christians thought of the conjugal act primarily in terms of procreation.  Only at the beginning of the 20th century did they begin to recognize in the conjugal act the expression of marital love, and recognize this as a meaning of the conjugal act distinct from procreation.  Of course, marital love had been previously set in relation to marriage, but not exactly in relation to the conjugal act, which had been seen almost exclusively in terms of procreation.  This is why some Church fathers taught that marital relations during pregnancy or after menopause were venially sinful;  marital relations seemed to them to be so exclusively about procreation as to lose their justification in the case of known infertility.  But if man and woman in marriage enact their spousal self-donation in and through their one-flesh union, then their marital intimacy has abundant meaning even in the case of known infertility.  And with this an entirely new and eminently personal dimension of the conjugal act comes to light.

It is not difficult to see how his phenomenological orientation aided him in achieving this new insight.  By letting the conjugal act "show itself from itself" von Hildebrand was able to discern that it involves more than procreation;  he realized that our philosophical reflection would be reductionistic if we were to acknowledge only a procreative meaning of the conjugal act.  And there is something else: as a result of his anti-reductionism, the phenomenological philosopher is particularly attuned to the inner life of persons, or to what John Paul II called the "subjectivity" of persons.  He does not just attend to the external behavior of persons, but to their interiority, or to what is called the "lived experience" of persons.  Now spousal self-donation is not apparent at the level of external behavior;  self-donation exists as something hidden in the interiority of spouses; it does not appear in nature like procreation appears.  Only a philosophy that is alive to personal interiority will detect it and do justice to it in philosophical reflection.  Once the conjugal act is seen not just as an instrument of nature for propagating the species, but also as an act in which persons give themselves to each other in an incomparable bodily way, then the act takes on all kinds of personalist significance that it had hitherto lacked.

Here, then, is just one way in which von Hildebrand's personalism has been enriching for all who have felt its influence.  Just consider John Paul's theology of the body, which has found such a resonance with the men and women of our time: it rests upon the personalist understanding of human sexuality that von Hildebrand first achieved.  In dealing with the challenging issues of gender and sexuality that face us today, we have a rich and not yet exhausted resource in the work of von Hildebrand.


Von Hildebrand as philosopher of beauty and of the heart. 

When we think of beauty, we first think of beauty in art and nature.  Von Hildebrand acknowledges all such beauty, of course, and in fact takes it very seriously.  But he also discerns beauty on a much vaster scale, as we will see by getting acquainted with his idea of value, which stands at the center of his philosophy.  By value he means the inner excellence or dignity or preciousness of a being.  We can understand value in his sense if we recall Oscar Wilde's famous definition of the cynic:  the one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  So we have the value of a person's courage, or of his or her intelligence, or the value of living beings, or the greater value of conscious living beings. 

Now von Hildebrand claims that everything of value — not just works of art — gives off some beauty, has something of the radiance or fragrance that we call beauty.  Von Hildebrand's affirmation of beauty leads to his understanding of the human person.  He is led to take very seriously the affectivity of the person — the heart.  He goes so far as to say that the human person is not distinguished from other animals by intellect and will only;  equally important is the heart.  The traditional view is that our affective energy originates out of our bodily life and is at first unruly and disordered;  and that this energy gets ordered and channeled by our intellect and will.  But von Hildebrand thinks that this view fails to do justice to our affectivity.  If you are, for example, filled with heartfelt gratitude for some deliverance, your gratitude is not just your will ordering some amorphous affective energy.  No, the gratitude you feel is from the beginning engendered by your understanding of some great good for yourself and is thereby rightly ordered from within.  Thus von Hildebrand holds that we have three centers of personal life, and not just two:  besides intellect and will, there is the co-equal heart. 

I can will the good of another as much as I like — if I do not also take some affective delight in the other, I do not really love the other.

When something discloses itself to you in its beauty, you do not just cognize the beauty, or just will to act on behalf of the beautiful being;  you take delight in it, you are affectively moved by it.  If we human persons live amidst beauty in the way that von Hildebrand thinks we do, then we cannot fail to be affectively related to the world.  His stress on beauty in his vision of the world corresponds to his stress on the heart in his vision of the human person.  He holds that love is not only a commitment of the will.  I can will the good of another as much as I like — if I do not also take some affective delight in the other, I do not really love the other.

Von Hildebrand realizes that by placing love in the heart and not only in the will, it ceases to be entirely in one's control;  at the same time, he resists the idea that love is blind.  He holds that love is what he calls a value-response, that is, a response to some perceived excellence or goodness in the beloved person.  It is of course not just some one excellent quality of the other that awakens my love, but a certain excellence of the beloved person as a whole.  And this excellence awakens love only when it is experienced in all its beauty;  it is the Gesamtschönheit, or comprehensive beauty, of the beloved person that awakens love with all its affective ardor.  Love is, then, not blind;  it is not a vital energy that breaks out irrationally;  it rather responds to the beauty experienced in the beloved person.  We see here in von Hildebrand's philosophy of love the correspondence of beauty and the heart.

Here is another example of the fruitfulness of von Hildebrand's thought on beauty and the heart.  He had grown up with no religious formation, but he was early on strongly drawn to the Catholic Church, into which he was received in 1914 at the age of 24.  It was Max Scheler, the great German philosopher, who set him on his path to conversion by calling his attention to the saints, such as St.  Francis of Assisi.  It was above all the radiant supernatural beauty that von Hildebrand found in the saints that moved him to convert and that sustained his faith for the rest of his life.  The beauty of the saints was for him a radiance or fragrance of their holiness.

You have all heard the significant line of Dostoevsky, "Beauty will save the world."  Von Hildebrand agrees, in the sense that it was the beauty of the Christian saints, the splendor of their virtues, the glory of the God-man, that was the single greatest mainstay of his faith.  And here we come to the special importance that von Hildebrand's thought on beauty and the heart has for us at the beginning of the 21st century.  If we are looking for moral orientation, or for the reinforcement of a beleaguered faith, we will find in von Hildebrand much that illumines our understanding.  He was a penetrating critic of relativism in all its forms, and an ardent defender of the objectivity of truth and good.  In his moral philosophy he throws new light on the virtues and the vices.  But there is always something more at work in all of these analyses.  He has a special sense for the beauty of truth and the beauty of value.  He cannot talk about truths of religion without bringing out a certain glory that he discerns shining through them, or rather shining through those persons who live lives totally committed to them.  In the encounter with his work we can expect to find our religious commitment renewed not only intellectually but also affectively.  There may even be in him the makings of a kind of "argument from beauty" for the truth of revelation, an argument that the men and women of our time long to hear.

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Acknowledgement

Dr. John Crosby. "The Forgotten Voice of Dietrich von Hildebrand." Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project (June 5, 2012).

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project (Hildebrand Project) was founded to promote the thought and spirit of Dietrich von Hildebrand by preserving his memory and disseminating his writings, especially in the English-speaking world.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote of von Hildebrand:

"I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

Despite these words of high praise, von Hildebrand has sadly come to be largely forgotten. The Legacy Project wishes to remedy this situation.

The Author

Dietrich von Hildebrand was an original philosopher and religious writer, a brave anti-Nazi activist, an outspoken Christian witness, and a unique representative of Western culture. 

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He studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl, who declared his dissertation to be a work of genius.  He was profoundly influenced by his close friend, the brilliant German philosopher Max Scheler, who helped to pave the way for von Hildebrand's conversion to Catholicism in 1914.  When Hitler rose to power in 1933, von Hildebrand was among the first to recognize and denounce the evil of Hitler and Nazism.  A persona non grata in Germany, he left everything and went penniless to Vienna where he founded an anti-Nazi newspaper.  With the German occupation of Austria in 1938, von Hildebrand became a political fugitive.  Fleeing through Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, France, Portugal, and Brazil, he eventually arrived in the United States in 1940 where he taught for many years at Fordham University in New York City.  Throughout his life von Hildebrand wrote many works unfolding the faith and morals of Catholicism.  His many writings, particularly those on religious themes, have helped many to embrace the Catholic faith.  Among these are such classics as Transformation in Christ, The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity, Humility: Wellspring of Virtue, The Art of Living, Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, and Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love: God's Plan for Love, Marriage, Intimacy, and the Family.

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John Crosby is the M.A. Philosophy Director and Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  Professor Crosby is known internationally for his work on John Henry Newman, Max Scheler, Karol Wojtyła, and Dietrich von Hildebrand.  He has made a significant contribution to the area of philosophical anthropology or philosophy of the human person and has played a major role in the contemporary interest and discussion of that field through his three books The Legacy of Pope John Paul II: His Contribution to Catholic Thought, Personalist Papers, and The Selfhood of the Human Person.

Copyright © 2012 Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project
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