Dietrich von Hildebrand as witness.
Dietrich von Hildebrand
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.
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.
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.
My Encounter with the Philosophy of Love of Dietrich Von Hildebrand
In the year 1958, I was a young atheist philosophy major about to give up on finding truth or love—as I couldn’t find either truth or love at the non-religious universities where I had studied.
By a “miracle,” I saw Dietrich and Alice (then Jourdain) Von Hildebrand on a TV show called “The Catholic Hour,” talking about truth and love as if they were real. By age twenty-one, after graduate study of philosophy at Fordham University under Dietrich Von Hildebrand, I became a Catholic. Eventually I became a teacher of Catholic philosophy myself.1
At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I devised an elective course called Philosophy of Love. It was based on the ideas of D. Von Hildebrand, primarily from his classic early book, Marriage,2 and his later book, The Heart.3
Since I am more of a popularizer than a scholar, pretty soon I developed a way of presenting Von Hildebrand’s great ideas in an interactive form. These truths were so appreciated by students that my teaching manuals gradually became little books. These I taught not only in university classes, but also at seminaries and parish workshops. Recently I combined four of these short books into one volume, entitled: The Way of Love: The Battle for Inner Transformation.4
When the editors of HPR asked me for an article, I thought it might be of value to you to offer some of the key insights of Von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love as I teach it—ideas useful to you in your ministries.
At the first session of my classes on philosophy of love, I start by asking the students what few words they would use to describe what love is. Invariably, they use the words “caring” or “sacrifice.” Obviously, those virtues are part of love, especially “agapic” love, but a new perspective comes to them when I give them this description by Dietrich Von Hildebrand which concerns love for other persons: “Love is a response to the unique preciousness of the other.”
I explain the use of the word “unique” in this sentence in this way. I ask: “How many of you have ever fallen in love?” With rare exceptions, everyone says they have. Then I point out that if we only loved certain qualities, there were plenty of other people who manifested goodness, smartness, piety, charm, etc. “How come you fell in love with this one?”
Von Hildebrand’s answer is that when we love another, we are given a glimpse of the love with which God created that unique individual. This is especially true in applying his words to falling in love, but also pertains to other types of love. If we think of poor people as just statistics, obviously none of them has enough value as a unique person for me to donate my precious time, or hard-earned money!
Another main concept explained in Von Hildebrand’s book, The Heart, involves whether love is a matter of the will, or of feelings.
In my book, The Way of Love, here is the way I explain why Von Hildebrand rejected the idea so often proclaimed in our times that “love is not a matter of feelings, but a matter of the will.”
Love: a Matter of the Will, or of the Heart?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)
“Love is not a matter of feeling, but of the will,” we are often told. This sounds as if it contradicts the famous words of Our Lord in the passage quoted above, about loving God with your whole heart. Confusing?
Let’s look at a few examples:
Alicia is the mother of a newborn baby. She feels delight in her little child, but she doesn’t feel happy when she’s changing diapers. A more seasoned mother tells her: “Look, love isn’t a feeling. It’s a matter of will. If you love your baby, you have to do things you don’t feel like doing.”
But, look at another example. John works at a job he hates because he loves his wife and children, and he wants to bring home the paycheck that feeds, clothes, and houses them. However, when he walks in the door each evening, he fails to smile at his wife or children. For dinner, he grabs his plate, and strides into the family room where he spends the whole evening drinking a six-pack of beer while watching sports. He has used his will to do the loving thing by working at his job, but since he doesn’t feel love in his heart when he is at home. The wife and kids, though grateful for his support, don’t feel very loved on a day-to-day basis.
Could it be that love is both an act of the will and also a feeling?
In his book, The Heart, Dietrich Von Hildebrand throws light on the way the heart and the will need to work together for love to be complete.
Von Hildebrand teaches that it is out of the heart that love is expressed. In his book, he shows how some thinkers over-emphasize the intellect and the will over the heart because of false ideas about our emotions. Some feelings are not in our direct control, such as feeling blue on a grey day, or tired because of not enough sleep. Sometimes we give into irrational bad moods or, worse, into extreme feelings of rage or despair. But we also have feelings in our hearts which are neither out of control or irrational such as joy, peace, hopefulness, gratitude and … deep, authentic love.
The Way of Love involves growing in the right kind of emotions. Such feelings are described by Von Hildebrand as responses to genuine values. How so? Consider the joy you have in your faith that there is a God of love who cares for you. The feeling of joy is a response to this great truth and reality. Consider the grief you experience when a beloved person dies and leaves this world. The feeling of sadness is a response to your experience of loss because, even though you believe his or her soul still exists, this person will be, outside of a supernatural vision, invisible to you until the Day of Judgment.
When God teaches us to love him, and each other, with all our hearts, he surely hopes that we will experience this love, more and more, as an emotion based on gratitude for God’s gifts of our creation and redemption. As Von Hildebrand put it: God does not command us to act “as if” we loved God and neighbor, but to really love God and our neighbor.
Does Von Hildebrand mean it is wrong to do loving things, such as changing diapers, working at a job we hate, or going to Holy Mass on Sunday when we don’t feel like it? Of course not!
The key concepts here are what Von Hildebrand calls “sanction” and “disavowal.” To sanction something is to affirm it. To disavow something is to reject it. These are decisions that include acts of the intellect, and the will. Let me explain.
In the example given above concerning the mother of the baby, she feels joy (in her heart) as she gazes upon her child. She might think (an act of the mind) to herself: “How happy I am to have my little darling.” Then, she might decide (an act of the will) to thank God for this great gift. That is to sanction (affirm) her joy. When she thinks of the unpleasant chore of changing diapers, she might disavow (reject) her feeling of disgust by thinking to herself: “Well, diapers are yucky, but my baby is surely worth it.” She might make a decision (an act of will) in the future to sing a little song when she is changing diapers.
The father who hates his job may use his will-power to overcome the bad mood he has after work. He might disavow (reject) his usual grumpy ways because he thinks about how sad his family is that he is so unfriendly. He can sanction (affirm himself) whenever he succeeds in being more friendly toward his wife and family, and spending more time with them.
Over time, the heart can grow in loving feelings through the help of the intellect and will’s “sanctions and disavowals.”
Now here is the interactive part of this teaching of mine which are based on D. Von Hildebrand’s ideas concerning willing and feelings.
Watch yourself tonight and tomorrow, and make a list on paper, or in your head, of loving thoughts, words, and deeds that come from the heart, and those that come more from the will in the form of sanctioning or disavowing them.
For example: you gave a newcomer at the Way of Love session a smile, a handshake, or a hug as he or she was leaving. This was a spontaneous little deed of love. You sanctioned it. Later, you failed to greet someone you live with because you didn’t feel like talking to anyone. Then, you disavowed this neglect and, in a loving act of will, you sat down next to him or her and asked: “How was your day?”
For Personal Reflection and Group Sharing:
On average how much comparative time in your life do you give to:
- Thinking, as in analyzing things such as news items, work projects, personal problems (the intellect);
- Deciding, as in planning for the short or long term future (the will);
- Feeling, not as a matter of good or bad moods but as in genuine value response (the heart).
If you wish, write a percentage next to each of the above categories.
You might write a prayer for growth in one of these areas that you think you need to be better at:
- Do you try to get away from feelings because they sometimes seem to you to be uncontrollable, or irrational, or painful?
- Do you think you might experience more love of God and others in your life if you were willing to risk more?
- How do you think the relationship between the will and the heart should be understood?
Distortions of the Heart to be Overcome
The intellect, even though capable of arriving at important truths of all kinds, after the Fall, can also be skewed toward error or rationalization in a deadly manner. But we don’t consider that this means the intellect is not a good.
In a different way, Von Hildebrand points out that the heart, though created for response to deep objective values, can also be skewed toward irrational states. But we shouldn’t consider that this means the heart is not a good.
Here are some of his insights, with examples I like to use to illustrate them:
- Rejection of Tender Affectivity but Reveling in Dynamic Affectivity
Many people who avoid tender emotions—such as manifesting weakness by crying even when that would be the right response—nonetheless have no trouble manifesting anger or lust. Such dynamic emotions seem to them to demonstrate vigor and strength. Can you think of any Catholics who reject religious statues as sentimental, and would never have pictures of Mary, or the Crucifix, in their living rooms, but, nonetheless, think nothing of growling curses out the window at bad drivers?
- Hypertrophy of the Heart
By this unusual term, Von Hildebrand refers to those who are truly over-emotional in situations which require the intellect and will to reign. The mind would tell one that it is wrong to give money to an addict who will use it to get harmful substances. Someone, however, with hyper-feelings may decide to give them the money out of compassion. How many times do we hear Catholics admit that the teachings of the Church on, say, contraception, are good but, just the same, they feel that it cannot be wrong to use them in their own situation.
- Affective Atrophy
In the chapter on the Heart, devoted to this subject, Von Hildebrand brilliantly describes phenomena such as “the spectator stance” where some of us are so busy analyzing things, that we rarely move out with tender, caring love to those around us. Sometimes, I see someone in a pew crying silently, with tears running down his/her cheeks. Even if I don’t know that person’s name, I will generally walk over, and offer comfort. That so few would do so, may be part of the reason why some non-Catholic Christians from small churches, think our Catholic churches are cold and unfriendly!
- Other Defects of the Heart
Even more serious are syndromes such as “heartlessness” caused by those whose feelings are hardened by over-ambitiousness or anger. A form of what Von Hildebrand calls “the tyrannical heart” occurs when someone is consumed with concern for their own selves, viewing every neutral action of others as a slight, or unbearable rejection. A form I have observed in myself, and some others, is to consider that psychological wounds of the past entitle us to lavish compensation from family and friends.
The Heart of Jesus
The second part of the book, “The Heart,” is about the Heart of Jesus, where we review the beautiful, heart-felt scenes of Scripture—such as Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery—and consider how Jesus taught us to love, as did the father in the Gospel story of “The Prodigal Son.”
We hear such passages read so often at Holy Mass and, yet, how many of us think we have forgiven others because we made an act of the will to do so, yet still harbor resentment and anger in our hearts! What freedom for our souls when the heart joins the will, with compassionate forgiveness, for those who have hurt us!
The Litany of the Sacred Heart, with all its responses to the Heart of Jesus, rounds out Von Hildebrand’s demonstrations of the role of the heart in our Christian life.
I highly recommend that those in pastoral ministry get a copy of this book, The Heart, written by Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
And, if you agree with his insights, but think the writing could be a little over the heads of those you want to reach out to, consider my popularized version of many of his ideas: The Way of Love: The Battle for Inner Transformation. It’s 400 pages of teachings, and suggestions for personal reflection, and group prayer, put together for a measly $10 soft-cover, and costs even less for use on Kindle!