From the May, 2008 issue of Touchstone


Personal Looks by Tonita M. Helton

Personal Looks

The Timely Philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand

by Tonita M. Helton

On a cool October weekend last fall, an international group gathered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville to consider the philosophical legacy of Dietrich von Hildebrand. Sponsored by the university and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, the conference engaged the ideas of a philosopher who insisted that any worthy philosophical system must first acknowledge the inherent dignity of the human person, a conviction forged in a place and time it was radically and intentionally disregarded, as it is increasingly disregarded today.

A Most Dangerous Life

Born in 1889, the son of a famous German sculptor, von Hildebrand enjoyed a happy childhood, with parents who ensured that he developed a deep appreciation of beauty, particularly in the arts and music. At 15, he read the Dialogues of Plato and decided that he was called to study philosophy.

In 1912, he received his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founder of the school of phenomenology, who considered his dissertation to be a masterpiece. Shortly thereafter, he converted to Christianity and entered the Catholic Church.

One of the first public opponents of Nazism, he landed on the Nazi’s “Blacklist” as early as 1923. When Hitler came to power in 1933, von Hildebrand knew that staying in Germany meant being silent or being executed. He could not remain silent, so he left his beloved Munich with his wife and fifteen dollars in his pocket.

Settled in Austria, he began a weekly journal to denounce Nazism and Communism, which he considered intrinsically related. The Nazis sentenced him to death in absentia, and in April 1937, the German ambassador to Vienna described him to Hitler as Nazism’s “most dangerous enemy.”

When Germany invaded Austria in 1938, he topped their list of arrest targets, just after the heads of government. A few hours before the Nazis came for him, he escaped to Czechoslovakia with his wife and little more than the clothes on his back. He landed next in Toulouse, where he taught, before he again narrowly escaped the Nazis with his family after Germany invaded France.

In December 1940, with the aid of Jacques Maritain and the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, he took refuge in the United States, where he taught at Fordham University until he retired in 1960. He spent the remaining years of his life writing, and died in 1977.

A Personalist Philosopher

Von Hildebrand drew upon the great Greek and Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine, as well as his own contemporaries, but the distinctive and original dimensions of his thought place him in the movement called “Christian personalism.”

The definition of “Christian personalism” is a matter of some debate even among Christian personalists, but it includes the understanding that every human being is unique and irreplaceable, and it has a particular interest in the nature of the person as experienced “from within.” When studying the body, for example, Christian personalists understand it not just as a material object but as the body of a conscious person.

Today, von Hildebrand is most widely known for his “theological” works, in particular Transformation in Christ (1940), a masterly book that explores the believer’s metamorphosis in grace, Liturgy and Personality (1933), and The Heart (1965), a seminal work in which he criticizes the traditional philosophical suspicion of the emotions.

His “philosophical” writings include Christian Ethics (1953) and What Is Philosophy? (1960) , as well as a two-volume work on the philosophy of beauty, Ästhetik (now being translated into English by the Legacy Project, with publication expected in 2009).

He also wrote several shorter books on sexual ethics and marital love. These works, considered by some to be more influential than his philosophical works, include In Defense of Purity (1927) , Marriage (1929), and Man and Woman (1966). His culminating work in this area, however, is The Nature of Love (1971, with the first English translation to be published this year).

Taken together, these writings address the special quality of the marital act as not only procreative but also profoundly unitive. Among those influenced by these works was then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, and the chapter on marriage in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes reflects his influence.

The Rehabilitated Heart

The conference commenced on von Hildebrand’s birthday, 30 years after his death. It was the first conference sponsored by the Legacy Project, founded in 2004 by John Henry Crosby to promote von Hildebrand’s thought, primarily by sponsoring the translation and publication of his works as well as by hosting events to foster their public reception.

Though most supporters and participants are Catholic, von Hildebrand’s thought draws interest from many outside Catholic circles, Crosby noted. Protestant donors now provide significant support for the Project, including a major multi-year grant for the translation of Ästhetik.

Conference participants were mostly philosophers, including keynote speakers Louis Dupré of Yale University, Kenneth L. Schmitz of the University of Toronto, Josef Seifert of the International Academy of Philosophy, and Alice von Hildebrand, von Hildebrand’s widow and an accomplished philosopher in her own right, who spoke at the closing banquet.

Other lecturers included Franciscan University’s John F. Crosby (father of the Project’s founder), Damian Fedoryka of the Center for Personalistic Anthropology and Ethics, Fritz Wenisch and Stephen D. Schwarz from the University of Rhode Island, Michael Waldstein from the International Theological Institute, and Douglas Geivett of the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Many had known von Hildebrand, and several had been his students.

The lectures covered von Hildebrand’s ideas on the problem of evil, ethics, moral virtue, love and the will, freedom and its counterfeits, Christian philosophy, moral substitution, and several other topics.

His work on “affectivity” was much discussed, as it is perhaps one of his most original contributions to the philosophy of the human person. He sought to rehabilitate the emotional life from the second-class status to which it has generally been relegated in Western philosophy.

He strongly criticized the traditional view that the intellect and the will are superior to, and must subjugate, the “less reliable” feelings, arguing that the “heart,” in certain respects more than the intellect or the will, is the “real self” of the person. While the will and intellect are properly employed to “sanction” or “disavow” the feelings, spontaneous movements of the heart are a gift to the human person to be received rather than suppressed.

Von Hildebrand’s celebration of the human heart infuses and informs his entire work. In his work on aesthetics, for example, he criticizes what he called “affective neutrality,” which he considered a false form of objectivity. True objectivity, he argued, may involve a powerful response of the heart, such as joy in the presence of beauty or grief in response to a tragic event.

A Philosophy Refined

In The Nature of Love, the last philosophical book published in his lifetime, von Hildebrand discusses in depth the most important “movement” of the human heart. This work has recently been translated into English by John F. Crosby, a student and friend of von Hildebrand’s, who argued at the conference that this work embodies an important refinement of his thought on love.

Crosby asserted that von Hildebrand identified a deformity of love that is found in extreme altruism, whereby the “disinterested love” of altruism reveals an other-centeredness that does not acknowledge the authentic nature of love. He “shows that it belongs to the genius of love that in loving another I want to be loved in return by the other,” and further, that this is not selfish, but rather “the way the human person is created and intended by God.”

Conversely, the opposite—a person who is “disinterested” in the response of the beloved—is not a “selfless” person, but a person with a withered relationship to self, failing to acknowledge the full nature of his own humanity. This person, von Hildebrand argued, does not experience his life in a manner befitting his own dignity, and love cannot here achieve its highest aim, but becomes a “caricature of itself.”

A Philosophy Applied

The Legacy Project enjoys the support of Pope Benedict XVI, who applauded von Hildebrand for advancing the Christian tradition “by creatively reinterpreting it in the context of modern thought and its concerns.”

With Benedict, von Hildebrand’s proponents argue that his ideas are as relevant today as they were decades ago, when he was denouncing Nazism and Communism in Europe, because many modern ideologies share a radical detachment from an authentic understanding of the dignity and experience of the human person. Von Hildebrand’s thought can help Christians respond effectively to these errors and, in so doing, perhaps help us rediscover ourselves.

More information on von Hildebrand can be found on the Legacy Project’s website ( The biographical information is largely taken from Alice von Hildebrand’s The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius).

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