Principles of Catholic Morality XI: Dietrich von Hildebrand

While the twentieth century was largely a rout, it did produce one outstanding expositor of Catholic moral theology.  Dietrich von Hildebrand was a student of Edmund Husserl (the most important twentieth century philosopher and a Lutheran Christian) and a convert to the Church.  Like many of the first generation of phenomenologists, von Hildebrand saw Husserl’s methods as a liberation from modern philosophy’s obsession with epistemic doubt to pursue philosophy as Plato had done it,  as an investigation of essences.  Von Hildebrand was unsatisfied with the Thomists’ teleological ethics; it seemed to miss the other-directed essence of morality.  He instead perfected the value ethics which had begun to be explored by Max Scheler (Catholic) and Adolf Reinach (Lutheran).  This gave him a way, using the tools of phenomenology, to recapture the Anselmian/Scotist insight that free beings can love justice for its own sake.  His basic position is layed out in his book Christian Ethics.  As I have written elsewhere

In that work, he identified three ways that a person may perceive something as important:  it can be merely subjectively satisfying, it can be an objective good for that person, or it can be a value—something objectively good and deserving of esteem.  Ethical behavior is a matter of appropriate value response to those values that von Hildebrand identifies as morally relevant.  Ethical behavior does promote one’s deepest objective good, but that can’t be why a morally good person does it; the value must be the main consideration.  One can respond to values both with one’s will and one’s emotions; veneration and enthusiasm would be examples of the latter.  Although our emotions are not totally under our control, we can be morally required to endorse or reject a feeling based on the objective value or disvalue of that feeling’s object.

What then is love?  Above all else, love is a value response to a person.  The lover recognizes and responds to the inner beauty and preciousness of the beloved…Love is an affective value response, i.e. a matter of emotion as well as will.  It is also a superactual value response, meaning that we maintain our love for the beloved even when we’re not consciously thinking of him.

As we see from the above, von Hildebrand’s notion of a value response is richer than just a decision of the will; it is a response of the whole soul:  intellect, will, emotion, habits, and desire.  Our thoughts and feelings as well as our acts can be true responses to objective value or disvalue.  This richness allowed von Hildebrand’s value response system to cover the whole of Christian life.  Before, wholism had been an undoubted advantage of the Thomist virtue ethics system over its Anselmian alternative.  The Thomist vision of human flourishing deals with the whole man, but so too does the vision of volitional/affective/contemplative/habitual value response.  Von Hildebrand applied this sensibility to all areas of Christian life, in the process providing a timely defense of Christian practices that were under heavy attack.  In In Defense of Purity and Man and Woman, he defended Catholic sexual ethics and the beauty of conjugal love.  In Liturgy and Personality, he brought to light the importance of formal prayer for giving an authentic response to the sacred.  In his best-loved book, Transformation in Christ, von Hildebrand attempts a more more complete picture of the spiritual attitudes of a soul allowing itself to be transformed by Christ, with wise and practical meditations on patience, humility, the willingness to change, simplicity, reflection, and contemplation.  Late in his life, he wrote The Nature of Love, which can be read as a belated response to Nygren’s severing of eros and agape, but also the most thorough and profound.  Von Hildebrand shows that, not only are the two loves compatible, but that eros can actually grow out of agape.

he breaks new ground by saying that love takes value response to a whole new level; it’s a “super value response”.  In love, I make the one I love a matter of my objective good, and not just a matter of disinterested value response.  I allow my happiness to become contingent on him returning my love and maintaining a relationship with me.  I concern myself with his objective good to such a degree that I come to relate to it in a way similar to how I respond to my own objective good.  Now, von Hildebrand insists that this new level of interest is not an intrusion of selfishness but an organic development of love.  The desire for union always bases itself on recognition of the beloved’s intrinsic value, and the value response and concern for the other’s good always take priority.  In fact, this “giving one’s heart away” so that one’s own happiness is tied to the beloved is the greatest tribute one could make to the other’s value.

Von Hildebrand’s writings are so beautiful, they really must be read to be appreciated.  Although he was a world-class philosopher, none of them (except perhaps What is Philosophy?) require any philosphical training in the reader.  Von Hildebrand’s lifelong goal was to bring souls to Christ, both in his writings and his personal life.  Those who knew him attest to his deep personal piety, his love for Jesus and the Mass, and his enthusiasm for the Church (e.g. this tribute from his widow), qualities which are already clear to his readers.

Needless to say, von Hildebrand found himself fighting the ideological currents of his day.  He even rendered some services to the reactionary cause.  When Hitler came to power, he left Germany for Austria, saying he would not live in a country run by a criminal.  In Austria, he became a main propagandist for Chancellor Dollfuss, writing an anti-Nazi, pro-Christian corporatism newsletter, and debating Catholics who thought the Church should seek an accomodation with the National Socialists.  With the Anschluss, and an order for his assassination, von Hildebrand fled to America, where he became a professor at Fordham University.  There he was forced to fight an evil zeitgeist again when a wave of heresy washed over the American Church after the unfortunate second Vatican Council.  Von Hildebrand responded vigorously, defending orthodoxy against its fashionable opponents, exposing the pantheist charlatan Teilhard de Chardin, and defending Humanae Vitae.  No doubt his oh-so-progressive students thought he was some kind of Nazi.

I myself am indebted to von Hildebrand. Intellectually, he provided me with an ethical system that made sense of my intuitions about duty, reverence, and marriage.  Personally, he was an inspiration for me.  Reading about him cured me of the idea I had inherited from the surrounding culture that it is somehow unmanly to be concerned about sexual morality and foolish to be upset by blasphemy.  Here was a man who was a fighting Christian and a serious intellect if ever there was one–there wasn’t anything the least bit sissy or hysterical about him–and he didn’t think it beneath him to defend the virtues of purity and reverence.

2 Responses

  1. I know V. Hildebrand and I certainly am familiar with the I , Thou distinction. But for the I Thou framework to be deemed trustworthy, I think it should be able to survive a Stress Test. The Right Stress test would be for a woman in an on-going” I Thou” sanctified union of souls type relationship to be placed in proximity with a uber player/gamer like George Clooney for a weekend or two and watch what happens. I really do not know what happens everytime this occurs in the real world; I only know of the examples I have seen.
    This is a test that needs to be passed in the right way; or basing anything serious on the I Thou foundation will look like something a clueless person would do.

  2. Whatever one thinks of Teilhard de Chardin’s writings, and I confess to finding them turbid and tedious, Henri de Lubac has, I believe, disposed of the charge of pantheism and also identified the underlying error of those who maintain it.

    “What perhaps introduces some confusion into this subject is that too many people in our modern West, even including some who are extremely firm in their faith and heedful of the spiritual life, are apt to forget the divine Presence and the divine Action in all things—even indeed at the natural level. It is here that a superficial cult of the spiritual has done a great deal of damage. Just as many, when they have to consider their final end, can only oscillate “between the concept of an individual survival that leaves beings isolated from one another, and a reflection that absorbs them into the one”, so the divine transcendence is too often conceived, or rather imagined as itself, too, being purely exteriorized. As Père Abel Jeanniere has said, “Among many who are opposed to the thought of Teilhard we find an underlying mental attitude which allows no possibility of distinction except in separation and mutual exteriority.” It was of these people that the author of the Milieu Divine was thinking when he said: “Of those who hear me, more than one will shake his head and accuse me of worshipping Nature.” In fact, “however absolute the distinction between God and the world (since everything in the world—and the world itself—exists, even at this present moment, only by divine creation), God is present in the world and nothing is more present in it than the God who creates it: for “it is in him that we live, and move, and have our being”. Deus non creavit, et abiit (St Augustine.)[God did not create and go away]

    To be united (that is, to become the other) while remaining oneself – “That God may be all in all” – Is at the heart of the Christian life; with . “the Abyss which is unknown and has no name,” .as Tauler says, “more beloved than all that we can know.”

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