Man and Woman

By Dietrich von Hildebrand, 1966

I read this beautiful little book about conjugal love years ago, and on re-reading it and comparing with my own Defense of Patriarchy, I see that it has had a larger effect on my thought than I had realized.  For example, von Hildebrand makes the point, as I was to do later, that amorality in sex is worse than immorality.  One who sins out of weakness may still be conscious of the beauty and majesty of conjugal relations, and he has the opportunity for repentance, while the amoral, “scientific” man who “doesn’t see what the big deal is” about chastity is cut off from an important dimension of human reality.  Von Hildebrand also emphasizes the importance of reverence in sexual ethics, in particular of not making sex an object of manipulation through contraception.  I’ve this same point, but I’d forgotten where I’d first heard it.

Von Hildebrand emphasizes that we should not see love as an appetite, as an extension of self-love, or as a means to happiness.  Rather, he understands love to be the supreme response to the objective value of another person.  Unlike other value responses, such as admiration, love responds to the overall beauty of the beloved, to her value as a unique person, rather than to one of the beloved’s isolated qualities.  Love is not a delusion, but sees the beloved’s true self.  One of the book’s most interesting suggestions is that a person can only be truly, objectively known through love.

“In the case of someone whom we do not love, qualitative values and disvalues [i.e. good and bad character traits] are accorded the same rank, so to speak.  But where there is genuine love in response to the other person’s beauty taken as a whole, in is to be expected that his negative traits will not be considered typical.  Instead they take on the quality of being out of character with his true nature…Where there is love, our perception of other’s faults is more objective…We come to better grips with reality when we see another’s failings in the light of his whole personality…”

The love between a man and a woman has the special quality that it aims at an irrevocable gift of self.  The bond formed by this mutual self-donation is made possible by the complementary nature of man and woman.  The differences between the sexes are not only physical, but also spiritual:  “we find in women a unity of personality by the fact that heart, intellect, and temperament are much more interwoven, whereas in man there is a specific capacity to emancipate himself with his intellect from the affective sphere…In a woman, the personality itself is more in the foreground than objective accomplishments; whereas man…is more called than she is to objective accomplishments.”  These spiritual differences mean that a man can know a woman better than another woman could know her, and a woman can know a man better than another man could know him.

The sex act is uniquely suited to express the gift of self at the heart of marriage.  “In a certain sense, sex is the secret of the individual.  Every disclosure of sex is the revelation of something intimate and personal; it is a glimpse into our secret…[It’s] real attraction is indissolubly linked to this intimate and secret character.  As soon as one no longer feels shame in projecting this sphere into the public realm, as soon as one deals with it as if it were merely a biological problem that can be discussed publicly like a medical problem, one inevitably kills the real charm and the mysterious character which sex possesses.”  If only those sex educationists always wanting to “demystify”, to “get it out in the open” would read this!

Spousal union is the meaning of sex, but procreation is its superabundant end.  That God has joined these two goods is a great and beautiful mystery; attempts to sunder it are therefore profoundly irreverent.  I admit that it would have been better if von Hildebrand had elaborated on why this is the case.  Here is the one weakness of the book:  it does not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which procreation gives sex and gender differences their meaning.

The final chapter considers non-marital relations between men and women.  Von Hildebrand condemns the tendency to see men and women as rival interest groups.  When men and women forget their mission to and need for each other, men lose their masculinity and women lose their femininity, and the world is a much poorer place.  Von Hildebrand insists that men and women should not avoid each other for fear of sexual temptations, but he also thinks it would be better if they did not associate at work, because this can dull people to the mystery of the opposite sex.

This book is only one hundred pages, but it contains an enormous amount of wisdom.  I strongly recommend it.

4 Responses

  1. […] New book review: Man and Woman By bonald I’ve got a new book review up of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman:  Love and the Meaning of Intimacy. […]

  2. […] Man and Woman by von Hildebrand […]

  3. […] 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, […]

  4. Sex is okay. After marriage. Have you forgotten yahweh’s 613 laws. No sex before marriage.

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