The Nature of Love

By Dietrich von Hildebrand, 1971 (trans. 2009)

To really understand love, a couple of errors must be avoided.  The first is to see love as a form of selfishness, that the beloved is a mere means to the lover’s own happiness or self-actualization.  The second is to think that love must be entirely altruistic, and that any desire for a requital of love and for union with the beloved is a sort of selfish corruption of love’s true nature.  One thing to be said for these errors is that they’ve inspired a number of Christian philosophers—including C. S. Lewis, Josef Pieper, and Pope Benedict XVI—to write some really beautiful meditations to refute them.  In my opinion, the best of these (although I strongly recommend them all) is The Nature of Love by the Catholic phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand.   The basis of von Hildebrand’s philosophy is his value ethics developed in his book Christian Ethics.  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 can be inspired by attractive qualities in a person, but love itself is a value response not to these qualities or even to the person’s overall spiritual beauty, but to the person himself.  We legitimately tend to assume the best of one we love, and when presented with a moral fault of his, we regret it but see it as a betrayal of his true self.  Von Hildebrand insists that this is not an illusion but the actual truth:  love makes us more objective.  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.

All of the above is basically an application of the categories of von Hildebrand’s Ethics.  Next, 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.

The final highlight of the book is von Hildebrand’s discussion of charity.  It has been suggested that the difference between “eros” and “agape” is that the former has an element of selfishness in its desire for union while the latter is wholly self-giving.  Earlier chapters have shown why this idea reflects a misunderstanding of the desire for union.  Charity, i.e. supernatural love, really is distinct from natural love, though.  First, charity is based on love of God.  God is the primary object of charity, and when we love another human with charity, we respond to him primarily as one created in the image of God and loved by Christ.  Charity enhances all the categories of natural love, but it also gives rise to a new kind of love, love of neighbor—the only kind that can be directed to strangers.  Love of neighbor is different from natural benevolence, which does not value the person himself, but limits itself to a desire to alleviate pain or fulfill one’s moral duties.  The most interesting claim made about charity is on its unique relationship to morality.  According to von Hildebrand, a heathen can love deeply and be a very moral person, but natural love and morality exist independently of each other, and can sometimes even be in conflict.  There is no contradiction in naturally loving one person while hating another, but charity can’t work like this.  Nor can a charitable love drive one to unjustly favor someone we love or be indifferent to his moral faults.  Our love of God also transforms our responses to impersonal moral values by giving a face to the world of values, as it were, and inspiring us to respond to the call of morality with the ardor of love, because all moral deeds glorify God and all evil offends Him.

Arguably von Hildebrand’s greatest contribution to philosophy is his analysis of affective value responses, so arguably this book on love is the one he was born to write.  I agree with all his main points, except that I’m still not sure if I believe that one can love a stranger even by supernatural means.  The book is longer than it needs to be:  you can get all the good stuff if you just read chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11, and 12.  I think the discussions of spousal love give too little emphasis to its orientation to children, admittedly a strange criticism to make of someone who wrote a book defending the Church’s prohibition on birth control.  I myself would have named parental love as the supreme natural love, rather than spousal love, as von Hildebrand does.  These are minor criticisms, however, which don’t touch the core analysis of the book, which shows with incomparable clarity that the different aspects of love—what Lewis called “need love”, “gift love”, and “appreciation love”—do not contradict, but rather reinforce each other.

2 Responses

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] understanding of love, treating these and other issues, was Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love.  Von Hildebrand appreciated the force of the objection that eros and identification with the […]

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