The name Dietrich von Hildebrand is not, perhaps, as well known as it should be among intelligent and literate Catholics — or, for that matter, among Christians of any ilk. He is a man whom Pius XII referred to as “a 20th-century doctor of the Church.” Those who remember this pontiff will recall that he was not a man who spoke lightly or extravagantly.
Who was Dietrich von Hildebrand? We would not be far from the mark if we accorded him the dignity of the present tense of the verb — who is Dietrich von Hildebrand? — as we do with many figures in history (J.S. Bach, Augustine, Giotto, Tolstoy, et al.) whose work abides in such a manner as to lift them above the mere flux of time and to place them in a sort of “perenniality,” if a clumsy neologism may be permitted. It is inconceivable that the writings of von Hildebrand will ever be dated, no matter what tortuous metamorphoses the coming centuries may bring.
This is because von Hildebrand’s intellect and imagination — and heart, really — dwelt above the dust and skirmish of Vanity Fair. He seldom wrote or spoke on mere topicality — the vogues, causes, and notions that dash themselves like surf on the jetties of contemporaneity. Although, it must be said in this connection that he was far from being unaware of such turbulence: When he saw foolishness, heresy, or infidelity brewing, as happened in the wake of Vatican II when popinjays of all sorts used the council as a warrant to substitute a Punch and Judy show for the ancient mysteries, he was not above wading into the broil, as in his Trojan Horse in the City of God.
But the characteristic venue of his mind was amongst what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” His remarks on gender, liturgy, morality, and the human person must be accounted among the great monoliths that mark the path through the history of the Church as she moves on her pilgrimage nearer and nearer to the Last Things.
But again, who is he? The most exiguous sketch of his life would include the following. He was born in Florence in 1889 (on the same day as Christopher Dawson) and died in New Rochelle, New York, on January 26, 1977. His father, an eminent German sculptor, lived and worked in Florence and was knighted in 1904 by the king of Bavaria. Hence, von Hildebrand had as his own familiar neighborhood that world of Dante, the Academia, the Pitti Palace, the Duomo, and the whole efflorescence of beauty and civility that sprung up so astonishingly in the Italian Renaissance and that was so revered by Bernard Berenson, Harold Acton, and other astute minds (many of whom, alas, never surpassed the merely aesthetic).
It may suggest something of the rarified atmosphere of this household when considering that visitors to the family included Gladstone, Henry James, Rilke, Rudolf Otto, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Liszt, and Giraudoux. Even though von Hildebrand was an unbeliever in his youth, his young imagination and spirit drank deeply at the wells of beauty, truth, and virtue. At university, he studied philosophy under Adolph Reinach and Max Scheler, the latter of whom largely formed the mind of John Paul II. Von Hildebrand took his Ph.D. under Husserl. In 1914, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
When Hitler’s national socialism began to emerge in the 1920s, von Hildebrand recognized it as the epochal evil it turned out to be (despite Hitler having fooled almost a whole nation by the early 30s) and became a vocal and implacable foe of Nazism. Because of this, he was forced to flee to Vienna from his faculty position at the University of Munich. There he established the journal Christliche Standestaat (Christian Corporative State) and was consequently condemned to death personally by Hitler, who loathed him.
The harrowing escapades that attended his flight from Vienna (e.g., leaving the city on the day of the Anschluss at 9:00 a.m. and having the Gestapo arrive looking for him in less than 24 hours) are the stuff of spy fiction — or fact, rather. He eventually fetched up in New York in 1940, without a sou in his pocket. He was appointed to the faculty at Fordham University and taught philosophy there for 19 years, retiring in 1960. He spent the remaining 17 years between his retirement and death writing. It may interest readers to know that, emerging briefly from a coma, he requested that the Te Deum be sung at his deathbed.
The Wealth of His Poverty
What sort of a figure did von Hildebrand “cut” during his life in New York? Who formed his “clientele?” The answers to both questions seem bleak on the surface. He was always poor (a state of affairs widely known among academics), and he rarely commanded the headlines, even in the American Catholic press. He attracted the profound admiration of orthodox Catholic scholars (William Marra and Bernard Gilligan among them) and had the ear of both Paul VI and John Paul II. In a private talk with Paul VI in 1965, he warned the pope of forthcoming grave perils to the Church, and similarly in 1970, he sounded the alarm in the Holy Father’s ear as to what the Church might encounter in the wake of Vatican II. Two contemporary Catholic scholars who might be accounted “Hildebrandians” are Joseph Seifert, head of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, and John Crosby, a member of the philosophy department at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Both owe their profound knowledge of von Hildebrand’s thought mainly to personal conversation with him during his retirement.
His oeuvre (body of work), as they say, is massive. His untranslated work on aesthetics (which he wrote in German) consists of two 500-page volumes, and his Wesen der Lieber (The Essence of Love) is 500 pages. In an audience granted to von Hildebrand’s widow in January 1980, John Paul II forthrightly acknowledged his own intellectual debt to von Hildebrand, especially in the matter of marriage. In a gesture of personal gratitude, this pope baptized, confirmed, and gave holy communion to one of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s Hunter College students, a former atheist, in April 1985. In addition to the previously mentioned works, von Hildebrand wrote 5,000 pages of autobiography, which will appear in August 2000 from Ignatius Press and is being edited by Alice under the title The Soul of a Lion.
How shall we approach his immense work? Fewer than a dozen of his books have been translated into English (many are available from Sophia Institute Press, in Manchester, New Hampshire). A systematic progress through these dozen would turn into a tome. It may be fruitful, then, to touch on only a few of the notions that formed the underpinnings of his work.
Undoubtedly, two words supply us with an excellent gateway into the world of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s thought: value and reverence.
The Value in His Work
The word “value” has been nearly wrecked for us in recent decades, dragooned by moral relativists who did not wish any absolute hierarchy of the good to be imposed on our schoolchildren and who, hence, cobbled up a grotesque industry called “values clarification.” The notion was that each small Tom, Dick, and Harry must “get comfortable” with his own notions as to what constitutes acceptable or unsuitable behavior. Ironically, a few intractable absolutes studded the scheme, such as “sexist” remarks and other politically incorrect utterances. Pronouns became a battleground. It never became clear, under this scheme, just what sort of rejoinder we might mount, say, to Mao Zedong, whose values placed the state above the individual, with genocide as one of its corollaries. Having jettisoned absolutes, what strictures could we put forward to stem such activities? Pol Pot was another one who defied the pulpy and amiable quagmire we cultivated with such assiduity.
The work of von Hildebrand stands at a polar extreme from all of this fatuity. By “value,” he did not mean the windy generalities invoked by presidents and mayors in Fourth of July speeches but rather (shall we capitalize it?) That Which is excellent in itself and is to be admired (a very weighty word for von Hildebrand). Interestingly enough, the word “value” is so massively basic for him that it is far from easy to tweeze succinct definitions of the word from his work, so to speak. He virtually always refers to value by way of affirming something else, rather as the rest of us presuppose the word of God. In Liturgy and Personality, he says:
The meaning of all creation is the imitation and glorification of God…. That which is created…exists only in order to imitate and glorify God, in fulfilling the divine idea in its regard and simultaneously bringing to fruition the fullness of values to which it is ordained. For all values — goodness, beauty, the mystery of life, the noble light of truth, and even the dignity of being itself…all these are rays which radiate from God’s being.
Values are not only like a dew falling from heaven, but also like incense rising to God; each value, in itself, addresses to God a specific word of glorification. A being, in praising God, praises Him through its value, through that inner preciousness which marks it as having been drawn out of the indifferent. Nature praises God…. This is true of every work of art, every perfect community, every truth, every moral attitude. Man… must first of all respond adequately to each value as a reflection of God; he must respond with joy, enthusiasm, veneration, love…and lovingly adore God, Who is the fullness of all value.
Value, far from being a subjective vibration trembling from my individuality, is “out there,” a quality of the immense backdrop against which our lives are played out. Or we could put it thus: Ultimately, all value derives, like a cataract from a fountain, not from a mere That Which but from He Who. God is not, of course, an abstraction, and hence, we cannot quite assign to Him an ontological category called value. But He is, on the other hand, the wellspring of all that is excellent in itself and, hence, of value. The Matterhorn is not a value in so many words, but it towers there, shimmering in its might, and bids admiration forth from souls who exult in might, majesty, purity (the snow), form, grandeur, gravity, serenity, and so forth. The Mozart Requiem is not a value, but its music — the very notes themselves, of which the emperor thought there were “quote too many” — draws us into the precincts of sheer beauty: sublimity, perfection of form, decorum (the notes “fit” the text), awe, terror (“Quantus tremor est futurus…tuba mirum spargens sonum” ), rescue (“Recordare, Jesu pie” ), and repose (“Hostias et preces, tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus”). These are matters that call for admiration from souls well-formed.
Another major theme in von Hildebrand’s work, which he writes about in Transformation in Christ, is “the succession of stages that leads from Baptism…to our actual transformation in Christ…the shaping of that life which lights up the face of the ‘new man in Christ’ …the state of fluidity, openness, and receptivity to formative action from above.” What is our task on this earth, we mortals? It is, as Milton would have it, to “tune our instrument” to the Music of the Spheres. That is to say, to permit ourselves to be shaped, formed, chiseled, smelted, kneaded, plied (choose your metaphor) into that image that discloses the very heart of the Most Holy Trinity to us, namely Jesus Christ. Man was created to be in all grace, nobility, dignity, magnificence, and solemnity –in the imago Dei (image of God), that is. Von Hildebrand says in Transformation in Christ, “Christ, the Messiah, is not merely the Redeemer who breaks apart the bond and cleanses us from sin. He is also the Dispenser of a new divine life which shall wholly transform us into new men…. Our surrender to Christ implies a readiness to let Him fully transform us….” When evil, alas, does its obscene work on this image, we end up with a horror: wretched, pusillanimous, venal, craven, and debauched but, ironically, vain, strutting, and pompous at the same time.
Such a soul has squandered its capacity to admire that which is admirable. (The Greeks called this property aidos, and for them, it had to be learned. It represents the stark opposite of doin’ what comes naturally,” or “letting it all hang out.”) All has been perverted. We need only recall the jaded souls at the arena in Rome: “Darlings, peel me another grape: I’m so bored with these crucifixions that I don’t know what I’m going to do. Not to mention the gladiators they’ve got these days. So tedious.” What place is left, when we reach this point of surfeit, for wonderemdash wonder at an edelweiss, a Jack Russell terrier, Vermeer’s “Young Woman Reading a Letter,” or the sight of a boy from the innermost city offering his seat on the trolley to a woman? Cynicism, irony, sophistication, and ennui all cauterize the moral nerve-endings necessary to perceive and admire value in such phenomena. But it takes training to cultivate the agile, delicate, and self-forgetful frame of mind that puts forth such nerve-endings.
Von Hildebrand was himself a case in point. His taste had been formed, almost inevitably it would seem, by that Florentine background, so that even his natural being (aside from his regenerate spirit, which sprang into life presently) was attuned to beauty and sickened by squalor, oafishness, and gaudiness. His wife speaks frequently, both in private conversation and from the lectern, of this gravitas, this discrimination (but not snobbery), this flawless simplicity, even, that registered like litmus the responses of his innermost being to beauty or ugliness. He himself speaks of “this progress toward simplicity, which is a part of the spiritual significance of advancing in age…” in Transformation in Christ.
Ultimately, of course, all of this is drawn up into the realm of grace, which, according to Catholic teaching, builds on nature. It is not a mere matter of being highbrow. The twittering persiflage of mere aesthetes — at Lady Ottoline Morell’s Garsington in Bloomsbury, Greenwich Village, or the Museum of Modern Art — is as far from the admiration that regales pure souls as hell is from heaven. But we don’t come by it naturally. It takes pedagogy (the Greeks again): years of discipline and training to tune us to the Music of the Spheres — to that perfection of harmony, equipoise, power, grace, fitness, and splendor we call beauty but may also be accorded to truth and goodness. A good moral choice (of, say, generosity, self-effacement, courage, or service) is beautiful under its own modality, as is the song of the winter wren under its modality. Both are also true, since they accord with perfect correspondence with reality.
It is not for nothing that one of von Hildebrand’ s major works is entitled Transformation in Christ. The perfection of stature in store for all souls who will undergo the necessary schooling is measured by that highest measure, namely, the perfection exhibited in the figure of the Incarnate Word. At the very end of the book, there is a summary, as it were, of all the foregoing chapters with their remorseless and microscopic scrutiny of the tactics to which we turn in our efforts to protect ourselves from God:
It is extremely important for us to profit by the moments when God draws us nearer to Him, when He allows us to be possessed by true values…all such possession by high natural values must be ordained to our true surrender of self to Christ…. If this is not the case, we do not hear the call of God; nay, we even abuse His gifts…. It is in such moments…that our vision is given a valid perspective. It is then that we see the true countenance of things, which we must engrave in our minds…
All perfections — aesthetic, moral, or verbal — point to this figure. This theme, of course, is very much the animating spirit in Dante’s work. The beauty of which the eyes of the lover are vouchsafed a true glimpse in the figure of Beatrice, is the beauty of the Godhead. All point to the beatific vision. I doubt whether von Hildebrand was familiar with the Protestant hymn Eternal Light, Eternal Light, but he would have applauded this stanza: “Oh, how shall I, whose native sphere/Is dark, whose mind is dim/Before th’ Ineffable appear/And on my naked spirit bear/The uncreated beam?” How shall a worm like me (this is Scripture’s assessment, not masochism) entertain even the most forlorn hope of ever achieving that transformation that will enable me not only to see but to exult in and be ravished by the beatific vision?
Transformation in Christ is our handbook (always excepting Sacred Scripture, of course). Handbook? In effect, yes. The unsuspecting reader will not remain unsuspecting for long. Von Hildebrand bangs the gong on Page 1. Taking St. Paul’s daunting challenge in Ephesians 4 (“Put off the old man who is corrupted…and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man…”), he strides briskly to his task. It is no use for us to halt, salaam, and circumnavigate: The man to whom the book is addressed (as is the New Testament) must be “ready to change.”
Grace does not put poultices, patches, and simples on Original Sin. It’s death (baptism) and then the long haul toward sanctity, that state of being wherein alone I will be able to bear the radiance of glory flashing from the Sapphire Throne. Chapter after chapter subjects us to the unendurable scrutiny of the truth.
“Contrition,” “true simplicity,” “striving for perfection,” and sequence after sequence on freedom, patience, meekness, mercy, sorrow, sobriety, and self-surrender harrow us with a holy harrowing. Von Hildebrand’s method commonly entails the demolition of every conceivable dodge, strategy, and obfuscation by which we are pleased to maintain our self-satisfaction and then the opening up of the virtue, or of the aspect of caritas, that corresponds to these squalid ruses.
Thus value. Used by von Hildebrand, the word sheds the flimsy rags that have cloaked it in our own bland era and takes on, as it were, seraphic wings. We are hailed every moment of our lives with the titanic majesty of reality. Have we eyes to see it, and a heart to admire — nay, to adore it? Or will we end up like the damned souls who when they taste beauty taste only ashes, pumice, and sulfur?
The Reverence of His Work
The second word that I have mentioned as standing close to the center of von Hildebrand’s vision is reverence. Here again, as with the word value, the force of the word has been leached away by its use in modern argot. In this case, it is sentimentalism that is the villain. “Ah! Reverence! So uplifting. Let us reverence all things — trees, saw-whet owls, rich loam, sphagnum moss. How ennobling!” If we embarked on that line of sentiment in the presence of von Hildebrand, we would be met with a tart “No!”
Our reverent friend is, of course, not altogether adrift. Von Hildebrand himself would say (and so far so good for our friend), “…an adequate response is due to each value according to its rank…because it is a value.”
And as he says in Liturgy and Personality, “The cosmic value of the objective fact that everything possessing a value should receive an adequate response of will, of joy, enthusiasm, and love according to the kind of value it represents, finds its highest, ultimate causa exemplaris in the eternal loving response between the First and Second Divine Persons.” But we weren’t speaking of theology on this nature-outing of ours.
Well, you should have been, von Hildebrand would wish to add. And here is the kernel of his small volume, Liturgy and Personality:
The person formed by the Liturgy has absorbed in his flesh and blood the notion that he owes a suitable response to every value. He will rejoice in every exalted spectacle of nature, the beauty of the starlight sky, the majesty of the sea and mountains, the charm of life, the world of plants and animals, the nobility of a profound truth, the mysterious glow of a man’s purity…. The man formed by the Liturgy will affirm all this as a reflection of the eternal glory of God.
And again, “His entire value-responding attitude, his heart and spirit will be turned completely toward the world of values and God in the first place.”
Those perfections of the creation are most emphatically the handiwork of the Most High and, hence, are to be greeted by us as by worshippers of that deity. Nothing that we mortals can make can compare to the perfection we descry in all of that. Something serious has gone wrong with the man who, when he thinks of those things, thinks only of scoring the valleys and hillsides with the satanic treads on the tires of his all-terrain vehicle and of spitting din and carbon monoxide into the silent purity that ought to reign in such purlieus.
However, there is a difference between reverence and loyal custodianship. We mortals, in our descent from Adam and Eve, are to be “lords” of the creation. Not tyrants, bosses, or dictators but good lords or stewards, in a sense in which that notion would have been understood by the true hierarch who knows that his rank obliged him to guarantee and defend the well-being of every creature and acre under his suzerainty. In the strictest sense, we are not to “reverence” the creation, with the implication here that we in some way do obeisance to it or take up an inferior attitude toward ourselves vis-a-vis, say, dolphins, Douglas firs, or the Thames River. No fir tree, no matter how soaring, is to be placed above the lowliest child in the hierarchy. We must keep in mind here von Hildebrand’s remarks in Liturgy and Personality of the man whose “self-surrender to Christ, and through Christ to God, is complete.” For this man, “Reverence is the essential basis for such a perception of values, and for a true relationship with the whole realm of values…with the Absolute, the supernatural, and the divine. Reverence is the mother of all virtues, of all religion…[it] is thus the foundation of all perception and sense of values.”
Much as we deplore and mourn the tearing up of acreage by great, filthy diesel monsters, if that acreage is necessary to the well-being of the populace who live there, then up it comes. (I speak as one who wishes the internal combustion engine had never been invented.) On the other hand, if mammals (dolphins) are being swept up in great Russian, Norwegian, or Japanese seines and allowed to drown or if rhesus monkeys are being tortured in psychological experiments about loneliness and the corresponding neuroses, we should rise up in fury in behalf of these cousins of ours. (I am not a Darwinist in even the remotest sense; I mean “cousins” only in so far as we share a whole category of creaturehood with the beasts.)
It is a blurring of the English language to bring the word “reverence” into play when speaking of our relationship with nature. One reverences that which is above one. Speaking of the man whose response to value accords with the hierarchy of things, von Hildebrand says in Liturgy and Personality, “His entire attitude toward the world of values must take this hierarchy into account. The admiration and veneration which he offers a value must correspond to its objective height, and so, too, the joy which he feels about something, the place he reserves in his soul for a good.”
We may admire anything at all that is admirable (an ichneumon fly, the Madonna of the Rocks, or Chartres), but we stand in reverence before that in whose being there subsists something that outstrips our own peculiar rank or station, or “estate” as the Middle Ages called it. Hence, of course, angels are to be reverenced and, in a limited sense, any human being whose rank (the queen, the bishop, the general) places him above us. There would be a thin line between honor and reverence here:
Certainly, it is permitted to speak of reverencing our parents, even though we know that they share our mortality and our sinfulness. But they are “above” us in the hierarchy.
Von Hildebrand expended immense energy in trying to awaken us to both the duty and fitness of reverence. It is our duty because, in a manner of speaking, that is how it is. The duty derives from the same source as does the appropriateness of the man stepping forward and the woman backward in the fox trot. It’s the choreography of the thing, we say, and in a sense, there is no further court of appeal. If a truculent child in a rage demands why he should honor his father and mother, our final answer is a bold, “Because that is the way it is.”
Von Hildebrand speaks in Liturgy and Personality of “the inner structure of every communion-situation,” by which he means the “That’s how it is” we have been invoking. The ability to perceive and honor this structure (the choreography, we might say) in a given situation he calls, in Liturgy and Personality, discretio. “The spirit of discretio implies…a sense for the strata or depth at which one moves, and should move, not mixing up the levels, and not passing unaware from one level to the other.” Perhaps the manner in which waitresses nowadays address their customers as “you guys” (even if it is a party of dowagers) would be just such a mixing up of the levels.
There is a piquant aspect to this. Reverencing that which is to be reverenced reaches further toward the central mysteries than mere surface splendor (the queen’s scepter) or impressiveness (the general’s stars) would call for. What about the untouchable in the gutter in Calcutta? What about the thalidomide child? The well-tutored eye will descry glory — glory stained or twisted by tragedy but nonetheless glory. For here is the image of God.
On the other hand, what happens to us when our moral nerve-endings are bludgeoned with the assault of obscenity, brutishness, or surfeitemdash an assault mounted with all the power that the media command, a power to be envied most wistfully by your Genghis Khan or your Tamurlaines? The capacity to accord reverence to that which ought to be reverenced is extinguished. The mystery of sexuality would be the dramatic case in point in our own time. Von Hildebrand says in Purity: “Either the mysterious union of two human beings takes place in the sight of God (in conspectu Dei) or man flings himself away, surrenders his secret, delivers himself over to the flesh, desecrates and violates the secret of another.” The true man and woman know the sexual phenomenon lies on the cusp between the temporal and the eternal and is, hence, to be accorded immense reverence. The debauch, alas (and here we find most of Generation X, with its black lipstick and leather), sees only the prurient, the lurid, and the sultry. How on earth is the nature of reality, with its corollary of reverence, to be introduced at all into such a wasted epoch as our own? Well, without being frivolous, we can say, “Read Dietrich von Hildebrand.”
The Diversity of His Work
Von Hildebrand writes on many other topics. Gender: His book Man and Woman leads us into such noble precincts that virtually all of the last 25 years suddenly look consumptive. It is thus with Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love and Purity. Here we are on the high ground where the air has the tang of heaven in it. Von Hildebrand would have been heartsick over the efforts (mendacious, really) of brisk, religious types both Protestant and Catholic, during the last 25 years to rewrite Scripture and redraw the moral map of the universe in the interest of making the Christian view of gender palatable to a world crazed with questions of power and political equality. C.S. Lewis once used the phrase “sordid trumpery” in reference to his own smarmy attitude during adolescence. The stacks and stacks of books and articles written in the interest of accommodating Christian notions of sexuality and marriage to a modern agenda would have looked to von Hildebrand as just such trumpery.
Gender. Art. Aesthetics. Liturgy. Sex. Sacrament. Civility. Sanctity. These are the topics among which one finds oneself on opening the work of von Hildebrand. In virtually all of these areas, we are flooded with late-arriving propaganda. Von Hildebrand points another, and more ancient, way.
Esthetik I & II (Aesthetics, in two volumes)
Die Dankbarkeit (Gratitude)
Engelbert Dollfuss: Ein katholischer Staatsmann (Engelbert Dollfuss: A Catholic Statesman)
Heiligkeit und Tüchtigkeit (Holiness and Excellence)
Die Idee der sittlichen Handlung (The Idea of the Moral Action)
Das katholische Berufsethos (The Catholic Professional Ethos)
Die Menschheit am Scheideweg (Humanity at the Crossroads)
Metaphysik der Gemeinschaft (Metaphysics of the Community)
Moralia (the sixth volume of Ethics)
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
Sittlichkeit und ethische Werterkenntnis (Morality and the Knowledge of Moral Values)
Der Tod (Death)
Das Wesen der Liebe (The Essence of Love)
Zeitliches im Lichte des Ewigen (Temporal Questions in the Light of Eternity)
Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith
The Devastated Vineyard
Fundamental Moral Attitudes
The Image of Christ
Liturgy and Personality
Love, Marriage, and Christian Conscience
Man and Woman
Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love
The New Tower of Babel
Satan at Work
Transformation in Christ
The Trojan Horse in the City of God
What is Philosophy?