Dietrich von Hildebrand
In The Soul of a Lion: Dietrich von Hildebrand (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2000), Alice von Hildebrand helps us understand one of the 20th century’s great Christians. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his “Foreword” to the book, says: “Dietrich von Hildebrand was exceptional in many ways. His extensive writings on Christian philosophy, spiritual theology, and in defense of the Church’s teaching, place him among the great thinkers of the twentieth century. His steadfast and determined opposition to totalitarianism, whether in the form of National Socialism or Marxist Leninism, a conviction that would cost him greatly during his life illustrates the profound clarity of his moral vision and his willingness to suffer for what he knew was true” (p. 9).
Born in 1889 to a prominent, aristocratic family in Florence, Italy, von Hildebrand enjoyed all the comforts and entitlements of his class. His father, Adolf, was a highly-esteemed sculptor whose work still shimmers in some Munich fountains. Though loving and cultivated, Dietrich’s parents had no religious concern and espoused a genially aesthetic, relativistic morality. Even as a child, however, he took an interest in religion and ethics as well as art. When he was 14, discussing morality with one of his sisters, he rejected her notion that “moral values were purely relative, depending upon the time, place, and circumstances in which men found themselves” (p. 59). Bested by her brother’s logic, she enlisted her father to settle the issue. When Adolf attributed Dietrich’s position to his youthfulness, “The boy was piqued, and answered, ‘Father, if you have no better argument than my age to offer against my position, then your own position must rest on very shaky grounds'” (pp. 59-60).
Such intellectual independence and desire for truth thereafter stamped Dietrich von Hildebrand. In his university studies, he focused on philosophy–a decision he made at the age of 15 as a result of reading (in Greek) some of Plato’s dialogues. Philosophy, for him, was truly a vocation, a calling, and two of his professors– Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl–deeply influenced him. In Scheler he found a profound thinker who warmly embraced Dietrich on a personal level, and who “represented quite another ‘world’ from that of the other professors. He was much more cultivated, and had a much richer contact with being” (p. 70). Scheler (though himself hardly a faithful representative of it) also pointed him to the truth of the Christian Faith. Von Hildebrand’s conversion to Catholicism resulted, in part, from conversations with Scheler.
Reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations in 1907 opened up another vista for von Hildebrand. “It was for me like experiencing a sunrise,” he remembered. “Skepticism and psychologism were refuted once and for all, and Husserl’s book opened up the blissful promise that the human mind could attain absolute certainty” (p. 78). So he transferred to the University of Gottingen to personally study with the father of phenomenology. Unlike Scheler, however, Husserl was not very impressive. His lectures were poorly prepared and occasionally incomprehensible. “It was the case of a powerful mind and a deplorable teacher” (p. 85). Yet von Hildebrand persevered, and ultimately Husserl accepted his dissertation, judging it “the most outstanding he had ever directed,” a major step in gaining access to Germany’s academic world.
In addition to his studies, von Hildebrand married his first wife, Gretchen, sired a son, and began moving toward the Catholic Faith. His conversion was encouraged by that of one of his sisters, Lisl, perhaps the least “religious” of his family. “But one day, while Lisl was contemplating the beauty of a tree, God’s grace mysteriously touched her soul” (p. 127). Then she read a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. “She found Christ. She found the Church. And all the beauty that had enchanted her for thirty-four years now found its fulfillment in Him ‘in who are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge'” (p. 128). Lisl urged her brother to follow her example. So he did, and the “brilliant student of Edmund Husserl became the humble recipient of the Church’s teaching” (p. 132). In submitting to Christ and His Church, he found the certainty and authority he’d ever longed for. “He found it a blessing to know that there is a voice speaking from above that informs man how to serve God as He wants to honored and gives him guidelines for salvation” (p. 160). Truth, ultimately, is revealed, not humanly devised, and it enables the believer “to enter into a world of holiness for which he had unconsciously longed” (p. 137).
Credo ut intelligam thenceforth became his motto. He discovered “the importance of humility in intellectual life.” He believed “that philosophical errors are often caused by a proud and arrogant intellectual posture, but that they are rarely due to a lack of intellectual acuteness. In fact, he maintained that the most devastating intellectual errors have been made by remarkably intelligent people, for mediocre minds do not produce major errors. The same conviction led Chesterton to write: ‘We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamist are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them'” (p. 134).
Following WWI, wherein von Hildebrand worked as a surgeon’s assistant in a hospital, he embarked upon a very public philosophical career. And he discovered the truth of Kierkegaard’s dictum, in My Point of View for My Work as an Author: “Every religious writer, or speaker, or teacher, who absents himself from danger is not present where it is, and where Evil has its stronghold, is a deceiver.” Though he lived in luxury in a Munich mansion his parents left him, presiding over one of the city’s intellectual centers, and though he had increased opportunity to teach philosophy at the university, political developments soon sucked him into the struggle for Germany’s soul.
As soon as Hitler’s National Socialists appeared von Hildebrand opposed them. In 1921 he was already on their “blacklist.” When the famous Putsch placed Nazis briefly in control of Munich, von Hildebrand had to flee the city. Thenceforth, with the “soul of a lion,” he spoke out against Hitler and his henchmen. Unfortunately, few folks joined him! When the Nazis prevailed in 1933, von Hildebrand almost immediately left Germany, leaving all his possessions and positions, in order to freely oppose Hitler. “Dietrich, hating iniquity, saw clearly that God was calling him to sacrifice all those good things rather than to condone evil. For years to come, his motto was Deus providebit (God will provide, Gen 22:8)” (p. 236).
With the personal support of Austria’s Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfus, von Hildebrand settled in Vienna and began editing an anti-Nazi, anti-Communist magazine. Dollfus himself told von Hildebrand that: “Today, political questions are no longer purely political; they center on questions of Weltanschauung. For me the fight against National Socialism is essentially a fight in defense of the Christian conception of the world. Whereas Hitler wants to revive the old Germanic paganism, I want to revive the Christian Middle Ages” (p. 255). Dollfus, of course, was killed by Hitler’s thugs in 1934, and subsequent Austrian leaders sought to accommodate the Nazis. Von Hildebrand struggled on with his magazine, however, somehow making ends meet and bearing witness to the Truth.
For several years he taught at the University of Vienna, though he never obtained the full professor’s position Dollfus envisioned. His days there, however, were marked by constant Nazi harassment. On one occasion 48 policemen were called to keep the peace when von Hildebrand lectured! The only friendly professor on the faculty was the famed logical positivist, Moritz Schlick (who was tragically murdered in 1936 by a mentally disturbed man). Despite many pressures, von Hildebrand wrote one of his finest treatises, Transformation in Christ, which was published under a pseudonym, since the book could not have been sold in Germany with its true author identified.
In 1938 von Hildebrand’s endeavors in Vienna instantly ceased, for the Germans occupied Austria and he was, in the words of Franz von Papan, the German ambassador in Vienna, “the most dangerous enemy of National Socialism” (p. 291). The von Hildebrands caught the last train leaving Austria ahead of the Nazis. Everything they had acquired in Vienna was seized and sold by the Nazis. For a time they found shelter in France, living in Fiac, near Toulouse. He continued his writing and speaking, but as Nazi troops invaded France he again had to flee, managing (after a harrowing journey) to find refuge in the United States in 1940, where he received an appointment to a professorship at Fordham University.
The Soul of a Lion ends at this point. It’s an engaging story, providing us a portrait of an intellectual who stood tall for the cause of Christ during some of Europe’s most tumultuous years. The biography rests on some 5,000 pages written by Dietrich von Hildebrand, at his wife Alice’s request, toward the end of his life. His American decades, including the years spent with Alice (his second wife and fine philosopher in her own right), needs to be told, and one hopes she will provide us with an account of his continuing struggle for truth and justice in this country.
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Some of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s concerns, subsequent to his arrival in the United States, appear in a collection of essays entitled The Charitable Anathema (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, c. 1993). In the lead essay, which gives the book its title, von Hildebrand announced his life’s driving concern: “the absolute primacy of divine truth, which is the very primacy of God” (p. 1). He took his thesis from Blaise Pascal, who declared: “It is as much a crime to disturb the peace when truth prevails as it is a crime to keep the peace when truth is violated. There is therefore a time in which peace is justified and another time when it is not justifiable. For it is written that there is a time for peace and a time for war and it is the law of truth that distinguishes the two. But at no time is there a time for truth and a time for error, for it is written that God’s truth shall abide forever.”
Clearly von Hildebrand thinks our day demands doing battle for truth. In the 1920’s, Nazi lies demanded refutation. Today more deadly toxins threaten to gut the Church of her very being. In his opinion, “ours is, I believe, the period of the greatest crisis the Church has ever faced, a period in which the anathema has become unpopular and is unfortunately considered as incompatible with charity” (p. 33). To fight for truth, to denounce error–to pronounce the “charitable anathema” against heresy–is today’s imperative! Charity is due all men, but communion must be restricted to those who embrace the Truth of Christ. He especially assails theologians such as Hans Kung, Eduard Schillebeeckx and defenders of Teilhard de Chardin who (often celebrating the “spirit of Vatican II”) who work within the Church to subvert her doctrines.
Identifying reasons for his criticism, von Hildebrand says, of such clerics: “They no longer believe in Original Sin, the need of redemption, the fact of our having been redeemed by Christ’s death on the Cross. They no longer believe in the one thing necessary, our transformation in Christ, our personal loving relation to Christ. They are completely ignorant of the true charity that can arise exclusively in the heart that loves God above all–God as He has revealed Himself in Christ” (p. 93). Instead, they concoct visions of human progress, a “this-worldliness” indistinguishable from social reforms touted by various secularists. “The champions of this-worldliness speak much in their new catechisms of social justice, of pacifism and anti-Colonialism, of progress in natural science; they skip the Ten Commandments and say as little as possible about sin, hell, purgatory, contrition, penance, the transformation in Christ and eternal beatitude” (p. 128).
Such men, sadly enough, “who idolize our epoch, who thrill at what is modern simply because it is modern, who believe that in our day man has finally ‘come of age,’ lack pietas” (p 43). In their irreverence, they manifest one of the worst human traits, one von Hildebrand often addressed. The capacity for “wonder,” as celebrated by Plato and Aristotle, should mark good men as well as good philosophers. “Reverence,” von Hildebrand says, “is of capital importance to all fundamental domains of man’s life. It can be rightly called ‘the mother of all virtues’ for it is the basic attitude that all virtues presuppose” (p. 37). Reverence allows Reality to reveal itself. Reverence listens to the other, especially the Holy Other. Pride, conversely, prods man “to construct a world according to his own liking. It allows him to consider philosophy as a field where he can show off his sophisticated reasoning–a field that grants him the occasion of displaying his brilliance and superiority over others” (p. 111).
This means the Church must rightly educate the faithful. “Great is the responsibility of the religious educator in the present moment” (p. 99). Von Hildebrand anguished over the impoverished doctrinal content of post-Vatican II Christian education classes and urged a return to more traditional methods. He also stressed the importance of moral instruction. Good teachers must seek “to develop the moral sense of the pupils, to evoke in their souls the sense for the breathtaking beauty and splendor of moral values and a deep horror for sin” (p. 97). They should take to hear the words of one of von Hildebrand’s main mentors, St. Augustine: “‘Who is the hireling who, seeing the approach of the wolf, takes flight? He who seeks himself and does not seek what is of Jesus Christ; he who does not dare to frankly admonish the sinner (1 Tim. 5:20). See, someone has sinned, gravely sinned; he should be admonished, excluded from the Church. But, excluded from the Church, he will become its enemy and will try to ensnare it and harm it where he can. now the hireling, the one who seeks himself and not what is of Jesus Christ, will be silent and will not give any admonition, in order not to lose what he seeks, namely the advantages of personal friendship, and in order to avoid the unpleasantness, worry and personal enmity. The world at that moment takes hold the sheep to throttle them. . . . You are silent O Hireling, and do not admonish. . . . Your silence is your flight. You are silent, you are afraid. Fear is the flight of the soul.’ (St Augustine, Tractatus in Joannem, XLVI, 7-8) (p. 117).
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Reading these two recent publications led me to re-read von Hildebrand’s Trojan Horse in the City of God (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, c. 1967), wherein he annunciated some of the themes which resurface in The Charitable Anathema. Just as he early discerned currents of things to come in National Socialism, he understood many of the problems which would develop as “progressives” sought to impose their agenda on the Caltholic Church under the guise of “the spirit of Vatican II.” He thought “the present crisis the most serious one in the entire history of the Church” (p. 7). Thus he wrote Trojan Horse to defend absolute “Truth” against the onslaughts of relativism, the primacy of metaphysical reality over various humanistic concerns, the importance of Christian philosophy, and the traditional position that the goal of human existence is to be “transformed in Christ, becoming a new creature in Him . . . in the words of St. Paul, ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification'” (p. 5).
Repeatedly von Hildebrand attacked relativism, both historical (the view that every historical epoch has its unique truths and values) and ethical (the position that nothing is always, absolutely right or wrong). Just as he had strongly reacted to his sister at the age of 14, he repudiated those thinkers who espouse relativism, especially evident today in the pervasively pragmatic “substitution of the socio-historical reality of ideas for their truth” (p. 81). Though some truths never fade away, for too many folks today no longer understand “the eternal, unchanging nobility and attraction of truth, of which St. Augustine says, ‘Quod desiderat anima fortius quam veritatem?’ (What does our soul desire more than truth?) ” (p. 84). Consequently, “One of the most ominous symptoms of decay in the Church today is the increasing acceptance of modern amoralism” (p. 159). Ever sinful by nature, man rourtinely fails to uphold God’s standards. But the failure was always acknowledged! Today, rather than confess their sins, men prefer to lower (or even abolish) the standards.
The truths von Hildebrand holds most precious are metaphysical, spiritual. Inasmuch as “Truth is the echo of being” (p. 149), knowing truth enables us to know Absolute Being, God Himself. Above all else, we’re called to love God with all our being. To those who seek to reduce Christianity to a bland humanitarianism, von Hildebrand insisted “that every man’s primary task is his own, rather than his neighbor’s salvation. My chief task is to avoid offending God by sin and to glorify God through my own sanctification” (p. 22). Yet, as one of the century’s greatest theologians, Henri de Lubac, warned, the post-Vatican II “Church is facing a grave crisis.” Reformers intent on establishing “an anthropocentric society” threatened to design an apostate “new Church,” quite “different” from that established by Jesus Christ. (p. 2). To the extent the Church reduces its concern to social reform, social justice, political programs, it fails to uphold its divine mission. As urs von ‘Balthasar warned, “he who does not listen to God has nothing to say to the world” (p. 223).
Many of the Church’s needs must be met by Christian philosophers who sustain the tradition developed by thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. There are solid correlations between divine revelation and human reason, between the truths of the Faith and the norms of the Natural Law. Philosophy, in particular, is needed for the important work of apologetics, defending the truths of the faith against those who deny or distort them. “Condemnation and the unmasking of errors is widely seen today as something hostile to love. No longer understood is the basic principle enunciated by St. Augustine–interficere errorem, diligere errantem (kill the error, love the one who errs)” (p. 64). The false claims of scientism–egregiously evident in the alleged social sciences–must be punctured. The false positions of non-Christian philosophers, such as Heidegger, must be exposed. The “theological fiction” of Teilhard de Chardin and his devotees must be refuted.
Looking back over the past 30 years, during which the Catholic Church has suffered a serious decline in attendance, as well as an erosion of orthodoxy in many areas, von Hildebrand’s alarms appear prophetic!