“Only truth can unite people in an age of relativism which is like a termite, totally destroying human life.” So says Alice von Hildebrand in an interview with the Register at a three-day conference in Rome last week. The conference, which brought together leading Church figures from around the world, explored the work of her husband, the great 20th-century Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, and his philosophy of love.
Born in Belgium on March 11, 1923, Alice von Hildebrand came to the United States in 1940, where she met Dietrich, who had fled Nazi Germany. She began teaching at Hunter College in New York City in 1947, where she was an extraordinarily successful professor. A number of her students converted to Catholicism under her influence, despite the college’s anti-Christian spirit.
The author of numerous books, since her retirement she has given many lectures around the world and has devoted her entire life to making known the thought and witness of her husband.
She spoke with the Register’s Edward Pentin in Rome on May 28.
What can we learn from von Hildebrand today, and how relevant are his teachings to contemporary life?
I would call him a “Knight for Truth,” because that is the guiding factor: He was so conscious of the fact that today the greatest danger is ethical, moral and epistemological relativism.
Similar perhaps to Benedict XVI?
Well, in some ways, Benedict is following him. But this is the danger today. Morally speaking, the greatest danger today is abortion and pornography, and they might be linked. From another moral point of view, it is relativism which is like a termite that totally destroys human life. For example, for someone who accepts relativism, what is the difference between Hinduism or Buddhism? It makes no difference. This is your point of view; that is my point of view.
One of the things he saw so beautifully was that it is the greatest illusion to believe that relativism is going to unite people. Truth alone unites people. That is the only possibility of unity: one Truth.
But please listen very carefully: What is the danger? The danger is that some people become fanatical. They say that the truth is their property, and for this reason, they get furious when you attack it. Truth comes from God, and I must be a servant of truth. It is not my property. I am designed to know truth, designed to search for truth. And this is why my husband was unbelievably fruitful in his insights. He always shared his ideas, and people were using them, but they never gave him credit for it. He said: “It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t belong to me.”
He was just an instrument of truth?
Of course. I tell you something: I taught for 37 years at Hunter College in New York. It is a miracle that I taught there. It’s a fortress of relativism and incredibly anti-Catholic. Sixty-five percent of Catholic students lose their faith by their senior year — 65%.
But year after year, I had conversions. Why? Because the moment I could convince my students that the truth was subjective, it leads people to the Truth. In other words, conviction of truth leads to adoration, because he [Christ] was the only one who said “I am the Truth” — neither Mohammad nor Moses nor anyone else said that. Therefore, either Christ is the greatest madman in the history of the world, saying, “I am the Truth,” or he is God.
Then from conviction, you’re led to your knees: adoration. This is something I’ve seen again and again among my students. That was the problem: I was attacked from the first moment I entered the classroom.
It’s also necessary to preach the truth with conviction.
What one needs to understand is that the truth is something of such nobility. Why was Plato called “the preparer of the ways of Christ”? Because he said he wanted nothing but the truth. Then he says through Socrates: If you convince me that I’m mistaken, you’re the greatest of my benefactors.
Some speakers at the conference talked about an “epidemic of narcissism” in society today. What would von Hildebrand say to that?
Narcissism is a danger to the person. It belongs to the dignity of a person to relate to another person. I am a person, but each person is made for communion. This is in another book of my husband which hasn’t yet been translated, but John Henry [Crosby of the Hildebrand Legacy Project] is working on that. The book tries to show that precisely because we are persons, we are made for others, and made for communion. His book on love is a masterpiece.
What does his book called Nature of Love, which has just been translated into English, offer to us today?
That deep down, love is the meaning of human life. He who doesn’t love, doesn’t live. The danger is to fall into caricatures of love. For example, I might say I’m attracted to another person because they have nice legs or because of his hair or something like that, instead of realizing that love is the response to the value and beauty of another person. Then you give yourself to that person.
The amazing thing is, through the love that my husband gave me, I truly discovered myself. It makes you recognize your own dignity.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.