Pope Pius XII once called Dietrich von Hildebrand “our 20th-century Doctor of the Church.” More recently, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger referred to him as “one of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th century.”
Although his numerous books have been highly regarded in Catholic intellectual circles, little has been known about von Hildebrand's inspiring and courageous life. Until now: Alice Jourdain von Hildebrand, Dietrich's widow, has written a marvelously evocative biography covering the first five decades of the man's life. Von Hildebrand was born in 1889 into a loving, artistically gifted and thoroughly secular family in Florence, the only son and youngest of six children born to Adolph and Irene von Hildebrand. His father was a renowned sculptor; he and Irene often entertained such artistic notables as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Henry James.
Dietrich was only 15 when he determined to pursue philosophy as his life's work after reading Plato's dialogues and realizing “that he had an innate talent for detecting errors and equivocations in arguments and for unraveling a confused line of reasoning, and he set his mind to develop this gift.”
At Munich University, he met the brilliant but thoroughly undisciplined Max Scheler, who became his close friend. From the moment they met, Scheler's limber mind and dazzling personality captivated von Hildebrand. But he was indebted to Scheler above all else for the latter's intricate Catholic analysis of philosophical and theological questions, which eventually convinced von Hildebrand that the Church had received, and still retained, the fullness of revealed truth.
Mrs. von Hildebrand insists that her husband's conversion to the Catholic faith in 1914 was the most important and the most decisive moment of his life. “Every time he mentioned this event his face lit up with joy,” she tells us. “Beautiful and rewarding as his life had been … he was now entering into a radically new world, the world of the supernatural whose radiance, sublimity, and beauty were such that all his previous experiences paled by comparison. He was overwhelmed by a light, the existence of which he had never suspected previously. He could not learn enough; he could not read enough. Every day brought new discoveries; every day was more uplifting than the preceding one. Every instruction was received with attentiveness and gratitude.”
Purely philosophical questions continued to interest von Hildebrand, but he delighted much more now in meditating on the transformation that occurs in one's life when thought is illuminated by revelation. This spiritual transition became the theme of his masterwork Transformation in Christ, first published in 1940 under the pen name Peter Ott, because the publisher could not market the book in Nazi Germany under von Hildebrand's own name, since he had been sentenced to death in absentia.
Von Hildebrand had courageously denounced National Socialism from its earliest days. Much of the second half of this book concerns his terrifying flights and repeated narrow escapes from his Nazi pursuers in Germany, Austria and France until, at the book's conclusion, he and his wife arrive, at last, in New York. They are greeted on the pier by a fellow refugee from Nazism, Msgr. John Osterreicher, with the welcome news that a professorship awaits von Hildebrand at Fordham University.
One reservation: The book ends too soon. Von Hildebrand was only a little over 50 when he landed in the United States in 1940; he continued to live a productive and eventful life until his death in 1977. Much detail is excluded from the present, excellent work. Where are the firsthand insights on his distinguished career at Fordham, his marriage to Alice Jourdain following the death of his first wife, Gretchen, and his founding of the Roman Forum? One hopes that Mrs. von Hildebrand is at work on a second, equally absorbing, volume.
Carroll McGuire writes from Wayne, New Jersey.