Alice von Hildebrand, Philosophy and Hypnosis

COMMENTARY: Two features of the hypnotized subject are decreased peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity for responding to suggestion, or ‘ideological possession.’

Alice von Hildebrand.
Alice von Hildebrand. (photo: Courtesy photo / Hildebrand Project)

Two Franciscan priests, both philosophers and dear friends of mine, made a trip several years ago to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to take in a lecture by Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. Her topic that evening was “Feminism, Abortion and Motherhood.” 

Both the speaker and the subject were of particular interest to them. On their way to the lecture hall they were surprised to find a group of about 25 women sitting on the ground in a semicircle, chanting, “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide.” They were protesting the fact that a pro-life speaker was about to deliver a lecture. Their incantations could just have well been applied to suicide. Their collective complaint did not deter our intrepid Franciscans, but it did arouse their philosophical sensibilities. Is there no place for a pro-life lecture at a school of higher education?

A college is expected to present both sides of a controversial issue. The Smith students, despite paying a handsome tuition fee for their education, were actually opposing what they were purchasing. 

In attempting to dissuade people from hearing what the redoubtable Mrs. von Hildebrand had to say, they were acting contrary to how an open-minded student was expected to behave. Their chanting, naturally, was not effective. But it achieved something rather contrary to their purpose. They were providing a powerful argument against their own pro-abortion position.

Alice von Hildebrand, who died in January, was a highly respected philosopher, and a prolific writer. Her late husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was a world-class philosopher. Her message that “abortion is an affront to women” would fall on deaf ears for women who had closed their minds to anything that would challenge their position. The contrast between a philosophical lecture and a mantra is most illuminating. The mantra is a closed circle. Philosophy opens up to the height and breadth of reality. “Man can know all things,” as Aristotle stated. The mantra is endless repetition. Philosophy is a journey that has no point of termination. The difference between the two is the difference between an open-minded search for truth and hypnosis.

There are two essential features of the hypnotized subject: decreased peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity for responding to suggestion. The Smith students had closed their minds to what the lecturer had to say. They were bound together in a tight formation and nothing in the periphery concerned them. They preferred group hypnosis to enlarging their awareness. In repeating, over and again, their eight words, they were desperately attempting to hypnotize others while being determined to remain in a group-induced trance themselves.

Philosophy and hypnosis, like light and darkness, have nothing in common. Philosophy demands a great deal of knowledge as well as an ability to see through sophistry. It also requires a strong moral character so that the philosopher is not bamboozled by the nonsense that happens to be fashionable. Etienne Gilson has said of St. Thomas Aquinas that he possessed two virtues to a high degree that are seldom found in the same person: a high degree of intellectual modesty combined with an equally high degree of intellectual audacity. Modesty is needed in order to offset pride, which can ground the philosopher in his own subjective preferences. Audacity is needed in order to remain firm against ideas that happen to be popular. It takes strength of character to avoid both the temptation to pride and the allurement of popularity.

Alice von Hildebrand was keenly aware of one’s personal shortcomings. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “pride is the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.” In order to avoid pride, one needs an antidote that cannot fail. “To be conscious of one’s weakness,” she wrote, “and to trust in God’s help is the way to authentic strength and victory.”

Hypnosis has much in common with “ideological possession.” In both cases, the individual latches on to an idea and stays with it despite contradictory evidence. The failure to provide strong arguments for abortion — moral, philosophical, theological, scientific or sociological — leads proponents to present their position in the form of a variety of mantras: my body, my choice, my life, my right, my freedom, and so on. The gap between ideological possession or hypnosis and genuine philosophy could not be wider. 

Philosophy requires time, effort, self-criticism, community and patience. This explains why there are so few reliable philosophers. By contrast, its polar opposite requires nothing more than beginning with a subjective preference and sticking with it like a dog on a bone. 

The semicircle formed by the Smith College protesters is also a commentary on higher education. Is truth or political correctness its proper objective? The truth will make you “odd,” said Flannery O’Connor. Socrates was put to death, while Aristotle fled Athens because he did not want that city to “sin twice against philosophy.”

The philosopher must prepare for criticism. Our two Franciscan philosophers may have learned more that evening from the protesters than from Dr. von Hildebrand’s lecture. They were rebuked by 25 women who were unremitting anti-philosophers. It was a disturbing, but enlightening, experience. They were told that they should not be philosophers, seekers of truth, critics of modernity — but they would not be intimidated. 

They would cultivate a new patience and understanding and try with renewed effort to convince their students of the importance of philosophy. They would emphasize that “the philosophy in the school room in one generation,” as Abraham Lincoln stated, “will be the philosophy of government in the next.” They would spare no effort in teaching them that philosophy is incomparably more personally rewarding than hypnosis.