More college philosophy departments are discovering a “lost treasure,” the thought and works of Dietrich von Hildebrand. By Sue Ellin Browder.
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — John Henry Crosby is determined to revive interest in the thought of philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand.
First persuaded by von Hildebrand’s reasoned arguments for the necessity of beauty, Crosby soon was caught up by the story of the philosopher’s heroic fight against Nazism and communism and his suspense-filled flight to freedom. The notion of a “brave philosopher” willing to put his life on the line for the truth inspired him.
“I’ll be involved with this until the day I die,” said Crosby, 29.
His enthusiasm for von Hildebrand is shared by none other than Pope Benedict XVI. As a priest in Munich in the 1950s, Father Joseph Ratzinger attended one of the lectures von Hildebrand often gave on his summer visits to Europe. The subject was “beauty.”
“The joy and freshness of [von Hildebrand’s] understanding of Catholic doctrine were contagious,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 2000 in the foreword to The Soul of a Lion, Alice’s von Hildebrand’s biography of her late husband.
Cardinal Ratzinger believed the “transcendent beauty of truth” that had captured von Hildebrand’s heart was the “same love for the beauty of truth” that later led him to embrace and defend the magisterium’s teaching on birth control. He did so in a small volume originally titled The Encyclical “Humanae Vitae:” An Essay on Birth Control and Catholic Conscience, reprinted by Sophia Institute Press as Love, Marriage and the Catholic Conscience (currently out of print).
Characterizing von Hildebrand as “a man captivated by the splendor of truth,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”
The Legacy Project
To ensure that all the philosopher’s works will be available in English, Crosby has worked with Alice von Hildebrand and others to set up the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project (hildebrandlegacy.org).
Last month, the Legacy Project brought together more than 150 scholars and devotees from around the world for a conference at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Scholars focused on von Hildebrand’s growing impact on Christian philosophy.
The philosopher’s impact is making itself felt, too, in university courses. At Steubenville the master of arts philosophy program is furthering von Hildebrand scholarship.
In support of the Legacy Project, Pope Benedict put through a $45,000 Papal Foundation grant to help fund the translation, publication and promotion of von Hilde-brand’s work.
His Faith and Philosophy
Born in 1889, Dietrich von Hildebrand was the son of German sculptor Adolph von Hildebrand. He spent his boyhood in a stately villa in Florence, Italy, surrounded by art, literature, music and glorious churches.
Although he had yet to meet a Catholic, when he was only 14 he forcefully argued against his father’s and older sister’s claims that all morals were relative. At age 15, he discovered philosophy when he read the Dialogues of Plato in Greek, and he said to himself, “This is my vocation.” At 17, he entered the University of Munich.
With his passionate love for truth, it was only a matter of time before he found his way to the Catholic Church. He became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 1914. Struck with wonder by the truth and beauty of the liturgy, he attended daily Mass for the rest of his life.
“He was already convinced of the objectivity of truth,” Alice von Hildebrand related. “But now truth became so luminous to him, he began to have much deeper insights about love, marriage, faith and moral virtues.”
His insight “that all natural virtues remain crippled if they have no full relationship to supernatural virtue through grace” would eventually lead him to write his most important religious book, Transformation in Christ.
He also was one of the first people in Europe to discern the evil of the ascendant Nazi ideology in the 1930s. When Hitler came to power, von Hildebrand moved to Florence, then on to Vienna. In the Austrian capital, he started an anti-Nazi, anti-communist newspaper. Hitler’s ambassador to Vienna called von Hildebrand “the most dangerous enemy of National Socialism.”
Under threat of assassination, von Hildebrand was driven into hiding. He fled to France, where he was holed up for nearly a month in the slums of Toulouse in a basement room without daylight or even a toilet. With Nazis roaming the streets and every knock at the door a potential death knell, he left the hovel only very early in the morning to attend daily Mass in the nearest church.
Von Hildebrand prayed that Providence would intervene, and his prayer was answered. Through a series of miraculous escapes, and aided by false papers provided by the Nazi-resisting Catholic underground, von Hildebrand boarded a ship in Portugal and arrived in New York on Dec. 23, 1940. He soon began teaching at Fordham University in New York.
Ability to Change Lives
In most academic circles today, von Hildebrand’s philosophy remains “lost.” But in a few Catholic college philosophy departments and elsewhere it’s being revived.
Franciscan University philosophy professor John Crosby, John Henry’s father, studied under von Hildebrand. Whenever he teaches a von Hildebrand course, he reports, his students demonstrate a “very positive response.”
“Because of the strength of his vision and the depth and originality of his philosophy, he’s the kind of thinker capable of changing a person’s life,” Crosby said.
At Ave Maria University in Florida, a course on “The Philosophy of Love,” built on von Hildebrand’s work, is so popular that it’s being offered for the fourth year in a row.
“When my students discover von Hildebrand’s insights into love, they just come to life, because all their intuitions about love are confirmed, deepened, and purified,” said assistant professor Maria Fedoryka.
Jules van Schaijik, an independent philosopher in West Chester, Pa., characterizes von Hildebrand’s thought as “exciting, relevant and illuminating.” He adds, “His work is immediately useful in life and opens your eyes to dimensions of reality you haven’t seen yet.”
Carrie Gress, Rome bureau chief for Zenit news service and a candidate for a degree in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, is especially drawn to the dynamism of von Hildebrand’s character. She said he demonstrated that pursuing philosophy and living an authentically Catholic life is not boring.
“It is easy to think of philosophers over the last 500 years who do little to conjure up a sense of wonder in their writing or in the way they lived their lives. Von Hildebrand is an exception to both,” Gress said. “Beyond dusty pages and sterile syllogisms, he is a model of a truly passionate, dynamic and rich life — a Catholic life — in the fullest sense.”
Alex Plato, a 28-year-old Anglican who graduated with an
master’s degree in philosophy from Biola, an evangelical Christian university
in Southern California, said, “After getting into von Hildebrand’s views on
sexual ethics, I have deepened my view of humanity.”
He’s also drawn to von Hildebrand’s ideas on the purpose of philosophy — an attempt to grasp eternal truths — and his conviction that “good philosophy prepares the way to Christ.”
Even professors who don’t use von Hildebrand in their classes speak of him with respect. “I’m a great fan of von Hildebrand,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, who teaches philosophy at Fordham. Whereas many philosophies are “incompatible with Catholicism,” von Hildebrand was “authentically Catholic” and “quite unique and distinctive.”
“Authentically Catholic” philosophy matters immensely, Steubenville’s Crosby explains, because “philosophy is foundational, even for theology. You can’t really do theology in the Catholic tradition without a strong basis in philosophy.”
Sue Ellin Browder
is based in Willits, California.
- November 4-10, 2007