Pursuing Holiness, Living Out the Virtues: The Hildebrand Project and Caring for the Soul
Engaging the layperson in the legacy of the 20th-century Catholic philosopher.
In early 2004, a young man of 25 decided to devote himself to promoting the work and thought of 20th-century Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand when he founded the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, now known as the Hildebrand Project.
John Henry Crosby became familiar with von Hildebrand through his father, philosopher John Crosby, a student of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and had come to know von Hildebrand’s widow, Alice, who supported Crosby in starting the Hildebrand Project. He was further inspired by the words of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had stated that von Hildebrand would become the “most prominent among the figures of our time” in the “intellectual history of the Catholic Church.”
John Henry Crosby, in reflecting on von Hildebrand, felt that he was a philosopher that he “could follow.”
He explained, “[Von Hildebrand’s] heroic struggle against Nazism fired my imagination; his single-minded love and pursuit of truth presented me with a vivid embodiment of the true philosopher; and his passion for music, literature and art taught me that life without beauty is impoverished and inhuman” (Introduction to The Heart, p. x).
When one meets Crosby and hears him talk about von Hildebrand 15 years later, one encounters a person who is still passionate about the philosopher who inspired his life’s work and who strives every day to bring the life and ideas of von Hildebrand in contact with more people.
The mission of the Hildebrand Project “is to engage the contemporary world, both Christian and secular, by uncovering and disseminating the buried treasure of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s thought and witness” (Introduction to The Heart, p. ix).
On the project staff are Christopher Haley, the director of publication and marketing, and Catherine Beigel, the program coordinator. Those at the project fulfill their mission through translating and publishing von Hildebrand’s works, bringing philosophers and students in contact with his work, promoting and supporting current personalist philosophers (those who underscore the centrality of the person as the primary locus of investigation for philosophical, theological and humanistic studies), organizing events where von Hildebrand’s ideas and those of other personalists are read and discussed, and maintaining the website (HildebrandProject.org).
The Hildebrand Project recently announced the launch of a new website dedicated to the work of Alice von Hildebrand (AlicevonHildebrand.org). She was a professor of philosophy in New York for more than 40 years and in her writing and talks has made the philosophy of her husband her own.
This past July, 60 participants of the project’s ninth-annual summer seminar, “The Care of the Soul: Rethinking Virtue in the Contemporary World,” were given the opportunity to encounter the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand on virtue within the Tradition of the Church. The participants included expert panelists who led each session, graduate students, educators and amateur lovers of wisdom and virtue who simply desired to know more about personalism and philosophy. In preparation for the week of discussion, participants read selections from the history of philosophy beginning with Plato and Aristotle, continuing through St. Thomas Aquinas and Scotus, and up to modern thinkers such as von Hildebrand, Josef Pieper and Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). The panel topics included the early tradition on virtue, authenticity, virtue and gender, virtue in our technological age and in modern society, and how to bring virtue into education.
John Crosby, the professor, led off the first session by explaining that the place to begin a seminar on the “care of the soul” was with Socrates. He said, “I have always marveled at the expression, the care of the soul, as used by Socrates. I wouldn’t marvel at a Christian speaking of the care of the soul, but Socrates was a pre-Christian.” Socrates was the first philosopher of his tradition to recognize the soul as the inmost center of the human person.
As Crosby explained, “Once you know you have a soul, what does it mean to care for it and make it sound and healthy? [...] The answer of Socrates is this: You care for your soul by acting justly, courageously, generously, truthfully. You harm your soul, you defile it, by acting unjustly, by acting in a cowardly way, in an ungenerous way, by lying rather than telling the truth. You care for your soul by practicing the virtues and living a conscientious moral life.”
Good and Mean
The presenters then defined virtue in the Aristotelian sense as a mean between excesses and deficiencies of passions, as the prudent person would understand it. For example, the virtue of Christian magnanimity is a mean, where one is neither slothful, choosing to ignore the greatness God gave one, nor pridefully thinking of themselves as great in their own right. Susan Waldstein presented magnanimity as “a greatness of mind and soul” and “a readiness to face the difficult, to do what is very arduous for the sake of what is great.”
In reflecting on St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a magnanimous woman in her desire to die 1,000 deaths for Jesus, Waldstein explained, “The great desires of magnanimity flow from charity.” The magnanimous Christian acknowledges his or her strengths and abilities as a gift from God and does not hesitate to use them for good. Traditionally, it is understood that we acquire virtue through repeated good actions.
Relevance of Reverence
Von Hildebrand, as participants learned at the seminar, emphasized that another key aspect to attaining virtue is to contemplate the virtue itself and have a proper disposition toward the good. In order to become virtuous, one must have reverence toward the good. For him, “Reverence is the attitude that can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values” (The Art of Living, p. 3). For example, if one wants to become temperate about food, besides trying to eat moderately, one should have reverence toward the value of one’s body, which one nourishes with food, and further toward God, who is honored by one’s care for the body and appreciation of the good food he gives us.
For participants at the seminar, learning von Hildebrand’s explanations of virtue helped them in their love of God and desire to live a moral life. In a session on the virtue tradition, Alex Plato explained that according to Aristotle, one’s purpose in studying virtue should be to become good: “I need to want to become good if this study is to be any benefit to me at all.”
Christopher Haley, in a session on virtue and the saints, explained that von Hildebrand would say that the Christian virtues “are a fulfillment of the natural virtues,” which you can “see in the lives of the saints.” Von Hildebrand says that Christian ethics embodied by the saints is the fullness of ethics — we can look to their lives to learn how to live the virtues.
The most basic grasp of our understanding of virtues comes from imitating the lives of the saints, who, as Haley explained, “co-live and re-live the life of Christ.” The saints “show us an example of virtue that we can then reason about” and “mirror the virtues” of Christ. We look to them to show us how to live out Christian ethics, in other words. Haley further stated that “our primary experience of these virtues is through the lived experience of the saints.”
Call and Response
Participant Rachel Bulman, a writer and mother of four, attended her second seminar this summer. As she told the Register, “Most Christians understand that there is a ‘call to holiness’ and that call usually develops and is rooted in their heart. The Hildebrand Project continuously provides the language for me to express intellectually the movements and stirrings of my soul. I think it gives me a greater grip on why I pursue holiness and living out the virtues. What I learn there gives me the words to speak what is moving so strongly in my heart.”
Another participant at the summer seminar, Rachel Helferty, a naturopathic doctor from Ontario, found inspiration in the talks, as well, but also in the other attendees of the seminar. She came into the seminar week without any formal background in philosophy or theology and was pleased to find the discussions accessible for the lay thinker. As she told the Register, “It was truly an edifying experience to be surrounded by so many great minds and individuals of character, generously and courageously striving to make sense of our times and touch on what is truly important in life. I have come away inspired and with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning, and a deeper appreciation for philosophy, and especially the personalist approach.”
Susanna Spencer writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
For the sake of transparency, the author’s spouse was a speaker at this year’s Hildebrand conference.
This story was updated after its initial posting.
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