Dietrich von Hildebrand (Photo: Wikimedia)

Von Hildebrand: The courage of truth

An enemy of totalitarianism, an opponent of Hitler, exiled in the United States. For him, knowledge always originates in experience. A portrait of the philosopher whom the future Pius XII would call a "doctor of the Church of the 20th century."
Elisa Grimi*

It was the year 1923. The Munich Putsch: Dietrich von Hildebrand (Florence, Oct. 12, 1889 - New Rochelle, Jan. 26, 1977) was among the first names on the Nazi blacklist due to the denunciation of German Ambassador Franz von Papen. Although he feared that he would be arrested and was often forced into hiding, he unreservedly carried on with his battle against Hitler and his Nazi and anti-Semitic ideology. 100 years have passed since then and the skies of Europe are still darkened by bombs. His thought and life return to speak of the need for the courage of truth, in the name of freedom and respect for every person, as a condition of peace.

The son of German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, Dietrich grew up with his mother Irene Schäuffelen and five sisters in an environment rich in culture, art and music. He was a pupil and great friend of Max Scheler, who introduced him to the Catholic Church, and a student of Edmund Husserl, as well as Edith Stein, whom he had the opportunity to meet. His conversion to Catholicism on Holy Saturday 1914 was the decisive turning point in his life and the impetus for important works. Husserl exclaimed, "A great talent has been lost to philosophy!" This was foolish prejudice, for Hildebrand’s conversion actually generated an intellectual force so powerful that it led the then Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli - the future Pope Pius XII -, with whom Hildebrand struck up a deep friendship as early as the 1920s, to call him a "doctor of the Church of the 20th century." Also in the early 1920s came his personal encounter with St. Pio of Pietrelcina, from whom he went to San Giovanni Rotondo.

In 1924, together with his wife Margarete "Gretchen" Denck, he came up with the "philosophical afternoons" at his home in Munich. These were moments of fruitful cultural exchange on philosophical or religious topics, attended by eminent personalities, including Fr. Przywara, Archduchess Maria Josepha, mother of Emperor Charles I of Austria (now blessed), and the infanta Maria de la Paz. Upon Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany, Hildebrand briefly spent time in Italy and then moved with his family to Vienna. There he decided to continue the battle against Nazism with the heroic founding of the weekly newspaper Der Christliche Ständestaat.

In 1933 he was finally forced to flee. He managed to get to safety. His suffering across Europe under the ferocity of the Nazi threat is recounted in his gripping biography The Soul of a Lion, in which his motto is revealed: Deus providebit! An unexpected encounter, the hand of a newfound friend, an unforeseen event almost like a twist of fate, such as the help he received from the servant of God Edmond Michelet, drew him to safety several times until he was taken aboard the Serpa Pinto, with his wife and small son Franzi, to the United States of America. He then settled in New York, where he taught at Fordham University until 1960.

Nothing would be more wrong or childish than to regard Hildebrand the philosopher, as well as the religious man, in the same way, as someone “who lives in the clouds and is occupied with abstruse problems" (as he writes in What is Philosophy? ). His is a concrete look at being within a metaphysical horizon: questioning, hoping and wishing are part of those attitudes that manifest at the same time both the finiteness of human existence and man's relation to the infinite.

He thus became the interpreter of phenomenological realism, a current of which he became, together with Adolf Reinach, the principal exponent: knowledge always originates from an experience, that is, from the immediate contact with an object in which it reveals itself. The deeper and more immediate this contact is, the more authentic and fruitful knowledge is. In still unpublished pages from a workshop he gave in Washington, he states, "It belongs to the very nature of value to possess its importance in itself, and therefore the question from which it derives its importance is as nonsensical as the question 'how do I know that something evident is evident, what criterion do we possess for evidence?' Actually the evidence of what is important in itself is much more intelligible, in a much deeper sense of the term intelligible, than the plausibility offered by the notion of something being important to something else." Therefore, it is precisely in phenomenology that the philosophical method par excellence should be sought, because it looks at things themselves, at their essence. This is the raison d'être of philosophy from its origins, since it began as an inquiry of wisdom into reality.

Hildebrand's philosophy stands as a firm response to the weakness of postmodern thought, which despondently shies away from any claim to truth that asserts to be universal and necessary. In his essay Dethronement of Truth he denounces how "the secular propagation of relativism and subjectivism, while inconsistently implying a tacit respect for truth, has finally affected the direct approach to being and created the attitude of indifference and disrespect for truth in life itself." All the arguments of the atheists of old, he points out, always took seriously the question of truth and the existence of God, that is, they had the "function of defending truth.” Hildebrand, in the face of the reigning madness of totalitarian ideology, says that truth has been dethroned, and today we continue to see the results: "To dethrone truth means to sever the human person from the very basis of his spiritual existence; it is the most radical, practical atheism and thus is deeply linked with the depersonalization of man, the anti-personalism that is the characteristic feature of communism and of all the different kinds of totalitarianism."

Hildebrand is considered one of the forerunners of the Second Vatican Council. His conversion profoundly marked his vast output, which ranges from epistemology to ethics, from aesthetics to theology. His religious writings include numerous reflections on the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, and his works Marriage, The Art of Living, The Heart, Nature of Love, and Transformation in Christ stand out. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, commenting on his production, wrote, "His extensive writings on Christian philosophy, spiritual theology and in defense of the Church's teaching, place him among the great thinkers of the 20th century," and continued, ""I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time." (preface to The Soul of a Lion).

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His works reveal the awe of discovery of truths sought in the depths of faith. Shortly before his death, in entrusting his literary legacy to his wife Alice Jourdain (born in 1923 and married in 1959), he solemnly told her, "If, after my death, you find a manuscript of mine, or even a statement, that is not in total harmony with the teaching of the Church, do not hesitate to burn it." He saw in the Church's pronouncements the manifestation of authentic truth, from which to learn ceaselessly.

Among his many insights, fruit of the radiant beauty of a unity of life, it is certainly worth mentioning, his having located, alongside the categories of intellect and reason, a third spiritual center: the heart, a true center of gravity of all affectivity. Hildebrand proposes an inquiry into human affectivity that finds its highest example in the One who knew how to make perfect use of the heart. Starting from the use that we usually or try to make daily of the heart, he brings his reflection to the mystery of the Sacred Heart: Cor Jesu, vita et resurrectio nostra, miserere nobis.

*Executive Director, European Society for Moral Philosophy.
Associated Scholar, Hildebrand Project