By DONALD DeMARCO
Alice von Hildebrand titled the biography of her husband, The Soul of a Lion (2000).
In the foreword to the book, chronicling the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest Catholic philosophers, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) refers to an “epiphanous” moment when Dietrich von Hildebrand first realized the nature and importance of philosophy. He describes what transpired during the course of a long walk with one of his sisters when the young Dietrich persistently rebuffed her protestations that moral values are relative.
He answered each of her propositions vigorously with a counterargument of his own. Exasperated, the sister called upon their father for assistance. “Imagine, Father,” the distraught sibling complained, “Dietrich refuses to acknowledge that all moral values are relative.” “Do not forget,” the father responded, “that he is only fourteen.” Infuriated by his father’s curt remark, the boy answered, “Father, if you have no better argument than my age to offer against my position, then your own position must rest on very shaky grounds.”
Dietrich grew into manhood without ever losing his conviction that moral values cannot be relative. His love for truth led him into the Catholic Church when he was twenty-four. It also earned him the nickname, “Knight of Truth.” His love for the Church led him to guide many of his family members into the Church. All five of his sisters became Catholic, and his influence on four of them was decisive.
When people have wildly conflicting notions about what is and what is not moral, the situation is ripe for someone to come along and re-establish order. A society cannot function cohesively when there is moral chaos. And relativism in practice is, indeed, society in chaos. As history has shown, unbridled moral conflict has often led people to escape from their “freedom” into the arms of tyranny.
Dietrich Richard Alfred von Hildebrand was born in Florence, Italy, on October 11, 1889 (the same day as Christopher Dawson) amidst the artistic splendor of that great city. His father was a renowned sculptor whom the King of Bavaria knighted in 1904.
To the Hildebrand household came a steady stream of outstanding artists and thinkers, including Richard and Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, William James, Rudolf Otto, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and British Prime Minister William Gladstone.
Out of this highly cultured milieu was formed, in the heart and soul of the young von Hildebrand, a profound love of beauty and a deep regard for reverence, values that he wrote about extensively in his many works on ethics and aesthetics.
At age forty-five, the man who refused to believe that moral values are relative had the singular honor of being called “enemy number one” of National Socialism by the German ambassador in Vienna, Franz von Papen.
It was only through divine Providence, together with the help of many courageous and generous friends, that von Hildebrand avoided capture and execution (an order had been issued for his assassination), and escaped in 1940 to America where he began a distinguished career at Fordham University as a teacher, and subsequently became world renowned as a writer and lecturer.
A Knight for Truth set out in a relativistic world may seem quixotic. No doubt it seems exactly that to the secular world where political correctness is enshrined as a summum bonum. Relativism is au courant. It appears to be broad-minded, tolerant, and democratic. But it is essentially unrealistic, and consequently unworkable. Only truth can be the unifying basis for a civil society. Radical disagreement on moral issues (abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and so on) invites a Leviathan of state control.
The truth of the human being is that he is a creature who is called to love, work for peace, and enjoy (if not create) things of beauty. That is what Dietrich von Hildebrand understood and that was what constituted the vision to which he dedicated his entire life. In his writing he avoided extravagant speculations. His concern was primarily with the seemingly “everyday” experiences of human beings.
Hence, he wrote extensively about the interior and ethical life of the human person and his obligations to others.
Because his Catholic faith imbued his thinking, he is known, alongside such stalwarts as St. John Paul II, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Emmanuel Mounier, as a Christian personalist.
Of his more than 30 published books, among the most important are: In Defense of Purity (1927), Liturgy and Personality (1943), Transformation in Christ (1948), The New Tower of Babel (1953), and The Trojan Horse in the City of God (1967).
Pope Pius XII referred to von Hildebrand as “a 20th-century doctor of the Church.”
When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1968, von Hildebrand was the first Catholic thinker to defend it publicly.
St. John Paul II acknowledged his own intellectual debt to him, especially on the subject of marriage.
And, as Pope Benedict XVI has remarked, “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 Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the thought of von Hildebrand. Partly responsible for this resurgence is the work of The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, established in 2004. The purpose of the Project is not only to translate and publish certain writings of von Hildebrand into English, but to facilitate the reception of his works by a larger audience.
To this end, a conference in Rome was held in May 2010 — “The Christian Personalism of Dietrich von Hildebrand” — featuring the critical reception of his book, The Nature of Love, published for the first time in English in 2009.
In 1977, when he was close to death, he spoke to his wife in his native tongue. His voice had become a whisper, but his wife could hear him say, “I used to be a lion; now I am but a helpless little thing.” He then took a deep breath and added, “Ma sai, sai, la mia anima è ancora un leone (“But you know, you know, my soul is still a lion”).
Her husband’s very last words, according to her account, uttered with a trembling voice were, “A country that legalizes murder is doomed.”