Thursday 23rd November 2017

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The Making Of A Philosopher

October 20, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

A new year arrives every 12 months; a new millennium, every 12,000 months. In celebrating the latter, how does one begin to do justice to its magnitude? The rarity of the event demands something far more imaginative than noisemakers and funny hats. There should be some serious reflection about life and the passing of time as one bids adieu to a thousand year epoch and welcomes the inauguration of its successor.
Our hostess that evening of December 31, 1999 was up to the challenge. She distributed souvenir spoons to each of her guests and asked them to weave personal stories that each spoon evoked. Every spoon bore the name of a city. Mine was Munich, Germany, and was, indeed, a most propitious memory jogger.
On November 8, 1932, a philosopher colleague of mine, Stephen Schwarz, came into the world in that city. It was a time of grave political concern and Stephen’s parents, together with Edith Stein and others, would meet at each other’s homes to discuss what might be done in such troublesome times. During the course of one particular evening, Edith got up from the table, went into the nursery, picked up little Stephen and held him. No doubt she prayed for the child’s health, his safety, and his future. To be held by a saint must be a most salutary experience.
When, after reaching man’s estate, Stephen informed me that he did not imbibe alcohol, I said, to his amusement, that for him “One Stein is enough.”
Stephen and Edith would go their separate ways, Stephen to Harvard for his Ph.D. in philosophy, Edith earning her doctorate at Freiburg, writing her dissertation on “The Problem of Empathy.” There can be no doubt that Edith had no problem with empathy in the nursery when she held baby Stephen. Later, Stephen took a philosophy position at the University of Rhode Island, Edith was sent to Auschwitz and ultimately was canonized St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Stephen’s father, Balduin, was a philosopher whose career was completely turned around through the influence of Dietrich von Hildebrand. For some time, Balduin was content to teach what other philosophers said. Von Hildebrand introduced him to the philosopher’s proper role as seeking and teaching the truth. As Balduin’s son, Stephen would later say, concerning von Hildebrand, “Here was a man who dared to say what he saw as really true. ‘This is the way it is, this is the nature of love, of justice, of the human person’.”
Balduin bequeathed this approach to philosophy to his son and helped form his respect for the primacy of the dignity of life. According to Balduin, “The dignity of the person is the highest legal good (Die Wurde des Menschen ist das hochste Rechtsgut).” This conviction represents the cornerstone in Stephen’s book, The Moral Question of Abortion (Loyola University Press: 1990) and his later book, co-authored with Kiki Latimer, Understanding Abortion: From Mixed Feelings to Rational Thought (2011).
Von Hildebrand’s influence on the Schwarz family is considerable. He helped Stephen’s mother abandon agnosticism and eventually become a Catholic. He also provided invaluable spiritual assistance to Stephen’s grandfather. He was Stephen’s godfather and held him as he was baptized. Stephen’s middle name, appropriately, is Dietrich. He read from his philosophy to Stephen’s mother as she was breastfeeding him. And so, writes, Stephen Schwarz, in a brief 2005 memoir: “His presence entered my being with my mother’s milk”.
I met Dr. Schwarz by chance at a potluck party in East Greenwich, R.I. The first thing he said to me was, “I guess you got your promotion.” As Providence decreed, he had been randomly chosen to serve as a referee to evaluate my candidacy for promotion to full professor. It was the easiest decision of its kind he had ever made, he went on to say. What he particularly enjoyed was the fact that my chapter on “Generosity,” in The Heart of Virtue, was astonishingly similar to his father’s treatment on that same virtue. I had not previously read anything by Balduin Schwarz.
Stephen Schwarz studied under von Hildebrand at Fordham University, taking as many courses from the master as he could. After class the two would continue their philosophical discussions on their way home, 15-20 minutes on foot and 30 minutes on the subway. Dietrich had secured an apartment for Stephen and his parents just below his at 448 Central Park West in New York City right across from Central Park. They had all fled Nazi Germany, arriving in America on June 27, 1941. In The Morality of Abortion Dr. Stephen Schwarz acknowledges his debt to von Hildebrand: “It is mainly from him that I learned the art of philosophizing as careful analysis of and faithfulness to reality.”
Dr. Schwarz addresses a broad audience. He is at pains to present both sides of the abortion issue as evenly and objectively as possible. He gets to the heart of each position, the core idea from which it is developed, and leaves it to the reader to make up his or her own mind. Despite his meticulous attempt to be fair, as he once explained to me, some of his students would complain to him that he made the pro-life side more appealing.
He found this kind of response more amusing than frustrating for it did not seem to occur to such students that the pro-life side is inherently more appealing because it is objectively more realistic. And here is precisely where the philosopher comes in as the one who is not content merely to present an array of arguments, but to discover which argument reveals the truth of things. A philosopher must be more than an auditor. And a student must be more that a secretary.
I had the great privilege of teaching his daughter, Mary, who is also a philosopher. The souvenir spoon bearing the name “Munich” released a flood of memories that originated prior to the new millennium and predated additional memories that continue to weave a story that is, indeed, rich in providential implications.

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