Archive for the ‘Dietrich von Hildebrand’ Category


Goodness – Dietrich von Hildebrand

June 7, 2012

Christ Pantocrator – the painting in the niche of the wall of the Holy Trinity’s monastery, Meteora, Greece

GOODNESS IS THE VERY HEART OF THE WHOLE REIGN OF MORAL VALUES. It is by no accident that the term “good” means moral value as such, and also the specific moral quality of goodness. Among the different moral values there is none which embodies more completely the entire reign of moral values than goodness; in it we find the purest and most typical expression of the general character of moral goodness as such. It is in the center of all morality, and at the same time, its most sublime fruit.

Its central importance in the moral sphere is, therefore, of a completely different type from that of the fundamental attitudes previously mentioned: reverence, fidelity, awareness of responsibility and veracity. For, apart from their own high moral value, these virtues are accepted as a presupposition for the moral life. Goodness, on the contrary, is not a presupposition, but the fruit of moral life. But not a fruit among others, such as meekness, patience, generosity, but the fruit of fruits, i. e. that in which culminates all morality in a specific way; it is the queen of all virtues.

What is goodness? What do we mean when we say that a man irradiates goodness? We say this of a man when he is disposed to help, when he is kindly, just, when he is ready to make sacrifices for others, when he pardons wrongs done him, when he is generous, when he is full of compassion. All these qualities are specific forms and manifestations of love. This indicates the close connection which exists between love and goodness. Love is, as it were, flowing goodness, and goodness is the breath of love.

We have seen at the beginning that the whole moral life consists in meaningful responses to values which have been grasped, such responses, as enthusiasm, admiration, joy, obedience, love. But love is, among all these responses to values, the most complete and the deepest. First of all, one must realize that love is always a most outspoken response to value. When we love somebody, whether it be a friend, a parent, a child, whether it be conjugal love or neighborly love, the beloved person always stands before us as something precious and noble in himself.

As long as someone is merely agreeable to us or only useful for our purposes, we could not love him. This does not mean that we become blind to the faults of the beloved person. But the person as a whole must stand before us as endowed with a sublime value and filled with intrinsic preciousness; yes, that specific individuality which every man represents as a unique thought of God must reveal itself before our eyes in all its charm and beauty if we are to love him.

Love is always a response to value. In love, one responds not only with a specific word, but with the gift of one’s heart, with oneself. In love, one concerts with value more closely and more deeply than in any other response, such as, for example, reverence or obedience. In love, a man dwells in the values of the beloved in a completely different way. Love, in its fullest and proper meaning, addresses itself always to persons, or at least to non-personal entities which we treat as personal (as, for example, one’s country). These are responses to values which are directed toward things, attitudes, and events, as well as toward persons, as for example, joy, sorrow, enthusiasm.

Other responses to values from their very nature address themselves only to persons, as veneration, gratitude, confidence, obedience and love. In the response of love to the other person two fundamental elements are manifested. The affirmation of the being of the beloved one, the abandoning response to his intrinsic beauty unfolds itself, on the one hand, in a longing to participate in his being, to be united with him; and on the other hand, in the will to bestow happiness on him.

In love, one spiritually hastens toward the other person in order to dwell with him, to partake in him, and, on the other hand, to cover him with a mantle of goodness, to spiritually cherish and protect him. Every love which deserves the name of love possesses these two elements, even though in a specific love, one or the other element will prevail.

The second element, namely, an ultimate interest in the growth and unfoldment of the beloved, in his perfection and his happiness, and in the last account, in his salvation, this envelopment of the beloved in love, is, as we have already said, pure flowing goodness. Here we find goodness in its purest manifestation. Goodness always presupposes a special attitude toward other persons, even to beings of a lower order possessing a certain analogy to persons, such as animals; thus, it is contradistinguished from truthfulness, which responds to the value of being as such.

We say “attitude of response to value toward persons in general,” for the goodness of a man does not limit itself to benevolent intentions toward one particular person whom one loves. When we say someone is good, we mean that he continually manifests this open benevolence, that his attitude toward every man has, a priori, this loving, this generous character. For goodness, like every other virtue, is not limited to a particular momentary attitude, but it is a property of man, a part of his super-actual being, a basic attitude and position. There are three types of men who embody a specific antithesis to goodness: the indifferent or cold man, the hardhearted one, and the wicked one.

The latter is the man who is an enemy of values: the man who is ruled by a basic attitude of pride, and who lives in an impotent revolt against the world of values. He not only bluntly by-passes them, as does the sensual man, but he assails them; he would like to dethrone God, he hates the world of goodness and beauty, and all the world of light, like Alberich in the Nibelungenring of Richard Wagner. He is full of envy and rebellion against the world of values, and against every good and happy man.

He is the man like Cain, who feeds himself upon hatred. His attitude toward other men not only lacks kindliness, but is expressly hostile. He wants to hurt his fellowmen, and to wound them with the poison of his hatred. I do not refer to the misanthrope who, having been disillusioned, is at war with humanity as a whole and every individual person; he has rather turned away from mankind than turned against it; this type is more tragic than wicked. I am thinking of the malicious man who would like to pour out his poison everywhere, like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, or Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

A specific variety of this type is the fundamentally cruel man, who enjoys the sufferings of others. Instead of the luminous harmony of goodness, we find here a somber disharmony; instead of the warm diffusing rays of happiness and life radiated by love, one finds virulent and lacerating hatred; instead of clear, free affirmation, one finds a destroying search for nothingness, a being imprisoned in a spasm of negation.

We find another antithesis to goodness in the hardhearted person… He is the stern, cold man who is never moved by compassion, whose ear is deaf to all petitions, who tramples on everything without consideration, and for whom other men are mere figures placed on the chessboard of his plans. He is not a deliberate enemy of other people, but completely hard and uncharitable. In no way does this type take into account the natures of other men as spiritual persons, as sensitive and vulnerable creatures. He ignores their rights and claims as personal beings; he treats them as if they were mere objects.

He represents a classical type of the pure egoist. He reminds us of certain slave-dealers, or of Landvogt Gessler in Schiller’s William Tell. Instead of the inner freedom of the charitable man, we find in him an inner compression and hardening of the heart. In place of openness and accessibility to his fellowmen, we find him closed in upon himself and impenetrable.

Instead of response to the positive value of the other’s happiness and the negative value of his suffering, we find refusal of any response; instead of solidarity with the other person (i.e. the capacity to transcend oneself in order to suffer and rejoice with others), we find total imprisonment in self, an icy and brutal gaze looking beyond others. Instead of the victorious, selfless superiority of the man who is at the service of all, we find the inferiority of the brutal superman, and instead of generous forgiveness of injustices suffered, we find relentless vengeance.

Finally, the antithesis to the good man is the cold, indifferent man. He is the man who by-passes his fellowmen with a blighting lack of comprehension; the man who lives for his own comforts and enjoyments; he, too, is a typical egoist, but he has a different complexion from the hardhearted man. He is neither hostile toward others, nor brutally and unrelentingly hard, but he is filled with indifference toward his fellowmen. He may be moved by fearful sights, he experiences disgust and horror when facing illness, he cannot bear the sight of blood, but all this is but a nervous reaction to an aesthetically shocking object. For he flees from awful sights and seeks pleasant scenes, while the good man hastens to help.

On the other hand, this type of man is even more cold than the hardhearted man. The hardhearted man, it is true, has an icy coldness, he does not know the voice of the heart; he is heartless. Yet he does know the fire of hatred, the cold burning of vengeance, of rage. He is not indifferent. He is not invulnerable. He is familiar with the irritation caused by offenses and humiliations, but he does not know what it means to be wounded to the heart by lack of charity, injustice, and, above all, by the sufferings of our fellowmen, and other objective negative values.

The indifferent man, on the contrary, has not the sternness and brutality of the hardhearted men; he cannot even be pierced by insults; only that which is disagreeable and uncomfortable bothers him. He is not a superman like the hardhearted man; he may even be an aesthete. He is unable to share other people’s feelings, for he is much too occupied with his own concerns. He is not only selfish, he is above all egocentric, i.e. he is occupied with his own feeling and moods, and his gaze is centered upon himself. The whole world is there only for his satisfaction. He is therefore incapable of deeper inward-emotions; in the end everything leaves him indifferent. Instead of the warmth and ardor of the good man, empty neutrality and cool indifference reign here. We find here no inner riches or inner fecundity, only sterile poverty and fruitless emptiness.- Instead of the awakedness and openness of the good man, we find him circumscribed and blind regarding values, and instead of the all-embracing breadth of the good man we find in him a petty narrowness.

Thus we see the fundamental features of goodness. Luminous harmony, inner freedom and serenity, the victorious superiority of love — which is the secret of eager and ready service — openness to the life of other men, warmth, ardor, meekness and mildness, all-embracing breadth, awakedness, and the capacity to grasp values. It is above all important to understand that goodness, although it is tender and meek, possesses at the same time the greatest strength. Faced with its irresistible power, with its superior security and freedom, the force of the superman is only miserable weakness and childish pretence. One should not mistake goodness for weak surrender, a surrender without resistance. The truly good man can be immovable when one tries to divert him from the right path, and when the salvation of his neighbor calls imperatively for sternness. He unshakably resists every seduction and temptation.

One should beware of confusing goodness with good-nature. The good-natured man is harmless and is an appeaser; because of a certain lassitude and inertia of his nature, he lets himself be badly treated without noticing it. His amiable attitude has its source in a completely unconscious tendency of his nature. Goodness, on the contrary, flows from a conscious response of love; it is “ardent awakedness” and never “harmless lassitude.” It is the most intensive moral life, and not inertia and dullness; it is strength and not weakness. The good man does not allow himself to be made use of because he lacks the strength to resist, but he serves freely and humbles himself willingly.

In goodness there shines a light which bestows on the good person an especial intellectual dignity. The truly good man is never stupid and narrow, even though he may be slow intellectually, and not gifted for intellectual activities. The man who is not good, in any of the fore-mentioned ways, is, in the last account, always limited, even stupid. This is true even if he has produced works of great intellectual power. Goodness, the breath and fragrance of love, is the essence of every truly moral life, yes, of every true life of the soul. Whereas the other fundamental attitudes, such as reverence, faithfulness, awareness of responsibility and veracity respond to the world of values as a whole, goodness not only responds to this world of values, but is, so to speak, the reflection of the whole world of values in the person. Goodness speaks in the voice and in the name of this world.

What has been said of love applies to goodness as well: “He who does not love abides in death.” In its mysterious strength it shakes the world to its very foundations; it bears on its forehead the sign of victory over wickedness and disorder, over all hatred and all unfeeling coarseness.


Faithfulness – Dietrich von Hildebrand

May 1, 2012

Who do you know like this, a “traitor to themselves”? I’ve marked this off with the Cardinal Virtues as fortitude and faithfulness seem to run together.


AMONG THE ATTITUDES OF MAN WHICH ARE BASIC FOR HIS WHOLE MORAL LIFE, faithfulness is ranked next to reverence. One can speak of faithfulness in a narrow sense and in a large one. We have the narrow sense in mind when we speak of fidelity toward men, such as fidelity to a friend, marital fidelity, fidelity to one’s country or to oneself.

This type of fidelity throws into relief the other type. I refer here to the continuity which first gives to a man’s life its inner consistency, its inner unity. The building up of one’s personality is only possible if one holds firmly to those truths and values which one has already discovered.

The course of a man’s life contains a continual rhythmical replacement of one impression, one act, one decision by another and different impression, act or decision. We are unable to ponder over one thought for a long time and to keep our attention on one point for very long. Just as in the biological realm, hunger and satiety, fatigue and renewed strength succeed one another, so a certain rhythmical change is proper to the course of our spiritual life. Just as the various impressions which affect us give place to one another, and the stream of events offers to our mind a great variety of objects, so our attention cannot long remain focused on any one object with the same intensity.

A movement from one subject to another is therefore proper to our thought, as well as to our feeling and will. Even in the case of a very blissful experience, such as the long-desired meeting with a beloved person, we are unable to dwell permanently in this joyous experience. The rhythm of our inner life forces us to leave the full presence of a great joy and to turn our attention in another direction and to register different experiences.

But — and this must be stressed — the same man has different levels of depth. The psychical life of man is not restricted to the level on which this continual change unfolds itself; it is not restricted to the level of our express attention, of our present consciousness. While we proceed to another impression and give our attention to another mental object, the preceding impression or object does not vanish, but will, according to its significance, be retained in a deeper level, and will continue to live at that level. Memory is an expression of this capacity of the soul for super-actual life, and this continuity is seen in our capacity to remember, to connect past and present.

Above all we see this continuity in the super-actual survival of our attitudes toward the world, toward fundamental truths and values, which remain unchanged even though our present attention is turned in a completely different direction. Thus, for example, joy caused by some happy event continues to “live” in the depth of our souls and colors everything which we do, colors all our tasks of the moment, and colors our approach to all those things with which we are expressly concerned. So also our love for a beloved person remains living in the depth of our souls, even though we are occupied by work, and it constitutes a sort of background against which different events run their course.

Without this capacity for continuity, man would have no inner unity; he would be but a bundle of interwoven impressions and experiences. If one impression merely took the place of the preceding one, if the past should indiscriminately vanish, the inner life of man would be senseless and shallow; any building up, any development would be impossible. Above all there would be no personality.

Even though this capacity of retaining impressions and attitudes in a super-actual way, without which the individual life of a spiritual person is impossible, is a capacity common to every man, yet the degree to which a given individual possesses this inner continuous coherence is very different in each case. We say of many men that they live in the moment only; the present instant has such power over them that the past, even though its content be deeper and more important, vanishes before the insistent clamor of the present.

Men differ very much from each other in this regard. Some of them live exclusively on the exterior level of their present consciousness, so that one experience follows another without any relation to the one preceding. We could call such men “butterflies.” Others, on the contrary, also live in the deeper level of their being. In them nothing important is sacrificed because it is no longer present, but it becomes the unalterable possession of the man, according to its degree of importance, and the new meaningful experiences organically unite themselves with it. The last type alone can be said to have “personality.” Only in them can an inner spiritual plenitude be constituted.

How many people there are who are never lastingly influenced by great works of art, or by delight in beautiful landscapes, or by contact with great personalities. The momentary impression may be strong but it strikes no deep root in them; it is not firmly held in their super-actual life but disappears as soon as another impression makes its appearance. These men are like a sieve through which everything runs. Though they can be good, kindly and honest, they cleave to a childish, unconscious position; they have no depth. They elude one’s grasp, they are incapable of having deep relationships with other people because they are capable of no permanent relationship with anything. These men do not know responsibility because they know no lasting bond, because with them one day does not reach into the next one. Even though their impressions are strong, they do not penetrate down to the deepest level in which we find those attitudes which are over and above the changes of the moment.

These people honestly promise something one moment, and in the next it has completely disappeared from their memory. They make resolutions under a strong impression, but the next impression blows them away. They are so impressionable, that they are always held at the superficial level of their present consciousness. For these people, weight and value are not the preponderant factors determining their interest in things, but only the liveliness of the impression created by the actual presence of these things. What makes an impression upon them is the general advantage of “liveliness” which present impressions or situations have over those of the past.

There are two types of inconstant men. In the one, nothing ever truly penetrates to their deeper center. This deeper center, so to speak, remains void in them; they know only the strata of present consciousness. These men are at the same time superficial, deprived of profound life, and of any sort of inner “firmness.” They are like quicksand which yields without any resistance. If you seek in such men a permanent center upon which you can depend and rely, then you really snatch at the void. Of course, in a healthy man this is not absolutely and completely the case; a man who, in a literal sense, would be completely of this character would be a psychopath. But we often meet people whose lives, at least to a certain extent, unfold themselves in such a manner, although we could not therefore call them psychotic.

In the second type, we have to deal with men who actually do have deep impressions, in whose deeper strata much really does take root. Their deeper consciousness is therefore not void; they have created in themselves a firm, lasting center. But they are so imprisoned in the present moment that that which lies in their deeper strata is unable to carry its true weight; it cannot hold its ground against the power of the momentary impression. Only when the present, lively impression fades away, can the content of the deeper strata again come to light. Such men could, for example, very well nourish a deep, lasting love for another person, but a momentary situation, if it happens to be powerful, vivid and appealing, would capture them to such an extent that the beloved one would be almost forgotten. Then they say and do things which contradict the genuine and living love hidden in the depths of their souls.

Such people are continually in danger of becoming traitors to themselves or to others. For such persons, the one present, merely because he is present, has always the advantage over the absent. This is the case even when the absent person is, on the whole, dearer to them, and in the long run, plays a more important role. Suppose they have, for example, received a deep impression from a work of art: a lasting relation to this work of art has constituted itself in the depths of their souls. Nevertheless, new powerful impressions take hold of them to such an extent, that the prior impression is not firmly held in the new situation, and as a result one sees no trace of the first impression as long as the new one lasts. Later, when the immersing effect of the new situation has worn off, the old one, in itself deeper, re-enters into possession of its rightful place and authority.

In contradistinction to these two types, the persevering man holds on to everything which has revealed itself to him as a true genuine value. The advantage of liveliness which the present possesses over the past, has no power over his life when compared to the inner weight of deep truths which he has once recognized, and of values which he has once grasped. The importance of the role played by a given thing in his present consciousness is exclusively determined by the height of its value, and in no way by its mere presence.

Such men are, consequently, protected from the tyranny of fashion. A thing never makes a deep impression upon them merely because it is modern, because it is momentarily “in the air,” but only because it has a value, because it is beautiful, good and true. As a matter of fact, these persons consider that which is more important and has a higher value as itself the more “up to date.” Objects endowed with values never grow old for them, even if their concrete existence ceased long ago. The lives of these men are meaningfully integrated, and in their course reflects the objective gradation of values.

While the inconstant man is a prey to accidental impressions and situations, the constant man dominates his own impressions. Such men alone understand the sublime pre-eminence of values over any mere dimension of time, the unchanging and unfading character of values and truth. They understand that an important truth is not less interesting and less worthy of concern because we have known it for a long time. They understand, above all, that the obligation to respond to a good possessing a value is not limited to the moment in which it is grasped.

Only the man who is constant really grasps the demands of the world of values; only he is capable of the response to value which is due to objective values. A proper response to values is lasting, independent of the charm of novelty, and of the attractive force represented by the mere presence of a thing. He alone for whom values never lose their efficacy and charm, once they have been revealed to him, and who never lets a truth which he has grasped drop into oblivion will really do justice to the proper character of the world of truth and values; for he alone is capable of remaining faithful to objects possessing value.

This constancy or fidelity in the true sense of the world is, as we see, a fundamental moral attitude of man. It is a necessary consequence of all true understanding of values, and it is a component element of every true response to values, and consequently of the whole moral life. Only the constant response to values, the response which clings to a thing possessing a value, whether that thing is actually present or not, is a developed, a morally mature and fully conscious response to value. Only a man who responds in this way is truly morally awakened; he alone is reliable, he alone feels himself to be responsible for that which he has done in other situations, he alone is capable of a true contrition for previous misdeeds. In him alone all true obligations will dominate every situation of his life.

He alone will stand firm in trials. For the light of values will shine for him even in the humdrum situations of workaday life; yes, even at the moments of temptation. It is so because this man lives from the depth, and masters every moment from the depth. The more faithful, the more constant a man is, the richer and more substantial will he be, the more capable of becoming a vessel of moral values, a being in whom purity, justice, humility, love and goodness will dwell lastingly and will radiate from him to the world about him.

Were we to examine the different levels of life, we would find over and over again the basic significance of faithfulness in this larger sense. The basic attitude of constancy is a general presupposition for all spiritual growth of the person, and above all for every moral development and every moral progress. How can a man grow spiritually who does not firmly adhere to all the values which have been revealed to him, and for whom these values do not become a lasting possession? How could one who is dominated by short-lived momentary impressions ever succeed in a gradual development of his own moral structure?

When we have to deal with the type of radical inconstancy, we see that nothing at all reaches down into such a person’s deeper strata. Such men are inwardly dead; their personality lacks a lasting center. In men of the second type, there is lacking the possibility of a real formation of the course of life, for the values they once grasped, and which should be a permanent possession of their souls, have disappeared from their lives. They cannot therefore mold new impression by such values. What is the use of the best education if this contancy is missing? What is the use of the most pressing exhortations, of the most vivid revelation of values, if values once grasped remain either without any permanent roots or if they slumber in our souls?

As surprising as it may sound, inconstant people never change themselves. They retain the faults and features which they have inherited from their nature, but they acquire no moral values. Even though they really do for a moment recognize their faults, and form the best resolutions, their inconstancy prevents any lasting moral improvement.

Even when their will is good, education will have no lasting effect upon them. Not because they close themselves up, like the man who is victim of a cramping pride and to whom therefore the influence of values cannot penetrate, but because they give too much weight to every fleeting impression, and they are thus unable to retain what they have acquired.

All self-education presupposes this attitude of constancy. The constant man alone will be able to assimilate contradictory impressions, so as to draw that which is good out of each. He will learn from every situation of life and will grow in every situation, for in him the measure of genuine values remains alive; while the inconstant man yields now to one, now to another impression, and becomes so entirely a prey of each that in the depth of his soul everything passes on more or less without leaving a trace. This gradually withers his comprehension of values, and his susceptibility to their influence.

The constant man alone will prefer what is more important to what is less so, what is more valuable to the less, while the unstable person will at best respond indiscriminately to all values, recognizing no hierarchy in them. Nothing is, in fact, more important for moral growth, for the very moral life of a person, than consideration for the objective hierarchy of values, and the capacity to give priority to that which is objectively higher.

The fundamental attitude of fidelity is also the presupposition for reliability in every moral trial. How can he keep a promise or stand the test in a battle of ideas, who lives only in the present moment, in whom the past, present and future do not form significant unity? How can one rely upon such an inconstant person? The faithful man alone can inspire that confidence which forms the basis of any community. He alone possesses the high moral value of stability, reliability and trustworthiness.

But constancy is also a condition for any confidence on the part of the person himself and above all for heroic faith. The unstable man is not only undeserving of confidence, but he himself will be incapable of a firm, unshakable confidence either in other men, in truth, or in God Himself. For such a man lacks the strength to nourish his soul upon a value once discovered. Therefore when night and obscurity surround him, or when other strong impressions assail him, he loses faith. It is no accident that in Latin the word fides means both fidelity and faith. For constancy is an essential constituent of all capacity to believe, and consequently of all religion.

The eminent importance of faithfulness will stand out in a special way against the background of human relationships. (Here faithfulness is taken in its narrow sense, i.e. fidelity.) For what is love without fidelity? In the ultimate analysis, it is nothing but a lie. For the deepest meaning of every love, the inner “word” uttered in love is the interior orientation toward and giving of oneself to the beloved, a giving which knows no time limit. No fluctuation in the course of life can shatter it. Only a deep change in the beloved person can affect our love if it be true love. A man who would say: “I love you now, but how long it will last, I cannot tell,” does not truly love; he does not even suspect the very nature of love.

Faithfulness is so essentially one with love, that everyone, at least as long as he loves, must consider his devotion an undying devotion. This holds good for every love, for parental and filial love, for friendship and for spousal love. The deeper a love, the more it is pervaded by fidelity. It is precisely in this faithfulness that we find the specific moral splendor, the chaste beauty of love. The especially touching element of love, as expressed so uniquely in Beethoven’s Fide-ho, is essentially tied up with fidelity. The unalterable fidelity of a mother’s love, the victorious faithfulness of a friend, possess a specific moral beauty which touches the man whose heart is opened to values. Faithfulness is at the heart of every true and deep love. It is immanent to its very nature.

On the other hand, what is more base or more repulsive than outspoken unfaithfulness, that radical opposition to fidelity, which is far worse than mere inconstancy. What a heinous moral stain marks the traitor who by infidelity pierces the very heart which has confidently opened itself to him, and offers itself unprotected to him. He who is unfaithful in his basic attitudes is a Judas to the world of values.

There are people to whom fidelity appears in the light of a mere bourgeois virtue, a mere correctness, a technical loyalty. In the opinion of such people the man who is great, highly gifted and freed from “petty conventions,” has no concern with it. This is a senseless misunderstanding of the true nature of fidelity. It is true that too strong an emphasis on one’s own fidelity may create a painful impression. It is true that it is possible to give a certain harmless, good-natured cheap imitation of fidelity. The fact remains that true faithfulness is an indispensable element of all moral greatness, of all depth and strength of personality.

Fidelity is opposed to mere bourgeois loyalty, or to a pure clinging to habit. It would be an error to believe that fidelity is the mere result of a lazy temperament, and inconstancy the result of a spontaneous and vivacious one. No, this virtue is a free, meaningful response to the world of truth and of values, to the unchangeable and intrinsic importance, to the real demands, of that world. Without this basic attitude of fidelity, no culture, no progress in knowledge, no community, above all no moral personality, no moral growth, no substantial, inwardly unified spiritual life, no true love, are possible. This basic significance of fidelity, in the larger sense, must penetrate to the heart of every relationship, if it is not to be judged as a failure.


Death And The Ultimate Fulfillment Of Love – Dietrich von Hildebrand

December 12, 2011

Entombment of Christ Russian Icon Anonymous 15th Century

Let us suppose now that god has granted us the grace of seeing death primarily as the gateway to our eternal blissful union with Jesus, without, however, ignoring all the other aspects. There still remains for us the painful farewell we must bid to persons we deeply love — above all, to the one we love most of all.

Our love for the human persons whom God has given us in a special way continues to exist. It in no way diminishes as our love for Jesus increases, deepens, and becomes more ardent. On the contrary, the greater our love for Jesus, the more deeply are we able to love others in the genuine way that St. Augustine stressed when he spoke of loving others in God. [St. Augustine, Confessions, 4.9]

No love we have for any human person is irreconcilable with the unconditional love of our hearts for Jesus. No matter what kind of love is at stake (spousal, parental, filial, or the love proper to friendship) and no matter how great and deep is the love we have for human persons, so long as it is a love in God and not outside of God, it can grow and intensify along with our love for Jesus. Jesus, therefore, is not the rival or the competitor of beloved human persons.

Our great love for another person, if it is not an amare in Deo — that is, a love consciously and expressly embedded in our love of Jesus — can hinder our absolute devotion to Jesus. This happens when Jesus does not rule our relationship and the harmony of love we feel for each other is not rooted in Jesus. But even here, differences exist. Thus, the passionate response of a love borne only of human impulses is a greater hindrance than a response that maintains a noble spirituality amidst its ardor and that is sanctioned by the inner fiber of our being.

But if even this latter kind of love fails to be an amare in Deo, it, too, in its own way will be a hindrance. The intense love we have for a person who preoccupies us totally is, then, a rival to our absolute devotion to Jesus — and a grave hindrance.

The more we love Jesus, the greater and deeper is our love for specific persons. This latter love, although it is filled with caritas, loses none of its own particular character. Far from devaluing or minimizing our love for human persons, our love of Jesus causes these human loves to be even more themselves, even more brightly and deeply formed.

Love For Particular Persons Must Be Anchored In Jesus
I ask again the question which I posed before: given that death serves as a transition to our blissful union with Jesus, does not death yet continue to be something painful and distressing because it separates us from our loved ones, above all, from the one we love most? Will not our death bring about a twofold sorrow: our own suffering over being separated from those whom we love, and their great sorrow over losing us, even if only for a short time?

Yes, death continues to be painful and should remain so. But the deep sorrow of all concerned is transfigured through the light of Christ. A new dimension in our human relationship mysteriously emerges alongside the sorry realities of death (the disappearance of the dead person and the radical, although only temporary, rupture of our communion of love). Let us see why this is so.

All humans — and thus all those to whom we are especially tied by a great love are associated in a profound way with Jesus Christ. The very raison d’etre for humans is precisely their achievement of the Beatific Vision and their union with Jesus, and “in Him, through Him, and with Him,” with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

I have already pointed out that any deep human love, and most especially the exclusive love of married couples, must be anchored in Jesus if it is to be truly and fully itself. Any deep love not so anchored has come to a standstill.

Love has two innermost tendencies or intentions: union and benevolence, which can almost be spoken of as the genius of love. These can develop fully only when the lovers meet each other in Christ, only when their love is anchored in Jesus.

The Profoundest Love Union Is Possible Only In Jesus
The intention of union falls short of its complete goal unless it reaches into that deepest chamber of the loved one’s soul to which Christ alone has the key. Each soul’s relationship to Jesus resides in this most central and important chamber, this incomparably profound place in each human heart. For those who have not found Christ and who do not love Him reverently as the God-Man, this chamber remains empty. If we love such persons, we can never penetrate into this deepest region; we cannot achieve the deepest possible union with them. Despite all our longing for perfect union, we remain on the threshold of our beloved.

If, however, our beloved has found Jesus, then the eternally beloved Bridegroom of my soul dwells in her inmost soul, too. Our love can then be anchored in Jesus, and the ardent yearning we feel for deepest union with each other can now be realized — in Jesus, and in nothing else.

Only Jesus Can Give Our Beloved Ultimate Happiness
This applies analogously also to the intention of benevolence, whereby we desire the greatest happiness for our beloved and we wish to provide her all good things. In our loving embrace of her total being, an outspoken affirmation of her is included. But this is possible only if we understand that she has been created for Jesus and belongs to Him.

Only Jesus can bestow ultimate happiness on her and, what is more, eternal bliss. Every deep love anchored in Jesus necessarily includes, moreover, an inner gesture that would blissfully fulfill this being ordered toward God of each of the lovers. The lovers participate in this mysterious solidarity in a way that far exceeds mere knowledge, for it is accomplished in Jesus

This is the highest fulfillment of love’s intention of benevolence, of our burning desire to see eternal bliss as the lot of our Precious beloved. It is also a blissful participation on our part in the deepest meaning of her mysterious existence. We exprience this mutual achievement also as part of the high point of our intention of union, indeed as the final fulfillment of our love for her.

Thus, all the lines of life converge in Jesus, who is the king and center of all hearts. This fact consoles us when we must face sad absences and, especially, the cruel separation of death. This fact also plays a key role in every earthly love of ours which is anchored in Jesus.

In my book on love, I show how one important dimension of every love is the “face-to-face” mutual glance of love — the I-Thou relation between the partners. This glance will in no way be diminished when my love for another is anchored in Jesus.

Love Yearns For The Beloved’s Perfect Union With Jesus
My participation in her being ordered toward God does not negate or conceal our mutual surrender to each other. Direct unity in Jesus would never be perfect if my beloved’s participation in the final association with Jesus and love of Him were not proposed. From its significance in and of itself, the unity of convergence belongs also to the perfect direct unity of love in Jesus — as a participation in the most profound theme of my loved one and in spite of the deep, formal difference existing between unity of convergence and direct unity.

We deal here with two different dimensions of love. In the one, we exchange mutual glances of love in Jesus. In the other — impelled by love — I participate in the being ordered toward God of my beloved and she reciprocates by participating in my own being ordered toward God. We are thus united in an ultimate convergence — of interests, welfare, and destiny. Each shares with the other the perfect fulfillment of each one’s destiny: the loving union with Jesus and, through Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Even so, I must emphasize again that this union rooted in convergence in no way conceals or erases the mutual frontal glance — the I-thou relation — of the lovers who love each other in Christ. In fact, the unity of convergence belongs also to the perfect frontal union in Jesus. The latter would never be perfect if it lacked my participation in my beloved’s ultimate being ordered toward God. The unity of convergence, therefore, has a double importance: in itself it represents my participation in the deepest theme of my beloved. Second, it forms part of the perfect I-thou unity of love in Jesus.

In a certain way, of course, my participation in the being ordered toward God of my beloved represents the crowning achievement of love, the last word of love, the final statement which I direct toward her. For this is the ultimate theme of her existence: something, moreover, willed by God and accomplished in and through Jesus. I am united with her in her destiny. And — great gift of God! — the convergence is reciprocated: she unites with me in the achievement of my ultimate goal.

This union is unique because it has to do with the most valid, most profound, and most characteristic reality, i.e., the question of the vocation and destiny of man, the original theme of humanity. This theme begins, indeed, on the natural plane but then goes far beyond into unapproachable and mysterious heights. St. Augustine says of the Beatific Vision: Ibi vacabimus et videbimus; videbimus et amabimus; amabimus et laudabimus. Ecce quod erit in fine sine fine. (“There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end.”) [The City of God]

This vision is simultaneously the most intimate and private and also the most open of all things (in the sense of a holy openness). It means first of all the most profound union between God and the individual soul, immersed, as it were, in secret and intimate delights. But it also signifies that which we ultimately have most in common with all other persons. It is thus the culmination both of our union with Jesus, in which everything else fades away, and of our most profound communion with all other persons. With respect to this latter, however, we must note that our oneness with those we love above all, with the one we love most of all — is again something distinct and unique. Quanto notiores, tanto cariores, says St. Augustine: “The better they are known, the dearer they become.” [St. Augustine, Epistola, 92.1]

As I have stressed above, my beloved and I are joined in looking at Jesus and rejoicing in Him in a way that does not cancel the direct and mutual glance of love between us. This rejoicing in unison is rather the culmination of our mutual love. The thou which each of us is to the other is not set aside; rather a sublime we is born out of the most profound I-thou relationship, fulfilling and completing the deepest theme of love.

As a result, when the hour of death strikes for one of us and we accomplish the decisive face-to-face meeting with Jesus in the communion of love which is the destiny and goal of us all, a truly new dimension of communion with our beloved is actualized. The sorrows of death, illuminated now by the ultimate reality of eternal light, are transfigured.

“Behold, The Bridegroom Cometh!”
The Christian view of death is wonderfully expressed by the words: “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh! Go forth to meet Him! [Matthew 25:6] We must attend now to what the last few words mean. Here we are at the hour of death, at the very moment of death. All our faculties fade and disappear.

Then the words are heard, summoning us to a spontaneous act of cooperation: our meeting with Jesus. What a wonderful, mysterious hurrying is urged on our soul — to hasten toward our Redeemer, our Bridegroom, our Lover! Here, indeed, is a victory over the dreadful natural aspect of death and a victory that we ourselves experience. The Christian view of death stands forth in all its glory, the fruit of a strong and deep faith, of an ardent, yearning, and impatient love, and a hope that is now victorious.

Our love for Jesus includes many different stages. We start with a reverent kind of love which wills to follow Jesus, animated by His words: “You are my friends if you do the things I command you.” [John 15:14] And it ends with the ardent surrender of our hearts to Jesus in a most intimate relationship: “My heart hath said to Thee, I have sought Thy face! Thy face, O Lord, I will seek: turn not away Thy face from me!” [Introit of the Mass for the Sunday after the Ascension: Tibi dixit cor meum, quaesivi vultum tuum; vultum tuum, Domine, requiram: ne avertas faciem tuam a me. (Cf. Psalms 26:8.)]

These heartfelt words express the high point of the intention of union. Our yearning for Jesus springs from a personal, intimate, ardent and profound love. It moves us to utter the following prayer:

In hora mortis meae voca me.
Et jube me venire ad te,
Ut cum sanctis tuis laudem te
In saecula saeculorum.  [Conclusion of the medieval prayer, Anima Christi]

In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come to Thee,
That with the saints, I may praise Thee
Forever and ever! Amen.

Let us note the ardor and impatience in the request, “Bid me come to Thee!” Such overflowing and impatient love is the very soul of the glorious Christian view of death, causing our hearts to tremble in jubilation at the words: “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh! Go forth to meet Him!”


Death As Our True Awakening – Dietrich von Hildebrand

December 9, 2011

Noel Coypel, The Resurrection Of Christ, 1700

These last few posts have come from von Hildebrand’s classic little book concerning death which was written shortly (completed in two weeks) before his own death when he was eighty-six years old. We are reminded that only through the darkness of death do we enter the light of eternal life. An eternal life offered by our faith in God, in the resurrection of the body, and in reunion through Christ with our beloved dead.


The supernatural view of death in a certain sense sees our earthly existence as a being asleep, and considers death to be the beginning of our awakening. Death begins a mode of existence for our personal being which has an intensity and awareness beyond our ability to imagine.

Death begins that incomprehensible bliss of eternal union with Jesus which is suggested by St. Thomas Aquinas in his hymn, Adoro Te Devote:

Jesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro, fiat illud, quod tam sitio:
Lit, to revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beatus tuae gloriae.

Jesus! Whom for the present veil’d I see,
What I so thirst for, O, vouchsafe to me:
That I may see Thy countenance unfolding,
And may be blest Thy glory in beholding.

Similarly, St. Teresa of Avila, in speaking of an advanced stage of mystical experience, compares its extraordinary ecstasy (which she describes as an elevation into Heaven) with death (that is to say, with the bliss we hope to attain after death).

The Transiency Of Life And The Rhythm Of Decay
Earlier, we witnessed a mysterious contradiction inherent in the natural aspect of death. We must return to this feature in examining the relationship existing between the fearful natural aspect of death and the supernatural aspect: on the one hand, we experience the transiency and impermanence of earthly things and, on the other, the hint or promise of an incomparably better world, a world of completion and fulfillment.

There is a bitter French adage which expresses the transiency of life and all earthly things, including the most touching and beautiful: “Tout lasse, tout casse, tout passe; it n’y a que le souvenir qui reste.” (“Everything declines, everything shatters, everything passes, and only memories remain.”) This is a grim truth, never to be minimized or forgotten. At the same time, however, the very earthly experiences which move us to repeat the adage carry with them the hint and the promise mentioned above.

I speak here of experiences involving all great values: sublime beauty, deep loves, and above all, the transcendent splendor of true morality. All these shine forth with a promise of intransiency — of permanence.

Goethe rightly says of the blissful glance of mutual love that it must be eternal; otherwise it would be nothing. ["Let this gaze,/ This pressure of my hands express to you/ What is ineffable:/ To give one's whole soul and feel/ An ecstasy that must endure forever!" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, trans. Walter Arndt, ed. Cyrus Hamlin (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)]

The human heart has an ambivalent attitude toward change and permanence. On the one hand, we seem to require change. If we cling always to one and the same old thing, we become indifferent to its value. We long for change and we feel the attraction of what is new and unknown. On the other hand, we also experience the tragedy of impermanence. We see change as something deeply painful. We think that only a superficial person would look upon change as attractive or desirable. Change is life’s tragedy just as the bitter adage expresses it.

Complaints about change and impermanence often flow from sad experiences of life. How many lovers are there whose loved ones have proven unfaithful! How many serious promises have been broken by the fickleness of the human heart! How often does a change in circumstances cause something to lose its high value for us! How many good plans come to nothing; how many once promising conversions fail to be fulfilled!

We must see that many things are of their very nature unchangeable. In and of themselves, in their essence, values such as justice and kindliness cannot change; nor can the beauty of purity, the moving sublimity of trust and generosity. These bear within themselves the promise of an eternal existence which awaits us. Not only moral values but also the great beauty of art and nature, metaphysical truth, and, above all, love: all these are permanent in their nature and all point to a world beyond this earthly one.

But the bearers of these values can and do change. They are subject to the rhythm of inconstancy and decay. A good man can experience grave moral failure, can forfeit his virtue. A splendid landscape can be destroyed by natural forces or by industrial “progress.” A magnificent palace, a fine church, or a wonderful piece of sculpture can be destroyed. A painting of peerless beauty can go up in flames. This rhythm of decay permeates all the known world and is especially evident in the relentless rhythm of life and death which dominates all living creatures on earth.

Our Longing For Permanence
A similar rhythm often reaches into the human heart and causes to fade away those attitudes whose very essence and meaning are such that they should remain constant.

But this is not inevitably the case with all hearts. Decay and inconstancy do belong to the very nature of natural living things and render inevitable the rhythm of life and death and endless change. Not so with certain human hearts: some are constant. They embody attitudes whose essences point to eternity. They are faithful all life long. There are promises that are never broken and loves that last until the dying breath of the lovers, that exhibit a moving and absolute fidelity.

During our lifetime, therefore, two contrasting melodies sound in our ear: the song of impermanence and the song of eternal duration. They contradict each other only when one of them makes an all-encompassing claim. Reality presents us with some things impermanent by nature but also with other things that ought to endure. No doubt everything in life fades away. This is not tragic in itself even if the process of fading away contains so many mysteries of a metaphysical nature. But there are other things which, although they can fade away, can and ought to endure. Something is wrong when they fail to endure.

Here we touch on the most profound aspect of our personal being: here the fading away becomes something tragic. There lives deep within the human soul a longing for the continuance of the soul, for eternal life. We seldom focus explicitly on the boundless benefit of personal existence, but at times it comes vividly before our minds. Like the peal of an organ, it echoes through our entire life.

Part of the tragic aspect of our earthly life centers precisely on the fading away of attitudes which can and should be constant. I am thinking here of our fidelity to God and to the persons for whom God has planted a deep love within our heart: how often have we ourselves allowed these to become faint, if not to fade altogether away! So, too, we witness a similar infidelity in others. Attitudes within them which should have endured forever come tragically to an end.

Even though their earthly bearers are all too changeable, the permanent things (such as metaphysical truths, moral values, and other values which are eternal as such) announce a message that contradicts the naive aspect of our own death, the death of all other human beings, and particularly, the death of those we deeply love.

Death’s Meaning As A Punishment For Sin
The light of Christ effects a radical change in the totality of our earthly life and, especially, in death. It changes also the two songs — of transiency and permanence. In the light of divine Revelation, death, which often enough is linked with great physical suffering, is a punishment for Original Sin. [St. Augustine, The City of God, 13.7.] According to Christian teaching, in the Garden of Paradise there was to be no death, with all its terror, but rather a blessed, peaceful transition from the status viae to the status finalis — from pilgrimage to final goal.

Precisely because death is a punishment, it loses the note of meaninglessness that characterizes the fact that a lower element destroys something higher and much more precious. There is a deep meaning to suffering understood as a punishment from God: it reveals God’s basic attitude toward human guilt. Thus, out of the bleakness of the inevitable rhythm taking place apart from and beyond everything of value, death is inexplicably brought into the bright light of the great, basic contrast between good and evil.

Death’s Meaning As The Moment Of Our Judgment
The natural aspect of death undergoes a second change as a result of faith, a change even greater than its being seen as a punishment for sin. For after death comes the great decision about our eternal destiny. The need to die is now our common human destiny. It is the punishment for Adam’s sin.

Still more important, the judgment that awaits each of us after death decides whether or not we shall put on the festive garment of eternal, unbounded happiness. Did a given man die in the state of grace, in the basic attitude of knowing and loving God? Or did he sin against the light, reject God — and then die impenitent? The judgment of each individual leads either to eternal damnation or to eternal bliss. We therefore await it with both fear and hope.

From this perspective, death is not at all what it seems to be to a naive, natural consciousness. Death now sorts out what really matters. Now what matters is how we have lived our earthly life. What has deeply moved us here? What have we done here? What have we failed to do? The worthless things, of course, which appealed to us because of some pleasant feature, now sink into insignificance. This is especially true of all the worldly interests which smothered us in so many details.

The deep questions, however, remain. Did we give to God’s commandments the responses we should have given? Did we long to be transformed in Christ? Have we really tried to live according to this viewpoint? All such matters now take on a true, extraordinary, and profoundly valid significance.

Many of us fail to understand the importance our conduct has in God’s eyes. We don’t take ourselves (and our conduct) seriously. We deem anthropocentric the idea that our lives possess a moral and religious significance important to God. Indeed, we may allege it to be incompatible with God’s infinite majesty that He should even notice our conduct, much less be “bothered” with it.

But this is a fatal error, a blind, stupid attitude. St. Augustine exclaims that God is a Deus vivens et videns — “a living and a seeing God” [St. Augustine, Sermon 69.3] God is infinitely holy. According to St. John, “God is love.” [1 John 4:8] God takes humanity seriously, so much so that He attributes the highest significance to the question of moral good and evil. God, who knows everything, knows everything about each of us. We can conceal nothing from His perfect gaze.

Thus the Psalmist says, “Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy face? If I ascend into heaven, Thou art there; and if I descend into Hell, Thou art there also!” [Psalms 139:7-8] Christ has himself taught us that the very hairs on our head are numbered. [Luke 12:7]

God’s incomprehensible greatness is expressed by His taking seriously the humanity created in His image. This greatness finds, as it were, its highest expression in the absolute significance God attributes to the conduct of human beings. We are endowed with free will; we are confronted with the conflict between good and evil, with the axis of the spiritual universe. We must indeed tremble before God’s judgment as before something awesome and crucial.

But how dreadful would it be if there were no divine judgment, if God were indifferent to sin, indifferent to how we used our free will! Does not God’s judgment show forth His infinite love in the ultimate seriousness with which He regards the depths of our soul?

All these considerations show us that the light of Revelation affords us a view of death far different from the naive and natural view. Dying now is seen, not as a fearful and mysterious going down into nothingness, but as a door opening to the status finalis and to the fulfillment of our deepest longings. In Jesus, the mercy of God is illuminated for us. The Church prays, Deus, qui omnipotentiam team parcendo maxime et miserando manifestas! (“O God! Thy almighty power is made most evident in Thy mercy and compassion! ,) [Prayer in the Mass for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost]

In accord with this prayer, that aspect of death which sees it as the door to eternal bliss should outshine all other considerations.

All Christians must strive to succeed in the great task of having this victorious aspect of death outshine the natural aspect of death’s fearful inevitability. This latter view is a threat to death’s glorious mission to allow the marriage of the soul with the Bridegroom. As we strive to make our own this supernatural view of death, our constant prayer must be: “May God grant us this grace — to be led by death to the Bridegroom!


Christian Hope – Dietrich von Hildebrand

December 8, 2011

Andrei Rublev (c. 1360/70-1430), Christ in Majesty, 1408

We can recognize in the life off any given saint various periods: times of great aridity are followed by times of mystical grace. In a similar way, there are times when the thought of death causes our heart to tremble, such as when we think of the hour of judgment. At other times the thought of death brings with it an ardent longing of the eternal union in love with Jesus. Both attitudes can exist in simultaneously in the soul in such a way that the blissful aspect — which is deeply tied to hope — is dominant.

To grasp this, we must consider hope in general, and then come to understand its significance in the relationship of Christians to eternity.

First, we must distinguish hope from all apparently similar attitudes (such as expectation and desire) and then distinguish between the hope of a nonbeliever and that of a Christian. Finally, we must distinguish natural hope from supernatural hope, the latter being one of the three theological virtues.

The Nature Of Hope
Hope is one of those basic attitudes without which human life would be unendurable, even impossible. I refer here to an attitude adopted in certain situations when we are faced with the uncertain outcome of an undertaking. In such situations, we hope for a favorable outcome even if all reasonable calculations are against it. This is especially the case when we are threatened with a great misfortune or when we are gravely concerned over the serious illness of someone we love. Despite our slim chances of escaping the misfortune in the first instance or of recovery in the second, we still feel hope.

Whenever he feels hope, even an atheist — or at least someone who reckons himself an atheist — is counting on the intervention of an all-good, all-powerful Being. Hope can exist even when misfortune seems inevitable according to the normal rules of cause and effect.

Hope is one of those basic human attitudes in which we see our primordial link with God our undeniable metaphysical situation of creaturehood and our total dependence on God – win acceptance over all theories and opinions. We may speak and sometimes even think like an atheist, but in times of great danger we rely on the power and benevolence of God to save us. Our earthly life would be unendurable if we lacked this kind of hope — unless a deceptive form of optimism took its place.

Optimism Differs From Hope
The purely human form of optimism must be sharply distinguished even from the natural hope which we have been discussing. Optimists are like certain weighted toys: they always land on their feet when they fall down. People with hope, on the contrary, become more aware of things; their spirits rise when they break through the boundaries and limits in which they have enclosed themselves. A faint light rises to illumine everything taking place. Hope is a specifically spiritual attitude, an awakening in the face of great trials.

On the other hand, the human optimism that carries us through trials is based on a great illusion. It is not a spiritual attitude but a result of one’s temperament; it is blind to the metaphysical situation of mankind. People filled with genuine hope become more attractive by reason of that hope. Seeing them moves us, whereas those filled with a merely vital optimism (arising from their temperament) do not impress us at all. They definitely do not become more attractive but, rather, they cause in us a certain amount of amusement.

Through hope, persons become more objective; they tower over the subjective world around them. Through mere human optimism, they become subjective: they misinterpret reality and become victims of their own merely human tendencies and desires.

Christian Hope Includes A Value-Response To God
Natural hope, already something noble, takes on another characteristic for a Christian. Christian hope does not, like natural hope, merely presuppose silently and objectively the Providence of a loving God. It is based, above all, on a conscious, express response to a merciful God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.

This supernatural hope is most closely tied to prayers of petition which we address to an almighty, infinitely good God. We beg God to grant us the happy outcome of an event of great concern to us, or we beg Him to prevent some awful misfortune.

In other words, hope always contains a value-response. Even though its formal object is what is objectively good for me, hope is also a response to God’s infinite goodness and to His loving-kindness.

Right here lies the decisive difference between hope and all wishing and expectation. There is no value-response in expectation. The certainty that something will happen is a purely theoretical response, somehow rooted in our knowledge. Wishing, too, though it may be an affective response, is yet not necessarily a value-response.

We may hope for some outcome which is not only a great benefit to ourselves but also associated with important values, with things which are good quite independent of any good bestowed on us. This is also the case with wishing: we may wish for the success of some important enterprise just because it is good, and not because it confers any benefit on us.

But in this present analysis of hope as a value-response, I am not concerned with what might be called the formal object of some response, whether hoping or wishing or willing. I refer rather to hope as a response to God’s loving-kindness. Like a prayer of petition, hope responds to the infinite goodness of God.

The value-response in hope is, therefore, unique, for it is not addressed to the value of some desired goal. It is addressed rather to God, the basis of hope, the Reality who makes hope meaningful and possible. Hope thus has quite a different relationship to value than the one we find in reverence, love, or adoration. The relationship in hope is our counting on the infinite loving-kindness and almighty power of God. We have confidence and faith in these divine attributes.

Christian Hope Is Directed To Our Union With Jesus
The theological virtue of hope is directed toward an eternal, blissful union with Jesus and — in and through Him — with God the Father. This supernatural hope deeply modifies a Christian believer’s view of death.

Eternal bliss is the highest objective benefit for a human being. This benefit presupposes an ultimate and ardent love of Christ and of God in and through Christ. The eternal, indestructible union of love with Jesus precisely constitutes the Beatific Vision, and it would not be beatific if we did not love God above all else.

Our hope of eternal bliss, therefore, presupposes the value-response of love for God. God himself desires this highest good for humanity and has intended us for it. If, through our own fault, we forfeit this good, this must be in God’s eyes, too, a great misfortune.

When our concerns center around earthly benefits or misfortunes — hopes for the greatest good thing or the prevention of the most dreadful kind of misfortune — our prayers should always end with the qualification, “Yet, not my will be done, O Lord, but Thine!”[Luke 22:42] Our hope that God may grant us the good thing or avert the misfortune is also the basis of the act whereby we surrender totally to God’s will.

When, however, our hope concerns our eternal salvation, it makes no sense to pray, “Lord, grant me eternal bliss; yet, let not my will be done, but Thine.” The point here is not that we are certain that we can pass safely though the judgment when we stand before God. We are in fact uncertain. It may be that we shall forfeit eternal union with God because of our sins. Yet this lack of certainty about our own salvation in no way is equivalent to praying, when it comes to our own salvation, “Not my will be done, O Lord, but Thine!”

We cannot doubt that God wants us to long for eternal bliss with all our heart. Not to do so would be a dreadful sin. Only through our sins — offenses against God can we forfeit our eternal bliss.

In this context we must see that the thought that we might renounce our own eternal salvation for the sake of someone else necessarily leads to an absurdity. When St. Paul exclaims that he is willing to be damned if this would effect the conversion and salvation of his blood-brothers, the Jews, we must see this as a moving expression of his love for them. But such a renunciation, taken literally, is strictly impossible.

There can be no trade-off here between some good for me which I renounce so as to procure some greater good for my brothers. At stake now is eternal salvation. The only way I can lose this, in contrast to any natural good, is through sin. It is absurd to imagine that God would “reward” with the eternal punishment of Hell the almost excessive generosity of a person who loves others with such unselfish devotion.

No, our hope of eternal salvation presupposes not only the loving value-response to God; it also presupposes an awareness of the infinite, objective value of our eternal beatitude which God wills, and which itself both presupposes and includes the glorification of God which takes place through us. We then can see that hope in our eternal beatitude differs from the hope directed toward all other beneficial goods for us. Moreover, we see its incomparable value because it is rooted in the highest, the most fundamental value-response: the love of God and the love of neighbor.


The Death Of My Beloved Is The Greatest Of Sorrows — Dietrich von Hildebrand

December 7, 2011

Pope John Paul II greatly admired the work of von Hildebrand, remarking once to von Hildebrand’s widow, Alice von Hildebrand, “Your husband is one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century.” Pope Benedict XVI has a particular admiration and regard for Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom he already knew as a young priest in Munich. In fact, as young Fr. Ratzinger, he even served as an assistant pastor in the church of St. Georg in Munich, which von Hildebrand frequented in the 1950s and 1960s


Compared to the death of my beloved, what are all other evils and sufferings of life? This vale of tears certainly has for us a vast number and variety of sorrows — from loss of sight and the serious pains that rack our body to imprisonment in a , concentration camp and the dreadful sufferings entailed by such a fate. But the loss of a beloved person follows a different course. It does not involve bodily sufferings, nor the loss of the obviously good things of life. No, the death of my beloved concerns an incredibly blissful, purely positive treasure. It marks the end of a natural spring of joy.

We touch here upon the sinister fate of all human beings: death, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over every human life. Each of us lives in umbra mortis, in the dread shadow of death. Compared to the death of someone I love, all other sufferings are merely incidental. Death threatens each of us essentially; no one is exempt. I am constantly aware that my beloved comes closer to death with each passing day. I know that death may snatch her away tomorrow.

Someone who has never known an ultimate love in this life who has never given his heart to another human who has loved him in return, knows nothing of the fundamental horror with which the death of a beloved person surrounds us.

Now lifeless in shape is my loved one’s body, which had been always included in my love (even in that non-marital form of love in which the intention of union does not aim at corporal union). Her body which formerly was filled with the nobility of her precious personality is now subject to a dreadful kind of decay and decomposition. Her soul has vanished into an unattainable distance and is radically cut off from us. My incomprehensible, puzzling dread of death remains in its natural aspect despite my conviction that her soul continues to exist.

St. Augustine speaks in a unique way in his Confessions of the night of suffering into which he was plunged by the death of his friend: “At this grief, my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places, for that they had not him; nor could they now tell me, `he is coming,’ as when he was alive and absent. I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul why she was so sad and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me.”[ St Augustine, Confessions]

Seeing death as a happy liberation from the prison of the body (an idea which Socrates defends. See Plato, Phaedo, 63E-69E) makes sense only for my own death, but never for the death of a dearly beloved person. When I mentally anticipate my own death ante mortem — before my death — I do not experience that bewildering loneliness, that heart-breaking contrast between the unimportant things that go on living and the bleak present, now that the light of my beloved has ceased to shine.

In the case of my own death, love retreats entirely into the background. But the death of my beloved overwhelms me post mortem — after her death. The joy I once knew in her living presence is replaced by the horror of separation, by the dread of death as the great enemy of love and human happiness.

Only Faith Affords Consolation When My Beloved Dies
For a person who loves deeply but knows only death’s natural aspect, even one day’s happiness is incomprehensible and, in fact, impossible if he has only a rational belief in the soul’s immortality to oppose to the frightful character of death. Only faith in God, in Christ, and in Christian Revelation can confront this natural viewpoint in a victorious way. The Preface for the Requiem Mass of the Tridentine Liturgy admirably states: “In the same Christ the hope of a blessed resurrection has dawned for us, bringing all who are under the certain, sad sentence of death the consoling promise of future immortality. [Ut, quos contristat certa moriendi conditio, eosdem consoletur futurae immortalitatis promissio ]

Even this faith, of course, is only a solace, a consolation: it does not take away the fearfulness of death. To be sure, the sting of death is removed but death is not thereby stripped of its character as a punishment. For all the promises of immortality, it yet remains a great misfortune to someone whom we deeply love and, less dramatically, to anyone we love in any way.

With profundity, Novalis writes about Christ:

Without you what would I have been?
What without you might I be?
A prey to fear and dread and sin,
I’d stand alone and nothing see.
For me no love would be secure,
The future but a dark abyss.
And if my sad heart could not endure,
To whom would I go? Whence my bliss?

The death of a dearly beloved person will once again be our theme when we view it, later on, from the supernatural standpoint expressed in the words: “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh! Go forth to meet Him!” [Matthew 25:6]

Fear Of Death May Not Lead To Understanding Of It
We all know, of course, that someday we shall die. But not many of us focus on this fact day after day. The majority of people are not very conscious of their inevitable death so long as they are in good health and so long as they are spared acute anxiety over certain medical symptoms which might indicate a fatal illness.

Any of us, of course, may have a heightened awareness of death when we find ourselves in great danger (during an air raid, for example, or as soldiers in battle, passengers on a sinking ship, or victims of a serious accident). But our awareness here is more concerned with the danger of death: its dominant characteristic is an instinctive fear of the danger as well as an instinctive strenuous effort to save ourselves, which often takes on a frankly animalistic aspect. In other words, this does not necessarily involve a completely conscious understanding of the phenomenon of death or lead us to a contemplative confrontation with it.

Some Men Remain Ever Conscious Of Death
There are, however, a few persons whose lives are pervaded by the consciousness that one day they will have to die. It is also true that in times of great danger to their lives — especially when they understand that they cannot escape death through their own efforts — a good number of men will confront death with sentiments of profound composure and look it directly in the eye.

Since we are now discussing the authentically natural aspect of death, we must pay particular attention to its meaning for those who live in genuine awareness of death. We must distinguish, in this respect, those who understand death’s relentless approach toward each of us from those who are alert to death because of an actually imminent danger of death rooted in a given situation.

Our metaphysical situation — as pilgrims in time with an all-too-mortal body is the basis for our consciousness that we shall have to die at some future time (and, normally, at a certain age). It is the basis also of our consciousness that at any moment death may claim us and carry us off, whatever our expectations. Thus “in the midst of life we are surrounded by death,”[ Eleventh-century response or antiphon: "Media in vita mortis sumus] and we sit “in the shadow of death.”[Luke 1:79]In these two expressions the entire dreadful quality of death confronts us.


Dietrich von Hildebrand on Man and Woman

July 20, 2011

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both called for the renewal of Christian philosophy and the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand are a remarkable anticipation of these calls. In his now-famous Regensburg address, Pope Benedict lamented the modern “self-limitation of reason” and exhorted philosophers and theologians to have the “courage to engage the whole breadth of reason and not [to deny] … its grandeur.” Von Hildebrand’s prolific writings on metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, love, marriage, and so forth represent just the kind of courageous engagement of the “whole of reason” envisioned by Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict is a special admirer of von Hildebrand and a friend of the von Hildebrand Legacy Project. Prior to his elevation to the papacy, he joined the Legacy Project as an Honorary Member; yet even as pope, his support has been concrete and vital. Pope Benedict recently gave a striking assessment of von Hildebrand’s stature:

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.

No half-way on that opinion. Von Hildebrand has written much and profoundly on the nature of conjugal love, marriage, and sexuality. The first passage in the reading selection [from The Dietrich von Hildebrand Life Guide by St. Augustine Press]distinguishes between the sympathetic way in which love interprets the faults of the beloved and the tendency to idealize someone, which is often confused with it. It comes from von Hildebrand’s 1966 classic,: Man and Woman: Love & the Meaning of Intimacy :

Love is always assuming what is best in the other. So long as there is no reason for reckoning with the presence of a fault, love entertains the more favorable … opinion toward all that is doubtful. When love encounters a fault in the other, it is like meeting disloyalty or infidelity to what is truest in his nature (it is never accepted on a par with his positive qualities)…

One should not confuse this credit of love, however, with the inclination to idealize, which is typical of day-dreamers. Generosity which is typical of love presupposes the existence of a corresponding value which justifies and gives it meaning. But where there are only dreams, the central thing is a need to experience delight and to have contact with admirable and extraordinary people.

Pleasure of this sort is so strongly desired that one commits himself to an imaginary ideal. One enjoys dreaming. The person one idealizes is more an occasion for dreaming than a meaningful subject to be taken seriously in himself. One imagines that everything about the other is splendid and grand, although one has had no opportunity to know him well enough to be so certain. The difference between such an unfounded attitude and the faithful credit of love, to which we have already made reference, is what we shall now consider…

Love’s generous credit is intimately bound up with its surrender. The loving person in no way seeks his own gratification. He is oriented completely toward the other. And his trusting conviction is completely for the other’s sake, having nothing whatever of self-gratification about it. The dream, however, is always for gratification’s sake. It does not have the other person in mind, but rather him who dreams.

This credit has nothing of extravagance about it. It goes hand in hand with the realization that a noble man is also quite frail and weak. Where everything seems to be in order, love reckons with the possibility that there may be imperfections which must be faced as unpleasant but temporary facts, even though it will never be prejudiced by them. The loving credit does not dwell in an ethereal or unreal region. It does not mount Pegasus. Rather it fortifies itself on ground which is altogether real, characterized by holy surroundings.

Nor is the radical difference between loving credit and dreaming fancy somehow diminished by the fact that one can also be disappointed where love is authentic or that credit can sometimes come to real disappointment itself. It is not the possibility of disappointment that makes the dreamer’s fancies to be what they are. They are characterized, rather, by the absence of true love, by the ethereal, unreal, and even deceptive atmosphere in which the life of desire is led. One could say: the lover can be disappointed; the dreamer deceives himself.
Man and Woman: Love & the Meaning of Intimacy pp 51-53

A passage, again from Man and Woman: Love & the Meaning of Intimacy, on the indissolubility of marriage, which far from being burdensome or detrimental to genuine conjugal love, is rather the fulfillment of its specific nature:

The indissolubility of marriage has an important retroactive effect on conjugal love. It is considered by many as something oppressive and dispiriting, something which deprives love of its wings and gives it a coercive character. They think that love would vanish with the knowledge that the tie is binding whether love persists or not. But nothing is less true. For the real lover, the consciousness of being indissolubly united with his beloved in Christ, of forming an objectively indissoluble community whose validity is beyond all wavering and all human frailties, is a source of the highest satisfaction. For he wants to be one with his beloved, and he is grateful and happy that this unity can be realized to so great a degree and that it rises above all emotional changes.

Conjugal love implies an intention of going beyond even the giving of self, which is inherent in love as such. It desires an objective self-giving once and for ever, an irrevocable giving which persists independently of all subjective inconstancy...

The true lover experiences the objective validity of his self-bestowal, and the accomplishment of such a transcendent, irrevocable decision, as a specific fulfillment of his love.

Certainly this decision involves a great risk; and when the choice of the spouse happens to be based on an illusion, the indissolubility of marriage may prove a great cross for one or both consorts. But it lies in the nature of conjugal love to be bold, heroic, not to shrink back from taking a risk. All great things on earth are connected with risk. Without risk, human life — in statu viae [Vocab: It means "In a state of journeying" and is often used in reference to the world and the universe which will be perfected eventually but were created in a state of journeying towards perfection. The world we live in is "statu viae."]– would be deprived of all grandeur and heroism….

Marriage is not a bourgeois affair, a kind of insurance for happiness, providing a way of escape from every eventual cross. Does not every love as such carry with it a great risk of suffering? In attaching our hearts to a person, do we not run the risk of enduring terrible sufferings, through misfortunes that may happen to our beloved or separation from her when she dies? Should we then abstain from love in order to prevent the possibility of great sorrow?

He whose life is dominated by the intention of avoiding any possible cross excludes everything that gives human life grandeur and depth. He will never know real abandon — never know real, deep happiness. Remaining in a mediocre self-centeredness, he will never be able to do anything without a certain reserve; he will always provide for a possibility of retreat.
From Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love pp 59-61

When love is misunderstood as a “mere feeling, “blinding, unreliable and inconstant, it is easy to understand why one would want to make sure that marriages are built on other, more solid and reasonable grounds. But when love is properly understood it becomes clear that it is the motive par excellence for marriage:

Even in Catholic circles we often find the disastrous concept of a reasonable marriage. By this is meant a marriage which issues not from so-called sentiment but from rational considerations.

This implies a wrong alternative. Obviously, the decision to marry someone should also be a subject of examination by our intellect — hut the precise subject of that intellectual examination should be the question of whether the conjugal love (which is here rather contemptuously treated as sentiment) really exists between both persons, whether the prospective spouse is really what she seems to be, whether she is the person whom God destined for me, whether the projected union is something pleasing to God, and whether there is any danger in this union for her eternal welfare or for mine.

But as soon as the intellect turns to matters not relevant to marriage or to matters of secondary importance, or — even worse — makes these considerations in themselves the motive of marriage, it misses completely its proper role, which is to consider and clarify that preexisting love which is the proper motive for marriage. How could we refer to a mar riage of this kind as other than unreasonable? To be reasonable, an attitude must be in conformity with the nature and meaning of the thing to which it is referred…

A so-called marriage of reason (which is decided after a cold calculation that one’s financial situation can be improved and certain professional advantages attained, or that both are peaceful and will get on together, or that their ages are well suited) — a marriage where such considerations (rather than conjugal love) constitute the motivation, where there is no longing for an indissoluble community with the beloved, is not only deprived of all beauty and plenitude, but is also something definitely unreasonable.”
From Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, pp67-69

Von Hildebrand was among the first clearly to articulate a distinction, which later found its way into the encyclical Humanae Vitae and into the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution, Gaudium et spes, between the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage and sexuality. Here the distinction is used to shed light on the evil of promiscuity:

He alone can understand the horror of the sin of promiscuity who has grasped the grandeur and sublimity of bodily union as the full realization of conjugal love, and who realizes that besides the primary end of procreation, the primary meaning of bodily union lies in the fulfillment of conjugal love…

Were procreation not only the end but also the sole meaning of this union, it would be incomprehensible, in the last analysis, why an illegitimate union should be sinful when children result from it, and a marriage pure and sublime when it serves only the communion of love in a childless marriage.
From Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, pp 30-31

Von Hildebrand’s deep grasp of the intimate union between body and soul, especially in the sexual sphere, enables him to see that sex is not a mere biological or bodily phenomenon, and that it can never be taken lightly, because it necessarily and deeply involves the persons engaged in it.

Sex … is essentially deep. Every manifestation of sex produces an effect which transcends the physical sphere and…involves the soul deeply in its passion….

And, as a result, it is characteristic of sex that in virtue of its very significance and nature it tends to become incorporated with experiences of a higher order, purely psychological and spiritual. Nothing in the domain of sex is so self-contained as the other bodily experiences, e.g., eating and drinking. The unique profundity of sex in the physical sphere is sufficiently shown by the simple fact that a man’s attitude towards it is of incomparably greater moral significance than his attitude to other bodily appetites.

Surrender to sexual desire for its own sake defiles a man in a way that gluttony, for example, can never do. It wounds him to the core of his being, and he becomes in an absolutely different and novel fashion guilty of sin. And even as compared with many other domains of experience which are not physical, sex occupies a central position in the personality. It represents a factor in human nature which essentially seeks to play a decisive part in a man’s life. Sex can indeed keep silence, but when it speaks it is no mere obiter dictum [Vocab: Obiter dictum (plural obiter dicta, often referred to simply as dicta or obiter) is Latin for a statement "said in passing". An obiter dictum is a remark or observation made by a judge that, although included in the body of the court's opinion, does not form a necessary part of the court's decision.], but a voice from the depths, the utterance of something central and of the utmost significance. In and with sex, man, in a special sense, gives himself.
In Defense Of Purity pp 12-14

The passage below explains why it is that only wedded love (and not a mere act of the will) can elevate the sexual sphere and permeate it in such a way as to become a genuine expression of self-donation.

Only wedded love … as a special kind of love and as love in wedlock, is able to transform the act of wedded union from within and make it truly pure. How then is this transformation effected, and why is this love alone capable of accomplishing it? Love alone, as the most fruitful and most intense act, the act which brings the entire spirit into operation, possesses the requisite power to transform thoroughly the entire qualitative texture of an experience. The will, the informing power in the sphere of conduct, can, as it were, grasp our emotional experiences only from the outside. It can — indeed, for this its assent is sufficient — liberate the person from an experience; can, for instance, render his envy up to a certain point harmless, can “behead” it, or immure it within the person; but it cannot destroy it, as love destroys it.

By his will the person can, so to speak, overleap his emotional life with a magnificent gesture, but he cannot change its quality. Hence the will by itself can never effect an organic union between sex on the one hand and the heart and mind on the other. Whatever the aim the will sets before itself, so long as the act of marriage is motivated by the will alone, it remains a foreign body within the life of the spirit, and though possibly free from sin, it remains, nevertheless, something without organic connection with the life of the person, its brutal aggressor, something which simply co-exists with the heart and the mind anti therefore retains a certain animality. As we have already seen, the mere relation to an end can never impart an inner significance to the act of marriage as an experience, still less ennoble it. Love, on the other hand, can wholly dissolve any experience and transform the quality of its texture; in more technical language, can strip its matter of the old form and invest it with a new.
In Defense Of Purity pp 98-99


Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand On Beauty by Alice von Hildebrand

June 27, 2011


Dietrich von Hildebrand and Jacques Maritain


Alice von Hildebrand, wife of the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, examines the thoughts of two very different leading philosophers of aesthetics. First is Jacques Maritain and the second her husband. Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a renowned author and speaker.

While many revere her husband Dietrich von Hildebrand as a religious author, few realize that he was a philosopher of great stature and importance. “Those who knew von Hildebrand as philosopher held him in the highest esteem. Louis Bouyer, for example, once said that “von Hildebrand was the most important Catholic philosopher in Europe between the two world wars.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed even greater esteem when he said: “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.”

Maritain at the time of his death in 1973 was arguably the most well known Catholic philosopher. Despite his fame it is not easy to place Maritain’s work within the history of philosophy in the 20th century. “Clearly, his influence was strongest in those countries where Thomistic philosophy had pride of place. While his political philosophy led him, at least in his time, to be considered a liberal and even a social democrat, he eschewed socialism and, in Le paysan de la Garonne, was an early critic of many of the religious reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. One can say, then, that he would be considered by present-day liberals as too conservative, and by many conservatives as too liberal. Again, though generally considered to be a Thomist, the extent to which he was is a matter of some debate. Indeed, according to Etienne Gilson, Maritain’s ‘Thomism’ was really an epistemology and, hence, not a real Thomism at all. There is, not surprisingly, no generally shared view of the precise character of Maritain’s philosophy.”


Having taught both ethics and aesthetics many times in the course of my career, I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is a much more demanding task. In both cases, the enemy to be fought is the deeply rooted relativism and subjectivism prevalent in our society. But in ethics, there’s always a possibility that students will agree that in some cases, the evil nature of certain acts cannot be contested.

But when it comes to aesthetic appreciation of individual works of art — much as thinkers might agree on some basic principles — the disagreements are baffling. Two philosophers might agree that there’s a hierarchy among beautiful objects but disagree violently as to which one is actually more beautiful.

Is aesthetic appreciation a question of taste, as one can like or dislike beer? Tastes cannot be debated, and such debates would be totally meaningless.

Just as mystifying is the fact that some great artists have often shown no appreciation for other artists. One is tempted to assume that artists are qualified to pass judgment on the works of their peers, but this is far from the case. It is amazing, for example, that an artistic giant such as Michelangelo “was singularly hard on Flemish painting,” “which attempting to do so many things does none of them well” (Maritain, Creative Intuition). Just as amazing is El Greco’s judgment on the same artist: “Michelangelo was a good man, but he did not know how to paint” (Ibid.). These assertions are so shocking that one’s tempted to draw the conclusion that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and is therefore purely subjective.

Both Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand have written extensively on aesthetics. As close as these two devout Catholics were on central philosophical questions — the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, the capacity that man’s mind has to reach absolute truth — their approach to aesthetics was vastly different.

Both men were great devotees of art. As a young man and later with his wife, Raissa, Maritain enjoyed going to the Louvre and contemplating its treasures. Dietrich von Hildebrand was the son of a great artist, brought up in Florence, acquainted with leading musicians and artists. He wrote his two-volume Aesthetics (close to a thousand pages) when he was more than 80 and completed the work in less than a year. Alice, the author of this piece was his wife.

Maritain’s Approach
Maritain based his views of aesthetics on the philosophy of St. Thomas. In his early work, Art and Scholasticism, Maritain acknowledged his debt to his master. But aesthetics, as Etienne Gilson remarked, is a field in which the Angelic Doctor had made but few major contributions.

In his writings, Maritain distinguished between two types of beauty: The first was “beauty as transcendental,” that is to say that beauty — like being, truth, and goodness — transcends all categories for the simple reason that it is a property of everything that exists. In other words, everything that is is beautiful. For God, Maritain argued, everything is beautiful, though he clarified this in a footnote:

Evil, it is true — the wound of nothingness by which the freedom of a creature deforms a voluntary act — is ugly in the eyes of God. But no being is ugly, as Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler) repeatedly points out.

Thus not only does Silesius claim that everything is beautiful, but he writes that “a frog is as beautiful as a Seraphic angel.” Whether everything is beautiful is one thing. The claim that an animal is as beautiful as an angel is quite another. Let us assume for the time being that the first assertion is true, and the second is obviously false. As there is a hierarchy of being, there is also a hierarchy of beauty: To claim that a saint is as beautiful as the Holy Virgin is plainly false.

One can also ask whether man can really know how God experiences beauty. Being Beauty itself, He need not perceive it frontally, as angels and humans do. Maritain proceeds: “Thus, just as everything is in its own way, and is good in its own way, so everything is beautiful in its own way.”

But this transcendental beauty isn’t what our senses perceive. And so we have another distinction that Maritain calls “aesthetic beauty,” that is, the type of beauty that we perceive through our eyes and ears. While transcendental beauty is intellectually perceived, our senses play a vital part in aesthetic beauty. The result is that not all things are beautiful to us. Writes Maritain: “The presence of the senses, which depend on our fleshly constitution, is inherently involved in the notion of aesthetic beauty. I would say that aesthetic beauty, which is not all beauty for man but which is the beauty most naturally proportioned to the human mind, is a particular determination of transcendental beauty: it is transcendental beauty as confronting not simply the intellect, but the intellect and the sense acting together in one single act.

Maritain didn’t stop there. He further praises Jean Paul Sartre for having highlighted the fact that ugliness, filth, and their cortege of negative characteristics are a category in existence. In other words, ugliness is a human phenomenon: that which is ugly, being seen, displeases; “where there is no sense, there is no category of ugliness.” For purely spiritual beings, “everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it.” And if certain objects are experienced by man as noxious, “it is not because they are noxious, it is essentially because they are repugnant to the inner proportion or harmony of the sense itself.”

Ultimately, then, the artist aims at absorbing aesthetic beauty in transcendental beauty.

One can question whether it’s really true that “for a pure intellect, everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it.” Certainly, there is such a thing as a beautiful mathematical demonstration, but one can raise the question whether this beauty can trigger in us the enchantment and Sursum Corda [Vocab:  (Latin for "Lift up your hearts") (Slavonic: Милост мира) is the opening dialogue to the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer or Anaphora in the liturgies of the Christian Church, dating back to at least the third century and the Anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition.] that we experience in contemplating a great work of art or a glorious sunset.

Once the mind has perceived the convincing luminosity of a geometrical demonstration, the latter is hardly an object that it will contemplate over and over again. What is typical of the aesthetic experience is the desire to go from a joyful acquaintance with a beautiful object to a contemplative attitude characterized by the desire to dwell on it again and again. Quantum notiores, tantum cariores, writes St. Augustine. The better we know it, the more we love it. He who does not wish to go back to Florence because he’s seen it once is either blind to its beauty or very foolish. We rate our love for a piece of art according to our longing to see or hear it again.

Which one of us would prefer to have a Pythagorean acquaintance with aesthetic beauty than the one granted to us through our eyes and ears? John Henry Cardinal Newman had a particular love for music. In his monumental biography of this great English writer, Ian Ker writes that, listening to Beethoven’s quartets, “. . . he thought them more exquisite than ever” — “so that I was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight.” (Let us not forget that the English are well-known for controlling their feelings.) It’s hard to imagine that upon giving assent to the Euclidian proof that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, Newman would have expressed the same explosive joy.

A Very Different View
Von Hildebrand’s presentation is different. He rejects the notion that whatever exists is beautiful and justifies his position — partly — by appealing to what he calls “metaphysical beauty.” This differs from transcendental beauty because it isn’t a characteristic of being. Rather it’s the radiance, the splendor, the glory of every value. But what is meant by value? Von Hildebrand distinguishes between two categories. The first he calls “ontological.” These are characterized by the fact that a being either possesses them or not. For example, man has an ontological value that is shared by all men: They’re all equally men.

Moreover, ontological values have no opposite: Logically, the opposite of man is “non-man;” but non-man is a concept, not a real entity. The universe is a hierarchy, and ontological values are structured according to this hierarchy. At the top, we have God, then angels, then men, then higher animals, then lower ones, then plants, then inanimate matter. Each one of them, according to its value and dignity, possesses beauty.

Von Hildebrand remarks further that it’s vitally important for human beings to be aware of their ontological value — their dignity as persons made in God’s image and likeness. The pantheistic view that we’re but drops in an immense universe is fake humility, a subtle lack of gratitude for the fact that God — in His infinite bounty and generosity — has metaphysically “knighted” us.

Apart from ontological values that are more or less beautiful according to their ontological rank, von Hildebrand speaks about qualitative values, moral values, intellectual values, and aesthetical values, to mention the most important ones. These clearly differ from ontological values for the obvious reason that one can possess them more or less. Men are not equally just, or kind, or generous, or beautiful. Some are geniuses, some are intellectually talented, and some have a mediocre intelligence. Some are exceptionally handsome, some are pleasant-looking, and some have a physical appearance that only a mother’s love can appreciate.

Moreover, qualitative values have opposites: Moral goodness is opposed to moral evil; stupidity antagonizes intelligence; ugliness is at loggerheads with beauty. He stresses the fact that moral wickedness isn’t just an absence of goodness, but, alas, a very real quality called sin, which, because of its reality, offends God. Stupidity isn’t just a weak intelligence but a full-fledged negative quality. And ugliness isn’t just an absence of beauty but wages war on it.

The author tells us, further, that qualitative values are beautiful and that once again, their degree of beauty depends on the degree in which a good incorporates this value. In other words, the moral value of a saint is infinitely more beautiful than the moral value of an honest man. Plato’s genius is more beautiful than the mind of a thinker of lower rank. Good is opposed to evil, intelligence to stupidity, beauty to ugliness.

Qualitative values, as opposed to ontological ones, shouldn’t make us focus on our own persons. The saint doesn’t contemplate his own humility — that would be the best and fastest way to lose it. The person endowed with remarkable intellectual gifts should be concerned about using the gifts for God’s glory and not gloat over them. Similarly, the beautiful person who is narcissistic would inevitably lose one dimension of aesthetic beauty.

All values are beautiful, whether ontological or qualitative. But in all of them, except in aesthetic values, beauty isn’t the theme. Rather, it’s a halo, a perfume that necessarily accompanies them, but shouldn’t be the locus of our interest. Moreover, all of them (except some aesthetic values) are intellectually perceived. Whereas only persons can be morally good or intelligent, aesthetic values can be found in every single level of being: An animal can be beautiful, as can plants and inanimate matter. Beauty is the most universal of all values. It’s found both in ontological and qualitative values.

But some aesthetic values (should we call them artistic values?) need the integrity of our sight and hearing in order to be perceived. In this Maritain and von Hildebrand agree. The beauty that we find in art is “thematic.” The philosopher worthy of the name should be a truth lover and a truth seeker. Neither his “brilliance” nor his style should be our concern in reading his works. The one question that is crucial is: Is what he says true? This does not prevent us from appreciating his stylistic gifts, but his work should not be rated according to it. The aesthete — that is, the person who makes of beauty his one exclusive concern — would have to rate Nietzsche above Aristotle because of the beauty of his style. This would clearly be a perversion.

The artist’s aim should be to create beauty. If he fails to do so, he is a bad artist. A writer whose novels are boring and clumsy is a bad writer. And a philosopher whose aim is “originality” and who cares not whether his claims are justified by agreeing with reality is a bad philosopher.

Two Ways
Clearly, Maritain and von Hildebrand have different approaches to aesthetic beauty. As mentioned, the latter makes no use of “transcendental beauty,” arguing that the knowledge that something exists does not guarantee that this object is beautiful.

Moreover, both thinkers differ in their interpretation of sense-perceived beauty. Maritain considers it a purely human phenomenon, as it necessarily presupposes sense perception. Far from denying the importance of the senses, von Hildebrand differs from the French philosopher in his claim that whereas the beauty of a painting or of music is perceived through the senses, the message it delivers totally transcends the world of matter.

Whereas for Maritain, sense experiences are purely human, both Newman and von Hildebrand claim that though man’s senses are necessarily involved, the message they communicate radically transcends the world of pure matter. It transmits a message coming from above, some mysterious echo of “the eternal hills” that sharpen our longing for Beauty itself — that is, God.

In metaphysical beauty there’s a perfect proportion between the dignity of the object and its beauty. In sense-perceived beauty — and this is a mirandumthere’s a total disproportion between the material used and the result obtained. What, after all, are tones? What are colors and forms? What are canvasses and bronze? They rank low on the metaphysical scale, but by some mysterious artistic transformation, they can radiate a beauty that brings tears to our eyes.

This is why von Hildebrand speaks of a quasi-sacramental dimension of sense-perceived beauty. In baptism, plain water is poured on the head of a child, while the priest pronounces some words, and lo, through these mediums, the Holy Trinity takes hold of the child’s soul and blots out the stain of original sin. Our response to beauty is awe, enchantment, gratitude — something that a meditation on purely abstract being cannot give us. Our senses are like windows opened to a sublime world — a sort of Promised Land. This explains the deepest stirrings of the heart, this profound emotion that takes the one whose eyes and ears are opened to the message of beauty.

The aesthetic difference between Maritain and von Hildebrand also finds its expression in their appreciation of concrete works of art. Maritain — a close friend of Georges Rouault — sees 19th- and early 20th-century French painting as a climax of artistic beauty. Echoing her husband, Raissa Maritain calls Rouault “the greatest religious painter of our time” and adds “one of the greatest painters of all times.”

Maritain feels so strongly about this that he doesn’t hesitate to disparage the distinguished historian of art, Hans Sedlmayr, for criticizing Cezanne in his famous work Verlust de Mitte. (Maritain accused Sedlmayr and Fritz Novotny of being “biased doctrinaires” and of making “blind judgments” for detecting in Maritain’s favorite painter the germs of cultural degeneration.)

Von Hildebrand would certainly not place Cezanne, Rouault, Chagall, Braque, and some of the “most durable works of Picasso” on the level of Giotto, Giorgione, Titian, Leonardo, or Michelangelo (to mention some of the many geniuses that Catholic culture has produced).

The reader is free to draw his own conclusions. Disagreements between art lovers — much less philosophers — don’t prevent us from claiming that artistic beauty is a great gift, not only in our human life but in our religious life as well. Indeed, it’s a faint reflection of the Eternal Beauty.


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