Dietrich von Hildebrand's Philosophy of Love

Conference Gathers Experts for Discussion, Debate

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JUNE 3, 2010 ( Conferences aren’t always the most interesting events to attend, but when one is devoted to the subject of love, it promises to be more thought-provoking than most.

That was the case during three days of illuminating discussions in Rome, bringing together some of the Church’s leading philosophers and theologians to take a critical look at Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love.

Von Hildebrand (1889-1977), an anti-Nazi activist who fled the regime and settled in the United States in 1940, wrote a number of philosophical works which are said to have helped many to embrace the Catholic faith. With Benedict XVI among his admirers, his writings contributed to the development of a rich Christian personalism, especially through his stress on the transcendence of human persons.

The main purpose of the May 27-29 event, organized by the Alexandria-based Hildebrand Legacy Project, was to look at the first, newly published English translation of Von Hildebrand’s great work, “The Nature of Love.”

The conference theme, “The Christian Personalism of Dietrich von Hildebrand: Exploring His Philosophy of Love,” drew academics from around the world to discuss what it means to love and be loved, questions about the dignity and destiny of the human person, and especially about the capacity of the human person to encounter the other by making a gift of self to the other.

Leading Church philosophers shared a wide range of views, from the philosophical differences between Thomists and Hildebrandians to insights into spousal and romantic love. One of the most impressive speakers was Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Greece. An Orthodox theologian, well respected in both churches, he also heads the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Without prior knowledge of Von Hildebrand, he read “The Nature of Love” for the conference and found it to be one of the most significant books he’d ever read. In his address, he compared the book to Greek Patristic thought, examining commonalities, but mostly differences, between the two. Yet he praised many aspects of Von Hildebrand’s thought, such as his emphasis that “love alone” brings the human being into full awareness of his personal existence, that love involves “a transcendence of the human being from his self-centredness toward the other,” the importance of “beauty for love and personhood” (recalling Dostoyevsky’s words that “beauty shall save the world”), and Von Hildebrand’s emphasis on the “role of the heart in the experience of love.”

Eastern perspective

The German philosopher’s works show “great potential” for both theology and philosophy, Metropolitan Zizioulas said, adding that he believed they will contribute to the dialogue between the main Eastern and Western traditions of Christian theology. He also predicted Von Hildebrand would increase in prominence as the historians look back on the 20th century.

Perhaps the most innovative and original intervention came from Professor Michael Waldstein, the Max Seckler professor of theology at Ave Maria University, who attempted to reconcile long-standing philosophical differences between Thomists and Hildebrandians. He suggested Von Hilderbrand and some other philosophers of his day were unable to make adequate readings of St. Thomas Aquinas’ works because of the dominant interpretations existing at the time.

Hanna Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, chair of philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Dresden, Germany, spoke of Hildebrand’s conception of the “Gift of Love,” underlining his philosophy that true love is never an exchange but unconditional. Interestingly, she compared him with Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist philosopher, who she felt, although believing love as pure gift was fiction, would nevertheless agree that there is a measure of love that is measureless.

Yet the conference went beyond abstract academic theories, and brought Von Hildebrand’s thought and the subject of love into the realms of everyday human experience.

Professor Robert Spaemann, the renowned German philosopher and close friend of Benedict XVI, shared his own philosophies on love. He described the theological view that God accepts us as we are as “unspeakable nonsense.” If that were true, he said, then there would be no such thing as forgiveness. In fact, he said, it is the opposite of forgiveness because forgiveness means allowing the person “to distance himself from being that way and to begin anew.” To accept someone as he is, is the “ultimate form of resignation,” he said, and stressed that the proclamation of Jesus didn’t begin with the words: “God accepts you as you are” but with: “repent, change and be different from what you are now.”


“To love someone means to understand the reasons God had to create this person,” he explained, and he added that jealousy is part of love. “The total absence of jealousy at a given occasion is an insult to the beloved person who is degraded to being one among others,” he said, and pointed out that this is why the Old Testament often speaks of a “jealous God.”

Professor John F. Crosby, chair of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, highlighted Von Hildebrand’s theory that a person is never loved for individual qualities, which of course can exist in a fuller form in others, but rather that “it is the very person himself who is loved.” He also spoke about what Von Hildebrand called “Eigenleben,” or subjectivity, saying that love is not about being a tool or doormat for another person. Von Hildebrand was an opponent of “narcissism and self-absorption,” Crosby told ZENIT, “but at the same time he avoided this form of altruism where you just become an instrument for advancing the good of another.” There’s something beyond those two extremes, he said, which “is a truth about love.”

The American Catholic philosopher Michael Novak spoke about the virtues and myths of romantic love as opposed to the “low love” of eroticism. It is a kind of love that “is not a sated appetite but quite the opposite,” he explained. “It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in longing and dwelling in the sweetness of desire; it feels a murderous hostility to any rude awakenings of fleshly, ordinary things.”

But he added that with consummation, “the illusion is shattered” and the “reality of human condition sets in.” The most satisfactory ending for tale of romantic love, he said, “is not, as one would think, physical consummation or even growing old together. It is actually death. While longing still pierces the heart, death, for then, the living member of the couple can go on living forever above the ordinariness of mere earth.”

But he argued that Christian love “is not about love and escape, it’s about suffering.” Humble love, he said, “is very down to earth. [And] so in a fascinating way, spousal love [with it’s many trials], is the nexus of all loves.”

Sense of humor

As an aside, he said marriage “is a lot of saying ‘I’m sorry,’ and a lot of being asked for forgiveness, but mostly it’s about good humor.” If you have good humor, he said, “you have a good shot at marriage and being successful in marriage, especially in bad situations.”

Also to much laughter, he made a couple of light-hearted quips: “Once you’ve had grandchildren you actually realize it’s so much fun, you could have skipped the children,” he said. And he recalled that amusing truism: “Every woman tends to think after marriage her husband will change, and he seldom does, and every man thinks his wife will never change, and she always does.”

Von Hildebrand’s 87 year-old widow, Alice, received a standing ovation after addressing the conference. She recalled many fond memories of her husband. She remembered lamenting to him that she hadn’t met him earlier in life, to which he responded by immed
iately writing his memoirs — a work that came to a remarkable 5,000 pages. Close to death, he wrote a book on gratitude, saying “it is the gateway to happiness.” And as he was dying, he told his wife he was “a helpless little thing,” but added, “My soul is still a lion.” A faithful lover of truth and the Church, she recalled one of his last literary bequests in which he told her: “If you find one sentence which is not in perfect agreement with the teaching of the Church, burn it.”

John Henry Crosby, founder and director of the Hildebrand Legacy Project, said the conference exceeded his expectations and he and others were particularly pleased with collegial and friendly atmosphere, despite some open and candid criticism by some speakers of Hildebrand — all of which Crosby had invited.

“Everyone was serious about truth, even though you’re not supposed to be today,” he said. “The conference was an interesting example of how the pursuit of truth in friendship is really the most powerful kind.”

In addition to the plenary speakers, many other respected scholars gave profound and helpful lectures during separate afternoon sessions. Space prevents examining them here, but they and all the other speeches can be obtained by contacting the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project at

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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