Dietrich von Hildebrand: Giving the Heart Its Due (Part 1)

An Interview with Hildebrand Legacy Project Director

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, JULY 22, 2010 ( Despite Benedict XVI’s prediction in 2000 that Dietrich von Hildebrand would become one of the «most prominent» intellectual figures of modern times, the German-born Catholic philosopher was at the time in danger of being relegated to obscurity.

But because of the work of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project to translate, publish, and disseminate his books, essays, and anti-Nazi tracts, the Christian personalism of von Hildebrand (1880-1977), a large number of whose works still must be translated from the original German, is enjoying something of a revival.

A significant step forward in the organization’s goals occurred in May when phenomenologists and other academics related to von Hildebrand’s work converged in Rome to take part in a conference live-streamed on the Internet.

ZENIT sat down with the project’s young founder and director to discuss the continuing and even growing contribution of von Hildebrand’s thought within the Church and secular culture.

Here is part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will appear Friday.

ZENIT: How did you come to devote yourself full time to preserving and promoting the legacy of Dietrich von Hildebrand?

Crosby: I founded the project in 2004, rather unintentionally, which is probably how some of the best projects get off the ground. I had wanted to translate some work of von Hildebrand and then write a dissertation on it. So I called our old family friend, Alice von Hildebrand, and said I wasn’t really sure about going to graduate school, but what did she think about helping me to raise support to do a one-year privately funded fellowship to translate von Hildebrand’s work.

She and I had talked about translation work over the years but it never got off the ground, so she said fine and gave me 10 names who might be interested in this project. One of them was Mike Doherty who was the chairman of the board of the Franciscan University of Steubenville at the time and he told me, “This sounds great, what do we need to do to get going?”

He helped me start my own 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization and then we started to put together an advisory board. In about October 2004, less than a year into the project, then-Cardinal Ratzinger accepted an honorary position on our board. Now we have a wonderful advisory council of 20 people including Cardinal Schönborn, Rocco Buttiglione, several individuals known in the Catholic world, several of von Hildebrand’s students; I tried to select them according to the different areas of von Hildebrand’s thought — the philosophers, the theologians, the political figures, those who represent the artistic and cultural side.

ZENIT: Why did you choose von Hildebrand in particular?

Crosby: The reason I was even able to do this is that there are links to von Hildebrand on both sides of my family. My father was one of his students and got to know him as a 22 year old at Georgetown. He invited von Hildebrand to speak, he had read some of his works, and this talk that he gave at Georgetown made a huge impression on my dad.

Then von Hildebrand in turn essentially directed where my dad studied and so he went to study with one of von Hildebrand’s students, but every free moment he studied in Austria with von Hildebrand or back in the U.S. in New York. My mother is Austrian and she was already a second-generation friend of von Hildebrand.

My grandfather got swept up in the Hitler youth when very young in Austria. When von Hildebrand left Germany for Austria to set up his anti-Nazi newspaper, he had to give an opening lecture at the University of Vienna where he had a small appointment. Von Hildebrand was so known as an outspoken anti-Nazi that the talk was somewhat violently protested by Communists on the left and National Socialists on the right, and my grandfather was on the right with the Nationalist Socialists yelling “Down with von Hildebrand!”

My grandfather had a conversion during the war when he lost a lung and spent some time in the hospital. He became a Catholic — he had been Lutheran — and then after the war found his way back to von Hildebrand and they became friends.

Alice von Hildebrand remembers a moving episode where my grandfather approached von Hildebrand sometime in the 1950s and knelt down in front of him and asked his forgiveness. My grandfather was a historian by trade by then, in fact he was the archivist of the Diocese of Salzburg where my mother was born and raised. My mother knew him as a young girl and kept up a correspondence with him. She came to the United States to study in 1977 just before his death. Without getting too much into it, von Hildebrand had a lot to do with my parents’ marriage because my father was a philosopher with his head in the clouds and von Hildebrand was a great promoter of relationships. My mother told him that she was interested in my father, so von Hildebrand pulled some strings and my father eventually woke up.

ZENIT: What is the mission of your organization?

Crosby: It was a much smaller initiative initially without seeing the full potential of what was there. The mission now is twofold — on the one hand to promote von Hildebrand’s legacy through translating his work and make his writings known; a lot of his work hasn’t yet been translated from the German and a lot of books are out of print. We also aim to have an audience for these books, so we started having an annual moderate-sized conference, less frequently if it is a large conference like this year’s in Rome. The public side has largely been in the form of these conferences, but we will also have a robust Web presence as a place for the international community of scholars to meet and share their research.

When you’re promoting a thinker, I think it’s important that the issues [that] the thinker was engaging are not lost. So in that sense part of our mission is to promote an authentically philosophical approach to these perennial questions of life and offering von Hildebrand as a great guide, but not the only guide.

Our mission statement says we are inspired by the need to recover and reinterpret and translate our intellectual patrimony, and at the same time we operate with a great spirit of gratitude toward contemporary thinkers. Phenomenology has classical roots, but it’s also a modern movement within philosophy. We’re often assumed that new insights can’t be had; that sometimes happens with traditionalists who think that the last word on an issue has been said. I don’t want to single them out, but you get that with Thomists sometimes because there is a system with Aquinas.

Von Hildebrand reminds that we can always move forward; it doesn’t mean that we are throwing everything else out but there are questions that are distinctive to a period in time, just as there are questions that arise in every generation. I don’t think John Paul II built his papacy on the idea that nothing had changed since 1100. Sometimes we don’t like to use the expression «the history of ethics,» but there has been a slow-growing, and in some ways relentless, process of greater illumination. I think personalism is built around the idea that historically there is a new and deeper understanding and appreciation for what it means to be a person.

I happen to also think that personalism is a very useful way to engage modern issues because personalists love notions such as freedom, which puts them in a strong position to talk to people who are perhaps confused about freedom, like with the gay rights movement. A personalist has a great language to use, you can understand their intuition, but you are also rooted in fundamental concepts like human nature, which they don’t have; the general liberal problem is the belief that the human is just an atomized individual who doesn’t want to accept any limitation. Human nature is a limitation so you don’t want it, you want everything to be subject to your f
reedom. Personalists understand that intuition but they also understand that our freedom is finite.
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