The philosopher, Dietrich von
Hildebrand, lived a life of high drama and heroic witness. Yet despite
this, he is not nearly as well known today as his legacy deserves. For
anyone interested in the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1976),
the natural starting point is a biography written by his widow Alice von
Hildebrand, entitled The Soul of a Lion
(Ignatius 2000). "L'Osservatore Romano"
recently had the privilege of interviewing Alice on the legacy of her
Dietrich von Hildebrand seems to be a
man of his own time and also an exemplary Christian witness for the men
and women of today. How is that?
One cannot understand who my husband
Dietrich von Hildebrand was or what he can tell us today without having
understood his very origins. He was born in 1889 to a German family
living in the Italian city of Florence. His first sights were of the
family villa, a 6th-century monastery of the Fratres Minimi,
which his father had purchased in search of the "perfect place" to
develop his artistic talent and to raise his quickly growing family.
Was Dietrich's family particularly religious?
No, quite the contrary. Dietrich's
family lived in a sort of distinguished paganism. They were all "noble
pagans" who lived entirely for beauty. Though formally baptised in the
Protestant Church, they had never been churchgoers. No one aside from
young Dietrich, the only son after five sisters, was religiously-minded.
Let me share just one brief story which illustrates his deeply religious
being, even long before he converted to Catholicism.
When Dietrich was 8 years old, one of
his sisters took him to see the Cathedral in Milan. This was a purely
aesthetic trip, to see an artistic masterpiece. As they were walking
through the Cathedral, little Dietrich insisted on genuflecting before
all of the many side altars. His sister became irritated, telling him to
cease this meaningless performance or they would leave immediately. Yet
even as a young child, Dietrich felt convinced he was acting rightly,
much as he revered his sister. This independence from outside influences
was typical of my husband.
When did von Hildebrand enter the Catholic Church?
As a young student of philosophy, Dietrich one day made the
acquaintance of the great German philosopher Max Scheler (whose
writings, by the way, were to have a great influence on the future John
Paul II). One day, quite out of the blue, Scheler said to von
Hildebrand, "the Catholic Church is the true Church". Dietrich was taken
aback. Having for so many years lived in Florence, he had surprisingly
never met a Catholic. But then Scheler made a key statement through
which, unwittingly Scheler opened for his young friend the path to
conversion. He said, "The Catholic Church produces saints". Scheler then
spoke about the saints and powerfully sketched the personality of St
Francis of Assisi. Slowly but surely, the face of the Holy Catholic
Church began to shine more and more clearly. It was a slow process but
he was on the way, and on 11 April 1914
— my husband entered the Church.
Dietrich von Hildebrand has been one of
the most prominent Catholic thinkers of the past century. But this seems
to have been forgotten today by the majority of philosophers and people.
Why do you think this has happened?
Over and over again, my husband was
forced to begin his work anew. He devoted nearly 15 years of his life to
a brave and heroic intellectual battle with Nazism. Just at the moment
when his star was rising in the academic world, he decided to put a
pause on his career and to place his philosophical gifts at the service
of what he believed was the true call of the hour. Already in 1933, as
Hitler came to power, my husband voluntarily left Germany, giving up a
blossoming career to fight the Devil. Five years later, in 1938, my
husband was forced to flee Vienna, losing everything: his possessions,
his beautiful artwork and furniture and, above all, his notes and
Can we say that for Dietrich von
Hildebrand truth and love are meant to exist in unity?
Of course we can. Veritas and
amor belong one to the other. If the truth (and especially in a
philosophical sense) becomes just an abstract concept, the game is
barren. Truth has to become "life".
Would you leave us with a few words from
your husband? In his thought, why is love so central to the
understanding of human nature?
"To the extent that we fail to grasp
what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate
philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human
being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone
that man finds room enough to be what he is". (Lodovica Maria Zanet)