On Von Hildebrand's Understanding of the Person

Author: John Crosby


John Crosby on Von Hildebrand's Understanding of the Person

"A Certain Interior Dimension of the Person Comes to Light"


Here is the text of John Crosby's address at an Oct. 12 conference on Christian philosophy held at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Crosby is the founder of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, which co-hosted the conference.

* * *

A Development in Dietrich von Hildebrand's Understanding of the Human Person
by John F. Crosby

As the English translator of von Hildebrand's work, "Das Wesen der Liebe" [The Essence of Love], I have had plenty of time to reflect on the ideas of this rich work. I want now to discuss with you what I take to be the understanding of the human person that underlies his account of love, or rather I want to show you that the understanding of the person found in this late work of von Hildebrand represents a significant development in his thought; the person acquires a new dimension that had only been implicit in the earlier works.

I think it is correct to say that in the earlier works, the signature of the person is the power of self-transcendence. In all of his ethical works, von Hildebrand is concerned to show how persons transcend themselves in what he calls value-response.  

Persons can apprehend the intrinsic excellence, or worthiness, or splendor of a being — in other words, they can apprehend what von Hildebrand calls the value of a being — and they can respond to the being in a manner that is proportioned to, appropriate to, called for by the being in virtue of its value.  

If we admire a person who is really admirable in virtue of his or her moral integrity, then our admiration is a value-response. If we venerate a person who is really venerable in virtue of his or her wisdom, then again our response has the form of a value-response.  

Von Hildebrand says that in thus conforming ourselves to the intrinsic value of a being, we transcend ourselves; we are caught up in what the valuable being is in its own right; we give it its due.

As every beginner in the ethics of von Hildebrand knows, he sets off this transcendence by contrasting it with two other kinds of interest. He says that when something interests me under the aspect of being merely subjectively satisfying to me, then far from transcending myself toward that thing, I bend it to my subjective satisfaction, thus performing a gesture that is in a way the very opposite of transcending myself.  

The smoker who reaches for another cigarette is interested in it only as subjectively satisfying; if the cigarette did not provide him with subjective satisfaction, he would pass it by in complete indifference; he detects no intrinsic excellence in it that would sustain his interest in the absence of any subjective satisfaction. He takes another cigarette to consume it, not to revere it.  

And von Hildebrand uses another contrast to set off the transcendence of value-response. He says that even when something is not just subjectively satisfying but is objectively good for me, really beneficial for my physical or psychic or spiritual being, and when I am drawn to it under this aspect of the beneficial, I still do not transcend myself in the sense of value-response.  

If I keep someone's company because he helps me to stay sober, then I seek his company, not indeed as merely satisfying, but as objectively beneficial for me; but I do not have the value-responding relation to that person that I would have in admiring him or in venerating him.

As I say, von Hildebrand sees the self-transcendence achieved in value-response as the signature of the human person. Thus he writes in his Ethics: "The capacity to transcend himself is one of man's deepest characteristics. Man cannot be understood if we interpret all his activities as manifestations of an automatic striving for self-perfection [that is, striving for all that is beneficial to me]. So long as we are confined to this pattern we overlook the real nature of man as a person. But the specifically personal character of man as a subject manifests itself in his capacity to transcend himself."

Now we find this idea also in von Hildebrand's treatise on love, the last philosophical book that he published in his lifetime. He insists here that love is a value-response to the beauty of a beloved person; in loving the other I do not take the beloved person only as beneficial for me, only as filling out what I lack, but as worthy and splendid in his or her own right. It follows that love is an eminently personal act; it is eminently personal because it is eminently self-transcending. To this extent we see von Hildebrand continuing in this late work along the line of his earlier work.

But I detect a development in his vision of the human person when in this work, he acknowledges that there is a certain deformity of love that arises when the spirit of value-response completely takes over and has the effect of suppressing any interest in my own wellbeing.  

In criticizing sharply Fenelon's ideal of "disinterested love" he shows that it belongs to the genius of love that in loving another I want to be loved in return by the other; not only that, but I want the union with the other that comes from loving him and being loved by him in return; and I want the happiness that comes from this union.  

It is a huge mistake, von Hildebrand says, to see as selfish this will to be loved in return and this will to be happy by being united with the beloved person: and it is just the mirror image of this mistake to think that my love is particularly selfless when I renounce any interest in being loved in return and renounce any interest in being happy in a mutual love, as if love became more love by becoming exclusively a value-responding interest in the other.  

No, love becomes a caricature of itself when lived out in this exclusively other-centered way. Just consider how bizarre it sounds if a man says to a woman, "I love you for what you are, for your own sake, but whether you love me in return I don't care, and I don't care if our love is mutual and is a source of happiness for me; I want nothing for myself, I just want your good and your happiness."  

Such a man knows nothing about the love between man and woman; and far from raising his love to a high pitch of selflessness, he in fact insults the woman, as von Hildebrand observes.

It may surprise you to learn that von Hildebrand, along with Scheler before him, was often a sharp critic of altruism, but what he meant by altruism was more or less what Fenelon meant with his ideal of disinterested love. Thus altruism, understood as a certain extreme and unbalanced other-centeredness, while it poses as supreme love, in fact undermines love.

Now what concerns me in this presentation is not exactly the altruistic caricature of love, but the fact that the person who tries to love in this "selfless" way depersonalizes himself. He does not take himself seriously as person, he does not remain entirely intact as person in his way of centering exclusively on the beloved person.  

But his problem is not a deficiency in self-transcendence — on the contrary, in him we see self-transcendence grown monstrous — but his problem is a deficiency in his relation to himself. This means that a human being is revealed as person not just in the moment of self-transcendence, but also in the moment of relating to himself. It is then a certain interior dimension of the person that comes to light in von Hildebrand's treatise on love and that completes all that he had said about the self-transcending, ecstatic capacity of the person. Let us try to understand better this somewhat new direction in von Hildebrand's late thought.

I turn to Chapter 9 in this work, entitled "Eigenleben und Transzendenz." No German word in this work presented a greater challenge to me as translator than the word Eigenleben. We can approach its meaning by considering that in this chapter title, Eigenleben forms a certain antithesis to transcendence, or perhaps better, Eigenleben and transcendence are set in a relation of polarity, a polarity akin to the polarity that a philosopher might express in speaking about "self and other."  

Von Hildebrand explains this in one place as follows: "The defining trait of Eigenleben is the realm of all those things that are of concern to me as this unrepeatable individual, that stand in some relation to my happiness, that address me — this in contrast to all that belongs to the Eigenleben of another person whom I do not know."  

If in transcending myself I give myself over to what is other than myself, in my Eigenleben, I have to do with what is my own. The pronouns I and me and mine belong to my Eigenleben. Von Hildebrand seems to think of Eigenleben primarily in terms of all that is beneficial for me or harmful for me, and of all that makes me happy or affects me with misery.  

I translated Eigenleben sometimes as subjectivity, since we can indeed speak of a polarity of subjectivity and transcendence; and sometimes as selfhood, since this term too can be set in a relation of polarity with transcendence.  But since neither of these terms is exactly right, and since I can find nothing better, I will continue to use the German term.

Now what interests me in this paper is the place of Eigenleben in the existence of a person. Von Hildebrand says: "To have an Eigenleben in this sense ... is a deeply significant characteristic of man as spiritual person and is profoundly associated with the dignity of man and with his metaphysical condition." And in the following he compares this aspect of the dignity of persons with that other aspect that is disclosed in personal transcendence:

Whoever does not acknowledge the transcendence of human beings fails to understand what distinguishes them as persons from all impersonal creatures. But whoever smells something egocentric in the fact that I desire an objective good for myself, whoever thinks that the ideal of human life is for me to lose all interest in beneficial goods for myself, fails to understand the character of man as subject.  

He fails to see the mysterious center to which everything in the life of a person is referred, the center that is addressed by beneficial goods and that is inseparably bound up with his dignity as person. If the first error locks persons in themselves and in this way distorts their ultimate relation to the world and to God, the second error deprives them of their character as full selves. The first error reduces man to the biological, taking him according to the model of a plant or animal. The second error robs him of his character as a full subject and destroys the personal in him by exaggerating the objective to the point of dissolving that which makes him a subject. We have to keep clear of both errors.

This is why we detect something depersonalized in the extreme altruist; in renouncing all interest in being loved and in being happy in being loved, he neglects this mysterious center in himself, he neglects himself as subject, and so he neglects his dignity as person.

Notice that in order to avoid the first error we have to distinguish the value-responding self-transcendence of persons from all interest in what is beneficial to them; but that in order to avoid the second error we have to take persons precisely insofar as they are addressed by goods that are beneficial to them.

Von Hildebrand is well aware that there is a way of invoking religion to discredit the Eigenleben of persons and to present self-transcendence as the only thing that really matters before God. He says:

Now one might think that the possession of Eigenleben/subjectivity in our earthly existence belongs to the things that are allowed, but that it is more perfect to give it up in the sense of desiring no personal objective good for myself and remaining in an exclusively value-responding attitude. Is not the attitude of seeking only the kingdom of God simply an augmentation of the attitude of seeking first the kingdom of God? Is it not therefore better and more pleasing to God? By no means.  

Eigenleben/subjectivity belongs to the nature of the human person; this is the way the human person is created and intended by God; it belongs to his perfection that he should possess a full Eigenleben/subjectivity, even if his happiness stands in second place and not in first place, as we have seen. This becomes clear in thinking about the sacred humanity of Christ.  Even the Son of Man wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over Jerusalem, and in Gethsemane, he prayed, "If it is possible let this cup pass from me."  

We cannot stress this enough: Eigenleben/subjectivity belongs to the meaning and nature of man, and in fact to have it in fullness is a necessary basis for the ardor of value-response and for the ardent commitment to the will of God.

Many of you know the splendid chapter on humility in "Transformation in Christ." In that chapter, von Hildebrand identifies certain forms of pseudo-humility, such as thinking of oneself in terms of a quantitative smallness, as if each of us were just a speck in an immense universe.  

If he had had Eigenleben on his mind when he wrote that chapter, he would certainly have identified the religiously driven depreciation of Eigenleben as a form of pseudo-humility. And he would have stressed the depersonalized character of this humility, just as in fact he stressed the depersonalized character of the quantitatively conceived humility.

We can also capture von Hildebrand's thought like this: He is warning us against an illegitimate use of the terms selfish and selfless. If you mean selfish or self-centered in the usual morally negative sense, then beware of calling selfish the person who has a fully developed Eigenleben; for in doing that, you would blacken something that is in fact eminently personal. And if you mean selfless in the usual morally positive sense, then beware of praising as selfless the person whose Eigenleben is deficient; for in doing that, you would glorify something that is in fact a form of depersonalized existence.

It is very interesting to see that von Hildebrand examines the deficiency of Eigenleben not only in the case of excessively altruistic love, but in other cases too. In this Chapter 9, he discusses what he calls the "withered Eigenleben" of a person who is completely taken over by the demands of some office that he occupies. He says that this person "is so absorbed in his official activities that he is in a way extinguished as a human being.  

He hardly exists any more as the individual person that he is. ... He has no genuine relation to the sphere of objective goods for himself. He does not yearn for happiness. He is incapable of real friendship and even more of spousal love. Personal inclinations and interests no longer exist in him. His Eigenleben has been dissolved into the function of his office ..."  

Of course, this person is highly deficient with respect to self-transcendence, too; but what von Hildebrand first singles out is this person's deficiency with respect to Eigenleben. Only if we understand the place of Eigenleben in the existence of a person can we rightly characterize this pathology of personal existence in the bureaucrat.

Another of von Hildebrand's examples of withered subjectivity brings us back to the theme of love.  He speaks of a "type of person who lives with a family as an old servant of the lady of the house, or perhaps as a friend of hers, and who shares the life of the family and has her whole life in caring for the children and the household. These are usually persons who do not feel up to having a full Eigenleben/subjectivity of their own, whose aspirations for happiness are weak and modest, whose primary relation to the great goods of life is weak and who therefore incline to attach themselves to the lives of others ..."  

Again, the deficiency of personal existence does not in the first place lie in a lack transcendence, for this kind of family friend may be extremely devoted to the family members; it lies in a lack of Eigenleben.

What I want to say in this paper is that von Hildebrand in his treatise on love gave far more attention to this place of Eigenleben in the existence of a person than he did in his earlier ethical writings. Of course he never countenanced any kind of depreciation of Eigenleben in the name of value-response; he was never even tempted to develop value-response in the direction of the ideal of disinterested love. But what I mean is this: In exploring the structure of love, von Hildebrand found not only much to confirm his thought on self-transcendence; it seems that in thinking about the fact that in loving, I necessarily want to be loved in return, he was also led more deeply than before into the Eigenleben of the person. As a result his image of the human person took on a more existential character.

Not only that, but a fruitful polarity of Eigenleben and transcendence emerges in his personalism, and with a brief mention of this I will conclude. I mean that von Hildebrand explores the dialectical interpenetration of Eigenleben and transcendence in the most original way. Let me give just one example. He shows that in wanting to be loved in return by the one whom I love, I aim indeed at my own happiness, but I aim at it in such a way as to make myself vulnerable to the other, to make myself in need of the love of the other, and so to entrust myself to the other. In this case I transcend myself toward the other, not only in the way of value-response, but also in the way a certain self-gift. Or in other words, I transcend myself toward another not only by stepping out of my Eigenleben, but also by taking another into my Eigenleben. In this and in many ways, von Hildebrand shows that my Eigenleben is a transcendent Eigenleben, that it is interwoven with various kinds of transcendence. But this rich dialectic becomes accessible to us only after we have identified Eigenleben as a distinct dimension of personal existence.

[Text adapted]

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field