Alice von Hildebrand tells the story of her meeting with the great German philosopher and their life together
In the grim Nazi period that raged in Europe, a light of great humanity and of rare cultural depth shined in Germany: Dietrich von Hildebrand. He was the sign of a turning point and spoke out against the regime non-violently and with extreme clarity. He first escaped to Austria, and then went to the United States. There he met his beloved life partner, a young Belgian philosophy student Alice who was to become his wife and with whom he shared a love for study, art and faith. At the age of 90, Dr Alice von Hildebrand recalls their life together and their first meeting.
Dietrich von Hildebrand entered your life as a female philosopher in different ways and roles. You knew him as a teacher, research director and finally as life companion. What was the common thread underlying your relationship?
Meeting Dietrich von Hildebrand was for me, as it was for many of his students, the beginning of an "adventure in grace". I met him at his modest apartment in New York where he was giving a talk to a circle of friends on the theme of his book, Transformation in Christ. Both of us had come from war torn Europe: he, having miraculously escaped from Nazi clutches. The moment he started talking, I knew that 27 November 1942 would be a turning point in my life.
What struck you?
I had had two years of traditional philosophy in my home country. I had learned about substance and accident, essence and existence, potency and act. I knew that the Aristotelian god is the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, pure act. Valuable as this information was, it had done nothing to inspire me to devote my life to philosophy. My great loves were literature, classical music and history. But listening to Dietrich von Hildebrand that night, the true nature of philosophy suddenly became luminous to me. It addressed the most burning questions of human existence, the questions — to quote the French philosopher Jacques Chevalier — every man is bound to raise when he faces death. It was immediately clear to me that the speaker was an ardent lover of truth, the kind of truth that made St Augustine exclaim, "How did the very marrow of my bones yearn for thee!" — truth that not only gives meaning to human life, but sheds a rich light on all the facets of our existence, whether religious, philosophical, artistic, or human. While he was lecturing, Dietrich von Hildebrand reminded one of a conductor directing a magnificent symphony. Truth filled the air around us and entered our hearts and minds like, great music. That evening was to give a totally new direction to my personal life. Literature, history and music were to be given second place. Yet, to my great joy, it soon became clear to me that abandoning my previous intention to study these noble branches of knowledge, in no way required me to sacrifice my, love for them. For Dietrich von Hildebrand, coming from a extraordinary artistic background (his father was a well known sculptor), having been fed from his very youth upon the glorious Catholic culture that the Church had generously spread all over Europe, effortlessly united his love for Truth with his love for Beauty.
Describe your personal and intellectual formation?
Throughout my youth, I was surrounded by the cultural wealth of then-Catholic Belgium. Refined manners were associated with the dignity of being a person; coarse words were anathema. My primary and secondary education came through aristocratic French nuns. World War II sent me to America, where I lived for six years in a luxury hotel with my aunt and uncle, speaking only French.. Eventually, I studied at. Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, and then at a Jesuit university.
You clearly transformed from his female muse to a woman with a scientific plan? A plan, however, you subsequently shared.
My "ascension" from devoted student, to secretarial assistant, to close collaborator, and finally to the privilege of being his wife, was an organic development, each step gradually preparing me for the next. This is why I never thought of my work as university professor as "my career", but rather one aspect of .a broader mission confided to me: to share with others the spiritual, intellectual and artistic treasures that Dietrich von Hildebrand had given me so generously. I was sent into the secular world as his "ambassador", trying to the best of my ability to share the rich harvest I had reaped with countless truth-starved students. In fact, we shared the same love for the Catholic Church, for truth, for beauty, for all authentic values. There was a pre-established harmony between our souls, even though I never lost sight of the fact that I was "a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant", to quote John of Salisbury.
Dietrich von Hildebrand was multifaceted: artist, musician, writer. he had, however, deep inner desire to know God and make his presence known. How did he express this? And how did he develop a relationship with the Church?
Dietrich von Hildebrand's approach to philosophy was not primarily scholarly. Rather, he was concerned with the question, "Is it true?" He could have taken Socrates' words, "I am interested in nothing but the truth" (Euthyphro) as his personal motto. Whatever is true, he saw, is to be gratefully embraced and shared, for truth is "catholic", that is, universal — offered to all men, though, alas, turned down by many. Most of what we know has come to us either through revelation or through the accomplishments of thinkers who have preceded us. From time to time, we are granted insights, which might be "new", but the fact that "we" have perceived them is totally secondary. The essential question is, are they true? This is something that Dietrich von Hildebrand was not only deeply convinced of, but moreover, that he lived in relation to his own ideas.
From the day of his conversion, in 1914, his passionate love of truth grew new wings. He discovered a whole world, which, until then had been totally unknown to him: the world of the supernatural. Indeed, the One he now recognized as Savior of the World had declared Himself to be The Truth. No other religious leader had ever dared make such a claim. Even though Dietrich von Hildebrand never let his faith dictate the content of his philosophical works, his entering the Church taught him two great lessons. The first was that man's intellectual talents are limited by his creaturehood. They are inevitably imperfect and limited. There is a mysterious domain, the domain of the supernatural, which no human mind, talented as it is, can penetrate without the light of faith. Second, man's spiritual gifts, which flow from his nature as person, have all been deeply affected by original sin. His intelligence has been partially darkened; his will has been weakened; his capacity to love has been thwarted. Rationalism is, by its very essence, bound to fall into grievous philosophical errors. It is not by accident that many "brilliant" minds in the history of philosophy have spawned terrible errors. The greater the intellectual talent, the more disastrous the fruits it produces when it succumbs to pride.
The German Catholic thinker, steeped in the vastness of European culture and soaked in Franciscan thought, was to make a path for the younger generation. What role was he entitled to embody, in the past and now in the present?
When close to death, Dietrich von Hildebrand solemnly confided his literary bequest to me, saying, "If when going over my works, you find a single word which is not in full agreement with the teaching of the Church, burn it". To the very end, he remained faithful to the Bride of Christ. That was his last "will and testament". Never, absolutely never, would I have been able to face the challenges of teaching at the City University — a place where many of my students entered my classroom poisoned by relativism and convinced that belief in God was a remnant.of the Dark Ages — had it not been for my faith, and for the intellectual treasures that I had received, and continued to receive through Dietrich von Hildebrand.
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21 February 2014, page 11
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