A Philosopher with Heart

Selections from The Heart


By Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introductions by John Henry Crosby.

The Heart is a three-part book. The first part is a study and defense of the essential place of affectivity, meaning "feelings" or "emotions," in the human person. The second and third parts are a profound meditation on the role of the heart in the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. While the first part can stand by itself as an important and original philosophical contribution, the latter two are dependent upon the first in that an adequate reflection on the heart in Christ would be impossible on the basis of a materialistic or otherwise flawed notion of affectivity. This is why von Hildebrand’s careful defense of the emotions, particularly his idea of the "heart as the real self," is so essential for his deep and illuminating study of the Sacred Heart.

While the following excerpts can hardly do full justice to The Heart, they will have served their purpose if they create an eager expectation for the new edition of The Heart to be published by St. Augustine’s Press in the spring of 2007.

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In the first, the philosophical, section of The Heart, von Hildebrand is concerned with a study of nature of affectivity. By affectivity, he has in mind emotions such as love, reverence, joy, grief, and the like. One could say that he aims at restoring the emotions to their rightful place alongside the intellect and will.

The affective sphere, and the heart as its center, have been more or less under a cloud throughout the entire course of the history of philosophy. It has had a role in poetry, in literature, in the private prayers of great souls, and above all in the Old Testament, in the Gospel, and in the liturgy, but not in the area of philosophy proper. In philosophy it has been treated like the proverbial stepson. (p. 3)

One of the great sources of error in philosophy is undoubtedly oversimplification or the failure to distinguish things which must be distinguished in spite of their having some apparent or real affinity or analogy. And this error is especially disastrous when the failure to distinguish results in identifying something higher with something much lower. One of the principal reasons for underrating the affective sphere—for denying the existence of spiritual affective acts, for refusing to grant to the heart a status analogous to that of the intellect and the will—is that one identifies affectivity with the lowest types of affective experience. The entire affective area, and even the heart, has been seen in the light of bodily feelings, emotional states, or passions in the strict sense of the term. (4-5)

Von Hildebrand develops the idea that affectivity, rather than tending away from an objective relation to things, is in fact necessary for a fully objective appreciation of the world.

One of the most important points in the elaboration of the role of the heart and of the sphere of tender affectivity is to expose the error of considering them as merely "subjective" or to build up a contrast between "objectivity" and "affectivity."

True objectivity implies, as we have pointed out in several works, that an attitude conforms to the true nature, theme, and value of the object to which it refers. An act of knowledge is objective when it g.asps the true nature of the object. In this case, objectivity is equivalent to adequacy, validity, and truth. Again, a judgment is objective when it is determined by the matter or theme in question and not by any prejudice. And an affective response is objective when it corresponds to the value of the object.

The truly affective man is preoccupied with the good which is the source and basis of his affective experience. In loving he looks at the beloved; in happiness he directs his thoughts to the reason for his being happy; in his enthusiasm, he focuses on the value of the good to which the enthusiasm is directed. The true affective experience implies that one is convinced of its objective validity. An affective experience which is not justified by reality has no validity for the truly affective man. As soon as such a man realizes that his joy, his happiness, his enthusiasm, or his sorrow is based on an illusion, the experience collapses. Thus what matters primarily is not the question, "Do we feel happiness?" but rather, "Is the objective situation such that we have reason to be happy?" (46-47)

Always careful to let reality speak rather than to reduce the higher to the lower, von Hildebrand keenly discriminates between two entirely different kinds of intense emotional experience.

[W]e must however make an important and even fundamental distinction. It is the distinction already made by Plato in Phaedrus between two kinds of "madness." In Chapter 18 of Transformation in Christ we made an analogous distinction between a "true losing of oneself" and the state of being illegitimately overpowered. We showed that there are two ways of being "out of our minds," which are radically opposed to each other, although they are both antithetical to the normal state which is characterized by the fact that we feel solid ground under our feet, that our reason clearly oversees the situation, and that our will chooses with ease.

The low way of "being out of our mind". . . is characterized by irrationality. It implies a blurring of our reason which precludes its most modest use. Not only is our reason confused, but it is also throttled. Through the brutal dynamism of this state, both reason and the free spiritual center of the person are engulfed. Our free spiritual center is overpowered and one is dragged into a brutal biological dynamism. Needless to say, this dynamism is non-spiritual.

In the higher way of "being out of our mind," that is, being in ecstasy, or in every experience of being "possessed" by something greater than we are, we find the very opposite of the passionate state. When someone is moved by a good endowed with a high value to such an extent that he is elevated above the normal rhythm of his life, he also "loses," as it were, the solid ground under his feet. He abandons the comfortable situation in which his reason sovereignly oversees everything and in which his will is able to calculate coolly what he should decide.

But this does not result from a blurring of one’s reason but, on the contrary, from its extraordinary elevation by an intuitive awareness which, far from being irrational, has rather a suprarational and luminous character. So far from being antirational is this higher way that instead of darkening our reason it fills it with a great light. This is true although the everyday world recedes to the background, leaving the stage entirely to the immediate experience.

And far from including any tendency to dethrone our free spiritual center, far from trying forcibly to overpower our reason and will, an ecstasy calls for a sanction by our free center; it makes an appeal for this sanction. This "ecstasy" in the largest sense of the word is fundamentally opposed to any enslavement, to any overruling of our freedom. It is a gift which implies an elevation to a higher freedom in which our heart (and not only our will) responds in the way in which it should respond. It is a liberation from the fetters holding us down. (30-31)

Beyond defending the dignity of human feelings, von Hildebrand developed the important and even philosophically radical idea that the heart "in many respects . . . is more the real self of the person than his intellect or will."

In the moral sphere it is the will which has the character of a last, valid word. Here the voice of our free spiritual center counts above all. We find the true self primarily in the will. In many other domains, however, it is the heart which is the most intimate part of the person, the core, the real self, rather than the will or the intellect. This is so in the realm of human love: conjugal love, friendship, filial love, parental love. The heart is here not only the true self because love is essentially a voice of the heart; it is also the true self insofar as love aims at the heart of the beloved in a specific way. The lover wants to pour his love into the heart of the beloved, he wants to affect his heart, to fill it with happiness; and only then will he feel that he has really reached the beloved, his very self.

Furthermore, when we love a person and long for a return of our love, it is the heart of the other person which we want to call ours. As long as he only willed to love us and merely conformed his will to our wishes, we should never believe that we really possess his true self. Much as the conformity of his will to our expectations, his friendly looks, and the attentions dictated by his will may touch us from a moral point of view, we would yet feel that he escapes us, that his true self is not ours. As long as we feel that the benefits he bestows on us, his considerations and his sacrifices, are dictated only by a good and generous will, we know that we do not really possess the beloved, because we do not possess his heart.

If, on the contrary, the heart of the beloved is filled to the brim with longing for one, with joy in one’s presence, with the desire for spiritual union with one, then the lover feels content. He feels that he possesses the soul of the beloved . . .

The heart is also the very core of the self when answering the question: Is a man truly happy? If a man only wills to be happy, or if he realizes only with his intellect that objectively he must consider himself happy, he is not yet happy. We have already mentioned that the heart alone can experience happiness. But now what we must see is that the heart here again represents the very core of the person, more than the will or the intellect do.

It is indeed a surprising fact that something which arises spontaneously and as a gift in the soul should be a manifestation of a person’s true self to a higher degree than that which is an utterance of his free spiritual center. The situation we encounter in the realm of morality seems more intelligible. The word of the person, the valid ultimate word in which his self lives more than in anything else, is the "yes" or "no" of his will. His free intention, what he actualizes with his free spiritual center, is what is really himself.

. . . [W]e must realize that the question of whether or not an experience is within the range of our freedom cannot simply be used as a measure to determine the rank of an experience. Freedom is indeed an essential mark of the person as an image of God. But what may also mark the specific high rank of a thing is the fact that it can be granted to us only as a gift.

This of course applies to the supernatural sphere in which grace is an absolute unmerited gift utterly inaccessible to our freedom. But not only here. In the natural realm as well there are many things of high rank which have the character of a gift of God. . . . All great artistic talent is such a pure gift. . . . Nobody can become a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, or a Beethoven simply through his own striving, however great and devoted his efforts. The same applies to great intellectual talent: no one can attain the gifts of a Plato or an Augustine by his free will alone. . . .

The same applies to many affective experiences: deep contrition, the gift of tears, a deep and ardent love, "being moved" on hearing sublime music or when witnessing an act of superabundant charity. These experiences exist in the higher, spiritual part of the affective realm and have the character of gifts from above, just as a deep insight of our intellect is a gift. (67-69)

The second half of The Heart is devoted to a study of the Sacred Heart, and it is a remarkable analysis of the Heart of Jesus that von Hildebrand gives us. Von Hildebrand’s strong affinity for affectivity led him to feel the interior and subjective dimension in the life of Christ. What follows are excerpts from von Hildebrand’s meditation on the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ:

And he said to them, "I have greatly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you that I will eat of it no more, until it has been fulfilled in the kingdom of God." (Luke 22:15-16)

In general the Lord addressed his disciples in revealing divine truth which they were called to transmit to the world. He speaks to them in parables, gives them admonitions and commandments. He gives them the power of binding and loosing; he institutes them as apostles.

Certainly on many occasions, the love for his disciples finds an indirect expression; but these words are a unique manifestation of his Sacred Heart: a tender, personal love intermingled with the sorrow over his impending departure lives in these words.

The same Christ who, when he speaks of himself does so mostly in terms of his mission, now on this solemn moment reveals something which takes place in his Sacred Heart, a personal desire, fruit of the tender love for his disciples dwelling in his Heart. . . .

The wounded Heart of Jesus is still more revealed in the prediction of Peter’s denial. . . . Against the background of Peter’s ardent love and fidelity, of his bold assurance that nothing could sever him from Christ, the answer of the Lord discloses deep suffering, the exposure of his unprotected Heart to the infidelity, to the lack of perseverance, to the wavering frailty of even the most loving, most faithful and devoted apostle. "Amen I say to thee, this very night, before a cock crows, thou wilt deny me three times" (Matt. 26:34). . . .

Certainly, in itself, Judas’ betrayal was an incomparably greater offense to God than the denial of Peter. . . . But the wound inflicted on the Sacred Heart of Jesus by the denial of the one whom he had chosen as the prince of the apostles and who loved him so ardently, was a still more personal, more intimate one. . . .

In the words "My soul is sad, even unto death," there is no longer only the ring of the voice in which deep sorrow trembles: there is no longer only a fact mentioned by Jesus, which reveals implicitly the wound of his Heart; there is instead the direct revelation of his Heart. Jesus speaks of himself and of the state of his soul. He lifts the veil from the personal, intimate secret of his Heart. (102-104)

. . . If the "Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani" is the deepest descent into the unfathomable abyss of suffering, the destitution of the soul, the Sitio, "I thirst," is the deepest descent into another dimension, that of human frailty, of man’s dependence upon his body. It is an ineffable expression of the divine humility, of the one "who emptied himself taking the nature of a slave."

In this supreme moment we are reaching in the role assumed by the body a culmination of the tension of the mystery of the Incarnation. The Lord who is never recorded as mentioning any bodily distress expresses his "thirst" in this supreme moment. His fatigue is mentioned only by the evangelist in the Gospel of the Samaritan woman, and his hunger in the Gospel of the temptations. But here a descent into human helplessness takes place to the point of calling on the "mercy" of his executioners. Mystery of divine humility! The Lord who always gives, who changes water into wine, who feeds the five thousand with five loaves of bread, who gives sight to the blind, who wakes Lazarus from death, this Lord speaks of his thirst here, in the supreme moment of his sacrifice. In this word, revelation is even less the theme than in any other word spoken from the Cross. The fact that it implies an appeal to man makes it the very antithesis of revelation, a pure expression of his suffering, while yet revealing a deep secret of his Passion. Moreover, this implicit request is not addressed to his disciples but to the merciless soldiers. Christ’s appeal to their mercy makes this cry the most dramatic expression of his suffering and of his destitution, the deprivation of all his divine might and glory. . . .

The words of Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani embody the ultimate mystery of a suffering to which it belongs that Christ loses sight of his mission to redeem the world through the Cross. The feeling that his heavenly Father has forsaken him implies that the Passion is no longer seen in its totality as the mission of the Son of Man. These words are, as it were, the inner aspect of the Passion. But in the consummatum est, "it is finished," the Passion is again seen in its objective.aspect, in its totality, in its meaning intended by God. Consummatum est: We witness the transition of the plenitude of suffering into victory, a moment which includes a secret of Christ’s Heart and, simultaneously, the culmination of the event of all events. . . (107-108)

SIDEBARS

Dietrich von Hildebrand, 1889-1977

Dietrich von Hildebrand was an original philosopher, religious writer, heroic anti-Nazi activist, courageous Christian witness, and passionate proponent of beauty and culture.

Born in 1889 as the son of a famous German sculptor, von Hildebrand grew up in the rich artistic setting of Florence and Munich. He studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology and a giant of twentieth-century philosophy, and under Adolf Reinach, and was profoundly influenced by his close friend, German philosopher Max Scheler, who helped to pave the way for his conversion to Catholicism in 1914.

By 1930 von Hildebrand had become an important voice in German Catholicism, perhaps best known for his pioneering work on man and woman and on marriage. One can trace the chapter on marriage in Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II back to von Hildebrand’s writings in the 1920s, in which he argued that the marital act has not only a procreative meaning but a no less significant unitive meaning. But he also distinguished himself in other ways during his years at the University of Munich, most of all through his ethical writings and through his book, The Metaphysics of Community, in which he used the resources of phenomenology to rethink fundamental issues of social philosophy and of moral philosophy. Von Hildebrand had an unusual affinity for beauty which he never considered a mere luxury but a human necessity. Toward the very end of von Hildebrand’s life, this lifelong passion came to fruition in the magisterial two-volume study in the philosophy of beauty, the Aesthetics.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, von Hildebrand left his native Germany and dedicated himself to resisting Nazism. He moved to Vienna and founded a journal for combating at the level of philosophical first principles the rising Nazi ideology and for defending the independence of Austria against Germany. With the German occupation of Austria in 1938, von Hildebrand became a political fugitive; fleeing through Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, France, Portugal, and Brazil, he eventually arrived in the United States in 1940.

Von Hildebrand wrote many works unfolding the faith and morals of Catholicism, such as Purity and Virginity, Marriage, Liturgy and Personality, and, above all, Transformation in Christ, now recognized as a classic of Christian spirituality.

In the United States, von Hildebrand taught at Fordham University until his retirement in 1959. Many of his most important philosophical works––among them Ethics, What is Philosophy?, The Nature of Love, Morality and Situation EthicsThe Heart, and Aesthetics ––were completed in the United States.

Through his many writings, von Hildebrand contributed to the development of a rich Christian personalism, which in many ways converges with that of Pope John Paul II.

Von Hildebrand died in New Rochelle, New York in 1977.

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project was founded to engage contemporary thought and culture by promoting the thought and spirit of Dietrich von Hildebrand, especially in the English-speaking world.

Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called for the renewal Christian philosophy, and the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand are a remarkable anticipation of these calls. The popes have laid such emphasis on the renewal of Christian philosophy because any real and lasting evangelization can only succeed if it seeks not only to convert but also to convince. The Legacy Project is thus engaged in evangelization by way of philosophical renewal.

Pope Benedict is a special admirer of von Hildebrand and a close friend of the Legacy Project. Prior to his elevation to the papacy, he joined the Legacy Project as an Honorary Member; yet even as pope, his support has been concrete and vital. Pope Benedict recently gave a striking assessment of von Hildebrand’s significance for the Catholic cause:

I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.

Despite these words of high praise, von Hildebrand has sadly come to be largely forgotten. The Legacy Project wishes to remedy this situation, both by translating his German writings into English and seeing to their publication as well as by strategically disseminating our publications in universities and seminaries around the world.

The unveiling of his Sacred Heart continues after the resurrection. In the apparition to Mary Magdalene, a glance is granted to us into the Sacred Heart of the gloriously risen Christ. He reveals himself to Mary Magdalene with the one word, "Maria." The very uttering of her name includes in this situation an unveiling of his Heart. A tender love and a glorious joy are present in this making himself known as Jesus. Ineffable intimacy and glory of this situation!. . .

"Simon son of John, dost thou love me more than these do?" These words, repeated three times by the risen Lord, are spoken by the God-Man Christ, the Redeemer, the one who will come again "to judge the living and the dead."

The appeal to the love of Peter reveals the unfathomable mystery that Christ seeks our love, that he wants not only to be obeyed but also to be loved. It reveals this sublime tenderness, a revelation which acquires a specific import through the fact that it is repeated three times and is one of the last words of Christ. . . . They breathe an ineffable meekness and gloriously tender love. And in the divine Pasce oves meas, "Feed my sheep," we discern the trembling love for all those who have followed him, for all those who will ever follow him. (109-110)


John Henry Crosby is founder and director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project. Presently he is translating the anti-Nazi essays and wartime memoirs of von Hildebrand, which, together with Hildebrand’s masterpiece, The Nature of Love, will be published in 2007. For...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 4.