This is the first of a three-part series on the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand. I wanted to post this in conjunction with the new administration, in hopes that there may be some insights for Christians to gain from his life during these days.
My ancestry is German, and over the years I’ve avoided looking further into my family’s history due to the ugliness of Nazism in that country. However, after reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Eric Metaxas’ wonderful Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, I’ve bucked up my courage to read more about Germany and the cultural riches it has shared with the world.
To that end, at the beginning of this year on a trip my husband and I took to camp and kayak, I brought along the biography of another Dietrich – Dietrich von Hildebrand*. In The Soul of a Lion, written by his widow, Alice von Hildebrand, I was captivated by the insightful look at this man and the time in which he lived.
“Born [on Oct. 12, 1889] and raised in Florence, in the Kingdom of Italy, Hildebrand grew up in a German household, the son of sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand and Irene Schäuffelen, who lived in a former Minim friary. He received his early education from private tutors. Although raised in a home without religion, Hildebrand developed a deep belief in Jesus at a very young age.”*
The composer Richard Strauss** visited his parents day before he was born. Throughout his youth, Dietrich was surrounded by beauty and great artists from around Europe:
“Nothing tasteless, let alone vulgar or ugly, was permitted to enter San Francesco [the family home.] Fashion magazines were forbidden. Only classical music resounded through its halls. Adolf Hildbrand was a passionate player of chamber music; his wife and daughters sang and played the piano or the violin. …as Adolf’s reputation [as a sculptor], the great artists and thinkers of the day began flocking to San Francesco.”*** pg 30-31
Poets, politicians, theologians, novelists, and artists such as Herman Levi, Conrad Fiedler, Felix Mottl, Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone, Henry James, Franz Liszt, Isolde Kurz, Rudolf Otto, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hippolyte Jean Giradoux, Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima, all were guests in their home. *** pg 31
With this unique upbringing, Dietrich was able to give an articulate perspective on beauty, a subject which interested him throughout his life:
“It was no wonder that the first public lecture Dietrich gave, at the age of seventeen, was on aesthetics, and that he was still writing about the subject in his eighties, when he composed two large volumes on this topic. In this work, von Hildebrand distinguishes sharply between luxury and beauty – a confusion so widespread in our society. In San Francesco…beauty and authentic culture reigned supreme.”*** pg 34
I’ve purchased a copy of Dietrich’s work Aesthetics, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Here is a quote from the forward of Volume I of that book:
“Dietrich von Hildebrand understood the centrality of beauty not merely to art but to philosophy, theology, and ethics. In his ambitious and comprehensive Aesthetics, now translated into English for the first time, Hildebrand rehabilitates the concept of beauty as an objective rather and purely subjective phenomenon. His systematic account renews the Classical and Christian vision of beauty as a reliable mode of perception that leads humanity toward the true, the good, and ultimately the divine. There is no more important issue in our culture–sacred or secular–than the restoration of beauty. And there is no better place to start this urgent enterprise than Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics.” ~Dana Gioia, From the Foreword
In my travels, I’ve been blessed to come across many beautiful sights, and have stayed in some stunning places. I’m intrigued by the distinction between luxury and beauty – as I’ve often found the simplest of things to be far more comforting than gaudy excess. A tent nestled below a rocky cliff and open to an alpine lake can be more magnificent than a palace.
Von Hildebrand studied philosophy at University of Munich and earned his doctorate at the University of Göttingen. In 1914, he became a Christian in the Catholic Church, and eventually worked as an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Munich.
“Dietrich knew full well that this passion for the supernatural could jeopardize his philosophical career. Even in Catholic Bavaria, it was neither scholarly nor ‘professional’ to hint at the reality of the supernatural on ‘sacred’ university grounds….He firmly decided not to conform to secularist norms….He certainly intended to teach philosophy and not theology, but it was to be a philosophy open to a higher reality, not a philosophy systematically cut off from it. He knew that faith not only did not contradict reason but transcended it. It also shed light on ‘sensitive’ domains of human reason obscured by sin.”*** pg 140
In Part II, we will learn more about how von Hildebrand’s faith helped him to expose the evil falsehoods of Nazism.
***Alice von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion (page references in the text above)