Dietrich Von Hildebrand – Part I

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)


Inside the Outside

“I write to discover what I know.”

~ Flannery O’Conner


Body Image

We were warming up before practice, and I was in the layup line…”Catch the ball, dribble with two steps and shoot….Good!” I swung around under the basket to catch my teammate’s shot and tossed it back over to the next girl in line.

“Hey! Come over here!”

“Sure coach.”

“Your form is good…your aim is fine…but…why are you taking off for your layup at the top of the key?”

“Uh, um, uh…”

“Yeah – try dribbling a bit closer to the basket next time – take off at one of the last hashmarks. Got it?”

“Yeah – sure coach.”

I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that the reason why I was taking off at the top of the key was because I thought I was Dr. J….I thought I could fly.

Body image – it is the way that one thinks about / sees one’s own body. For many years, mine was a bit off. I didn’t look a lick like Dr. J., but I just went off into pilot mode on the basketball court, and, as my coach noticed, it looked rather comical. Earlier in life, it was my dream to be the first female pitcher in the majors…and then I stopped growing. Obviously, my body image was quite tied up with my love of sports. When someone mistook me for a boy, I would think it was so cool because I took it as a compliment to my fine soccer skills. The fact that I was simply standing still at an airport or restaurant with no reference to my participation in any athletic activity somehow escaped my pre-teen mind.

I also liked to wear clothing that was large – I would wear things in a size 8 or 10, when in reality, I was a petite size 4. Many women would kill to be in a petite size 4. It never even dawned on me to try shopping in the petite section until about five years after I’d finished graduate school – I’d always thought that those clothes were for girls far smaller than I was.

Envy / Admiration

“Well the other side of the world

Is not so far away as I thought that it was

As I thought that it was so far away”

~ Rich Mullins, The Other Side of the World

Along with this inaccurate image of my own body came matters of personal style and taste. Basically, I loved men’s clothes, and couldn’t stand women’s…I had a very hard time finding things to suit my preference in the girl’s department. No frills, lace or glittery fabric, no pink, no low collars, sleeves had to be wide enough to cover a bra strap, and I couldn’t bear wearing dresses, hose or shoes with heels. It drove my mother up the wall, and as she was the one buying my clothes, I had to search to find things that passed her own style and taste tests. Shopping for clothes was always a hassle.

I would find myself longingly going over the latest L.L. Bean offerings – wishing I could get into the flannels, chamois, heather sweaters and vests the men were wearing by beautiful mountains and rivers, and flipping past the weak pink-checked patterns in the women’s section of their catalogs.

Earlier this year, I came across this quote by Jeanette Howard on her blog:

In order to address my Gender Dysphoria I had to, irrespective of how I felt, create a framework based on what God says such as God chose me to be female and He says that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139). By creating a framework of truth and choosing to remain in that structure I could address my false beliefs and broken responses. This painful process has taken years and even now I can find myself envying a fit male body rather than appreciating it or being attracted to it.

~ Jeanette Howard

That last sentence jumped out at me – “…envying a fit male body rather than appreciating it or being attracted to it.” That was my mindset for many, many years. About a month ago I was watching a video of Alice Von Hildebrand* being interviewed by Eric Metaxas, as she was talking about men and women. At one point she said that the proper response of a man to a woman is enchantment, and that of a woman, “when seeing a man worthy of being called a man” is admiration. (Video link is at the end of this post.**)

When I heard that, the thought struck me – how there is such a subtle difference between envy of men and that potentially God-driven, femininely instinctive admiration of them. That is a much more subtle line to be crossed than the large gap which I used to feel existed between my reactions to men and the reactions of ever-straight / gender-identity conforming women around me to the men they knew. I was envious of the strength and freedom that I thought masculinity had cornered the market on.

I had not as yet discovered the strength that exists in mercy (see this described in my post on this blog entitled “Gender Identity III”***). I was taking a narrow-minded view of what it meant to be a woman – that girlishness was weakness – and applied that to who I saw in the mirror, and that carried over into my choice of clothing.


Tirian suddenly felt awkward about coming among these people with the blood and dust and sweat of battle still on him. Next moment he realized that he was not in that state at all. He was fresh and cool and clean, and dressed in such clothes as he would have worn for a great feast at Cir Paravel. (But in Narnia your good clothes were never your uncomfortable ones. They knew how to make things that felt beautiful as well as looking good in Narnia: and there was no such thing as starch or flannel or elastic to be found from one end of the country to the other.)

~ C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Reading this paragraph reminds me of how well Lewis remembered his youth, and was able to take those memories and deftly weave them into his series of children’s books. It also seems like a bit of heaven – to have your “good clothes” feel as beautiful as they look. (I’ve found that to be a great measure of quality now when I’m trying something on – if I’m tugging, scratching, or compromising my posture in order to feel comfortable in it in a dressing room, it goes back on the rack.)

I started this post with a quote by Flannery O’Conner: “I write to discover what I know.” And that is certainly true in this attempt to look back on why and how I changed my personal dress code. It’s been hard to piece together exactly what I was thinking when – I’m mostly sorting through impressions, with a few specific memories. Again, I’d like to emphasize that these posts are more reflective than any type of attempt to be instructive. There was a lot of internal work that the Lord was subtly doing in my life which no one could see, and some of which I can only trace by looking back over the years.

Returning to clothing – I had been thinking through all the musings that were mentioned in the first three posts in this series on Gender Identity, and at some point things came together and started making sense. I remember one day getting ready for church – I knew the sermon was going to be on Ephesians 5:21-33, and I was preparing for what I thought was going to be a condescending teaching towards women. I put on a blazer (with huge shoulder pads), and also consciously recognized the attitude of defensiveness that I put on with it. I shrugged off the sense that something was askew, and carried my tough-girl mindset all the way to the service.

But the sermon that day wasn’t in any way condescending. It was the best treatment of the passage I’d ever heard. Our pastor truly had a servant’s heart, and loved his wife dearly. I learned more about how a man who is enchanted by the woman he cares about thinks and acts. As I remembered my mindset when I’d put on my blazer that morning, I realized it was totally unnecessary – there was nothing here to fight or defend myself against. The real, true love that the Lord has for me was breaking through, and I found it was a good and solid place to stand.

So I started paying attention to the attitude I was carrying when I wore certain clothes – and started phasing them out of my wardrobe, because I didn’t need them anymore.

Eventually I started to see (I can’t remember exactly how) that I was a petite young lady, and the clothes in smaller sizes actually fit me. This led me to look around at my friends who were the same size and make comparisons – in a good way.

I was actually in the REI store in Atlanta one day and saw a cute skirt and vest on display. I thought, “Hey, that outfit would look great on my friend, E.” And I breezed on past to the camping gear. About 20 steps later it hit me – and I turned back to the display to check out my new hypothesis – “You know, E. is about the same height and weight that I am, and that outfit might actually look OK on me.”

I tried it on, and I thought it looked right smart. I walked out of there with several hundred dollars worth of new clothes – mostly items I would never had dreamed of even trying on before that day. (For those who don’t know, REI stands for “Recreational Equipment Inc.” – it’s very much like L.L. Bean. Outdoor retailers had finally caught up with the fact that women enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing and such, and most brands had a good selection of women’s clothing at that point. It was an accessible place for me to shop!)

So having the right image of my actual shape and size, and some friends around me who dressed in a sporty-feminine way, made a big difference. I couldn’t find any famous fashion icons whom I could follow, so I created my own style – I called it “Semi-Fru” – not “Fru-Fru,” nor “Un-Fru,” but somewhere in between. I tried new things – usually a few years behind whatever had been trendy, but it took time for me to get my courage up, and to see myself in a new way. I looked for classic pieces that I could mix and match with other things – suddenly, shopping became more fun. I still did not go for frills, lace, glitter, or pink, and to this day won’t wear anything higher than a kitten heel. But it was an adventure finding things that fit my new mindset.


One other thing that made a difference for me in choosing clothing was learning about what colors worked for my skin tone. I didn’t learn about this until after I had spent that huge amount on clothes at the REI, that were actually not in the best shades for me. (Argh!)

For some time it was hard for me to get what people were talking about. “ having your colors done” was all the buzz for a while, and I didn’t know what they meant. At some point I stumbled across this web site, and it really helped me make sense of it all:

I remembered getting compliments while wearing clothes with “jewel tones” – a royal blue shirt, or emerald green sweater – regardless of the style, it was a “that color looks good on you” scenario. Looking at the photos of various familiar famous faces on this web site and comparing the written notes to the colors of their skin tones was a great help. (They also have a great FAQ page:

Now, when I’m looking through catalogs I gravitate towards the women’s clothing, thinking through what colors would work best on me, and what looks most comfortable and what fabrics are easiest to care for. I don’t always stick by the “jewel tones” rule, if there is something that looks fun and feels great when I put it on, I’ll get it, even if it’s not the best shade. I’m no longer a petite 4, by any means, but I don’t wear things several sizes too large any more. It’s also been very helpful to have some friends who are twin sisters in the same size I am share their hand-me-downs! They have different styles – one I would say is more sporty and the other more urban. It’s given me a chance to experiment with some great things (i.e. – a beautiful short-sleeved angora sweater and a kickin’ pair of patterned capris) for free.

A few years ago I was in a women’s bicycling club that would get together once or twice a year for a “clothing swap.” It was a fantastic idea – we were all into a variety of sports, and had pieces of performance wear or just plain shirts or jeans that we wanted to rotate out of our closets. So we gathered at someone’s home and laid everything out for the rest of the group to sort through and try on. It was a blast! Everyone was looking out for one another – someone would pick up a shirt and catch the attention of another girl across the room, “Hey, J. – this looks like it would be perfect on you!” I snagged a couple of things for friends who I knew were smaller than me who would get a lot of use out of them. One girl in particular, R., for some reason was able to fit into every pair of jeans she tried on – and they looked great. By the time the night was over she took home 12 pairs. We all hated her. (Just kidding! It was really funny that she hit the “jeans jackpot.”)

It was another fun way to have a clothing adventure. And such a healthy atmosphere for women who wanted to see someone else enjoying what they were wearing. Some of my favorite pieces that I have now came from those swaps.

I hope that some of these reflections and thoughts will spur you on to pray and think through your own clothing adventures!