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John Crosby on Von Hildebrand's Understanding of the Person

10/29/2007 - PST

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

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, OCT. 29, 2007 (Zenit) - 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.

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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 ...

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