"If you find a word that is not in line with the Church, burn it!" were the instructions Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand gave to his wife before he died in 1977. The man whose legacy of thought was revived in a three-day conference in Rome last week was described in intimate detail by the person who knew him best: his wife Alice.
The talk was held on Saturday afternoon at the Hildebrand Legacy Project-promoted conference "The Christian Personalism of Dietrich von Hildebrand: Exploring His Philosophy of Love." Through her address, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, a philosopher herself, gave the audience the most integral look of the conference into the source of his philosophy.
She described an uncompromising human being, a man who was "not a scholar and not a theologian," who adopted a "hierarchy of values" early in life and accepted the faith despite having come from a family which revered only beauty as its god.
She painted a portrait of a man with an iron will and a deep love of Christ who fought nazism, communism and racism and was passionate about protecting the Church teaching amidst the uncertainty that followed Vatican II.
Recounting his conversion experience, Alice said that his deepest concern was "that his mind should be purified by his faith."
"One thing is certain, the greatness of my husband was that he let his mind be baptized ... purified of the weaknesses of original sin, the dark spots."
Speaking of modern philosophy which cuts out the supernatural and is "a time of concentrated nonsense which sits well because it has the appearance of truth," she referred to the characteristic unity of her late husband's thoughts which, in contrast to the "blunder" of Aristotle, kept God as the reference point.
If you examine his thought in different philosophical areas, she explained, "there is a perfect line of continuity, you can predict, so to speak, what he's going to do ... he becomes a Catholic and he understands this is 'the truth,' not (just) 'a truth' because Christ is the only person, neither Mohammed nor Moses, nor anybody, ever dared say 'I am the truth!'
Dr. Hildebrand explained that, according to her husband, "if you truly understand the meaning of truth, it leads you to the truth and then you fall on your knees and you adore."
His philosophy, she explained, "did not dictate what he had to think, it was simply an approach to life: let the object reveal itself and purify your mind, eliminate prejudices."
This, she said, is why he was able to take a new approach to the classical philosophies, purified and with fresh eyes.
"His guideline was truth and not the spirit of the time."
And in his final days, Alice von Hildebrand recounted, he called her to his side. Noting the weakness of his body but the "soul of a lion" that remained, he told her that if ever in his writings there was even a hint of incongruency, "if you find a word that is not in line with the Church, burn it!
"And that,” she exclaimed, “was my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand!"