Hildebrand and our relativistic age Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Postmodern relativism and deconstruction have produced, at the popular level a culture dominated by the "whatever" attitude, a bland, detached indifferentism to the good and the true.

How often have you heard someone say, "that's perhaps true for you but not for me" or "who are you to be imposing your values on me?" or in the words of the Dude in The Big Lebowski, "well, that’s just like your opinion, man."

Subjectivism in society

Is it not a commonplace today that the only moral absolute that remains is the obligation to tolerate all points of view? What this subjectivism has conduced toward is a society lacking in energy and focus, one that cannot rouse itself to corporate action on behalf of some universal good.

John Henry Newman said that well-defined banks are precisely what give verve and direction to a river. Once those banks are knocked down, the river will spread out, in short order, into a large, lazy lake.

Applying the analogy, he argued that objective truths, clearly understood, are what give energy to a culture and that when those truths are compromised in the name of freedom or toleration, said culture rapidly loses its purpose and cohesiveness.

Philosophy of relativism

The great 20th century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the most articulate and incisive critics of the kind of relativism.

Hildebrand taught that the philosophy of relativism flowed from the failure to honor the fundamental distinction between the arena of the merely subjectively satisfying and the arena of real values.

There are many things and experiences we seek because they please us or satisfy a basic need. One might find a cigarette appealing or a pizza tasty or a political party useful, but in all these cases, one is bending the thing in question to his subjectivity.

Hildebrand's values

But there are other goods (Hildebrand’s "values") that by their splendor, excellence, and intrinsic worth, draw the person out of himself, bending his subjectivity to them, drawing him toward self-transcendence.

In the presence of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Chartres Cathedral or Plato's Republic or the daily work of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, one is compelled to acknowledge the preciousness of a reality that goes beyond the needs or expectation of one’s ego. To characterize such things as merely subjectively satisfying would be simply ludicrous.

The whole point of the moral life for Hildebrand is to cultivate the appropriate response to these objective values, to channel one’s energies according to their demands.

A crucial consequence of cultivating the proper response to values is that real community increases and intensifies. Whereas the merely subjectively satisfying correlates to the individual and his particular preferences, the objectively valuable correlates to the entire society of those drawn out of themselves and into a shared devotion.

Battle against Nazism

A new book titled My Battle Against Hitler, edited by two of the most devoted Hildebrandians today -- John Crosby and his son John Henry Crosby -- demonstrates how Hildebrand lived out his moral philosophy in the face of the most vicious ideology of the last century.

In the 1920s, as the National Socialist movement was gaining ground, Hildebrand, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Munich, commenced to speak out against Hitler and his cronies. He saw Nazism -- marked by anti-Semitism, crude nationalism, cruelty, and indifference to human dignity -- as a repudiation of an entire range of objective values. Hildebrand became an impassioned opponent of this political movement.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hildebrand left his beloved Munich and take up residence in Vienna. From 1933 to 1938, he continued to oppose Hitler, founding and editing an anti-Nazi journal that so infuriated Hitler that the Fuhrer referred to Hildebrand as his "number one enemy."

When the German annexation of Austria took place, Hildebrand was aggressively sought by the Gestapo and narrowly escaped with his life, eventually settling in New York, where he became a professor of philosophy at Fordham University.

Hildebrand saw that indifference to evil is as destructive as indifference to good. In our relativistic age, when we are confronted with a whole range of disvalues in our society, Hildebrand’s is a voice we need to heed.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org