Metaphysics of Tenderness 

Metaphysics of Tenderness 

Man and Woman by Dietrich von Hildebrand; Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, NH; 1992

From the Sooner Catholic, August 13, 1995 

By John Mallon

Dietrich von Hildebrand is a giant. His works dealing with the metaphysics of human tenderness need to be read today, and, along with the works of John Paul II which built upon them, ought to be required reading in all Pre-Cana courses. The beauty and truth of von Hildebrand's thought provides the antidote to the damage to human integrity occasioned by the wide-spread rejection of Humanae Vitae. The Church and the world at large owes a great debt of gratitude to Sophia Press for making it available once again. But, while accessible to the popular audience von Hildebrand is also a scholar of enormous stature. His work moved Pope Pius XII to call him a "twentieth century doctor of the Church." This book was originally published in 1965, and has since been revised by the editors of Sophia Press into more contemporary terminology. 

Sophia Press deserves credit because this is a book that cries to be back in print. Originally published just before the advent of the "sexual revolution," it provides a prophetic and prescient antidote for many of the ills that dubious movement has produced. The "sexual revolution" is symptomatic of a crisis of understanding the meaning of receiving divine love, and the meaning and practice of human love in society. It is remarkable, upon reflection, to realize how little there was—before the pontificate of John Paul II, when this book was originally published—in the Catholic Tradition on the topic of human love specifically in the affective sphere, which involves a metaphysic of such things as romantic attraction, tenderness, the phenomenon of falling in love, and the personal nature of spousal love and affection. It is precisely in this realm that von Hildebrand almost single-handedly revolutionized Catholic thought in the area of marriage, love, and sexuality. In fact, his work laid much of the groundwork for John Paul II's thought in this area. 

In the present volume he speaks directly to this neglect in a passage that deserves quoting at length: 

The very meaning and value which marriage possesses of its own cannot be understood if we fail to start from the great and prominent reality of the love between man and woman. And here, let us be frank, we touch on a kind of scandal in Catholic writings on marriage. In them one hears much of the will of the flesh, the remedy for concupiscence, mutual help and assistance, procreation; but one hears very little of love. We mean the love between man and woman, the deepest source of happiness in human life, the great glorious love of which the Song of Solomon says: 

"If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, he would despise it as nothing." ... 

It is unbelievable that the real valid motive for marriage has been for the most part overlooked and that the intrinsic relation of this type of love to a full mutual self- donation in the bodily union is ignored. Compared with this great, noble, and basic incentive ... the isolated desire of the flesh is superficial and secondary. Who can deny that it is this love which shakes the soul of a man to it very depths, which marks the deepest experience of human life?" (p. 33-34) 

This quote represents a theme in much of von Hildebrand's work which explodes the caricatures of Catholic teachings on sexuality as being gloomy and negative; while not denying problems where they exist. Unlike so many modern thinkers on the subject, von Hildebrand does not attack the Tradition with an eye to overturn it. He actually develops those doctrines in the proper sense, by seeing heretofore unseen or overlooked treasures inherent in Revelation itself. In this sense he was a prophet to his time, and deserves the accolade of Pius XII. 

As in his previous works, The Heart and In Defense of Purity, (back in print now as Purity: the Mystery of Christian Sexuality; Franciscan University Press) von Hildebrand argues strongly for what he terms "the heart" to be recognized as a primary spiritual center in man on par with the intellect and will. He describes the heart as the center of human affectivity, and deplores the fact that the emotional sphere has been so overlooked in the western tradition. He seeks to have the affective sphere and its proper anthropological role in man taken seriously, while pointing out the errors of dismissing it as mere sentimentality, and, on the other hand, sentimentally exalting it. 

More than widespread immorality - which, as he notes, has always been with us - von Hildebrand deplores the modern obtuseness and blindness towards the very nature of sex. The reduction of sex to mere instinct on the level of hunger or thirst will keep one necessarily blind to its true nature. Furthermore, he rejects the modern prejudice that authentic reality may only be discerned by natural science or in a laboratory. Von Hildebrand holds that it is only through the "great and blissful experience of love, the love between man and woman, that the nature and meaning of sex and its mystery will disclose themselves." The nature of sex can only be understood from the perspective of human love, but this love is not mere "romance" - that is, the sentimental leftovers excluded from the scientific method. Rather, von Hildebrand asserts, "The love between a man and woman is not a romantic invention of the poets but a tremendous factor in human life from the very beginning of the history of mankind, the source of the deepest happiness in human earthly life. ... Indeed it is this love alone which is the key for an understanding of the true nature of sex, of its value, and of the mystery which it embodies." 

This love which he terms "spousal love" involves what he calls a "value response." By this he means a response motivated by the intrinsic value of the object in itself (in this case the beloved) rather than actions or attitudes motivated "by the merely subjectively satisfying character of a good." It is in the value response that a man manifests his transcendence, conforming himself to that which is important in itself, for its own sake, not for the satisfaction of an appetite. 

A value response, according to von Hildebrand, involves a volitional response to a moral call sounded by the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the object. But this call is not confined to the volitional sphere, but is also found in the affective sphere. A value response may also consist in "enthusiasm, admiration, veneration and above all, love." "When we love someone," he says, "he always stands as precious, noble and lovable in front of us. As long as someone is only useful to us or only amuses us, we cannot love him. We may 'like' him. When we love we necessarily have the consciousness that the loved one is lovable, that he deserves our love." This experience of the preciousness of the beloved draws forth two further responses in the lover, namely, the intentio unionis, that is, the desire for union with the beloved, and the intentio benevolentiae, the desire for the happiness, good, and welfare of the beloved. This concept of the value response, so much a natural part of being human, needs to be rediscovered in the aftermath of the "sexual revolution" in which a coldly utilitarian hedonism is masked by a sentimentalized notion of "freedom," which, as experience has shown, leads only to bondage, unhappiness, and increasingly, death. Throughout the book von Hildebrand makes refreshing statements which would be heresy to the modern secular mind, especially since the emergence of feminism, homosexual activism, and the divisions between the sexes. For example, in chapter seven on Friendship Between Man and Woman, he states: 

Conscious self-reflection leads to irrelevance and an awkward feeling like a man or feeling like a woman. This feeling like a man - or a woman - can lead to a special communal feeling among each of the sexes, even to the point of seeing women and men as two opposing interest groups. Many men and women feel that they belong to a faction, and then look at everything from this partisan viewpoint . . . it is particularly nonsensical for this reason: the more someone truly grasps the essential nature of woman as woman and man as man, the more he will also see their specific complementary nature - the meaning of both for each other - which totally excludes this factional solidarity. This exaggeration then results in the actual loss of the particular essence of the sexes. Such women become unfeminine and such men become neuters. This exaggeration finally ends in an overlooking of the specific character of the masculine and the feminine. (p.88) 

This self-consciousness of trying so hard to be what one already is - a man or a woman - and this artificial factionalism leads to an inauthenticity that is particularly poignant especially among young Christians who feel pressured into being reactionaries to the world's errors in this sphere. It is reminiscent of what C.S. Lewis refers to in Perelandra: walking alongside one's self. Stepping out into 'the alongside' and watching yourself live instead of living. Von Hildebrand would be sad to see his analysis played out as it is today: young, faithful, Catholic men and women agonizing over how to be a man or woman instead of just being one. 

He goes on to explode the popular modern myth that only persons of the same sex can truly understand each other: 

Whoever penetrates deeply into the spiritual nature of the masculine and feminine also sees the specific design of both for each other. First, man and woman have a purely spiritual mission towards each other and enrich each other in a way which is not possible with the same sex. Second, a woman will never be as deeply understood by a woman as she could be understood by a man; a man will never be as deeply understood by a man as he could be by a woman. 

Two most important moments must be kept apart in examining this mutual destiny: first, the specific mission of the man for the woman and the woman for the man, and second, the possibility of a much closer and more intimate communion based on their supplementary nature. 

Their mission toward each other consists, in part, of the necessity to adjust to the contrasting nature of the other sex, and in the curtailment of certain inimical tendencies inherent in the nature of each of the sexes when they entirely lack the other's influence. (p.90) 

His notion that men and women can understand each other better than persons of the same sex, due to their supplementary natures, would be greeted by the modern audience with howls - but he is right. The tragedy of today is that there is a starvation for the gifts of the other sex which is pathetically played out in a dull, estranged, genital gloom. A life of random and loveless collisions of bodies in the night inevitably causes a resentful blindness that specifically obscures the beauty and truth of von Hildebrand's wonderfully Catholic metaphysic. The results of this tendency in our age is reminiscent of Saint Paul's description of the pagans in Romans 1:18-32. 

In his chapter on the beauty of children as the fruit of love, he makes an important distinction, which is one of the elements of his philosophy that gave him such prominence in the expounding of the Catholic understanding of marriage. Namely, that while procreation is the end of the marital act, the love union of the spouses is the meaning of the act. In this section he illustrates the inviolable link between the unitive aspect and the procreative aspect of conjugal love. Interestingly, since the original edition of this book was published before Humanae Vitae was proclaimed, von Hildebrand asks his reader to reserve judgment - lest we think him attacking Church teaching - until he completes his novel and roundabout argument which arrives at conclusions in full support of the Church's traditional teachings on the matter. This is very much in contrast to today when it may be assumed that the audience may not be quick to spring to the Church's defense. 

This book and the corpus of von Hildebrand's work in this realm are a much needed remedy for the diabolical ills that are plaguing the relationship between the sexes in our time which are the cause of so much loneliness and misery. The "sexual revolution" has failed, and left the field littered with corpses and lost souls. It is time for a rediscovery of von Hildebrand.