Growing Up with Dietrich: A Conversation with John Henry Crosby

Thirty-one years after philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand died, his work is enjoying something of a revival. New editions of his books are being translated and published for the first time. Catholic colleges and universities are integrating his thought into philosophy courses. And a theologian who knew and admired von Hildebrand sits on the Chair of St. Peter.
A fan who wasn’t even born when von Hildebrand died in 1977 has taken up the work of bringing his philosophy to a new generation. John Henry Crosby, founder of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project grew up hearing about the philosopher who fought Nazism, at great peril to himself, and wrote such works as Transformation in Christ. His father, John F. Crosby, a philosophy professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, was a student of von Hildebrand.
The younger Crosby spoke with John Burger about von Hildebrand’s philosophy and personality.
John Burger: Tell me about your relationship to Dietrich von Hildebrand.
John Henry Crosby: I didn’t actually know Dietrich von Hildebrand personally, though my parents were very close to him and also to his widow, Alice von Hildebrand — or Lily, as she is known to her friends. In a sense, I also owe my existence to von Hildebrand, because he played a decisive role in the marriage of my parents. Von Hildebrand was sometimes referred to by his students as the doctor amoris: He “loved love,” especially spousal love, and so he often played a considerable role in “helping” couples find each other and to take the plunge into married life. This was certainly the case with my parents.
My mother, Pia, was born and raised in Salzburg, Austria, where already my grandfather had known von Hildebrand for many years. My father, John, read the books of von Hildebrand as a teenager and then went to study philosophy at Georgetown University, where he would one day meet von Hildebrand. After Georgetown, my father went to study philosophy in Salzburg.
My father actually met my mother during his time in Salzburg, but being eleven years older, he paid little attention to her. My father did get to know her family well during his Salzburg years, especially her father (my grandfather) and her brother Fritz (my uncle). When my mother came to study at the University of Dallas, my father was a young philosophy professor up to his ears in philosophy and teaching. My father, of course, knew my mother and welcomed her as the sister of his good friends, but he apparently showed no initial interest.
What happened?
To this day, my father often assigns term papers in the form of a dialogue between two or three conversationalists — modeled on the dialogues of Plato. My father always sets a page limit for these dialogues, with the clear proviso that students are not to spend several pages “setting the stage” for the dialogue with lots of flowery details.
Well, my mother submitted a dialogue that came to twice the permitted length because she had written a long introduction preparing an elaborate scene for a conversation between a professor and a young student who is in love with her professor. Contrary to what you might expect of a philosopher, my father did not even see the bait, let alone take it. Incredibly, he gave my mother an A (which to this day is rare because he is a very demanding grader), along with a very pointed note, “Next time you will observe the page limit more scrupulously.”
Things were getting desperate. From my pre-existent perspective, I can retroactively say that my chances of being created were dwindling.Yet God and von Hildebrand, together with a few other key players, decided to intervene.
How so?
Von Hildebrand was clued in on the situation by my mother, who had been writing to him. From his perspective, it was a match made in heaven, and so he set to work “encouraging” my father to pay attention to my mother. To his credit, my father did wake up to the situation, and then things moved quite rapidly. My parents were married in 1977, and I was born the following year. Von Hildebrand knew of their engagement, which brought him great joy since both of my parents had been very dear to him. He died on January 26, 1977, a few months before their marriage. Of course, he could never have known of me — at least not in natural terms — yet I often reflect on the fact that I owe him a debt of gratitude for my existence. {mospagebreak}
Your father and von Hildebrand had an interesting first meeting, didn’t they?
My father first met von Hildebrand at Georgetown University on February 2, 1966. In his capacity as president of one of the student groups, my father invited von Hildebrand to speak at Georgetown. Von Hildebrand and his wife, Lily, arrived at the old Washington National airport after one of the worst snowstorms to hit Washington in years. My father had borrowed a car from a friend and was driving to the airport in very poor conditions. The von Hildebrands had been told to wait at a newspaper stand but, even after several hours, my father had still not turned up.
My father, for his part, was getting rather frantic because the von Hildebrands seemed not to be anywhere in sight. Only after several hours did he discover that there was more than one newspaper stand, that he was at one and Dietrich and Lily were at another. Finally approaching them in fear and trembling, my father was totally surprised when von Hildebrand greeted him with great warmth and friendliness — totally overlooking the inconvenience to him, a man of 76 years at the time.
That night von Hildebrand spoke before a packed audience in the grand Gaston Hall of Georgetown University. The title of his talk was “Aggiornamento and Aggiornamento,” in which he sought to clarify the difference between legitimate and illegitimate attempts to bring the Church “up to date” with the modern world. My father was forever changed by this experience. Never before had he encountered such a powerful witness, someone who, as he later described it, spoke as a “confessor” rather than “professor.” 

Later that night, my father kept von Hildebrand up until the early morning hours discussing questions of philosophy. Whenever I pass the Georgetown Inn where this late night conversation took place, I always think gratefully about that fateful night when my father’s life was so changed and, through him, my own life too.

Since von Hildebrand was already retired by this time, my father did his formal studies under one of von Hildebrand’s leading students, Balduin Schwarz, who was teaching at the University of Salzburg in Austria. Beyond this, my father would spend as much free time as possible with von Hildebrand, whom he always considered his real master in philosophy.
That warm welcome von Hildebrand gave your father, in spite of the inconvenience — many of us would be flustered and aggravated and angry. Was von Hildebrand’s reaction typical?
It was very typical of him. Everything I know about von Hildebrand is that he was full of the “milk of human kindness.” He seemed to have an unusual degree of patience for people and their foibles. He also had a remarkably high tolerance for inconvenience to himself, particularly when this was the price for a great good. As a young man, he would often wait in line for hours to get a “standing room” ticket for a concert or an opera, only to stand for the duration of the performance.
It is interesting to note that his high tolerance for inconvenience and discomfort was not the mark of an otherwise passive or phlegmatic personality. On the contrary, von Hildebrand had very little “tolerance” for falsehood, injustice, or cowardice. In these areas, he was always quick to speak his mind with great clarity and conviction. He had tremendous charity toward persons, but when it came to what he was convinced was wrong he resisted it with all his might, such as his struggle against Hitler and National Socialism.
All of this reminds me of a beautiful line from Pope Benedict, which unfortunately I can’t quote exactly, something to the effect “that truth without love is cold, and love without truth is empty.” That seems to capture the von Hildebrand spirit.
Von Hildebrand had a compelling way of delivering his message without ever losing sight of the persons to whom he was addressing himself. His words never deteriorated into a depersonalized process. He seems to have understood in a special way what Christ meant in saying that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Von Hildebrand very much lived by this, and it may have been his secret in winning over so many people to the faith: He always spoke what he believed was true, no matter the cost to himself; yet he never lost sight of the people to whom he was addressing himself.
That spirit of charity you describe. Is that something he took up in his philosophy?
It is, and he spoke frequently about charity. In fact, this is a central subject of his book, The Heart, which the Legacy Project recently republished with St. Augustine’s Press. 

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One way of understanding the central point of this beautiful book is to see it as an apologia for the human heart, which von Hildebrand thought had a kind of “stepson status” in Christian thinking when compared to the intellect and the will. For von Hildebrand, the heart has its own special and distinctive role to play, and he was always very critical of any philosophy that attempted to reduce the person to intellect or will. He points out, for example, that when you love someone you don’t just want their will; you don’t want them to say “I choose you”; you want them to say “I want you; my heart overflows for you.” {mospagebreak}
Perhaps von Hildebrand had such a deep understanding of the heart because of his own ability to encounter people with such warmth. This warmth was in fact one of Lily’s first memories of him. She had been invited to attend one of his “liturgical evenings,” at which he would lead a group of people in prayer and then speak on a liturgical subject. When she arrived, the door was opened by a man who received her with a warmth and radiance she had never encountered before.
This warmth of true charity you describe — it’s something a lot of us struggle with.
That’s right. In daily life, it’s easy for this warmth to taper off. I think we may even seek to justify this tapering off by distinguishing between “loving” and “liking” a person, according to which the Christian command to love one’s neighbor does not come with any requirement to like one’s neighbor. This is a very understandable yet perhaps slightly self-serving distinction, which is rather humorously captured in the expression, “you have to love him a lot to like him a little.” I cannot help thinking that von Hildebrand would have considered this distinction a little facile and perhaps an indication of the lack of true charity. I am sure that he did not like everyone, yet I also think he would have thought that love of neighbor required a certain degree of emotional warmth and sincerity.
Did von Hildebrand discuss the connection between the will and the heart?
You touch on something very important here, since von Hildebrand hardly wanted to appreciate the heart at the expense of the will. In fact, he thought that the will played a very important role in “responding” to the motions of the heart. For example, when we feel love for another person, von Hildebrand emphasized the importance of “sanctioning” this feeling; of using our will to say a kind of “yes” to our emotions. To take an opposite example, when we feel an illegitimate hatred for a person, von Hildebrand would emphasize the need to disavow this feeling, by which he did not mean to repress the feeling but to take a stance against it. In other words, he was not trying to defend the heart at the expense of the will. Rather, he was trying to show that the heart has its own unique mission.
One of the most original aspects of von Hildebrand’s reflections on the human heart is the way he connects the spontaneous nature of the heart — the fact that our feelings are not fully in our control — with the idea of gift. This comes out beautifully in his critique of those who consider the heart less dignified than the will because it is not free in the way the will is free. While von Hildebrand acknowledges the special connection between freedom and the will, he points out that the special dignity of the feelings lies in the fact that they can only be received as a gift. Here I think von Hildebrand truly touches on something extraordinarily beautiful and profound, namely the fact that a whole dimension of the human person is designed not to be proactive but receptive, even to certain aspects of ourselves.
How did you, a 20-something Catholic, become interested in the philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand — so interested, in fact, that you should found the Legacy Project?
I was 25 when I started the Legacy Project. Two aspects of von Hildebrand’s thought drew me to him in a special way. To begin with, I was deeply drawn to von Hildebrand for his writings on music. My original background was in music; I was a violinist and on my way to conservatory. At the time — I must have been about 17 — I knew little about von Hildebrand other than that he loomed large in the life of my parents. I did know, though, that he had written extensively on beauty and art, which included a little book called Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. From what I had read, I was deeply moved by the fact that von Hildebrand was a great defender of the idea that beauty is essential for human existence, that we can’t live without it — or, to put it in Scriptural terms, that “man cannot live by bread alone.”
This defense of beauty was also very important for my development as a violinist, because as a musician I frequently ran into the idea that music was at best a healthy avocation but not ultimately very serious. For von Hildebrand, great music was marked by an “ultimate seriousness,” because it contained within it a revelation of the world of God. To absorb this idea was extremely important for me because it gave expression to things I felt deeply but was incapable of putting into words.
The second thing that drew me tremendously — though this only came later — was my admiration for von Hildebrand’s heroic witness in his fight against Hitler and Nazism. Von Hildebrand embodied for me that rare person who not only spoke true and inspiring words but who lived them. This unusual continuity between life and work, between thought and practice, inspired me in ways I cannot even begin to express.
Von Hildebrand was also quite effective in his work, so much so that the Nazi ambassador in Vienna dubbed von Hildebrand “enemy number one” of National Socialism. For his opposition, von Hildebrand was already blacklisted for execution by the Nazis in the year 1923, a full 10 years before Hitler came to power.
To this day, I am blessed by a spirit of idealism and hope for the future, and so I am continually inspired and moved by the heroic and selfless way in which von Hildebrand gave up everything — literally everything — to do battle with Hitler. Von Hildebrand was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness; he was David facing the Goliath of National Socialism. He was one of those rare brave philosophers, of which there are precious few. That, to me, as a young person, was and continues to be extremely powerful, and I hope the work of the Legacy Project will lead many other young people such as myself to be inspired to great things by one of our noblest forbears.

John Burger is news editor of National Catholic Register.


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master’s degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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