Ancient family friend, godson, and former student of von Hildebrand, Stephen D. Schwarz offers his remembrances of von Hildebrand. Schwarz is presently professor of philosophy at the University of Rhode Island. Unlike the summer issue of our newsletter, what follows is an unabridged version of Prof. Schwarz's memoir.
The deep and far-reaching influence of Dietrich von Hildebrand on my life began even before I was born. My mother grew up as an agnostic in Munich, Germany, in an ethnically Jewish family. Von Hildebrand was a major influence in helping her find her way to Christ and His Church; and this was an event of major significance in her journey towards her marriage to my father, a life-long Roman Catholic. Von Hildebrand was also instrumental in making this marriage possible at all, for he helped persuade my anti-Semitic grandfather to overcome his strong opposition to letting his son marry a Jewish woman.
And it was through von Hildebrand that my father found his way to philosophy. As a student at the University of Munich, Germany, before he met von Hildebrand, my father found, in his classes, only historical philosophy; that is, philosophy in the manner of, "Kant says", Hegel says; but never a word about what is really true. Then he attended one of von Hildebrand's lectures. A new day dawned for him. Here was a man who dared to say what he saw a really true. Here was truth, not just what so-and-so said. "This is the way it is, this is the nature of love, of justice, of the human person." In the first five minutes of the first lecture, my father realized he had found what he was looking for. This is the true philosophy! This is what I want to pursue! This is my philosophical home! And, this is the person I want to work under! A deep, life-long friendship ensued. My father formed me in my philosophy; but he was able to do so only because von Hildebrand had first formed him. Von Hildebrand was my philosophical grandfather.
But he was also my philosophical father. It was above all from him that I learned the art of philosophizing: wonder at the greatness of reality, wonder at the mysteries of reality, careful analysis of the essence of fundamental realities, such as time, knowledge, beauty and so many others, openness to the rich data of reality as presented to us in immediate experience. It was not only the content of his words, in his lectures, in his writings and in the talks we had, that formed me. It was also, and perhaps even more, the passion with which he pursued truth, that has made me what I am as a philosopher. I took almost all his courses at Fordham, namely, Ethics, Theory of Knowledge, Philosophy of Community and Philosophy of Beauty and Art. After each class it was my great privilege to accompany him home, a 15-20 minute walk through the campus and then up Fordham Road, and then about a half hour on the subway. I was able to discuss with him the lecture he had just given, to ask him questions and to pursue the topics further. What I gained from these many conversations is an immeasurable treasure for which I am deeply grateful, more than I can ever express.
I accompanied him home, for he lived in the apartment just above ours, at 448 Central Park West, in New York City, right across from Central Park. He had arrived in New York in 1940, after a long and harrowing flight from the Nazis, a series of events masterfully detailed by Alice von Hildebrand, his widow, in her wonderful biography, The Soul of a Lion. He secured the vacant apartment below his and had it saved for us, my father, my mother and me; we also fled from the Nazis, arriving June 27, 1941.
His primary influence over me was during those years at 448 Central Park West, from 1941 to 1963, before I moved to Rhode Island to take up my present position. His presence was always there, whether he was in our apartment or I was upstairs in his. The radiance of his personality shone wherever he went. He had a happiness that was both natural to his personality and supernatural in its root in his love of Christ and His Church. He truly lived his faith at every moment. And he lived his philosophy, a philosophy focused on value and our response to value, especially love and responses to moral values and the values in beauty and art. He had received much, and he was always eager to share it with others; to herald the good news, not only of the supernatural world of Christ, but also the world of natural beauty and truth. He loved music, he lived his love of music, especially Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. And this love formed and deepened my own love of music, which has always been at the core of my being.
He formed me as much as my own parents, whose formation of my personality was far greater than that of most children. He formed me on all levels of my being. When I philosophize, he is presence is always there with me. Inwardly I philosophize before him, profoundly aware that whatever is good and valid in my thinking is due to him.
His main influence on me was during the period started in 1941 and continued until his death, January 26, 1977. But it started at the very beginning of my life on this earth. He was my godfather, and he held me as I was baptized in November 12th, 1932, a few days after my birth on the 8th. I was named after him; my middle name is Dietrich. He read from his philosophy to my mother as she was breast-feeding me, and so his presence entered my being with my mother's milk. It has been there ever since and will remain in me for the rest of my life. He was, and is, a gift for me for which I cannot begin to thank God enough.
Kingston, Rhode Island
April 4, 2005