encounter in defense of purity

Autopilot and Appetites

6:00:00 AMMeredith Kuzma

I continue my comments on Dietrich von Hildebrand's work In Defense of Purity.

Autopilot. This is a word we often associate with a state in which one is not really paying attention. The word comes from “automatic pilot,” a system used in airplanes to assist the pilot by maintaining altitude and similar tasks. In our daily lives, we might be on autopilot when we have to wake up early after an insufficient amount of sleep. We stumble through the dark, using habit to find the light switch on the wall and muscle memory to dress ourselves. Later, (usually after coffee) we discover that we're wearing mismatched socks. Generally, we measure the acceptability of being on autopilot based on circumstances. In the example above during our morning routine, we might agree that it's okay to be on autopilot. However, we all recognize that this experience of autopilot is not meant to encompass every aspect of life, such as our conversations and interactions with other persons.  

Hildebrand and others have excellent reflections on the necessity of recollection and intentionality. The dangers of being on autopilot are thrown into stark relief; autopilot can mean a failure to respond to other persons appropriately and with full attention. Failing others in this way can also result in failing one’s own self. If one’s life is on complete autopilot there is no room for recollection.

Modern society seems to encourage this autopilot-tendency by encouraging a work week with almost no down time. Persons who hold high positions in some companies have assistants for their assistants due to the workload. While there is nothing wrong with this intense level of organization, it does speak to how busy the modern person has become. Free time is reduced to attempting to de-stress and relax, unclenching the mind that holds tight to all the tasks from the day. Food becomes almost a peripheral, and becomes processed, packaged, and delivered. The dining room table becomes another office, work extending to meal time. This is a tragedy not because food requires one's attention but because mealtime is so often a meeting of the minds, a place to interact with and respond to other persons.

For Hildebrand, the act of eating has an objective end in survival. To be conscious of the act of eating itself does not have any real significance. For example, you don't need to fully focus on eating your toast in the morning in order to attain the good of nutrition. It's not morally wrong for your mind to be elsewhere when you're eating your cheerios.

There are acts, however, where consciousness of the object or person is vital, and the lack of this consciousness is reprehensible. “For the act of wedded union, on the contrary, the question whether or no my attention is focused on what I am doing is by no means unimportant.” Here once again Hildebrand draws out the differences between kinds of bodily appetites. Loving bodily union is deeply personal. It requires one's full attention because it is never of merely instrumental importance (like eating for nutrition). It is a moment of personal self-donation which ought to be enacted in the awareness of love. Therefore, to be inattentive in here is a grave error. A “fully deliberate conscious attention is demanded” (p 12).

Jean-Paul Sartre argued that persons can only see other persons as objects, thus interpersonal relationships are painful because we know we are not objects. Though it is easy to fall into this way of looking at others, so that we lose a sense of their personal subjectivity and selfhood, we must avoid it! Hildebrand as a personalist shows through value response that we can relate to others in their unique selfhood. To treat a person as a mere means that we can not respond to them as a person in their own right.

Running on autopilot can be dangerous to the human person, and there are very specific times when consciousness is required. For example, “the [marital] act, over and above its universal function, possesses a special significance for man in quantum homo, which is not the case with eating, digestion, or breathing” (p 12).


Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1962)

Airplane Image Source
Family Dinner Image Source

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