existential love

To Wonder at Love: Wojtyla and Hildebrand

10:15:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

What is the value of Christian personalism? What do thinkers like Hildebrand, Kierkegaard, and Stein have to speak toward the deepest questions of human life? These are some of the questions that were in the back of my mind as I began my summer course on the philosophical texts of Karol Wojtyla (karl voy-TIH-wah), more popularly known by his papal name, John Paul II.

Prior to his ascendency to the papacy, Wojtyla had all too little time to write extensively in philosophy due to his pastoral duties as priest and then bishop. What comes down to us from this time in his life is a small number of books and a collection of his lectures and academic papers. And yet, what shines through these few works on philosophy is an altogether unique approach which synthesizes metaphysical insights from the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition with a penetrating realist phenomenological method. That is to say, in understanding the human person, Wojtyla carefully heeded both the objective structure of reality (metaphysics) and the subjective awareness of it in experience (phenomenology).

This is seen in his treatment of love. Love, especially romantic love, is something which just about everyone experiences, at least on the surface, but there is a depth to love which few penetrate. Man experiences love in all its intensity and fervor through his affections and sensuality. But if this is where love stops, one has not captured the full truth of love. Love must transcend the sensual and the emotional to affirm the value of the other person. Wojtyla asserted that the person is a good to which the only proper response is love. Love is a glorious mystery which demands reflection if we are to act responsibly toward others in our own love. Hence the title of one of his books: Love and Responsibility.


When the intensity of affection is anchored in a true affirmation of the good of the other, affection becomes certain and free. One is no longer afraid that emotions will fade or pass, for they are now informed by the value of the person which does not change. Even in the dry spell of love, this intrinsic value remains. One’s affectivity and sensuality find their proper place in the context of a mature love which affirms the dignity of the other person.

When love is based on truth in this way, whether it be romantic love, the love of friendship, or the love of siblings, the will has a readiness to commit itself. When authentic love is manifested in all its beauty, freedom does not flee. Wojtyla realized that man desires love more than he desires freedom. Freedom exists for the sake of love; freedom finds in love its true fulfillment.

Here we see parallels with Hildebrand’s work The Nature of Love. One of Hildebrand’s fundamental insights in this work is that love is a response to the intrinsic worth and splendor of the human person. Love is a value response. Rather than an irrational force overcoming man, it is a free act issuing from the depth of one’s personal center in response to the intrinsic beauty of the beloved. So too it demands the assent and affirmation of the will. Knowledge necessarily precedes the response of love, but love opens the path to deeper knowledge of the beloved.

Hildebrand also saw the importance of affection in love. He knew that love (at least romantic love) was the most affective value response. In order for love to be true, it needs to speak with the voice of the heart, with the depth of affection. (Though this is not strictly necessary when it comes to love of neighbor.) Wojtyla would affirm this by acknowledging the need for a subjective truth about love in addition to the objective truth. The objective truth is that every human person deserves to be loved in virtue of their personal value. The subjective truth is that the emotional experience of love is really present. We are not just robots who affirm value. We are living, breathing incarnate spirits with beating hearts; we feel the heights and depths of emotion.


File:Cranach, Lucas (I) - Lucretia - Detail face.jpg
One can never love too intensely, just as long as love remains authentic. Love can never be too emotionally intense as long as love remains responsive to the value of the person, retaining its inner logic. Thus what is needed is a synthesis of the objective and the subjective moments of love. Hildebrand would say the affection of love must be characterized by a conscious, rational relation to the other person (i.e. characterized by “intentionality”). It must be a spiritual affection that remains on the personal level. Wojtyla would say the affectivity of love must be adequately “objectivized” (made objective) by sufficient knowledge of oneself and the value of the other person.

Both Wojtyla and Hildebrand appreciated that love must be explored in all its subjective richness. But they also recognized that love must be grounded in the objective worth of the human person. Yes, love is attraction, desire, and affection but it is also goodwill, reciprocity, and real communion.

While Wojtyla and Hildebrand did not always agree (e.g. on precisely how value relates to being), their philosophical projects have a profound similarity and solidarity. They began their investigations in existential wonder at the meaning of reality, approached the mystery of the person with reverence, and sought to initiate their readers into that same wonder and reverence.
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Image 1: Nordic summer's evening, Richard Bergh (1858-1919). 1899-1900. Gรถteborg Art Museum, Sweden. (source)
Image 2: Love is in the subway, Benurs - Learning and learning (source)
Image 3: Lucretia (detail face), Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). 1538. Residenzmuseum, Bamberg, Germany. (source)

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