I would like to offer this reflection on value to follow our Fourth Annual Summer Seminar: “Dietrich von Hildebrand & The Philosophy of Value.” From June 29-July 3, fifteen graduate students gathered at Franciscan University of Steubenville to discuss value and its role in our lives. It was a time of intense study, lively discussion, and warm fellowship.
Why did you get out of bed this morning? Why were you moved to begin your morning routine of preparing for the day? Why was it that you continued to get dressed, eat breakfast, and go to work? There was something moving you to do so. Indeed, you must have been motivated to act. Even if you began the day out of habit, this hait must have been formed out of some motivation. Some good was illumined in your mind. Something worth pursuit was presented to you. You realized something important was worth doing. The important stands out, like a vibrant splash of color on a dreary grey canvas.
Perhaps the only thing motivating you to get out of bed this morning was the thought of eating a full, hot breakfast. You anticipated the satisfaction you would enjoy and decided to get up so you could taste it. The anticipation of eating your favorite foods led you to realize a certain importance in the food. And yet its importance can be described as little more than a subjective satisfaction. Focusing on the pleasant taste, you are induced to prepare breakfast merely because it is pleasing to you. (Though, alternatively, some are moved to eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day” for one’s health -- an objective good for the person.)
Maybe the first thing motivating you today was the well-being of your family. You are eager to see that your family is provided for, and so you faithfully fulfill your duties at your job. You recognize that your spouse and children are precious in their unique individuality. No one could possibly replace them; they have a special dignity. You see that they are beautiful, shining with a radiance all their own. Because of your kinship with them, because they are your family, you are given a privileged viewpoint into their lives. You, more than anyone else, know that they must be taken care of. They are important and thus it is essential that they are provided for. It is the thought of them that gets you up in the morning.
Whatever it was, this morning you sensed some kind of importance in the actions of the day. You had an awareness that enjoying breakfast would bring you some satisfaction, and so you acted upon that awareness. Or you knew that you had to go to work in order to provide for your family. This is just the first movement of the day: getting out of bed. Every action we take, every decision to do this or that, or even to avoid something, can be traced back to some sense of importance. We perceive that this is something to be done or this other is to be avoided. This thing stands out to us in our experience as a bonum or a malum, a good or an evil, something with positive or negative importance.
And yet when we encounter the various actions and objects of the day, we recognize that not all are important in the same way. Some things become important merely because they bring us pleasure. For instance, when we receive an undeserved compliment, we are flattered and pleased for no other reason than it is subjectively satisfying to us.
Yet when we witness the generosity of one human person toward another, when we see an individual living in self-giving love, its character is different. It has an importance-in-itself. There is an intrinsic importance here, a splendor that shines from the real object itself. Independent of my consideration of whether or not it satisfies me or benefits me in any way, I acknowledge that the act of charity has an intrinsic worth. It is good in and of its own character. This is what Dietrich von Hildebrand means by value, the important-in-itself which calls out to us for reverence and awe. It demands our respect and admiration. The value presents to us the inner truth about being and about the good: “the value with its splendor...is in truth the heart and soul of being.” (1)
On our pilgrim way, we recognize that we live in a world of value. Actions and objects are continually calling out to us, speaking to us of their goodness (or their badness). The word of value is addressed to us as if initiating a dialogue, inviting us to respond with our whole person, to respond to the good in love.
“Whether we praise a man as just, or as reliable; whether in reading a poem, we find it beautiful; whether we praise a symphony as powerful and sublime; whether we rejoice about the blossoming trees in spring; whether we are moved by the generosity of another person; whether we strive for freedom; whether our conscience forbids us to profit by injuring another -- there is always presupposed the notion of something important-in-itself.” (2)
Hildebrand was able to cultivate a sensitivity to the entire world of value. Throughout his ethics, his aesthetics, and his philosophy of the human person, he was closely attuned to the given. He reverentially approached reality, waiting and listening for the call of value. In his remarkable life, he responded by boldly proclaiming the truth in a time of war, marveling at beauty even in the simplest things, and loving the human person before him. How will we respond to the call of value?
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics (New York: David McKay Company, 1953), 78.
2. Ibid., 75.
Image 1: A Citizen, Mikhail Davidovich Natarevich. 1946. (source) Image 2: Spring trees with blossoms, Kim Rose. (source)