Not Machines, but Men: Discovering Hildebrand through Classic Literature

10:05:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath

Throughout my life, I associated the word “philosophy” with something dry and erudite, reserved for only those with a doctorate and a first-rate knowledge of classical Latin.  As I sit here, writing on philosophy, with no doctorate and no Latin skills beyond the phrase, “Et cum spiritu tuo,”  I am reminded that God has a sense of humor.  I knew, of course, that the English word “philosophy” is derived from a Latin phrase meaning “love of wisdom.”  I merely assumed that philosophy  involved a lot more wisdom and a lot less love.

I had a rather mixed reaction to the first reading of my introductory philosophy course, a selection from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Heart.  The text was sophisticated yet readable, lacking in complex syllogisms but not in depth.  Hildebrand was speaking on the role of the heart in the life of the person, which struck me as rather odd.  When I heard the word “philosophy,” I thought of logic, ethics, and metaphysics.  I most definitely did not think of the heart.  My perspective was not unusual, because, as Hildebrand writes, “The affective sphere, and the heart as its center, have been more or less under a cloud throughout the entire course of the history of philosophy.”

This may sound strange, but I find Hildebrand’s philosophy most relatable when I consider it from a literary perspective.  I am an avid reader who will read almost anything. My favorite works, though, are those that make the reader “feel something”: those that leave me breathless, those that haunt me.  I want to read something that cuts beneath the surface, which leaves behind any artificiality or pretense.  I want to read something that makes me feel human.

This desire to feel, to be moved, is not of the intellect or will.  It is of the heart. Being moved, in Hildebrand’s words, is “one of the noblest affective experiences.  It is a melting of one’s hardheartedness or insipidity, a surrender in the face of great and noble things which call for tears.”

This passage from Hildebrand reminds me of one of the great scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina.  Anna has engaged in an affair with another man, leaving her husband Karenin humiliated and publicly embarrassed.  Karenin is cold and utterly reasonable, more a machine than a man, who tries to “suppress every manifestation of life in himself.”  The relationship between Anna and Karenin is equally as lifeless, and Karenin shows little regard for their only child.

After abandoning him for her lover, Anna suddenly summons Karenin with a telegram, telling him that she is dying and begging his forgiveness.  Having dismissed his rational calculations and regard for social propriety, Karenin finds himself at her bedside.

At his wife’s sickbed, Karenin’s heart is suddenly opened and he experiences “a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a precipice by a bridge, should discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.”  The “bridge” is his hitherto artificial existence, and the “chasm” is his heart and the fullness of life itself.

In an action that defines him as a character, Karenin forgives both Anna and her lover.  As Tolstoy writes:

“At his sick wife’s bedside, he had for the first time in his life given way to that feeling of sympathetic suffering always roused in him by the sufferings of others, and hitherto looked on by him as a harmful weakness.  And the joy of forgiveness made him at once conscious, not simply of the relief of his own sufferings, but of a spiritual peace he had never experienced before.”

Karenin did not know his own heart, and therefore did not truly know himself.  Believing life to be an exercise in mere rationality, he limited himself to the theoretical sphere of reason.  Without allowing his heart to come alive, he was unhuman, a machine.  As Anna frequently attests when speaking of her husband, a person without feeling is hardly recognizable as a person.  It is by the movement of his heart, not his intellect or will, that Karenin learns who he is as a human person.  

That is why Hildebrand’s study of the affective sphere is so important. Without the heart, we would all be Karenins, not men, but machines.  A study of the human person without a study of the heart is impoverished, for it is only through the heart that we can come to know our true self.

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