When reading the essay entitled “The Struggle for the Person” by Dietrich von Hildebrand, I could not help but compare the plight of his time with struggles we encounter today. Hildebrand began the essay by explaining that there was a renewed desire for the objective, the organic, and the communal. He stated that there was “disaffection with individualistic liberalism”. (1) In other words, people were looking for something real, they were looking for something to believe in that was not simply made up by someone, but that would continue to be relevant even if no one believed it. In his time, they were presented with the false promises of the Nazi party. Today, we have re-embraced “individualist liberalism”. Hildebrand stated that people were beginning to search for “objective values…independent of our arbitrary will and subjective satisfaction.” (2) In the modern world, ‘arbitrary will’ and ‘subjective satisfaction’ are the governing principles for life. This philosophy of subjectivism has embedded itself in the culture, and changes the way we view human persons. As such, it causes us to shun objective truth, reject what is organic, and substitute real community.
Subjectivism reduces what we believe ourselves to be. When we cling to veracity, we submit to something pure, eternal, and unchanging. We align ourselves with the author of truth, God. As Hildebrand states, “The human person and his abilities, indeed his entire structure as a person, are objective par excellence. They are, in fact, a much more authentic image of God, the source of all objective being, than all other creatures.” (3) Our capacity to reason, to act with intention, and to choose indicates that we are fantastically made. However, subjectivism views these traits as indications of the uncertainty of values. The fact that our reason may lead to different conclusions, that our actions do not always align with a common goal, and that our preferences seem to constantly shift leads them to believe that there cannot be certainty. Because of this, each man becomes the author of his own truth, and thus substitutes himself for God, and it is a poor substitute. In this way, the human person is reduced to a being that is whatever he makes of himself, within the limits of the physical realm, uninspired by the spiritual and unaided by the divine. This has manifested itself in the way that people treat themselves and each other as means to an end. Today, it is common for people to ‘hook up’. They spend the night with someone they may or may not know, and then go their separate ways. In this way, each person is looking to take something from the other person, without giving anything in return. This is depersonalizing. They do not value each other for the unique person that they are, but merely for the pleasure that each can receive from the other. The partner is interchangeable, as long as he or she is able to bring about the desired results. This is just one example of the way in which subjectivism has fostered depersonalization and separation.
The organic has similarly been discarded. In the fast-paced modern age, technology reigns supreme. The majority of the population believes that a cell phone is an essential tool that they cannot live without. The only living that seems to matter anymore is that which can be viewed by the world on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We have branded ourselves, and have shown the world that we perceive ourselves to be nothing more than the number of friends we have, ‘likes’ we receive, or pictures we post. Social media has its time and place, but it by no means replaces a phone call, or a letter, or a face-to-face conversation. When we replace real human interaction with virtual communication, we lose valuable insight into humanity. We are presented with a character that each person allows the world to see, instead of the exceptional person that they are. This creates rifts between people and makes true community impossible.
When we deny that there is truth, we isolate ourselves from each other. As humans, we are capable of, and even disposed to, fault. As such, it is a struggle to do what is considered right and persevere in the face of adversity. Without being able to rely upon each other for support and guidance, the struggle becomes that much harder. Sharing a burden truly lightens one’s load. When we no longer have the same morals, goals, and truths, we no longer are able to work together. We are alone in our quest to achieve the standards we have set for ourselves. This provides a twofold problem. We may either set our standards so low that achieving them is not difficult on our own, or we may exhaust ourselves trying to reach unachievable greatness. This unnatural occurrence drives wedges between us and partly accounts for our lack of real community.
During Hildebrand’s time, the objective, organic, and communal were being sought out, but in the modern era, they are being shunned. In this way, we have created a culture of isolation. In order to correct this injustice, we must look to the dignity and fullness of the human person, as Hildebrand suggests. In this way we can truly see ourselves as beautiful creations, and by doing so, restore our belief of ourselves as precious beings.
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, “The Struggle for the Person”, My Battle with Hitler, 306
2. Dietrich von Hildebrand, “The Struggle for the Person”, My Battle with Hitler, 307
3. Dietrich von Hildebrand, “The Struggle for the Person”, My Battle with Hitler, 310