It seems that the human person no longer has a face.
Walking around New York City several years ago, I noticed that countless shop windows, billboards, and advertisements contained images of the human person, all with the head cut out of the picture. Mannequins stare back at you with expressionless, dead eyes, and the image of the cookie cutter, “stock photo” human (sans any sort of visible personality) has burned itself into the public mindset. This is the faceless man --- a human person whose real and particular humanity seems to be forgotten amidst the high-gloss pages of a magazine or through the barrier of glass in a store window. At large, an interest in the depth of our fellow man seems to be relatively nonexistent in the culture today. Cramming into a crowded subway car, nobody speaks. It is silent, except for the occasional sniffling, coughing, or yawning.
No eye contact.
No friendly smiles.
No small talk.
This is the new social code for the modern man.
We would be fooling ourselves if we think this is a new development. In fact, culture at large has been heading in this direction for quite some time. Perhaps the most blatant period in recent history which best displays this trend towards the faceless man is found during the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand himself.
With incredible foresight, Hildebrand was able to predict the moral and political state of the world simply by analyzing the way that the rising Nazi regime was speaking of the human person. During a time when most people preferred to remain oblivious, Hildebrand recognized the faceless man from miles away.
Whether it was his natural distaste for reductionism or his inborn reverence for all things beautiful, Hildebrand had an incredible ability to respond to value appropriately and justly, especially in regards to the human person. His concept of value in general radically opposes the utilitarian view of the human person in many modern philosophies and political regimes, for “to see ‘value’ in something in von Hildebrand’s sense is to recognize its goodness ‘in itself’ and not only to recognize it as something beneficial for me or others close to me” (1). In particular, this view of value was a direct challenge to the rising feelings of nationalism and collectivism igniting in Germany in the 1930s.
Germany was reeling from the isolating philosophy of individualism which made people feel cut off from one another and alone during an already politically tumultuous time as the nation sought to rebuild after the First World War. Because of this, Hildebrand “understood why collectivism appealed so strongly to ordinary Germans…National Socialism seemed to offer relief; as a dynamic movement it exploited the deep craving for community and offered a powerful feeling of togetherness” (2). However, this feigned sense of community paved the way for a dangerous opposite extreme to liberal individualism. Under the Nazi regime, the importance of the individual person was completely ignored. This “paved the way for a state in which an individual who opposed its ends was simply eliminated” (3). Hildebrand now found himself thrust into the middle of the fight against the faceless man.
In Germany during the time of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the faceless man often found himself face-down in an unmarked grave riddled with bullets. By reading through von Hildebrand’s memoir, it doesn’t take long for one particular detail of his authorship to stand out to the reader, namely, his descriptions of other people. In the midst of persecution, riots, political upheaval, and threats against his very own life, one would think that all that would remain in Hildebrand’s mind years later would be the main ideas: places, feelings, events, and people in a more general sense. Peculiarly, the reader finds extremely detailed descriptions of nearly every character that enters Hildebrand’s memoir, even if they are a part of the telling of his life story for only a page. People got his attention. The particular, unique, individual humanity of every person Hildebrand encountered made a sincere impression on him that he could recall in the clearest detail even years after the fact. Descriptions of faces, interests, and temperaments of person after person fill the pages of My Battle Against Hitler. And why is that? It is because Hildebrand’s battle against Hitler was a battle against the faceless man --- a sincere desire to see the worth in every feature of every person he encountered.
Hildebrand retrieved the face of man. It is the duty of every adherent of his philosophy to do the same. For how long will we continue to feed into the culture of diminishing the importance of the individual through our lack of sincere love for our neighbor? It is time for a renewal in the interest of our fellow man. The next time you’re on that crowded subway car, look around you. Notice. Take in. What you find may surprise you.
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 14.
- Ibid., 13.