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My Walk with von Hildebrand

6:00:00 AMJoseph Anderson

It all started a little over two years ago when I was just a sophomore in college. My mind was open and malleable. College had not only sent me a thousand miles from home, it had thrown me into a world of ancient thoughts and ideas. I suppose that’s what happens when you study liberal arts—you get caught up in old ideas, while the rest of the world is waiting for the next new thing. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have access to cable TV. My favorite high school car, the 2000 Taurus that I’d loved to cruise around town with,take my girlfriend out on dates, or drive down to hangout with friends by the Foster Freeze, was gone. All I had to get around with were my own two legs and an unreliable, public transit.

I was at school near the Greater Seattle area when I first read The Heart by Dietrich von Hildebrand. The Pacific Northwest has always been a place of mystery to me. Sure, it’s gloomy and gorgeous, but even more than that, I’ve always associated it with adventure. So it was on an adventure that I began my walk with von Hildebrand. I didn’t know him in person, the way a few others who I’ve met since, knew him. But his thought was incarnate in the teachings of a certain influential professor whose classes I avidly attended.

me in the Pacific Northwest
It was the perfect time for von Hildebrand to be introduced to me. I can see that with perspective. But at the time, I wasn’t aware of it. All I knew about von Hildebrand was that my professor wouldn’t stop talking about him, and that von Hildebrand had a lot of interesting and unusually insightful things to say about people and life. I used to read his books sitting outside the library of our tiny school, or by the Globe, home to international students, under the big tree with my sister. The first book of his I read was The Heart, and I had no idea while reading it that one day I’d be studying von Hildebrand as a part-time job, thousands of miles away. I didn’t know what the Hildebrand Project was, or that there was a student blog affiliated with them called “Truth From the Heart” (FYI, it’s the very blog you’re reading right now).

What I did know was that von Hildebrand was very difficult to read for someone with very little training in philosophy. To add to this difficulty (although his intentions, I’m sure, were to subtract from it), my professor made us write weekly summaries of von Hildebrand’s work. Sometimes I’d put these summaries off till a few hours before class started and had to race back through the chapters to pull out some relevant detail to write about. Sometimes my responses were these poorly scribbled snippets, written in my terrible, big-lettered handwriting across a page torn out from my notebook (I hope none of my teachers are reading this, and if you happen to be, of course I would never wait until the last minute to do the assignments you gave me). My professor would accept these little scraps of wisdom and say “better than nothing!”
a cafe I used to visit on the Fraser River

Even though I may have struggled at first to write something relevant about what von Hildebrand was saying, the lessons of one of Hitler’s greatest, public opponents, stayed with me and inspired my own thought. I’m far from an expert on him, and I’d be honored just to be considered one of his students. But, regardless, thinkers like von Hildebrand have a special place in today’s world —because too many people ignore the voice of reason, truth, and beauty. Maybe that’s the way things have always been, but if you desire to understand the human person (yourself, I’m assuming), von Hildebrand isn’t a bad place to start.

His books cover faith, relationships, beauty, and life —but you don’t necessarily have to be a Catholic to find resonance in his work. He is relevant to any man or woman devoted to the Search, to use the words of novelist, Walker Percy. Trust me —if a nineteen-year-old dreamer, who spent the time he wasn’t reading by walking through the forest or hosing down cars for extra cash, can find and understand seeds of wisdom in the works of von Hildebrand, you can, too.

me taking a study break on the beach in British Columbia
Flash forward another year-and-some months and I’m sitting in a concrete laden “park” off Hayes Street in San Francisco, holding Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs in my hands and reading about his public stand against Nazism and the Third Reich (as related in My Battle Against Hitler). Though I may not have known the man, the myth, the legend, personally, I can say that I have “walked” with von Hildebrand. I’ve walked with the legacy he’s left behind. I’ve walked with him in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. Who knows where else my journey with him will go? Maybe it will end after college, or maybe I’ll find myself recommending his books to a friend, colleague, or child, one day. Either way, he’s made an impact on this digital native. And that’s pretty impressive, I think.

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