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March 22nd, 2023 | 8 min read

By Christopher Myers

Though lesser known than some of the luminaries of 20th century Catholic thought, like Balthasar, de Lubac, and Ratzinger, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s life and work are no less worthy of our attention. He was not only a remarkable thinker, but also a remarkable man, who so decried Hitler and the evils of Nazism that in 1933 he was forced to flee Germany to Austria.[1]

As a philosopher who studied with Edmund Husserl, and so was trained in phenomenology, von Hildebrand is concerned with the lived realities of his philosophy, what that philosophy feels like on the ground. And so within his personalist approach von Hildebrand often blends ethics and aesthetics. The good and the beautiful are not separate realms for him, but are rather mutually nourishing and overlapping. The title of one of his works captures this relationship well—The Art of Living. The title gives us much of what von Hildebrand so eloquently describes and delineates in that book—living the good life is an art, an aesthetic matter as much as an ethical one, because the good life is a beautiful life.

In The Art of Living von Hildebrand argues that any life worth living must orient itself toward and by what is truly valuable. The life of value concerns itself with capital-V Value, but instead of beginning with the question of what value is, von Hilbrand asks a different question. He first asks, how one comes to perceive value. Von Hildebrand’s answer is by reverence. In his framing, reverence proceeds both virtue and value; the good life begins as the reverent life:

Reverence is the indispensable presupposition for all deep knowledge–above all, for the capacity to grasp values. All capacity to be made happy and uplifted by values, all sanctioned abandonment to values, all submission to their majesty, presupposes reverence. In reverence the person takes into account the sublimity of the world of values–in it is to be found that upward look toward that world, that respect for the objective and valid demands immanent to the values that, independently of the arbitrary will and wishes of men, call for an adequate response.

While value may be objective, that does not mean that the subject is ready to receive that value or its objectivity. This is why von Hildebrand begins with reverence, because in his mind reverence unlocks our ability to perceive value: “Reverence is the attitude that can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.” In his moral universe, reverence is arche, both first and foremost. It is a disposition, an a priori stance toward the world. The reverent take a stand for value, and so position themselves to receive and recognize value.

In bringing value and virtue together, von Hildebrand does not reduce the good life to the moral life; he rather expands the ethical life to include the aesthetic. Prior to the question of what is good or bad, right or wrong, is the question of what has value, and this is an aesthetic question. Reverence therefore is the receptive posture of the aesthetically inclined. As he puts it,

To whom will the sublime beauty of a sunset or a Ninth Symphony of Beethoven reveal itself, but to him who approaches it reverently and unlocks his heart to it? To whom will the mystery that lies in life and manifests itself in every plant reveal itself in its full splendor, but to him who contemplates it reverently? But he who sees in it only a means of subsistence or of earning money, that is, something that can be used or employed, will not discover the meaning, structure, and significance of the world in its beauty and hidden dignity.

Even if you take the objectivity of value as a given, and even if you are predisposed towards a kind of virtue ethic, I hope you still take von Hildebrand’s call to reverence as a provocation. On the face of it, reverence seems like a hard sell. Reverence seems too narrow, too steeped in a world that has been left behind. To those who imagine that the reverent are too narrow, von Hildebrand says, it is the reverent who inhabit the valley and not the crag. The reverent walk the wide way because they are wide themselves.

Von Hildebrand describes reverence in terms of space because reverence is a capacity. Reverence makes space for value; it is a capacity for capaciousness. This sense of space is suggestive. We can sometimes think of morality as a way of shrinking life, as the attempt to reduce the number of choices and experiences, but the art of living von Hildebrand proposes expands the self precisely by making room for Value.

In the first volume of his Theologic, Hans Urs von Balthasar, with the evocative image of an unfurling tree, similarly emphasizes the necessity of space in the reception of truth (and therefore goodness and beauty too):

A tree without its green, its autumnal variety, the pink and white display of its spring blossoms, its fragrance, its hardness and tenacity, its size, its relation to the surrounding landscape, in short, without the thousand qualities that make it what we know it to be, is simply not a tree. It needs the sensorium as a space in which to unfurl itself. It unveils its color within an eye that sees color; it whispers only in an ear that hears sound; it presents its unique flavor only in the mouth of another capable of tasting. It makes use of the space furnished for this purpose just as surely as it makes use of the soil and the ambient air in order to develop.

“Makes use of the space furnished”—notice the agency Balthasar gives the tree. The tree unfolds itself to one with eyes to see and ears to hear. Balthasar’s understanding of the sensorium (by which he roughly means the trained spiritual senses of the subject), accords with the space that von Hildebrand’s reverence can create. Reverence gives the gift of both time and space for the valuable to unfurl. As von Hildebrand says, the one who is reverent “does not fill the world with his own ego, but leaves to being the space that it needs in order to unfold itself.” One might say that the reverent make space for reality to be itself. The reverent comport themselves to receive what is as it is.

“Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.”

What then of the irreverent? What about those who leave no space to receive value but only take up space? Von Hildebrand identifies two primary enemies of reverence—pride and concupiscence. We can also think of these vices in spatial terms. The prideful can never be reverent because they fill space, leaving no room for anyone or anything else. The concupiscent are invasive of space too. They see what they desire as something to consume, not as something to behold or cherish, and certainly not as something to revere. Pride expands and pushes out the real. Concupiscence consumes and so shrinks the world to the dimensions of its own desire.

When I think of such pride and concupiscence, I think of the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. Whereas the reverent makes space and allow time to let things unfold, Hophni and Phinehas intrude, impatiently imposing themselves on others. They are raiders. In their pride they probe sacrificial meat with their three-pronged fork. In their concupiscence they seize women for their pleasure. In his translation notes for 1 Samuel, Robert Alter observes the connection between their physical and sexual appetites, “There is a consonance between their appetitive impulse in snatching the meat and grabbing the women.” They are given with complete abandon to their appetites and so indulge fully in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.

Their irreverence is especially egregious not just because of their grotesque actions (though they are certainly grotesque), but because of their priestly vocation. As priests their presence ought to embody reverence and remind others to be reverent. They are meant to draw the attention away from themselves and upward towards God, but these “worthless men” were priests in the cult of themselves. Hophni and Phinehas may inhabit holy space, the Tabernacle, yet they do not inhabit that space in a holy way. They are flippant scoffers whose probing forks and pawing hands seize whatever they desire, laying hold of things that belong to the Lord alone. They are the height of irreverence, and having made no space for the Lord, the house of Eli falls.

Hophni and Phinehas shrink to nothing, but Samuel, we are told, grows—“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man” (1 Samuel 2:26). Year by year Samuel was “growing in goodness with both the Lord and with men.” Samuel, in other words, grew in reverence. Again, it is easy to associate reverence with shrinking, with making oneself small before a holy God or holy things. And there is a place for humility, but the humility of reverence is ultimately expansive. Though we could all probably stand to kneel a bit more, even that is not diminishment in the final sense. Samuel’s reverence results in his expansion, as does ours, whereas the worthless fellows haughtily expanded themselves—they swallowed up holy space, and as a result, they were swallowed up themselves. The irreverent will always shrink to nothing.

We also see in Samuel that reverence is reciprocal. God reveres those who revere him. As the Lord says to Eli through a prophet, foretelling the downfall of Eli’s house and the rise of Samuel, “for those who honor Me will I honor, and my spurners shall be dishonored” (1 Samuel 2:30). Counter intuitive as it might seem, our reverence is a reciprocal response to God’s reverence. As creator God reveres what he has made. God does not declare the goodness of creation. Having made it he already knows that it is good. But God does see that it is good, and this is a kind of reverence. God makes all things, blesses all things, and so reveres all things. So too when we see that creation is good, take up what is good and lift it back up to the Lord, we are the reverent, becoming the priests we were all meant to be. To lift up the goods of creation to the God of creation is an act of reverent awe. More prosaically, it is to recognize value, because, of course, at the last, reverence is worship.

And if reverence is worship, it cannot be too presumptuous to say that Samuel first learned his reverence from his mother, for what is Hannah’s prayer if not a song of joyous reverence, an act of worship? From within the reverent space of her prayer, Hannah sees things as they are—the glory and might of the Lord, the exaltation of the lowly, the downfall of the prideful, even the promise of resurrection, for the Lord raises up from Sheol (1 Sam. 2:6). In all of of this, Hannah begins with reverence—“My heart exults in the Lord.”

What sort of eyes see? What sort of ears hear? Reverent eyes and reverent ears. Such senses are keened by and within the exultant heart. Reverence is something deeper than outward movements and actions. We must not forget Jesus’ continual warnings to the Pharisees about performative reverence. No matter how elegant the gestures, no matter how intentional the motions, one can still simply go through them. Don’t confuse this for reverence, Jesus warns. Don’t find yourself bewitched by what is little more than choreography. The reverent perceive; they do not perform. The reverent have eyes to see the healing of a withered hand as the merciful thing it is, rather than as an affront to Sabbath keeping. The reverent have ears to hear two mites clatter in the offering box as they drop from the widow’s hand. Neither a technique nor performance, reverence is before all things a disposition. It is Samuel who says to the Lord in the dead of night, “Speak, your servant hears.”

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  1. See the Hildebrand Project for more about his life and work.