Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013
Selected Papers on The Philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand
Francis E. Feingold
Principium Versus Principiatum
The Transcendence of Love in von Hildebrand and Aquinas
This paper seeks to defuse the claim, made by von Hildebrand and his followers, that Thomism has no place for a transcendent love whose principium would lie truly in the beloved, rather than ultimately in the needs and desires of the lover; it also seeks to refute the Thomist objection that von Hildebrand lacks a sufficient understanding of nature and its inherent teleology. In order to accomplish this, I distinguish between different kinds of principium or “for-its-own-sakeness.” Using St. Thomas’s theory of friendship-love, I show how every affective movement not only can but must have two different principia of two fundamentally different sorts: an “end-desired,” and an “end-for-whom” the former is desired. It is then noted that the key terms ‘value’ and bonum honestum are both used to describe both types of “worthiness,” and that this lack of distinction has led to much confusion between Thomists and followers of von Hildebrand; for, while the latter seem to tend to confer the higher “worthiness” of the “end-for-whom” also on inanimate objects like sunsets, the former often tend to classify even the beloved under the lower “worthiness” of the “end-desired,” both of which are untenable positions. It is shown, however, that for St. Thomas it is the higher and more ultimate sense of “worthiness” that is at stake in friendship-love and that it is a truly “transcendent” or “ecstatic” phenomenon. Two objections are then addressed: (1) St. Thomas’s claim that substantial unity is the greatest cause of love, and (2) his claim that man’s primary end is Vision. With respect to both of these claims I maintain that Aquinas’s position needs correction but that neither should be taken to imply that for Aquinas man is his own center or his own chief “end-for-whom.” Finally, it is shown that while von Hildebrand decries positing natural teleology as the explanation for man’s transcendence (a Thomistic position), I argue that this is only due to a confusion regarding the kind of explanation that nature is being invoked to serve: namely, von Hildebrand sees nature invoked as the final cause whereas Thomists actually invoke it as simply the formal cause of our love for our true Final Cause.