Dietrich von Hildebrand and the Incoherent Paradox of Modernity

Dietrich von Hildebrand
Dietrich von Hildebrand

More than six decades ago, the philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) saw contemporary society as in the grip of a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, there was widespread disbelief in objective truth; on the other hand, a fawning credulity in regards to all things scientific. Von Hildebrand described it in this way, in an essay called The New Tower of Babel:

One of the most striking symptoms of the attempt to deny our creaturehood is betrayed in the position that many men take today toward knowledge. Here we are confronted with a peculiar contradiction: on the one hand, the ordinary philosophy of relativism affirms as a self-evident fact that there is no objective truth. On the other hand, science is set up as a fetish. On the one hand, objective truth is radically denied; on the other hand, science is accepted as an undisputed authority. It seems as if the resentment against metaphysics has reached a stage of such violence that men are willing to accept everything as true from a teacher who has officially denied the possibility of attaining objective truth as such. Patently, the rebellion against truth is primarily a rebellion against philosophical truth, against truth in the field of ethics, of metaphysics, of epistemology. It is the hatred of absolute truth, culminating in the hatred of supernatural truth. Those who do so, however, do not realize that in denying objective truth in general, that in denying the validity of the first principles, they have undermined science as well If there exists no objective truth, if it is impossible to make any valid statement, science also is a meaningless, empty intellectual game, and we can expect from science neither any solution to practical problems nor any information. The reasoning of these peoples seems to be based on a crass contradiction: that science has proved that there is no objective truth.

Note that von Hildebrand saw this paradox as rooted in man’s refusal to accept his “creaturehood.” Von Hildebrand elaborated on that idea by saying that modern man

wants to be himself the source of all authority in community life. His is no longer the conception of democracy which provides that the individual shall be free to determine the structure and the laws of community life according to the objective norms of right and wrong, in which freedom consists in the fact that one is called to co-operate in finding what is objectively right. His concept of democracy means rather that the majority arbitrarily decides what is right and wrong, that the arbitrary will of the individual is the very source of right and wrong. In other words, the arbitrary will of the individual replaces here the objective norm. Instead of believe that there is a chance that the majority of men will choose that which is objectively right, right independently of their will, this modern man believes that their arbitrary decision makes a law right and legitimate.

Whether or not that was a fair description of society in the 1950s, it certainly strikes me as a prescient description of society in the 2010s.

Consider just a few examples. First, there’s still widespread belief in relativism and widespread rejection of objective truth. In its more limited form, there’s moral relativism (which rejects objective moral truth), but this rejection goes well beyond this. Indeed, the a plurality on the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey described liberty in this way:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

So “the heart of liberty” is my ability to be my own god, to create my own universe and give that universe (and the mystery of human life!) meaning… including giving meaning to my own life.


Let’s be clear about what that means. At the heart of any coherent theism is a belief that we are creatures, created by God or a Deity of some kind. That means that, while we may have expansive free will, we don’t create human nature. Rather, we are created with human nature. Human nature is a thing that we discover and that we experience, but not something that we invent. It’s only by accepting this framework that we can understand literally anything about the world around us. I think as a human, I desire as a human, I act as a human. The Supreme Court (or more accurately, a plurality on the Court, back in 1992) has declared that “the heart of liberty” involves the repudiation of this worldview. That’s about as explicit a rejection of creaturehood as possible.

And this rejection of creaturehood, this attempt to make man his own God, manifests itself in myriad other ways: the modern attempt to create new genders for oneself, to redefine and reinvent terms like “man,” “woman,” “sex,” “marriage,” “sin,” “religion,” “good,” “right,” “wrong,” “evil,” and so on. Closely tied to this is the idea (as von Hildebrand described) that we can create these new realities and new moralities simply by legislating them. In this view, marriage was simply something that human beings created (rather than a pre-social reality present in every single civilization on earth and dating back beyond the limits of human history) and are free to recreate. Morality is nothing more than what society or individuals say it is. Religion is either to be rejected, or to be indulged as a sort of opiate: if performing religious rites makes you feel better about yourself, or helps you to forget the grim reality of death, go ahead; otherwise, just sleep in on Sunday. But there’s no room for the Christian notion that the creature man has a debt of honor towards his glorious Creator

It’s in places like the transgender movement that this paradox — between credulous belief in science on the one hand, and rejection of objective truth on the other — rears its head in an obvious way. Scientists have long referred to male and female members of various species, not just humans. Society wants to agree with this, because … it’s science! But the transgender movement views this binary as oppressive to the individual’s right to self-determination and self-definition. And society wants to agree with this, too, because… it’s “the heart of liberty”!

Please understand that I’m singling out transgenderism simply because the logical absurdities are more readily apparent. Any number of other beliefs could have been chosen instead, from the feminist denial of differences between men and women (a denial that negates the possibility of transgenderism, incidentally) to the religious inclusivist idea that all religions teach basically the same thing (an idea which a great many of the religions deny, for what it’s worth). The only difference is that the contradictions latent within these views are often more subtle and harder to ferret out.

So what’s a Christian to do in the face of such a paradoxical society? I would suggest a few things. First, recognize these errors both as errors and as attempts to usurp the place of God. These aren’t harmless, minor errors. They’re attempts by the creature to give himself the role of Creator. Second, recognize that these beliefs are illogical and incoherent: that you can’t both deny objective truth and believe in science, for instance. Third, gently point these truths out. Most of the people who believe these contradictory and erroneous things believe them because (a) they’ve never thought deeply about the matter, and (b) almost everyone they respect has reinforced these false beliefs. Christianity provides a coherent worldview; modernity provides several incompatible and incoherent worldviews (although the incoherent and incompatibility of these worldviews might not be immediately clear to the person living in the midst of them).

Finally, live the truth in love. Worship God as your Creator. Recognize your own limitations and creaturehood. Be grateful to God for those gifts that He has given, and be humble in both those areas that you are particularly gifted and in those areas that you are not. Learn about the world around you, and explore it, rooted in the fact that objective truth really does exist.  Pray and let God do the rest.





    1. Hi Glennonite,

      You may find this site of interest: Their latest endeavor is publishing Hildebrand writings, which were voluminous. I believe his wife is still alive (Alice, who taught philosophy at Hunter college, I believe) and helping this agenda. I’ve found “Tower of Babel” to be a good all-around and fairly easily-understood introduction to Hildebrand’s thought. He has a mind-startling book called “Transformation in Christ” which exquisitely details personality traits and modes of being which are ideal or counter-productive in a Christian disciple. There is a recently published memoir/autobio ( timely,considering our current cultural demise) which focuses on his speaking-out against Naziism which pursued him as he fled his native Germany, then Austria.

      Best wishes in good reading.

      1. Thanks! I’ll look into this. I think both Dietrich and Alice are our modern John the Baptist; we’d be fools not to harken.

  1. “Human nature is a thing that we discover and that we experience, but not something that we invent. It’s only by accepting this framework that we can understand literally anything about the world around us. I think as a human, I desire as a human, I act as a human. The Supreme Court (or more accurately, a plurality on the Court, back in 1992) has declared that “the heart of liberty” involves the repudiation of this worldview. That’s about as explicit a rejection of creaturehood as possible.”

    Anyone who has read Durkheim, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss & Co. will beg to differ. Human nature is what we discover, what we experience, and what we (individually and socially) “invent”, like an ox chart, a sword, the oracle at Delphi, gladiator games, Yahweh, his consort Asherah, and Marduk. Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that thousands of cultures throughout history have had different notions of “human nature” [even rejecting our notion of “human” and our notion of “nature”]? I’m not saying that there are no universal values, as some will be quick to object, but that the notion of “human nature” is a variable cultural construct — there is a wide difference between the notions of human nature held by those who adore Adonai-Elohim, Jesus, Allah, Marduk, and Freyja. This means that “human nature” is not objectively given, unless you have an exclusivist Mosaic theology (vide Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, by Jan Assmann).

    “It’s only by accepting this framework that we can understand literally anything about the world around us.”
    By accepting this framework you’ll only be theocentric or ethnocentric (or both). There are other ways to be realistic without being theistic.

    1. KO,

      How does that reasoning work? Are you saying that people disagree about what human nature is, and therefore human nature is something we invent rather than discover? That reasoning seems so self-evidently fallacious that I’m not sure that I’m reading you correctly. If I am, couldn’t an argument of this form be used to “prove” that everything in dispute (like questions of scientific fact) is really just a matter of invention?

      “By accepting this framework you’ll only be theocentric or ethnocentric (or both). There are other ways to be realistic without being theistic.”

      What do you have in mind?



      1. Joe,

        “Invent” is kind of the wrong word here. In most situations people don’t “discover” human nature either (as if it were out of themselves); they are socially conformed to identify it (as their own society’s nature). I am not “saying that people disagree about what human nature is, and therefore human nature is something we invent rather than discover”. Notice that “invent” has double quotes. It is not so much an invention of a single individual (in the modern sense) as a cultural construct. Marduk is a social construct, as much as a sword, Aeschylus’s plays, Sheol, or Yahweh. What I’m saying is that worshipers of Freyja or Elohim surely have different ideas about what human nature is, and that there are cultures in which not even the words “human” or “nature” have the same meaning as ours, so it all falls apart. Whether one believes in God or not, “God” is a cultural product as much as “Taoism”.

        “By accepting this framework you’ll only be theocentric or ethnocentric (or both). There are other ways to be realistic without being theistic.”
        “What do you have in mind?”

        An atheistic scientist is by definition realistic without being theistic. You don’t have to believe in “creationism” (if there ever was such a thing) to believe that there is a physical reality outside of our minds (and independent of spiritual forces).

      2. KO,

        What’s the distinction that you’re drawing between a social “invention” and a social “construction”? Those seem to be synonyms in this context. Is it just that you’re saying that one is a creation of the individual and the other is a creation of the society?

        Your argument so far has apparently been that “human nature” is a social construct because, like a play or a sword, it is constructed by society. But that’s just a circular argument – you’re not actually offering a shred of evidence that exploring the question “what makes a man?” is an any way like writing a play or building a sword. You appear to simply be assuming your own conclusion. If you’re saying something more, I’m not seeing it. So far, this looks more like bare assertion and circular argumentation than any sort of careful reasoning process.

        Also, you say that people don’t “discover” human nature “as if it were out of themselves.” I think it’s wrong to tie those two ideas together, since it’s possible to discover something within oneself, and to create something outside of oneself (like the sword and several other examples you’ve already offered).

        Let me offer a different view of the same data:

        1.Individuals and cultures strive (and have striven) to understand what makes someone a human, what is natural to man, etc.

        2.This common endeavor has been successful to a large degree: significantly, you concede that there have been ‘universal values’ that all of them have discovered… or which each of them happened to invent.

        3.However, as a human endeavor, these endeavors are fallible, and while there have been major areas of common discovery, there are also areas in which societies and individuals have come to conflicting (and sometimes clearly incorrect) conclusions.

        4.Frequently but not always, these disagreements consist of a handful of outliers holding views soundly rejected by the near-universal consensus of cultures and individuals throughout history. [For example, to the question “are apes ‘persons’?” you can find a handful of people (like Peter Singer) who take a view soundly and virtually universally rejected. This might be a red flag that something is wrong with the outlier’s method or assumptions.]

        The advantages of this view of the evidence are as follows:
        –First, it’s faithful to the self-description and self-understanding of the people and cultures in question. Aristotle says that Socrates “was busying himself about ethical matters and neglecting the world of nature as a whole but seeking the universal in these ethical matters.” That is, neither Aristotle or Socrates viewed their role as “inventing” or “creating” these things, but discovering them. My view doesn’t just assert that they’re all delusional or wrong.
        –Second, it manages to coherently account for both the presence of universal values and of lingering debates. Yours doesn’t really explain why everyone would universally invent the same values.
        –Third, this description is precisely the way that other modes of natural inquiry have proceeded: the same debates about human nature can also be found on (for example) scientific questions. On some areas, all scientists are in agreement; in other areas, there are lingering disputes.
        –Finally, these disputes point to problems in methodology or assumptions.

        So in short, my view better accounts for the evidence that you’ve mentioned, and doesn’t require assuming ignorance or bad faith on behalf of all of the individuals and cultures that viewed themselves as striving to discover (rather than invent) answers to these universal questions.



        1. “you’re not actually offering a shred of evidence that exploring the question “what makes a man?” is an any way like writing a play or building a sword.”

          Animals don’t write plays or build swords or imagine gods, therefore, there must be something in man that makes it a man and not an animal. A play or a sword are two characteristics that distinguish man and animal (or plant). The difference between the social sciences and theology is that the latter posits a supernatural explanation without evidence (just faith) and the former engage in rational (biological and social) explanation based on evidence.

      3. “An atheistic scientist is by definition realistic without being theistic.”

        A scientist isn’t, by definition, a realist or “realistic.”

        You seem to just be saying that, coherently, someone who believes in objective reality in science must logically accept the existence of object reality that is beyond our ability to simply invent, and that to try to hold that everything is a social construction and that objective truth like science exists would be incoherent. That’s just a reiteration of my point in the post. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who both assert scientific realism and write (for example) human anthropology and human nature off as social constructions. I’m talking to someone who holds just such incompatible views right now, I think.



        1. “A scientist isn’t, by definition, a realist or “realistic.” ”
          I’ve never known a scientist who believes reality abides in the “mind”. Every scientist I’ve known believes that reality exists whether human beings exist or not, independently of our minds. But I may be wrong.

          Nowhere have I said that “everything” is a social construction. A stone is not. The Sun is not. And so on. Ultimately human society is an extension of biological determinants, though it isn’t reduced to the latter (that is, society/culture has its own logic that is not reducible/completely explained in biological terms).

          The ultimate question is whether, as some believe, “humanity” (human-ness) is explained by socio-biological theories or by divine fiat. Though respectable, the latter option does not hold ground based on evidence (you have to assume that the first Homo sapiens was imbued with a “human soul” by an invisible being, whereas Homo erectus was not).

          1. Hi KO, I was reading your comments in this thread and I felt the desire to offer my two cents to the discussion at hand.

            On the whole, “A scientist isn’t, by definition, a realist or ‘realistic’,” point, you say that “I’ve never known a scientist who believes reality abides in the “mind”.” I no doubt believe that what you say is true, but that is just the point of this article, I think.

            An atheist scientist who believes in hard determinism, and that all “human society is an extension of biological determinants” and that all human actions are ultimately the result of atoms moving and interacting with one another in an ultimately predetermined fashion (I won’t go into Quantum Physics here because it is not relevant to the arguement at hand) destroys his own scientific conclusions.

            If human reason is indeed empty of a ‘free will’, and it is just atoms acting in a pre-determined manner, then the scientist literally has no reason to believe that their conception of the universe and human nature is in any way, shape or form objective truth. By holding that there is no human soul with free will, this particular atheist scientist is saying that human reason is arbitrary, which destroys any credibility that his beliefs about science have. His own beliefs and convictions blow up his own beliefs and convictions.

            That is what this article is about, I think. Of course, this arguement does not necessarily prove that there is a human soul or an objective truth, but it shows that if you hold that the world is deterministic and hold a “philosophy of relativism”, then reason itself is bankrupt.

            If we bring this whole argument back to the One God, then I would conclude that modernity as Joe describes it is in fact far more intellectually destructive and incoherent than a philosophy which holds that there is in fact free-will and a God which granted that free-will to Man via a ‘soul’. I would say that the fact that Man can reason at all, the very fact that “Cogito, ergo, sum” is true, that there is more to it than just a meaningless interaction of numberless atoms.

            Best of wishes and God bless.

  2. Joe, really good thought-provoking post. Honestly, it’s hard to wrap my head around fully, but it’s fun trying.

    Teo, your link is deep as well. The gist of the article is about the power of music. Besides sitting in Adoration, or maybe a long quiet walk in nature, maybe nothing else gives me “an experience so outside of (my)self that (I) can see reality anew, as if newborn in a strange but wonderful world”, as the author puts it, as music does sometimes.

  3. Maybe in the 1950’s people had a ‘fawning credulity’ to actual science; now I believe there are more people who have a fawning credulity to pseudo-science and any sort of non-Christian mysticism. They will whole-heartedly believe (and change their lives to accomodate) whatever they happen to read on the internet, whether it’s some food they should or shouldn’t be eating, or some teachings that some random person (as long as that person isn’t a Christian) says they should live by. They scoff at those following a religion based on both faith and reason, yet blindly follow a ‘religion’ based purely on ‘faith’ in a supposed expert. Eg. People will re-post pretty much any quote with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it (whether or not the words were even written/spoken by the Dalai Lama!) Also, people will believe the words of some lifestyle guru on the internet rather than the (science-based) advice of their own doctor.

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