The German thinker Dietrich von Hildebrand is a giant of 20th century thought, like René Girard—and he may be the key to understanding Girard better, too.
I once made a solo snowboarding trip to Big Bear Mountain in 2010 and spent the entire weekend reading and studying Hildebrand’s Ethics from start to finish. I never made it to the mountain, and I didn’t care.
This edition of the newsletter will serve as a very brief intro to Hildebrand’s core idea. I’ll explain why I believe it matters when it comes to thick desires, mimesis, and culture.
It’s not meant to be anything close to a complete introduction, but I’d like to at least introduce one key concept and continue to develop this line of thought. I am convinced it holds an important key to understanding much of what ails the postmodern world.
The Big Idea
The core idea of Hildebrand’s thought—much like “mimetic desire” is to Girard’s—is ‘value-response’: that is, the way that a person responds to various values (aesthetic, moral, etc) when confronted with them—on both the level of desire (the will) and of affectivity (the emotions)—has an ethical character.
In Hildebrand’s view, the universe is swarming with values, and the way that we respond to values eventually shapes our personality and our destiny. Channeling our energy and our desires according to the demands that these values make of us is the fundamental goal.
That means that our desires can and should be intentional—and that beyond the confusing world of mimetic models there are indeed objective values that act as signposts, or north stars, that guide us on our journey.
The promise is that we can freely choose how to respond—not react—to values. We can learn how to give each of the values we encounter its proper due so that we are ordering our desires according to some objective structure in the world.
It’s possible to let real values give shape and direction to our desires rather than mimetic desires creating our values—and bashing our head repeatedly against the rock of the Current Thing.
It’s easy to tell when something is off about a value response. Take, for instance, someone who stumbles inside of a beautiful monastery and witnesses a solemn high liturgy with Gregorian chant and is not affected in the least bit. They continue chewing their gum and observing it a distance, like a non-engaged bro in a museum or in a zoo checking his crypto portfolio. There is no inner movement, there is no energy. There is only a shell.
Now imagine this same person (let’s call him Chad, because why not) goes home and watches the latest episode of Project Runway and is moved to tears when one of the contestants is kicked off the show. He is moved the shallow sentimentality that the producers of these shows want to stir up in viewers, because it makes them emotionally invested in the season.
Couldn’t we all agree that there is something off about Chad’s response to these two different situations? It’s almost as if there’s a shallowness of soul that prevents Chad from being affected properly. One moment, he’s dead inside; the next finds him deeply wounded by someone’s dress being rejected by Nina Garcia.
This example is mostly from the aesthetic sphere, though. Let’s briefly consider a moral one.
Chad is walking along the shore of a river when he spots someone clearly drowning. He’s wearing his brand new Ferragamo shoes and is on his way to an important client meeting when he spots the scene. He freezes up for a minute, unsure of what to do. Then he witnesses a woman stop her car, jump out, run to the river, dive-in, and rescue the drowning citizen at great personal risk to herself.
Chad is startled, thinks about it for a minute, and then continues on his way. “I just saw some crazy shit!” he texts one of his friends.
When he gets home later that night, he scrolls his Twitter feed and becomes morally outraged when he sees someone whom he thinks he not acknowledging the seriousness of alopecia.
I know. You probably hate Chad by now.
But the problem with Chad is deeper and more complex than bad taste or ‘bad priorities’. Von Hildebrand shows that what is going on here is a lifelong pattern of not responding to values appropriately—with self-possession and intentionality, to each it’s proper due—and that eventually leads to a stunted personality and ethical blindness.
What’s at stake in the value-response model of morality is not just the ability to see and feel and act well, but the very ability to have well-ordered desires at all.
And this is where Girard comes in. In a pure ‘Mimetic Theory of Value’, values can be created through mimetic desire, and assigned value almost irregardless of their content.
In the Hildebrand perspective, objective values exist—things which have value in and of themselves, irregardless of our recognizing them as such. The drama of human life is learning to respond to those values with a fully human response (affective, volitional, intellectual)—or not.
(Of course, Girard also believed that there are objective values, too—his focus on the nature of desire simply shed light on why they’re so hard to recognize and to grasp in a world as mimetically mad as ours.)
What we do in the fact of powerful values depends on how free we are to respond.
We can remain unmoved by these values;
We can move toward the wrong ones
We can move toward the right ones but in an inadequate way
We can respond according to the value of the thing itself in a way that transcends ourself, maybe even our present desire (which may be completely disordered.) In other words, we may need to learn to desire something which we presently do not.
#4 is not the way most people think about desire. But asking the basic question: “What do I want to want?” is one that perhaps each of us should ask more frequently.