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  • Non Nisi Te, Domine:Dietrich von Hildebrand, Germain Grisez, and the Saints on Man's Ultimate End
  • Ezra Sullivan OP (bio)

The resourceful Odysseus eluded the lotus eaters; he outwitted the Cyclops; he withstood the Sirens' call; he survived a journey to Hades; he navigated past Scylla and Charybdis; he escaped the clutches of Calypso and came at last to his home, where he embraced his wife Penelope and told his story.1 Homer covers much of their conversation with a veil of privacy, but departing from Homer's account, one could imagine that, in their embrace, Penelope turned to her husband and said, "Odysseus, you have indeed overcome many fearful obstacles, but I wonder: why did you go to such great efforts? Why did you persevere through it all?" The text suggests that, in his trials, Odysseus's primary and sustaining thought was not his own comfort, nor his fulfillment as a Greek hero, nor even his marriage. Adopting Odysseus's perspective, one can see that his mind must have had a single focus, so that, had his wife asked why he willingly suffered so much to come home, his only answer would have been, "For you, Penelope, I did it for you." Such a scene illustrates Dietrich von Hildebrand's significant insight regarding man's ultimate end, as contained in his book, The Nature of Love.2

Dietrich von Hildebrand's conception of human finality distinguishes [End Page 126] itself and is especially valuable insofar as it focuses on how human love, in its highest expression, is self-transcendent. In von Hildebrand's language, human love is a "value-response" in which a person is focused, not primarily on his own fulfillment, but on the beauty of another that has importance in itself. Hence, one of von Hildebrand's great insights about human finality can be formulated in this way: just as Odysseus during his travails was focused above all on Penelope, so the Christian, in an even greater way during the pilgrimage of this life, is focused on God in Himself as "the finis primarius ultimus (the primary ultimate end) of man" (115). I begin this article by detailing von Hildebrand's position in itself. After this, in order to explore its profoundest implications, I will compare it with Germain Grisez's understanding of human finality. Throughout this work I will keep in mind the example of Odysseus's love for Penelope, an example whose depth is best explored in light of the exemplary and divine love of the saints. Although von Hildebrand wrote his reflections on love primarily from a philosophical perspective, he points to theological applications that manifest the world-transcending nature of human love in its fullness.

One can approach von Hildebrand's insight by coming to terms with his language: what does he mean when he says that love is a "value response"? He gives us a clue in the beginning of his work. While alluding to a more developed discussion in his Ethics, von Hildebrand distinguishes between fundamentally different human responses to a present good. One is the value-response; another is the response seeking the "merely subjectively satisfying" (19).3 It is easy to grasp what it means to see a good as "subjectively satisfying" or pleasurable to me: this is a typical stance one has when encountering a delicious food that one would like to taste. It is a good I would like to enjoy; and the enjoyment would be mine. A value-response, in contrast, is focused not on me, but on the intrinsic worth of something (or someone) else. In a value-response, "the object and its importance is itself the theme; I ought to give it an adequate response for its own sake" (36). An object in this case is important to me, not [End Page 127] primarily because it satisfies my desire, nor helps me develop my nature, but because of "the value that the object as such possesses" (ibid.). I can have a value-response to an impersonal object, as the explorer John Muir did during a thunder storm in the Yosemite valley. Writing about his experience, he exclaims, "How interesting to trace the history...


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