Von Hildebrand on Love, Happiness, and Sex   


I should like to discuss first the link between love and that ingredient of happiness which deserves the name joy. Granted that happiness, to be full or perfect, demands several other perfections; but joy has to be central. Without joy, without the leaping delight of the spirit, what could happiness possibly mean?

The joys of life, whether modest or gigantic, are for the most part clearly due to our loving relations with other persons. These include the love of a parent for a child, a child for a parent, a friend for a friend, and, above all, the “spousal” or “romantic” love between two persons of opposite sex.

Our loving relation to God is by far the most important of all possible loves. But in what follows, I wish to restrict myself to our loves for human persons. I think that we need to develop accurate categories concerning the things of experience before we attempt an analysis of metaphysical realities.

In a typical human life, love comes mixed with many other things: anxiety, concern, sorrow, sacrifice. But every love also affords delight, joy. Even to know that the loved one exists, to be in her presence, to speak tender words together, to do things and enjoy things with a person we love: this is the stuff of a happy life. This brings sunshine and joy into what is usually a gray and prosaic day.

If there is no loved one in my life — no dear friend or child or parent or spouse — just what can rejoice me? Some superficial sources are no doubt available. There are gourmet meals, for example, and chances for fame (if only as a guest on some big TV show). Possessing money is not painful either, if we prescind from the hard work that often accompanies the acquiring and (perhaps even more) safeguarding it.

And there are other sources of joy which are not superficial. I think here of our commerce with beautiful things in nature and in art. These touch us, warm us, delight us, bring us to our depth. But they leave us essentially lonely in precisely the degree that we have no beloved person with whom we can share the experience.

So, too, “professional” pursuits may yield their own special kind of satisfaction and happiness. But they, too, are essentially lonely. Certain practitioners of the “intellectual life” seek to persuade at least themselves that they enjoy “a higher happiness” for the reason that their minds are fully active. They may hear the joyful laughter or heartfelt song of loving persons and dismiss the scene as one of “sense happiness”, in contrast to their lofty “intellectual happiness”. But they deceive themselves. Keeping the mind active, as such, may certainly bring its own kind of delight; but this is not to be compared with the music and sunshine that surround loving hearts.

Von Hildebrand took seriously the crucial distinction made by Edmund Husserl, his teacher at the University of Goettingen, between “intentional” and “non-intentional” experiences, including most emphatically those experiences called “feelings”. If someone strokes my skin, or if some chemical or mechanical agent acts on some part of my body, I shall experience “feelings” — pleasant or not, welcome or not. These are the caused, nonintentional feelings. But if I respond with joy to the presence of a loved one, or with sorrow to news that a beloved person has died, or with gratitude to someone’s generosity toward me-these “feelings” are in no way “bodily” — as if they arise from some agent’s contact with nerve endings of my body.

On the contrary, these belong to the new, spiritual world of “intentionality” — where the person has an enlightened “rational” contact with being. That I know or understand something is thus an intentional experience; so, too, that I accomplish an inner act of willing. And so, too, are all the “feelings” that cannot even exist unless I first grasp the object. Von Hildebrand, above all in his book The Heart but also in many other books, at last does justice to the nature of “spiritual feelings”. The traditional philosophy usually assigned the “spiritual part” to “the will” and “feeling” to the body. Under these categories, it would follow that purely bodiless persons, such as angels, would feel nothing. Their joy or love or grateful praise would somehow amount to an intellectual “volition”, sharply distinguished from any “emotions” (which are supposed to be “motions” of the body).

One of von Hildebrand’s greatest contributions to the philosophy of the person is his analysis of “value response”. Love is such a response. For love to exist, I must grasp the beloved person as lovable, as glowing with a preciousness that already belongs to her, independent of any needs or desires of mine. I grasp that the loved one is a “value” — something “good” in herself. I discover this value, respond to it, am grateful for the encounter.

Never do I “glare” at the loved one as if to inquire how she can somehow satisfy my needs or urges or desires. This indeed happens in all those encounters precisely the opposite of value responses. Centering on myself, I regard the world as holding beings which can become “means” to my pleasures and comforts — to my “happiness” in the egotistical sense. Two radically different kinds of “good” must be distinguished here: the “value” good and what von Hildebrand terms the “subjectively satisfying” good. The latter includes all the glittering qualities that shine forth from a being just because it is able to enhance my pleasure or comfort or flatter my pride and concupiscence.

Hence, von Hildebrand is not especially impressed by the principle, enunciated as far back as Aristotle, that “man always wills the good and always desires the good.” “Which good?” von Hildebrand would ask. “The good of value or the subjectively satisfying good?” Nor would he agree that this distinction is equivalent to that between “the real good” and “the apparent good”, as if all our choosing of the latter kind results from some sort of intellectual failure — some “mistake”.

The joy that comes from a loving relation to another person arises from our value response to that person. Just the fact of her preciousness and lovability is what stirs within us love and gratitude and delight. Yet not one of these “responses” can be willed. I do not love the other as a “means” to a desired end — my happiness. Rather, I approach the other for her own sake; I am drawn toward her by her lovability. I forget myself and all my needs and desires. And — blessed paradox of life and the Gospel! – I am “surprised by joy”. I had “surrendered” to the precious one, loved her because she is lovable. I had forgotten my self and my needs. I did not begin to love “in order to be happy”. Rather, my love is a response to the lovable person who has come into my life. Joy — and laughter and sunshine — are the “fruits” of the value response, but never the “intended ends”.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was thirty-four years old when in 1923 he gave a lecture on marriage in Ulm, Germany, at a congress of the Catholic Academic Association. Two years later, in Innsbruck, Austria, he gave several lectures at a session of the Federation of Catholic Students’ Unions. These had to do with “Purity and Virginity”. They were published in German under that title. The Ulm lecture appeared in a little book entitled Marriage. It had the enthusiastic approval of then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, papal nuncio in Munich, who later became Pope Pius XII. Translated into English during World War II, the book enjoyed great popularity, remaining in print through four editions over fourteen years. Out of print afterward for almost thirty years, it has finally been republished — by Sophia Institute Press.

The Innsbruck lectures were published in English in 1930, but under the somewhat apologetic title In Defense of Purity. This has been von Hildebrand’s most popular book, having been translated into many European languages. Simply stated, the book is a masterpiece, an original and profound study of the mystery of human sexuality and its exact relation to purity, to love, to marriage, and, above all, to consecrated virginity.

For my purposes here, it suffices that I sum up the first part of the book, having to do with sex as distinguished from all other bodily “systems”.

Von Hildebrand notes that, in contrast with all other bodily experiences, sex alone is essentially deep:

Every manifestation of sex produces an effect which transcends the physical sphere and, in a fashion quite unlike the other bodily desires, involves the soul deeply in its passion .... The positive and negative values attaching to sex belong to a level far deeper than those which attach to the other bodily appetites .

. . . The unique profundity of sex in the physical sphere is sufficiently shown by the simple fact that a man’s attitude towards it is of incomparably greater moral significance than his attitude towards other bodily appetites. Surrender to sexual desire for its own sake defiles a man in a way that gluttony, for example, can never do. It wounds him to the core of his being, and he becomes in an absolutely different and novel fashion guilty of sin .... Sex can indeed keep silence, but when it speaks it is no mere obiter dictum, but a voice from the depths, the utterance of something central and of the utmost significance. In and with sex, man, in a special sense, gives himself.1

Scattered throughout von Hildebrand’s works are many references to the great errors that always abound concerning the human person. One such error has been dealt with briefly above — namely, that which sees all human responses, and therefore love, as “means” to self-gratification. There is then the more modern error, especially egregious since Freud, which interprets all “love” as being rooted in sex drives, whether explicitly or not. This latter error becomes at least plausible when “spousal” love is at stake. For such a love occurs between the sexes and certainly is linked to sexual union in a dramatic way. How natural, then, to say that love is but a sexual drive in the first place or at least to say that on the best analysis love is but “a spiritual friendship between two persons”, with sex merely superadded.

Von Hildebrand rejects such interpretations of spousal love. He stresses that, in its very quality as a “spiritual” (thus, intentional) experience, the love in question already differs from parental or filial love or the love between friends. This love involves “falling in love” and then “being in love”. It includes the “enchantment” which the beloved person effects on the lover. Far from being a youthful lunacy, genuine spousal love stirs us in our depths. Our heart cries out for requital. The “intentions” of union and benevolence, to be found in all real loves, find here their most insistent voice.

The great plays of Shakespeare, the music and operas of Mozart (nay, even the songs of Irving Berlin!) speak of this love, sing of it, and celebrate it in a hundred beautiful ways. This love speaks the language of humble gratitude, of yearning, of tender care for the loved one. It pleads for permanence — for eternal union even. It would shower all good things on the loved one, and avert the slightest discomfort. It gives birth to music and to joy even to contemplate the beloved, even to pronounce her name.

How are spousal love and human sex related? If atheistic evolution is true (can there be a serious theistic evolution?), there is no link. Everything is the result of chance, of random comings together, after a trillion trillion “trials”, of atoms and elements of dead matter until at last, by some happy accident, life is made; and then animal life and then human life. Nothing human is especially high or noble, proceeding as it does from the random and irrational combination of material elements. Love is nothing special; nor is beauty or humility. That we humans come in different sexes means nothing: it is but the accidental result of some evolutionary twist as the atoms of matter march blindly into the future. From this point of view, sex is even something grotesque and absurd.

Not so if a personal Creator, God, is at the source of all being and all earthly life and experience. Then nothing is seen as a result of mere chance, least of all the profound complementary character — both biological and spiritual — of the two human sexes. Von Hildebrand teaches that it is the God-willed meaning — the destiny — of human sex to be both the bodily expression and the completion of wedded love. Love yearns for union on all levels. Love seeks self-revelation and self-donation to the loved one. Love is of the heart. When now the persons freely will to share a life together, a bond is established: marriage itself. This voluntarily places the future lives of the partners beyond any arbitrariness or caprice.

Only within the garden of wedded love ought the veils that guard our sexual secret be opened: to admit the loved one. Far from being something peripheral or superficial, the sex of each of us belongs to our inner sanctum. Its great personal depth is just the reason for its lofty destiny in marriage.

By the same measure, sex isolated from wedded love constitutes the core of impurity. Von Hildebrand distinguishes three elements of the sin of impurity. He writes:

In the first place, I fling myself away by giving up this personal secret to another with no intention of a real and final surrender to that person or of entering thus into a lasting external union with my partner ....

. . Besides this squandering of self, which may be described as a specific degradation of myself and my partner, this abuse of sex always involves a second factor, a desecration. To perform the act which signifies the hallowed union of two human beings in one flesh, and should be the expression and fulfillment of a lasting and indissoluble bond of love, with a partner to whom we are not united by the sacred tie of matrimony is obviously a desecration of the most awful kind ....

. . . Every abuse of sex further involves a specific defilement.

. . . The aspects which sex displays when it is isolated and no longer “formed” from within by wedded love and the consciousness of God’s sanction — namely, the siren-song of sensual attraction with its poisonous sweetness, and diabolic evil lust — display a peculiar power to corrupt and defile the soul. The moment any man in his employment of sex “wills” one of these two aspects, and gives himself up to it, he incurs a mysterious defilement and separates himself in an altogether unique fashion from God.2

All the above concerns the mystery of human sex in its “unitive” role. The mystery becomes still deeper and more beautiful when the procreative role is added. This is a topic in itself, which is linked to the great moral issue of the sin of artificial contraception. For the purposes of this paper, however, I should like to end with a final quote from von Hildebrand linking both roles: “It is no chance that God has invested the sexual act with creative significance. As God’s love is the creative principle of the universe, so love is everywhere creation, and there is a profound significance in the nexus — at once symbol and reality — whereby from the creative act in which two become one flesh from love and in love, the new human being proceeds.”3


1.      In Defense of Purity (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), p. 14. This book has since been reprinted several times in English. A new printing is due in late fall 1989, from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

2.      Ibid., pp. 35-37.

3.      Ibid., p. 26.


Marra, William A. “Von Hildebrand on Love, Happiness, and Sex.” In The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (Ignatius Press, 1989): 119-127.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.


The late William A. Marra was professor of philosophy at Fordham University.