When I first came across Alice Von Hildebrand while watching Mother Angelica Live I was rapidly impressed with her. Her quick wit, intelligence, and common sense was a delight. Since then I have been interested in what she had to say. Around the same time I became acquainted with the works of her late husband Dietrich Von Hildebrand. I have by no means fully dipped into all his works, but I want to go further. His Transformation in Christ is a book I dearly love.
When her biography of her husband came out The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand I quickly attained and read it. Such an amazing story and an equally amazing man. You would think somebody who was a named enemy of Hitler would have his story more well known. There is at least a new book out called My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.
When I read Soul of a Lion I wondered about his later years since the story ends, as I remember, after his escape and ultimately ending up in New York. Some of this is covered in Alice Von Hildebrand’s new book Memoirs of a Happy Failure. While this autobiography does go into how she met her future husband and some of her life with him, she is mostly quiet on her personal life in this regard except when there are interactions with her students.
What this book does cover is her life growing up in Belgium before World War II and her subsequent move to the United States during the war. The book starts out with her on a ship headed for New York that was threatened by a German sub with orders to evacuate before being sunk. I was quite interested in her descriptions of being raised in a very Catholic culture and the descriptions of her family members including the roles they played during the war. There were differences in both sides of her family that caused some tension.
The large majority of this book covers her years as a teacher at Hunter College which is part of the City University of New York. This was to be where she ended up teaching philosophy throughout her career. Now having heard her speak I was aware of the difficulties she had regarding students versed in moral relativism as she taught the objectivity of truth. I just didn’t realize that this was a continual philosophical battle.
What shouldn’t have surprised me is that this was rather minor considering even worse problems with the other faculty and those above her. The stories she relates regarding how she was treated by her fellow academics in such a pitiless back-biting manner raises your ire as she relates them. A Darwinian survival of the fittest where the fittest meant you had the right politics and sneer regarding subjective truth. Part of this was due to her being a women, but no doubt a lot of it was due to her being Catholic or really for being a faithful Catholic. Academics have no problem with Catholics just as long as they don’t believe that stuff. She describes how her education as taught by nuns little prepared her for such an atmosphere of prejudice and ill will.
What I enjoyed most was her stories of students. It was quite obvious her love of teaching and her love of her students. There are many wonderful stories regarding the opposition she got and when the truth of what she was saying clicked with many of her students. Even stories of students converting to the Catholic Church despite the fact that she never talked about the Church at all in her lectures. Not all the stories regarding her students go well and some are rather sad. Still there were several that came into the orbit of her personal life along with her husband. Despite the opposition she was getting from the school and the many attempts to sabotage her career and to force her to leave, she endured. It must have really annoyed them the number of students who elected to take her classes over other philosophy professors more in tune with the zeitgeist.
The title of her autobiography is quite apt. From the measure of the academic world she was mostly a failure. From the measure of her students that was not correct and even ultimately the school had to grudgingly admit this. I enjoyed the good humor she uses as she relates all these episodes. Experiences that might leave many bitter, yet her happiness shines through along with her love of the truth.
On a side note this book provides another example to me regarding the cultural revolution of the sixties. In that it was not as if everything was in good condition before then and that this was a sudden revolution. Her examples of attitudes in the 1950’s show just how much the culture was infected with moral relativism and that it was even worse in academia. Cultural termites had already weakened the foundations of the culture.