Intellectual Byways

I was recently sent a review copy of My Battle Against Hitler, an anthology of writings by Dietrich von Hildebrand (for more background, see my previous comments). I intend to discuss the book at length, but for the moment I want to mention a couple of anecdotes from von Hildebrand’s academic tour that followed his escape from Nazi Germany after Hitler’s seizure of in power in 1933. While less dramatic than other incidents in the life of the Catholic philosopher, I found these sidelights interesting and relevant to my own experience.

During his journey to Paris by way of Holland, von Hildebrand had the following conversation with the scholar Johannes Barge:

I asked him whether as a Catholic he did not feel a closer bond with the Flemish of Catholic Belgium than with the Protestant Dutch. After all, the Flemish and the Dutch derive from the same racial group and speak almost the same language. As a Catholic I thought he would feel a greater connection to the Belgians than to the Protestant Dutch. He answered, “No, because we Dutch, whether Catholic or Protestant, are a Renaissance people, whereas the Belgians are medieval. The Belgians remain in their cities with their narrow streets, while we are sailors who have circumnavigated the world. Among us there is a different overall sense of life.”

These remarks make even more sense if one is aware that Barge was born in the colony of Java in the Dutch East Indies. Along these lines, I recall similar comments by the English writer and cleric, Ronald Knox, which remind us that any healthy individual is a balance of both particular (imminent) and general (transcendent) interests. Our beliefs should not obscure our origins, or vice versa.

At a lecture in Leiden University in Holland von Hildebrand was met by the rector Johan Huizinga (1872-1945).

Huizinga was, of course, a very significant man who had achieved great renown in Europe through his various books. Though he was not a Catholic, he shared a great receptivity to, and also understanding for, the world of the Middle Ages, and indirectly also for the Catholic Church.

This was an interesting anecdote for me since Huizinga’s book The Waning of the Middle Ages (recently re-translated and published as The Autumn of the Middle Ages) was required college reading for many generations of college students. It was assigned to me in my freshman year and my father still has the copy that he bought in the early 1960s. Sadly, the intellectual continuity than spanned nearly seventy years (from the time that Huizinga authored his work to my reading of it) has been brought to a close by post-modern sensibilities in academia.

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