I remember that January when I got the news. I had just given the Hildebrands’ work to my daughter who was completing a senior project on Aesthetics. I gave her Dr. Alice’s The Privilege of Being a Woman and she was so moved that she started buying copies to give to her friends.
And then we heard that Alice von Hildebrand had passed out of this life on the 14th of January, 2022.
At that time I had not read much of Alice von Hildebrand, as most of my study was in her late husband, the great Dietrich von Hildebrand. But when she died I was drawn to her work as I was drawn to her late husband.
I had emailed with her very briefly before her death, shortly after I took over the editorship of OnePeterFive. As disciples of the Hildebrands attest, there is a certain moment when one “encounters” the light of truth as the Hildebrands taught and lived it. They would call it a “response to value.” It is fitting that so many disciples of their work in fact respond to the value of both of their persons.
Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand were walking and talking persons who were consumed with and devoted to the truth.
So consumed were they, that they radiated joy.
And everyone who really knew them speaks about it like a personal encounter with truth.
I had already had this encounter indirectly when I first picked up Dietrich von Hildebrand’s writings years ago, and was illuminated by his sublime clarity of thought. So when Lily died I realized I needed to get to know her, so I impulse-bought all of her books online that very day.
Thankfully, I think I picked up the Alice von Hildebrand book that everyone should read first: Memoirs of a Happy Failure, written with John Henry Crosby, co-founder of the Hildebrand Project.
It was one of those books where you stay up late reading into the night and finish the book in twenty-four hours. Everything I had heard about Alice von Hildebrand suddenly made sense. I knew she was a witty anti-Feminist thinker, who was sought by all sides of the Catholic spectrum for comments on everything Catholic. Memoirs tells the story of her early life and career as a professor of philosophy at Hunter college surrounded by Marxists who hated her and what she loved most: the truth.
Like her husband, she was an Augustinian. Her illumination in the truth began when she encountered that great saint and doctor of the Church:
Since discovering philosophy in 1942 and reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, I had had a great love and awe for this gigantic Catholic thinker. What he wrote was not only luminously true and brilliantly formulated, but enriching for my intellectual, spiritual and religious life (Memoirs, 47).
I myself had the same experience when I first read the Confessions years ago as a Protestant. I have remained an Augustinian ever since, and perhaps this is why I have found so much of this life-giving truth from the Hildebrands.
But what makes the Hildebrands so compelling is not merely that they taught the truth, but that they fearlessly lived it. Dietrich von Hildebrand is the most famous for his stand against Nazism and Communism, even for four years after his patron Dolfuss was assassinated by the Nazis.
But lesser known is Alice von Hildebrand’s fight against the Marxists in the United States. And this is the main story in the Memoirs. It is a story at once gripping and hilarious on every page. Gripping, because Alice fought opposition for decades. Hilarious, because she foiled the plans of her enemies with wittiness and charm.
Early in the text Lily informs us that by 1950, the Hunter college philosophy department, where she would work, was already the victim of Marxist infiltration. She was later told in 1963 that two men – Oliver Martin and John Somerville – were Communist infiltrators in academia. “Did you know,” Martin says to Hildebrand,
in the late 1930s, John Somerville and I were paid by the Communist Party – and well paid – to spread atheism in the academic world? (50)
Somerville was one of Hildebrand’s colleagues in the philosophy department. In January 1948, faced with few prospects for income to support herself, she took the only job she could find teaching at Hunter college in New York.
All of a sudden, I – a young woman, aged twenty-four – was to face an older, all-male student body, mostly from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. I had the feeling that these men were not exactly raised to be perfect gentlemen. I was grateful for the opportunity but also petrified (35).
Through trembling fingers hidden beneath her desk, this young single woman expounded in her philosophy class the classics of the western philosophical tradition, which immediately sparked opposition from the class, brainwashed to a man with the Liberal and Marxist propaganda against truth.
She was terrified and opposed by her students, but she persevered.
Later that semester she received a note from one of her students: “When I entered your classroom, I had kicked out religion. Now I shall go back to Church.”
I was amazed, for I had never mentioned religion in my courses. But I should not have been surprised. Throughout my career, I found that the greatest obstacle to faith was always some form of relativism. Once removed, those who “have good will” always find their way to God. I was overwhelmed with joy. After all, my “blood sweat and tears” had not been in vain… The work was feverish, from morning to night, but I was willing to accept such suffering if only I could be instrumental in helping a single soul find God (36-37).
But then the Marxists realized what she was doing. And the conspiracy at Hunter college began. Her colleagues, the other professors at the college, and numerous students spent the next thirty-seven years of her life doing everything to destroy her. They staged student protests, spread calumny, blocked her advance, pressured her to stop, and even attempted to corrupt her.
They failed on all accounts.
Meanwhile undeterred, this small, seeming vulnerable single woman fearlessly spoke the truth to everyone, low and high, male and female.
They couldn’t handle the truth.
But for those who could, untold numbers were converted to truth and to the Faith. She reflected later why the Marxists hated the truth so much. It was the fundamental falsehood of their whole dystopian system they wanted to build and force upon everyone:
There is one absolute dogma in the liberal world, namely the universal relativity and subjectivity of all values. To challenge this dogma is already to violate the separation of church and state (Memoirs, 67).
This is an immense insight which helps us understand how high the stakes are in our American cultural wars, and how there can be no compromise with the forces of evil which hate the concept of truth itself.
But as I said, the compelling fact about Alice von Hildebrand is not just her teaching of the truth, but her living of the truth. In 1959 she married Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had already lived this way for decades and the pair worked together for the Church during its most tulmutuous period in the 1960s until Dietrich’s death in 1977. After which Lily continued the same crusade for truth she began in 1948, all the way until her death in 2022.
Is there any 20th century figure quite like her? She is like St. Katherine of Alexandria, refuting the pagan philosophers sent by the Emperor; like St. Nino of Georgia, preaching the Gospel and converting the nation by the hand of a woman (Judith, xiii. 15); Catherine of Siena, speaking to the pope and winning him over to the right path, strengthening the Church on all sides.
What happens when men are effeminate and hate the truth? God raises up a woman to slay the dragon:
And Barac said to her: If thou wilt come with me, I will go: if thou wilt not come with me, I will not go. She said to him: I will go indeed with thee, but at this time the victory shall not be attributed to thee, because Sisara shall be delivered into the hand of a woman (Jdg. iv. 8-9).
Alice von Hildebrand is a light in the darkness of the twentieth century. And she shows forth in a unique way that Marian element of Catholic femininity that is especially hated by the devil. And this is why the Marxists feared her.
Editor’s note: the Hildebrand Project has now happily brought into publication this year a posthumous work of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, Remnant of Paradise, which is a collection of her essays together with recollections from her friends. Stay tuned to OnePeterFive for our discussion of this new work.
Timothy S. Flanders earned a BA in Greek and Latin from Grand Valley State University in 2010 with special studies in history, writing and Arabic. As a result of his studies, he converted from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy and began working in education among ages Kindergarten to adult. He then pursued a Masters’ Degree in Christian history and theology with the Catholic University of Ukraine. In 2013, as a result of further searching, he converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after Pope Francis was elected. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate dedicated to uniting Catholics against the enemies of Holy Church. In 2021, he became the editor-in-chief of the online journal, OnePeterFive. He is the author of three books: Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics, City of God versus City of Man: The Battles of the Church from Antiquity to the Present and When the Gates of Hell Prevail: What Catholics Do in Dark Times, as well as a forthcoming book about Eastern Orthodoxy, published by St. Paul Center. He lives in Michigan with his wife and six children.