©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Truth and Panic



The Wanderer

September 18, 2008

From the very moment of our birth, we have a tacit (if unconscious) awareness of the precariousness of our metaphysical situation. We are helpless creatures entering into a world fraught with uncertainty and dangers. Some great poets have written verses "wrapped in mourning": To be born is a curse. These dark notes are not only to be found in Greek tragedies, but also in Calderon de la Barca. He writes in his famous play, Life Is a Dream, that man's main offense (delito) is to be born. More recently, the talented Italian poet Leopardi tells us that a father's and mother's task is to comfort their newborn child for being born (The Nocturnal Canto of a Wandering Asian Shepherd).

Why does a baby cry when entering the world? Tiny as he is, he must feel that the universe—in spite of all its beauty—is not a safe place, a home where he will find happiness. Whether fully realized or not, fear is a key human motivation. How many betrayals, how many despicable actions, have been triggered by fear! We only need recall the lovable Peter who, while totally sincere when he told Christ that he would die for Him, in the grips of a craven panic, denied Him a few hours later because of a remark made by a maid. Yet, he had shortly before declared Him to be the Son of the living God.

How many millions of Germans, who had no sympathy for Hitler, kept a low profile and shouted "Heil Hitler" as soon as he grabbed power? The nightmare of being sent to a concentration camp paralyzed them, as it would most of us.

We long for security, and on this earth, nothing is secure. We crave happiness, and to be born is to start on an inevitable course toward death.

Small children are constantly exposed to fear: fear of darkness, fear of being left alone, be it only for a brief moment. We are not even speaking about ill-treated and abandoned children who never receive love and tenderness. 

This fear—unless overcome—will be our daily companion as long as we live. But people's response to fear can be very different. Some of us are plagued by fear, and never seem to overcome it because we never lose sight of the fragility of our existence, and never know how fear can be overcome. Only those blessed by the conviction granted by faith, that in moments of darkness and anxiety, God is still lovingly leading them to a place where all tears will be dried, can quiet their alarm and help them to overcome fear. 

Some men, however, brag that they do armor, but an armor which, one day, might prove to be full of chinks. I wonder if bullies are so aggressive not because they are animated by unconscious fear, but rather because they fear being attacked. They spend their lives waging preventive wars using cruelty and ruthlessness as their preferred tools, to dominate others by fear. They threaten from fear of being threatened.

Fear like a shadow accompanies us wherever we go: fear of sickness, fear of suffering (whether physical or psychological), fear of failure, fear of insecurity, fear of war, fear of disasters, fear of being a disappointment to our dear ones, fear of rejection, fear of getting a pink slip, fear of not finding a husband or a wife, fear of losing those we love, fear of death. The list is long.

The worst monsters (of which the 20th century has produced a rich harvest) are most probably people living in a constant state of fear of being assassinated. For this reason, they cannot liberate themselves from the curse of suspicion—they can never trust anyone—and at the lightest sign of danger (real or purely imaginary) they condemn their "enemies" to torture, death, or to Gulags. They cannot ever experience a single moment of peace and security. They know that they are hated and for good reasons. Stalin actually lived in a dungeon of his own making. Access to his "jail" was practically impossible: Anyone coming near him had to be checked and rechecked. Food had to be pre-tasted because of his fear of being poisoned. He must have had a taste of Hell long before (we have reasons to fear) he got there.

Some refuse to acknowledge that they know fear: In Wagner's opera, Siegfried, the dwarf Mime tries in vain to explain to the hero what fear is. It is only when he encounters Brünnhilde—a woman—that a feeling of awe overcomes him. But awe, while having similarities with fear, is very different. We feel awe for things greater than we are. We respond with fear to things that are menacing.

Fear is a legitimate feeling. But there are men, throughout history, who have conquered fear: martyrs have overcome it because of their faith and their burning love for Christ, their Savior. How many of them went to torture and death with a joyful calm proving that they firmly believed that they were going to the bridal feast of Heaven!

As mentioned, the twentieth century will go down in history as one of the bloodiest and most cruel in man's sad history. But there were heroes: some of them are known; others will be discovered and then belatedly acclaimed for their courage. Let me mention a well-known one: Solzhenitsyn, who conquered the monstrous machine of Communism, because "he conquered fear." Neither hunger, nor torture, nor death had any power over him. He became a victor because he trusted in divine help. He traveled from atheism to faith through suffering. He then understood the words of Christ: "In this world, you will have tribulations. But I have overcome the world."

St. Paul echoed the same truth; our victory over the world is our faith. How often did John Paul II tell his sheep: "Do not fear." Humanly speaking, this is not possible. But with God, all things become possible.

Looking back over our lives, most of us must acknowledge that we have had many a sleepless night worrying about things that had no eternal resonance whatsoever, things that tomorrow will be nothing but shadows in our consciousness. But how many of us are prevented from sleep by worrying that we might be mistaken concerning the key questions of human existence? Pascal was conscious of this madness when he wrote: "It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time, this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects" (Pensées, n. 194). I wonder if professional atheists (and atheism is a lucrative profession) ever dare raise the question: "Is it at all possible that I am mistaken? Could my intellectual perorations be the product of wishful thinking or proud rebellion?"

Am I honestly willing to examine whether I want the truth, or am I motivated by the unconscious desire to refuse to give homage to Him who is greater than I am? This “if,” this "maybe," must be to them so fearful, that probably they use every possible psychological technique to prevent these two menacing letters "if" from entering their consciousness.

None of us chooses his ethnic background. We are inevitably born in a particular culture, and very many men make no distinction between culture and religion because they see the latter as an expression of the former, thereby putting in brackets the truth-claim that every religion should have. There are very many "religions." Many of them break up into thousands of sects (let us think of Protestantism). How can they all uphold the truth-claim just mentioned?

We cannot change the race into which we were born. But not only can we change our religion: we are even morally obliged to do so upon recognizing that it is flawed. How many men have sleepless nights at the thought that maybe the religion into which they were born is not the true one, or does not possess the plenitude of truth? How many end their days by begging God for the grace to seek Truth, in spite of the innumerable obstacles standing in their path, and the painful sacrifices that will be required if they "betray" their old beliefs, because they do not live up to the "truth claim" that religion should have?

Ask and you will receive, knock and it will be opened unto you. How could God, the infinite loving one, refuse this grace to those who ardently ask for it? For "the Lord is near those who call upon Him, who call upon Him in truth" (Psalm 144:18).

Those of us who, without any merit of our own, are, from birth, fed on revealed truth, as guaranteed by the authority of St. Peter, should also go to bed worrying whether we are living up to the demands of this unfathomable gift, or whether we have let the seed fall on shallow ground. St. Luke makes this clear when he relates the parable of the sower; some seeds fall on the ground and are trampled under foot; some fall on a rock, but receiving no moisture (our tears of repentance) died; some are choked by thistles. The greater the gift, the greater the demand that will be made on us. From those who have received more, more will be required.

Among the millions and millions of Roman Catholics, how many worry about this all-important question? How many of us live in this holy fear which is the beginning of wisdom? Whereas groundless, paralyzing fears should be banished from a faithful heart, this one fear is to be cultivated, for it is a grace that prevents us from being somnolent and found asleep when the bridegroom comes.

Centuries ago, Plato wrote that there is a hierarchy of truths and a hierarchy of errors, just as there are deadly sicknesses (sickness unto death) and diseases which can be cured. Every error is a false note in the symphony of the universe, but errors concerning what I shall call “royal” truths are not only disastrous, but tragic in their consequences. It was Kierkegaard who wrote that what men fear least is to be mistaken about essential questions. This is linked to their fear of knowing truths that will challenge them to change their “lifestyle,” for as this great Danish thinker wrote: “Every man is more or less afraid of the truth.” This is why it is so difficult to truly know oneself. Kierkegaard is clearly referring to metaphysical, ethical, and religious truths; not to mathematical and scientific ones which, valuable as they might be, do not affect man's eternal fate.

Thirty-seven years of teaching philosophy at a secular university taught me many things, the most important of which is that in every human heart there is a tacit and dramatic duel between the longing for Truth, and the fear of finding it. How many of my students became panicky as soon as they suspected that I not only stood for the objectivity of truth, but, worse, would give them arguments that they could not refute? One of my students declared in front of the whole class; "The worst thing that could happen to me would be to find out that I have an immortal soul: For then, my actions would have consequences." He was tragically honest. Once people realize how deeply they fear "truth," they declare war on the person menacing their "security." The best way of attacking an intellectual position that one cannot refute is to use popular slogans:· such as "totalitarian," "intolerant," "dogmatic," "undemocratic," "redolent of the Inquisition," and  "medieval."

In Hunter College, standing for the objectivity of truth and moral values meant to spread Roman Catholicism, that is, sinning against the "sacred" separation of church and state, In spite of lip service paid to "academic freedom," such a stand was inadmissible in a place of learning where "all ideas should be welcome” and "dictatorial relativism" is king.

Those suffering from a severe allergy to the word “truth” know deep down that to face it will inevitably lead them to the One who not only taught many truths, but is Truth Itself, namely Christ. In a secular world, this triggers panic.

Indeed, we should live in fear and trembling, but facing valid fears is the best way of overcoming "noctium phantasmata" that paralyze many of us.

May God grant us the grace of fearing only what should be feared; to offend the King and to be separated from Him forever.