Eidos and Teleology - Ch. 1 "Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality" by Dietrich Von Hildebrand

The Nature of Substitutes

Hildebrand begins this book with a fundamental distinction, though it is sort of implied that one is familiar with the subject to fully realize it. The term "value" is used philosophically to describe the experience of goodness perceived in a thing. There are different domains of value, from beauty in art to rarity in collecting sports cards. Most fundamentally Hildebrand is referring to the domain of moral values, i.e. what is to be proposed as authentically good in terms of how we are to act in the world as human beings. Traditionally this would be determined through two fundamental philosophical ideas, what Hildebrand refers to as Eidos and what we could call teleology. Eidos is the Greek word for "form," meaning the root identity that makes a thing to be what it is. When we understand the forms of things we then can clearly see their teleology, or what is truly fulfilling for that thing's nature. This is the foundation for natural law morality. Our form dictates the moral values which are authentically good and should shape our actions. 

When Hildebrand talks about "substitutes" for morality, he is referring to a trend popular in the 19th century to challenge the idea that there is an eidos to anything, and thus that there is an inherent moral value structure built into the world. Now this modern day challenge takes on several variations, which is what chapter one attempts to look at. It addresses four alternates to the traditional natural law. First, a "extra-moral" value structure which places the wrong emphasis on what moral value should be most fundamental. Second, an "anti-moral" structure which rejects the primacy and inherency of form and moral value in things, substituting something like biology and power in their place. Third, an "a-moral" system which bypasses the discussion altogether to only consider the subjective experience of pleasure. And fourth, a type of neurosis which allows psychological disorders to influence the proper understanding of the obligations of the moral law. 

The book is somewhat technical so far, so I hope this introduction helps explain it a little more simply. 

The Substitute Moral Value
Hildebrand begins this chapter about substitutes for authentic morality by addressing what he calls "extra-moral" systems. This when someone takes an element of authentic Natural Law morality and uses it as the fundamental principle on which morality stands. The problem is that doing such a thing leaves serious holes regarding other moral issues that they are not concerned with. For example, someone who values honor and respect to one's country and will even die for their country, yet may also commit sins of impurity without thinking twice. "Another who will abstain from any act of disloyalty against the law of the land, even to the point of sacrifice, will not draw back from impurity." 1 These extra-moral systems he distinguishes from "anti-moral" and "a-moral" systems of thought. This man still preserves a first principle of morality, the main moral "eidos" (form), but it is not the right one and thus incomplete. 

The Rejection of Moral Value
Different from the extra-moral, is the anti-moral, which Hildebrand connects right to Nietzsche's work. Nietzsche didn't want to replace traditional morality with some new highest value, but rather to reject the existence of moral value altogether. 2 Nietzsche instead replaces moral values as a category altogether with a preference for the biological values of those who are a part of the higher man. 3 "His thesis is precisely to deny the very existence of moral values, and of the moral theme, and to interpret it as an idol of ressentiment. He declares war on the moral sphere and theme as such, and replaces it consciously by extra-moral values, by an extra-moral theme. And this precisely reveals that his 'superman' is not a substitute for morality..."

Not Seeking Beyond Pleasure
Hildebrand then even gives an example of someone who he sees as having left the realm of moral value in an ever greater way than Nietzsche. He talks about the hedonist Aristippus of Cyrene who rejects all norms and values except for that which is subjectively pleasurable or satisfying for the individual. Such an idea cannot even be called a "norm" or obligation, but rather just leaves the man who is smart enough to indulge and the man who is foolish or prudish enough not to indulge. 5 

Ignoring the Question Altogether
Then there is Machiavellism which regards moral value as superstition. There can be no "should," only the practically expedient action towards whatever aims that I have. "It is not the declaration of war on morality as in Nietzsche's ideal, but a more or less cynical ignoring of the moral sphere, looking at the moral sphere and moral theme as something belonging in the realm of superstition and deprived of any validity. In this case, we can no longer speak of an ideal at all." 6

Stumbling Blocks to Authentic Morality
Hildebrand concludes chapter one by addressing what one might describe as psychological neuroticism which affects moral reasoning. There are obstacles that people face in which due to some type of psychological deformation or trauma there is an irrational relationship with the moral law. One may be grounded in the natural moral law but one's emotions and feelings may be very confused or disordered in relation to it. A substitute to morality would be a rational system which replaces the previous system in someone's thinking. This more of a biological or psychological stumbling block. 7 "Yet, radically different as any pathological restraint or compulsion is from moral obligation, there are cases in which the two are interwoven. In certain persons, the awareness of a moral obligation assumes the pathological character of a psychological coercion. Their neurosis is such that even a moral obligation, though so thoroughly different from any pathological compulsion, generates an irrational pressure, and acts on them in a way which contradicts its very nature." 8 This is a type of scrupulosity or compulsion to see the moral obligation where they is none. Here is an interesting description of scrupulosity (or true OCD), "... the scrupulous man who feels himself guilty even when there is no question of guilt; who sees moral obligations where there are none and always fears that he has overlooked some; and who, when shown that he has not sinned, doubts that others have really grasped the case." 9

1 - Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality. (New York. David McKay Company, Inc., 1957.) Pg. 3 .
2 - 4
3 - 5
4 - 5,6 
5 - 6
6 - 7
7 - 8
8 - 9
9 - 10