MORALITY AND SITUATION ETHICS Dietrich and Alice Von Hildebrand
Chapter IV: Letter And Spirit
In previous chapters, we referred several times to the antithesis of letter and spirit. It is necessary to analyze these notions more minutely. It is especially important to consider when and where, in relation to moral commandments, a distinction between letter and spirit can be made. Before discussing this problem, however, we must distinguish various meanings of letter and spirit.
We must first distinguish three formally different meanings. According to the first, the term “abiding by the letter” designates a failure to distinguish the essential from the nonessential in propositions, moral commandments, or precepts. Thus, in abiding by the letter, one clings to a mere formulation, to something accidental and exterior. This can be for very different motives, as we shall see later on, but the result is always the same—mistaking the surface for the content. “Spirit” here means the real meaning of the proposition or commandment, its essence and true intention.
By “letter” one sometimes refers to actions, and by “spirit,” in the same context, to the underlying motive. A man who abstains from fornication because he is a misogynist, or gives money to the poor merely in order to make an impression, observes the letter of the commandment but fails to fulfill its spirit. Such a discrepancy of “letter” and “spirit” (in this second sense) is, as we know, quite common. Here, abiding by the letter assumes the character of a mere abstention or of acting in conformity with the commandment but without the moral motive and intention.