The Inexhaustible Meaning of “Personalism”

Whenever I type the word “personalism,” my computer draws a red line under it indicating that I have made a spelling error or that the word is not to be found within its 70,000-word vocabulary.  My computer is philosophically challenged.  Some time ago, when crossing the United States border and on my way to teach a course on personalism, I was questioned by the Customs Official. He asked me about my purpose in coming to the USA. He found my reference to a course on personalism incredulous. Not only that, he thought I was mocking his authority. I had to open the trunk of my car and show him my course notes before he allowed me into the country.

Sometimes the most important things, like God to an atheist or the location of churches on a Russian map of Moscow, are missing. And so, too, the critically important notion of personalism often goes either missing or neglected. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the person upon which personalism is built, “signifies what is most perfect in all nature” (ST Part I: Q29). The Angelic Doctor, of course, did not have the last word on the subject. Therefore, I have enlisted five thinkers who have added to the philosophy of personalism and have provided their own special insights to illustrate its inexhaustible richness.

Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005; later Pope John Paul II) established himself as a world class philosopher with his book, The Acting Person. Man is not merely and individual nor is he merely a being who is absorbed into society. He is a “person,” which is to say that he is a dynamic unity between unique individuality and communal responsibility. He has the natural ability to transcend individuality through “participation” in the lives of others. This “participation” allows for the possibility of love. True love, then “is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person”.  Consequently, “anyone who treats a person as a means to an end or as an object, does violence to the very essence of the other, to what constitutes its natural right (Love and Responsibility). “The commandment of love,” he adds, “is simply the call to experience another human being as another I, the call to participate in another’s humanity,” (Person and Community: Selected Essays).

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) adds a certain nuance to Pope John Paul’s notion of participation when he introduces the term “presence”. We can look upon others as so many objects. We recognize their humanity, but they are not present to us. We can exchange words with another and remain alienated from each other as persons. “He understands what I say to him,” Marcel writes, “but he does not understand me (The Mystery of Being, Part 1). What this amounts to is communication without communion. Presence is the ability to share one’s humanity with another in a person-to-person way. It is, to use another of Marcel’s favorite words, an experience of “intersubjectivity”. Being present to another is manifesting one’s reality as a person.

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) has done more than any other modern philosopher to develop the notion of person. If he casts new light on the subject it is found in his metaphysics. The person, for Maritain, “superexists” through knowledge and love. His spiritual nature gives him a special depth to his being. When he reaches this depth of being he discovers “the basic generosity of existence”. In other words, at the core one’s being as a person, one finds in inclination to give from his inherent abundance. At this point, he understands that the purpose of his life is to give, and this tendency to give is scripted in the core of his being (Existence and the Existent). Maritain is a Thomist, but he adds much to what Aquinas had to say about the person through his metaphysical analysis of being.

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), as a Russian and as a Christian existentialist, understands the meaning of suffering. He recognizes that life is full of suffering and while we do not want to add to anyone’s suffering, we want our neighbor to bear his cross so that “a light should dawn on him through his suffering and that he should find it easier to bear” (The Destiny of Man).  We become more complete as persons through the compassion we have for our suffering neighbor.  “Our attitude to all men,” he writes, “would be Christian if we regarded them as though they were dying, and determine our relation to them in the light of death, both of their death and our own”. Indeed, a person who is dying calls forth a special kind of feeling in us, one which unites us to him in a person-to-person relationship.   

Martin Buber (1878-1965), although a Hassidic Jew, is a personalist very much like the four aforementioned philosophers, all of whom cite him extensively. He is best known for his book I-Thou, in which he contrasts the “I-Thou” relationship with that of “I-It”. A key word for Buber is “meeting”. “All real living,” he writes, “is meeting” (I-Thou). What he means by this word is the mutual recognize two whole persons have for each other, a rapport that comes about when each sees the other precisely as a Thou. “The Thou meets me through grace,” Buber states, indicating that a true meeting of persons has a religious implication.

Each of these five thinkers sheds a special light on the nature of the person. “Participation,” “presence,” “generosity of being,” “suffering,” and “meeting” all point, in slightly different ways, to how the person transcends the narrowness of the ego and, by his very nature, enters into the life of the other. Love is their common denominator and Jacques Maritain speaks for all of them when he states that “The human person is ordained directly to God as to its absolute ultimate end” (The Person and the Common Good).

Photo by iam_os on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of thirty-nine books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling is posted on amazon.com.  His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production. 

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