Kant wrote that all of our philosophical inquiry could be summarized by three questions: “What can I know? What ought I to do? And what may I hope?” I think that any worthwhile philosophy should be able to offer clear answers to all three. If I fail to convey the answers offered by Personalism it will be very much my fault, and not that of the idea I’m trying to describe. was French Catholic, who lived from 1905 to 1950. He was the child of peasants, like Peter Maurin, and a philosophy prodigy at the Sorbonne, like Simone Weil. While he did not coin the term “Personalism”, his writing in the Personalist tradition – much of it in the Catholic journal he founded, L’Esprit – serves as our most thorough guide to Personalist philosophy.
It might be best to begin with his diagnosis of modern times, which remains accurate: he wrote that “…every value has been devalued… so that even the rôles of sanctity and heroism are played by glory and ‘success’, that of spiritual force by ‘toughness’; where love is debased to eroticism, intelligence to intellectualism, reason to cunning, meditation to introspection, and the passion for truth reduced to the shallowest ‘sincerities’.” He blames much of this degradation on the modern systems which, while first determined by man, have now come to determine and dominate him – capitalism and socialism. As the objects of either of these systems – alienated from the ground up by capitalist premises, or manipulated from the top down by a socialist state – we are denied the chance to separate the personal from the political, and so have no hope of healthily combining the two later on. Personalism is not a compromise in the middle of that spectrum, but a triangulating third option, a generative rather than reactionary stance, seeking to hold us accountable to the best version of ourselves.
Mounier writes that “…one does not free a man by detaching him from the bonds that paralyze him; one frees a man by attaching him to his destiny.” I think that responsibility to strengthen what we know to be good, rather than try to destroy what we believe bad, is such an essential responsibility of anyone seeking to deliver good news, certainly from a Catholic Worker perspective. Perhaps the simplest formulation of personalist civilization is: “one directed towards the development as persons of all the individuals constituting it, who have, as their ultimate end, to enable every individual to live as a person, that is, to exercise a maximum of initiative, responsibility, and spiritual life.”
So: how does one become ones self? Through leaving the safe but limiting prison cell of our own will – through doing our best to evacuate the ego, so that the space it leaves is filled by something less lonely and violent, more sustaining. Mounier wrote we “have no authentic existence until we have an interior stronghold of… devotion, against which we do not believe that the fear of death itself could prevail.” I think that very quickly becomes the demand of Christianity: there should be no person that I would not die to protect.
Mounier describes several methods of coming to know ones self, some of which are prayerful and internal, and some of which work through responsibility – it’s interesting here to think of responsibility as literally being able to respond and communicate. He writes of a fearless generosity that we should all aspire to, a giving without measure and without hope of reward. It’s only through that reckless and fearless generosity that we can dissolve the ego and annul the solitude of the subject. As children of God, we are always on the receiving end of that fearless love, and so rarely capable of offering it ourselves. And it can be really, really hard to accept God’s love – I find it shamefully difficult to accept both the gift and what it demands of me, convince myself that I deserve neither. On that subject, I think Mounier says something astonishing, and in its way generous: that “generosity fails only in the face of certain resentments more mysterious than those of contrary interest, hatreds which seem to be directed against disinterestedness itself.”
To be a person in Mounier’s formulation, then, is to be defined not by what one earns, or consumes, or wills, or even by what one believes – but rather by what one loves. He wrote: “the communion of love, in liberating him who responds to it, also liberates and reassures him who offers it. Love is the surest certainty that man knows; the one irrefutable, existential cogito: I love, therefore I am.” Through seeking at all times to love and revere the mysteriousness and divinity of the other, it’s not that we abandon hope of understanding his individual gifts and needs, his specificity; but that we first and foremost know that we will never know him completely — that his subjectivity is just as real, complicated, and valuable as our own. One of my favorite Mounier quotes, to that effect: “the universe is full of men going through the same motions in the same surroundings, but carrying within themselves, and projecting around them, universes as mutually remote as the constellations.” Knowing this, we can only attain freedom by conferring it to others; we are commanded to love one another as subjects, rather than hurt one another as objects. And actually, I’d go even farther and say that to subjectify the other is the fundamental act of loving them, and to objectify them to do them harm.
I want to end on an aspect of personalism that is especially interesting to me, as both an addict to the internet and an evangelical believer in the Catholic Worker’s resistance to technology. Mounier is very, very suspicious of technology; he writes that “the power of abstraction in the machine is indeed frightening: by its severance of human contacts, it can make us forget, more dangerously than anything else has ever done, what happens to those whose work its controls and whose bodies it may sacrifice. Perfectly objective, altogether explicable, it de-educates us from all that is intimate, secret, or inexpressible.” I think that’s an amazing description of mechanized warfare, drones, and iPhones – but I also think it can be applied to the human mind. We’ve displaced and accelerated the power of abstraction by worshiping objects, but that power of abstraction has always existed in the way we objectify everything, and every one, that we are afraid to love.
Basically: we will always be subjugated to the (literal, political, ideological) machines we build so long as we love anything more than human subjectivity.