Notes on personhood

27 12 2010

In his book Three Reformers, Maritain summarizes the Thomist view of the human person by saying that as an individual, man is subject of the stars, but as a person, he is their master. It is a good summary. In the traditional cosmology, man is a microcosm who has both reason and free will. Not only does he move, but he knows why he moves and can control movement, unlike plants and animals. In traditional metaphysics, then, man is the crown of creation since he has independent volition and understanding, while combining both the material and spiritual worlds.

That is the argument as far as it goes. To problematize it, one has to cite that many of the ancients, including many Christians, believed that the stars themselves were alive and with reason. That is why they were deemed to be perfect and could indicate the path of our fate, since they moved in a perfect circle. That is a superficial objection. The real one stems precisely from the critique of the cosmological view itself. We know now that our universe is not necessarily governed by a harmonious cosmic order, but by a series of accidents and apocalyptic catastrophes. Nature isn’t some goddess who dances in a completely rational pattern, but rather a monster that determines the life and death of entire worlds due to some very random pattern. The disadvantage of intelligent design arguments in this sense is how they ignore the radical factor of contingency in the development of things. Stuff just happens sometimes.

In this sense, we can take Maritain’s explanation and problematize it even more. The stars are nowhere near us. They are balls of gas floating millions of miles away. But their random formation and movement reflect the contingency of our actions and even our foundational identity. We think we are practicing complete autonomy, when we are really subject to forces we do not understand. Perhaps the real dilemma of our society in the ethical realm is that in the past ethics were imposed by force. Never has there been a time in history when people did things simply because they thought they were the right thing to do.

Perhaps “personhood” is the only legitimate metaphysical basis for Christianity, but that does not necessarily remove the problems from such a concept. It can still be used to alienate those who are not deemed to be acting in conformity with “authentic personhood”. It also does not make the question of the relationship between the common good and the person any easier to answer. Also, it does not answer the question as to how much coercion should be used to make the inviolable human person act virtuously. Nor does it give any real sense of what the relationship is between body and soul, consciousness, the State, and so on. Perhaps what is in the interior of man is not the celestial order of the Maritain dictum but the protean chaos of modern science, and if this is the case, what does this do to Personhood?