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?



5 responses

28 12 2010

Well, I don’t think this absolute-chaos cosmology holds much water. The fact that the order of the universe is a lot more complex than a “mere” dancing of spheres does not mean it does not exist. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When the Catesian view start to really spread, people tended to think that someday it would be possible to prevent or at least predict earthquakes. Nowadays, this worldview persists in those who believe we can understand and somehow revert “climate change”.
The ancients would laugh at both; the fact that earthquakes and other seemingly random acts of destruction and creation happen just shows that this order is above man as an individual, and certainly above our complete understanding. Now, with chaos theory and such, we started to realize how much this order is complex, finally starting to disbelieve Cartesian bedtimes fables of a simples machine-like world men would eventually control.

27 12 2010

Perhaps it would make a clear case that the tension, the chaos, resides within us (why should the microcosm be exempt) and that we as persons are in a state of development towards fulfillment. This tension owes to the eschatological and relational aspect of personhood. Then again, it may not.

27 12 2010

Lately, I’ve become obsessed with the following quote from the Chinese philosopher Xunzi:

Fire and water have qi but lack life,
Grasses and trees have life but lack understanding,
Beasts have understanding but lack moral discernment,
Humans have qi, life, understanding, and also moral discernment, and so are most honored under heaven.

The modern Cartesian approach is to say that stones, plants, and animals are all on the same level. The only thing non-mechanical is the human mind. Post-Descartes, the battle is over whether humans are special or whether there’s only one level of Being in the world.

Pre-Descartes, the battle was quite different. Animals were assumed to have souls but lack reason (anima = soul = animate = animal). Reason was primarily a kind of moral discernment in the West as it was in the East. Saying, man is the rational animal, wasn’t so different from claiming that man is the moral animal. Reason, pre-Hume, wasn’t the slave of the passions but a source of moral norms as well as logical norms. Everything has its place and the highest place was occupied by the Good/the God. Reason was a means of connecting with that higher form of Being.

Post-modern science may make things seem more chaotic, but I don’t think the basics of the pre-modern worldview are much less plausible today than they were then. We may be subject to forces we don’t understand, but the forces seem to be at least partially understandable. The forces may not be benevolent, but we cannot yet eliminate the possibility that this world is Good. Its goodness is riddled with pockets of Chaos and Nothing and Evil but the world itself may still be Good.

27 12 2010
Charles Curtis

Gee, I should edit before I post. Hope that wasn’t too incoherent. Seemed smart in my slightly rum addled head..

27 12 2010
Charles Curtis

I was discussing all of this a month or so ago with an prot (Evangelical Lutheran by way of Campus Crusade for Christ) convert to Orthodoxy, who was telling me that if he weren’t married with kids, he’d think about a non-homicidal terror campaign bombing abortion clinics at night when no one was around – sort of like a pro-life Weather Underground.

My reaction was complicated. I’m maybe a more radical pro-lifer than he is, in that I’ve been far more of an activist to date, going regularly to the annual March for Life, supporting National & State Right to Life and Fem feminists for Life financially, all that jazz, until I just burnt out a few years ago, and just quit. Most especially after most of the pro-life organizations, most prominently NRLC. backed the “money is speech” Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Beyond jaded, now. And am in no way interested in backing the sort of fascistic actions that would be needed to actively criminalize abortion in this culture.. Let God sort us all out, not the U.S. Government.

Which is merely to say, that while I appreciate the purity of the radical (both the Weather Underground and a hypothetical Pro-Life Group imitating them get props from my inner anarchist) I must say I do not support such violence, and cannot support laws that would require such oppression on the part of the government. This means, for example, that I support making marijuana possession – of no matter what amount – a mere misdemeanor. I’m leaning toward making sale or use of any drug a misdemeanor.

And while I am still for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent regulation or outlawing of abortion on demand by state and local jurisdictions by way of a democratic praxis (which laws would thereby supported by the local communities making and enforcing them) I am emphatically not about forcing my sexual ethics (as important as I believe they are) upon anyone by way of coercion.

Christ Himself submitted to the rule of Pilate and Herrod.

When he told us to give unto Caesar, he meant it. The king and the pharisees (the government and hierarchy) have authority sanctioned by God. When Christ tells us to sort our duty and response toward those authorities out using our consciences, he is neither kidding, nor letting us off the hook.

The state sanctifies violence through the law. A soldier or policeman acting with the sanction of that law is not a murderer when he kills. He commits a homicide that is sanctified by the law, which is to say through the authority of the state, before that of God.

I am not sophisticated enough to address your concerns about science and neo-scholastic thought, of how it pertains to all of this, but I will say that the thing that I love so much about St. Thomas d’Aquino, the Dominicans who taught me at Providence College, as well as the tradition that descends from Aquinas and Augustine through Maritain to the likes of Foucault (whom every time I read him, screams how he is the child of the cathedral school of Paris with his every sentence..)

The reason that the Catholic tradition is ultimately going to rupture and subsume every possible paradox and problem flows out of that discourse that at it’s very source embraces both Ibn Rushd – the seminal rationalist Averroes, bubbed the Commentator by Tom – and then – paradoxically – also al-Ghazali, that mystic who wrote the Incoherence of Philosophers..

(Chew on that fact Weigal, Novak, Sirico Arroyo and the rest of you lighting candles in front of your masonic libertarian shrine..)

All of which is just and merely to say that the Faith can, does, and will continue to contain multitudes, and the reality of the Triune God will undo every paradox and contradiction that plagues the human mind.

Be not afraid, you know.

And don’t let your head get in the way of your heart. Cor ad co loquitor, as one particularly sage master had it.

Cheers. I need to go and touch up my rum and coke, to stoke all this scintillating inspiration. Merry Christmas, Arturo & y’all everyone.

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