Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Personhood and the Ontology of Personalism, Part I

Even before we posted the final part of our short series on the natural law, we received enquiries asking about going into greater depth in some of the explanations. This is one of the (many) dangers associated with trying to be brief and summarize principles and concepts that the general culture has all but abandoned or rejected. Some good examples of this are, as we have seen in previous postings, the idea of money (and, yes, we plan on completing our "brief" series on "Thoughts on Money" . . . someday) and a sound understanding of the institution of private property.

Primary among the issues raised was that of personality or personhood. There is a great deal of confusion about this relatively simple concept today. Part of the blame can be placed on the totalitarian movements that characterized the twentieth century, based on various forms of positivism that developed out of rejection of the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of the natural moral law from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. We see this reflected in the separation of personhood from being — the idea that a human being is not necessarily at the same time a human person.

The Nazis were adept at sowing this sort of confusion. The National Socialist Party of Germany took to the extreme the socialist tendency to redefine and eliminate natural rights whenever it became convenient or expedient to do so. Primary among the rights such totalitarians ignored or denied were, as we might expect, life and liberty (freedom of association), as well as the capacity of individual human beings to acquire and develop virtue — the "pursuit of happiness." Largely unnoticed among the rights the Nazis redefined away from being natural was the natural right to be an owner — the right to property — and defined the exercise of property (the rights of property) in a way that made how an owner could use what he or she owned completely dependent on the will of the State.

Nor was this restricted to the Nazis. Admittedly, closet socialists, when they are Christian — especially when they are Catholic — tend to deny (especially to themselves) that what they believe is in any way tainted with socialism, particularly since the Catholic Church has condemned socialism in no uncertain terms on many occasions. Such people forget (or ignore) the definition of socialism given by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto in 1848: "The theory of the communists can be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property."

As any Thomist or Aristotelian can tell you, redefining something changes a thing's "substantial nature," its essence, and makes the thing something other than what it was. Redefinition is thus abolition of the thing, even if you keep the same word or term for that which you have redefined; you have not changed the substantial nature of the thing that went before, but have given something else the same name, abolishing that which held the name previously.

Thus, all the concerned Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other adherents of religions with social teachings based on the natural law who seek to circumvent the demands of the natural right to private property and the derived rights of private property by redefining what it means for something to be private property are (whether they realize it or not) socialists. This is because they thereby abolish private property as what it was, and turn it into what they want it to be. This is moral and legal positivism ("modernism" in "Catholic language") run amok.

To this we contrast the idea of personalism, the philosophy that places persons and personal relationships at the center of theory and practice in science. "Science" includes the social sciences as well as the physical sciences. Personalism regards humanity, both as individuals and as members of groups, and respect for human dignity as the focus of temporal activity, and the perfection of human beings within a just social order in a manner consistent with nature as the "end" of that activity.

Personalism is an approach to Aristotelian/Thomist philosophy that emphasizes the natural rights of each human being, both individual and social, and puts human persons at the center of all human activity. The natural right to private property (correctly defined) is an integral aspect of what it means for someone (or something) to be a "person," and thus have a social identity. We will start to examine how private property and personhood relate to each other in the next posting in this series.

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