We were going to title this posting “The Problem with Personalism,” except that would imply that there is something wrong with personalism. There is nothing wrong with personalism, although the same can’t be said of some of its interpreters. The fact is that if we take the personalist movement as generally understood, it is incomplete.
|Thomism IS personalism.|
As we saw in the previous posting in this series, Pope John Paul I clearly had the “personalist perspective” — a focus on the inherent dignity and sovereignty of each human person under God. He also had much more of a grounding in basic Thomist philosophy than most people concerned with social justice issues, who tend to concentrate on applications of individual justice and individual charity that they call social justice without realizing it is nothing of the sort; social justice is the virtue that makes the individual virtues possible, it does not substitute for or replace them.
What John Paul I lacked, however, was an effective means to implement the essential reforms of the system that constitute the “matter” of social justice. That limited his positive recommendations to those ameliorative measures so many mistake for social justice, although at the same time he was very strong in his reminders that the end does not justify the means, which is one of the fundamental principles of socialism. As he said in his “Urbi et Orbi” (“The City and the World”) address with which he opened his pontificate on August 27, 1978,
|"We are all obliged to work for justice!"|
[W]e place ourselves interiorly, putting all of our physical and spiritual strength at the service of the universal mission of the Church, that is to say, at the service of the world. In other words we will be at the service of truth, of justice, of peace, of harmony, of collaboration within nations as well as rapport among peoples. We call especially on the children of the Church to understand better their responsibility: “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world” (Mt 5:13). Overcoming internal tension which can arise here and there, overcoming the temptation of identifying ourselves with the ways of the world or the appeal of easily won applause, we are, rather, united in the unique bond of love which forms the inner life of the Church as also its external order. Thus, the faithful should be ready to give witness of their own faith to the world: “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15).
My brothers and sisters — all people of the world! We are all obliged to work to raise the world to a condition of greater justice, more stable peace, more sincere cooperation. Therefore we ask and beg all — from the humblest who are the connective fibres of nations to heads of state responsible for each nation—to work for a new order, one more just and honest.
A dawn of hope spreads over the earth, although it is sometimes touched by sinister merchants of hatred, bloodshed, and war with a darkness which sometimes threatens to obscure the dawn. This humble Vicar of Christ, who begins his mission in fear yet in complete trust, places himself at the disposal of the entire Church and all civil society. We make no distinction as to race or ideology but seek to secure for the world the dawn of a more serene and joyful day. Only Christ could cause this dawn of a light which will never set, because he is the “sun of justice” (cf. Mal 4:2). He will indeed oversee the work of all. He will not fail us.
|"As many people as possible should own capital."|
There are clear references to reforming the system here, e.g., “work for a new order, one more just and honest,” and so on . . . but nothing as definite as Leo XIII’s or Pius XI’s admonition to work specifically for widespread capital ownership. It is all generalities — sound morality, of course, and obviously motivated by enormous goodwill, but nothing tangible to grasp and enable people to say, “Yes — that is what we must do!”
This is understandable. By 1978 it had become more than a little obvious that the means that Leo XIII and Pius XI had mentioned to enable people to become capital owners — an increase in wages to enable people to save — was not merely inadequate, it was inconsistent with the way finance is practiced in an advanced economy.
Reducing consumption below one’s income level to save and finance new capital formation is even counterproductive, as Dr. Harold G. Moulton explained in The Formation of Capital (1935), his classic refutation of the monetary policies of the Keynesian New Deal. As Moulton pointed out, if people reduce consumption in order to save to finance new capital to increase production, there is no reason to increase production because consumption has decreased! After all, as Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations (1776) as the first principle of economics, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”
This sets up an “economic dilemma,” viz.,
|Dr. Harold Glenn Moulton|
The dilemma may be summarily stated as follows: In order to accumulate money savings, we must decrease our expenditures for consumption; but in order to expand capital goods profitably, we must increase our expenditures for consumption. . . .
[In addition,] when the managers of modern business corporations contemplate the expansion of capital goods they are forced to consider whether such capital will be profitable. They must begin to pay interest upon borrowed funds immediately and they must hold out the hope of relatively early dividends on stock investments. . . .
Now the ability to earn interest or profits on new capital depends directly upon the ability to sell the goods which that new capital will produce, and this depends, in the main, upon an expansion in the aggregate demand of the people for consumption goods. . . . [I]f the aggregate capital supply of a nation is to be steadily increased it is necessary that the demand for consumption goods expand in rough proportion to the increase in the supply of capital.
In other words, if people save to invest, they can’t consume, but if they don’t consume, the investment will not be profitable. The bottom line? When added to the fact that income from labor tends to decrease relative to income from capital when technology is advancing and displacing labor (further lowering the relative value of labor), not only are most people prevented from saving, it does them little good if they can!
That being the case, the best John Paul I could do was to tell people to start looking for ways to restructure the social order, and in the meantime make certain that acts of individual justice and charity do as much as is humanly possible.
That, in fact, is the great lesson to be learned from John Paul I: not to assume that because you don’t have the answer or even an answer at the moment there is no answer. Too many people have fallen into that trap and, e.g., rejected the Just Third Way simply because they never heard of it before, somebody told them it wouldn’t work, or they just don’t “get” it.
That seems to have been the problem that afflicted Emmanuel Mounier, generally (if not accurately) regarded as the founder of personalism. He seems even to have rejected philosophy itself because it didn’t give an immediate answer to the problem of the loss of human dignity he saw in the modern age.
Mounier somehow failed to grasp the fact that philosophy — in common with religion or education — doesn’t actually give you an answer, but the “tools” you need to develop your own answer. That is why it is the utmost importance that a religion or a philosophy be true, so that the answers each person develops from the principles has a better chance of being true as well if it is in conformity with those principles.
That may be why Mounier refused to call personalism a philosophy, insisting it was only a movement. Jacques Maritain had some influence on him, but Mounier seemed suspicious of “philosophy” and anything else that did not seem directed to respect for human dignity. He seemed to shy away from absolutes at the same time that he relied on them as the basis of his personalist ethos.
Thus, although Mounier was “a man of remarkable good will and unusual honesty toward even his worst enemies” (R. William Rauch, Jr., Politics and Belief in Contemporary France: Emmanuel Mounier and Christian Democracy, 1932-1950. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972, 5), he had an unfortunate almost total blindness to the importance of institutions. His inherent kindliness was directed exclusively at human persons, not to abstractions.
|Pope John Paul II|
Nor was Mounier alone in his focus on the immediate to the exclusion of the important. It may be that the so-called decline in attendance at religious services, civil groups, social clubs, fraternal orders, and such like is due more to many people today not being able to see beyond the immediate concern than any real lack of relevance. Thinking institutionally or systemically in a socially just manner automatically means thinking beyond the immediate — which many people no longer do, and thereby confuse the immediate things of individual justice and charity (food, clothing, and shelter, for example) with the important things of social justice (the institutions that determine how people obtain food, clothing, and shelter).
Obviously, John Paul I had moved beyond Mounier’s restricted concept of personalism and toward something approaching — or identical to — the actual personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II, his guide and mentor in many things. He (that is, John Paul I) had not yet seen how to reform the system, although he clearly saw the system needed reforming. The technique of social justice was there to complete the theory of personalism, the specific end (widespread capital ownership) had already been articulated . . . but how are people without savings supposed to become capital owners without harming the rights of existing owners of capital?
That is what we will look at in the next posting in this series.#30#