Be warned: today’s posting gets into philosophy, which we define as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Having a philosophy means that you have some framework for understanding what you know (why you know something), what’s real and what’s not real, and whether or not you exist. Not caring about these things is as much a philosophy as discussing them at great length.
Philosophy is essential to living life — not just what Aristotle called “the good life” (i.e., the life of virtue). The problem with philosophy for most people is that they don’t realize they have one. The ones who are most insistent on that point are often the ones who hold by the principles of their philosophy most rigidly.
Take, for example, the case of Emmanuel Mounier. The Wikipedia as of March 1, 2021 describes him as “a French philosopher, theologian, teacher and essayist.” A leader in the French personalist movement, the one thing Mounier insisted on was that personalism as he defined it was not a philosophy, but a movement . . . which apparently (according to Mounier) had no philosophy.
Mounier was quite insistent on that point. Somehow, “philosophy” — which he didn’t define — was something bad. “Movement” was good. This may even have been one of the issues that ultimately caused a break between Mounier and Jacques Maritain, the French Thomist philosopher.
Of course, there was also the problem that Maritain seems to have disagreed with Mounier’s definition of personalism. As Maritain rather tartly wrote in 1946, “[t]here are, at least, a dozen personalist doctrines, which, at times, have nothing more in common than the word ‘person’.” (Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, 13.) It is certain that Maritain was thinking of Mounier’s “non”-philosophy/movement in this regard, as Mounier’s “anarcho-Catholicism” is the direct antithesis of a personalist anything, whether you call it a movement or a philosophy.
That’s because “person” is a social concept, and anarchy of any kind — if it is truly anarchic — is supremely individualistic. Just as Fulton Sheen described the effects of the modernism a generation before Mounier as “Religion Without God,” we can describe Mounier’s “non”-philosophy/movement as “Personalism Without Persons.”
. . . which leads us into the two problems we’re addressing today. The first one is a very philosophical question in and of itself. In the 1970s, the Aristotelian-Thomist Mortimer J. Adler published a book titled Ten Philosophical Mistakes. One of the chapters was on the difference between knowledge (which is always true) and opinion (which may be true, but may also be false or even nonsensical).
After a great deal of explanation and correlating with other things Adler wrote, the basic problem he addressed was (in part) the same one we’re looking at today: the inability or unwillingness on the part of many people to distinguish between the particular (what is actual) and the general (the abstractions they create in their own minds). Adler usually framed this as the fundamental difference between Plato (of whom he disapproved) and Aristotle (of whom he approved).
|Mortimer J. Adler|
And the specific problem we’re interested in today? From our experience, both the “right” and the “left” tend to confuse the abstraction of humanity as a whole or of an economic or political élite, with the actuality of the human person.
That means that for the “left,” the State or the collective creates persons, i.e., rights come from the State or collective and are granted to human beings, turning them into persons, “person” signifying “that which has rights.” For the “right,” everyone presumably already has rights, but they’re effective only for a relatively small élite. Both the left and the right end up saying the same thing in different ways — they share the same philosophy that violates participative justice.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that abstractions are created by people, while people are created by God. The concept of inalienable rights inhering in each human person by nature combined with participative justice that demands everyone have the right to exercise their inherent rights gives a different approach than the assumption that rights (whatever their original source) come from humanity as a gift or grant to individuals.
Thus, the biggest issue or discussion point we’ve had with both left and right is to keep them on track with the human person instead of humanity as a whole or some special group. Even that presumably quintessential individualist Milton “Greed Is Good” Friedman became a collectivist when push came to shove, i.e., when he was asked a question he couldn’t answer except by ranting how greed is good and capitalism has helped more people out of poverty, etc. If something violates the rights of a single human being, it is wrong, and you don’t have to believe in God to understand that.
The other problem is power (over your own life/human dignity) versus material wellbeing (income). G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw went over this in their final debate in 1927. Shaw said only income is important, because nothing else exists. Chesterton said power is important, because then you can become more virtuous.
Of course, whether you agree with Chesterton or Shaw depends on — you guessed it — your philosophy. If you think the meaning and purpose of life is mere existence, you’ll agree with Shaw. If you think the meaning and purpose of life is to become virtuous (“more fully human”), you’ll agree with Chesterton. The former makes how you meet your material needs irrelevant, as long as you do so, while the latter means that you must never go contrary to human nature in anything you do, for that contradicts the whole meaning and purpose of life.