The decline and fall of the Person: Musings on my stack of unread books

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 20, 2015

It is no coincidence that there are four new books on my desk which are all centered on the human person. It is not a coincidence because the loss of a clear sense of the person is the overriding tragedy of modern history. This tragedy lies at the root of the gradual collapse of our secular culture. Catholic authors have gradually recognized the problem, especially under the influence of John Paul II. In a great variety of fields, they are beginning to write books which take the person as their starting point.

The grand synthesis between Christian revelation and classical reason which formed Western culture placed the person at center stage. As a direct result, the universe was perceived as pregnant with meaning, created by and for persons, and capable of generating a kind of wonder that leads back to the Creator. But under various internal and external pressures, this intensely human synthesis tended to break down. People began to relativize ideas—the human grasp of meaning which is so often subject to disagreement, debate and conflict. And they began to absolutize facts—descriptions of material reality which are amenable to physical measurement and empirical proof.

There are so many ways to trace this shift in perception that it is difficult to know where to start. However it is traced, what we now call “science” gradually took the first place in human studies. Deeply dependent on earlier Western ideas about order in the universe as a whole, the rapid advance of the physical sciences won them deep respect. They offered largely non-controversial benefits to mankind while appearing to reduce the need for moral improvement.

The attraction is not hard to understand. Nobody has to grow in love or overcome habitual vices to appreciate the benefits of science and its resulting technology. In fact, whether good or evil, the achievements of science readily appeal to personal selfishness. They can make us healthier and more comfortable; they can reduce sweat equity; they can maximize pleasure.

A Fundamental Mistake

Unfortunately, this relativization of what we might also call the moral or the spiritual, and this absolutization of what we must call the material, led the West as a whole to commit a fundamental error. We might call it a philosophical or a logical error, but it is just as much an error of common sense. A whole culture began by choosing to focus overwhelmingly on the material world. For obvious reasons, it then lost awareness of what it chose not to focus on. Finally, it proclaimed—completely without warrant—that what it was focused on is all there is. In other words, the West slipped progressively into a deeper and deeper materialism.

This has created gargantuan problems. If everything is material, how can we account for meaning and purpose? The answer is that we cannot, and the long-term result of this reticence concerning meaning is an insistence that everything must be random. In its evolutionary form, this randomness is thought to tend toward continuous improvement, at a huge but justifiable cost to whatever is left behind.

Such notions were applied to everything from racial differences to political systems—to many things, indeed, which necessarily involve very subjective judgments about what constitutes improvement or superiority. Power became its own justification. Those who have the power—whether racial, economic, cultural, social or political—must be judged superior. This has now been going on for a long time. The result is a world in which each person is carefully taught that he has no meaning, while those who have power are free to impose their own selfish visions, paradoxically seizing the “moral” high ground to arrange things to suit their own interests.

The Absence of Meaning

The human person cannot live without meaning and values. But since modern culture does not admit a source of meaning, it has invented ideologies which seem to provide a direction and a finality to our history. The notion of inevitable Progress is one such ideology, in which the new is always regarded as not only better but inevitable; two others classics are Adam Smith’s exaggerated Invisible Hand and Karl Marx’s Hegelian Class Struggle. In any case, all ideologies substitute alleged necessary categories of thought and supposed inevitable outcomes for moral reflection, moral decisions, and moral responsibility.

Another way modern Western culture has dealt with the absence of meaning is through the reduction of happiness to pleasure. It is an ever-present human tendency to prefer easily-gained and primarily physical pleasures over hard-won but more deeply satisfying growth in perfection (which presumes purposes and ends). Technology excels at producing pleasures for our consumption. Unlike ideology, pleasure does not provide an alternative form of “meaning”. Instead, it makes it easier to forget meaninglessness. In this sense it is also an escape from moral responsibility. But this is really a flight from despair, a flight from the frightening emptiness of a valueless existence, of a life without meaning.

This may explain why thinkers such as John Paul II have exercised such power over the human imagination, unlikely as that may seem for a Pole and a pope. Wojtyla’s philosophy, as manifested, for example, in Person and Act and Love and Responsibility, refocused our attention on what it means to be a person—a being who possesses intellect and will and who enters into relationships with others, a being therefore called to love, and so to make responsible moral decisions. Many other authors are now rediscovering the real drama of being human.

Cases in Point

Just look at the newly published books on my desk (which, sadly, it is possible I will never have time to read). On the top of the stack is a fresh edition of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s autobiographical My Battle Against Hitler. Von Hildebrand, also a Catholic personalist philosopher, describes his efforts to resist and refute the Nazi ideology, the troubles this caused for him, and his flight to Austria, where he became known to Hitler as the “architect of the intellectual resistance.”

Then there is Searching for a Universal Ethic, a collection of essays edited by John Berkman and William Mattison. This volume pulls together writers from a variety of backgrounds to provide “multidisciplinary, ecumenical, and interfaith responses to the Catholic Natural Law tradition.” The Natural Law, as everyone knows, has fallen out of favor lately. The concept depends on our personal capacity to perceive order, ends, and meaning in a created universe. Twenty-three authors in this book are trying, once again, to retrieve a “universal ethic”.

In another new book, Peter Casarella has edited a collection of essays under this remarkable title: Jesus Christ: The New Face of Social Progress. The book is a deep exploration of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. A score of authors engage Pope Benedict in reimagining the social and political order in terms of personal meaning, starting with Jesus Christ, a Divine Person who created and then gave Himself for human persons. One section is entitled “Rethinking the Economy as Gratuitous”. Note that “gratuitous” and “random” are not the same, and this makes all the difference

Finally, Stanislaw Grygiel, who studied under Karol Wojtyla (JPII) and is professor emeritus at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, offers a 150-page essay entitled Discovering the Human Person: In Conversation with John Paul II. One need not read the book to see clearly that the concept of personhood is both its motive and its goal.

Since I have not read these books, I am not recommending them, though they are almost certainly very good, and ideally suited to those of a philosophical bent. But when I looked at the clutter on my desk today, I realized that there was a very definite pattern to the clutter. A pattern, yes, and therefore purposes and ends and meanings which can only be discerned by persons.

To put the case in a nutshell, there really is a theology of the body. The end of our modern insanity is to learn again who we really are. I have chosen my words carefully: I do not mean what, but who.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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