JMC : The Person and the Common Good / by Jacques Maritain

I. Introductory

AMONG the truths of which contemporary thought stands in particular need and from which it could draw substantial profit is the doctrine of the distinction between individuality and personality. The essential importance of this distinction is revealed in the principles of St. Thomas. Unfortunately a right understanding of it is difficult to achieve and requires an exercise of metaphysical insight to which the contemporary mind is hardly accustomed.

Does society exist for each one of us, or does each one of us exist for society? Does the parish exist for the parishioner or the parishioner for the parish? This question, we feel immediately, involves two aspects, in each of which there must be some element of truth. A unilateral answer would only plunge us into error. Hence, we must disengage the formal principles of a truly comprehensive answer and describe the precise hierarchies of value which it implies. The Nineteenth Century experienced the errors of individualism. We have witnessed the development of a totalitarian or exclusively communal conception of society which took place by way of reaction. It was natural, then, that in a simultaneous reaction against both totalitarian and individualistic errors the concept of the human person, incorporated as such into society, be opposed to both the idea of the totalitarian state and that of the sovereignty of the individual. In consequence, minds related to widely differing schools of philosophic thought and quite uneven in intellectual exactitude and precision have sensed in the notion and term of "person" the solution sought. Whence, the "personalist" current which has developed in our time. Yet nothing can be more remote from the facts than the belief that "personalism" is one school or one doctrine. It is rather a phenomenon of reaction against two opposite errors, which inevitably contains elements of very unequal merits. Not a personalist doctrine, but personalist aspirations confront us. There are, at least, a dozen personalist doctrines, which, at times, have nothing more in common than the term "person." Some of them incline variously to one or the other of the contrary errors between which they take their stand. Some contemporary personalisms are Nietzschean in slant, others Proudhonian; some tend toward dictatorship, while others incline toward anarchy. A principal concern of Thomistic personalism is to avoid both excesses.

Our desire is to make clear the personalism rooted in the doctrine of St. Thomas and to separate, at the very outset, a social philosophy centered in the dignity of the human person from every social philosophy centered in the primacy of the individual and the private good. Thomistic personalism stresses the metaphysical distinction between individuality and personality.

Schwalm{1} and Garrigou-Lagrange{2} not only called attention to this distinction but were, to my knowledge, the first to show its fecundity in relation to contemporary moral and social problems. Following them, other Thomists -- including Eberhard Welty{3} and myself{4} -- have tried to make explicit its meaning and develop its consequences in social and political philosophy.

The true sense of the distinction has not always been grasped: first, as indicated above, because it is a difficult distinction (especially, perhaps, for sociologists, who are not always sensitive to the lures of the third degree of abstraction and wonder for what purpose they should first equip themselves as metaphysicians); and second, because certain minds, despite their metaphysical inclination, prefer confusion to distinction. This holds especially true when they are engaged in polemics and find it expedient to fabricate monsters which for the lack of anything better, in particular for the lack of references, are indiscriminately attributed to a host of anonymous adversaries.

{1} R. P. Schwalm, O.P., Leçons de Philosophie Sociale, reedited in part under the title, La Societé et l'Etat (Paris, Flammarion, 1937).

{2} R. P. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., La Philosophie de l'Etre et le Sens Commun (1st edition, Paris, Beauchesne, 1904; 4th edition, Desclée de Brouwer, 1936).

{3} Eberhard Welty, O.P., Gemeinschaft und Einzelmensch (Pustet, Salzburg-Leipzig, 1935).

{4} Cf. Three Reformers, 1932; True Humanism, 1938; Scholasticism and Politics, 1940; The Rights of Man and Natural Law, 1943.

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