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

V Contemporary Problems

LET us consider briefly what becomes of the person in those political philosophies which are based upon a materialistic conception of the world and life. Three things must be distinguished in the consideration of any philosophy: first, the sentimental values which lure the reason or the simply human aspirations to which its adherents actually, even though unwittingly, respond; secondly, what the philosophy itself states; thirdly, what it does and the results to which it leads.

We hold that every materialistic philosophy of man and society is drawn, in spite of itself (in virtue of the real aspirations of its followers who, after all, are men), by the values and goods proper to personality. Even when ignoring them, such doctrines obscurely desire these values and goods so that in practice they can act upon men only by invoking justice, liberty, the goods of the person.

But what do they express, considered as doctrines? Blind to the realities of the spirit, responsive only to what belongs to the world of matter, they see in man no more than the shadow of true personality, his material individuality. This alone in man are they able to express. Actually, they jeopardize the person either by dissolving it in anarchy or, as inexorably happens under the pressure of political necessities, by subjecting it to the social body as Number, economic community, national or racial state.

Here, we can only indicate the appropriate criticism of the materialistic philosophy of society in its three principal forms; bourgeois individualism, communistic anti-individualism, totalitarian or dictatorial anti-communism and anti-individualism. All three disregard the human person in one way or another, and, in its place, consider, willingly or not, the material individual alone.

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It has been frequently noted that bourgeois liberalism with its ambition to ground everything in the unchecked initiative of the individual, conceived as a little God, and the absolute liberty of property, business and pleasure, inevitably ends in statism. The rule of the Number produces the omnipotence of the state. The indispensable condition for building a city out of liberties, beholden only to themselves, is that each member surrender his personal will to the General Will in a contract, which, according to Rousseau, gives birth to society. But since man in his material individuality is a part, not a whole, and since, further, in this system, the state takes the place of the genuine community, the individual is forced ultimately to transfer both his responsibilities and the care of his destiny to the artificial whole which has been superimposed upon him and to which he is bound mechanically. Of course his liberty will remain complete and unhampered, but in an illusory fashion and in a world of dreams. At the same time, he will exact from the state the satisfaction of his greeds and anarchistically reject the conditions of social life; not realizing that in this way society is driven to the insurrection of the parts against the whole, of which Auguste Comte used to speak, to the tragic isolation of each one in his own selfishness or helplessness. The very notion of the common good and the common work disappears.

Communism can be considered a reaction against such individualism. It claims to be directed towards the absolute emancipation of man, destined, in this system, to become the God of history. At its very origin, we find a desperate protest against the dehumanization of the person. But the person which it strives to liberate is conceived as purely immanent in the group. Hence the only emancipation which it could, in reality, achieve, would be that of the collective man, not at all that of the individual person. Further, if the political state is to be abolished in the end, as Marx held, society, as the economic community in the broadest sense, would subordinate the whole life of the persons to itself. A radical prejudice against all transcendence has, from its inception, forced communism to disregard the person as person and, as a consequence, the proper function of civil society as a city of human persons. This function is to procure an essentially human common good which includes, as its principal value, the free expansion of the individual persons together with all the guarantees required by this freedom. Under the pretext of substituting for the government of men the administration of things, Communism has made of this administration, which embraces the productivity of the mind as well as that of manual labor, the principal work of civil society. By an inescapable law, civil society marshals for its own work the human life of the persons. Where the primary aim of the marshaling is no longer to procure the freedom of expansion of the persons but simply the good and maximum production of the economic whole, this life inevitably finds itself referred in its entirety to that production and the society which procures it.

Anti-communistic and anti-individualistic reactions of the totalitarian or dictatorial type seek to incorporate man in all his being into a social whole composed of a multitude of material individualities rather than true persons. They seek this in the name of the state's sovereign dignity, the spirit of the people or the race and blood rather than in the name of the social community and the liberty of the collective man. Here the multitude becomes conscious of itself and symbolizes its omnipotence unto itself in the person of a Master, the only person, after all, in the political life above the "organized" aggregate of material individualities. It cannot be said that, in such a system, the emancipation of the person is sought along a wrong track; it is squarely rejected and abominated. The person as person is the enemy.

We note, in all three cases, a conflict between the whole and the part: at one time social life is destroyed by the individual whose selfishness looks to the state machinery for everything; now it swallows up the individual's hopes; now it annihilates his liberty and dignity by crushing him. Thus in different ways, all that is proper to the human person as person and to society as the city of persons is eliminated.

Our own day, we might add, seems to witness the tragedy of these three conflicting forms of social and political materialism. The moral crisis of our occidental civilization and the disastrous spasms of our liberal, capitalistic economy exhibit all too clearly the tragedy of bourgeois individualism.

The tragedy of Communism is most strikingly exposed in the dialectical backslidings, the perpetual political regimentation, to which its own realizations in Russia have forced it, and in the internecine conflicts which it cannot but generate. From this point of view, the successive waves of terror which sweep over the Soviet Republics are of special significance to the philosopher. As a kind of economic theocracy, Communism requires a very powerful and rigorous discipline, which it can generate only through the external processes of thought control and constraint. Yet without a certain interior ethic recognizing and respecting the aspirations of the soul and the person, without an intelligent faith able to communicate its impulse from mind to mind, no strong social discipline can be freely accepted. Thus an internal conflict arises inevitably between the ever-resurgent anarchy of passions, ambitions, individual energies, grasping every means, and an "order" which ignores the principle of order. Sometimes an appeal is made to this interior ethic and intelligent faith, whose necessity has been understood, but, once aroused, they in turn become a threat to the self-enclosed whole which has taken advantage of them after having awakened them.

The tragedy of the national totalitarian states consists principally in this; while they require the total devotion of the person, they lack and even repudiate explicitly all understanding and respect for the person and its interior riches. In consequence, they are impelled to seek a principle of human exaltation in myths of outward grandeur and unending efforts toward external power and prestige. Such an impulse tends of itself to generate war and the self-destruction of the civilized community. (This observation was easy enough on the eve of the second World War, when these lines were written, but, today, it is awesomely verified after the collapse of these states -- at long last extinguished but at so great a price!)

A final remark, relative to the attitude of these political philosophies toward Christianity, is appropriate at this point. Of the three, the most irreligious is bourgeois liberalism. Christian in appearance, it has been atheistic in fact. Too sceptical to persecute, except for a tangible profit, rather than defy religion, which it deemed an invention of the priesthood and gradually dispossessed by reason, it used it as a police force to watch over property, or as a bank where anyone could be insured, while making money here below, against the undiscovered risks of the hereafter -- after all, one never knows!

The other two defied Christianity, but the metaphysical positions in this defiance disclosed altogether different roots and meanings. The national totalitarian states, whose ideology lives after them, heirs of the ancient antagonism of the pagan Empire against the Gospel, represented an external force arrayed against Christianity to enslave or to annihilate it in the name of the divinized political Power. In the temporal order, they opposed an irrational philosophy of enslavement to both the genuine principle and the parasitical illusions of democracy. Communism, on the contrary, in spite of the materialistic philosophy in which it finds its conceptual expression, and which blinds it to its own essential content, belongs to the historical trend of modern rationalism; a trend of anthropocentric humanism, of democratic aspirations regulated by immanentist dogmas and engaged in an ideological struggle with their own Christian origins. Of this whole historical trend, Communism is the final episode. In reality, then, it must be counted a Christian heresy -- the ultimate and altogether radical Christian heresy. Like the Church, it is universalist. In its militants, it stirs energies which, though now entirely secularized, remain Christian in origin. The transformation of man which Christianity seeks in an interior grace renewing the person for both time and eternity, Communism seeks in the collective revolution renewing history and society only for the life here below. Its atheism is an ethical and religious rancor against the divine transcendence. It fights its own battle on the very ground upon which Christianity has its foundations. And it carries on this battle, which consists in a process of substitution and supercession rather than aggression, from within Christian civilization as though, in its own secret estimate of itself, the only true Christians (here below and delivered from the transcendent God) were the Communists. As a result, Communists and Christians, in their mutual relations, have a bad conscience. Even when they sincerely offer the "out-stretched hand" to the Catholics, the Communists feel obscurely that their vocation is to supplant them in political life and civilization. Catholics, however, know very well that they risk being replaced and that the "outstretched hand" lures them into a land which is not that of their faith. They recognize it clearly as a land of terrestrial activity in which too often, in the past, they have neglected their temporal mission, and which now, in the name of revolution, is erected into a supreme end. And, while Communism advances, accusing indiscriminately their faith and their omissions, while militant atheism reflects, as in a mirror of flame, the cruel image of that practical atheism of which so many of their own have been guilty, they sense, with a kind of anxiety, that normally it would be for them who possess the words of eternal life, to stretch out the hand to the Communists and draw them into that land, which is first and above all their own the land of religious truth and redemptory love.

May the time still be theirs to do it! On the level of terrestrial things, where in our times the working class has just about reached its historical maturity, may they prove able to keep alive the Christian ideal and Christian effort, pure and whole, in the common work of men and in the transforming movement that is taking place in society! May this be theirs that one day they might give to this movement of transformation the inspiration that will animate it, or at least even in tribulation, conserve for it the essentials of its spiritual heritage! Materialistic conceptions of the world and life philosophies which do not recognize the spiritual and eternal element in man cannot escape error in their efforts to construct a truly human society because they cannot satisfy the requirements of the person, and, by that very fact, they cannot grasp the nature of society. Whoever recognizes this spiritual and eternal element in man, recognizes also the aspiration, immanent in the person, to transcend, by reason of that which is most sublime in it, the life and conditions of temporal societies. Thus temporal society can be erected in accordance with the proper laws of its own nature. Its genuine character as a society of persons is understood. The natural tendency of the person to society, and the relation by which it morally and legally belongs to the society of which it is a part are also understood.

In the final analysis, the relation of the individual to society must not be conceived after the atomistic and mechanistic pattern of bourgeois individualism which destroys the organic social totality, or after the biological and animal pattern of the statist or racist totalitarian conception which swallows up the person, here reduced to a mere histological element of Behemoth or Leviathan, in the body of the state, or after the biological and industrial pattern of the Communistic conception which ordains the entire person, like a worker in the great human hive, to the proper work of the social whole. The relation of the individual to society must be conceived after an irreducibly human and specifically ethicosocial pattern, that is, personalist and communalist at the same time; the organization to be accomplished is one of liberties. But an organization of liberties is unthinkable apart from the moral realities of justice and civil amity, which, on the natural and temporal plane, correspond to what the Gospel calls brotherly love on the spiritual and supernatural plane.

This brings us back to our considerations of the manner in which the paradox of social life is resolved in a progressive movement that will never be terminated here below. There is a common work to be accomplished by the social whole as such. This whole, of which human persons are the parts, is not "neutral" but is itself committed and bound by a temporal vocation. Thus the persons are subordinated to this common work. Nevertheless, not only in the political order, is it essential to the common good to flow back upon the persons, but also in another order where that which is most profound in the person, its supra-temporal vocation and the goods connected with it, is a transcendent end, it is essential that society itself and its common work are indirectly subordinated. This follows from the fact that the principal value of the common work of society is the freedom of expansion of the person together with all the guarantees which this freedom implies and the diffusion of good that flows from it. In short, the political common good is a common good of human persons. And thus it turns out that, in subordinating oneself to this common work, by the grace of justice and amity, each one of us is still subordinated to the good of persons, to the accomplishment of the personal life of others and, at the same time, to the interior dignity of ones own person. But for this solution to be practical, there must be full recognition in the city of the true nature of the common work and, at the same time, recognition also of the importance and political worth -- so nicely perceived by Aristotle -- of the virtue of amity.

Such an historical ideal responds to the most profound aspirations of human nature and the rational requirements of a sound political philosophy. It is difficult not to think that its realization -- powerfully opposed by the lower forces of our nature and the difficulties which reason encounters in its endeavor to establish its rule among us -- would be the consequence and terrestrial projection, as it were, of that awareness of the dignity of the human person and the eternal vocation in every man, which the Gospel has imprinted in the heart of humanity.

On the other hand, there are grounds for believing that in the historical development of civilization there is in fact produced a slow, spontaneous activation of the mass of humanity and its secular conscience which tends to orientate men's desires towards just such an ideal through the failures, which seem to give it the lie, and the counterfeits which, like the individualistic liberalism of the XIXth Century, threaten to arouse mighty reactions against it. At any rate, how can we fail to see that it cannot be realized apart from that elevation which nature and civilizations receive, in their own order, from the energies of the Christian life? In this light, the tendency towards the materialism and atheism inherent in the city of the individual appears as one of the absurdities by which it destroys itself. In the political order, the internal dialectic of this tendency, by a similar absurdity, drags it towards dictatorship which is its proper negation.

These reflections lead us to believe that the drama of the modern democracies has consisted in the unwitting quest of something good, the city of the persons, masked by the error of the city of the individual, which, by nature, leads to dreadful liquidations. It is not for the philosophers to forecast whether they can yet reorientate themselves decisively in the direction of the truth which they seek by disengaging the parasitical errors from their quest. Such a reorientation would presuppose a radical transformation and a vast return towards the spirit.

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