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Chapter 10


As a recognisable philosophical current, "personalism" dates from the early 20th century and was, like Bergson's "creative evolution," part of the general reaction against the crude materialism of much mid- to late 19th century philosophy the kind that Belloc aptly called philosophy's "vulgar dwarf" who throughout history has repeatedly kept forcing his way into philosophical high society only to be as repeatedly pushed out. The result of the reaction was a growing number of "philosophies of the spirit" of which personalism has been the most enduring. People do not have to be certain about God's existence in order to discern that there is more to us than flesh, blood, bones, and a nervous system. 79

In this chapter I will look at the personalism of Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Max Scheler, leaving to the next chapter the personalism of Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier.

The personalism of Buber, Marcel and Scheler, which we could call "spiritual personalism," has its roots in Kierkegaard. Like existentialism, of which it is a near relation, it tries to establish the kind of beings we are by analysing our spiritual states and emotions. However there is a significant difference. The leading personalists, unlike the leading existentialists, have all been theists or Christians. Roughly one could say that where the heterodox reformers favoured existentialism, the orthodox inclined to personalism.

The personalism of Maritain and Meunier is of a different brand. I earlier called it "socio-political personalism?'

Martin Buber (1878-1965)  

If one were asked to decide which two words did most to influence or even change religious discourse in the second half of the 20th century, it would be difficult, I think, not to choose "dialogue" and "community."

Before the 1950s "dialogue" and "community" were words with relatively limited and humdrum meanings. Then suddenly one not only heard them used much more frequently and in a wider variety of contexts, but they appeared to have become invested with an almost mystical significance, as though referring to realities of a metaphysical or supernatural kind. Indeed, one began to meet Christians who left one with the impression that, for them, the whole content of their faith could be summed up in these two words a state of affairs, I think you will agree, which still persists.

That is why I am going to look at the ideas of the man largely responsible for this change in a bit more detail than I have done in the case of other thinkers. My hope is that by the end of the journey you will understand more clearly in what sense the Catholic Church has given its assent to the meanings attached to these two words and in what respects it holds back from them. It will also, I think, throw more than a little light for you on why the liturgy of the mass is now so often understood and practiced in the way it is.

Born in Vienna of Jewish parents, and educated there and in Berlin, Martin Buber taught history and the philosophy of religion at the university of Frankfurt from 1922-33. Then in 1936 he fled to Palestine where he became professor of social history at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem until 1951. In the post-war period he worked to bring about better relations between Jews and Arabs and Jews and Germans. Indeed, in every respect, he seems to have been a man not only of high intelligence but also of outstanding nobility of character.

However, rather than being a philosopher in the strict sense (someone who grapples with technical philosophical questions), he is better thought of as a sage preaching a spiritual "way" based on a mystical theistic humanitarianism, strongly influenced by Judaism and Christianity, which he called "the life of dialogue."

His family being typical members of what is called "the Jewish Enlightenment, "his intellectual formation was at first like that of other young men of his kind and generation; well-mannered atheism or agnosticism with a thorough-going rationalism as its guiding principle. In spite of this, in early manhood he took a different course.

Three things helped to change his mental outlook: hasidism, oriental and Christian mysticism, and the writings of Kierkegaard which he came across in that order, although on a more superficial level he remained a typical European intellectual, mentally sophisticated and interested in everything going on in the worlds of science and thought.

Hasidism, a revivalist movement which swept through European Jewry in the 18th and 19th centuries, had the most lasting effect. Its followers, the hasidim, emphasised love, joy, religious fervour and delight in God's creation in contrast to the strict observance of the Law insisted on by orthodox rabbis. At their religious services they danced with the Torah and prayed with wild gestures.

Buber first came across hasidism when, as a boy, his father took him to visit an hasidic community near his grandfather's house in Galicia (southern Poland). There, for the first time, he saw or thought he saw what he was never to forget a genuine "community" This vision of the "community" as something living and breathing in contrast to the seemingly lifeless artificiality of normal social forms, was to become the lodestar of all his future thinking.

The effect of the experience was not instantaneous. But in 1904, when he was 26, he underwent something like a conversion if not to hasidism as its followers understood it, at least to certain of their ideas, many of which had been taken from that centuries-old mystical under-current in medieval Jewish, thought, the Kabbalah, which in its turn had been strongly influenced by 2nd and 3rd century gnosticism.

These semi-gnostic ideas had to do with helping to release the divine sparks of God's exiled shekinah or goodness and glory, which supposedly became separated from his en-sof, or transcendent essence, and imprisoned in creation during the process of its making. Each spark was held to be surrounded by a hard shell of darkness (quelipot), which, though a kind of evil, was not regarded as an active or personal force but represented whatever is not fully under God's dominion or can be considered resistant to his will. The reunion of these divine sparks with God himself, and the restoration of the original harmony which existed before creation took place brings about the redemption of the world. In so far as the divine sparks are present in man, each of us can help to release them by perfecting his or her own life and helping others to perfect theirs.

So much for hasidism.

The study of oriental and Christian mysticism also helped to wean Buber from the rationalism and unbelief of his upbringing. But by about 1920 these influences had begun to decline. The mystic's search for personal union with God, he decided, was too self-centred and withdrew men too much from daily life.

Then towards the end of World War I, he came across Kierkegaard. The discovery helped him to fuse his ideas into the system or teaching which was to make him famous. Although he later adapted and added to that teaching, he never changed its fundamentals. It first saw daylight in his book I and Thou (1922).

This little volume of 120 short pages has had as great an impact on Western thinking as all Kierkegaard's books together. In form and style, it resembles a collection of sayings by a Chinese or Indian wise man (the Tao of Lao-tzu for instance) rather than a work of philosophy. The language is semi-poetic, thoughts are expressed in short loosely-connected paragraphs or aphorisms, and from time to time conversations take place between unknown speakers. As for the message, even if at first reading it seems a bit enigmatic, it is relatively simple, revolving round a few recurring themes which we can now look at with, I hope, a better chance of understanding how he arrived at them.

The Life of Dialogue

In Buber's "life of dialogue," the supreme reality is the human person in relation with other beings. We are always in a state of relationship to someone or something other than ourselves and cannot exist except in such a state. Relationships rather than individuals could be called the stuff of reality. However they are subject to important qualitative differences.

All relationships, whether between men and God, men and men, or men and animals, plants and inanimate things, are of one of two kinds: either IThou relationships, or IIt relationships. A Thou is a person; an It is a thing.

I It relationships are those in which we look at or treat other beings as in some sense things, whether they are things or not, and it is assumed that this necessarily happens whenever we look at or think about them objectively or with any kind of detachment. In doing so, it is asserted, we are turning them into objects for use. Buber characterises more or less all I It relationships as selfish. Detached observation and objective thought therefore involve from the outset something which appears to be at best regrettable, at worst to be deplored. Objective thought about God is especially regrettable because "it turns God into an object" an objection which hardly seems reasonable seeing that we cannot think about anything without at least making it an object of thought.

In I Thou relationships, on the other hand, we meet the Other not as a thing but as a person. Instead of trying to understand the other objectively and reach factual conclusions about him, her or it, the I makes itself "present" to the Thou or Other. This means more than being physically present. It means more than trying to give the Thou one's full attention without prejudices or preconceptions. It involves a kind of spiritual intercommunion not unlike that described by poets and nature mystics, when they feel momentarily united to whatever they are contemplating as if it had suddenly become part of themselves. However for Buber this kind of interpersonal communion ought to be the norm, achieved by a conscious mental act. By contrast, I It thinking places the other in a kind of outer darkness resembling the quelipot of hasidism, which is the very opposite of "being present."

I Thou and I It relationships are also seen as constituting two different spiritual worlds or fields of reality, in one of which we are always immersed. Not a minute of our lives falls outside one or the other. For the ordinary purposes of life, it is true, I It thinking and I It relationships are unavoidable, even necessary, but only IThou relationships are fully real. They bring into existence the world of "spirit," spirit being what has most reality. The more, therefore, that men can generate I Thou relationships, the more the element of "spirit" or reality grows. I It relationships, on the other hand, take place in a quasi-unreal world inimical to spirit, and the more they prevail the more spirit and reality are diminished. 80

However I-Thou relationships are not just a matter of interpersonal communion. After  making themselves present to each other, the I and Thou enter into "dialogue." In dialogue, each party affirms the other's "truth" or right to be the way he or she is, while presenting himself or herself without pretences or concealment. To try to influence the other, or change his or her point of view would turn the I Thou relationship into an I It relationship. 81

Situations and events should be approached in a similar way. We must see each situation and event as something unique and let its uniqueness tell us how to deal with it. Trying to apply ready-made rules will prevent us from seeing it as it is.

All I have said so far had to do with relations between individuals. But we are members of society as well and most group relationships are of an IIt quality. Nevertheless, by fostering a spirit of dialogue, the spiritless conglomerations of individuals that most modern societies are can be turned  into living communities.

Since communities are the place where men are most completely themselves and reality is most fully achieved, building communities of I Thou related persons is the real object of Buber's "way" If the members are of one mind as well as one in heart, that is good but not, it seems, essential.

In so far as communities are of one mind, the pattern for their relationships with groups thinking differently should be that of I Thou relationships between individuals: mutual forbearance and the affirmation of each other's right to be the way they are.

Finally, at the highest level, Buber's teaching envisages a world network of I Thou related communities, and this is what "the life of dialogue" summons its followers to promote. "The solidarity of all separate groups in the flaming battle for the becoming of one humanity is, in the present hour, the highest duty of each." 82

As you will have seen, all this amounts to much more than a philosophy of world-wide social harmony. One could call it hasidism stripped of its overtly gnostic elements, but retaining its central gnostic idea that of redeeming creation by releasing the exiled sparks of goodness in men and the world from the evil or darkness those sparks are embedded in. But evil for Buber was no more a personal or positive force than it had been for the hasidists. He appears to identify it with our elemental instincts and passions in their untamed state. These, along with all life's forces, good and "evil," will, through "the way of dialogue" and community building, one day be drawn into harmony with each other and the supreme Thou, thus bringing about the redemption of the entire universe.

Buber also seems to have believed that God had to create the universe in order to have a Thou for his I to enter into dialogue with.

Such then is Buber's spiritual way or "life of dialogue." I will consider its pros and cons as far as the Catholic Church is concerned after looking more briefly at the personalism of Gabriel Marcel.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)

Gabriel Marcel was even less typically a philosopher of the 19' and 20th century type than Buber.

The child of an agnostic father and a Protestant mother, for whom religion was largely a matter of ethical behaviour, he left the Sorbonne without completing his doctorate and thenceforward made his way as a critic, editor and essayist. He also wrote plays and music, using his plays as vehicles for his philosophical ideas, but without achieving box-office successes like Sartre. Philosophically, he started like so many other young men of the time as an idealist, but was converted to an "existentialist" approach by his experiences as a Red Cross worker in World War I. This meant rejecting systematic philosophy. A philosopher, he came to believe, must participate in ordinary life, rather than observing it with detachment from a university chair, if he is to have anything useful to say philosophically.

Increasingly interested in "the religious dimension of experience," in 1929 he became a Catholic, and by the 1940s was an influential figure in Catholic intellectual circles in Paris. His rejection of the pessimistic existentialism of Sartre and Camus, and adherence to Kierkegaard and Buber, marks his passage from existentialism to personalism. Although his method and many of his ideas closely resemble Buber's, he always insisted that he had arrived at them independently His conclusions are also more modest, less wide-ranging. He had no ambitious panaceas for world harmony like Buber. 83

Two ideas in particular show the drift of his thought. He draws a distinction first between problems and mysteries, and secondly between having and being.

"Problems" are matters we approach from outside and solve by intelligence. "Mysteries" are things we experience like love, freedom, friendship, evil, existence itself which you have to be involved in to understand. Thinking about them has its value, but a purely objective approach and clear-cut answers are impossible. In mysteries, subject and object are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

The distinction between "having" and "being:' specifically mentioned in Gaudium et Spes, emphasises the simple truth that the kind of people we are is more important than the things we possess. Having (it is claimed) establishes an egocentric relationship with people and things; it gives us power over objects, whether they are possessions or ideas. We cannot escape from having; but being (i.e. the kind of person we are) is more important since it transforms our relationships. When people value being more than having, the dichotomy between the self and its opposite or object melts into mutual interchange or interpersonal communion.

Other simple truths prominent in Marcel's philosophy could be summarised as follows:

People are more important than anything else; each is unique and precious. We should never allow their professional function as garage mechanics, bankers, open singers, waiters or waitresses to dull our awareness that they are first and foremost human beings. They should always be treated as persons, not things. On the other hand, in spite of our uniqueness, we are social beings. But society should be more than an agglomeration of individuals.

Like other thinkers influenced by modem subjectivism, Marcel tends to see man as starting as a prisoner inside himself, though a prisoner of his selfishness rather than his thoughts. The way of escape is being involved with others. This is part of the essence of being human. If a man is faithful to the true dynamism of his being, it will carry him outside himself to "the other," beyond the other into the community, and through the community to the discovery of God. He summarised this progression in the formula: "person   engagement (commitment) community reality" Community appears as the highest reality Self-centredness is the supreme sin because it inhibits the birth of genuine community where alone men become fully men and reality fully exists. He called this teaching a "metaphysics of hope." The metaphysics of hope was his answer to the existentialism of absurdity and despair.

Pros and Cons

The attractions of Buber's and Marcel's personalism are undeniable, and their appeal to the reform-minded is easy to understand. Modern man may be uncertain whether he has a soul; he may even hotly deny he has one. However he is unlikely to deny he is a "person" (meaning by that, something more than an animal, machine or thing), and should be treated accordingly. But an analysis of the notion of personhood leads ineluctably to admitting the existence of a non-material, non-biological component. The argument for the existence of the soul is already half won.

Emphasising our "personhood" would also, it was thought, help remove misunderstanding about the Church's teaching on the body-soul relationship, mentioned earlier (see note 51, p.73). For the Church, the body is a constituent part of the human being or person (in contrast to the angelic person). Although the soul is the more important part, since the way the soul acts decides where soul and body together will end up, nevertheless a soul without a body (for example, a soul in heaven before the general resurrection) is an incomplete human being. Surprisingly, many Catholics do not seem to have appreciated this particular feature of their faith to the extent one would have expected. Indeed, not a few appear to have thought that it would be nicer to be forever in heaven without one's body, thereby giving atheist humanism yet another weapon to clout the Church over the head with. The Church, it could say, and did say, was anti-body, and so anti-human. It was to correct this misapprehension that the idea of speaking about the salvation of "the whole man" rather than the salvation of "souls" came into fashion, although "saving your soul" is a biblical expression. 84

The insistence on the human person as this world's highest good ("man;' the Second Vatican Council would say, "is the only creature in the universe God has willed for its own sake") had other advantages. It was an approach intelligible to rulers and employers no longer moved by the fear of God or a hereafter, and suitable for combating the dehumanising factors of contemporary life: the primacy of economics and production over religion, morality, culture and the good of families; an exclusively technological, bureaucratic or business outlook; the 20th century's slave camps and torture chambers.

The attractions of "dialogue" as a method of spreading the faith have already been noticed. The explosive state of the world commended it as now the safest and seemingly most Christian way of resolving social and international conflicts.

Finally, the communitarian aspects of personalism appeared to provide the principles for a Christian "third way" between the extremes of Marxist  collectivism and liberal individualism.

These were the main "pros" of personalism.

At the head of the list of "cons" we must put the misunderstandings to which Buber's distinction between I Thou and I It relationships are subject. It is true that we often do make use of each other, or sometimes unconsciously treat others as though they were things. In this sense It relationships are unquestionably bad. But it is also quite possible to think objectively about other people, their Virtues, faults, qualities or even peculiarities, without in the least regarding them as things, still less as things to be made use of Close personal and emotional involvement between people, on the other hand, can include serious wrong-doing or blind them to things about each other which it might be better for one or other of them to know. What couple having an illicit love affair would not insist that their relationship was of the spirit-generating I Thou variety?

This identification of interpersonal involvement with moral righteousness, and of objectivity with sin (or at least to some degree), seems to have been at least partly responsible for that notable decline in common sense about human nature and human relationships characteristic of so many of today's caring compassionate Christians, the like of whom have not, I think, been seen since Rousseau's men and women of feeling flooded over Europe in the late 18th century; baring their souls and sensibilities to the public gaze.

The notion of "dialogue" is also open to misunderstanding. Buber's notion is not identical with the Church's. For the Church, dialogue or talking things over in an atmosphere of charity and good will, is an apostolic method. The primary purpose is to reach agreement about an objective truth. For Buber its main purpose was to promote mutual respect followed by enhanced fellow-feeling, or the universal tolerance of all views not physically or in some other immediately observable way damaging to man. As such, it can, for  Christians, provide an excuse for avoiding difficult topics and relegating unpopular truths to the realms of the irrelevant or undiscoverable.

Thirdly, we meet again the idea that people are not fully human to start with, but become so, this time through having a Thou to enter into relationship with. Thus while theoretically the human person is the focus of attention in Buber's philosophy, in practice relationships between people seem more important. Robinson Crusoe on his island was barely human until Man Friday turned up, and when he did, the really precious thing was the encounter itself, they themselves being significant only as the poles between which it took place and that made it possible. Encounters and relationships are treated as goods and ends in themselves and given the kind of substantiality usually associated with concrete things). 85

This objection applies even more at the community level. Since the community is a network of personal relationships, generating "spirit" on a greater scale, the community, or "building community," is seen as having a quasi-sacramental sanctifying power, and easily becomes an object of worship. In the community the troubled are reconciled with themselves and psychologically tranquilised, while the divided learn to live together, forgetting their disagreements. Only when taking part in community activities is a person fully a person. What the community believes easily becomes a secondary consideration. 86

In fact, as we all know, there are relationships and encounters in life which should be avoided and communities from which one ought to separate oneself  (like Abraham from Ur, Lot from Sodom, Elijah from the priests of Baal, and 20th century Christians from certain political parties). In loving others, that is willing and working for their good, we often have to say "no" to them; to be shut not open, at least to some of their wishes and desires. And while it is true that we are always in relationship with the Supreme Thou, without whose presence we could not exist, God is an I who needs no Thou in order to be; and however delightful and necessary human companionship is, it is not the source of our being, and occasionally has to be dispensed with. We sometimes need to be less with others in order to be more ourselves, ourselves as God wants us to be. We should also perhaps add that the selfish are just as much human beings as the unselfish. They are then damaged human beings, not semi-human beings.

As a spiritual way or religion in its own right, Buber's personalism, if its limitations are not clearly recognised, can become a rival to Christ's way. Christians who adopt its terminology and ideas are easily led into adopting it in its totality. One does not need special powers of penetration to see that many Catholics today are far more interested in preaching Buber's doctrine of world redemption through dialogue, community building and promoting social harmony, than in redemption and salvation in Jesus Christ. Buber had the noblest intentions, and social harmony is a great natural good, but it is not the same as redemption and salvation in Jesus Christ, and when advanced as a substitute for the Gospel amounts to something like a betrayal of it.

Marcel's personalism, more modest in its aims, is nowhere in direct conflict with Catholic belief. Its chief weaknesses are its anti-intellectualism, the weight given to personal involvement as a factor in arriving at truth, and its failure to provide a logical way of moving from the particular to the general. How can we make any true statements about mankind as a whole, if we are restricted to the level of personal experiences and life situations?

Max Scheler

None of the major conciliar reformers seems to have had any special interest in Scheler. But his personalism was an important influence on Pope John Paul II, and if only for that reason needs to have something said about it. John Paul ll's personalism incorporated elements from all the major personalists: Buber, Scheler, Marcel and Emmanuel Mounier. But only Scheler was the subject of one of his two doctoral dissertations.

Son of a downtrodden Lutheran estate agent with an intellectually ambitious wife, Max Scheler (1874-1928) twice entered and twice left the Catholic Church.

His first seemingly superficial conversion at the age of 14 did not last long. There followed a morally chaotic period as a student and young university teacher which led to his losing his post at Munich and forfeiting the possibility of a professorship anywhere in the Kaiser's Germany. In abilities, character, and lifestyle he was more like a gifted novelist or cafe intellectual than an academic. But perhaps just because of this he was an exceptionally successful and captivating teacher.

Moving to Göttingen to be near Husserl, his unofficial lectures, applying Husserl's phenomenological method to the analysis of feelings like love, hate, shame and resentment, were soon attracting more listeners than his master. By making Husserl's phenomenology more intelligible and attractive, Scheler helped to put phenomenology on the map.

In 1912 he married a Catholic and three years later underwent a second more serious conversion. (There had already been, from the Church's point of view, an irregular first marriage followed by divorce.) Under Scheler's influence, several members of Husserl's circle, Jewish, Gentile and  unbelieving, became Catholics too. They included Edith Stein, who later, as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, became a Carmelite nun, died in Auschwitz, and was canonised in 1998.

During World War I, he lectured widely in Germany and abroad on behalf of the Central Powers. Defeat, however, worked unexpectedly to his advantage. The Weimar Republic, of which he theoretically disapproved, was indifferent to moral delinquency in its university professors and in 1919 he received a professorship at the newly founded university of Cologne. Shortly thereafter he divorced his second wife and married a third time, leaving the Church again, this time for good. He died in 1928, just after taking up a new professorship at Freiburg.

In Scheler's personalism (at any rate during his second Catholic period)  man is first of all a person because he is capable of seeking and responding to God (he has a "permanent possibility of responding to religious experience"), and knows himself as a being answerable for his acts   he knows himself as responsible adult "subject," not an object. It is by reflecting on his acts that he can best discover the kind of person he is, distinguishing between those which he does in common with animals and those which are peculiar to him.

Personhood is therefore something that grows and shrinks. It increases the closer one draws to God and the more responsibly one acts, diminishing in so far as one goes into reverse. In other words, one can be a human being without being fully a person. For Christians, fullness of personhood would be sanctity.

Man is also a being who responds to "values." This is the most distinctive feature of Scheler's personalism. The capacity to recognise and respond to an ascending scale of "values," and their opposites or "disvalues," is the second thing that sets man above all the other beings we directly know. He can see things and actions as pleasant or unpleasant, useful or useless, noble or common, beautiful or ugly, holy or unholy (religious values). In addition there are moral values (and disvalues), determining the goodness or badness of human acts. Moral values can co-exist with any of the other five categories. They span and connect them like the arches of a bridge.

The philosophy of values is known as axiology. Modern value philosophy is responsible for our now talking about religious, Gospel, family or political "values" rather than goods, truths, principles or teachings. Many consider this a dangerous concession to subjectivism, since, owing to Hume (as we have seen), only too many modern philosophers regard judgements of value as mere matters of taste and opinion. Things are good or true, depending  on the value men attach to them. 87

However, on this point Scheler was in disagreement with the mainstream of German idealism. He regarded "values" as existing independently of our minds (even if in the way he writes about them, they sometimes seem to float about in a void like Platonic ideas, having only a passing relationship to particular things).

How do we apprehend or recognise values, particularly moral values? Here, although still writing as a Catholic, he began to part company with the Church. For the Church, judgements of right and wrong are acts of reason. Scheler, on the other hand, believed they are given through feeling and the experience of acting in "our lived situation," Once again we find feeling and willing coming before thought. We know whether an act is good or bad in the doing of it. Logically, although Scheler did not say so, we should actually have to commit murder to know it was wrong. Secondly Scheler says, values can only function "uncoercively." They should therefore be allowed to draw or repel us by feelings of love and hate. They ought never to be imposed by force. Nor can they take the form of a universal command. Since each man is in a different situation and a bundle of different experiences, there can be no universally applicable moral principles. Christ was a model, not a commanding authority. His commands were expressions of his "intentional" feelings at particular moments in regard to particular situations. The only common factor in ethics is whether the "whole man" is oriented towards the Supreme Person or not. In these respects Scheler has contributed to the idea of the fundamental option and the spread of situation ethics.

Scheler's ethical theories, which made their first full dress appearance in his book Formalism and the Ethics of Substantive Values (Part I, 1913; Part II, 1916), were intended as a via media between the subjective ethics of Kant (an inner sense of obligation tells us what is right), and what he regarded as the too "legalistic" ethics of the Catholic Church (there are certain things which have to be done in all circumstances without exception, and even if we ourselves cannot always see why Catholics can be sure of these things because the Church tells them so.)

Scheler was also fascinated by sociology. This led him to speak of values becoming personified or incarnated in certain ideal types, who then become models for particular societies. This led him to what are now some very unfashionable conclusions. World War I was, he believed, above all a conflict  between rival "value systems." The Central Powers represented the virtues of hierarchically ordered and integrated traditional societies, where primacy was given to co-operation and duty; the Allies stood for the bourgeois ideals of the Anglo-Saxon world directed towards individual satisfaction and profit.

Personalism and John Paul II

John Paul Il's discovery of Scheler came about accidentally as these things often do.

Could Scheler's philosophy of values be made the basis for a Catholic system of ethics? Such was the theme taken by the future pontiff as the subject of his second doctoral thesis. His answer was "No." A valid ethical system could not be built solely on feelings and personal experiences. But having been thus introduced to Scheler, he found other things in Scheler's personalism which pleased him: the phenomenological method; man as a responsible "sovereign person" open to values outside himself; Scheler's insistence on making "the whole man" body and soul, mind, will and emotions his starting point.

The Church's devotional life has always allowed plenty of outlets for the affections and emotions. But theology, at least in recent times, had tended to regard emotions and feelings with something like mistrust almost as if it would have been better had God made us without them.

For John Paul II, on the other hand, man is supremely a being who feels, as well as thinks and wills. As a definition of man,"rational animal" may do for a start. But a lot more needs to be said. Jesus, the perfect man, felt every worthy emotion, even anger. An unfeeling man would be a defective man.

In all this the Pope, like the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, another phenomenologist, saw the possibility of what never before seems to have been attempted: developing a philosophy and theology of that mysterious entity the human heart, seen not only as the "seat of the affections," but as man's deepest centre where all the faculties of body and soul interlock and receive their special colour and tone; where, if "the heart" is well disposed, they are warmed and made radiant; if ill disposed, chilled and congealed. Holy Scripture, in speaking of this deepest centre, uses the word "heart" far more often than "soul" or "spirit," and even refers to God's "Heart!' John Paul II has spoken of God as "the Great Heart." 88

However, it would be misleading to suggest that John Paul's personalism is only concerned with our affections and emotions. It is no accident that the title of the English translation of his main philosophical work should be The Acting Person. 89 His main philosophical interest was ethics: right action, the role of the will and its freedom. Few Popes can have praised freedom so much. But as Western societies have increasingly used the call for freedom to relativise morality, he more and more insisted, particularly in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, that freedom ceases to be true freedom when it is not linked to knowledge of the truth. 90

The shift to the human subject in Catholic philosophy and theology has unquestionably been one of the most risky operations ever allowed by the Church, which is perhaps one of the reasons why, in God's providence, John Paul II became Pope. He alone of the then eligible figures would seem to have had the qualifications to guide the Church through the maze of German subjectivism, without a total surrender to it. But in the twenty-two years between the beginning of the post-conciliar rebellion and his election to the papacy in 1978, the philosophical damage already done was beyond the power of any one man to rectify. The philosophia perennis became the subject of an international campaign of vilification and mockery. Even where not totally rejected and abandoned, it was pushed on to the sidelines. Subjectivism and relativism permeated the teaching of theology, and in the general confusion philosophy itself became discredited.


79. The concept of"person"
came from Christian Trinitarian theology of the 4th century. Before that it barely existed in ancient philosophy.The first thinker to use the term personalism" (around 1903) seems to have been Charles Renouvier, a pupil of Auguste Comte turned ethical theist.

80.  By "spirit" Buber seems to mean something resembling what Christians man by "grace" and "charity."

81.  That the liturgical bulletin of the archdiocese of Paris should be called Présence et dialogue is a good indication of the extent of Buber's influence.

82. Speech, 27th Sept. 1953, after receiving the peace prize of the German book trade. Seeing what his people had just gone through, Buber’s viewpoint is understandable. But for Christians, humanity does not have to become one. In Adam, it already is one. The battle, flaming or otherwise, is about how much it sides with good or evil.

83. There is no reason to doubt Marcel's having reached his conclusions independently. The resemblances simply show that the thinking of men subject to the same influences and preoccupied with the same questions is likely to converge. Uncharacteristically for a French intellectual of his stamp, on the other hand, in the 1930s he became involved with the moral re-armament movement, an attachment which seems to have survived World War II. In 1958 he edited a volume of "testimonies" in support of the movement, called Fresh Hope for the World.

84. Mt 16:26; Jas 1:21; and 1 Pt 1:9. St Athanasius speaks of "the salvation of the whole man" in his letter to Epictetus of Corinth. However the hullabaloo modernism makes about "the whole man," as we already know, has a different motivation. See Turmoil and Truth, Ch. 14. footnote 8. Since it makes no distinction between matter and spirit and sees the eternal salvation of the "whole man" as more or less a certainty, it necessarily follows that improving earthly living conditions ("salvation of the body") is the only thing that really matters.

85.  The philosophia perennis is often accused of "reifying" concepts, that is treating abstractions as though they were things, but there seems to be no philosophy that does not do it to some degree.

86.  To detail the effects of all this on Western Catholic liturgical practice since the early 1970s would be superfluous. In only too many parishes, generating a feeling of community has supplanted the worship of God. The worship of God is being made to serve a purely pastoral purpose.

87. The notion of value can be seen as the subjective equivalent of the concept of the good. It looks at the good as it appears to us rather than as it is in itself.

88. Von Hildebrand's The Sacred Head, (Baltimore, and Dublin, Helicon, 1965), is subtitled "an analysis of human and divine affectivity."

89. The title immediately brings Blondel to mind, and correctly. In his The Mind of John Paul (p. 148), George Huntston Williams, for many years Professor of Divinity at Harvard, and personally acquainted with the Pope, speaks of the influence of Blonde's L'Action on his thinking. And in the age-old debate between Thomists and Scotism (followers of the medieval scholastic Duns Scotus, beloved by the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins) about whether the human intellect or will plays the more crucial role in our journey towards beatitude and its enjoyment throughout eternity, the Pope definitely sides with the Scotism, crowning his preference by beatifying Scotus in 1992.

90. Before embarking on his doctoral thesis about Scheler, Pope John Paul had studied Thomism under Garrigou-Lagrange in Rome, and his philosophy is often presented as a blend of Thomism and personalism.This is true in so far as his epistemology is realist we have real knowledge of a real outside world. But Huntston Williams gives the impression that he found the analytical scholastic method less to his taste than the more suggestive phenomenological approach.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

16th February 2021


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