The Personalist Project

In Spain without much access to the internet, I’ve been reading the books on my son’s AP English summer reading list. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve read real literature.
There were two by Tobias Wolff, whose work I’d never come across before. In Pharaoh’s Army and Old School. I especially loved the latter, which was tender and touching and honest and insightful.
I marked this passage for our catalogue of great personalist insights.
“Arch” is the first name of Dean Makepeace, who had resigned his long-standing position at a prestigious boys’ prep school and now found himself adrift in the world.

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagined that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.
He distilled no general rule from this understanding. Maybe a man of lordly self-conviction and detachment could forsake the place that knew him and not become a ghost. Arch could say only that he was not that man. He was attached. How could he have thought that he was free to leave his school?

Comments (7)

Tim Cronin

#1, Jul 14, 2010 2:46am

Arch was confused because it is not our qualities that make us unique but our relations. I quote John Zizioulas from “Communion and Otherness”: A person, on the other hand as imago Dei, is ‘other’ regardless of his or her natural or moral qualities, which may well be common to this person and to many ‘others’; it is not natual or moral qualities that make the ‘difference’, in this case, but a particular and unique relationship in which a certain ‘other’ is singled out as uniquely Other.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 14, 2010 6:22am

Do you (and Zizioulas) really mean to say that a person has no uniqueness in himself?

Tim Cronin

#3, Jul 14, 2010 2:39pm

No, but our natural and moral qualities are all shared to some extent or another with other humans. Our uniqueness is ontological and we are defined by how (tropos-mode of being-relationship) we are not by what (nature) we are.

Tim Cronin

#4, Jul 14, 2010 2:44pm

In the same way the Trinitarian Persons share nature but are absolutely unique by relation: Father-Son-Holy Spirit

Tim Cronin

#5, Jul 14, 2010 7:02pm

“If biological birth gives us a hypostasis dependent ontologically on nature, this indicates that a ‘new birth’ is needed in order to experience an ontology of personhood” -Zizioulas (baptism)

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 14, 2010 11:15pm

tcronin, I am not sure I follow your distinction between ontological and natural. 
Nor can I agree with the notion that our uniqueness is derived from our relations as in the Holy Trinity.

I would rather say with Wojtyla and Newman and others, that our uniqueness is manifest in every aspect of our selfhood.  The more important and central an aspect, the more that uniqueness shows itself and counts, as it were.
Lots of people have a sense of humor.  Only my husband has his sense of humor.  That sense of humor generally shows up most clearly when he’s relating to others, but it wouldn’t be well-described as being defined by his relation to others, would it?
All the more his personality.
We share “traits” with others, but only in a limited sense.  My intelligence (such as it is) is mine, and unique.  No one else—not even those who have the same IQ—and not my twin sister (if I had a twin sister)—has mine.

You are touching on point rather central in personalism—a point that distinguishes our understanding from others’.

Tim Cronin

#7, Jul 16, 2010 5:36pm

Hi Katie,

I’m trying to make a distinction between person and nature. Jesus Christ is a Divine Person but has two natures. These natures are personally united but not naturally mixed, thus respecting the freedom of each nature.
I would say our uniqueness lies in our personhood. Person understood as constitutively relational. And it is only through the transcendence of death in the Person of Christ that we are established most truly in our personhood. Without union with Christ we would disolve back into the generalness of nature.
I agree that our unqueness is manifest in every aspect of our selfhood. I would just say that it its source is in our person. I’m a big fan of Wojtyla and a Catholic. I’ve read Love & Responsibility, Acting Person, Theology of the Body, and agree with it all. Recently however i’ve been reading Ziziolas and I think he has some pivotal insights into the person. I think he misses the point a bit with eclesiology being Orthodox but I think just as the Church needs to breath with both lungs (Catholic & Orthodox). I think it needs to breathe with both lungs when it comest to personalism too.

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