The Personalist Project

My internet habit seems to have decimated my ability (never very marked) to finish books.  I begin them; put them down; pick them up; read a few pages; put them down...

Among the many lying half-read around the house is Tom Bethell's biography of Eric Hoffer, The Longshoreman Philosopher.  Hoffer is a mysterious character who emerged from complete obscurity to become a major intellectual influence in Cold War America, beginning with his 1951 best-selling book on the nature of mass movements, The True Believer.

I picked it up again (I mean the biography) this morning while I drank my coffee.  These lines so arrested my attention that I put the book down again—to think, and write a post about it.  They come from a journal entry about his life on the waterfront, dated June 18, 1961:

This is the first time in three weeks that I'll make a decent check—about $95 take-home pay.  As baggage man I hustled without any eagerness or greed but also without any dignity.  This lack of "dignity" has been with me most of my life.  The reason is probably that I have no real concern about what people think of me.  After all I am up in years, and a writer, and so I should be dignified.  The total lack of any sense of belonging is undoubtedly a factor.  

I'm going to be thinking lots more about the relation between personal dignity and a sense of belonging, and how it's connected to Wojtyla's remark about Americans, after his visited it as a Cardinal in the '60s or '70s. He was taken about by the strong sense of "rootlessness" among Americans, in contrast with his experience in Europe.

Comments (9)

Tim Cronin

#1, Jun 8, 2012 12:41pm

Hi Katie, I highly recommend Wendell Berry's recent lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities that discusses Americans as "boomers" and "stickers". I think most are boomers which relates to rootlessness. Technology also plays a role with its "mobility" enabling devices which in some ways oposes stability. The lecture is below:

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 8, 2012 12:51pm

I've had the lecture open on my desktop for weeks, but have yet to get to it.  Might you have recommended it before?  I can't remember why I opened it.  

Tim Cronin

#3, Jun 8, 2012 1:19pm

I have been mentioning Wendell Berry. There has been an interest in his works by Catholics lately. Wendell is a Baptist. Below are other interesting articles besides the Endowment article. He is considered a modern day Thoreau by some:

Reading The Theology Of The Body Into Wendell Berry’s Remembering’s-remembering/

Working With the Grammar of Creation: Benedict XVI, Wendell Berry, and the Unity of the Catholic Moral Vision

Life is a Miracle

Joan Drennen

#4, Jun 8, 2012 9:51pm

I just read "Working with the Grammar of Creation..." as sited above, and loved it.

Thank you, Tim, and Thank you, Katie, for posting so I would come across this. I'm looking foward to reading more about Wendell Berry. Pope Benedict is so down to earth. All creation groans in expectation....

I love the author's words about over simplicification.When issues get presented in isolation, truth is distorted. As a Catholic, I cannot pretend that some things don't matter. I cannot comfortably polarize myself into a camp.

Wish I could verbalize my agreement to this article better. I was encouraged by it!

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 10, 2012 9:33am

We're taught that we shouldn't worry about what other people think of us.  This is especially clear when it comes to moral questions, or questions of personal integrity.  We should never compromise our interior self in order to get along with the group.  This is a deep truth and bears much pondering and further unfolding.  (It came out beautifully in the Reading Circle discussion of second half of Purity of Heart.)

But, Hoffer here hits on another truth, seemingly contradictory.  If we are too detached from others to care what they think of us, we lose our sense of personal dignity.

What a paradox offered to our consideration and prudential judgment!  We must be, absolutely, so true to our sense of self that we have no concern for others' opinions.  And yet, we are so meant to be related to others that if we lack that relation, we lose our sense of self.

For the last several years I have been thinking and thinking about the difference between right relationships and dysfunctional ones.  Among other differences is this basic one:

In right relations, the self flourishes in its integrity. In dysfunctional relations, the self is compromised.  

Tim Cronin

#6, Jun 11, 2012 1:26pm

You're welcome Joan. I first came across Wendelly Berry in the series of essays in "Wealth, Poverty, & Human Destiny" by Bandow and Schindler. There is a disconnect where some enviromentalists don't care about human life and vice versa where some who defend the unborn are not concerned with the enviroment... Hi Katie, I came across an article (below) this morning that I haven't had time to read fully yet that seems to posit empathy as a protection against being absorbed by a community. Empathy is other centered but is an experience of an "I'. Maybe there's something there....

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 11, 2012 2:12pm

Thanks, Tim.  I've read it through and appreciate some of her points.  She's right that we have to learn to view others not as objects of our experience primarily, but as subjects and selves with their own perspective, their own center, their own sovereign sphere of responsibility and authority.  I like that she's alive to the danger of "totalizing communities."  I think is a far greater danger than many devout Catholics realize.  I've encountered it all over the place: in family life, in lay communities, in religous communities, and in Catholic schools and colleges.  A bogus notion of charity and community is deployed to enforce a "unity" that is, in truth, not unity but conformity.  Those who resist are deemed "rebellious" or "bitter" or "uncharitable".  They become the object not of empathy, but of "concern".  They are prayed for.  

It's all very sick and dysfunctional, but subtle and hard to detect--except for those who have come up against it.

I would go so far as to say that the "fragmentation" endemic in our society has as much to do with bad conceptions of "community" as it does with a false individualism.  

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jun 11, 2012 2:26pm

Here's another way to say it: Many communities break up not because individuals are too individualistic, but because the "community leaders" are too controlling, and too disrespectful of the rights and prerogatives of the individuals within it.

I'll say further that before empathy comes into the picture, we need just basic respect.  We need to learn that what Wojtyla calls the other's "interior terrain" is incommunicably his own; it is his responsibility and his alone.  No one else has any business messing with it, or trying to fix it, or pressuring it to conform to our ideas of what is best for it.

Guardini put it well when he said that often the first gesture of love is not a reaching out, but a stepping back.  

Remember the line from Robert Frost?  "Good fences make good neighbors."  We can re-formulate the same basic insight this (less pithy and poetic) way: Without good and clear personal boundaries, communities will be dysfunctional.

Tim Cronin

#9, Jun 11, 2012 10:15pm

good points Katie.

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