The Personalist Project

A reader from Australia has raised a question that I think many share about how the personalistic norm articulated by Kant and then adopted and adapted by JP II, viz. “a person is an end in himself, and never to be used as a mere means” relates to the call to love that is likewise of the essence of personal existence.

Here’s the question:

I have just recently come across personalistic philosophy by John Paul II. Forgive my lack of knowlege in this subject but I have a qestion about love.

I am Catholic and practicing. I try to live out theology of the body. I know I need to love but why, if I am made for my own end, my own sake? I don’t need to live for anyone, I am my own person and my existence needs no addition to my happiness. Now I am sounding really individualistic. Why do I need to limit or sacrfice my freedom to acommodate for another? Isnt that diminshing my dignity as a person? Do persons really need love when our personhood is enough? To be honest, I am not satsified with the answer,‘God is love and that we have to image the trinity.’ It’s too abstract.

Comments (3)


#1, Jul 14, 2009 5:49pm

Well, here are a few thoughts on this. . .

1. All human beings desire to be happy. (which the questioner clearly agrees with)

2. Happiness is not attained by aiming directly at it (i.e. if I do such and such I will be happy)

3. The human person is made for something. We have a nature. And when our nature is fulfilled according to who we truly are as human beings, we experience happiness as a byproduct—as an unsought for gift—that comes to us when we flourish.

4. There are two approaches to saying what we are made for by our very nature: a) we are made for love (to love and be loved in return); b) we are made for contemplation of higher things (ultimately resolved in a sort of attainment of, union with, the highest things). From a Christian worldview, I think we can say that ultimately b resolves into a. In God, in the life of the Trinity, love and knowledge are co-equal. To know is to love, and to love is to know. But here on earth, in a fallen world, we experience them as not fully united.

5. A phrase like “I am my own person” does not suffice to support an individualistic view. You have to answer the following question: What is a person? Either this question has no answer (and thus any search for the purpose of human life and the quest for fulfillment likewise cannot have answers that apply to all), or, it does have an answer. If it does, the answer to the question what is a person holds the key to answering how do I (a person) become happy (be fulfilled/flourish).

6. So, it is highly relevant what a person is—what is the nature of a human person. Now, the nature of a human person is that we are beings made for love—we are made to give ourselves away in love, and to receive the love of others. This is the sort of beings we are. Another shade of this is to say that we are being made for relationship. The human person makes no sense as a completely isolated being. A person is a creature which by nature, flourishes in relationship to other persons. (And this is, again from the Christian point of view, ultimately equivalent to saying that we are beings made to know and contemplate ultimate Truth, for the Truth is a person, Jesus Christ.)

The questioner asked why do we need to love, if we are made for our own end? Simply, it is because our end is to love! And to love, we must have others to love! If we do not love (and also experience being loved and accepting love from others), we cannot attain what we were made for. And thus, cannot be happy. [I need to say briefly that love of self, while a genuine form of love, is something that has to be healed and transformed by Christ’s love of us before it can stand on its own in a healthy way. And even so, I don’t think love of self alone can satisfy the human heart. We must have an “other” to love as well.]

Also, the questioner stated, “I try to live out theology of the body.” And, “I don’t need to live for anyone.”

In my understanding, these two statements are directly contradictory. One of the fundamental themes of the theology of the body is that the inherent sign-value of the human body reveals that we in our nature as human beings are made to make a gift of ourselves in love to another. A full and probing exploration of the nature of making a gift of ourselves in love, further reveals that an authentic gift of self to another—in this life as it exists on earth—will also require sacrifice and some measure of suffering. It is also best when it is permanent. And when it is spousal, love is oriented by its nature to being fruitful (desiring children) as a flowering of the unity of persons produced by love.

And so, the human person cannot flourish, cannot be what it truly is, unless it is engaged in loving (and being loved by) other persons. And true happiness (not mere temporary pleasure or joviality or superficial contentment)—deep down, interior peace and joy—cannot be had without this.

Next, I will comment about freedom because that has to be addressed as well.


#2, Jul 14, 2009 7:00pm

The questioner also asked, “Why do I need to limit or sacrfice my freedom to acommodate for another? Isnt that diminshing my dignity as a person? “

To fully explore this would go far beyond what would be reasonable here. I’ll try to be concise, hopefully without being too inadequate.

Freedom. What is freedom, truly? The notion of the secular world, is that freedom is mere license to do whatever strikes one’s fancy (i.e. the ability and the societal permission to do whatever one wants, short of harming others). But the Catholic tradition has a different understanding, bound up again with the very nature of the human person and what it means to be a person.

From a Catholic point of view (and this is also closer to the Greek-influenced philosophy of Western civilization prior to Christianity), freedom is the power (and social conditions making this possible) to do what you ought to do, according to what you are. In other words, freedom is what a person has when he can act in such a way as to fulfill his deepest vocation as a human person. Freedom is not a blank slate. It is something which enables us to be what we are made to be. A free person, is free for something—free to be what a person should be. And ultimately, that which we are made for as persons, is love.

When we are able to love others as we ought, we are genuinely free. And this necessarily involves some limitations upon our behavior. But, contrary to the view of secular society, this limitation bolsters our freedom—it does not reduce it.

Perhaps this analogy will be of some help. Gravity limits our bodily action. We can only run so fast, and lift so much weight, because of gravity. If we had no gravity, we would be “free” to go anywhere and do any sort of bodily action we wanted, with no limit. But, in reality, we simply could not live on earth without gravity. The very limits gravity puts on our bodies actually gives us a foundation in nature for our muscles to work in the way they are designed. Thus, the limitation enables our muscles to be free to work as they are made.

The limits placed upon us by the blessed demands of our relationships with other persons enable the spiritual center of our being as persons to be free to love authentically. If human relationships entailed no demands at all, placed no constraints upon our individual whims, we could not truly love with genuine love in this life (in a fallen world). So, the sacrifices demanded of us by truly caring for other persons, rather than reducing our freedom, actually provide a foundation for us to exercise our freedom by choosing freely to love, even though it demands something of us. In this way, the freedom to love in spite of present hinderances helps us to be what we are made to be—to come fully alive as persons. Because love is not easy, we have the potential to possess the incredible dignity of choosing to love with our whole being, for nothing less than a commitment of our whole self is demanded by love when it is at its most authentic. Freedom; dignity; self-possession; authentic flourishig and happiness as a person; sacrificial giving of oneself to another for the sake of love—all of these are wonderfully harmonious and mutually upbuilding in the Catholic vision of human life. And the theology of the body fully supports all of this by helping to explain it in an accessible way.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 18, 2009 7:09am

One of the longer-term tasks of the Personalist Project will be doing much more work on the problem of freedom.  It’s another area where I think the traditional account is not completely satisfying.  It doesn’t adequately answer, I think, the genuine questions that have arisen in the modern age.  We need to dig deeper. 
Jules has lots of good ideas here (following von Hildebrand) that I hope will eventually develop into an article or book.

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