The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 4:09:54

Disposing over my own existence

Katie van Schaijik, Nov 15, 2011

Last weekend I visited our daughter, Rose, in Steubenville, where she was stage manager for the drama department's production of A Midsummernight's Dream.  As with everything of Shakespeare's, I found the play repleat with personalist significance.

Our professor, John Crosby, who wrote the book on personal selfhood, taught us to think of the "self-possession of the human person" in terms of the right to "dispose over my own existence." (This is not the full "what and how" of personal existence, but it is a defining aspect.)  

Since that phrase is ever in my head when thinking about the nature and dignity of the person, I was particularly struck by an early line of the play:

Egeus is lodging a formal complaint with the Duke of Athens: His daughter is refusing to marry the man to whom he, her father, has given consent.  

He asserts: As she is mine, I may dispose of her:

It's interesting to consider that this used to be the law.  The daughter belonged to the father as a possession.  It was his right and his duty to dispose over her existence, including especially by choosing a husband for her.  It was her duty to obey her father.  Once married, she belonged to her husband, and her obedience was due to him.

The good Duke agrees with the father, and gently admonishes Hermia:

What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

We see the same cultural understanding at the thematic center of A Fiddler on the Roof—a play set much later in history—set, in fact, at the moment that cultural understanding was breaking up for good.  It's a play about  the loss of tradition.  According to the Tradition the main character loved and lived by, the father chooses the husband for his daughters.  If he's a good father, he'll choose according to her best interests, not his own.  If she's a good daughter, she'll give her consent without complaint or resistance.  By the end of the play, though, that moral understanding no longer obtains.  The father has recognized (not without some sorrow and confusion) his daughters' right to choose their spouses for themselves. This is exactly the "emerging sense of personal selfhood" the Personalist Project is concerned with.

Shakespeare intuited the coming shift a couple of centuries early.

The Duke tells Hermia that, under the law, her choice is to marry the man her father has chosen, or to spend her life in a convent as a virgin.  She makes bold to reply:

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.

Clearly she is experiencing and asserting her own soul's natural right to choose for herself.  She makes the point even more strongly a few lines later, when she and her true love are left alone:

O hell! to choose love by another's eyes.

Here we see more of personalism.  To not be free to dispose over our own existence in matters closest to our own heart and our own concern is hell.  And even more: No matter how much a father may do his best to choose a good husband, he can't do it, because love can only be chosen by the person herself, from within.

The great cultural gain of the wide recognition of this truth, in Wojtyla's phrase "worth the risk of some losses".