So far, Karol Wojtyla has shown that human beings should have self-possession and self-governance. Without self-possession, a person is prey to every emotion, event or person coming his way. Without self-governance, he can not control his own actions and responses. If one has self-possession and self-governance, he then has self-determination. The individual can control his choices and there fore his destiny. The proper use of the will is decisive here. The person says, “I will do this or refrain from that. . . ,” or can distinguish among things the he “might or might not do” and those he “need not do.” The decisions made by the person are rational; they are related to the end he has in view, and the person is required to think about the hierarchy of ends, thus distinguishing between the necessary and important and arranging his choices according to the hierarchy. The self-possessed, self-governed decision maker does not confuse the lower ends, like food, clothing and shelter with higher ones like development of the intellect, and personal relations or real love (αγαπε—agape).
The other side of this coin, however, is that people are then responsible for their actions, and the development of their character. A person without these characteristics, i. e., self-possession, self-governance, determines his life and character in a helter-skelter way. The things he chooses are not linked to any particular hierarchy of ends, so his life is confused. When we perform actions, we reveal our inner character, and the world is objectively changed, for good or ill, by what we do. So the person is objectified by each of his actions. So, in economic actions, the person chooses from his subjective valuation of the good in question. Over time, the person reveals his values, and hence his character, in his choices.
The same is true with a society. This is why those who blame the free market system for the materialism of the west miss Wojtyla’s point. The market will not provide what the people generally won’t choose. It provides these things because people are demanding (thus the law of demand) the good or service be available in sufficient numbers that it is worthwhile for someone to provide it. In a materialistic society, the problem is not always what people demand be produced, it is really the amount they want to possess. So much of what we buy does not show self-possession or self-governance, but is controlled by emotion, desire to have and not to be, and a spiritual vacuum in the life of the person who tries to fill it with “stuff.” As so many of us allow our lives to be determined by mere emoting, we determine ourselves away from our higher ends. We replace the important with the necessary, and give the society that character, because the individuals in the society reveal their character in that way—by the choices they make, by the actions they take.
The lowest level to which this sinks is, according to Wojtyla, is when we not only focus on things instead of persons and relations with them, but we actually begin treating people as things. All things are meant for our usage to accomplish higher existential ends. People, however, must be valued for themselves. Now before the reader points out that we legitimately use people all the time, look closer. We do not use the medical doctor when we are sick—we use his services. The actual doctor must be loved and appreciated for himself. In business it is the same. If we call up the supplier of some part we are using to make a machine, we are not using him; we are using his offer to sell us the parts. This is also the same with employees. But it is in our interpersonal relations that the problem occurs. To mistreat the physician or the supplier of parts is different than using their services that they freely supply. We must always remember that all human beings are created in the image of God, and thus are ontologically equal to us, regardless of the difference of skills among us. Hence, there is never a reason for berating anyone, even a criminal, beyond what might be necessary to subdue such criminal, or get his attention.
Examine the so-called sexual revolution. So many men and women are saying to each other, “It’s OK for me to use you for gratification and for you to use me for the same.” If we look at this on a smaller scale, we can see the devastating consequences of such usage of persons. Suppose I had a friend. The friend was very nice to me but all of a sudden he grew cold. Then I found out that he was just pretending to be my friend in order to get introduced to another friend of mine who was rich. Once the introduction was made, this so-called friend no longer needed me and dropped me. The reader would say that that was horrible behavior and would sympathize with the pain I felt when this fellow ripped himself from my heart. Well, the same is true in sexual relations, but to a greater degree. There is nothing greater that one can give to another than the intimacy of the sexual act. This is why the Church and natural law clearly teach that it is for use in a permanent relationship that is marriage. But if I give myself in this way to someone on a date, or to many people on many dates, I am creating a special bond with those folks, due to the special thing that sex is. This bond is immediately broken, and therefore intimacy has no meaning. Thought of in this way, illicit sexual relations are barbaric acts. Is it any wonder that the character of the whole of western society has slipped? Reflect on how this shows up in what we buy, in our politics and in our growing crime rates. We have refused to be self-determining because we no longer have self-possession or self governance. The decisions of so many are based on whim, emotion and pleasure. The economy reflects this as our actions become history.
In the last entry, we wrote of self-possession, which meant that the fully human person expresses his character through his own actions, and that these actions ought to proceed from the authority he has over himself. Hence, the person is responsible for his own actions. It was also pointed out that talk, as opposed to action, does not reveal the person’s character, because many people say one thing and do another.
Now let us consider the quality of self-governance. If a person has self possession, they have self-governance. Not only are they responsible for their own actions, but they are responsible for the quality of their own actions. It is destructive to the person merely to take responsibility for robbing a bank. While that is a good thing after-the-fact, self-governance means that the person controls his actions. And refuses to rob the bank. To what end? To the end of human flourishing. Self-governance is the quality that directs our free acts to the existential ends that God placed in our nature, so that we can live a truly human life as the imago Dei.
Each of these existential ends has an end or purpose, and can be divided into the least necessary all the way up to the more important. The necessary are those things which make life possible, but can never be desired just for themselves, for the very reason that the are not important to our full flourishing, but are only basic to it. So, food, clothing, shelter and the like are necessary, but the person who desires them for their own sake stunts his development. These make it possible for us to go to higher and higher levels, or from the necessary to the important. So Karol Wojtyla considers the relations between persons, especially from the heart, as the most important feature in developing full humanity. We can say that the persons of the Trinity itself are known by their relations among each other, where each person is completely self-giving to the other two.
Other important existential ends are the desire to know people and things outside of ones own geographic area; the desire to learn, the desire for love and family; the desire to contribute something to society. Lastly is the desire to be on good terms with the Creator.
But these ends cannot be reached unless and until the self-possessed person is self-governing, that is, until he controls and directs his actions to the ends. Every day one is confronted with a myriad of choices. Not all of those choices are moral/immoral or life and death choices. But they are choices which either enhance human flourishing or detract from it. People who live impulsively are not self-governing. They allow their emotions, their mere likes and dislikes, to control what actions they take. Self-governance means that they have control over their passions and desires. They consciously choose the better path; they accept grace and the good because the have a notion about how the existential ends can be accomplished and reject those things which lead away from them.
Take marriage for example. Think of the person who goes to Las Vegas, meets someone, and after one day heads to the Elvis Chapel to get married—heads to the Elvis Chapel to promise a person they just met that they are ready to commit to love this person in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, until the end of life. These are two people who have no self-governance. They have thrown away an opportunity to make a choice to develop their character to accomplish an important existential end. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate is so high. This is an extreme example, but is it not true that many, if not most, people live their lives this way, doing things on impulse, spur-of-the-moment, no thought required?
Now we should ask ourselves what life would be like if the famous people in the past or even the present lived like this. Thomas Edison would have never invented the light bulb, because he might have enjoyed fishing instead. Great authors would have never written their books, because it was too hard, required too much thinking or research. No one would have ever set up a business because the risk was too much to handle. And why should emergency room physicians and paramedics put up with so much blood, gore and suffering in others, when they could be doing something less stressful? All these people do this because they are self-possessed and self-governing. The overcome their aversion to the difficult and their natural desire to pleasure and relaxation to accomplish a good, both for themselves and for the flourishing of society.
Therefore, we can conclude that the less self-possession and self-governance the people in a society have, the more the society will languish, and the more the individuals in that society will fail to reach their full potential.
There is an old expression, “Talk is cheap.” Coupled with another old expression, “Actions speak louder than words,” we are introduced to a profound philosophical insight brought by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in his The Acting Person. That insight is that people are understood through their actions, not their words. Metaphysically, that is, in the nature of every man, we say that man is a rational animal; he is an animal that can think, know and know that he knows. But in a sense, this truth is much too vague. Even though we all share this nature, each of us is very different in many respects. Wojtyla’s book is a phenomenological reflection on the actual lived experience of real human beings.
In human life we experience not only sense impressions (the British empiricists would agree) but also things and people (so many philosophers from Descartes onward would actually quibble with this.) The things and people make up two different aspects of the world. The very fact that we developed language demonstrates that we are meant to disclose or share our experiences, thoughts and feelings with others. We, i. e., the human person, is the subject of action. We reflect on our own experiences and what we actually do, but also we act as an objective monitor of our own actions, which means that man is the object of his own cognition. This means that we have the ability to judge the rightness, wrongness and even the prudence of our actions, given the amount of understanding we have accumulated during our lives. The implications of this is earth-shaking: we and no one else is responsible for our own actions.
This responsibility comes from that fact that God has given us three qualities that flow from our participation in His likeness:
a) Self-possession—the person’s actions flow from the point of authority over himself;
b) Self-governance—the quality that allow a person to order his actions to fulfill his “existential ends,” that is, to fulfill what he was created to be;
c) Self-determination—the outcome of self-possession and self-governance is that we determine how our personhood develops in the real world, and not in some theoretical construct.
For the sake of this article, let us examine self-possession more deeply. Wojtyla points out the origin of the word possession as coming from the Latin potus, meaning, to be able and sedere, to sit. In property terms, I sit on my own property. This demonstrates that it is mine, and I am responsible for its upkeep and output. Since a person is in possession of himself, his actions flow from his own authority over himself. Therefore, Wojtyla says that flights of fancy, imaginary utopias or living in the past or the future, inoculates a person against self possession. “Not living in the real world” means to abandon one’s responsibility over one’s actions, which do not accord with reality—the very definition of truth. Catholics today are especially prone to this tendency. There are many Catholics who imagine that they can remedy the ills of society by returning to a more primitive lifestyle, where all work is done by hand and there are only simple machines and no companies. Not only do those who fall for these utopian schemes wish to have everyone live in squalor and work themselves to death, but they say that this is what the Church teaches. They forget that sin comes not from social institutions, but from the very heart of man, and no tweaking of a system will make that evil disappear. Ultimately, all of these well-meaning Catholics are, as Wojtyla says, inoculating themselves against self-possession.
Examine life in the West today. So many people see themselves as victims. While some are truly victims, most of those folks, are really abrogators of self possession. Even the real victim of say, crime or hurricane, must face that reality in a self-possessed manner, and go on as best they can. They, while not responsible for the crisis in their lives, are responsible for dealing with it to the extent possible, and then turning to God and neighbor for assistance. But anger, revenge, self pity, and the like are losses of self-possession. The constant running to the government to legislate everything, is also a loss of self-possession—a common practice of our diocesan “Peace and Justice Committees.” We feel no responsibility for our brothers and sisters in trouble, and we turn to the government for force others through taxes to do what we ourselves should be banding together to do.
The entrepreneur is a person self-possessed. He is willing to take risk, even with other people’s money that they loaned him because he inspired them with the vision of a concrete project. He fully understands that failure occurs because he did not take all circumstances into account, and that what most of us call failure is actually a learning experience for the future. The fact that he is working with other people’s money is an extra incentive to be diligent. He doesn’t say that they owed it to him. He sees the loans as a favor which he will repay with the earnings from the project.
This is true in other areas as well. College students are studying on other people’s funds. They need to be self-possessed and not waist that time and money goofing-off. The self-possessed student studies hard and gets the degree for which other people gave him the money. Having a job is a gift of God, for which He expects diligence. How many of us lack the self-possession to give an honest days work?
The Church has been pleading that we Catholics be self-possessed in our Faith, that we realize that many, many people have not come to our Faith because we did not take responsibility for its spread. We live a comfortable, middle-class, Catholicism, which focuses on our own spirituality to the neglect of our brothers and sisters. If the world is not Catholic, it is our (collective) fault. Just as God will not save us without our co-operation, he will not save our non-Catholic brothers and sisters without our co-operation. This requires self-possession.
I am a great fan of “back to basics.” This is because the general population does not know what the educated person of my youth knew. Let’s take college education. The undergraduate university I attended had a heavy core curriculum. In philosophy alone there were five required courses in sequence. I would minoring with 21 credits. In theology there were four, again in sequence. In history there were three—two in sequence and one of the student’s choice. In political science there were two in sequence, same each with math and science. There were five in English, again in sequence. Today it is very rare to find such a core. Nowadays, a typical student is usually required to take an English writing course and then maybe one or two courses in each major area, not in sequence, but of his own choosing. The result is that the student’s knowledge is a hodge-podge, rather than a sequential building from a foundation. So the foundations are missing or shoddy.
I was a critic on panel at a scholarly conference in Texas once. I was assigned a person’s paper to critique, and the jist of my argument was that the whole argument was founded on Nominalism. Since the other person had a doctorate as well as I, I assumed that we would have a fruitful discussion over the very foundation of the professor’s paper and research, where she would have to defend the nominalist basis of the paper. But, instead of addressing my critique, she discussed another person’s paper, which was not her job. After the panel ended, I asked another person on the panel who had been a former student of mine, why this happened. He threw up his hands and said, “Philosophically illiterate?”
This is exactly my point. This person’s knowledge base was very flawed such that she did not know a very basic concept that all students (even those with only a B. A.) in my generation who had attended at least Catholic universities would be familiar with.
So what I am going to do now is discuss in the following series the fundamentals of man’s nature and how it plays out in everyday life.
The big point to remember here is that both society and the market are sui generis: that is to say, self-generating. They come from themselves. No one created society except the people who live in it. And they did it by there multitudinous interactions. They did it by the interactions of a free people, exercising their freedom. Adam Smith correctly called this the system of natural liberty. It is natural because God gave all human beings a free will, just like his. God created the universe absolutely freely, and gave his creatures a free will. He also gave us reason, similar to His, but his reason is so far above his, it is not that similar. Hnece, our free will is more like God’s than our reason. As God tells Job,
Who is this who darkens my council
With words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man
I will question you
And you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
Or who laid its cornerstone--
While the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy.
Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!
And so forth. God’s reason, while similar to ours, is inscrutable, because his reason is infinite. We cannot figure him out, but we can know what he tells us, or reveals to us. St. Paul says: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise ; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor 1: 18-21)
Maybe we concentrate too much on the evil in the world which is a result of the weakness of men with original sin, than the actions of everyday life. Maybe harping on sin and crime makes us feel better about our own sins and crimes. Be that as it may, the real way to find out about man, is to look at man in his everyday operations—doing the things natural to him as man. So we are going to look at man in his nature, first. We will do this by examining the famous book by Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, The Acting Person. By examining this book, we will fill in the philosophical details of that which makes the market.
To be continued . . .