Printer Friendly

The concept of "gift" as hermeneutical key to the dignity of the human person.

One of the concepts cutting across confessional, ethnic, and even political lines is the concept of human dignity. In some real sense it is truly "ecumenical." At the same time, the power of this idea is such that it can galvanize individuals, groups, and even nations into conflicts that threaten the very reality of human dignity. This paradoxical nature of the idea is itself grounded in a more or less explicit understanding of what it means to be human and to have the dignity of a person. Our understanding of dignity is built on our understanding and our experience of what it means to be a human person.

The issue of human dignity is particularly difficult because there is something in human nature itself that allows two different individuals of the same human nature to have diametrically opposed experiences. We need to consider the kind of experience that allows for what can perhaps be called the "dialectic" that emerges in the conflicting accounts of human dignity. In doing this we will use the concept of the gift as what Pope John Paul II calls the "hermeneutics of the gift." (1)

We speak of the "experience" of the external world. Thus, we can experience a sunrise or a sunset. The sun presents itself to us as rising and setting. The experience in question shapes our very language. And then, one day, a discovery occurs: the facts of the case are that the sun neither rises nor sets nor does it move across the sky. It is stationary. It is the observer that is moving. We come to know the facts of the case. And yet, the appearance of the rising and the setting sun does not change. The distinction between fact and experience shapes the consciousness of "modern human beings." Things are one way; they appear in another way. Or, we could say, things are not what they seem. It is the task of the scientist to discover a reality that is hiding behind appearances. And so, we have the expert, the scientist, telling the uninitiated what the world is really like. Love, for the romantic, appears to be one thing, but in reality, we are told, it is an evolutionary mechanism assuring the survival of a gene pool. God, for the religious sentiment, is an omnipotent and benevolent being, but in reality, we are told that sentiment is the product of impotence and imagination.

As a result of this bifurcation of experience and so-called scientific knowledge, we have a devaluation of "subjective experience" that is subordinated to if not crushed by objective, that is, "scientific" truth. This has its consequences for the experience of one's own dignity. Self-affirmation, in the face of what appears an apparently relentless and dehumanizing progress of science and objective truth, almost inevitably brings with it, as a self-protective response, a spreading skepticism and relativism. It is as if the affirmation of one's own dignity required the rejection of objective truth, which binds the subject. Thus, outside of the sphere of the strict empirical sciences, we find a proliferation of theories supposedly affirming subjectivity but in fact establishing a subjectivism. (2) Frequently heard expressions of this are phrases such as, "The world is what you make of it," or "Existence is a state of mind," or "What is good for you may not be good for me," or finally, "Don't impose your opinions on others." A specific relativism, presenting itself as spiritual and mental pluralism with regard to truth, has emerged side by side with a legitimate cultural pluralism. Human dignity seems to require this. But the very understanding of human nature and personal dignity itself becomes a casualty of such relativism and pluralism.

In an attempt to recover the authentic dignity of the human person, we need to focus on experience of another sort. In this case, we move from the experience of the external world and turn to experience as the specific way in which we have our acts and perform them from "within." Everything in the external world is given to us as an object, as something that, literally, "stands over against" and before us. With regard to our own acts and, ultimately, with regard to our own being and existence, we a have a privileged access. As observers of external phenomena we are agents but also subjects. This means that we are within our acts and given to ourselves from within, not as objects but as subjects. One aspect of this privilege is the infallibility with which our acts and experiences are given to us, who are within our acts and being. (3) We are the agents, not simply observers of some external phenomenon. Because of this, the discrepancy between experience and reality that marks our relation to the world of external things does not exist in this dimension of our own agency. Let us take a simple but critical example.

We observe an event in the external world. We are startled by the breaking of a window pane in our room. We know there must be a cause explaining the event, but we do not know what it is. In B.F. Skinner's phrase, "we are ignorant of the causes" of the event. If we were scientists, or detectives, we would begin tracing back the trail of causes--a "reductive" process that leads us back to the thing that accounts for the event. It may be that we never find the cause. We may be doomed to ignorance. It is this kind of ignorance with regard to our own actions that, according to B.F. Skinner, accounts for the illusion of freedom and, of course, of dignity. (4) The plausibility of Skinner's argument rests on the assumption that subjects observe their own acts from the outside, as if they were looking at another object in the universe. It is this approach, motivated by the attempt to understand ourselves the way we understand external objects, that reduces human beings to yet another object in the cosmos. (5)

The same kind of plausibility marks the determinists' position and their challenge that we prove that one is free. Of course, we cannot. And they think to have carried the day. But they forget two things: we do not have to prove to them that we are free, only to ourselves; and they stand outside of our acts and will never have access to our own acts, even after we have sufficient evidence from within our own acts that they are, indeed, free. They stand outside of our own acts and will for all time be ignorant of their cause. We stand inside of our own acts and have infallible evidence that we are their free agent. All the determinists can see are our hands going up. They assume we are marionettes. Of course, it could be the case that our hands are on strings and are pulled up by an unseen puppet master. But in that case we would know what is essentially inaccessible to them, namely, the difference between an "it happens" and an "I act," the way we know the difference between an involuntary sneeze and one we produce as actors on a stage. (6) When, on the contrary, it is in fact the case that we lift our hands, what evidence will suffice, or even be possible, to convince them? None. And so, they think they have proven their point.

The very simple experience, nay, the act of lifting our hands is infallible evidence of something that grounds our dignity and is therefore evidence of what we call personhood. In this context, evidence means "proof." (7) It reveals a fundamental difference between us and animals. In the case of the latter, their nature determines the contents of their behavior. The cat acts like a cat and the dog acts just like a dog. In our case, there is the possibility of acts and actions in which we initiate and determine. A simple "Yes" or a "No" to an invitation to tea is not determined by our human nature. (8) If it were, we would know it as something that "'happens" in us. When the chosen response is an "I act," we also have immediate, infallible evidence in the experience that the act was determined by us and not by our nature. Using technical terminology, we can say that the human person has, in this sense, a capacity for self-determination, which the animal lacks, or at least, shows no evidence of possessing. We can also speak here of a self-possession that is the mark of personhood. These terms and formulations are but the expression of a basic pretheoretical experience, which shows itself in something as simple as a child's joy in riding solo on a two-wheeled bicycle or in the exclamation, "Mother, please, let me do it myself!" The experience of "standing on one's own," of having mastered an action or skill, in short, of "being one's own" and the fundamental satisfaction this experience brings are evidently given. But they are only given from within.

This experience of self-possession and self-mastery is the foundation for both the cognition and the notion of human dignity. It stands in contrast to all experiences in which something happens in us, something that is the effect of causes, whether known or unknown, ranging from a simple sneeze to a compulsion. And it stands in radical contrast to those experiences in which we feel ourselves enslaved, as if owned by some "other." Unlike the sneeze, such experiences are spiritually and emotionally painful in a specific way that seems hostile to the very core of our being. Compulsion or addiction are specific instances of such experience. Of particular significance are experiences similar to being enslaved when we know ourselves to be used by another. We will return to this later.

As noted, the experience of self-possession and self-determination is a basic datum of conscious human life. In technical terminology, we can speak of it as a metaphysical fact characteristic of the personal dimension of human existence. Yet, unlike facts of the external contingent world, such as the movements of the earth and sun relative to each other, which can be hidden though not changed by appearances, the basic fact of human self-possession can in some real sense be changed by and in its very exercise. If the power of self-possession is a basic capacity of the person and is at the core of human freedom, in its exercise it can become the very opposite of human freedom. Self-possession can be exercised in such a way that it necessarily becomes its dialectical opposite or its own negation, the loss of self. If we take the experienced power of self-possession as the basis of a human dignity expressed with terms such as "self-standing," "being one's own," "independence," "self-governing," and so on, under certain conditions, the very exercise of this power results in the experience of "falling," of "loosing one's self," of "dependence," and "enslavement."

This paradoxical feature is more and more manifest in contemporary culture in its focus on and the pursuit of the power of self-possession as such. It is no longer the avant-garde academicians who insist on "doing their own thing." The title of a song popularized by Frank Sinatra captured the reflection of everyman on his own existence, in which he can say, "I've done it my way." The academic discussions of moral relativism and skepticism and the rejections of objective standards and truth are no longer radical or revolutionary. They simply reflect the spirit of the times, which insists that the individual belongs to him- or herself and to no one else. But the same spirit of the times also manifests an ever-spreading sense of alienation and loss of self-possession. The various forms of addiction are eloquent if tragic testimony to a person's dialectical claim to be master of him- or herself.

The simple experience of the power of self-possession, no matter how enjoyable and satisfying initially, is not enough. The pursuit of this experience for its own sake gives us a key to the structure of mastery and domination that pervades the relationship of individuals to each other and to the world. The systematic and consistent pursuit of the experience of self-possession--for the sake of the satisfaction it offers--ends not only in the loss of self-possession but inevitably becomes an act of mastering others and the environment. And so, the apparent self-affirmation in the act of mastery becomes a use of others. But using other people is a degradation of them, a violation of their human dignity. In every instance of using a human person we take a being who is destined to be a master of him- or herself, with the power of determining his or her own end, and subjugate him or her as a means used to our own ends. Hardly anyone who has experienced being used fails to experience degradation and violation.

The experience of the power of self-possession is not enough. Nor is the satisfaction that may accompany this experience. It has to become modulated by two other experiences if it is not to become inevitably suicidal, namely, its own destructive opposite. At stake are the experience of truth about a reality other than the subject and the experience of something of objective worth and beauty. In what follows, both are going to be sketched very briefly so as to bring out their place in the structure of the experience of a dignity that does not dissolve in its own negation.

1. The discovery of truth about a being independent of the individual's own act of knowing brings with it an implicit but powerful intuition. When I recognize a truth about some being, however insignificant (let us say a cockroach), I implicitly intuit something else. When we speak of knowing the truth, we mean knowing a being as it is in itself. With the phrase "in itself," we signify reality as opposed to an appearance "for me." What is known is seen in itself and not relative to some need or end in me. Conversely, to use something for our own ends does not require knowledge about its true nature. (9) All we have to know is that it works. For example, if a man wants to use a woman for his own pleasure or for procreation, he need know nothing of what she is in herself--her dreams, her hopes, her intentions--in short, of what she is as a person in the dignity that is proper to her as a woman. If every individual is the "end" of his or her own existence, he or she need know nothing of the real world in itself. By contrast, the very experience of knowing something "as it is in itself " confronts the individual with a discovery. The additional intuition that comes with the knowledge of objective truth about anything in itself is this: it makes no sense to know reality as it is in itself if an individual's nature and end is to exist for his or her own self-actualization and self-realization.

From the perspective of the individual who lives for him- or herself and his or her own satisfaction, the discovery of an objective truth can bring with it the disturbing discovery that a person is not to exist for him- or herself. The recognition of something as it is in itself implies that the thing, as it is in itself, is to be respected at least in the sense that it is not to be unconditionally subject to my purposes. Nor is it to be ignored if not so subject. A thing recognized as it is in itself, minimally demands to be affirmed as it is in itself. Indeed, this demand is metaphysically so powerful, that it "captures" the individual and binds him or her in conviction. But then, one does not possess oneself to the extent that one is convinced. Every being the individual encounters convinces him or her that it is in itself. Aristotle held that in the act of knowledge man becomes what he knows. With this affirmation of identity, he avoided a basic given, namely, the experience of being convinced that carries with it a powerful even if obscure sense of encounter with the power of an other, over and "against" the one who has been convinced or conquered, as it were.

Conviction, given from within the subject's experience of it, however, carries an implication for self-possession. The experienced conviction seems to oppose and go against the experienced self-possession. As we shall see below, this inner tension between conviction and self-possession does not arise in being-for-others, in contrast to the self-centered orientation toward one's own satisfaction. Honest egoists who live for themselves insist on determining themselves and being their own masters. They know from within experience that this self-determination is a free act. But, if self-determination is freedom, which implies the very possibility of choosing oneself or not choosing oneself as the end of one's own existence, what is the significance of this "or not"? What is the alternative to choosing oneself as one's own end? Simply not choosing? But what reason would one have for not exercising this choice of not choosing oneself? Not choosing one's self-actualization is tantamount to choosing nonexistence or death. From the perspective of the individual who lives for him- or herself, the rationality of will as the rational appetite is compromised if it is also free to choose its end. Freedom to choose the same end that would otherwise be determined by one's nature is a superfluous freedom. It adds nothing to what is the case in animals determined by their nature to seek self-actualization. It has no reason for existing as a self-determining, that is, as a free will. This irrationality is confirmed by the pretheoretical reality of experience that shows that all one's previous actions as a "rational" animal for the sake of one's own end and its actualization have resulted in the loss of self and the suffering this entails. This constitutes a contradiction, and hence an antirationality in a being who begins his or her conscious existence with the experiences of oneself as destined to be the master of a universe but falls to the painful status of an addict to his or her needs.

But if we are not to opt for the absurd as an explanation, we still have to explain this power to choose or not to choose. What is the alternative to the choice of self? The only alternative is to choose an other.

This immediately brings into focus the new question of motivation: why would one choose the other? We need to complete the intuition mentioned above and identify its intelligible basis. Knowledge of a being, as it is in itself and other than oneself is the basis for the discovery that such knowledge is meaningless if everything is for me. Cognition of objective reality brings with it the implication that one is to be for the other. In that case conviction can be understood as a "grace" or a gift that helps one in a "movement" toward the other for his or her sake, a movement that, like conviction, cannot be initiated by the subject's own decision or will. But this implication has to be further specified in two ways.

a) If we came to know nonpersonal beings simply and if, in that knowledge, we came to be "bound" or convinced by the facts known, and if we had a full experience of ourselves as persons, we could not but experience the radical indignity of being bound by nonpersonal beings. Our cognitive encounter with a universe that is nonpersonal necessarily brings with it the experience of being overpowered and enslaved even though, more fundamentally and originally, we experience ourselves as having the power of self-possession and self-mastery. In the face of such a universe that binds or convinces, our own power of self-possession becomes impotent and ultimately an absurdity. If we are to gain any understanding, to say nothing of a sympathetic understanding of contemporary skepticism and relativism, we must see the drama already contained in the cognitive encounter with reality. If it is truly cognition of an objective reality, it also truly "binds" or convinces us. As such, it can be an experienced antithesis to the freedom of self-possession. In this sense, we can understand the words uttered by Nietzsche at one point, when he says that the Yea! and the Nay! of certitude is for the weak; the strong alone can afford doubt.

b) But the possibility itself of experiencing oneself as bound by objective reality and, therefore, diminished in one's dignity needs an explanation. This basic phenomenon of experiencing the encounter with objective reality as overpowering the subject, if the subject is aware of his or her own personal subjectivity, cannot remain on the level of an experience of inner conflict with a self that is a master in possession of self and at the same time a slave in bondage. Given the personal dimension of the subject who is bound, there will be a more fundamental, even if implicit, recognition of a personal dimension hidden behind the directly encountered but impersonal reality that binds the subject in conviction. The very nature of conviction as a personal response is metaphysically impossible with regard to the nonpersonal as nonpersonal. This affirmation would have to be further developed and grounded in the intuition that the personal nature of a subject as exercising a certain sovereignty in self-possession would be radically violated if it were to be bound by a nonpersonal reality, by brute facts. Thus, on the level of experience, the being bound by reality carries implicitly the awareness of being bound by some personal power hidden in objective reality or standing behind it. (10) If conviction, or analogously, if doubt is to be metaphysically possible about a nonpersonal reality or state of affairs, the latter must also be given in the strict sense of the word. As a gift, it necessarily has its origin in a personal giver. A systematic skepsis with regard to reality necessarily implies, if it is consistent, an opposition to the personal dimension hidden behind what is given. Instead of receiving the datum, one appropriates it, indeed, wrests it from the hand of the giver whom it rejects. Assuming mastery over it, one frees oneself from bondage. The objective status of reality as given reveals behind itself a personal dimension that is necessarily perceived as hostile by the self-centered individual who experiences him- or herself as violated in the encounter with the given that convinces. (11)

Before proceeding, we can simply note that personal existence manifests itself as an interpersonal drama. In the case of Nietzsche's "overman," it manifests itself above all as a warfare of person against person, and ultimately of the individual against God. Structurally, this conflict has its origin in the person's use of his or her power of self-possession and self-determination in order to choose him- or herself as his or her own end. Such a choice cannot simply ignore or depersonalize the personal dimension outside of the contingent individual, it necessarily implies a warfare against other persons and ultimately against the absolute person, God. It is a choice of "being against" as opposed to "being for" others.

2. Another aspect of the incipient intuition that knowledge of reality implies a "being for the other" is the condition that this reality be perceived not as neutral but as the bearer of objective value or goodness and beauty. But here again we face a paradox of sorts. If one lives for him- or herself and regards the universe as a means or a tool for one's own realization, one will not perceive the objective goodness and beauty of that universe. One must already be turned toward other beings and open to them as the other if one is to perceive their goodness and beauty. (12)

How are contemporary human beings to come to the perception of the objective worth of reality and particularly of other persons if they live the mantra of the age, namely, self-actualization or self-realization? Again, two remarks are in order.

a) The first is proposed as a theoretical premise, a key to understanding. Humans, as personal beings, do not begin their existence as a self-centered closed system, the center of an ecosystem that is a means for their own survival and at the same time a possible threat in as much as they may be a means for the survival of others. Here again, we briefly note a metaphysical presupposition. It is impossible that a being that is by nature determined to pursue its own self-actualization turn toward an other as a transcendent end. To do this, the being would already have to possess itself and determine itself as opposed to being determined by its nature. A cockroach or a cat cannot exist and act for an other; they are determined by their natures to "be for themselves" and are, in this sense, possessed and "driven" by their natures. Personal human existence begins as a self-possession that is given to it. We awaken to ourselves from within as already turned outward to the external world, experiencing ourselves and that world as gifts. This means that the contingent person begins his existence in the receptive mode. (13)

b) But the experience of our own existence and that of the world as a gift depends on other persons. This is the second point presupposed for an answer to our present question of how we come to perceive the value and beauty of being. Our awakening to the goodness and beauty of the world is mediated by the personal touch of another human being. (14) Without going into an extensive analysis we only briefly consider the metaphysical structure of our awakening to the world and ourselves.

In the cognition of objective value and beauty, the person does not only perceive them with the intellect, he or she is also affectively touched or moved by goodness and beauty. This experience fills the individual with a decidedly positive content, which can be variously called joy, satisfaction, or happiness. We can also speak of the individual experience of actualization or realization of one's being. Regardless of the linguistic terminology used, the experience includes in it, at least initially, an awareness of being a beneficiary and addressee. As beneficiary, I experience that the good is "for me"; as addressee, I experience that the good is "to me." This is a distinct moment that cannot be captured by the terms "actualization" and "realization." It is the object of a distinct insight that a good is for me and has somehow been intended for or directed to me. Another way of focusing on this aspect of the experience is to say that the individual experiences him- or herself as affirmed by another.

With the concepts of benefit and affirmation we enter into the interpersonal dimension. When I experience, let us say, the beauty of nature as something that is a benefit for me and an affirmation of my being, two things happen. The awareness of a benefit is a kind of awakening to myself. It is a form of coming into possession of myself, a receiving of myself, as it were. This is also the case in the experience of being affirmed. It implies an awakening, a birth of the self in its personal, conscious existence. There is also an intuition, prior to all concepts and thought, of a personal being as the source and agent of the benefit and affirmation.

How is this intuition possible in the case of experiencing the beauty of nature, for example? Assuming that the universe is filled with beings, all of which possess their own specific goodness and beauty, how is it possible to experience receiving a benefit and affirmation from beings that are nonpersons? In the receptive experience of being touched and moved by beauty one experiences being specifically "filled" and "fulfilled." The content that enters my being has a definitely friendly and positive character. In the consciousness that this fulfillment has its source in some objectively good or beautiful reality, one can gain the intuition that it is a gift, one intended by some benevolent personal agency. The answer is that the nonpersonal beings are not the source and agency of the benefit and affirmation. Only a personal being can be such a source and agent.

We touch here on a mystery of human existence that can be grasped and experienced as a mystery grounded in the nature of personal being. This mystery is only now coming into focus in the thought of such men as the psychologist Conrad Baars and John Paul II. (15) The former speaks of us as being given to ourselves when another person affirms us. In the affirming touch of the other we are given to ourselves as a gift. The latter explains the human misery and suffering, captured with the term "culture of death," as the result of our failure, nay, refusal to receive the world and especially our "neighbor" as gifts. Instead, we appropriate, we take what is offered as a gift but reject the giver and his or her love.

The above theoretical formulation is but the distillation of the mystery that on the natural level human individuals are born twice. We are born once physiologically, coming out of the womb of a female. We are born a second time spiritually as we come out of the womb of our own darkness. This second, spiritual birth can happen only when another person "enters" into and "touches" that inner sleeping darkness with the gentle and tender touch of love. Only when the female receives the child in her arms does she become a mother. Only then does her soul enter into that of the child and awaken it with a tender touch.

In this sense every human being is a mother to every other human being that is given as a gift. Only to the extent that we see that ontological preciousness and beauty of human beings that are their birthright prior to race, creed, ethnic origins, accident of birth, or accomplishment in life can we receive them and in doing so affirm them.

It is the affirmation by another person that allows us to recognize external reality as a gift that is good and therefore as a benefit to and affirmation of our own being. This experience brings the awakening person into the dramatic theater of interpersonal dialogue, where each is called to receive what is offered and to respond with a gift of self. It is in the context of such a call to reciprocity that the original power referred to at the beginning of our reflection, namely, the power of self-possession, acquires its metaphysical justification and explanation. As a venerable saying has it, nemo dat quod non habet, no one can give what one does not possess. We have been given to ourselves so that we can give ourselves in return. But this would be a mere legalism, ultimately without justification, if we did not add that we are given to ourselves by one who loves, and we are to give ourselves to the other out of love for the other.

A central element of the dignity of the human person is precisely this power that can be variously called a "self-standing," "self-possession," "being one's own," or "self-mastery." By virtue of the fact that it is a personal power, it can be properly and authentically actualized only in the gift of self. It is the vocation of a person to give him- or herself to another out of love for the other that constitutes the mystery of such a power that has the character of an absolute in a contingent being. Not even God can take possession of the human person unless he or she freely gives him- or herself to God. In contrast, the intention to keep oneself for oneself results in the loss of self.

The violation of this mystery is the source of the human tragedy we call "death." Our using others for what can be variously termed, our joy, our happiness, our satisfaction, or even our own actualization or our own realization, is the antithesis of the loving, affirming, and tender touch of love. Using another person is an act of violence and appropriation. In it, one takes possession of the other. At one point, John Paul II calls it the "extortion" and "misappropriation" of the gift. (16) In it, the person given to him- or herself as a sovereign subject is turned into a slave.

The fuller dimension of this tragic abuse of human dignity becomes more clearly manifest when we again consider simply its metaphysical structure, present in all instances of using other people but particularly evident in the use and therefore abuse of the young. When they are lovingly received and affirmed, the young become receptive to the external world and its value and respond with joy to it, particularly to the individual who woke them up to this world, namely, their mother. We noted earlier that we began with the premise that the human person begins its conscious existence turned outward to the world rather than upon itself. We now add that it is the loving touch of another that leads or "educates" the waking person out of him- or herself. It is this loving affirmation by another that also mediates his or her receptivity to other persons and the rest of the nonpersonal universe in their value and beauty. In being touched by love, the young learn to stand on their own as the first step in rising above themselves. In doing so they achieve the thing we call "dignity" in the existential sense, which involves not so much standing above others as it does a rising above oneself. The latter is metaphysically possible only in the transcendence toward a personal other for his or her own sake.

The tragedy often begins when the young, instead of being received and affirmed as a precious gift, are used and abused for the satisfaction of others, above all, for the satisfaction of the parent. It is this abuse that wounds the young and violates their dignity. And it is this wound that can turn the child in upon him- or herself, seeking his or her own satisfaction, with the consequence that it becomes difficult if not impossible for the child to gain possession of him- or herself. (17) The inner space that could have been, or perhaps initially was, filled by its beatifying contact with goodness and beauty, remains empty and turns into a dynamic need that eventually takes possession of the individual and drives him or her from within. The interiority of the individual now manifests itself as an existential emptiness that begins to suck the subject into his or her own abyss. And nothing is more painful than this experience, correctly identified by some thinkers as existential anguish or despair: the impossibility of all possibilities. (18)

In conclusion, the inner power of self-possession acquires not only its meaning but also its actuality in the choice of a personal other as the "end" of one's existence, to use a traditional formula. More appropriately, this personal power to possess one's own being acquires its meaning only when it is used to receive the gift of others. In the receiving, one also comes to possess oneself, a possession that is completed only in the sincere gift of self to others. (19) This is life. And this is one of the foundations for human dignity: the power to possess oneself and to be sovereign over oneself. But such a self-possession is meaningful only when it is free. And this freedom also carries with it the terrible risk of choosing to take possession of oneself in order to keep oneself for oneself, refusing to make this sincere, that is, loving gift of self to others. It is here that we also discover the tragic alternative: the loss of self in the keeping of oneself. This is the death and the sickness unto death that more and more broadly has come to mark the spiritual culture of the day. Its proper diagnosis can be given only against the background of a remedy it seems to reject, the willingness to die for the sake of another. And that is love.


(1.) Cf. John Paul II, General Audience, January 2, 1980, The Theology of the Human Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997). In his reflections on the creature and the Creator, John Paul II introduces what he calls a "new dimension, a new criterion of understanding and interpretation, which we will call 'hermeneutics of the gift.' The dimension of the gift decides the essential truth and depth of meaning of the original solitude, unity and nakedness. It is also at the heart of the mystery of creation."

(2.) Cf. Karol Wojtyla, "Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being," in The Person and Community, trans. Theresa Sandock (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 209-17. In this essay Wojtyla affirms the importance of attention to experience, which requires a recognition of the human person's interiority or subjectivity. We can be just as "objective" about the subject in our interiority as we can be about the rest of the cosmos, which is always and only given "from the outside." The affirmation of subjectivity is not equivalent to subjectivism, which denies objective truth by making everything relative to the subject's consciousness. Wojtyla's essay on "The Person: Subject and Community" (219-61) gives an excellent summary presentation of subjectivity as the way in which the persons "have" themselves or are given to themselves from within, both in what "happens" to them and particularly in their acts.

(3.) Descartes' identification of the cogito, which signifies all conscious acts and experiences of the person, as the basis for certitude is grounded in the infallibility characteristic of our being and conscious experiences as given "from within" and not "from without," in the manner of all objects other than the subject and his acts or experiences. In contrast to this is the certitude grounded in the inner necessity of the essence or the state of affairs given to cognition as object, that is, given "from without." The latter, which can be called "objective certitude" in contrast to "subjective certitude," is sacrificed by Descartes in the argument of the evil genie. Even if the evil genie could cast doubt on objective certitude, he cannot do so with regard to subjective certitude about the act of the cogito and the subject's existence that is given in them.

(4.) Cf. Burrhus Frederick Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1971).

(5.) Cf. Karol Wojtyla, "Subjectivity and the Irreducible," 210ff.

(6.) Cf. Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), 66ff.

(7.) The term "proof " is ambiguous to the extent that it can refer to two essentially different kinds of proof. In the case of the empirical sciences, which deal with contingent entities and states of affairs, proof means grounding a fact in something external to the fact, either its causes or its effects. One proves that something is flammable by inserting it into the experimental, that is, into the cause-and-effect context. One cannot simply assert, for example, that paper is flammable. To do so, would be to make a "dogmatic" and therefore unscientific statement. On the other hand noncontingent states of affairs, namely, those that do not depend on something outside of themselves to be what and how they are, become "proven" only when they are brought to evidence. In other words, they are their own proof. They are self-evident. It is an entirely new thing for the subject to "see" what is self-evident. A subject may lack the clarity of vision to grasp a state of affairs "in itself." But it would be counterproductive, in that case, to ask for an external ground for a self-evident state of affairs.

(8.) The traditional formula agere sequitur esse has two possible meanings. In its first meaning, the nature of a being causally determines the content and occurrence of activity as an effect. In its second meaning, the nature of a being determines the possibility of acts, not their content or occurrence, which depends on the agency of the being, not its nature. The latter is the domain of personal acts, the former of nonpersonal beings. The full significance of this personal agency comes into fuller focus when contrasted with the "end" of nonpersonal beings. These do not have the possibility of "striving" or not "striving" toward their end, which is the full actuality of their being as specified by their nature. Personal beings have the power to strive freely toward their end. In the case of human beings this means that we are not determined to strive toward our "ultimate" end but have the freedom of choice with regard to our ultimate end. Such a freedom of "possessing" our own being and directing it toward an end of our choice is an essential element of our dignity as persons. For a fuller discussion see Damian P. Fedoryka, "Ontological and Existential Dimensions of Human Dignity," in Menschenwurde: Metaphysik und Ethik, ed. Mariano Crespo (Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 1998), 119-44.

(9.) Cf. Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 22-23, where, speaking of flattery, he writes the following:

The other ... has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled. Thus the situation is just about the opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, especially to the one flattered, as if a special respect would be paid, while in fact that is precisely not the case. His dignity is ignored; I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him, all in order to use him and manipulate him for my purposes.

In our context, the pursuit of my purposes implies an essential ignoring of the dignity of the other, namely, the failure to recognize the true sovereignty of the other over his or her own being, a sovereignty that forbids me from using him or her for my own ends.

(10.) The experience of one's being as ultimately "one's own," to use an expression from Martin Heidegger, means that the encounter with an objective reality that binds the subject even in cognition constitutes a radical negation of the subject. The absolute certitude of the personal status of one's existence, namely of one's power of self-possession, is the basis for understanding the metaphysical absurdity, and therefore impossibility of an ultimately nonpersonal fact binding a personal subject, even if only in cognition. It is at this point that there emerges the either/or: Either one rejects metaphysics and accepts the brute facticity of being doomed to the impossibility of being one's own by one's own choice; or one discovers that reality of the personal "other" is a given precisely because it is also an intrinsic good that also "blesses," namely, is a good for the subject because it affirms the subject.

(11.) We can thus conjecture that the sayings of Hercalites,--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Frag. 81), "everything arises from strife," and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], (Frag. 53), "War is the father and ruler of all"--spring from the encounter between a reality that binds and a person awakening to the sense of his or her own dignity being violated by the bonds of reality. Central to this experience is the fact that the awakening to the subject's own personal dignity there is no corresponding awakening to the personal dimension behind the nonpersonal realities of the cosmos that are given to human beings. Indeed, there is no awareness of the nonpersonal realities being given. Rather, they are imposed, forcing into passivity a subject whose growing awareness as person rejects passivity. Thus, the experience of oneself as "arising" out of the conflict between the person and cosmos.

(12.) It is significant that for Heidegger, beings in the world are not to be understood as "present at hand" but rather as "ready to hand," and thus as Zeug, namely, as tool.

The paradox of this "must already be opened" toward transcendent being as gift is resolved by the intuition that it is the personal being of an other that "opens" one's soul and "leads" it out of itself without doing violence to it. This means that human beings, as personal, are already in a receptive, not passive mode from the beginning of our existence. In being "created" human beings are not the the "effect" of a causal omnipotence that brings them "out of nothing." Rather, from the beginning, their existence is given as a gift.

(13.) This primary receiving of the initial gift of our existence is actualized in the secondary receiving of beings other than ourselves. This secondary receiving involves self-possession both in the act of secondary receiving and the more fundamental receiving of our being as a whole. Since the receiving cannot, in either case, be initiated by human persons, it is ratified and completed by an act of the will, initiated only by subjects who "make their own" both receptive and spontaneous experiences that are beyond their power to initiate. Thus, those who cannot initiate by an act of the will their "being moved" by someone's beauty or the response of joy to it can take possession of the beauty and joyful response and in them, take possession of their own being. To be a genuine act of self-possession it must be an integral element in the intention of giving our own self as a sincere gift to an other.

(14.) For Edith Stein the perception of good and values is of particular significance in the relation to the world and others. This perception involves the emotions and allows the spiritual activity of bringing others out of themselves. In the case of woman, it is a specific mark of her femininity and also allows an inner sensitivity to her own being. The sphere of the affective contact with the world of goodness and beauty is a condition for a unique sensitivity for and entry into self and others. Cf. Edith Stein, Collected Works, vol. 2, Essays on Woman (Washington, DC: ICS, 1996):

She seems more capable than man of feeling a more reverent joy in creatures; moreover, such joy requires a particular kind of perception of the good, different from rational perception in being an inherent spiritual function and a singularly feminine one. Evidently, this quality is related to woman's mission as a mother which involves an understanding of the total being and of specific values. It enables her to understand and foster organic development, the special, individual destiny of every organic being. (73-74)

For the soul perceives its own being in the stirrings of the emotions. Through the emotions, it comes to know what it is and how it is; it also grasps through them the relationship of another being to itself, and then, consequently, the significance of the inherent value of exterior things, of unfamiliar people and personal things. The emotions, the essential organ for the comprehension of the existent in its totality in its peculiarity, occupy the center of her being. (96)

Stein is addressing the specific role of emotions in the feminine, but her words also apply to the affective sphere in both men and women. This sphere contains both intentional and nonintentional affectivity, but it is the intentional affective relation to values that plays a fundamental role in the awakening to self and to others in both man and woman. In the woman it constitues the signature key of here femininity and grounds her role of maternity.

(15.) Conrad W. Baars, Born Only Once, The Miracle of Affirmation (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 2001). The central thesis of this book can be expressed as follows: individuals are born or given to themselves in being affirmed by another person. When individuals are not affirmed but used by others, particularly the parents, they fail to experience their own worth and fail to come into self-possession. This readily accessible book presents what Baars and Anna Terruwe have identified as the affirmation deprivation neurosis. The neurosis consists, in short, in the inability to be touched or moved by other persons and the consequent incapacity to give an appropriate affective response to the other. For a more extensive analysis of the syndrome see Conrad Baars and Anna A. Terruwe, Healing the Unaffirmed, Recognizing Emotional Deprivation Disorder (Staten Island, NY: St. Pauls/Alba House, 2002), which is a revised and shortened version of the earlier Loving and Curing the Neurotic (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1972).

In his prepontifical work and subsequently as Pope, John Paul II focuses on the gift as a central concept in his personalistic anthropology. The most concentrated focus on this theme is to be found in the cycle of speeches titled "Original Unity of Man and Woman" and published in John-Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997).

(16.) Cf. John Paul II, General Audience, February 6, 1980.

(17.) Space does not allow a fuller consideration of a point I consider of cardinal importance for the renewal of psychology in a personalistic mode. It concerns the theory of motivation and a distinction between two essentially different kinds of motives, which were never distinguished with sufficient theoretical clarity in the Western tradition. This distinction was introduced by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his Christian Ethics (New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1952), subsequently reprinted as Ethics (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1972). The Western tradition, initially formulated by Aristotle, considered that "all things," including the human being, sought the good. Despite the attempts to distinguish human beings from other animals, this approach had the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the deeper significance of the personal being as personal. Human beings were explained along the same structural lines as animals, with the addition of reason: both human beings and animals were determined by their being to full actuality according to their specific nature. Thus, there was no freedom of choice with respect to a person's ultimate end. In his work Hildebrand shows that there is such a difference between two essentially different kinds of "end" or motives, that the use of the term "good" to designate this end or motive is systematically ambiguous and misleading.

(18.) This, for Heideggger, is a being-towards-death, the existential state of man or "Dasein," identified as the impossibility of all possibilities.

(19.) Cf. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 24.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Fedoryka, Damian P.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Catholic social thought and modern liberal democracy.
Next Article:The form and drama of the church; Hans Urs von Balthasar on Mary, Peter, and the Eucharist.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters