Nero Fiddled & We Watch Television
Person and Community: Selected Essays
By Karol Wojtyla
Publisher: Peter Lang
Review Author: James G. Hanink
“Getting to the bottom of things” is what philosophy is all about. So argues Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II, in this welcome collection of essays written between 1955 and 1975 — and only now available in English. What Wojtyla most wanted to get to the bottom of was (and is) the human way of being, what the professors call “philosophical anthropology.” The issue is important for a hundred reasons, ranging from our identity to our destiny. For example, as Wojtyla’s former academic chairman Stefan Swiezawski points out in his excellent Introduction, it’s what we share as human beings that makes genuine multiculturalism possible.
Wojtyla, we know, draws his vision from the Gospel, especially as Vatican II teaches it. Again and again, he centers his anthropology on the insights of Gaudium et Spes (#24). “When the Lord Jesus prays to the Father ‘that all may be one…as we are one’ (Jn. 17:21-22), opening inaccessible perspectives to human reason, he indicates that there is a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons and the union of the children of God…[which] reveals that the human being, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself or herself except through a disinterested gift of himself or herself.” This passage, which grounds our dignity and calls us to self-donation, captures the thrust of Vatican II’s sustained meditation on personhood.
Some, of course, see a discontinuity between a new “personalism” and the Church’s use of Thomistic categories and Natural Law themes. Wojtyla, however, sees harmony. For Aquinas, Natural Law is “the participation of the eternal law in a rational creature.” Because we are gifted with reason, Wojtyla observes, Natural Law “intimately corresponds to the human being as a person,” a complementarity that he drives home in his recent Veritatis Splendor.
The 20-plus essays in this collection explore a wide range of questions about human nature. But two pivotal truths emerge. The first is that the human person is an integral unity. The second is that we are self-transcending.
Since Descartes split the person into mind and body (recall that his notorious “cogito argument” establishes only the former!), Western thought has struggled with a dualism that denies the metaphysical unity of the person. The upshot of this, Wojtyla recognizes, is a tendency “to identify the person with consciousness” and to deny the soul “as the principle of the whole life and activity of the human being.” The moral implications of dualism are lethal. Since a preborn baby does not enjoy anything like full consciousness, it is said that he is not a person. Since the brain-damaged and the senile do not enjoy anything like full consciousness, it is said that they are not persons. These premises are explicitly invoked, and with a breezy confidence that betokens bad philosophy elevated to conventional wisdom. And the philosophy is very bad, indeed. We do not experience ourselves as a disembodied consciousness, nor do we live as ghosts inside (bodily) machines. We each experience ourselves as psycho-physical unities, enormously complex but integrally one.
Our experience of the human way of being shows, too, that we characteristically live in and through our actions. We show who we are in what we do. Our acting structures the world. More importantly, it reflects and structures our very selves. This self-determination is a going beyond self, a transcendence. Wojtyla writes: “We are by nature creators, not just consumers…. When we act in a manner proper to a person, we always create something: we create something either outside ourselves in the surrounding world or within ourselves — or outside and within ourselves at the same time.” In our transcendence we show again how we are made in God’s image.
Conventional wisdom is as muddled about transcendence as it is about dualism. A consumerist culture says that we find ourselves in things and sensations, in a concatenation of objects and images. But all of this is passive; it dissolves the self rather than building the person in self-creativity. At the same time, it corrodes the bonds of community. Nero fiddled; we watch television.
Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit blows where He wills. In grim times, it often seems that we no longer feel His breath. And yet the Spirit still passes among us. Surely the Spirit was richly present in Lublin’s Catholic University, where Wojtyla taught and wrote in the 1950s and 60s. For in these essays we find many of the intellectual resources of an extraordinary pontificate.
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