Early Thought of Karol Wojtyla on the Dignity of the Human Person

In Dignity of the Person on February 17, 2013 at 6:03 am



It would seem that the dignity of the human person is not important to everyone.  Consider the millions of people willing to deny the dignity of the human person due to the unborn child.  Consider the number of nations that are now legalizing euthanasia around the world.  Now, if we consider that many people, even many very well educated people, are willing to deny the unborn and the terminally ill their most basic of human rights, the right to life, then one might suppose that these same people are willing to deny also that there is any effect of these unjust actions on the aggregate sum total of the dignity of the humanity globally.  Well, it might behoove such persons of naive intellection to consider the thought of a man who passionately loved the world by expending his entire life in defense of the dignity of every human person through his faith and reason, Karol Wojtyla, the late pope, Blessed John Paul II

In the book Person and Community: Selected Essays of Karol Wojtyla (Trans. Theresa Sandok OSM; Peter Lang: NY, 2008), the essay by Wojtyla “On the Dignity of the Human Person” is particularly striking because he speaks about that sum total of the dignity of the human person as often overlooked by many people.  Wojtyla says, “Human beings do not live for the sake of technology, civilization or even culture; they live by means of these things, always preserving their own purpose.  This purpose is intimately connected with truth, because the human being is a rational being, and also with the good, because the good is the proper object of free will.”(p.179)  To be connected with the truth is the purpose of the human person.  To be connected with the good, that is the purpose of the human person.  Well, one might ask, “Isn’t technology, or civilization or culture true and good?”  Again, Wojtyla points out that these things are exactly that, things; things are means not ends, persons are not things, persons are not means.  He clarifies this by saying, ” The human being holds a position superior to the whole of nature and stands above everything else in the visible world…Our distinctiveness and superiority as human beings in relation to other creatures is constantly verified by each one of us, regardless of how inferior we might feel because of our physical or spiritual deficiencies.”  (p.178)  The human dignity of every person is inherent in his very essence in spite of his human failings, which is why capital punishment and war are against the interest of human dignity as well.  As a phenomenologist, Wojtyla was interested in all sources of knowledge that led to the truth, including the very obvious sources of knowledge, that our actions as persons, our normal, everyday interactions all verify the dignity we afford each other in family and civic life.  With this in mind, we can think of his further encouraging words, “It follows that the matter of the dignity of the human person is always more of a call and a demand than an already accomplished fact, or rather it is a fact worked out by human beings, both in the collective and in the individual sense”  (p.179)  In other words, each and every person has a critical role here and now, in the present moment, in the life of the world of actively substantiating and fortifying the dignity of the human person through our actions and our ideas.  We have to actively work out the preservation of human dignity in the world and in our own mind and heart.

As mentioned previously, there are many people who are willing to deny affording the dignity of the human person their due, the right to life.  Any creature or created goal, such as, the protection of the environment, are inferior ends trumped by the superior end, the right to life of every human person which protects human dignity writ-large.  Why?  For Woytyla, the answer is simple and profound: “To acknowledge the dignity of the human being means to place people higher than anything derived from the visible world…There is no  way to acknowledge the dignity of the human being without taking this purpose and its thoroughly spiritual character into account.”(p.178-179)  Well, persons who deny the right to life of innocent unborn persons or of the rights of the person undergoing euthanasia, not only deny that particular person their most fundamental human right, to life, but also deny the very core of their personhood, their immaterial spiritual nature.  Wojtyla says something very beautiful and life affirming, “…through religion God confirms the personal dignity of the human being.” (p.179)  In other words, we can put our trust, our faith, our very personal dignity into the hands of God, affirming our own sense of the ultimate purpose and dignity to our lives.  Wojtyla continues, “The dignity of the human person finds its full confirmation in the very fact of revelation, for this fact signifies the establishment of contact between God and the human being…God becomes a human being; God enters into the drama of human existence through the redemption and permeates the human being with divine grace.”  God did not have to “contact” man, or reveal Himself, but because He desired all persons to know the source of their spirituality, the truth, the good and the genuine value of their own person, He revealed Himself for man to know his-self.  Wojtyla continues, “For those of us who are believers, this is where the dignity of the human person finds its fullest confirmation; this is where it is, so to speak, brought to surface.”(p.179)  God raised the dignity of all persons by becoming human in Jesus Christ while remaining God, entering human history so that all persons could appreciate his or her own infinite individual value as a person while attributing that  same infinite value to all other persons through love.

Wojytla points out another aspect that of man that gives rise to his dignity, the intellect and freedom.  He says, “Intellect and freedom are essential and irrevocable properties of the person.  Herein also lies the whole natural basis of the dignity of the person.” (p.178) With these statements, one may think of the many philosophers who parsed up “the intellect” into pieces with separate functions, but Wojtyla, as a personalist phenomenologist speaks of the intellect and freedom as two parts of one ontological whole being, the human person. One might be reminded of the dignity of man that Gregory of Nyssa attributes to the person from the Fourth century (long before Pico de Mirandola or the French Philosophes). In Gregory’s doctrine on man, De hominis opificio, Gregory says that,

“Man has been created after all the rest because all the rest has been created for him.  Unlike other creatures, he was created in the image of God.  This can be gathered from the shape of his body, but still more from his soul, to which man owes his truly royal dignity.  Man is masterless; he does everything of his own accord;  he governs himself, so to speak, with supreme authority ; in short, he is a king.  Man is not a king unto himself only, but with respect to the whole world.  He is in the image of God, because he is a king as God is a king. The beauty that shines in God also shines in man, whose destiny it is to share in an ineffable beatitude through virtue, and thus to become still more similar to his Creator.” (Etienne Gilson. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages.  Random House: NY. 1955. p.56,57)

These are very powerful words from Gregory of Nyssa.  In other words, with his intellect and his freedom, God has created man to be sovereign over his own thought and life through the aid of virtue and faith.  With his mind, man can choose how to react to his-self’s experience of life and others experience of him with his own mind and with his own freedom, provided he is constantly seeking dominion over himself through all the virtues (human and theological) while assenting to the knowledge that faith bequeaths to him as a creature.  In this way, man can have certitude about the morality of his decisions and of achieving his destiny, closing the knowledge gap through faith and reason, which is true freedom, as Blessed John Henry Newman speaks about with his “illative sense.”

Finally, Wojtyla points out that the dignity of the person is a priori to his contribution to society or any anthropological conception of his origin or value. Wojtyla says, “Neither the concept of homo faber nor the concept of homo sapiens, understood in a purely functional way, will suffice here.”(p.179)  Those perspectives, one might say, of homo faber typified by Hannah Arendt and homo sapien by Charles Darwin respectively, both gravely neglect the reality of the spiritual dimension of man, both are intellectual leftovers from the absolute secularism of the Enlightenment, seeking pure pragmatism, a materialist understanding of the person.   The consequence of this is a degradation of the human person based purely upon his or her utility, like that of any thing, as espoused by Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus.  Wojtyla counters this notion saying, “Who the human being essentially is derives primarily from within that being.  All externalizations–activity and creativity, works and products–have here their origin and their cause.”‘ (p. 178) In other words, the origin of all of our action, all of our creativity, all of our work in the material external world is spiritual in origin.  Because this spiritual cause is immaterial and unique to each individual person, it is unrepeatable by nature and makes the ordinary activity of every person in the life of the world historical in the ordering of all being toward its Creator.   Wojtyla asks “Can the dignity of the human person be fully preserved?  And it must be preserved!” (p.180)  With this, we return to the beginning of the life course of all human beings, in the womb.  There, we see that, in order to fully preserve the dignity of the human person globally, as Wojtyla goads us to do, then the very first, most important step is to end the most barbaric degradation of the most innocent of human persons by ending all abortion.


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