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On Vocation from Emmauel Mounier

In Friendship on May 18, 2016 at 10:48 pm

mounier pic


Emmanuel Mounier, a famous French personalist philosopher of the early 20th century, declares that everyone can discover themselves anew, everyday if we would only take time to examine our lives.  Mounier shows that the discovery of one’s vocation is a daily effort and will continue for the rest of our lives.  He tells us that our lives are extremely unique, well worth living, and that its value grows as we concentrate our minds and contemplate in order to find, what he calls, that “secret voice” to guide our lives.  In his book, Personalism (University of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, Indiana. 1952) Emmanuel Mounier elaborates on how man’s search for meaning is unique for every person.

Our Vocation is Simple and Complex 

Mounier is very practical and real in his approach to self-discovery and one’s vocation. He says, “Surprises innumerable arise out of the abysses of the unconscious, out of the abysses of the super-conscious and out of the spontaneity of freedom, incessantly renewing the question of my identity.”  As a quintessential personalist, Mounier keeps the metaphysical questions personal, asking: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?  How did I get here? In other words, it is good for us to reflect on our being as a person, and shed light on the reasons for our behavior and ideas.  Later, Mounier discusses how we might find ourselves getting all complicated about our vocation, “A person’s continual re-interpretation of his vocation is so incessantly disruptive of every short-term objective–his own interest, adaptation or success–that in this respect one might regard the person as arbitrariness itself, even though his ever action were one of commitment or devotion.”(p.42)

As an aside, here, we might think of the Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, and how, in a certain sense Mounier similarly seems to be complaining about the seemingly ambiguous or seemingly arbitrariness of the circumstances of life.  Even though we might not know or understand the meaning of a moment or circumstance of our lives, it doesn’t mean that we will never know.  We don’t know in advance when we will know. So, we can hope that one day, if today we don’t understand something, we might be on the verge of knowing its meaning or it may be much later off, when we have the aid of other experiences in mind.  When Mounier points out the burden of the “continual re-interpretation of his vocation,” one might suppose that a consolation of this hardship might be the fact that everyone is regularly going through a process of self-discovery throughout life and we are the one’s to appreciate and sympathize with where our neighbor on her journey.  But, perhaps Mounier’s larger point is that our mind, our spirit, our heart, our soul, they are dynamic, they don’t rest, they’re not static and we should face that fact.  The question of our personal identity is continually carved out like a fine sculpture with all of our life’s experiences.  Yet, in spite of all of this unknowing, we can be sure of the reality that Mounier points out:  “But a personalist standpoint is sufficiently defined even in this thought–that the significance of every person is such that he is irreplaceable in the position he occupies in the world of persons.”(p.41)  We are where we are for a reason, and even though we might not immediately understand the immediate reason for where we are, we can take consolation in knowing that where we are no one else can be or would be if we weren’t there immediately, and that’s important.  So, the person checking out our groceries at the store, the fireman saving someone’s life, or the mother helping a child, everyone where ever they are can discover his vocation in exactly that spot-that brings meaning out of what appears arbitrary and ambiguous.

Mounier asks us to cherish the value of all persons.  He says, “Such is the majestic status of the person, endowing it with the dignity of a universe; and yet also its humility, for in this dignity each person is equivalent to every other, and persons are more numerous than the stars.” (p. 41)  According to the UCSB Science Line, there are billion trillion stars in the universe.  According to the BBC, about 107 Billion people have ever lived on earth.  One  might suppose that since both numbers are in the billions, Mounier is exaggerating and meaning to say, these figures are much more than any one person could ever count.As a personalist he is preferencing the importance of persons, who are the only beings who can give meaning to things in the first place.  Just as French philosopher Jacques Maritain says about the person, that he is a universe unto himself, here too similarly, Mounier reverences the value of the person as a “universe,” and the value of human life, its dignity. This value Christians too give the person because they “believe in the all-embracing appeal of one Person.”(p.41)  Even though the number of persons are numerous, in the world and throughout history, each person’s life is a separate history, a separate world with a universe of meaning that its each person freedom and duty to discover her ultimate meaning, her divine meaning, her greatest dignity, her vocation in life.

Mounier concludes appealing to the role of one’s vocation as manifested in the public realm.  He says, “Therefore, in questions of the collective life, personalism always gives the techniques of education and persuasion priority over the techniques of enforcement, diplomacy or deception; for man only works well when he is working with the whole of himself.””Unity in a world of persons cannot be obtained without diversity of vocations and authenticity of membership.”(p.42)  Here, Mounier is speaking for the whole school of personalism arguing that, institutionally, any collective body should use education and persuasion to aid individuals in the discovery of their vocation.  Their life’s vocation has to be freely chosen, in other words.  Here, Mounier encourages diversity and sincerity for those in public life, in their professional work and in their participation in civil society. In this way, he says, even though “It is approached by a long and difficult road…it should at least control our general directives for action.”(p.42)  We can see here that Mounier suggests that peace in the public realm comes from the internal peace in individuals through their ability to freely achieve her vocation personally and publicly.


On Autonomy, from Yves Simon

In Friendship on May 5, 2016 at 12:28 am


The latest ideas in the tech world involve autonomous gadgets.  If we think of self-driving cars, software that “learns,” et cetera, more and more, this trend of “autonomous technology” gives rise to the question: What is autonomy?  Before we consider the autonomy and rights of gadgets, it might help if we review what personal autonomy is itself, with the help of the French philosopher Yves Simon.  In his book, A General Theory of Authority, Simon analyzes what makes personal autonomy so valuable to us.  Interestingly, Simon concludes that friendship is one of the main examples of personal autonomy, very ungadgetty.

In describing the qualities of the human person, Simon explains that there are some traits of persons that are distinct to the human person qua person.  For example, he says, “Yet certain features of sociability belong to the human person qua person, and in all the system of human relations, nothing is more determining, more decisive, more distinguishing and more final than the acts traceable to the sociability of the person considered as such.”(p.74)  Take dating for example.  Although there may be a number of qualities that originally attracted one person to another, which causes them to agree to go on a date, for most people, it is the virtues of each individual person which ultimately attract one person to the other person.  Our personal decision to agree to continue onto another date and continue the relationship is an example of a very decisive, very impactful autonomous act of the human person.

Simon doesn’t doubt that there is a certain degree of disinterestedness in the care of animals for their kin, for survival, which is part of their nature.  But also, it is part of the nature of the person to care for their kin, however,  the person takes this to another level: not only does a loving person have to oppose his natural desire to participate in the whole, in the greater community, but he also opposes that inclination for the sake of the individual, sacrificing that sociability to address the individual needs of that person’s necessary care – that is what is something very distinct of the person, so it seems that this is what Simon is implying.  He says, “Disinterestedness and other-centeredness are contributed by nature; in other words, they are caused by a dynamism antecedent to individual activity.””The experience of human disorder shows that a tendency which, by nature, is disinterested and which, in fact involves another subject, may involve no generosity on the part of the agent.”(p.74)  In other words, for something to be “generous,” there is a certain level of conscious ‘gift-of-self’ involved in the doing of the action.  Disinterested action, though very human, it seems that, Simon is claiming, that it is more akin to human nature than something that exemplifies the individual.  Whereas, when we do something very particular to help someone, helping them exactly as they need to be helped and it requires us to use our talents and skills and other good human qualities or virtues, then this generosity, this ‘gift-of-self’ characterizes us as autonomous individuals, persons who act as free agents helping another, a friend.

Simon expands on this notion of autonomy and friendship.  He says, “It is only where reason, voluntariness, and free choice are at work that the subject takes care of transcending its subjectivity: then actions that are gifts also proceed by way of gift.“…”In short, it is traceable to personality.”(p.75)  When we do acts that are generous, not only are we showing our personal uniqueness in our ability to give in this way, but according to Simon, in that moment we rise above our own individualism to a new level of human perfection, to friendship.  He says, “Qualities are transcended and the relation of friendship is established on its true basis.””As long as it is directed to quantities, friendship remains uncertain: it achieves complete genuineness only when it exists between person and person, regardless of what happens to the qualities of the the beloved.”(p.76)  Here, Simon gets caught up in technical Aristotelian language, differentiating between the categories of quality and quantity.  But, in other words, when we do something generous for someone, we are seeking to care for them in such a genuine way that what had formerly made them different from us now disappears.  No longer are we friends with that person for the quantity of qualities they have (be it humorousness, kindness, attraction) which originally interested us in them, but now since we’ve behaved with genuine generosity toward them autonomously, we actually are unable to explain the why of our friendship but instead we know that it is a relationship that is unique, unrepeatable and “unutterable.”(p.76)  When the virtue of generosity is part of someone’s character, and they gift someone else with that power, friendship is spawned.

Now, Simon discusses some differences in the perspectives of the perceptions of what is actually loved in a friendship.  In analyzing Blaise Pascal’s thoughts on the subject, Simon says, “Pascal knows that the object of genuine love cannot be anything else than the self.””In order to be an object for the love of a creature, a thing must already be good: in that sense it is true that no one is loved or liked by his fellow men except for his qualities.”(p.77)  Simon says the Divine Being puts the goodness into the creatures that have good qualities that become the object of our love and friendship.  Simon discusses a problem of Pascal’s placement of love on the proper object of love, as he helps us understand that Pascal was somewhat pessimistic about the fact that people often are indeed superficially in love with others because of their perishable qualities, such as their beauty, instead of who they are as a person, their Self. Simon explains that although Pascal is pessimistic, he knows that people will always have some qualities that make them good, therefore, they will always be lovable for those good qualities.

Love and friendship are quintessential marks of the freedom of the person.  Simon elucidates that these characteristics of persons require a wholeness, a sort of completeness of person, of a person’s character with that of the other in the relationship.  This mutual relationship abides in autonomy, and creativity as a consequence, because of the conscious effort on behalf of each person in the relationship to gift themselves to the other, in whatever circumstances that may arrive, even the most dire of circumstances, this love will show its supreme value, according to Simon.  He says, “It is the excellence of autonomy which vindicates the particularity of the subject and whatever forms of authority are needed for the preservation of this particularity.”(p.79)  In other words,  when we give ourselves generously, we transcend our limitations,the personal qualities that make us unique. But, it seems that Simon is saying that because we know ourselves so well, our autonomy, literally, “self-rule,” allows us to know how and when to use our unique traits when they apply to the situation at hand.  In other words, autonomy is a certain self-possession, a self-mastery that allows such penetrating insight into knowing who we are in humility, while also allowing us to know clearly how we can be available to help, care for and love our friend in the most generous way we can at exactly the right time.  Simon says, “Autonomy implies the interiority of the law, a condition which, for human agents at least, is not native, but has to be achieved through arduous progress.”(p.79)  As Yves Simon says, it takes time, work, communication, love and generosity for people to achieve this type of relationship.  As Simon says, “the interiority of the law,” meaning that, first of all that the subjects agree that that there is a moral law to follow, and that they know this law so well that it is memorized, and written into their heart, into their wills, into their minds: that is autonomy. Autonomy allows the person to produce within themselves a countervailing force over our natural sociological tendencies toward a group mentality.  Autonomy is best exemplified when one loves and appreciates a person both for their qualities and for their self, for the “who they are,” in spite of their limitations and because of their limitations.