On Vocation from Emmauel Mounier

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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.

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