Thoughts on the Person as Political Starting Point

Spring Dance, by Franz von Stuck

In an effort to keep this light and actually write, I’m just going to start writing and see where it goes without too much editing.

What I want to say is this: Every way of thinking about the common, social world we live in has a starting point. Generally, that is some notion of the Good, whether a transcendent Good as in a Platonic Idea or the theological God of world religions, or some sort of naturalized, immanent good such as human flourishing. Typically there is an idea of a locus of the Good, like a city, a nation, the individual, the family, or the yet-to-arrive “Overman”.

The almost universal, inescapable way of thinking about social relations today is liberalism, and this holds true for both Left and Right. Liberalism has a very tenuous, minimalist connection to the idea of the Good. It claims to be agnostic as to what is really and truly Good. It may even hold that there can’t be a genuine Good that holds for all and everywhere. So it is either agnostic or nihilist regarding the Good, but it also holds that in view of this necessary reservation of judgment, the default social rule must be to allow maximal freedom of motion to the most granular social atoms we can find: Individuals.

The individual isn’t a person. An individual, like a person, is a self-determining subject. However, individuals do not bear relations that are interior to their existence. An individual can exist in society, or outside of society, with no change in his or her essential nature. An individual doesn’t have any nature that is given by forces outside himself. By definition, he can’t have such a nature, because insofar as any part of himself is given by anything other than himself, it can’t be a part of himself qua individual.

Another way to put it is that an individual’s identity is monologic, not dialogic. The only way in which a liberal can identify an individual is by reference to how that individual identifies himself. Any aspect of identity that does not come from the individual himself is not legitimate terrain on which to relate to that individual.

Individuals can only bear contractual relations toward one another. Since the individual can only be identified by that which he has willed of himself, he can only be related to via an intercourse of will, or interests. All relations between individuals are negotiations of that which I may do to you and yours and that which you may do to me and mine.

In contrast, persons exist within a common field. Personal identity is negotiated, or dialogic. You can be wrong about who you are just as much as others can be wrong about who you are. A person in exile isn’t the same as a person in society. A person isn’t abstract from the relations he or she bears to the world and to others. These things are a part of who the person is. They aren’t impediments to freedom. Just as your legs allow you to walk, relations to world and other allow us to “live, move, and have our being”.

An individual is an abstract being. A person is essentially a being-with. Personality is latent in feral children who have not been socialized from a young age. It remains potential and is almost never able to bloom.

Freedom in the liberal view of the world is having the ability to do or choose more things in a very simple sense. The more choices or options the individual has, the more free he or she is. Non-interference with the individual means the individual is free. The freest individual is the exile alone on a foreign planet.

Freedom from the standpoint of the person is more robust. It doesn’t have a meaning outside of society with others. It doesn’t make sense for an exile on a strange, uninhabited planet to declare, “I am free!” It would make as much sense for him or her to say, “I am the wealthiest person in the world!” Freedom only makes sense in relation to others. I am free insofar as I can meet the Other on common ground and have as much of a say in the common world as he or she does. That is, I am free when I am not dominated by the Other, when I can be related to by the Other as one whose subjective reality must be taken into practical account by the Other in relating to the common world we both inhabit. In a sense, I can only be free if I am something of an impediment to the technical power of the Other, if the Other is constrained by me as I am constrained by the Other.

The other side of this coin, interestingly, is that if I have more of a say in the common world, if I dominate the the Other, I do not relate to the Other as a person, and thus lose the relation between persons by turning him or her into mere matter. In such a case, the Other becomes, for me, something to which I relate as I would to a rock on a strange, uninhabited planet, and it no longer makes sense for me to say, “I am free.” Freedom of persons is more of a dance, requiring coordination and cooperation, a proprioceptive acknowledgment between real agents, and becomes lost if it turns into causal mechanism.

In a political sense, this is basically similar to Quentin Skinner’s neo-republicanism, but I like to think it’s a little more metaphysically rich. Republicanism, in contrast with liberalism, holds that political freedom consists in non-domination, as opposed to non-interference. A slave can be free in a liberal sense if his master doesn’t actively prohibit him from doing what he wants to do. He can only enjoy republican freedom if he doesn’t have a master, if decisions regarding his range of activity within a common sphere are as much his to make as they are another’s. I might say freedom from the standpoint of the person entails republican freedom, non-domination, but also active cooperation with others in the shaping of our common world and in the dialogical cultivation of ourselves and others as persons.

This understanding of freedom necessitates an ideal of justice that must be instantiated in the world, giving form to common experience, but also requires matter, the stuff out of which common experience is to be constructed. Tradition, locale, history, language, common ties of all sorts are the mines for this material. In contrast with the liberal idea, which sees all of these things as impediments that constrain the freedom of the individual if they can’t be chosen without impediment, a view of social relations grounded in the fundamental reality of the person sees them as valuable and necessary resources that tell us who we are so we have media through which to relate to one another.

A political virtue that arises out of an appreciation of the person as the starting point in social relations is solidarity. Liberalism must be inherently opposed to solidarity in any kind of formal political sense, because it implies the prevalence of common social forms, which liberalism sees as impositions on the individual. The standpoint of the person, however, sees common social forms, such as language, aesthetic themes, historical experience, religion, and so on, as media through which we relate to one another. And not only as ways for persons to relate to one another within these common grounds, but between diverging social forms. That is to say, solidarity works from inward to outward in concentric circles of relation and understanding. I am not better able to relate to someone from another part of the world if I do not share common social forms with those in close proximity to me; if I live in a formless society, a void community, a social space rather than a commonwealth, I relate tenuously to all others, near or far, similar or dissimilar, in a uniform degree of alienation.

One conceit of liberalism is that if only common social themes could be sufficiently eroded and the community as an organism decomposed into cells that bear only spatial and mechanical relations to one another (individuals), group enmity would be eliminated. They fail to see that the correct approach is to expand the concentric rings of solidarity between persons by cultivation of broader and more inclusive commonalities of relation and experience that do not negate or eliminate particular commonalities of relation and experience. Subsumption, not dissolution. This tendency would be a trend toward federalism of some sort, with varying levels of commonality and variation on themes, rather than universal individualism.

An upshot of this idea is that commonality and solidarity within various societies should be cultivated by those societies, not as barriers to interaction with a broader world but as the ground and condition of those relations. This is analogous to the lower or more basic levels of commonality required for the communion of persons at the most fundamental levels of association.

In a world of inescapable entropy — or sin, to put it in theological terms — the tendency will always be toward dissolution, away from common social bonds, toward the individual as opposed to the person, toward alienation — toward Hell. Therefore, our presumption should be in favor of the cultivation of common themes and myths out of which we may grow into our own as persons in relation to others, and to a narrative in which we may play a role. The key is that we offer ourselves and one another an equal chance to contribute to the cultivation of those common forms of social life, and this is freedom in an incarnational sense, freedom that isn’t an abstract space, a negation, or a liberal skeleton. It is freedom made flesh.