Written by guest blogger Dr. Walter Schultz.
Empowering diversity, thereby securing a multicultural society, may depend on how we retain the unique human person within the context of family, ethnicity and culture. How do we reconcile or, if need be, overcome individualism and collectivism? The person, developed and sustained within community, is the key. Jacques Maritain, a far too neglected Christian philosopher from the twentieth century, confronted the smug, bourgeois individualism of his time, arguing that the promotion of private freedoms paved the way for the totalitarian monstrosities which plagued the latter half of his century. Maritain was prescient, ahead of the current, popular postmodern critique of the rational, self-serving individual prone to attaining power through totalitarian structures and ideologies which colonize and marginalize the other. However, if any credibility is allowed the many condemnatory critics of postmodernism from the Left and the Right (among them Noam Chomsky, Charles Taylor and Jordan Peterson), postmodernism may be offering us a fallacious and finally dangerous interpretation of the myriad struggles against oppressive forces currently unfolding.
Maritain distinguishes between individual and person: the individual denotes the material pole of a human being, the biological organization housing our instinctual drives and spatiotemporal orientation; the human being is a person by virtue of a spiritual pole, the seat of intellect and will. Each human being is a unique composite of the two, and orientation toward one to the diminishment or exclusion of the other is perceived by Maritain as pathology. It is precisely the intellectual nature of the human composite which elevates it in the most formidable way: “In intellectual creatures alone,” Maritain tells us referencing the mediaeval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, “. . . is found the image of God. In no other creature, not even in the universe as a whole, is this found ” (Maritain, 1972, pp. 18-19).
It is crucial to recognize that Maritain’s focus on uniqueness points the way toward a truly human community and society acknowledging the inalienable rights of all, wherein each is for all and all is for each. Being concerned with developing a healthy human composite, empowerment involves family, ethnicity and culture without diminishing the unique person. As Maritain would have it:
The common good of the city is neither the mere collection of private goods, nor the proper good of a whole which, like the species with respect to its individuals or the hive with respect to its bees, relates the parts to itself alone and sacrifices them to itself. It is the good human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in good living. It is therefore common to both the whole and the parts into which it flows back and which, in turn, must benefit from it (Maritain, 1972, pp. 50-51).
Failing to acknowledge the full stature of the human person as the image of God in community, humanity can only fall back into its material individuality. As the icons of postmodernism, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari would have it, human bodies participate in creative desire and power as isolated members of a greater whole. For Deleuze and Guattari, such emphasis on varied intensities of desire is founded within a univocal conceptualization of being. Failing to acknowledge the difference of human beings truly unique while analogically similar, as is the case with Aquinas and Maritain, returns us full circle to the very source of the power struggles marring the development of Western culture. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., a contributor to the radical orthodoxy project, which maintains a theological perspective that looks back to the origins of the Church while investigating modern and postmodern thought, summarizes the failure of postmodernism to escape the hegemonic forces which colonize and marginalize the other:
From whence cometh the confidence that the flows of desire, deprived of any shared end and barred from analogous participation in the other (which entails desire be understood not merely as assertive or creative, but also as receptive), will not simply collide in absolute war? As was perhaps most famously pointed out by Thomas Hobbes, the sort of nominalist-voluntarist account of desire that Deleuze advocates requires a teleology (whether divinely given or imposed by a secular state) to avoid a state of bellum omnis contra omnem (Bell, 2001, p.34).
Daniel M. Bell, Jr. (2001). Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering. London and New York: Routledge.
Jacques Maritain. (1972). The Person and the Common Good. Translated by John J. Fitzgerald. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Walter Schultz is an Auxiliary Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Dominican University College. Look out for Dr. Schultz’s article “Liberation, Postmodernism and Jacques Maritain: Confronting Individualism and Collectivism in the Twenty-First Century” in the upcoming Fall 2017 issue of the Toronto Journal of Theology.