Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being

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David Walsh’s Politics of the Person

A few years ago, I tried to work out a philosophical understanding of human origins, which involved not only up to six or seven million years of the hominid or hominin sequence leading to Homo Sapiens, but also the individual miracle of the origin of each of us. Very briefly, I leant on Aristotle’s as far as I know once-off admission of a problem he couldn’t sort out in his Generation of Animals—he knew all about the difference between plant, animal, and human life, each with a different life-principle (for us, ‘reason’ or ‘nous’). And he couldn’t understand how (granted he didn’t know modern biology and gynaecology) a merely biological action could give rise to a being whose essential constituent is non-biological.

I traced out the standard philosophical understanding of divine creation as not a discrete series of acts, but—since God is outside space and time—rather one single act, which for us unfolds over nearly 14 billion years since the Big Bang. Let’s call that “total creation,” and enrich our notion of “creation out of nothing” with an insight some theologians use. Since every act of generous love involves a losing, a becoming nothing, in the giver—think of spending $20 on a flower to give to the beloved—you lost the flower but gain by becoming a giver. They call creation an expression of “the positive not-being of love.” That’s what the act of total creation is from God’s side, an expression of his creative love.

To understand the act of human conception, I borrowed the line from T S Eliot’s The Four Quartets that Voegelin himself drew on:

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—

No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

So, when my parents came together in the act of marriage, sometime in 1941 (around the same time as those lines from The Dry Salvages), I’d suggest that of course their act occurred within time, but like prayer or the celebration of the Eucharist, it intersected with the timeless act of divine creation, human loves and divine love grounding a human being who’s both material and spiritual. While I’d read up on the biology of when human live actually begins (before syngamy, that is, before sperm and egg actually merge), I was writing a book in philosophical anthropology. But David Walsh’s discussion of this topic in Politics of the Person for me laid the foundations for a more difficult, yet more foundational approach to the mystery of human origins than I’d considered before.

What was that more foundational approach? Let’s start with what Walsh says in his Introduction about the unattainability of the person—we could say, the mystery of the person. He notes that what up to now were seen as unquestionable starting points in any debate about the person—natural law, right by nature, duty—aren’t prior to the ever more basic reality: “Just as we are body-persons we are also persons-in-community . . . There is in other words no such thing as the self pure and simple, without the hyphenated relation to the body and the world of others.”

In the Introduction, Walsh spells out the intrinsic relationality of the person, whose core meaning is mutuality with other persons: ‘The mutuality of persons is prior to all talk of perfections or procedures (note 1).” He writes:

“We can relate to one another as persons only because mutuality is the very meaning of what it is to be a person. I am responsible for the other before I even know him or her because that is what makes it possible for me to practice the limited responsibility of which I am capable when we do meet. The priority of the other may be the divine command, especially as it is given to us by Jesus, but it is so only because we are already marked by its possibility.”

This has precedents in all the sciences—that whatever’s being investigated has to be understood in terms of its most essential characteristic. And for multilelevelled realities like cells, plants, animals, that means understanding them in terms of their highest activities. Walsh will bring out that the highest and most characteristic activity of human persons isn’t, for example, understanding the nature of the physical universe, or understanding anything else, but the interpersonal (I’d prefer copersonal or communional) activity of genuinely relating to another person.

In this brief discussion point, since it brings out what’s central to his approach to the person, I’ll have a look at how in chapter one, “A Personalist Account of Persons,” Walsh finds both the pro-life and the pro-choice positions in the abortion debate wanting.

In the section called “Autonomy as a Distorting Absolute,” Walsh diagnoses the failure of the pro-life approach towards the person—a failure I can surely be accused of myself—as focusing on the pre-personal aspects of human existence. As he notes, “Much has revolved around the conviction that we are in possession of a definition of the person from which unassailable public criteria could be derived.” He deftly characterizes the opposed positions in the debate:

“By concentrating on the features of personhood the result has been a devaluation of the prepersonal elements that are their indispensable foundation. Personhood has begun to assume a kind of ghostly reality easily detached from its mere physical basis. Biology has become peripheral to consciousness . . . The much agitated issue of abortion persists because it is couched in terms that are irresolvable. Rights of persons, the mother or the fetus, are posed on either side and with an absoluteness that cannot be compromised.”

 While personal autonomy is given great weight by the pro-choice side of the argument, Walsh suggests that the “concept of autonomy requires”, therefore, enlargement in the direction of embodied autonomy, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue:

“Perhaps an embodied autonomy is not really autonomy at all, especially if the mother’s bodily connection with the child has already robbed her of the freedom of choice. What does autonomy mean when we are already obliged before we begin?”

Here’s how he states the pro-life position:

“To draw the line on the basis of any criteria other than possession of human nature is to select some arbitrary basis that ultimately undermines respect for humanity as such. Now whether this is an argument from nature is somewhat doubtful, since it seems to rest ultimately, not on a conception of nature, but on what we owe to others simply by virtue of their membership in the human species. The position is derived, not from a factual judgment about what constitutes a human being, but from the moral conviction that respect for rights requires us to refrain from judging the adequacy or inadequacy of one another’s participation in our common human nature…The real strength of this “naturalist” position is the consistency of reverence for the full human being irrespective of position along the spectrum of life…The weakness of this position is that it has no ready counter to the opponent who argues that we are indeed quite capable of making such divisions . . . it remains vulnerable to the ultra personalists who argue that the organic prerequisites can indeed be treated differently.”

While for the pro-choice position: ” . . . the pro-choice approach has been to focus on human self-consciousness.”

In a footnote he quotes a remark of Robert Spaemann: “Suddenly the term ‘person’ has come to play a key role in demolishing the idea that human beings, qua human beings, have some kind of rights before other human beings.”

So, Walsh points out that writers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer:

“have performed an inestimable service in clarifying the implication of the ultra personalist foundation of rights . . . they have acknowledged . . . that there is no essential difference between abortion and infanticide . . . Tooley and Singer have even gone further. They have conceded that the same moral arguments justify infanticide for the first couple of months.”

Adult animals, Singer insists, possess a rudimentary notion of self and therefore entitlement to a corresponding rights respect. But the fetus and the newborn only gradually gain such a notion over a period of months and are therefore not a legitimate locus of rights claims. As Singer famously wrote in his Animal Liberation:

“There will surely be nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standard, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. A chimpanzee, a dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility.”

More fundamentally than either opposed positions, Walsh asks:

“It is only after the initial concession, of a scale of moral valuation from the fertilized ovum, to zygote, to embryo, to fetus, to newborn, has been made that reservations begin to mount as the consequences are contemplated…Should we indeed be engaged in the calibration of the value of human life at all? Is there not something profoundly disturbing in a practice by which we sit in judgment over the merits and defects of fellow species beings? . . . The assertion of a right to terminate human life, whether in its pre-conscious or post-conscious phase, cannot finally avoid taking a stand on the legitimacy of drawing a line around the emergence or disappearance of personhood.”

It’s no harm to remember Voegelin’s phrase, “non-existent reality” as applied to divine reality, since any attempt to define God leads sooner or later to the Richard Dawkins of this world easily rejecting the merely existent attributes of a being which can be encapsulated within space-time reality. While both sides to the pro-life/pro-choice debate agree on the inviolability of the person, both treat of the human person as definable: “Both sides concede that inviolable respect is owed to persons as such. They differ only in the extent to which they think the person can be separated from the non-personal constituents.”

Walsh suggests that the violence inflicted on the tiny bodies of the unborn may already be “present in the language through which we think about them? . . . The mistake has been to assume we could talk about persons in a non-personalist way” – which reminded me of the title of Viktor Klemperer’s LTI [Lingua Tertii Imperii = The Language of the Third Reich]. That language adequate for the mystery of the person finds in terms of, for example, Martin Buber’s I and Thou—since once the person has lost as its defining centre as intrinsically interpersonal (I’d prefer ‘copersonal’ or ‘communional’), it’s so easy for the human person to be treated as an It. In one of Buber’s best known passages in his little masterpiece:

“When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing, there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds . . . The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being . . . I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou. All real living is meeting.” (I and Thou, 1923, 4, 8, 11)

This attitude of respectful recognition of the other as other, if it is mutual, can become a basis between persons and peoples for arriving at a shared oneness-in-diversity of our common humanity. Aubrey Hodes, who’d turned to Buber for advice during a personal crisis, recalls how as a doctor with the Israeli army, an old Arab with a broken arm approached him during the Six Days War:

“I remember that the only word he said was enta, ‘you.’ [Some of his own soldiers wanted to kill the old man, and threatened Hodes with a bullet in the head if he did not let the Arab be “questioned” by them.] ‘No,’ I said quietly. ‘This is a first-aid station, and I’m in charge here. Besides, since when do we shoot unarmed civilians?’. . . I couldn’t move. Something inside me had taken over, like an internal clock. But I knew [the sergeant] was not going to shoot me. He had lost…So that was what Buber had been talking about. The old Arab had been the bringer of the test . . . I knew now that if I had let them kill him . . .  something would have shrivelled within me . . . For those minutes in front of the ambulance I had been responsible for this stranger. I had been involved with his life as if it had been my own. If I had failed him I would have failed myself.” (Encounter with Martin Buber, 48f)

It’s in his next section, ‘Responsibility is Prior to Definition’ that Walsh unpacks what’s hinted at in the Introduction. He finds the arguments for abortion and euthanasia—whose rationale depends on the being in question to be defined as non-personal—overturned by his grasping that the human person isn’t understood in terms of his or her self, but in terms of their evocation of moral responsibility in the other. Walsh well expressed this intrinsic communionality in his essay, ‘The Person and the Common Good’:

“Humanity can only be known from within, by becoming ourselves more human. This is why the status of the unborn child can only be answered by the one who is in touch with it, one whose inwardness can respond to the inwardness that rises from the darkness itself. Only the mother can tell who who her unborn baby is because it is in love that the otherness of the other is known.”

The unborn child can only be recognized through the love of the mother. The only access available to us is the perspective of love, a love that is not conditioned by the attainments of the unborn. We might even say that it is its incapacity to return the love that is lavished on him or her that is the greatest gift the unborn child already offers toward the world. None of its potential achievements can surpass the pure gift of itself that it radiates from the very beginning. Children are loved and make it possible for us to love before they are even known.

Parental love, like all love, is only truly love if it is without any conditions. But when is it possible for us to affirm unconditioned love unconditionally? To answer truthfully we would have to say when there is no possibility of our knowledge of the other not introducing an element of judgment. Before we know who the other is, love must be called forth. This can only be when the other is present without being present. The unborn is in that sense the purest possibility of the person, of that which is without visible manifestation. The inwardness by which the child is known by the mother is the most elemental form of the inwardness by which the every other is disclosed to us.

In the final section of his first chapter, ‘The Law of Going Beyond Law in Responsibility toward the Other,’ he cuts through the legal and political incapacity to deal with what are called life issues, since they presuppose in every case the point he’s made in the previous section, about the particular concrete Other always superseding the universal, including of course the legal universal. In Hitler and the Germans (225–26)—following on a similar point in The Nature of the Law—Voegelin indicated the non-priority of the law, since it presupposes a lived moral matrix:

” . . . the presupposition of a legal order where a criminal law is in operation is . . . that the crimes that are committed are recognized as such and assigned a penalty. But what a crime is can never be inferred from the legal order; rather, it comes from ethics in general.”

We’re familiar with Dutch Jewish Auschwitz victim Etty Hillesum’s awareness  of her pre-given relationality, equivalent to Walsh’s appreciation of the person as indefinable, when she as it were defines herself:

“My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, my God, a great dialogue (EH, 682: Letter, August 18, 1943). I love people so terribly much, because in every one I love a part of you . . . And I look for you everywhere in others and I often find a part of you. And I try to unearth you in the hearts of others” (EH, 544: Diary, September 15, 1942).

And Buber, who after all had written a study of Moses, could surely have found his core insight of I and Thou in Exodus’s God who named himself beyond naming as I Am, an I that addressed his human image as Thou, most obviously in the Decalogue’s repeated “Thou . . .” Walsh in his Introduction has already noted that “The discovery of being, as well as the revelation of the I AM, is simultaneously the discovery of interiority within which such events are possible. The beyond and the within are correlative.” But I and Thou itself rests on a communion which may or may not be spoken of. Buber comments on this We-relationship:

“The We of which I speak is no collective, no group, no objectively exhibitable multitude. It is related to the saying of ‘We’ as the I to the saying of ‘I’. Just as little as the I does it allow itself to be carried over factually into the third person. But it does not have the comparative constancy and continuity that the I has.”

He speaks of the We as belonging to ‘the mode of existence that I call “the between”  or “betweenness”’:

“It is to this that the seventh Platonic epistle points when it hints at the existence of a teaching which attains to effective reality not otherwise than in manifold togetherness and living with one another, as a light is  kindled from leaping fire. Leaping fire is indeed the right image for the dynamic between persons in We. “(The Knowledge of Man, 106f.)

It’s this experienced communion that Voegelin’s great friend in dialogue, Alfred Schutz, in his most magisterial work, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt (1929), dedicated a whole chapter to what he called ‘Wirheit.’ I think it’s this primordial giveness of our experience of copersonal communion, so basic that it occurs not only in the womb, as Walsh has noted, but in per-linguistic infancy, that is the foundation of any philosophy of the person. I’ve always liked Andrei Tarkovsky’s scenario for his Andrei Rubilev film, where Tarkovsky, even before he arrived at Christian belief, grasped the implications of a We-Fire at the centre of all existence:

“Here at last is the ‘Trinity’, great, serene, completely penetrated by a trembling joy from which human brotherhood springs forth. The concrete division of one alone in three and the triple union in one alone offers a wonderful perspective for the future still spread out across the centuries.”[1]

As a result, it’s no surprise to find in remarks by people like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reference to the communional unity of the Trinity as a “We,” where they see that “We” as the model for all human relations, as Tarkovsky did. Walsh’s rigorous meditation can be made more intelligible if we take him at his word and work towards our understanding of the person from our own pre-articulate but most real experience of the We of our relationships with others. It’s in the light of our awareness of our pre-given communional existence that alone we an approach the mystery of our responsibility to love each Other as belonging to the same We of our shared humanity. As a Hasidic rabbi translated by Buber in his Tales from the Hasidim put it, “measured behaviour is a terrible evil.” You, each you, already infinitely You-wards in orientation, are another I for me, to you I owe myself.


Our review of the book is available here as is David Walsh’s response and Macon Boczek’s reply. An excerpt of Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being is available here and a conversation with David Walsh here.

Brendan Purcell

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Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).