Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
John F. Hofbauer
With a fresh perspective, and with great facility, Jonas Norgaard Mortensen has masterfully completed a head-first dive into the deep and wide sea of thought known as ‘personalism.’ The intentionally non-systematic personalist movement has multiple, seemingly diverse, currents coursing through it, but Mortensen has navigated them extremely well, and in so doing, has channelled them into an intelligible ‘whole,’ without reduction and without truncation.
Among these currents with the diverse personalist movement, Mortensen points to a singular stream of absolute truth which proclaims the intrinsic value of the human person, independent of ‘quality of life’ considerations, and independent of ‘cost-benefit’ analyses. As a constituent aspect of this intrinsic value, Mortensen points to the human person’s capacity as a free, responsible subject of ethical action, a subject capable of what Max Scheler would call relational engagement with the community at large, as epitomized in Karol Wojtyla’s personalist clarion call: ‘I love, therefore I am’ (38).
According to the overall consensus of the personalist tradition, Mortensen tells us that the ‘Common Good’ is best achieved through selfless acts of relational engagement, such as the following: ‘To forgive instead of demanding retribution’ (Desmond Tutu), to be open and available to others, and to participate well in something larger and more loved than oneself. As the unshakeable pillars of personal greatness, and of the personalist movement, the aforementioned aspirations imply a ‘super-natural’ relationship with the human community of free persons.
Not only does Mortensen furnish us with an exceptionally clear and intuitive synopsis of personalism’s major figures, but his uncommonly accessible approach also shines with his frequent employment of two main writing tools. First, his concrete applications of personalist ideas to societal, political configurations, and second, his illustrative, pictorial snapshots of important definitions and significant, personalist philosophers.
As examples of these concrete, personalist applications, Mortensen points us to the ‘victim-offender conferences,’ that are illustrative of ‘restorative justice,’ used in Scandinavia to rehabilitate the personhood of both the victim and the convicted offender. Mortensen also cites Hillaire Belloc’s and G. K. Chesterton’s ‘distributivist’ principles, which are often criticized as examples of Catholic ‘socialism.’ Mortensen clarifies Belloc’s and Chesterton’s frequently misunderstood positions, and he clearly explains that they are not necessarily lobbying for the ‘distribution of ownership,’ but rather, are actually laying the personalist, rational groundwork for practices that include the widespread distribution of ‘ownership of the means of production’ (60). Chesterton’s and Belloc’s ‘distributivism,’ as Mortensen explains, is an imaginative socialism, one which is in line with Christian principles, and one which could be compatible with free, personal enterprise.
Another example, given in the context of Berdyaev’s personalism, argues that the ‘values of society (the state) must be saturated with personalism,’ and that the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ should be implemented as often as possible within the state: i.e., societal decisions should consider the individual person and their extended families (non-nuclear families included), and that all society-wide ‘decisions should be made at the lowest possible [most localized] political level’ (94).
One particularly notable example of Mortensen’s ‘definitional snapshots’ is worthy of recognition, insofar as it encapsulates our claims about the accessibility and readability of his book. In Chapter Three, ‘The Dignified Human,’ Mortensen defines Jacques Maritain’s ‘integrated humanism.’ He explains how Maritain persuasively presents a humanism of the ‘whole person (as an ‘embodied spirit’),’ who, by virtue of her capacities, is logically irreducible to her material components, i.e., a being who is strictly material. The more open-minded, holistic approach, Maritain argues, is to affirm the value of bodily existence, yes, but also to embrace the rich potential found in those unfathomable, enchanting depths of the human spirit. Maritain is hereby affirming the intrinsic preciousness of that mysterious core of personal freedom, wherein resides the fundament of self-reflection, self-mastery, and self-determination. Maritain knows, full well, that he is affirming a quality of the human person which is neither tangible, nor measurable by the physical sciences. But Mortensen’s genius, here, is the manner in which he presents Maritain’s integrated humanism as an indirect critique of any impersonal, utilitarian calculus that is willing to sacrifice the individual, the personal, for the sake of a practical utilization of what is arguably an ‘evil’ means to a ‘good’ end (by utilitarian standards). His indirect critique of utilitarian standards echoes, as well, the United Nations ‘Declaration of Human Rights,’ and its affirmations of baseline, personal rights. In the words of Maritain, as quoted by Mortensen, ‘If a single human life is expendable, then all human lives are expendable’ (88).
Among its other attributes, Mortensen’s book has woven together the iconic thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr. (a Natural Law personalist in his own right) with the inspired personalism of St. Augustine. By citing the conclusions of these two philosophers, especially when yoked with Aristotle’s ideal of personal justice that each ‘should get what they deserve,’ Mortensen has given us real, concrete conclusions about the manner in which the state should craft the laws that it promulgates. Most of these conclusions can be summed up in Martin Luther King Jr’s agreement with the immortal words of St. Augustine: ‘An unjust law is no law at all’ (103).