Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Personalism and the Past

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One afternoon I was sitting in a 200-level theology class, listening to Herr Pater H, normally my German professor, but in this case my theology professor, talking about why certain gentiles were drawn to Judaism, and then later to Christianity. He said that the reason was that Judaism and Christianity have the answers to all of mankind's most important philosophical questions. "For instance," he said, "which is more important, the individual, or mankind as a whole?"

We were all silent, and I was intent.

"The Christian answer to that question is 'Yes,'" he replied.

Then he asked us to name major philosophers, and, disturbingly, all of them erred either towards collectivism or towards individualism, and this included the Christian philosophers. It wasn't until two years later when I encountered the writings of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber that I found a prominent philosopher who did not fall off what Martin Buber himself referred to as the narrow ridge into either the pit of individualism or the pit of collectivism. How could it be that two thousand years passed between the first gentile embrace of Christianity, and the first work of philosophy which correctly answered Herr Pater H's question?

There are other truths, which, known and accessible to mankind, ancient and eternal, have informed the thoughts and actions of persons throughout the centuries. There is, for instance, the heart. How could something known to all people have eluded philosophers for so long? Or, put another way, how could something which eluded philosophers for so long, nevertheless be known to all people?

One of the most egregious failures of Western philosophy was the complete ignoring of the heart. With the exception of Pascal, nobody spoke of the heart in Western philosophy, until Dietrich von Hildebrand in the 20th century, and yet everyone else knew of its existence. Everyone else knew of its importance.

Even television writers who had not necessarily read all of the correct personalist treatises could realize the existence of the heart, as well as the mind.

Allegorically, Mr. Spock and Dr. MacCoy represent the two most important aspects of the human person, Mr. Spock the mind, and Dr. MacCoy the heart. Not the mind and the will (it might be stretching the allegory to far to say that Captain Kirk represents the will, although he is the decision-maker, and he must rely on both of his advisers), and certainly not the form and the matter, which would reduce Dr. MacCoy to the level of concupiscence, something which neither he nor Mr. Spock engaged in. No, the mind and the heart. That is the secret of Star Trek. That is the reason why people love these characters. We all have some of Mr. Spock and Dr. MacCoy in us.

In the 19th Century, Jane Austin gave us a similar pair of compelling characters, Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility.

The reality is that the heart has been known to all, long before the great personalist philosophers of our modern times wrote about its importance. We cannot deny that our ancestors knew of its existence. We cannot deny that our ancestors knew of its importance.

So to has personalism. Personalism was known to our ancestors, our predecessors. To say that it was not, to insist on every principle of personalism as being new, discovered by us, unknown to them, is to make a grave slander upon millions of individual persons, an injustice which a personalist, above all others, should never make.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Sir Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree, when, all of a sudden, thunk, a great big apple fell off the tree and hit him in the head, and he suddenly realized that objects of greater mass, such as the earth, attract objects of lesser mass, such as apples, and he named his new-found law of physics "gravity."

But the laws of physics existed long before Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree epiphany. How would we react to the following exchange?

"Prior to Sir Isaac Newton's discovery of the Law of Gravity," says the enlightened inhabitant of the 21st Century, "people, being unaware of the fact that objects would fall to the earth, were in a perpetual fear that things might fall up instead of down. Orchard growers in particular were in constant fear that their crops might fall up instead of down, and therefore constructed great nets, which we now know to have been unnecessary, covering their trees, lest, before they had completed their harvest, some of their fruit should go flying out into the celestial spheres above."

"But," cries the frustrated young woman from the Schwarzwald, "that can't possibly be true! My ancestors owned orchards since 1562, and they never used nets. They never thought that their cherries would fall up!"

"Ah," replies the enlightened inhabitant of the 21st Century, "Then your ancestors must have been great exceptions, because we know that most orchard growers used nets, because they must have, because they could not possibly have known that their crops would not have fallen up, because Sir Isaac Newton had not yet discovered gravity." 

Whom would we believe, the enlightened inhabitant of the 21st Century, or the frustrated young woman from the Schwarzwald? The theoretical expert, or the young lady with the family tree? Of course we would believe the young lady whose ancestors grew cherries in the Schwarzwald, because we all know that people observed the law of gravity long before Sir Isaac Newton gave it a name, and went about their lives accordingly. None of us would believe for a moment that our ancestors would have been so foolish as to worry about things falling up.

But what has this to do with Personalism?

Personalism is the key to the universe. Among the many things it helped me understand was German poetry, as I wrote about here:

This poetry predated the personalist philosophical movement. Martin Buber, when writing I and Thou, referred to Goethe.

How beautiful and legitimate the full I of Goethe sounds! It is the I of pure intercourse with nature. Nature yields to it and speaks ceaselessly with it; She reveals her mysteries to it and yet does not betray her mystery. It believes in her and says to the rose: ‘So it is You’--and at once shares the same actuality with the rose.”

Martin Buber never claimed that his ideas were new. He pointed to truths. He did not say, "This idea is mine, and no one else's," nor, "This idea belongs only to my era," nor even, "This idea belongs only to my people," which, of the three statements, is the only one that could be justified, because the flowering of personalist poetry and music in the German speaking world came about (I think) because of the large influence of Jewish thought in Germany and Austria at that time, and yet he did not ascribe personalism only to his own people.

"But, Clärchen, you are quoting Martin Buber's commentary on Goethe. Goethe was an exception!"

An exception to what? Goethe was not an exception. He was exceptional. Would we say that Shakespeare or Bach or Einstein were only exceptions? No, Goethe was exceptional, but more than that, he was one of the most widely read, beloved, and influential poets of all time. If personalism was present in the poetry of Goethe, that alone would indicate that it was probably present both in things which Goethe read, and in the later works of art inspired by what Goethe had written.

In my own journey through the world of Lieder, I found Schumann's song Widmung,which is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert, also the poet for Schubert's Du bist die Ruh, Sei mir gegrüst, Schumann's Aus den Östlichen Rosen, and the poem Liebst du um Schönheit, set by both Clara Schumann and Gustav Mahler. These poems and the songs that they inspired are the most personalist works of art I have ever encountered. There is always an ich and a du, an I and a thou.

Widmung deserves a post of its own, therefore I shall not go into it too deeply here, but when I first sung this Lied, I remember talking to my voice teacher about the way in which the lover in the song addresses the beloved: mein guter Geist, mein bessres ich (my better self or my better I).

"Well, of course, that's why we have marriage," said my newly-wed voice teacher, "otherwise we would just be automons." This was followed by a vigorous, "Let's sing it!"

Sadly, when I presented this to another personalist philosopher, and pointing out that both the poem and the song were written originally to be sung by the husband to his wife, which meant that the husband was regarding his wife as his bessres ich (better I), not as his nice new piece of property or household ornament, as we are indoctrinated to believe that our forebears regarded marriage, instead of meeting with intense interest, I received an appalling response:

"There have always been exceptions."

In other words, no one had any idea that marriage constituted the bringing together of two equally human and yet sufficiently different persons, one man and one woman, before the personalist school of philosophy was formed.

All of our ancestors, following the line of thinking exhibited here, treated one another as objects, and, as was implied, particularly the men treated the women as objects, and this was the accepted social norm. This was not even the excepted social norm among pre-Christian Norsemen, and certainly not among Christian Norsemen, but I suppose they also would be a mere "exception."

Looking more closely at our various forebears, the cultural norms become different from what the indoctrinators say. In Scandinavia, the husband was the king and the wife was his queen. From Wales we have the line For if my father was its [our household's] head, then my mother was its heart. From Germany we have the bessres ich. From the Jews we have the family prayers, half of which (including the prayers at sundown which begin the Sabbath), are said by the women and no one else, for if the man were to say them, it would be as though he were saying, "I am sufficient unto myself. I do not need those other sorts of human beings. My wife is unnecessary." Or so says the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, and I am inclined to take his word for it.

When the exception becomes more common than the rule, then one must question the validity of the rule, or so says my Mr. Spock side.

These beliefs are not new, and if anything they are disappearing, being deliberately stamped out in some cases. We are all to be made automans so that we will no longer have connections with each other. Then the All-Knowing State steps in, and we become collectivist.

Martin Buber believed the obvious: that mankind and the individual person are equally important. He also believed that, to behave as true persons, we must live in dialogue with God, with other people (marriage is particularly important here), and even with nature. We must be personalist, not autonomous or collectivist. We must walk on the narrow ridge and not fall off onto either side.

We may be proud of ourselves for one thing: we are the first society which has succeeded in falling off both sides of Martin Buber's narrow ridge at the same time.

But my Dr. MacCoy side is still reeling from the insult. Ancestors, forebears of various sorts, are not objects onto which we have the right to project whatever insult suits our purpose. They are persons as well. Someone's personhood does not expire after a set period of time, as milk on the grocery-store shelf. It is not simply a matter of whether or not they thought of one another as persons. It is a question of whether or not we think of them as persons.

Personalism, like philosophy of the heart, is new to philosophers, but, like the heart, it is ancient to mankind and eternally present in God. People could arrive at very personalist understandings of marriage and our relationship to God long before there was a philosophical school to help explain it.