Philosophy & Ideas

Personalism and Human Rights

In his 1963 collection of essays The Christian Opportunity, the Swiss Personalist philosopher Denis de Rougemont advocated the idea of vocation to give meaning and direction to individuals and to society. The concept of vocation is underpinned by the Judeo-Christian concept of the person: fulfilment and joy are found as one makes a gift of oneself to others. The particular way in which each person can best make that gift is their vocation. Each person’s vocation is discerned over time in the process of heeding the intuitively-heard call of their own spirit. Vocation is a consistent theme in most of the various expressions of Personalism because Personalism places the individual’s dignity, significance and inviolability—together with the individual’s relationships and social responsibilities—at the centre of its thought.

De Rougemont was prompted to offer the vocational view as an organising principle for society because he saw that the readily accepted and burgeoning agenda of human rights embraced by the Western democracies could not answer the deepest human needs. The rights agenda, based on abstract legal conceptions, although in many ways commendable, needed a broader, existentially satisfying and individual-honouring framework.

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Immanuel Kant considered that any worthwhile system of thought had to address three basic questions for which a person ought—was instinctively compelled—to seek answers. What can I know? What can I hope? What must I do? De Rougemont highlighted that in societies which attached almost no importance to transcendence there would be widespread disorientation about these questions and many other vital questions. Much more than a guarantee of various rights is needed for a good life.

Today, in Australia, the promotion of a rights agenda continues to be prominent in public discourse, but troubling problems are appearing which call into question the unqualified emphasis on the expansion of rights. It is time to revisit de Rougemont’s thought and consider the idea of vocation as being more helpful for the individual and thus for society than the idea of rights alone.


Personalism and government

De Rougemont placed primary importance on the individual person, with the powers of the state exercised to “secure in a material sense the freedom of the individual” so the individual, family and community could pursue their various mutually enlivening vocations. De Rougemont decried what he called “statology”—the presumption of the state to the individual’s focus, dependency and loyalty; the deification of government or nation. Naturally, he argued against the legitimacy of intrusive and bullying big governments whether of the Fascist, Marxist or capitalist type. He championed federalist systems of government: small, local and strictly limited.

Subsidiarity was the key principle: the devolvement of responsibility to the lowest capable body. This wasn’t central government allowing a certain level of self-government to local entities; it was the reluctant concession by self-governing local entities of some limited power to the central government for essential defence or diplomatic purposes. De Rougemont, a Swiss Protestant, was justly proud of Switzerland’s tradition of subsidiarity in government, a tradition nourished by the vibrant sense of regional identity maintained by the various cantons and by a history of ecumenical Christianity.

Subsidiarity as an important principle of government came to prominence through Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931). It was readily adopted by the Personalist philosophers, many of whom—and many more of the individuals who drew from the movement—were Catholics, including Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Mouroux, Ignace Lepp, Gabriel Marcel, Karol Wojtyla, Georges Rouault, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Josef Pieper and Raissa and Jacques Maritain. Protestant Christians were also important supporters of Personalism, notably T.S. Eliot and Martin Luther King. Mounier and de Rougemont (who lived in France for many years and wrote in French) collaborated from 1933 to produce the journal Esprit, which disseminated Personalism’s ideas. In the mid-1940s Jacques Maritain helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, published in 1948. This was perhaps the high point of Personalism, although the attainment of civil rights for Afro-Americans led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s was another high point. Thereafter, and tragically, Existentialism eclipsed Personalism.

Existentialism embraced Personalism’s primacy of the individual but abandoned the transcendent, the phenomenological balance, the affirmation of life and the idea of vocation, all of which were vital to Personalism. Some prominent Existentialists also accommodated themselves with Marxism—while promoting individualistic self-expression. The anthropology of Personalism affirmed that man has a given essence which each person must discover, unfold and live—and this process gives man his meaning. The atheistic streams of Existentialism denigrated the defining power of human essence and consequently denied objective meaning. Man had to live without appeal, as Camus said, not reconciled to his absurd situation but in purposeless defiance of the absurd. How this defiance could build society or aid good government was problematic.


Vocation and the individual

De Rougemont observed that the Lutheran and Calvinist ideas of vocation are broader than the Catholic idea of vocation, which tends to emphasise vocation in terms of a call to religious life as priest, nun or monk, or to marriage and family life. Luther said that when a cobbler makes a good pair of shoes he glorifies God, illustrating that the concept of vocation properly covers a very broad area. Vocation seeks to provide every individual with answers to questions about the direction of life. One’s individual sense of vocation will guide practical decisions such as: What profession should I undertake? Should I marry? Which political system should I support? What values should I hold? What recreations will be best for me? How should I spend my money?

Although these are individual concerns, they are not addressed in isolation. Other people are involved in the discernment of one’s vocation, especially parents, family and friends. In Poland, the young playwright and poet Karol Wojtyla admired the self-sacrificing bravery of his contemporaries in the 1944 Warsaw uprising. Their noble example helped him to discern his vocation as a priest. Decades later Wojtyla—by then Pope John Paul II—wrote:

They laid down their young lives. They wanted to demonstrate that they could live up to their great and demanding heritage. I was part of that generation and I must say that the heroism of my contemporaries helped me to define my personal vocation. [His emphasis]

A sense of vocation isn’t only for religious people—otherwise its value as an organising principle in society would be limited. De Rougemont reminds us:

The gospel teaches us that every man is capable of receiving a vocation, a special call, which distinguishes him from his kind and endows him with an inalienable dignity to the degree to which he obeys the call. This is a fundamental principle of any social order that can be called Christian. One can also accept the idea of general or collective vocation, applied to a nation or even to a generation. Every being, whether individual or collective, for whom the Church can pray, is capable of receiving a vocation.

We can even speak of disciplines or professions in a vocational sense. Philosophy, for instance, makes a gift of itself to humanity in its “search for truth, thereby forming thought and culture, and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation”, as John Paul II observed. The Hippocratic Oath is a type of vocational statement for the medical professions, while the mission statements formulated by most institutions, charity and service groups, and by many businesses are expressions of their vocation.

The talents, skills, interests and limitations of each individual provide valuable indications of the nature of one’s vocation, but it is often challenging to discern, especially in a culture that although in many ways narcissistic does not value listening to the murmurs of one’s own soul and conscience. Josef Pieper, the German Thomistic philosopher, writes:

We are hearkening to a voice which speaks within us by nature, but which is at the same time our own voice, the voice of our primordial conscience; and we are following the specifications of a primal blueprint which we not only did not design ourselves, but which we come to know only little by little, and perhaps never learn to know completely.

Pieper also affirms the value of other people’s example and experience, especially in the apprehension of reality and the practice of prudence, two qualities that facilitate the fruitful expression of one’s vocation:

The precondition for every ethical decision is the perception and examination of reality. And yet this perception makes up only the first half of prudence; the other half consists in “translating” our knowledge of reality into decision and action … It is still true, of course, that ultimately only the autonomous individual, the morally defined person, stands under the call and the obligation to make decisions, and this responsibility cannot be delegated. Yet the individual, in acquiring knowledge of reality, is dependent on the other person. This is the reason the ancient sages invariably considered receptivity to teaching, the willingness to accept advice, and essential element in the virtue of prudence … it becomes evident in this context how important the presence of truth in public discourse is or, negatively, how important the public manipulation of reality is (for instance, through the deceptive use of language and communication), not only for society at large but also for every decision-making individual.

Since man’s meaning is revealed as each of us makes a gift of our self to others, it is impossible for anyone to give their vocation an anti-social direction. For example, no one has a vocation to be a subversive, a sponge or a criminal. Likewise, no nation can say its vocation—or its destiny—is to dominate any other country. De Rougemont discerned that his vocation was to dedicate his intellectual energies to the fight against totalitarian systems, which he defined very broadly, including not only brutal Marxist or nationalist regimes but also the totalising tendencies of a materialistic capitalism and the conformist eudemonism of wealthy democracies. Flannery O’Connor, in her mid-twenties, discerned that her vocation was to write fiction and, more precisely, to write fiction featuring odd and grotesque characters who became odd or grotesque through their struggle for or against the Spirit of God. As a young man Soren Kierkegaard discerned that his vocation was to forgo marriage, remain celibate, and write full-time—a substantial inheritance freed him from the need to earn a living.

A sense of vocation is of great value for young people at the threshold of adulthood. They normally possess great hopes and zest for life. Often young people are hungry for direction and answers to life’s largest questions. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), John Paul II addressed this need:

If at every stage of his life man desires to be his own person, to find love, during his youth he desires it even more strongly. The desire to be one’s own person, however, must not be understood as a licence to do anything, without exception. The young do not want that at all—they are willing to be corrected, to be told yes or no. They need guides, and they want them close at hand … Clearly, then, the fundamental problem of youth is profoundly personal. In life, youth is when we come to know ourselves. It is also a time of communion. Young people, whether girls or boys, know they must live for and with others, they know that their life has meaning to the extent that it becomes a free gift for others. Here is the origin of all vocations …
[His emphasis]


The vocational view and the wrongs of rights

Highlighting some of the problems associated with an undue emphasis on human rights is not to disparage the fundamental value of rights. The defence of basic human rights is necessary because there will always be those who for reasons of profit or power or purity are ready to grant rights to themselves and deny rights to others.

Problems of the definition and extent of rights are especially complicated in a pluralistic society because there will be trenchant disagreement on the principles and types of rights: what is regarded as a necessary liberty by some groups may be regarded as an irresponsible licence by others. In these situations, by no means rare, an uncompromising reliance on a rights agenda alone will result in polarised groups within society. Arguments and conflicts will be engendered rather than solved by an appeal to absolutised rights. The Catholic Church maintains, to provide one example of disagreement, that no one has a right to do sinful acts. Any expansion of rights “liberalising” abortion, marriage and euthanasia are therefore going to be permanently contentious. “It is legitimate and even necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family,” wrote John Paul II in Memory and Identity (2005).

Further problems are created by the activities and decisions of the courts, boards and tribunals established to maintain and extend rights. They are unelected and can seem unaccountable and even unreasonable interpreters of legislation, determining what is right and wrong—who is right and who is wrong—and imposing penalties where they see fit. And they do not stop at the interpretation of legislation; they can become the interpreters of the intentions of the accused. In one recent case, a tele­vision presenter made comments about immigration which offended a viewer, who complained to an anti-discrimination board. Although it was clear that no offence was intended, the board insisted that the interpretation it placed on the accused’s words was decisive—and this interpretation can unjustly condemn the accused to heavy penalties.

The ancient Wisdom literature advised that “It is the glory of a man to overlook an offence.” In contrast to this instruction to mercy and patience with the faults of other people, a rights agenda, aided by aggressive boards and commissions, abets a prickly sensitivity to perceived offences. Far from encouraging forbearance and forgiveness, the government’s legal “rights defenders” encourage an attitude of resentment, hasty complaints to courts, and punition. They are in danger of creating a mass of litigants characterised by the fragility of their psychology and the immaturity of their character, but with a strong desire to punish those who dare to disagree with them. This will not result in a robust and gracious community but in increasing hostility among people. Dysfunction and division are the result of an unbalanced emphasis on rights in isolation from the wisdom inherent in a vocational and virtue-based ethic.

The problem of unbalanced rights is exacerbated if, due to a process of secularisation, there is no commonly held transcendent basis for rights. In this setting, rights are the prerogative of the state to give, define or withdraw—and any appeal against the state’s actions is likely to be ineffective in the short term. Powerful groups in society and government will have their agenda of rights promoted, with little regard for the rights and the arguments of their opponents. Concerted attempts will be made to control the relevant courts, the educational institutions and the media to inculcate the privileged rights of this privileged sector of society. Again, this will result in resistance and engender polarisation and antagonism among differing groups in society.

This highlights another problem with an undue emphasis on a rights agenda: it is slewed to accord with the dictates of the dominant ideology. One set of virtues is allowed, according to fashionable fancies, to supplant other important virtues. For example, tolerance is often promoted but sometimes at the cost of truth. Individual autonomy is defended but at times without regard for functional communality. Compassion is exalted but perhaps at the cost of justice. The very attempt to enshrine one virtue leads to another virtue being denigrated. A rights agenda by itself is completely unable to resolve such imbalances without creating ever more strained positions and attitudes. In contrast, the idea of vocation is entwined with the development of virtuous character. This does not mean development of only one or two favoured virtues but all the virtues—the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice—so that the balance necessary for all aspects of life is maintained.

Despite these problems, the rights activists do not countenance any amelioration of their demands. This tendency is as common today as it was in the French Revolution. Edmund Burke observed the truculence of the rights-obsessives of France and England over two hundred years ago:

They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men; and as for the rest, they have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up at one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charges and acts of parliament. They have “the rights of man”. Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding: these admit no temperament, and no compromise; any thing withheld from their full demand is so much fraud and injustice.

Burke, like de Rougemont and John Paul II, was not disputing that men had rights, only that total rights—expressed in the abstract by contentious people—were at odds with and would soon dismantle the limited but workable rights that the great majority of people already enjoyed and which were preserved by custom and tradition. Burke said, “In denying their false claim of rights, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy.”

Far from the totalisation of abstract rights, Burke highlights the many necessary compromises in assumed rights that everyone must make in order to exist peacefully with other people. This included an external restriction on each person’s selfish passions. Burke noted that “Men cannot enjoy the rights of a civil and uncivil state together.” He went on to say:

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants, is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power outside of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.

John Paul II was a staunch defender of human rights, but he saw that even a very basic right—the right to freedom—was insufficient by itself. He wrote in Memory and Identity:

If I am free, I can make both good or bad use of my freedom. If I use it well, I in turn become more “good” as a result, and the good I have accomplished has a positive influence on those around me. If on the other hand I use it wrongly, evil will take root and begin to spread both in me and around me. The danger of the situation in which we live today consists in the fact that we claim to prescind from the ethical dimension in our use of freedom—that is, from consideration of moral good and evil. A certain concept of freedom, which has widespread support in public opinion at present, diverts attention from ethical responsibilities. Appeal is made today to freedom alone. It is often said: what matters is to be free, released from all constraint or limitation, so as to operate according to private judgment, which in reality is often pure caprice. This much is clear: such liberalism can only be described as primitive. Its influence, however, is potentially devastating.

In other words, the focus on rights provides minimal impetus or direction to the development of character, especially virtuous character. No purely legalistic system can ever direct the development of a person’s character, because the law only indirectly touches a person’s heart, soul and conscience. The law comes after the act; it doesn’t direct the person beforehand towards an ethic of care and responsibility. By itself, the law has no pattern of ideal humanity to point anyone towards. The law—and legal rights—leaves the interiority of man largely undirected. The law only says in a few instances what to do or to avoid. Personalism’s idea of virtuous vocation does direct the individual towards moral development. The encouragement is to be the best person—prudent, just, loving and giving—that one can be.

The promotion of a vocational view also confers a flexibility that no agenda of rights can provide. Rights are enacted in impersonal laws; a vocation is expressed through a person’s being. It is therefore alive, individual and resilient. Governments can give and rescind rights, but they can neither give nor rescind anyone’s vocation, they can only temporarily frustrate an individual’s vocation. In time, the person adapts to any obstacles and begins to navigate around or through the difficulties, even acknowledging that the hindrances can help refine the vocation. Here, the guiding virtues of faith, hope and fortitude may be especially required. In extreme cases, such as Edith Stein’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, suffering and death were seen by the individuals themselves as part of their vocation.

This leads to another observation: a rights agenda is existentially inadequate because it is largely unable to console and strengthen the heart of man amidst the difficulties of life. In contrast, a vocation ethic does provide for consolation and strength directly through its emphasis on life as a gift of oneself for others. As we give ourselves we are lifted beyond ourselves and our difficulties, which brings us a measure of sustaining joy. Moreover, we are consoled and strengthened as other people make a gift of themselves to us. Further, the transcendent love that is the presupposition of Personalism and the vocation ethic provides the assurance that one’s suffering is not meaningless but can be redeemed albeit in mystery.

A link between our society’s widespread neglect of vocation and the generalised, pervasive anxiety that afflicts so many people can be readily extrapolated from Kierkegaard’s two psychological books, The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard posits that a person’s generalised anxiety is a nervous response to the intuitive grasp that one has chosen a path that is not the path that leads to fulfilment because that path was perceived as being too difficult. This insight finds corroboration in Viktor Frankl’s diagnosis of some forms of neuroses as noögenic: an individual becomes neurotic because they fail to find meaning and an anchoring sense of responsibility. To translate this insight into Personalism’s vocational call: when a person makes a choice to ignore their own interior call to the realisation of their life through the exploration of their vocation, their own spirit will not let them rest in that choice. The person has short-changed themselves and knows it at some level. Pieper makes the same point:

from the refusal to collaborate with the completion of one’s own being, from this innermost conflict of man with himself, from this sloth (in a word) as the ancients say, spring the “roaming restlessness of the spirit”. He who is in conflict with himself in his inmost dwelling, who consequently does not will to be what he fundamentally is anyway, cannot dwell within himself and cannot be at home with himself.

In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard insists that the human person is a synthesis of possibility and necessity, the temporal and the eternal, the corporeal and the spiritual. A person cannot hope to attain a balanced and healthy synthesis of the complexities of his own being if one of these polarities is unacknowledged. An age in which the transcendent and spiritual are scorned is immediately handicapped in finding the richness of its own humanity. But Kierkegaard was focused on the individual, so this needs to be re-cast: the individual who scorns transcendence and their own spirit is poorer because of this scorn, but this self-impoverishment is often not obvious to them. Kierkegaard likens them to the person who has inherited a magnificent multi-storey house, but who insists on staying in the cellar; it is their cellar and they are proud of it. Vocation urges the person to move from the cellar to the richness and amenity of their full estate.


Modern obstacles to the vocational view

Despite the problems and the deficiencies of a rights agenda, there are serious obstacles to the vocational view beyond those erected by bullying governments. De Rougemont identified two cultural forces that are particularly hostile to the idea of personal vocation:

Now the great social and cultural maladies of the modern age all have this one common characteristic: that they deny personal vocation (whether nationalist, racial, or class collectivism; whether biological, moral, or bourgeois materialism; individualism is likewise a morbid deviation from the sense of vocation, for it denies social and community implications) … All totalitarian ideologies, for example, deny by definition the fact of personal vocation. They replace it with an ersatz: the function of the citizen within the state or the party, as decreed by the state or the party. They deny diversities, or qualify them as morbid, reactionary, individualistic or antisocial …

All the unitarian doctrines seeking to establish a mechanical and rigid homogeneity, whether imposed from above (state, tyrant), or from below (egalitarianism to the uttermost), deny personal vocation or the vocation of the group, and consider it dangerous or scandalous.

Materialism’s scientific expression is among the vocation-denying doctrines identified by de Rougemont. Unfortunately, the immense achievements of science and technology have too easily been credited to an ideology that precludes a transcendent view of man and especially rejects a teleological or a “divinised” view of man. Scientism, which insists that the truths verified by measurement and experiment should be granted a superior validity to other truths, is rampant. But when scientifically-derived power is not directed towards human need nor guided by the vocational virtues of prudence, justice and temperance, it can become monstrous. Rather than being an attendant to human happiness, it can become yet another cause of human and environmental desolation.


Going it alone

Given the multitude of obstacles, there is no point waiting for the government or any of its institutions—or the Church for that matter—to recognise and implement a vocational view. De Rougemont says it “will be implemented, as it always has been, by individual persons and small groups; by a few ‘fools for God’ like St Francis of Assisi; by unassuming people gathered in a room; by mystics whose appearance will suggest nothing extraordinary”. Pieper calls these undervalued innovators untimely inopportunes. Kierkegaard referred to the individuals who gamble their existence in search of their essence as unacknowledged leaders who avoid seeking to lead anyone but who do seek to live a life that will embrace their transcendent, vocational call. He called them Knights of Faith who “dare to be improbable”.

Gary Furnell is a frequent contributor of non-fiction and fiction. His story “Renovation at Old Bar” appeared in the November issue.