The Human Person And Society – Jacques Maritain

April 1, 2010

A meditation on societal good as it proceeds from the Christian view of the person. In many ways Maritain is laying a foundational view of the Catholic political life.

We have noted, in discussing the typical character of the person, that it is essential for personality to tend towards communion. We must insist on this point which is often forgotten: the person, by virtue of his dignity, as well as of his needs, requires to be a member of a society. Animal societies are improperly called societies or cities. Society, properly speaking — human society — is a society of persons. In so far as a city deserves this name, it is a city of human persons.

And why does the person demand for himself life in society? He demands this, first, by virtue of the very perfections which are inherent in him, and because of the fact of his being open to the communications of knowledge and of love, of which I have spoken, and which require an entrance into relations with other persons.

Taken in the aspect of its radical generosity, the human person tends to super-abound in social communications, according to the law of super-abundance which is inscribed in the very depths of being, of life, of intelligence, of love.

And, secondly, it is because of his needs that the human person demands this life in society. Taken in the aspect of his indigences (vocab: seriously impoverished conditions), he demands to be integrated to a body of social communications, without which it is impossible for him to attain to his full life and achievement.

Society thus appears as furnishing the person with the conditions of existence and development which he definitely needs. The human person cannot achieve his fullness alone, but only through receiving certain goods essential to him from society.

I do not mean only material needs, of bread, of clothes and lodging, for all of which man depends upon the aid of his fellows; but also, and first of all, the need of their aid in acting according to reason and virtue, which corresponds to the specific character of the human being. In order to attain to a certain degree of elevation in knowledge and perfection of moral life, man needs the education and the aid granted by his fellows. It is in this sense that one must give a very strict meaning to the words of Aristotle that man is naturally a political animal. He is a political animal because he is a reasonable animal, because his reason seeks to develop with the help of education, through the teaching and the co-operation of other men, and because society is thus required to accomplish human dignity.

Yet we must not say that the aim of society is the individual good (or the mere collection of individual goods) of each person who constitutes it! This formula would dissolve society as such for the benefit of its parts, and would lead to the “anarchy of atoms.” It would mean either a frankly anarchic conception or the old disguised anarchic conception of individualistic liberalism — according to which the entire duty of society consists in seeing that the freedom of each should be respected, though this permit the strong freely to oppress the feeble.

The end of society is its common good, the good of the body politic. But if one fails to grasp the fact that the good of the body politic is a common good of human persons — as the social body itself is a whole made up of human persons — this formula may lead in its turn to other errors of the collectivist or totalitarian type. The common good of society is neither a simple collection of private goods, nor a good belonging to a whole which (as in the case of the species in relation to its individual members) draws the parts to itself, as if they were pure means to serve itself alone. The common good is the good human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in the good life; it is therefore common to the whole and to the parts, on whom it flows back and who must all benefit from it.

Under pain of being itself denatured, such a good implies and demands the recognition of the fundamental rights of the person (and of the rights of the family, in which the persons are engaged in a more primitive mode of communal living than in political society). It involves, as its chief value, the highest possible accession (an accession compatible with the good of the whole) of persons to their life as persons, and to their freedom of expansion, as well as to the communications of goodness which in turn proceed from it.

The end of the state is the common good, which is not only a collection of advantages and utilities, but also rectitude of life, an end good in itself, which the old philosophers called bonum honestum, the intrinsically worthy good. For, on one hand, it is a thing good in itself to insure the existence of the multitude. And, on the other hand, it is the just and morally good existence of the community which may thus he insured. It is only on this condition, of being in accordance with justice and with moral good, that the common good is what it is: the good of a people, the good of a city, and not the “good” of an association of gangsters or of murderers. That is why perfidy, the contempt of treaties and of sworn faith, political murder or unjust war — all these can be useful to a government, and procure, if only for a time, advantages to the peoples who have recourse to them; but they debase and destroy, as far as in them lies, the common good of these peoples.

The common good is a thing ethically good. And this common good itself includes, as an essential element, the greatest possible development of human persons, of those persons who form the multitude, united, in order to constitute a community, according to relations not only of power, but also of justice. Historical conditions, and the present inferior state of humanity’s development, make it difficult for social life fully to attain its end. But the end toward which it tends, as is shown in another chapter, is to procure to the multitude the common good in such a fashion that the concrete person gains a real independence regarding nature, which is insured through the economic guaranties of labor and of property, through political rights, the civil virtues, and culture of the mind.

I have insisted upon the sociability of the person and on the properly human nature of the common good, which is a good according to justice, which must flow back to the persons, and whose chief value is the accession of persons to their freedom of expansion.

But I have not yet entered into what one might call the typical paradox of social life. Here we shall find once more the distinction between individual and person. For this paradox is linked to the fact that each of us is altogether an individual and altogether a person.

The person, as such, is a whole — a whole open and generous. Truly speaking, if human society were a society of pure persons, the good of society and the good of each person would be one and the same good. But man is very far from being a pure person. The human person is an unfortunate material individual, an animal who is born in an infinitely more depraved state than all the other animals. If the person, as such, is an independent whole, and that which is noblest in all of nature, yet the human person is placed at the lowest degree of personality. He is destitute and miserable — an indigent person, full of needs. Because of these profound indigences — deriving from the matter of which man is made and from material individuality — and because of the limitations of his perfection itself, which also, in another way, derive from material individuality, it so happens that, when such a person enters into the society of his fellows, he becomes a part of a whole, a whole which is larger and better than its parts, in so far as they are parts.

According, not to his entire self, but to all the complements which he receives from society, and without which he would remain, so to speak, in a state of latent life, the human person is part of a larger whole, a whole which surpasses the person in so far as the latter is a part, and in so far as the common good is other than the good of each (and than the sum of the good of each) And yet, it is by reason of personality, as such, and of the perfections which it involves as an independent and open whole, that man must enter into society; so that it is necessary for the good of the social whole, as I have said, to flow back in a way to the person of each of its members.

It is the human person which enters into society. And in so far as he is a material individuality, he enters into society as a part whose good is inferior to the good of the whole; nevertheless, this good itself of the whole, in order to be what it Is — that is to say, superior to the private good — must necessarily profit individual persons and be redistributed to them, in respect of their rights and their dignity. Because, finally speaking, society, being a whole of persons, is a whole of wholes.

On the other hand, by reason of his destination to the absolute, and because he is called upon to fulfill a destiny superior to time — in other words, according to the highest exigencies of personality as such — the human person, as spiritual totality, referring to the transcendent Whole, surpasses all temporal societies and is superior to them. And from this point of view — in other words, as regards the things that are not Caesar’s — it is to the perfect achievement of the person and of its supra-temporal aspirations, that society itself and its common good are subordinated, as to the end of another order, which transcends them.

A single human soul is of more worth than the whole universe of bodies and material goods. There is nothing above the human soul — except God. In regard to the eternal destiny of the soul, and its supra-temporal goods, society exists for each person and is subordinated to it.

It is thus in the nature of things that man sacrifices his temporal goods, and if necessary his life itself, for the sake of the community, and that social life imposes upon the life of the person, taken as part of the whole, many a constraint and many a sacrifice. But even as these sacrifices and constraints are demanded and accepted by justice and by friendship, even so they raise the spiritual level of the person. When man gives his life for the community’s sake, he accomplishes, through an act of such great virtue, the moral perfection by which the person asserts his supreme independence as regards the world. By losing himself temporally for the city’s sake, the person sacrifices himself in the truest and most complete fashion, and yet does not lose the stakes; the city serves him even then, for the soul of man is not mortal, and there is an eternal life.

In brief, while the person as such is a totality, the individual as such is a part; while the person, as person or as totality, demands that the common good of temporal society should flow back to him, and while through his ordination to the transcendent whole, he even surpasses the temporal society, the same person, as an individual or as part, is inferior to the social whole, and must serve the common cause as a member of the whole.

We thus perceive the state of tension and of conflict, which human society inevitably involves. Social life is naturally ordained — in the measure in which I have tried to define — to the good and to the freedom of the person. And yet there is in this very social life, a natural tendency to enslave the person and to diminish him, in so far as this person is considered by society as a simple part and as a simple material individual. “Every time I have been amongst men,” said Seneca, “I have returned a diminished man.”

The person — so far as a person — wishes to serve the common good freely, by tending at the same time towards its own plenitude, by surpassing himself and by surpassing the community, in his proper movement towards the transcendent Whole. And, in so far as he is a material individuality, the person is obliged to serve the community and the common good by necessity, and even by constraint, being surpassed by them, as the part by the whole.

This paradox, this tension and conflict, are something natural and inevitable. Their solution is not static, it is dynamic, in mot. For thus is provoked a double motion, surely a deeper one than the dialectic motion of the Marxists. The first of these motions is a movement of progression of temporal societies, which operates above all through the energies of spirit and of freedom, and which is continuously thwarted by forces of inertia and degradation: this movement tends to bring the law of personality to prevail over the law of individuality in social life.

In other words, it tends toward the realization of man’s aspiration to be treated, in social life itself, as a whole and not as a part. Such a formula offers to us a very abstract but correct definition of the supreme ideal towards which modern democracies are aspiring, and which has been betrayed by a false philosophy of life. This ideal is to be completely achieved only at the end of human history; it requires the climate of a heroic conception of life, fixed on the absolute and upon spiritual values. It can be progressively realized only by means of the development of a sacred feeling, as it were, for justice and honor, and by the development of law and of civic friendship. For justice and law, by ruling man as a moral agent, and appealing to reason and free will, concern personality as such, and transform into a relation between two wholes — the individual and the social — what must otherwise be a mere subordination of the part to the whole. And love, by assuming voluntarily that which would have been servitude, transfigures it into freedom and into free gift.

The second motion is a motion which one might call vertical, the motion of the life of persons themselves inside social life. It is due to the difference of level between the plane on which the person has the center of its life as person, and the low-water mark, where it constitutes itself as a part of a social community. By reason of this difference of level, the person always claims society and yet tends to surpass it,

But let us return to the complex relations of structure which we have tried to characterize. One could, it seems, apply the following formulas.

The human person is a part of the political community and is inferior to the latter, according to the things which compensate in him the needs of material individuality: that is to say, according to the things which, in him and of him, depend as to their very essence on the political community, and can be called upon to serve as means for the temporal good of this community. Thus, for instance, a mathematician has learned mathematics thanks to the educational institutions which social life alone has made possible; this progressive formation, received from others, and attesting the needs of the individual, depends on the community. And the community is entitled to ask the mathematician to serve the social group by teaching mathematics.

And, on the other hand, the human person, as a superior whole, dominates the political community according to the things which belong to the ordination of personality as such to the absolute: that is to say, according to the things which, in him and of him, depend as to their very essence on something higher than political community, and properly concern the supra-temporal achievement of person as person. Thus, for instance, mathematical truths do not depend on social community, and concern the order of absolute goods of the person as such. And the community will never have the right to ask a mathematician to hold as true one mathematical system in preference to another one, and to teach such mathematics as may be considered more suitable to the law of the social group; for example, and to speak madly, Aryan mathematics or Marxist-Leninist mathematics.

Man is constituted as person, made for God and for eternal life, before being constituted part of a human community; and he is constituted part of familial society before being constituted part of political society. Hence, there are primordial rights, which the latter must respect, and which it dare not wrong when it demands for itself the aid of its members because they are its parts.

To sum up: on one hand, it is the person itself, which enters into society; and, on the other hand, it is finally by reason of its material individuality that the person is in society as a part, whose good is inferior to the good of the whole. If this is the case, we understand that society cannot live without the perpetual gift and the perpetual surplus which derive from persons, each irreplaceable and incommunicable; and that, at the same time, what in social use is retained from the persons is transmuted into something communicable and replaceable, into something ever individualized and yet depersonalized.

We could also say that society — its life, its peace — cannot exist without the efficient causality of love, which is essentially personal, and yet the formal structure of society is constituted by justice, which is essentially measured according to things, and merits, without respect for persons.

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  1. Fascinating passage! Could you send me a reference for where this meditation is published? Thanks!

    • A reading selection from Person and Society, probably the introduction.


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