Published December 1, 2006
**On December 1, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel delivered the keynote address at a Duquesne University conference exploring “The Phenomenology of John Paul II.” Weigel’s address follows.**
Karol Józef Wojtyla was a singular man: an intellectual with a deep respect for popular piety; a mystic who was an active sportsmen for decades; a celibate who wrote with great insight about human sexuality; a priest and bishop who marveled for decades at the gift of his priesthood and episcopate — and whose closest and oldest friends included lay men and women he had first met when they were university students. An orphan before he reached his majority, he nevertheless came to embody paternity for millions of people in a world bereft of fatherhood. John Paul II was the most visible man in human history, and some two billion people participated, in one way or another, in his funeral; yet he had a deeply ingrained sense of privacy and his most intense experiences were ones he couldn’t describe, for they took place in a dialogue with God that was, literally, beyond words.
His singularity extended to Karol Wojtyla’s life among the philosophers. He never took an undergraduate or graduate course in philosophy. He never taught as a full-time faculty member in a department of philosophy and never held a rank higher than docent, the lowest on the Polish academic ladder. His philosophical masterwork remained unfinished. Yet this autodidact philosopher, who liked (as he put it) to do philosophy from the standpoint of Adam, seeing the world afresh, drew the professional respect of Thomists and phenomenologists, Catholics and agnostics, classicists, medievalists, moderns, and perhaps even a few post-moderns. Wojtyla’s philosophical convictions also had a profound impact on the history of our times — “solidarity,” for Wojtyla, was a way of understanding authentic human being-in-the-world before it was a banner erected in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Marx famously remarked that, while philosophers analyzed the world, he intended to change it; Karol Wojtyla did both, and the changes he helped advance were the embodiment in history of the understandings he had achieved — as those understandings reflected the Truth which had seized his life and his imagination.
As I am not a professional philosopher, I cannot bring a specialist’s perspective to the work of this conference. But perhaps I can bring something else of use — a biographer’s perspective that locates Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical work within the broader context of his singular life. Before he came to the world’s attention, Wojtyla had hammered out his philosophy on the anvil of his experience as a man, a priest, and a Pole — and did so at a time, and in a place, where the stakes were high indeed. Revisiting that time and place may help us understand something of Wojtyla’s earlier experiences among the philosophers, which will then help us understand his walk among the philosophers as the Bishop of Rome.
Things As They Are
In an extended interview with the French journalist André Frossard, John Paul II confessed, perhaps a littler sheepishly, that his first encounter with philosophy had been an unpleasant one. In 1942, Karol Wojtyla had been accepted into the clandestine seminary being run by Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha of Kraków. As part of its comprehensive assault on Polish intellectual and cultural life, the Nazi Occupation had shut down the archdiocesan seminary, which Sapieha then reconstituted on a clandestine basis. Seminarians like Wojtyla continued their jobs while coming to the archbishop’s residence to serve Mass, receive spiritual direction, and get academic assignments: books were assigned, with exams to follow on a future visit to Sapieha’s residence. Early in this process, Wojtyla was told to read and learn Kazimierz Wais’s text, Metaphysics, a 1926 tome written in the arid formulas of one style of early twentieth century neo-scholasticism. Wojtyla was flummoxed. He was a literary man, who had read widely and deeply in poetry, fiction, drama, and history, but he had never encountered anything like Wais. His later description of the experience to André Frossard is worth a quote:
“My literary training, centered around the humanities, had not prepared me at all for the scholastic theses and formulas with which the manual [Wais’s book] was filled. I had to cut a path through a thick undergrowth of concepts, analyses, and axioms without even being able to identity the ground over which I was moving. After two months of hacking through this vegetation I came to a clearing, to the discovery of the deep reasons for what until then I had only lived and felt. When I passed the examination I told my examiner that…the new vision of the world which I had acquired in my struggle with that metaphysics manual was more valuable than the mark which I had obtained. I was not exaggerating. What intuition and sensibility had until then taught me about the world found solid confirmation.”
It was an important moment in Wojtyla’s life among the philosophers. For all the suffering he inflicted, Wais gave Wojtyla an intellectual inoculation that lasted a lifetime: an inoculation against radical skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything. In dungarees splattered by watery lime at the Solvay chemical factory where he worked, Wojtyla discovered what he would later call a “new world of existence” in the dusty propositions of Wais’s Metaphysics: an intellectual universe built around the central Aristotelian-Thomistic conviction that the world is, in fact, intelligible. That conviction stuck with him to the end, and it profoundly shaped his way of doing philosophy. The agonies of the war and a life already filled with suffering had given young Karol Wojtyla a sharp, even harsh, experience of reality. Those nights slogging through Wais’s Metaphysics gave the nascent philosopher the first building blocks for what would become a philosophical position that was proof against epistemological skepticism and its cousins, moral relativism and metaphysical boredom.
After priestly ordination in 1946, two years of graduate study in Rome, and a few months in a rural parish, Father Karol Wojtyla’s first extended assignment was at St. Florian’s Church, near Kraków’s Old Town. The parish was a traditional magnet for the Cracovian Catholic intelligentsia; Archbishop Sapieha sent Wojtyla there to launch a second chaplaincy to university students. At St. Florian’s, Wojtyla organized study groups that read Thomas Aquinas in the original and explored basic philosophical issues of apologetics — an urgent matter in a country choking intellectually on the cultural smog of late Stalinism. Ski trips and other outings became an occasion for the young priest to get his student-friends thinking philosophically. Almost a half-century later, Jerzy Janik, who later became a distinguished nuclear physicist but who had never studied metaphysics, remembered being fascinated in the late 1940s by Father Wojtyla’s “way of thinking, in which one could speak coherently and in a connected way about everything,” from their ski poles to God. (Others, perhaps not so speculatively inclined, remember young Father Wojtyla’s sermons as being rather philosophically dense, a trait from which he liberated himself after some useful criticism from his lay friends.) In an environment of communist mendacity in which truth was a function of power, Wojtyla’s fledgling efforts as a philosophical tutor, however dense and challenging, were received by his young parishioners and friends as an intellectual liberation.
That Wojtyla was not entirely satisfied with the neo-scholasticism in which he had been trained was evident, however, from the criticism his first doctoral dissertation had received from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., his dissertation director at Rome’s “Angelicum.” Garrigou-Lagrange, the master of mid-century neo-scholasticism, was unhappy that Wojtyla, writing about the concept of faith in St. John of the Cross, did not refer to God as the “Divine Object” – and docked his grade accordingly. One assumes that this point had been discussed between director and student; and, judging from the result, the conversation didn’t persuade Wojtyla. He remained a Thomistic realist; but he seems to have been looking for a different method to get at the truth of things.
Encountering Max Scheler
His opportunity to do just that, in a more concentrated way, came when Cardinal Sapieha’s successor, Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, ordered him to leave the student chaplaincy at St. Florian’s in order to write his Habilitationsschrift, which would qualify him to teach at the university level. Wojtyla decided to write on the German phenomenologist Max Scheler, an associate of Edmund Husserl in the original phenomenological school that included Roman Ingarden, Edith Stein, and Dietrich von Hildebrand.
Why was Wojtyla attracted to Scheler, a mercurial character and difficult thinker, whose work he had to translate from German into Polish? Perhaps it was because of phenomenology’s intention to see the world whole and thus arrive at a realistic analysis of things-as-they-are. Specifically, Wojtyla wanted to see if Scheler could help Catholic philosophers provide a secure philosophical ground for Christian ethics. This attraction to a modern philosophical method like phenomenology was not, I should add, a matter of conducting a frontal assault against the neo-scholasticism he had been taught; Wojtyla had no interest in pursuing a war of attrition against the entrenched, semi-official Catholic philosophical method of the time. If certain forms of neo-scholasticism were a barrier to an encounter with modern philosophy, Wojtyla simply went around them, having gratefully absorbed what seemed to him enduring about the neo-scholastic approach: its conviction that philosophy could get to the truth of things-as-they-are. On the basis of that conviction, he was prepared to encounter other philosophical systems on their own terms, and would later recall that wrestling with the second categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant had been “particularly important” for his later thinking. (That this was, in fact, wrestling was neatly illustrated one night after dinner, when John Paul II rolled his eyes and groaned, “Kant! Mein Gott! Kant!”).
His experience as a pastor, a confessor, a teacher, and a writer had given Wojtyla what we might call a “natural phenomenologist’s” intuition, which certainly helped him in his analysis of Scheler. He appreciated Scheler’s personalism, which seemed to him to rescue ethics from Kantian abstraction and to restore the pathos, the tragedy, and indeed the ethos to the human condition. Wojtyla also appreciated Scheler’s defense of moral intuition and his analysis of moral sentiments like empathy and sympathy, which helped break philosophy out of the prison of epistemological solipsism. Above all, Wojtyla appreciated Scheler’s effort to analyze the realities of moral choosing, which struck him as a more satisfactory approach to the foundations of ethics than a formal, abstract system like Kant’s. But could Scheler do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Aquinas?
Wojtyla’s basic answer was “No.” For Wojtyla, moral acts are real: the acts of real persons, which have real consequences. Scheler, in his view, had not grasped how moral choices actually shape a life. So Wojtyla judged that, in Scheler’s ethics, morality remained “outside” the human world. Wojtyla was also critical of Scheler’s tendency to overstress the emotional aspects of experience and knowing, which he thought led to a truncated view of the human person. Here, as in his critique of Scheler’s analysis of moral choices, Wojtyla-the-philosopher was influenced by his pastoral experience — he knew that the young men and women he had helped guide through their own moral difficulties were not simply composites of their various emotional states.
Nonetheless, Wojtyla came away fom the Scheler dissertation convinced that phenomenology was an important philosophical instrument for probing the human condition. Phenomenological inquiry had to be grounded, however, in a resolutely realistic general theory of things-as-they-are. That was the path he intended to explore in his own future philosophical work, and the result would be what Wojtyla would later call a way of doing philosophy that “synthesized both approaches:” the metaphysical realism of Aristole and Aquinas and the human sensitivity of Schelerian phenomenology. And for Wojtyla, this philosophical modus operandi was an intellectual conviction with consequences. If men and women could not know good and evil, if moral choices were only matters of personal preference, then all choices were, ultimately, indifferent. That, he believed, would empty human freedom of its drama and deprive men and women of their most distinctively human quality: the capacity to know the good and to choose it freely.
If Wojtyla’s habilitation was his first sustained effort to marry the realist objectivity he had learned from Thomism to the subjectivity of modern philosophy, it would not be his last such effort. Thus the Scheler dissertation previewed the philosopher and theologian who would later write about love and responsibility, freedom and self-denial, democracy and a vibrant public moral culture, the free economy and solidarity. Wojtyla’s instinct for synthesis was, to be sure, a sign of contradiction in the late modern and post-modern intellectual and philosophical worlds, and in North Atlantic high culture in general. One might see in that instinct, however, both a Christian sensibility and a reverence for the wisdom of the past. Jesus tells his disciples, after the multiplication of loaves and fish, “Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost” [John 6.12]. Karol Wojtyla’s pastoral experience had taught him that fragments of a life could be gathered into a whole; his philosophical instinct was to reconnect fragmented human understandings. That, he believed, was the best way to account for the complexities of the human drama while remaining in conversation with the great minds who had laid the intellectual foundations of western civilization. He was most intensely engaged in that conversation during his years of teaching at the Catholic University of Lublin, a school almost unknown outside Poland, where large ideas were being explored.
The Lublin Philosophers and Their Project
The Catholic University of Lublin [KUL] was founded in 1918. Curiously, one of its midwives was Lenin, who allowed Father Idzi Radziszewski to take the library of Petrograd’s Polish Academy of Theology back to Poland when the priest was trying to get KUL launched. Chartered by the interwar Second Polish Republic, the university was shut down by the German Occupation, with numerous professors imprisoned, tortured, or killed outright. Its state charter permitted KUL to survive the imposition of Stalinism in Poland after the war, and KUL became the only Catholic university behind the iron curtain, a distinction it maintained throughout the Cold War. As one of its senior scholars put it, the Catholic University of Lublin during the Cold War was “the only place between Berlin and [South Korea] where philosophy was free.”
Its faculty and students pursued the academic life in a situation of constant confrontation with the communist regime. Between 1953 and 1956, the faculties of law, social science, and education were shut down. Even after the political thaw of 1956, the student population was kept artificially low, KUL graduates found it difficult to obtain academic positions elsewhere, and KUL faculty had trouble publishing their work. These pressures helped turn KUL into a university with a vocation. At a time when many influential figures in European intellectual life were flirting with Marxism (and sometimes more-than-flirting), KUL defended the unique dignity of the human person against an aggressive ideological opponent while demonstrating that Catholic faith and human reason were allies in the mission of reconstituting western humanism.
KUL’s Faculty of Philosophy was established in 1946 in response to the great hunger for philosophy evident throughout Polish intellectual life. The war and the Nazi attempt to decapitate Polish culture had created a distinctive intellectual situation in Poland. In the immediate post-war period, philosophy lectures at Kraków’s reopened Jagiellonian University were delivered to overflow audiences. In Lublin, lectures in metaphysics were standing-room-only, with students sitting on the floors, in the aisles, and on the window sills of the lecture hall. There, they heard different members of the KUL faculty explore the philosophical issues posed by the hard experiences of the immediate past and the present — life under Nazi occupation and in Stalinist Poland.
Everyone who had lived through the brutalities of the Occupation and the imposition of communism had confronted the ancient philosophical question, “What is a human being?” in urgent, unavoidable ways. Why had some people acted like beasts while others had shown remarkable heroism? Why were some people grotesquely self-serving, to the point of betraying their friends, while others were nobly self-sacrificing, laying down their lives for others they may have known only slightly? The only way to get at these problems, the KUL philosophers agreed, was through a deepening of philosophical anthropology. How is that curious blend of matter and spirit, the human person, constituted ? How are we to explain the difference in kind between human beings and other sentient creatures? What, if anything, is the point or goal of life? These hardy perennials in the garden of philosophical inquiry took on an especially sharp edge at KUL in the late 1940s and the early 1950s.
Convinced that a crisis in modernity’s understanding of the human person lay at the root of the century’s distress, the KUL philosophers of that period began to sketch out an ambitious philosophical initiative, in which metaphysics and anthropology would meet in ethics. As a sub-discipline of philosophy, ethics may once have been a handmaiden to other, grander specialties, but the KUL philosophers believed that the problem of ethics posed itself in a particularly urgent way because of the political situation. Communism was not only a matter of bad metaphysics (with its reductionistic account of things-as-they-are) and bad anthropology (with its caricature of humanism); communism’s totalitarian politics stripped men and women of their power of choice, of responsibility, and thus of their humanity.
The counter to both communist materialism and communist politics, the KUL philosophers thought, was a more complete humanism that gave a more compelling account of human moral intuitions and human moral action. In proposing to do this without falling into the quicksand of thinking about thinking about thinking, the KUL philosophers set themselves no small task. Indeed, it involved nothing less than challenging the entire direction of philosophy since the Enlightenment. Moreover, it was a project with a distinctive edge, for the KUL philosophers proposed to fight the great political-philosophical battle on Marxism’s own ground — the question of the true liberation of the human person.
The KUL project was defined by a quartet of relatively young men who, in a nice piece of irony, had become professors at KUL because Poland’s Stalinist rulers had expelled the older teachers: Jerzy Kalinowski (a specialist in logic and the philosophy of law); Stefan Swiezawski (a historian of philosophy and follower of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson); Father Mieczyslaw Albert Krapiec, O.P. (a Dominican specialist in metaphysics); and Father Karol Wojtyla. This quartet was subsequently amplified by Fathers Marian Kurdzialek (who specialized in ancient philosophy) and Stanislaw Kaminski (a specialist in epistemology). The Lublin philosophers were different personalities with divergent interests and academic specialities. They nonetheless achieved what Professor Swiezawski later called a “rare and exceptionally fruitful collaboration,” built around four agreements which were crucial to Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical project.
They began with an ancient conviction — they would be radically realistic about the world and about the human capacity to know it. If our thinking and choosing lacks a tether to reality, the KUL philosophers believed, raw force takes over the world and truth becomes a function of power, not an expression of things-as-they-are. A communist-era joke in Poland expressed this realist imperative in a way that everyone could grasp: “Party boss: ‘How much is 2+2?’ Polish worker: ‘How much would you like it to be?’” (The “political” meaning of the realist assumption of the KUL philosophers was later expressed in the famous Solidarity election poster that read, “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always = 4.”) Human beings can only be free in the truth, and the measure of truth is reality.
The KUL philosophers also agreed on a modern starting-point for philosophical inquiry: they would begin with a disciplined reflection on the human person and on human experience rather than with cosmology. The stakes were high here. If philosophy could get to the truth of things-as-they-are through an analysis of human experience, then the path to a reconciliation between Catholic philosophy and the scientific method could be opened while, concurrently, modernity would be pulled loose from the quicksand pits of thinking-about-thinking-about-thinking. Adopting this starting-point was also important in the confrontation with Marxism. There, the serious questions did not involve who understood physics better, but certain very basic issues: What is the human vocation? How do we build history? Is history best understood in material and political terms, or does history have a transcendent dimension?
The KUL philosophers also shared a profound commitment to reason. Others may have had the cultural, economic, and political freedom to speculate about the alleged absurdity of life. The KUL philosophers, veterans of the cultural resistance against Nazism, had no such luxury. They had lived through a brutal Nazi occupation and thus knew what irrationalism could do if it got loose in history with sufficient material force. But the KUL philosophers’ commitment to the method of reason was coupled with a determination to illuminate the good, and the human capacity to know and choose the good, so that men and women might, in fact, choose the good.
Finally, the KUL philosophers agreed to practice an ecumenism of time. If they refused to be imprisoned inside their own consciousness, they also declined to be slaves to the contemporary. They believed that the history of philosophy had things to teach the present, that the past had not been made completely disposable by modernity.
These were men whose vocational conviction that ideas were not intellectuals’ toys had been amply confirmed by hard experience. Ideas had consequences, for good and for ill. Defective understandings of the human person, human community, and human destiny were responsible for mountains of corpses and oceans of blood in the first half of the twentieth century. If philosophy could help the world get a firmer purchase on the truth of the human condition, in a way that was both distinctively modern and grounded in the great philosophical tradition of the West, the future might be different.
The KUL philosophers were a community of personal and intellectual friendship and that great rarity in academic life, a genuine team. Once he had been granted a faculty position at KUL in 1954, Karol Wojtyla commuted from Kraków to Lublin every two weeks. And on virtually every one of those trips over the next seven years, Wojtyla and his colleagues met as a group to talk through the common project in which they were engaged, in a gathering of equals who, as John Paul II later recalled, found it a “great advantage” to learn from each other’s distinctive perspective and current work.
At the same time there were real arguments and intellectual differences among the KUL philosophers, some of whom (like Father Krapiec) had combative personalities. Karol Wojtyla’s continuing interest in phenomenology and his ongoing investigation of modern and contemporary philosophy raised eyebrows among some of his more traditional colleagues, as did his philosophical and professorial style. He had a generally “unfootnoted” way of doing philosophy: — he did philosophy “like a peasant,” his premier student later noted — and he was far more concerned with mapping the terrain of things-as-they-are than with providing an extensive academic apparatus of citations and cross-references for every proposal or assertion. Father Wojtyla was also singularly free of that professorial gravitas usually associated with senior academics in European universities.
To say that the KUL philosophy faculty had its disagreements and, in some respects, its rivalries is simply to say that it was a faculty of men, not angels. The important thing about the KUL philosophers was the boldness of their intention. They conceived their project in part as a response to the peculiar circumstances of their time and place, and in part as a response to the general cultural conditions of the mid-twentieth century. The range of its reach and its capacity to shed light on the human condition in very different situations would only come into focus when Professor Dr. Karol Wojtyla, by then working under a different name, took the most adventurous part of the Lublin project to an audience whose numbers vastly exceeded the readership of Polish philosophical journals.
At the Foundations of Freedom
Karol Wojtyla succeeded Fr. Feliks Bednarski, O.P., in the Chair of Ethics at Lublin in 1957 and remained an active faculty member of the university until his election to the papacy in 1978; during his first months as pope, he continued to serve as a reader of KUL doctoral dissertations, and he retained the Chair of Ethics at KUL for some years before ceding it to his protégé and friend, Fr. Tadeusz Styczen, S.D.S. Wojtyla’s most intense involvement at KUL took place between 1954 and 1961, after which his pastoral responsibilities in Kraków made it impossible for him to commute to Lublin any longer; for the next seventeen years, his doctoral seminar came to Kraków for two-day work periods at the archbishop’s residence. From 1954 to 1961, and in addition to teaching the basic undergraduate ethics course and directing his doctoral students, Wojtyla gave a series of graduate lectures. The 1954-55 lectures, on “Act and Experience,” explored the philosophical ethics of Scheler, Kant, and Aquinas. The 1955-56 lectures were on the subject “Goodness and Value,” and involved an extensive dialogue with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, and Scheler. Perhaps anticipating a set of problems that would emerge in a post-communist world, Wojtyla dedicated his 1956-1957 lectures to Hume and Bentham under the rubric “Norm and Happiness.” His 1957-1958 and 1958-1959 lectures focused on sexual ethics, and eventually led to his first book, Love and Responsibility. In 1960-1961, Wojtyla gave his last graduate lectures at KUL on the “Theory and Methodology of Ethics.” One might hope that these “monographic lectures,” as they’re known in Poland, might some day be available in English; it would be fascinating to enter into Wojtyla’s dialogue with philosophical ethicists representing a wide range of methods and judgments.
From 1962, when he was elected Vicar Capitular of Kraków on the death of Archbishop Baziak, until his translation to Rome in 1978, Karol Wojtyla’s energies were increasingly absorbed by pastoral responsibilities in Kraków and by his expanding role in the world Church. He did what he could to continue his walk among the philosophers, directing his doctoral seminar from (and in) his residence at Franciszka_ska 3 in Krakow’s Old Town, where he also hosted evening philosophical seminars where a wide variety of philosophical schools were represented. As circumstances (rarely) permitted, he lectured abroad, including a well-received visit to the Harvard Summer School in 1969; his intervention at the international Thomistic Congress at Fossanuova in 1974 so impressed Josef Pieper that the venerable German philosopher immediately got in touch with Professor Joseph Ratzinger at Regensburg, urging him to read Wojtyla’s work. Moreover, it was during this period of intense pastoral activity that Wojtyla attempted his philosophical masterwork, Osoba y Czyn [Person and Act].
I say “attempted,” because Person and Act is part of the unfinished symphony of Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical project. He never produced a revised and completed version in Polish, although a third edition edited by his principal students and collaborators is available. The extant translations in other European languages are of varying quality. The currently available English translation is not trustworthy, for it bends the entire work in a direction that does not do justice to the author’s intent to maintain the tension between subjectivity (“person”) and objectivity (“act”) that was a hallmark of his thinking. All of that being said, however, Person and Act is the closest thing we have, and now ever will have, to a full statement of Wojty_a’s mature philosophical position. So a brief review of its origins and key themes may be helpful in filling out this biographical portrait.
The origins of Person and Act are unclear. In an unpublished memoir of his work as a philosopher which he gave me while I was preparing Witness to Hope, John Paul II remembered that a Cracovian priest, Msgr. Stanislaw Czartoryski, had told him, after the publication of Love and Responsibility, “Now you must write a book on the person.” Later in that same memoir, the Pope points us in a slightly different direction, writing that he wanted to work out in much greater detail the issues involved in marrying an Aristotelian-Thomistic “philosophy of being” to a Schelerian “philosophy of consciousness.” Wojtyla’s leading philosophical disciple, Father Styczen, gave me a third explanation of the origins of Person and Act: the book was intended, Styczen told me, to move philosophy from the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum, which had eventually led philosophy into the prison of solipsism, to Cognosco ergo sum [I understand, therefore I am a human person] — which move, Stycze_ believed, would re-connect thinking-about-thinking, or philosophy’s turn to the subject, to the things that were to be thought and understood. (Father Styczen, I should note, was a disciple with edge; when Wojtyla showed him the manuscript of Person and Act and asked for his comments, Styczen replied, “It’s an interesting first draft. Perhaps it could now be translated from Polish into Polish to make it easier for the reader — including me.”) Person and Act is also a product of the Second Vatican Council, and in two senses. The first sense is personal: not even so assiduous a listener as Karol Wojtyla could sit quietly in the Council aula listening to gusts of Latin rhetoric day after day, month after month, over four years. Thirty years after the Council, John Paul II would admit to me, a little sheepishly, “You know, I wrote many parts of books and poems during the sessions of the Council.” Thus Person and Act gave Wojtyla a connected piece of intellectual work to do amidst the fragmentation of conciliar debate; it also gave him the opportunity to pull together the threads of exploration in his monograpic lectures into a single philosophical tapestry.
There is another, deeper way in which Person and Act is connected to Vatican II, however. The Council had affirmed that the human person, precisely as a person, has a right to religious freedom, and that the right of religious freedom exists so that we may freely seek the truth, including the ultimate Truth who is God in his self-revelation. Wojtyla thought that this assertion had to be given a more secure philosophical demonstration, by showing that man’s search for meaning is directed toward the good and that the man who seeks the good wants to seek what is objectively good: the subjectivity of the person, which expresses itself in our freedom, is ordered by its own internal dynamics to the question of what is, in reality, good — which is also what is, in reality, true. Wojtyla also believed that the personalism of Gaudium et Spes [Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] had to be put on a more secure philosophical foundation. For here, as he told Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J., the great debate of late modernity was being played out: “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. [Against] this disintegration…we must [propose] a kind of ‘recapitulation’ of the inviolable mystery of the person.” That is what Person and Act was intended to do.
The book begins with an introduction in which Wojtyla reflects on human experience and how human beings know the world and the truth of things. He then tries to show how our thinking about the world and ourselves helps us to understand ourselves precisely as persons. Some things simply “happen to me,” but I have other experiences in which I know that I am making a decision and acting out that decision. In those experiences, I come to know myself as a person, a subject, or, in the classical term, the “efficient cause” of my actions. Some things don’t simply “happen” to me. I am the subject, not merely the object, of actions. I make things happen, because I think through a decision and then freely act on it. Therefore, I am somebody, not simply something.
Wojtyla then shows how, in moral action, that somebody begins to experience his or her own transcendence. Our personhood, he argues, is constituted by the fact of our freedom, which we come to know through truly “human acts.” In choosing one act (to pay a debt I have freely contracted) rather than another (to cheat on my debt), I am not simply responding to external conditions (fear of jail) or internal pressures (guilt). I am freely choosing what is good. In that free choosing, I am also binding myself to what I know is good and true. We can discern the transcendence of the human person in this free choice of the good and the true, Wojtyla suggests. I go beyond myself, I grow as a person, by realizing my freedom and conforming it to the good and the true.
Freedom, on one modern reading of it, is radical autonomy — I am a self because my will is the primary reference point for my choosing. Wojtyla disagrees. Self-mastery, not self-assertion, is the index of a truly human freedom, he argues. And I achieve self-mastery, not by repressing or suppressing what is natural to me, but by thoughtfully and freely channeling those natural instincts of mind and body into actions that deepen my humanity because they conform to things-as-they-are. Empiricists try to find the human “center” in the body or its processes. Kantian idealists try to find it in structures of consciousness. Wojtyla leapfrogs the argument between empiricists and idealists by trying to demonstrate how moral action, not the psyche or the body, is where we find the center of the human person, the core of our humanity. For it is in moral action that the mind, the spirit, and the body come into the unity of a person.
That person lives in a world with many other persons. So Person and Act concludes with an analysis of moral action in conjunction with all those “others” who constitute the moral field in which our humanity realizes itself and transcends itself, or grows. Here, philosophical anthropology touches the border of social ethics — How should free persons live together? As might be expected, Wojtyla takes a position beyond individualism and collectivism. Radical individualism is an inadequate anthropology because we only grow into our humanity through interaction with others. Collectivism strips the person of freedom, and thus of his or her personhood. Once again, Wojtyla suggests, the issue is best posed in “both/and” terms, the individual and the common good.
In working out his theory of “participation,” Wojtyla analyzes four “attitudes” toward life in society. Two are incapable of nurturing a truly human society. “Conformism” is inauthentic because it means abandoning freedom. “Others” take me over so completely that my self is lost in the process. “Noninvolvement” is inauthentic, because it is solipsistic. Cutting myself off from others eventually results in the implosion of my self. “Opposition” (or what might be called “resistance”) can be an authentic approach to life in society, if it involves resistance to unjust customs or laws in order to liberate the full humanity of others. Then there is “solidarity,” the primary authentic attitude toward society, in which individual freedom is deployed to serve the common good, and the community sustains and supports individuals as they grow into a truly human maturity. “It is this attitude,” Wojtyla writes, “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others.”
He could not have known, when he first wrote about it in Person and Act, that “solidarity” would become the rallying cry which dramatically changed the history of the twentieth century.
The Philosopher as Pope
As far as circumstances permitted, Karol Wojtyla continued to walk among the philosophers after his election as pope. He hosted biennial humanities seminars during the summers at Castel Gandolfo, at which distinguished philosophers were always present; the cast of characters and the themes were predominantly continental European, flavored on several occasions by the Canadian Charles Taylor. He kept himself informed of developments at Lublin, where his former philosophy department colleague Father Krapiec, now the rector, found a way around the communist regime’s academic regulations to name Wojtyla “Honorary Professor,” a title he held until his death. From a distance, he encouraged the work of a second successor generation of Polish philosophers including Fr. Andrzej Szostek, M.I.C., and Dr. Wojciech Chudy, whose habilitation thesis, “Philosophy in the Trap of Reflection” John Paul once called “the most important book in our ‘school'” in thirty years. What leisure time he allowed himself as pope was often filled by reading contemporary philosophy; he was particularly interested in the philosophers of dialogue, and was likely the only man in the world who read Emmanuel Levinas for fun.
As pope, Wojtyla signaled his ongoing concern about contemporary culture’s emphasis on instrumental reason in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis; he continued to develop that theme in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in his reflections on the foundational cultural requisites of the free and virtuous society. Seven years later, in September 1998, John Paul II issued Fides et Ratio, the highpoint of his magisterial reflection on the importance of philosophy in itself, for the Church and theology, and for human culture.
The encyclical was the first major papal statement on the relationship between faith and reason in almost one hundred twenty years. In 1870, the First Vatican Council had taught that human beings could know God’s existence through reason; Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, had proposed the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas as the model for a synthesis of faith and reason. But a lot had happened in the world since the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century — not least, philosophy’s drastically diminished confidence in its capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty.
In Fides et Ratio, John Paul called this philosophy’s “false modesty,” and suggested that it had prevented philosophy from probing the big questions — Why is there something rather than nothing? What is good and what is evil? What is happiness and what is delusion? What awaits me after this life? Philosophy’s true vocation was to be a servant of the truth; the contemporary discipline’s “false modesty” demeaned that vocation and helped open the door to a culture dominated by other forms of hubris — an instrumental view of other human beings, a false faith in technology, the triumph of the will-to-power — whose lethal effects had made the twentieth century into an abattoir. It was past time, John Paul argued, for philosophy to recover the sense of awe and wonder that directs it to transcendent truth. The alternative would be yet another century of tears.
Philosophy ordered to transcendent truth also remained crucial for religious believers, John Paul wrote. Ancient Greek philosophy had helped purge religion of superstition. The temptation to superstition is perennial, though, and sometimes takes the form of the claim that faith is not subject to rational analysis — which, in contemporary culture, means stressing faith as a matter of feeling and experience. Citing Augustine, John Paul flatly rejected such fideism: “Believing is nothing other than to think with assent….Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe….If faith does not think it is nothing.” In a twenty-first century destined to be heavily influenced by resurgent religious faith, this call to a reasonable faith, which found an important echo in Pope Benedict XVI’s September lecture at Regensburg and the recent response to it by thirty-eight senior Islamic leaders, looms large.
To postmodern theorists willing to allow religion a place at the table of intellectual life because religious truth is one possible truth among others, Fides et Ratio says, in effect, “No, thank you.” Unless thinking is open to what John Paul terms the “horizon of the ultimate,” it will inevitably turn in on itself and be locked in the prison of solipsism. The synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology in the patristic period taught a wiser lesson: human beings can know the true, the good, and the beautiful, even if we can never know them completely. Recovering that sense of confidence, John Paul asserted, is essential to creating a genuine humanism in the third millennium. The path to a wiser, nobler, more humane future thus runs through the wisdom of the first centuries of encounter between Jerusalem and Athens.
The separations of reason and faith, science and religion, philosophy and theology over the past several centuries have been caused by both philosophers and theologians, John Paul suggested. When theologians demean reason and philosophers deny the possibility of revelation, both are diminished, humanity is impoverished, and the development of a genuine humanism is frustrated. “Faith and reason,” John Paul wrote, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” and we can be sure that we will need to fly with both wings in the third millennium. The quest for truth is an instinct built into us. And the grandeur of the human person, the Pope concluded, is that we can choose “to enter the truth, to make a home under the shade of Wisdom and dwell there.”
That Fides et Ratio was issued amidst the celebrations of John Paul II’s twentieth anniversary as pope was entirely appropriate. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla had begun his pontificate with the clarion call, “Be not afraid!” Twenty years later, John Paul II continued to preach courage in Fides et Ratio. “Be not afraid of reason,” the encyclical proposed. Be not afraid of the truth. For the truth, dispelling delusions, will set humanity free in the deepest meaning of liberation. The pope of freedom, the pope of a new humanism, had remained faithful to a vision of human possibility and civilizational transformation which had been deepened by his fifty-year-long walk among the philosophers. Confounding the expectations of skeptics and enemies, he had made the Catholic Church the world’s premier institutional defender of human reason. Voltaire must have been spinning in his grave.
A Crisis and a Proposal
Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical project will be assessed by professional philosophers for centuries. All those who admire intellectual courage will remain impressed by his effort to bridge the gap that had been opened in the seventeenth century between the world we want to grasp and the intellectual processes through which we think about that world. Yet it should be emphasized that philosophy, however seriously he took it (and he took it very seriously indeed), was never an end-in-itself for Wojtyla. Wojtyla’s walk among the philosophers was an integral part of his life as priest and bishop. Leaving the professional assessment of his philosophical accomplishment to his philosophical peers, perhaps I can close with a biographer’s appreciation of the large ideas that Wojtyla’s philosophical work put into play in early twenty-first century culture.
His first achievement was to demonstrate that a “Law of the Gift” is, as he wrote in 1974, “inscribed deep within the dynamic structure of the person.” Which is to say that the “threshold of hope” (as he styled his international bestseller) was not so much ahead of us as above us, in the dramatic struggle to surrender the persons we are to the persons we are called to be. That struggle can only be resolved by self-giving; it cannot be resolved by self-absorption or by radical personal autonomy. Wojtyla’s demonstration and explication of the Law of the Gift can be engaged by anyone willing to work through a philosophical argument. Those who take the time and trouble to do so will discover a concept of goodness with traction, one that does not collapse into a mere “social construct.”
Wojtyla’s second achievement was a function of his extraordinarily wide range of interests. Wojtyla took his literary training and theatrical experience and married them to rigorous philosophical analysis in order to produce a picture of human life as inherently, “structurally” dramatic. We are not adrift in a cosmos without meaning. We are not the accidents of galactic biochemistry, nor is human history a by-product of the exhaust fumes generated by the means of production. As moral actors, we can become the protagonists, not the objects (or victims), of the drama of life. Wojtyla’s demonstration of these truths of the human condition had immense appeal to those living under totalitarian repression and led to new forms of political resistance. His demonstration of those truths should also be attractive to those oppressed by a sense of powerlessness rooted in nihilism.
Then there was utilitarianism. It is instructive that Wojtyla was dissecting Bentham in 1956-57, when Bentham could hardly have been a major figure in Polish intellectual circles. Somehow, Wojtyla had intuited that the western humanistic project faced dangers beyond and after communism. So, over the years, Wojtyla’s walk among the philosophers gave rise to his deep-reaching critique of a modern culture in which others are too often measured by their financial, social, political, or sexual utility; and he took that critique in a positive direction by his exploration of the claim that our relationship to truth, goodness, and beauty is the true stuff of our humanity. In doing so, Wojtyla showed that accepting the moral truth involved in the Law of the Gift is not a limit on our freedom or our creativity. Rather, truth makes us free and enables us to live our freedom toward its goal, which is happiness.
Rocco Buttiglione, an insightful commentator on Karol Wojtyla’s walk among the philosophers, once suggested that there is a “hidden theological tendency” in Wojtyla’s personalism. In Person and Act, his method was strictly philosophical; but the inspiration was Christian. It is in God the Holy Trinity, a “community” of self-giving “persons” who lose nothing of their uniqueness in their radical self-giving, that we see confirmed the Law of the Gift and the truth about freedom as freedom-for-self-donation. Thus Wojtyla’s philosophy, like every other aspect of his life, was touched by his ongoing dialogue with God in prayer — and that, too, may have something to say to contemporary philosophers.
Writing in Die Welt in 1982, the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas remembered that, even after the assassination attempt that came within a few millimeters of ending his life, John Paul II seemed a man utterly without fear. Why was that, Djilas asked? Father Tadeusz Styczen suggested an answer to me, recalling John Paul’s response to a question from André Frossard. The French journalist had asked the Pope what the most important word in the Gospel was. “Truth,” John Paul immediately said, for Christ had been born to bear witness to the truth, which was not a truth-for-Christians, but the truth of the world. Secure in that truth, and having deepened his understanding of the dynamics of the human apprehension of truth by his walk with the philosophers, Karol Wojtyla could be a man without fear — and could summon others to fearlessness. Here was a philosophical walk with consequences.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.