Meaning in Mounier

Emmanuel Mounier

“…the self no longer coincides with [a] single dominant voice: That voice… is not complete but limited, merely one voice among many. That we are all made up of many conflicting voices — in effect, others — [and]… free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” — Flannery O’Connor

“Other persons do not limit [the person]… they enable it to be and to grow. The person only exists thus towards others, it only knows itself in knowing others, only finds itself in being known by them.” – Emmanuel Mounier

“The kind of radical transformation that Martin Luther King talked about is not discussed in any secular “progressive” quarters these days.” — Richard Martin Oxman

There is little doubt that Character of Man is a major work of a man who must be considered “one of the really great men of our time.” That laudatory line about Emmanuel Mounier — spotlighted on the jacket of the original publication — who was born in 1905 and died in 1950 is spot on. The praise is well-deserved, and proactive concerned citizens should read and heed his words.

Mounier, a favorite author of Flannery O’Connor — attacked what he called individualism. What, he felt, absorbed modern society to distraction. Distraction from what was, ultimately, most important. Our solipsistic modern mind’s turn inward made him recoil in disgust and sadness. The badness embedded in our lives… he bade us to be free of, as it brought about — he was absolutely convinced — destructive isolation and spiritual barrenness. What MLK ranted about in his final days, what Gandhi raved about during his best years, what we all see unfolding in not-so-very slow motion these days. In horror.

In his Personalism, Mounier wrote about how individualism is a system of morals, feelings, ideas and institutions in which individual citizens can be organized by their mutual isolation and defense. He underscored that this was the ideology and the prevailing structure of Western bourgeois society in the 18th and 19th centuries…during the times of so-called revolutionary activity. Certainly, activists never seem to tire of referencing the lessons to be drawn from those eras, incessantly pointing out the errors we must learn from, the drumbeats they insist we must march to if we want to bring about something… new.

But it won’t do, that thinking. It never did, truth be told.

“Man in the abstract, unattached to any natural community, the sovereign lord of a liberty unlimited and undirected; turning towards others with a primary mistrust, calculation and self-vindication; institutions restricted to the assurance that these egoisms should not encroach upon one another, or to their betterment as a purely profitmaking association — such is the rule of civilization now breaking up before our eyes,one of the poorest has known.”

That’s Mournier mourning.

Those fighting the so-called “good fight” these days really need to heed his words of wisdom. Most fundamental is the necessity of the self to decentralize — that is, to detach the self from itself. Self-dispossession shatters a person’s ego-centrism, thereby placing the person in a position to authentically open to honest and loving interaction and communication with others.

Career politicians are generally incapable of that, it seems. But the same holds true for those trying to move them around like so many chess pieces on an uneven, toxic board which they, understandably, object to, and want to change. [Pause.] I’m saying that both politicos and protesters share a common trait in these spiritually-empty times of ours. Are both guilty, complicit in contributing to the collective spiritual downside… which deepens daily.

Meaningful communication that leads to new levels of self-awareness and understanding occurs only when a person’s detachment from the self is so complete that the person can view that self from the standpoint of others.

Understanding, writes Mounier, “is ceasing to see myself from my own point of view…. Not looking for myself in someone else chosen for his likeness to me, nor seeking to know another according to some general knowledge (a taste for psychology is not an interest in other persons) but accepting his singularity with my own, in an action that welcomes him, and in an effort that re-centers myself.”

We never think alone, is the point. Must not, though that’s what we do, isn’t it? We must never think alone, he says. We need to jump outside of ourselves in ways we’re not doing at present.

The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts or spurs one on, be it spouse, stranger, fictional character encountered or real-life opposition. This inner debate, however complicated and prolonged — it may last a lifetime! — is quite different from rumination, introspection, realistic thought. Its coherence is comprised of social encounters and solid experience, but made possible only if the interior habit which guides one’s outlook is the function of a radically different spiritual transformation (bursting out of the confines of modern society, post-modern society) which is almost impossible to embrace today… given the undeserved respect we give to logical positivists.

Activists pride themselves on acting differently than the evil forces they battle, but, fact is, on both sides of the fence one finds folks to be victims of a spiritually-empty “personalistic norm” (a term coined by Karol Wojtyla). Self-importance prevails. Some say that the “personalism” of Mounier can easily lead one to riff with fascism, and so the Christian personalism of a past pontiff might be worth taking in at this point, as I conclude my condensed treatment of a terrifying theological notion (“terrifying” because it requires a truly radical transformation to embrace):

“This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”

Who treats who as an object these days? Just about everyone, yes? That’s why there’s a dire need for a radical transformation of consciousness, of society.

Well-meaning activists engaged in recruiting others as part of the critical mass they intend to make possible — submitting petitions, securing financing or votes or setting up successful marches with numbers — need to acknowledge that they share the same air as their opposition does, and that they’re behaving quite the same.

The game needs to become radically religious in a sense that’s not understood by most today, in or outside of religious circles. Certainly, not practiced by those who think of human beings as… numbers. And in and outside of prison walls people know they’re being related to — viscerally, always — as a dumb number.

Perhaps the most we can do at this juncture — the best thing? — is to try to wrest some meaning out of Mounier. He has a lot to say to us.

Marcel Duchamp Oxman can be reached at [email protected]. Here the author tactfully recommends Mounier in the midst of a “modernity” which arrogantly precludes any serious discussion of a diety for many. For starters.


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