On the Relation of the Individual Person and the Family to Civil Society

by Henri Grenier


In the second half of the 20th century a shift took place in much Catholic social and political thought. Catholic social teaching in the ‘Pian Age’ had called for an integrally Christian society, a restoration of a pre-modern ideal of political community, which saw in political community the ‘likeness and symbol as it were of the Divine Majesty’ (Sapientiae Christianae, 9), a likeness which was itself to be subject to the social kingship of Christ. But then the focus shifted toward the duty of the political power to respect the inalienable dignity of individual persons. As Russell Hittinger has pointed out, the idea of seeing the likeness of God in political authority was practically abandoned, and instead much emphasis was put on the likeness of God in the individual person. In our view this shift was highly imprudent, and its effects have been mostly pernicious. It has led to an exaggerated value being put on individual freedom of conscience, and in many cases to a policy of appeasement toward liberal ideology. The promoters of this new approach to social questions thought that it would aid in the re-evangelization of culture, but most of the evidence suggests that they were wrong. As Christian Roy has argued, a ‘Weberian paradox of the heterogeneity of the spiritual intentions and social effects of religious reform movements’ took place, in which ‘progressive Christian personalism’ ‘unwittingly helped usher in’ a ‘drift towards hedonistic secular individualism.’

This ‘personalist’ shift, as we can call it, is often attributed to Vatican II (or even Centesimus Annus), but it began earlier as a response to the horrors of World War II. Jacques Maritain was a key figure in the early phase of the shift. Having been in favor of authoritarian restorationism early on he came to support a form of modified democratic liberalism. He wanted to find a third way between totalitarianism and individualistic liberalism. He thought he could find it by distinguishing between man as an individual, who is a part of the polity and ordered to it, and man as a person, who transcends political community through his direct relation to God.

Some Thomists saw danger in Maritain’s position. They argued that far from finding a third way between totalitarianism and individualism such a position really adopted their common error of seeing the common good as being opposed to the proper good of individuals. Personalism was thus really reducible to individualism. Moreover, taken to its logical conclusions, the position would yield an absurd and blasphemous notion of human dignity. The most famous of these Thomist critiques was Charles De Koninck’s masterful treatise On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists. De Koninck did not explicitly refer to Maritain, but his work was generally taken to be directed against Maritain and Maritain’s followers.

The text that we offer below is from another philosopher working in Quebec, Henri Grenier (Thomistic Philosophy, Vol 3: Moral Philosophy, pp. 363-373), and it offers a critique of personalism remarkably similar to De Koninck’s. It is likely that Grenier influenced De Koninck, since the substance of Grenier’s remark appeared already in a 1938 edition of his manual, that is, one published several years before De Koninck’s book. Like De Koninck, Grenier never gives the names of the ‘personalists,’ but it is even clearer in Grenier’s case than in De Koninck’s that Maritain is the target. Grenier’s summary of the personalist distinction between person and individual in 1091:3° is almost a quotation from Maritain. — The Editors


  1. Statement of the question.

1° The problem of the relations which unite individual persons and families to civil society is of utmost importance, for today there are many theories which do not recognize the natural rights of the individual person and of the family, and which regard the State as omnipotent and as possessing all rights over persons and families.

2° The problem has three aspects, which may be stated as follows:

First, admitting that civil society has a proper end which is a good, we may ask: have the individual person and the family, both of which live in society, proper ends distinct from the end of civil society?

Secondly, if they have proper ends, are these ends directed to the end of civil society, or vice versa?

Thirdly, if the ends of the individual person and of the famliy are directed to the end of civil society, is it their absolutely ultimate end?

3° In the thesis, first, we state that the individual person and the family have, according to the ordinance of nature, their own proper ends, distinct from the end of civil society. Moreover, since the order, i.e., the ordinance, of nature is the ordinance of God Himself, the author of nature, civil society may not disavow them, nor place any obstacle in the way of their attainment.

Secondly, we state the proper ends of the individual person and of the family are directed to the end of civil society, not vice versa. Moreover, since this order or relation of ends obtains in society, it is directly concerned with external acts by which men work for the common good, although indirectly it can be concerned with internal acts, in as much as the latter can regulate external acts.

Thirdly, we assert that the end of civil society is not the absolutely ultimate end to which the ends of the individual person and of the family are directed.

  1. Opinions.— There are various opinions on the relations of the individual person and the family to civil society.

1° All who conceive civil society as an organism, in the strict sense of the term, i.e., as an entity possessing absolute unity, not merely unity of order, do not admit that the individual person and the family have proper ends which are distinct from the end of civil society. For a part of a whole which is an absolute unit, v.g., a hand, which is a part of man, has no operation which is not the operation of the whole, and therefore has no end which is not the end of the whole.

Such was the teaching of Plato, who conceived society as a superior man.

The same conclusion is reached by the Caesarists, with Machiavelli, who proclaim the omnipotence of the State; by the Democrats, with Rousseau, who conceive the general will as the source of all rights, even of private rights; by the Pantheists, with Fichte, Schelling and Hegel; and by the Socialists, with Bebel, Wagner, and others.

2° All Pantheists and Naturalists hold that the end of civil society is man’s absolutely ultimate end.

According to the exponents of these opinions, individual men are dependent on the State for everything, because all their rights are derived solely from the concessions of the State.

A summary of these errors is found in the thirty-ninth sentence of the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX: Reipublicae status, utpote omnium jurium origo et fons, jure quodam pollet nullis circumscripto limitibus.

3° Today, some Catholics teach that it is not as a person, i.e., as formally an individual substance of a rational nature, but as an individual, i.e., as multiplied in the same species, that man is subordinate to the end of civil society; for man, they say, is subordinate to the end of civil society, because he is related to civil society as the part to the whole ; but man is not a part of a whole, v.g., of the human species, because of his personality, but because of his individuation by which he is multiplied in the same species.

But this opinion appears untenable, because society is essentially a union of persons, i.e., of intelligible beings. If this were not so, a union of individual horses, or cows, or bears, etc., would be a society.

 

  1. Statement of the thesis.
    THESIS.
    — THE INDIVIDUAL PERSON AND THE FAMILY IN CIVIL SOCIETY HAVE, ACCORDING TO THE ORDINANCE OF NATURE, THEIR OWN PROPER ENDS; AND THESE ENDS ARE DIRECTED TO THE END OF CIVIL SOCIETY, BUT NOT UNDER THE ASPECT OF THE ABSOLUTELY ULTIMATE END.

First part.The individual person and the family have according to the ordinance of nature, their own proper ends.— The parts of a whole which have operations distinct from the operations of the whole have, according to the ordinance of nature, ends which are not the ends of the whole, i.e., have their own proper ends. But the individual person and the family are in civil society as the parts of a whole, and have operations which are not the operations of the whole. Therefore the individual and the family in civil society have, according to the ordinance of nature, their own proper ends.

Major.— Operation is an end in itself, or tends to a proper end. Therefore, when operations are distinct, ends also are distinct.

Minor.— The parts of a whole which has only unity of order have operations which are not the operations of the whole; v.g., a soldier in an army has operations which are not the operations of the whole army.[1] But civil society, of which the individual person and the family are parts, is a whole which has only unity of order: society is a stable union of a plurality of persons in pursuit of a common good. Therefore.

Second part.The proper ends of the individual person and of the family are directed to the end of civil society.— The individual person and the family are to civil society as the parts to the whole: the individual person and the family are the natural parts from which the whole which is civil society results. But the ends of the parts are directed to the end of the whole. Therefore the proper ends of the individual and of the family are directed to the end of civil society.

The major is evident, for civil society is composed of individual persons and of families.

The minor also is evident: the good of the part, as a part, is necessarily directed the good of the whole.[2]

Third part.The proper ends of the individual person and of the family are not directed to the end of civil society under the aspect of the absolutely ultimate end.— The end of civil society is the temporal happiness of this life. But the temporal happiness of this life is not man’s absolutely ultimate end. Therefore the end of civil society is not the absolutely ultimate end of the individual person and of the family, i.e., the proper ends of the individual person and of the family are not directed to the end of civil society under the aspect of the absolutely ultimate end.

The major is evident from what has been already said.

Minor.— Man’s absolutely ultimate end is the beatific vision, for which man is supernaturally elevated in accordance with the positive ordinance of God.[3]

 

  1. Scholia.

1° The civil authority, or the State, as it is called, has no right to refuse recognition to the proper ends determined by nature for the individual person and for the family, nor has it any right to limit them. On the contrary, the civil authority is in duty bound to aid the individual person and the family in the attainment of their proper ends, for these ends, as directed to the common good of society, lead to that temporal happiness which is the end of civil society.

2° The virtue by which the good of the individual person and of the family is directed to the end of civil society is legal justice.

In virtue of legal justice, citizens are mutually dependent on one another in regard to their end. Moderns call this mutual dependence solidarism, which, according to them, is divided into human political, family, and class solidarism.

In dealing with this division, two things must be kept in mind: first, up to the present, humanity is not constituted as a society; secondly, solidarism is not applied univocally to the different kinds of society.

Solidarism, in the strict sense, is found only in civil society, for civil society is the only society whose end is a good which, in the order of nature, is a perfect human good; and therefore only in it is realized, in the strict sense, legal justice by which man is wholly directed to the common good.

In other particular societies, there obtains between the members and the whole a relation only similar to the relation of legal justice, because the good which they pursue is not a perfect good, but rather an imperfect good. Therefore it is only by analogy that solidarism is found in them.

3° Although individual man is destined for civil society, society is for man, and not vice versa,[4] because its proper and immediate end is the temporal happiness of this life, which is the good of man. The temporal happiness of this life is directly the common good of the whole multitude, although, as a consequence, it becomes the good of individual men who appropriate it to themselves.

4° Society, under its formal aspect as a union, may be called the means by which man attains the temporal happiness of this life.[5] Society, however, considered as the union of all the members of the multitude for the pursuit of the common good, is not the means, but the cause by which individual man can attain the temporal happiness of this life: for the united members of the whole multitude are the cause of that happiness which individual men later appropriate to themselves.

5° According to Pius XI,[6] the following are the principal goods or rights with which God, the author of nature, has endowed individual man living in society: the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to whatever is necessary for life; the right to pursue his ultimate end in the manner determined for him by God; the rights of association and of the private ownership and use of property.

The proper ends of the family are the procreation and education of offspring, the mutual aid of the spouses, and the allaying of concupiscence. Hence the family, in accordance with the ordinance of nature, has the right to all things necessary for the attainment of these ends, as are the indissolubility and unity of marriage, its own authority and power of determining the means to attain its ends, without violation, however, of its subordination to civil society.

 

  1. Personalism.

1° Personalism is the teaching of those who, in order to safeguard the dignity of the human person, hold that the end of man, as a person, is superior to the end of civil society. Hence personalism denies that the proper ends of individual man are, as we have shown, directed to the end of civil society.

2° All Catholic philosophers hold that the supernatural end of the human person is not subordinate to the end of civil society. The problem with which we are concerned at present is the relation between the ends of the individual person and the end of civil society, in the natural order only.

3° Personalism holds that man may be considered either as an individual or as a person.

Man, considered as an individual, is, according to personalism, a part of civil society, and is related to it as the part to the whole.

But man, considered as a person, is superior to civil society, and is not related to it as the part to the whole. Therefore the ends of the individual man, in as much as the individual man is a person, i.e., has the dignity of a person, are not subordinate to the end of civil society.

Hence personalism may be defined: the doctrine of those who hold that the ends of the individual man, in as much as the individual man has the dignity of a person, are not subordinate, in the natural order, to the end of civil society, but vice versa.

4° In refutation of personalism, we may make the following observations.

a) The distinction which the personalists make between the individual and the person is of no value in the present question.

For the individual, considered as distinct from nature, can mean only one of two things: either a singular nature without subsistence; or a subsisting supposit in general,[7] not a supposit subsisting in a rational nature.

If the individual signifies a singular nature without subsistence, it is wrong to say that man, as an individual, is a part of civil society. For society is a stable union of men in the order of operation, and, moreover, operations are proper to the supposit, i.e., to the subsisting being, not to nature without subsistence.

If the individual means a supposit in general, it is again wrong to say that man, as an individual, is a part of civil society, for otherwise, as we have already pointed out, a union of irrational animals would be a society. The individual man is formally a part of civil society in as much as he is endowed with an intellect, i.e., as he is a person.

b) The end of civil society is the greatest of all human goods. Hence the subordination of the individual person to civil society, as the part to the whole, is not at variance with the dignity of the human person, but is a subordination of the human person to the human person’s greatest natural good, i.e., to the temporal happiness of this life.

c) Personalism is a form of individualism, because it makes the common good subordinate to the good of the individual person.

  1. Difficulties offered by personalism.

1° Man is related to civil society as the part to the whole. But man is not a part of a whole as a person, but as an individual: for the principle by which man is multiplied in the same species is not personality, but the principle of individuation. Therefore man is not a part of civil society as a person, but as an individual, i.e., it in as an individual that man is subordinate to society. (So teach the Personalists.)

Major.— As the part to the whole in the order of being, I deny; in the order of operation, I concede.

Minor.— It is not as a person, but as an individual, that man is a part of a whole in the order of being, I concede; in that order of operation which constitutes society, I deny.

Society, as we have seen, is not a union of a plurality in the order of being, but in the order of operation, for society is a union of men for the pursuit of a common good; and, since operation is proper to the supposit, it is formally as a person that man is a part of society, and therefore it is as a person, not as an individual, than man is subordinate to the end of society.

The principle of individuation, i.e., first matter signed by quantity, is the principle by which man is multiplied in a whole, that is to say, in the same species, in the order of being.

2° If the person is immediately destined for God, man as a person is not destined for society. But man is immediately destined for God.[8] Therefore man as a person is not destined for society. (So claim the Personalists).

Major.— If the person is immediately destined for God, in as much as he, as living in society, does not attain God, I concede; in as much as the person is not destined for another creature, as the irrational animal is destined for man, I deny.

Minor.— In as much as he, as living in society, does not attain God, I deny; in as much as he is not destined for another creature, as the irrational animal is destined for man, I concede.

3° If as a person man were destined for ciyil society, all that he is and all that he possesses would be destined for civil society. But all that man is and all that he possesses are not destined for civil society.[9] Therefore man, as a person, is not destined for civil society.

Major.— All that man is and all he possesses would be destined for society if the end of civil society were the absolutely ultimate end of human acts, I concede; if the end of civil society is ultimate only in its own order, in as much as it is the greatest of all human goods, I deny.

Minor.— Because the end of civil society is not the absolutely ultimate end of human acts, I concede; because man, as an individual person, is not destined for civil society, as the part to the whole, I deny.

The absolutely ultimate end of human acts is a divine good, i.e., the beatific vision; and the end of civil society, which is temporal happiness, is the ultimate end of human acts only in the order of human goods. Hence the end of civil society itself must be destined for a divine good. Hence all that man is and all that he possesses are not destined for civil society, but for a higher good.

4° That which has substantial unity is superior to that which has only accidental unity. But the individual person has substantial unity, whereas civil society has only accidental unity, i.e., unity of order. Therefore the individual person is superior to civil society, and is not related to it as the part to the whole.

Major.— As a being, I concede; as a good, I deny.

Minor.— The private good of the individual person is superior to the common good, I deny; is inferior, I concede.

Goodness and being, though identical in reality, are logically distinct, i.e., distinct by a distinction of reason; and, moreover, absolute being in not absolute goodness, whereas absolute, goodness is relative being (n. 533). Therefore the common good of persons united in society is greater than the private good of the individual person.


NOTES

[1] In Ethic. l. I, l. 1, n. 5

[2] I-II, q. 109, a. 3, c.

[3] Cf. In Politic., l. VII, 1. 2.

[4] Divini Redemptoris, n. 29.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibid, n. 28.

[7] Et dico superfluum non solum respectu sui ipsius, quod est supra id quod est necessarium individuo, sed etiam respectu aliorum quorum cura ei incumbit; respectu quorum dicitur necessarium personae, secundum quod persona dignitatem importat.— II-II, q. 32, a. 5, c.

[8] Sola autem natura rationalis creata habet immediatum ordinem ad Deum; quia caetera creaturae non attingunt ad aliquid universale, sed solum ad aliquid particulare, participantes divinam bonitatem vel in essendo tantum, sicut inanimata, vel etiam in vivendo et cognoscendo singularia, sicut plantae et animalia. Natura autem rationalis, inquantum cognoscit universalem boni et entis rationem, habet immediatum ordinem ad universale essendi principium.— II-II, q. 2, a. 3.

[9] I-II, q. 21, a. 4, ad 3.