Is there a sustaining philosophy for idealistic young adults? Is there a creative path that cuts through the inanity of social media, of most TV programming, of the self-help industry? Is there a comprehensive outlook that resists cynicism and resentment? Is it possible to access a fountain of inspiration while maintaining a busy work schedule and keeping up with family obligations?
World War I ended in 1918, only to be followed by the Great Depression which began in 1929. In the wake of these major traumas, idealistic young adults seriously probed the meaning or lack thereof in the feverishness of modern progress. Could it be that the promise of plenty necessarily results in the opposite? In grappling with these and similar questions, a cadre of young adults in Paris and elsewhere constructed a philosophy they called personalism. Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) was its initial leader; the literary journal Espirit (www.espirit.presse.fr) was its main organ. In addition to Mounier, other personalists included Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). A young actor and seminarian in Poland, today known as St. John Paul II (1920-2005), contributed to Espirit. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), sociologist and leader in the Reformed Church, can likewise be considered a personalist.
Liberty is a marvelous modern achievement. Personalists, however, make a distinction between a solitary individual and a relational person, between liberty from and liberty for. One’s future is not predetermined by nor subordinate to one’s family of origin or by one’s caste. But the modern celebration of autonomy cannot mean an absolute defense of individual privileges. A person naturally self-actualizes within relationships, personalists say.
The secret is involvement absolutely combined with a spiritual element, the personalists say. Don’t expect a fully formed spiritual life to come first, however. “The first step in the spiritual revolution is the economic and political revolution,” Mounier writes. The material world has to be reformed in a way that allows distressed people “to find their way towards things spiritual.”
Peter Maurin (1877-1949) brought personalism to the United States from France. He was a co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a chain of 174 hospitality communities in the United States, plus some overseas. Several publish a newspaper. The flagship publication is titled The Catholic Worker (www.catholicworker.org). The Houston Catholic Worker (www.cjd.org) is particularly good.
Some organic community organizations in our country, though maybe unaware of its influence, are promoting the basics of personalism. They stress one-to-one encounters prior to any public policy topic or any grievance. The bigness of the state and of industry is not a solution, a personalist group maintains. Local action is essential. Then reflection, or what Maurin called “clarification of thought,” must follow.
Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)