The Family and the root of sociability

Maritain on “root generosity” of being

For all of the incisive arguments made by Aristotle for “man as political animal,” he did not quite reach the root cause. He had the notion of a common good and applied the notion of friendship to political life. He did not make explicit the theme of generosity and gift. If we recap the three arguments – the city completes the family, a natural association; the city reveals man as a rational animal, with a capacity for deliberation and justice; the city is a whole that develops the individual as a part. But each of these arguments seems to turn more on the necessity of social and political association and indicates the neediness of human nature. Let’s consider a very insightful paragraph from Jacques Maritain’s Person and the Common Good:

But why is it that the person, as person, seeks to live in society? It does so, first, because of its very perfections, as person, and its inner urge to the communications of knowledge and love, which require relationship with other persons. In its radical generosity, the human person tends to overflow into social communications in response to the law of superabundance inscribed in the depths of being, life, intelligence and love. It does so secondly because of its needs or deficiencies, which derive from its material individuality. In this respect, unless it is integrated in a body of social communications, it cannot attain the fullness of its life and accomplishment. Society appears, therefore, to provide the human person with just those conditions of existence and development which it needs. It is not by itself alone that it reaches its plenitude but by receiving essential goods from society.

The second reason, from “needs or deficiencies,” takes into account the thrust of Aristotle’s argument in Politics. The acquisition of virtue, the maintenance of life and the cultivation of the good life, the role of law and deliberation about common advantage indicate the complex conditions needed for human flourishing. The human being is dependent on his fellows for the conditions of liberty, virtue, and overall development as a human. But did Aristotle, or Plato for that matter, thematize nor make explicit the “radical generosity” of the human person? If they acknowledge radical generosity, why would the slaves, the mechanics, and most of mankind be excluded from community? 

To explain the “root generosity” as a reason for sociability, my teacher at Notre Dame (1972), Joe Evans, expressed Maritain’s insight this way: “inscribed in his very ontological structure man seeks to super-abundance and super-existence.” The common good is rooted in the human capacity for communion with others in knowledge and truth. Maritain begins to make thematic the philosophy of “gift”: “Through love he can give himself freely to beings who are to him, as it were, other selves; and for this relationship no equivalent can be found in the physical world.”  

John Paul II finds the best formulation in Gaudium et spes:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. §24

The fundamental principle for human dignity is that God created each person for itself, or as an end in itself. This does not provide an endorsement of moral powers for the underwriting of human autonomy. It is rather an affirmation of human dignity in light of the person’s eternal destiny. But John Paul provides a more experiential basis for this understanding of human dignity in light of the family and the communion of persons. The family establishes an area of personal affirmation and understanding of the individual in his or her uniqueness and “unrepeatability”: “The family is the place in which each human being appears in his or her own uniqueness and unrepeatability.” 
The family therefore defies the intelligible as form and as universal precisely in its very reality as individuals in relation; and so its meaning will escape the philosopher.  The role and importance of the family comes up at the point of birth and death. They are potentially no more than a statistic for all but the family. The reality of the family emerges between a theological proposition (each is willed for his or her own sake) and an everyday or commonplace truth (the family embraces each member in his or her uniqueness and unrepeatability). We touch upon the mystery of the human person in birth and death.  But between dogmatic assertion and what may be taken as no more than sentimental platitude, Wojtyla asks us to delve deeper into the mystery of family life. The dynamic reality of marriage of spouses possesses significance greater than the “pairing of male and female” for the generation of new life in twilight of passion and convenience (a la Aristotle Politics I.2). It reveals the human capacity of personal gift and energizes the root of all human society. Wojtyla says that humans are “like unto God” by reason of their capacity for community with other persons. Yet we have to go deeper than “unit of social life”:

If we were to say that the actualization of this capacity and the confirmation of this truth about human beings is social life, this would be true, but it still would not capture the full depth that is proper and specific to this truth. Likewise, it would also be true to say that the family is a society, the smallest unit, but this would still not tell us much about the family and would fall short of the full ontological depth that we ought to discover and accentuate here.

Wojtyla will state the social is a point of arrival, rather than his point of departure (as it is for Aristotle). His point of departure is the person and the “structure proper to a person.” The structure or dynamism is self-possession and self-giving. “If the gift of oneself characterizes human activity, human conduct, it does so always because of this personal esse, which is capable of a disinterested gift of oneself.” (Karol Wojtyla, Person and community, pp. 318-319) The human “social nature” derives from the capacity for “rational community as communio”: the two “mutually contain and somehow imply one another.” But communio is deeper than social nature, and is “far more indicative of the personal and interpersonal dimension of all social systems.” (319)
The communio of persons requires the disinterested gift of self and the reception of the gift. Marriage is the perfect realization of the communio as a mode of being – for the “nature of a community of persons demands that this gift be not only given but also received in the whole of its truth and authenticity.” (322) That is there must be a “genuine reception” of the gift or the “act through which the gift of the person is expressed.” Marriage requires the mutual giving and reception of the gift of self over the course of a lifetime (until death do us part) and the exclusive commitment in totality of the self. Wojtyla thus coins the term a “theology of the body” to account for the significance of the sexually differentiated male and female as being most apt for communio and for the generation of new life, as an expansion of the communio personarum. Marriage as a communio personarum is “by nature open to these new persons, and through them it attains its proper fullness, nit just in the biological or sociological sense, but precisely as a community with a truly communal character, a community that exists and acts on the basis of the bestowal of humanity and the mutual exchange of gifts.”
This phenomenological analysis reaches the authentic root of human sociability. It is not reducible to any of the Aristotle’s concepts, and it is capable of solving the Platonic question concerning the guardian. Aristotle would reduce the family to the natural play of passion or the biological — either the achievement of the species in its endurance (no small thing) or to the neediness of passion and convenience (not at all evil aspects of sexuality and family, but not distinctively or essentially personal). Or Aristotle absorbs the family into the forms and purposes of the city as such with the result that a utilitarian approach overtakes the family in its readiness to serve the city. Wojtyla presents a deeper analysis to underscore the dignity of the person and the dynamic reality of self-giving, the radical generosity as the second aspect of human sociability, complementary to neediness.
The family does indeed feed the city primarily through the inner or spiritual formation of the person. John Paul II succinctly explains this in Familiaris consortio: “The family has vital and organic s with society, since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life: it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.” §42 The animating principle of society he calls the “law of free-giving.” He explains how vital is the family in embodying and perpetuating the principle of society: “by respecting and fostering personal dignity in each and every one as the only basis for value, this free giving takes the form of heartfelt acceptance, encounter and dialogue, disinterested availability, generous service and deep solidarity.” The higher values of society, such as justice, are rooted in the family communion of persons which continues to serve as an “example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love.” 
Maritain recognizes the importance of personal life, as developed through family, as a basis for political life – “it is understandable that society cannot live without the perpetual gifts which come from persons, each one of whom is irreplaceable and incommunicable” even though society may well treat persons as replaceable. It is the “law of free giving.” De Koninck, although he is arguing a different point, similarly says “that society is very corrupt which cannot appeal to the love of the arduous common good and to the higher fortitude of the citizen as citizen for the defense of this good.” (The Writings of Charles De Koninck, vol 2, p. 81) No need for a “noble lie.” We need generous families, steeped in the philosophy of the gift.


Join us!

* indicates required