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St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274 AD)

The Change in Man's Self-understanding

by Charles Davis

Chapter 2 from A Question of Conscience Hodder & Stoughton, 1967 pg 192-197

I HAVE said that there has been a change in man's self-understanding. This change can be designated as a shift from a concept of a fixed human nature to that of a person in the process of becoming himself in freedom.

The question here is not whether, philosophically speaking, the concept of human nature is a valid one. It is whether man understands what he is as man, his human nature, as a static reality, already complete, with its limits already definitively formulated. According to this understanding of man, human nature is always the same and any change is only an incidental modification introduced to meet merely incidental differences in the circumstances in which men are placed.

This view of man corresponded to the general understanding of reality as a hierarchically ordered cosmos. The world was static, not in the sense of motionless, but in so far as it remained in essentially the same state, with the same realities permanently ordered in the same graded relationships. Society was brought under the same pattern, with a similar hierarchy of orders, culminating in a sacred or divinely sanctioned ruler.

We have now become accustomed to an evolutionary view of the world and the idea of a mobile society. Just as important, perhaps more fundamental, is the shift in the understanding of man himself.

Men have now an historical consciousness. This means more than an awareness of history. It means that men are aware of themselves as historical beings, becoming what they are only in an historical unfolding. Men do not exist as ready-made persons; they become themselves only through a process of development. And the virtualities of human nature come to light only through the historical process. Historical consciousness is an awareness of becoming as the mode of being proper to men, whether individually or socially. There is a history of each person, but this individual history can be understood only within the context of history in the more usual, social sense. Each person becomes himself only in relation. to others and in a wider historical setting. His becoming is socially and historically conditioned. Through and through, whether on the individual or social level, historicity marks the being of man.

But the inadequacy of the concept of a fixed human nature is not simply that it ignored man's historicity, but that, in considering man primarily in terms of substance, it prescinded from what was most distinctive of man, namely that man was a conscious subject, intelligent and free.(1)

As a person, a man is an intelligently conscious subject. Not that we should fall into a false spiritualism. Man's intelligence is an embodied intelligence, and as a person man exists and develops only in relation with other persons, a relation achieved bodily, notably in language. Nevertheless, what distinguishes man as a person is his being as an intelligent subject, namely as a self with that kind of consciousness specific to intelligent and free activity.

When we consider man, not just as a substance, but as a subject or conscious self, we find that he exists only in a continuous process of becoming. Man's intelligence begins as a mere potentiality. When it has emerged into full activity, it remains an open, restless dynamism, so that man is constantly growing, though indeed with much struggle and effort, in understanding and knowledge. Further, only through a slow maturation does a man achieve a genuinely personal freedom, and even in maturity there is always need to widen the range and strengthen the effectiveness of self-possession and personal decision. In other words, man only slowly becomes truly himself and emerges as a person, not just a thing.

A man has to take charge of his own becoming. From the beginning of his life, a person is developing, physically, intellectually, and with growing freedom; but a critical point is reached when the man recognizes that he must direct that process, determine what he wants to become, decide the kind of person he is going to be, so that he begins to make himself. Clearly he can do this only within limits. He is restricted by his background and situation, by his talents and capabilities, by his physical make-up and emotional temperament and by the lasting effect of some of the decisions he has already taken. But the essential condition for being truly himself is to make his becoming his own in the sense of deliberately guiding it. And experience shows that it is unwise to be too definite about the factors limiting development. Men have sometimes achieved the seemingly impossible when they have taken a radical decision about themselves and guided their personal development in a chosen direction, prudently assessing but then resolutely overcoming the obstacles that block the way. But the chief point here is not the obvious fact of limitations and difficulties in the development of every person, but the truth that to be fully a person, a man must make his becoming truly his own, take in hand his own growth as a free and intelligent subject or self and begin deliberately to make himself as a person.

In brief, the shift from the concept of a fixed human nature is the discovery of the person as a freely self-constituting or self-creative conscious subject.
In making himself man also makes his world. The world of each person as an intelligent subject is the extent of intelligently appreciated meaning; in short, all that lies within the horizon of his vision as an intelligent and knowing subject. And within that world a man exercises his freedom. Each man, however, makes his world in collaboration with other men and acting within a social context.
But the human world is not simply a world of discovered meaning, of meaning already there but unveiled by man's intelligence. The properly human world is the world of freely created meaning. Men create meaning and thus establish a distinctively human world. When an individual assumes responsibility for his own development and through personal decisions orders his life in a particular fashion, he is creating meaning. His style or manner of life has meaning, but in being meaningful belongs to the world of 'freely created meaning. Likewise, men in collaboration freely establish meaningful relationships and institutions. A law court, a university, a parliament: these and similar human institutions are instances of freely created meaning.
Community at the distinctively human level belongs to the world, of meaning freely created by man. Granted the physical and emotional basis of human togetherness and social life at its more primitive levels, human community as such comes into existence as the product of men's intelligent activity, penetrating their social life with meaning, establishing complex and meaningful social relationships and embodying these in freely created social structures and institutions. Human community is the world of freely constituted meaning in so far as that world is socially created and socially embodied.
Men, therefore, as persons, that is as free and intelligently conscious subjects, have their being only in a continuous becoming. This becoming, however, takes place only in and through a relation with others. It is a common becoming, both social and historical. More- over, to be fully a person, each individual must take responsibility for his own becoming and make it truly his own. And men together must assume responsibility for their common becoming. In doing so, both individually and collectively, they create the world of freely constituted meaning. To that world belongs community in the distinctively human sense.
The fundamental condition for man's personal and social development when understood in this way is freedom. Men need it to become themselves. Without freedom they cannot do so. A few remarks on freedom are therefore required. Typical of the modern consciousness is the stress upon freedom.
We may distinguish essential freedom and effective freedom.(2) Essential freedom is the dynamic structure found in man enabling him to make free decisions; in that sense all men as men are endowed with freedom. Effective freedom is the actual operational range of that dynamic structure. This varies. Effective freedom is subject to many limitations, both external and internal. What a man can freely do may be severely restricted by economic necessity. Likewise, a man's freedom may be greatly curtailed by psychological determinisms.
In general, effective freedom has to be won. A liberation is always needed. The liberation that leads to effective freedom is both interior and exterior
Interiorly, liberation coincides with the development of the person as I have already described it. Each person must take possession of himself and become a freely self-constituting subject. This is not easy. It demands a knowledge of self, the overcoming of fear and insecurity, and objectivity that counteracts intellectual and emotional distortions, a disciplined willingness to act in accord with one's considered judgement rather than on the impulse of the moment: in short, an ability to judge objectively, to decide firmly even in a radical manner, and to execute the decisions made, The critical point in interior liberation is the assumption of responsibility for one's own becoming. But interior liberation is an endless process; we have constantly to strive to widen the range of our effective freedom.
However, just as individual development takes place only within a social context and as part of a common becoming, so, too, interior freedom requires exterior freedom for its achievement. Exterior freedom consists in those conditions that enable people to be and become themselves, that allow them to express their ideas outwardly and execute their decisions, that release them from oppressive threats and methods of persuasion which induce fantasy fears and play upon their emotional insecurity, and finally that guide them with truth and do not deceive them by half-truths or falsehood.
The growth of interior freedom is dependent upon exterior freedom. Man is a social being. It is false to make light of exterior unfreedom on the grounds that interior freedom is what counts. A man cannot reach interior freedom without some degree of exterior freedom. Whenever we find men who gain sufficient interior freedom to struggle against external oppression, there is something in their background and situation which has enabled them to win their interior liberation. A child does not first learn to think and then afterwards to talk.

It first learns to talk or think aloud, and then afterwards to think without voicing its thought. Similarly, men do not first gain interior freedom and then strive to establish conditions of exterior freedom. Through exterior freedom they learn to become interiorly free. This indeed means that exterior freedom must not be conceived in a purely negative manner. It must include conditions that positively help people towards liberation. Among these conditions is authority, but authority understood as a creative and formative truthful guidance at the service of freedom both individual and social and adapted to the actual needs of men. People who objected to my leaving the Church on the ground that, interiorly free, I should have worked for a greater freedom within the Church miss the point. I acted on the conviction that I could gain my interior freedom only by breaking out of the unfree system of the Roman Catholic Church. Others may be differently placed. But as a general principle it is true that exterior unfreedom causes interior unfreedom in all but exceptional cases. I was exceptional in gaining sufficient interior freedom to leave, but I could not have remained without relinquishing the little freedom I had attained and retreating into interior unfreedom.

I have spoken of freedom in terms of making free decisions. This is in fact the manner in which man's freedom operates. But such freedom is subordinate to freedom in the deeper sense of personal and social expansion. The dynamism of man is towards truth and love. Men are striving for greater truth and greater love and for the embodiment of these in personal life and human community. The choice of one possible course of action will exclude or restrict the choice of other possibilities. This limitation upon freedom of choice or decision is not a restriction upon freedom in the deeper sense of a personal and social expansion towards truth and love. Thus, the decision to commit oneself for life to a partner in marriage is a restriction upon one's choice of other partners, but it opens the way for the kind of personal expansion attainable only through such a life-long exclusive relationship. The promiscuous person is less free. Not only is he excluding the choice of a deep personal commitment to a partner in marriage, but in doing so he is blocking the personal expansion that it brings. Likewise, the restrictions upon individual choice which are involved in social existence do not hamper freedom in the deeper sense if they are grounded upon the needs of a common becoming and a social expansion towards truth and love. Nevertheless, without the freedom of men, individually and collectively, to decide the direction of their lives and to assume responsibility for their becoming, there is no properly human development. Freedom of choice may not be ultimate, but it is the operational structure of human freedom.
The account I have given of freedom concludes my outline of the change in man's self-understanding. It enables us to see the general objection of modern men to the Church. The modern rebellion against the Church is the determination of men to be themselves. They want freedom to become themselves, and with some reason they are convinced that the Church would refuse this freedom if it could. Almost every step along the way of the development of modern man and his world has been opposed by the Church. But men have succeeded in throwing off the crippling shackles of an obsolete Church. And they will no longer tolerate the ecclesiastical refusal to allow human beings to grow and be themselves. Churchmen may thunder about modern licence. Ordinary people know well enough that what they are trying to do is simply to find themselves and attain the development appropriate to them as adult human beings. They do indeed make mistakes as they seek to direct their own becoming, but such mistakes are preferable to being kept in an infantile state by ecclesiastical interference and to finding the path to personal and social expansion blocked by the dictates of ecclesiastical authority. The Church gives the impression of wanting to hold men in a state of heteronomy, denying them their autonomy because this 'would disturb the status quo and call into question much that has previously been' regarded as unchangeable. In its present social structure the Church is unable to allow a consistent acceptance of the change in man's self-understanding. So, instead of encouraging and guiding men's development as self-creative persons and the advance of human community through freely constituted meaning, it constantly tries to restrict men by insisting upon its own authority and by reference to a statically conceived natural law. Men, however, have had enough. They want to grow and be themselves. If the Church will not allow this, well, so much the worse for the Church.

(1). "Existenz and Aggiornamenro" by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Focus: A Theological Journal (Regis College, Willowdale, Ontario), Volume 2, 1965, pp 5-14.

(2). Insight: A Study of Human Understanding by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Revised ed. (Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1958), pp. 619-120.


To See Chapter Three Click Here

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