With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Significance of Human Action, Part 2: Action as Defining the Person--The Way to Perfection

The following is a continuation of the previous post, again taken from an essay written a couple of years back. This essay does not take into account the many finely-crafted comments regarding the previous post, though it perhaps presses a little further the central question driving the comments. Such account will have to be given at some point...

It is important to realize that, at the same time that action expresses the person, action also defines or determines the person. We are how we act and how we act makes us who we are. At bottom, each person has the task of freedom. This task is not aimless, for the person is free for the true good. The challenge is to choose the good. In the following, we will focus on Wojtyła’s reflections on the potentiality of the will as well as his phenomenological reading of the experience of action in freedom. In the end, moral action is really about perfecting the person and actualizing his full potential.

Through his exposure to Aristotle and Thomas, Wojtyła is very taken with the metaphysical distinction between act and potency. This distinction is important with regard to how the moral act is formative of the human person. Wojtyła speaks of a certain “potentiality” in the person that makes “formation” through good action or “deformation” through evil action possible.[1] This potentiality is found in the will. The will does not only function as an efficient cause, bringing about action. In addition, the will is “a kind of ability to become.”[2] A person can become good or bad through the will. There is thus a simultaneous external and internal aspect working in the exercise of the will. While a person wills an external act, the moral quality of that act redounds back into the person, forming the will either to good or to evil. As stated above, the will must be in relation to reason. Since reason is the ability to know the truth, including the truth of the good, the will is guided by reason to its fulfillment. As Wojtyła remarks in the context of Aristotle and Thomas, “[T]he very essence of human action consists in the actualization of the will acting under the direction of reason.”[3] Through the actualization of the will, the human person hopefully becomes good and is led further on the road to perfection.

The determinative character of action is also manifest through a phenomenological reading of the experience of acting in freedom.[4] In the experience of acting, the person experiences himself as the efficient or effective cause of the action. Here, Wojtyła remarks that the action proper to humans should really be designated as actus personae. For in an act, it is always a specific person connected to a concrete act who is involved. The connection is so vital between the individual person and his act that another person cannot suddenly be made the agent of such a particular action. The causal efficacy of the person—experienced in activity itself—leads to a greater efficacy manifest in self-determination. Self-determination denotes the originating movement of the will in causing the act and, at the same time, the fact that such a movement of the will not only has an outward effect but an inward one as well.[5] By acting the person determines himself. It is in light of self-determination that two other properties of freedom, self-possession and self-governance, come into play as well. In freely acting, the action “returns” to the person and is taken up into the person, hence affecting the person. In this free action, the person possesses himself as the subject of his free action which is also self-determinative. As self-governing, the person experiences the task of bringing together or integrating the various dynamisms of his person in order to become as thoroughly human as possible.[6] In all of this, the significance of a person’s action in shaping one’s self is paramount. Moreover, this shaping takes place in and through human freedom. By the unique subjectivity of the human person, a human act is much more than an extrinsic performance or occurrence. A properly human act involves the entire person, originating from the person and also forming that person.

The determinative nature of action is very much related to the development of virtue (or vice on the negative side). Through good moral acts, a person can begin to be habitually disposed to doing good. I think we see this in particular acts especially. For example, take a simple act like making the bed for one’s spouse. If I begin to make a concentrated effort on making the bed out of love for my wife and actually fulfill that effort over a number of consecutive days, I am more disposed towards doing that good act without as much inner tension (involving the decision process). Each act of making the bed comes back to me and forms my will in the good; in other words, this is habituation in virtue. However, let’s say that I have a resolution of making the bed every day out of love for my wife. The first day is a success. The second day, on the other hand, I find myself a little busy with other things. There is still a good bit of inner tension in my decision. “I just have too much studying to do”, etc. Even though I know the good act is a sign of love and will only take a couple minutes, I choose to forego making the bed, letting my wife do it when she gets home from work. This choice comes back to me and affects my will. The good choice I made on the first day has now become somewhat undone in that my will has now become weakened. If I continue to make excuses, it will be harder for me to reform my will and choose the good. In addition, when attempting to will the good, I will have more inner tension with regard to making a decision. “I have given in before to the excuses…why not one more time?” Bad choices and actions have a deformative effect upon the will. This is a simple example, but it illustrates well the experience that every person has with regard to the formative nature of action.

In light of the determinative aspect of action, Wojtyła makes clear that the moral task is one of perfectionism. Living a moral life means that one is on the road to perfection. Every human act has the possibility of contributing to one’s fulfillment, if good, or of contributing to one’s lack of fulfillment, if evil. In the development of the human person, a two-fold task presents itself. The first aspect is integration. As the human being develops, the different “somatic and rudimentary psychic dimensions of humanity” are to be submitted to the spiritual elements of the person.[7] This means nothing else than learning to act as a person while also not ignoring all the unique aspects that make up the human self. The person is body and soul. For instance, certain physical happenings in the body are largely involuntary and out of the person’s control (e.g., we cannot do much about our beating heart). However, certain urges—for example, the sexual urge—may come about largely unexpectedly at times but are still to be integrated within the person as a whole, i.e., as a rational, spiritual being (cf. Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility). To immediately act upon an urge is to become an animal. Regarding sexual urges in particular, the person must learn to integrate such urges within an overall framework that respects the gift of sexuality and the dignity of the human person.

The second aspect of moral development is transcendence. Through his conscience, a person is called to “go out beyond” himself towards the true good.[8] In fact, it is only in this going beyond oneself towards truth that one remains truly free to act in a morally good way. In the end, human development hinges upon moral development. Wojtyła emphasizes that the nature of the human act is such that it plays a profound role in furthering or hindering the development of the human person.

As seen above, not only is morality the most characteristic aspect of the human person but it is also the most definitive aspect of the person. Through morality, a human being actualizes his personhood through subjectivity. While the human is always a suppositum humanum from conception to death, the human self on the other hand—the personal suppositum—is developed throughout one’s life in free, responsible action. True development is founded upon the good. Only a good act truly completes the person. Wojtyła himself continues into his pontificate as John Paul II to be very alert to the significance of morality with regard to every person—so much so, in fact, that he can say: “[I]t is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all” (Veritatis splendor 3).

[1] “Human Nature as the Basis of Ethical Formation,” 98 (Again, all article citations are taken from KW's Person and Community: Selected Essays, trans. and ed. Theresa Sandok [NY: Peter Lang, 1993].)
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] “The Separation of Experience from the Act in Ethics,” 24.
[4] “The Person: Subject and Community,” 228f.
[5] Ibid., 229.
[6] Dr. Kenneth Schmitz, class notes, 4/13/04.
[7] “The Person: Subject and Community,” 225.
[8] Ibid., 234.

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  • At 10/30/2006 10:24 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Once again a good post. I have a couple questions I would like to ask -- and these are speculative in nature.

    What do you think JPII's response would be on the "Pure Nature" controversy? I think he sides with Lubac here, but how does one demonstrate an open-ended nature with phenomenology?

    Second, how do you think JPII would respond to St Maximus on the will? That is, we will according to assumptions in a gnomic mode of being, a fallen mode of willing, but if we let go and change our mode, and will naturally, the result will always be good?


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