Some may know that the above is one of my most oft repeated maxims – AGERE SEQUITUR ESSE – translated, ‘action follows being.’
This simple phrases constitutes the fundamental metaphysic of the human person as the Church sees the human person and, I would contend, the only maxim that metaphysically prevents using people as things and thus opening up a whole universe of abuses that can be perpetrated against human beings as well as create a cultural silliness wherein people are perfectly happy to tolerate these abuses.
The world of philosophy rested on this principle for over of two millenia until Descartes gave us a more familiar maxim – COGITO ERO SUM – translated, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This flipped the world of philosophy on its head. Rather than being having primacy in the defining conceptualization of the human person action, doing, has the primacy.
While I would never question the purity of Descartes intentions. The man himself lived the life of a practicing Catholic and claimed faith until the day he died. He was also the personal tutor to Queen Christina of Sweden, who famously abdicated her throne to convert to Catholicism. However, none can doubt that his philosophical principle has had disastrous effect. As Descartes’ contemporary Blaise Paschal said, “I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.” Pensees
Much of contempory cultural thought was born and continues to live and move in the upside-down world of cogito ergo sum and its inherently materialist and egoistic structure. We must reject this. As Blessed John Paul II said in his book Memory and Identity,
We have to go back to the period before the Enlightenment, especially to the revolution brought about by the philosophical thought of Descartes. The cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) radically changed the way of doing philosophy. In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had been hitherto, particularly the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse.
If people are fundamentally defined by their acts we will get a skewed notion of the human person. A simple example. We ask, “Who is Aaron Rodgers?’ Answer, “Aaron Rodgers is a football player.” The answer is true enough, but at what level of truth? Only a simplistic one, a materialistic one. Perhaps it is better say the the above answer is factual more than it is true. It does not even come close to approaching real questions about the human person but it satisfies because it remains effective on the simple level of material reality.
What about moral questions regarding the human person? What about cultural questions? Such questions are not principally, sometimes not at all, material questions. They are inherently transcendent. But the cogito, the materialist cannot answer questions about the transcendent, they have no categories for such questions. All he can do is react, all he can do if feel.
This results in philosophical emotionalism – “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (Alistair McIntyre, After Virtue)
If emotionalism holds true it is death to the moral and cultural pillars of any civilization that would tolerate such a philosophy as a part of the accepted pubic discourse. McIntyre said further in After Virtue, that if emotionalism were true,
Evaluative utterances can have, in the end, no point or use but the expression of my own feelings or attitudes and the transformation of the feelings and attitudes of others. I can genuinely appeal to impersonal criteria, for there are no impersonal criteria. I may think that I so appeal and other may think that I so appeal, but these thoughts will always be mistakes. The sole reality of distinctively moral discourse is the attempt of one to align the attitudes, feelings, preferences and choices of another with its own. Others are always means, never ends.
Hopefully the danger of cogito ergo sum and its resultant emotionalism are becoming clearer. Keep an eye this is public discourse. Certainly there are many, many important things to do and doing is an inherently important part of human life. But, are giving ‘being’ questions ‘doing’ answers? If so, we have fallen into a trap and must step out.