Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Part II: Faith and the Human Community

Chapter Nine

TO EXIST WITH THE PEOPLE

WHENEVER we have to deal with the ingredients of human history, we are prone to consider matters from the point of view of action or of the ideas which shape action. Yet it is necessary to consider them also -- and primarily -- from the point of view of existence. I mean that there is another, and more fundamental, order than that of social and political action: it is the order of communion in life, desire and suffering. In other words there must be recognized, as distinct from the category to act for or to act with, the category to exist with and to suffer with which concerns a more profound order of reality.

To act for belongs to the realm of mere benevolence. To exist with and to suffer with, to the realm of love in unity. Love is given to an existing, concrete being. Despite what Pascal says, one loves persons, not "qualities." The one I love, I love him, right or wrong; and I wish to exist with him and suffer with him.

To exist with is an ethical category. It does not mean to live with someone in a physical sense, or in the same way as he lives; and it does not mean loving someone in the mere sense of wishing him well; it means loving someone in the sense of becoming one with him, of bearing his burdens, of living a common moral life with him, of feeling with him and suffering with him.

If one loves that human and living thing which is called "the people," and which, like all human and living things is, I know, very difficult to define, but all the more real, then one's first and basic wish will be to exist with the people, to suffer with the people, and to stay in communion with the people.

Before doing them good, or working for their good, before following or rejecting the political line of this or that group which claims to be supporting their interests, before weighing conscientiously the good and evil to be expected from the doctrines and historical trends which ask for their support and choosing amongst them, or in certain exceptional cases, rejecting them all -- before doing any of these things one will have chosen to exist with the people, to suffer with the people, to assume the people's hardships and destiny.

 

I. CLASS, RACE, PEOPLE

Insofar as the notions of class and race affect the consciousness and political debates of our day, class is a social-economic concept, and race (whatever its scientific value, which I consider very slight) is a social-biological concept. In both these concepts, but more especially in the second, the "social" is qualified by one of the inferior elements which go to make up the concepts in question. The notion of people is a social-ethical idea, with the word "ethical" only emphasizing and repeating the very word "social."

The word people can designate the whole multitude; it can also designate the lower levels of society. Neither definition exactly corresponds to the sense that the people have of themselves. lf this sense or instinct were used as a guide, it would doubtless be found to refer to a certain loosely-bounded community, smaller than the whole multitude, and at the same time possessed of characteristics more deep- rooted and more typically human than those of "the lower levels of society." To be sure, in a negative sense the people appear to be the mass of the non-privileged ones; in a positive sense they are, I believe, that moral community which is centered on manual labor (allowing for the imprecision that such a description entails) -- a moral community made up of the bulk of those who labor with their hands, farmers and workers, and also of the various elements which in point of fact are socially and morally bound up with them. By using the term moral community, I imply that the central characteristic I just mentioned -- the function of manual labor -- is not enough to define the people. We must take into account a certain historical patrimony connected with labor, and made up of sorrows, efforts and hopes -- the dimension of past time and memory comes in. -- We must similarly take into account a certain common call as well as a certain inner moral behavior -- the dimension of consciousness comes in also -- a certain way of understanding and living out suffering, poverty, hardship and especially work itself, a certain conception of how a man must help or correct another, look at joy and death, belong to the anonymous mass and have his name within it, a certain way of being "always the same ones who get killed."

 

II. THE CONNOTATIONS OF THE WORD "PEOPLE"

I believe that the concept of the people as understood today (at least where it is understood in the ethical-social and not racial sense) is derived from Christian and, so to speak, "parochial" sources. The idea of "the little people of Our Lord," or of the people of the poor to whom the promise of the Beatitudes has been made and who enjoy an "eminent dignity" in the communion of saints, was gradually transferred from the spiritual order, in which it belongs, to the temporal order, and there, awakening the sense of the above-mentioned moral community, it contributed to the formation of the concept, this time an ethical-social one, of the working people -- which is neither antiquity's rather civic and national idea of the populus nor yet its idea of the plebs.

The result was what Auguste Comte would have called "a happy ambiguity" between the idea of the poor, the wretched, the disinherited, and the idea of the husky worker. This ambiguity can give rise to a spurious sentimentalism and romanticism, insofar as the first idea is considered a natural category in society, defined by the compassionate thrill or else by the resentment it awakens. It remains well-founded ambiguity in the sense that as a matter of fact the husky worker usually has no inheritance and is condemned to a condition of poverty (in which today's middle classes are sharing as well as the proletariat). Be it added that the greatest mass of men represents a mass of non-privileged conditions of existence (which means, in the present state of the universe, not only poverty, but also, for a terribly large number of people, under-nourishment, servitude and oppression).

Afterwards many other factors were to intervene. At the time when modern capitalism reached its peak, Karl Marx, because he paid preponderant attention to the economic structure of society, froze the notion of class (proletariat) and that of the people, and tried to make the former absorb the latter. Today we see that this Was an artificial operation, contrary to the nature of things. Neither the concept of class -- nor (and still less) the concept of race -- only die broader concept of the people, is possessed of a primordial social value on a genuinely human level.

As I noted in another book, an important historical gain was made during the nineteenth century: "the growing consciousness of the dignity of work and of the worker, of the dignity of the human person m the worker as such." Such a gain was primarily spiritual in nature. As a matter of fact what actually developed was the consciousness of the collective personality of the people still more than class consciousness. The dimension of consciousness is in this case as always linked with that of past time and memory. It is through the slow work of the labor movement in all its historical complexity that there came into being, first for the proletariat and then, gradually, for the other elements which make up the people, an awareness of a developing personality, the necessary condition for the future birth of a personalistic democracy.

 

III. A FUNDAMENTAL CHOICE

It may happen that at certain critical times one wonders where the people really are; just as at the time of the great schism the Catholic could wonder: where really is the Church? The practical difliculty of discerning a reality does not obliterate the latter. Whoever loves the people knows that the good of the political society, or of the nation, or of what is eternal in man, may demand that he refuse to countenance certain ideas or historical trends acting in the people, but he also knows that for all that he is not required to break his temporal communion with the people, or to cease to exist with the people: on the contrary, existence with the people is involved in the very good of the earthly community, and in the very good of the Kingdom of God militant here below. Separated from existence with the people, the common good of the political community would become artificial and fragile, and the mission of the Church (her very life) would not be fulfilled.

If the ideas and historical trends (sometimes the worst ideas and trends) which at a certain time are acting upon the people are contrary to truth and to the good of man, I shall fight against them and do my utmost to change them; but I shall not, for all that, cease to exist with the people if I have once chosen so to exist.

And why should I have chosen to exist with the people? Because (speaking in religious and Christian terms) it is to the people, to the people first, that the Gospel must be preached; it is the people whom Christ loved. And is it possible to evangelize those with whom one does not exist and does not suffer? What the sacred vocabulary termed "the multitudes," on whom Christ had compassion, is called "the masses" in the secular and temporal vocabulary.

Moreover, speaking in ethical-social terms, however great the error and evil within the people may be, the people remain the great granary of vital spontaneity and non-pharisaic living force. The actual quantitative fact of their constituting the mass is important here, for it is within the mass that life takes root.

And finally, at the present moment in the world's history, the people, in their rise to historical adulthood, are the human reserve of a new civilization. Either civilization rests on the slavery of the masses, or it must be in continuity with their development.

 

IV. TO EXIST WITH AND SUFFER WITH THE PEOPLE

The Church is the Kingdom of God "in a state of pilgrimage and crucifixion." Concerned, not with managing temporal matters, but with guiding men toward supernatural truth and eternal life, the Church as such, in her very life and spiritual mission, exists and suffers with the people; nor can she do otherwise. If we better understood the mystery of the Church we would understand that, amidst the vicissitudes of temporal societies and civilizations, what the Church seeks and requires over and above all is not to be separated from the people. Anything would be better than such unnatural separation! For her will and mission is to give to the people the vivifying Blood of Jesus Christ.

This is where the devil plays his hand. Using his wiles to confuse the minds not only of the enemies of the Church, but also of some of her friends (especially those who, without being Christian, claim that they "defend Christianity"....for the sake of things other than Christ's glad tidings), the Deceiver causes them to mistake this true, holy, evangelical will of the Church, for the illusion of the very opposite, the pernicious illusion of those governments or those social strata which tried at times to dominate the people by means of the Church. But, whether in life or in dreams, illusions do not endure. And the gates of Hell, whether left or right, shall not prevail against the Church.

The proper order of the Church is the spiritual order. Now, in the temporal order, the Christians, as members of the earthly community, have to exist with the people and suffer with the people, this time with respect to the temporal aims of the history of mankind, and in order to work with the people toward their achievement.

Clearly every Christian individually taken is under no moral obligation to "exist with the people" in the temporal sense which I am stressing at present. To posit such an obligation would be to jumble the issues and confuse the religious with the social, the spiritual with the temporal. What I am saying is that if, in a collective manner, and in most instances the social and temporal groups of Christian denomination do not exist in this way with the people, then a deep-rooted disorder is introduced into the world, and will be paid for at great cost.

Pope Pius Xl's statement on "the great scandal of the nineteenth century" has often been quoted, and rightly so. The working class turned away from the Church because the Christian world had turned away from the working class. For the people to exist with Christ it is necessary that Christians exist with the people.

A hopeful sign is that more and more Christians are understanding these things. May I be allowed to allude in this connection to the "working fraternities" of men or women engaged in religious orders, which are now developing in France?{1} They really exist with the people, they share in their labor and pain and poverty, they are starting an extraordinary renewal.

The strength of the Marxist revolutionists stems much less from their ideology than from the fact that, while endeavoring everywhere to disintegrate the labor movement, they exist with the people -- to the confusion of the people. They claim that in order to exist with the people it is necessary to join their party or cooperate with it. That's a lie. The shibboleth "unity of action of the working class," which they put forward when it is to work for their benefit, is but a political perversion of the genuine concept of existential communion with the people. Obviously one can exist with the people while loathing Communism. But anyone who wants to substitute in actual existence a just vision of things for Marxist and materialist ideologies must first exist with the people. In order efficaciously to apply the social doctrine of Papal encyclicals, there is a previously required condition: namely, to exist with the people.

The weakness of many makeshift political movements is caused by the fact that they have not fulfilled this condition. I do not mean as regards the recruiting of more or less numerous members among the people; I am speaking of something much deeper, which takes place within the soul as I have tried to explain earlier. The tragedy of Mussolini was that hoping to act for the people (for this man, for a while, loved the people, that Italian people endowed with such great qualities), he ceased to exist with the people. Shortly he was to exist only with the State.

 

V. POLITICAL ACTION AND EVANGELIC ACTION

It is evident that the normal result of existing with the people is political and social action with and for the people, and an effort to foster the progress of social justice. This is not simply a task of technical adjustment or material improvement. It requires an idea of the dignity of the human person, and of the spiritual value of justice, freedom, and neighborly love. The task is to help prepare for a new order while being intent on the spirit of the Gospel.

Now we are not unaware that such a task may possibly be made unfeasible in certain tragic circumstancesl think of peoples submitted to the ruthless power of some totalitarian dictatorship, an ordeal that the nations behind the iron curtain are suffering at present. What, then, is the situation of a Christian conscious of his responsibility toward the people? Let us take the example of the most perfect case of political regression, namely, the case of the life inside a concentration camp. Those who suffered agony in the univers concentrationnaire know that Büchenwald or Ravensbrück were not only shambles, but a kind of society, "a nightmare of a society, in which the conquest of power was a life-and-death issue, as the merciless struggle between the greens and the reds -- that is, between the common law prisoners and the political prisoners - - has shown.{2}

Let us not speak of people who chose to accept any kind of rotten means -- spying, cruelty, betrayal, co-operation with oppressors and torturers, direct or indirect murder of fellow prisoners -- to seize the upper hand in such a degraded society. There were other people, generally Christians, who also undertook a sort of political struggle to dodge the ferocious discipline of their jailers, but who in so doing endeavored to submit to the exigencies of moral law the decisions they were obliged to make in the midst of barbarous circumstances.

Yet other Christians took the position that any political action was condemned, there, to come to terms with evil; in other words, they thought that they were confronted with a "catastrophe of the political order." At least it was a fact for them, given either their particular temperament or their awareness of a higher calling.

For those who in a given historical situation, would find themselves faced with such a catastrophe of the political order, the ways of political action would cease to exist -- against their will, and, so to speak, through violence. Yet there would remain the order of evangelic action. Then there would awaken within those men, as required by events themselves, those so to speak sacerdotal potentialities the grace of Christ sows in each of us. It is to action of an evangelic and "sacerdotal" order that they would devote themselves, to the pure service of their neighbors, to the works of Antigone -- which bear witness, despite any oppression, to brotherly love and devotion, and introduce us into the deepest communion, and demand, fully as much as political works, that one risk one's life or even lay it down. This would still be existing and suffering with the people but acting with the people only on an evangelic and almost sacerdotal plane.

Such evangelic action has always been needed. Given the pace at which the world is going, it will probably become more and more necessary. But as long as a spark of civilization is alive, men will not be obliged to fall back on these means alone. Political action is demanded by man's very nature. Freedom must be saved. And to save freedom the world today desperately longs to have political action itself, in its own field, penetrated and quickened by evangelic inspiration -- through the instrumentality of Christians who exist with the people.


{1} I am thinking of the "Little Brothers" and "Little Sisters ( et Petites Soeurs de Jésus) who follow the teachings and inspritation of Father de Foucauld. -- See the remarkable book by their founder and Prior, Father R. Voillaume, Au Coeur des Masses, Paris, 1950, ed. du Cerf.

{2} Cf. Man and the State, p. 72.

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