Personal responsibility and self-possession
Religion & Liberty Online

Personal responsibility and self-possession

There is an old expression, “Talk is cheap.” Coupled with another old expression, “Actions speak louder than words,” we are introduced to a profound philosophical insight brought by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in his The Acting Person. That insight is that people are understood through their actions, not their words. Metaphysically, that is, in the nature of every man, we say that man is a rational animal; he is an animal that can think, know and know that he knows. But in a sense, this truth is much too vague. Even though we all share this nature, each of us is very different in many respects. Wojtyla’s book is a phenomenological reflection on the actual lived experience of real human beings.

In human life we experience not only sense impressions (the British empiricists would agree) but also things and people (so many philosophers from Descartes onward would actually quibble with this.) The things and people make up two different aspects of the world. The very fact that we developed language demonstrates that we are meant to disclose or share our experiences, thoughts and feelings with others. We, i. e., the human person, is the subject of action. We reflect on our own experiences and what we actually do, but also we act as an objective monitor of our own actions, which means that man is the object of his own cognition. This means that we have the ability to judge the rightness, wrongness and even the prudence of our actions, given the amount of understanding we have accumulated during our lives. The implications of this is earth-shaking: we and no one else is responsible for our own actions.

This responsibility comes from that fact that God has given us three qualities that flow from our participation in His likeness:

a) Self-possession—the person’s actions flow from the point of authority over himself;

b) Self-governance—the quality that allow a person to order his actions to fulfill his “existential ends,” that is, to fulfill what he was created to be;

c) Self-determination—the outcome of self-possession and self-governance is that we determine how our personhood develops in the real world, and not in some theoretical construct.
For the sake of this article, let us examine self-possession more deeply. Wojtyla points out the origin of the word possession as coming from the Latin potus, meaning, to be able and sedere, to sit. In property terms, I sit on my own property. This demonstrates that it is mine, and I am responsible for its upkeep and output. Since a person is in possession of himself, his actions flow from his own authority over himself. Therefore, Wojtyla says that flights of fancy, imaginary utopias or living in the past or the future, inoculates a person against self possession. “Not living in the real world” means to abandon one’s responsibility over one’s actions, which do not accord with reality—the very definition of truth. Catholics today are especially prone to this tendency. There are many Catholics who imagine that they can remedy the ills of society by returning to a more primitive lifestyle, where all work is done by hand and there are only simple machines and no companies. Not only do those who fall for these utopian schemes wish to have everyone live in squalor and work themselves to death, but they say that this is what the Church teaches. They forget that sin comes not from social institutions, but from the very heart of man, and no tweaking of a system will make that evil disappear. Ultimately, all of these well-meaning Catholics are, as Wojtyla says, inoculating themselves against self-possession.

Examine life in the West today. So many people see themselves as victims. While some are truly victims, most of those folks, are really abrogators of self possession. Even the real victim of say, crime or hurricane, must face that reality in a self-possessed manner, and go on as best they can. They, while not responsible for the crisis in their lives, are responsible for dealing with it to the extent possible, and then turning to God and neighbor for assistance. But anger, revenge, self pity, and the like are losses of self-possession. The constant running to the government to legislate everything, is also a loss of self-possession—a common practice of our diocesan “Peace and Justice Committees.” We feel no responsibility for our brothers and sisters in trouble, and we turn to the government for force others through taxes to do what we ourselves should be banding together to do.

The entrepreneur is a person self-possessed. He is willing to take risk, even with other people’s money that they loaned him because he inspired them with the vision of a concrete project. He fully understands that failure occurs because he did not take all circumstances into account, and that what most of us call failure is actually a learning experience for the future. The fact that he is working with other people’s money is an extra incentive to be diligent. He doesn’t say that they owed it to him. He sees the loans as a favor which he will repay with the earnings from the project.

This is true in other areas as well. College students are studying on other people’s funds. They need to be self-possessed and not waist that time and money goofing-off. The self-possessed student studies hard and gets the degree for which other people gave him the money. Having a job is a gift of God, for which He expects diligence. How many of us lack the self-possession to give an honest days work?

The Church has been pleading that we Catholics be self-possessed in our Faith, that we realize that many, many people have not come to our Faith because we did not take responsibility for its spread. We live a comfortable, middle-class, Catholicism, which focuses on our own spirituality to the neglect of our brothers and sisters. If the world is not Catholic, it is our (collective) fault. Just as God will not save us without our co-operation, he will not save our non-Catholic brothers and sisters without our co-operation. This requires self-possession.

Next time—self-governance.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

William Luckey

Dr. William R. Luckey is Professor of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College and has expertise in Political Philosophy, Business and Economics, and Theology. He is an Adjunct Scholar of the Mises Institute and of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.