On Unity

Friends: Be sure to tune into The World Over on EWTN this Thursday the 16th. The Papal Posse (host Raymond Arroyo and TCT’s Robert Royal and Father Gerald Murray) will discuss recent happenings in the Vatican. The program airs at 8:00 PM EST, but check your local listing for the time and station in your area.

Anthony Esolen has recently delineated the dangers of dogmatic diversity. The other pole, unity, is equally problematic. In the journal Telos, Alice Ormiston has dealt with Rousseau’s “Tragic Desire for Unity.” Why “tragedy”? Unity is a good desire that cannot be fulfilled. Rousseau was accused of loving humanity, but not the odd fellow next door. Readers of Plato will understand the problem. Too much unity and too much diversity are both dangerous. Aristotle observed that unity and diversity are both good. But they need to be related in an orderly way. They should not consume each other. In political things, we call this latter effort federalism or even confederacy.

In this light, we recall Christ’s reminder that He and the Father are one (John 10:30). Yet in the Trinity, the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father, and the Spirit is neither Father nor Son. They are all “one” precisely by not being each other – one in being, diverse in person. The marriage vows speak of two in one flesh. What one is does not become what the other is. Both do not become some third substance, neither the one nor the other. We have in oriental religions the wanting to be absorbed into the all. Marx spoke of the “species man” who wants to be everything that is not himself.

A multi-party political system assured us that each difference is allowed its say in the one polity. In a two-party system, both parties belonged under the same constitution. Their differences do not imply two different polities alternating in power. One polity is united in different ways to do good things for all who belong to the same polity.

Unity is also one of the transcendental predicates – Omne ens est unum – every being is one being, is what it is. This unity means that the whole of a being, say, a human being, with its different “parts” is still one being. Without this extraordinary diversity of parts and functions, we could not be the kind of one being that we are. It is not really difficult to understand such things. Yet misunderstanding what unity is, to recall Rousseau, can lead us to many situations that, in the name of unity, make it impossible for us to be what we are. Rousseau famously wanted us, by obeying the same General Will, to obey only ourselves.

The Hospitality of Abraham, artist unknown, c. 1390 [Benaki Museum, Athens]

Over the years, I have often inquired of myself or of students: “Why is it all right to be a human being?” The import of the question is not to be missed. To be myself, as Yves Simon once remarked, I cannot be someone else. The “cost” of my being is that I am not someone or something else. Yet, all these other selves are out there in the world. We seek to know them as they are.

We are social, personal, relational beings. The unity of parts that constitutes our own personal functioning, our being, the unique individual each of us is, enables us to speak of ourselves as this one person. Friendship, that exalted relationship, does not mean that I become someone else, not myself.

What does it mean then? We are not called rational animals for nothing. We do not have minds just to have minds. We have minds so that what is not ourselves is not missed by any of us. Through our minds, we are potentially all things not ourselves. But we know them.

We “become” what is not ourselves after the manner of knowing, not after the manner of being. If I know that mountain, it remains what it is. I change because I know it. It is all right to be a human being because what is not ourselves still can be ours after the manner of knowing whereby we remain the unique, ir-repeatable persons we are. Yet we become what is not ourselves by knowing it.

In this sense, our personal unity includes, and is intended to include, everything that is not ourselves. Through God’s gift, we are invited to know the divine Persons who are one. Thus, we are one being. We “become” all beings while remaining one being.

Most human disorder consists in some variation of not getting these relationships straight. Aristotle understood Plato’s problem to consist in wanting too much unity. Or better, at least in the Republic, he wanted the wrong kind of unity. He absorbed the parts into the whole instead of keeping the parts to be parts in a common good that allowed them to be what they are.

The ultimate unity of things is through love and knowledge, not through one being absorbing every other being into itself. The great mystery, as Chesterton said, is that God wants what is not Himself to be what it is. God’s glory is manifest in what is not God.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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