On Uniqueness

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Most people have heard at some concert or festivity someone introduced as something like “The One and Only Molly Malone.” The words, “One” and “Only”, however, are redundant. Every human person is a “one and only” and cannot be otherwise. The physical sciences are concerned with the repeatability of things. Ethics, politics, and art deal with those things that pass this way only once.

We can fathom things that recur. We cannot quite fathom things that appear on the horizon of being only once. The polity, the civic community, is the arena in which the uniqueness of each citizen manifests itself.

A human society is composed of those who are not exactly alike. The common good refers to that space in which the uniqueness of each distinct member contributes to the good of the whole. Our monuments and statues recall our heroes, those who display a striking uniqueness.

The word “unique” refers to something different, something not to be repeated. Nothing is like it. We all belong to the same species, to the same city. We are all unique. We cannot be other than we are. We can only be more or less of what we already are.

We cannot predicate one person of another. We cannot say that John is George. We can only say that John reminds us of George in some ways. We all belong to one species, but we each appear in a distinct, unique way that occurs only once in the universe. The world is filled with individual persons who cannot be reduced into each other.

In You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown – a title that already manifests our theme – an earnest Lucy, arms spread almost in benediction, talks to a glum Charlie Brown: “You need me to point out your faults, Charlie Brown. . .it’s for your own good.”

*

Walking along, she continues: “Besides, I can do it for you better than anyone else. . . . My system is unique.” Charlie turns to confront her: “What’s so unique about it?” The look on Charlie’s face lets us know that he should not have asked. Lucy explains the system: “I put all your faults on slides so that we can project them one at a time.” Charlie can only mutter: “Good grief!”

The list of Charlie’s faults tells us who he is. Making the list tells us who Lucy is. To be unique means to be different from everything else. Yet I think it was Chesterton who said that we are most alike in our vices and most different in our virtues.

The list of our virtues and faults is what constitutes a human life, what sets it down as unique. The much-maligned art of casuistry is little else but an effort to define and decide our uniqueness, what saved us, what did not.

In the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, we read: “It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space of time in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not.” (The elves do not die until the world dies.)

Men did not need much time on earth to indicate the uniqueness of each human person’s sojourn in time and hence in eternity.  We are given reason and freedom, not instinct, to guide us. We can only be described in stories with a beginning, middle, and end. No two stories are alike, though all are intelligible.

In Robert Spaemann’s essay on “The End of Modernity?” the notion of uniqueness likewise comes up. “The experience that cannot in fact be homogenized is the experience of the world as a limited whole, the experience of the uniqueness of a thing, of the uniqueness of every human being, of the uniqueness and the unique significance of every situation, of the uniqueness of the universe.” (A Robert Spaemann Reader)

The world is a “limited” whole. For the Greeks, infinity meant no limits. Hence it meant that nothing rational could take place within it. In the limited whole that is the world, things come to an end. They become what they are made to be.

In the case of the race of men, they are given three score years and ten, fourscore if they are “strong,” as the Psalmist put it. Few reach this age. It does not matter. All lives, even the aborted ones, are unique in their story.

But our uniqueness is in the service of others. The list of our faults is included in our uniqueness. The world is a limited world. It has frontiers that cannot be surpassed. We are not gods, for which we thank God. When we say “world without end, Amen,” we acknowledge that the world that does not end is the limited world in which we find our unique existence.

As Lucy said to Charlie, out faults are pointed out to us “for our own good.”

*Image: Faults on Both Sides by Thomas Faed, 1861 [Tate, London]

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is 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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