Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, Whittaker Chambers looked at the intricate design of his daughter’s ear and felt inchoate stirrings of doubt about the atheistic foundations of Communist ideology. Following his example, I watch my daughter as she becomes aware of her hand and find confirmation of my rejection of the basic assumptions of secular democratic theory.
Like all babies, Emma Christine was thrown into the world with a lack of self-consciousness that extended even to her own body. She was, so my wife says, four weeks old before it dawned on her that her hand was attached to the end of her arm, and only later did she realize she could control its movements. Prior to these discoveries, her hand would flail about uncooperatively, hitting her on the head or leaving delicate fingernail scratches on her nose and cheeks. When the hand ventured within eyesight, Emma either ignored it or stared with what I surmise was the infantile equivalent of surprise, as if at an alien object. Even now, at four months, when I hold her before a mirror, she is not quite sure what to make of that pink thing in Daddy’s arms.
Though oblivious to her own body, Emma rapidly began to respond to the presence of others. Incapable of recognizing her own reflection, she knows her brothers and sister and smiles (perhaps condescendingly) at their incessant coos and babbles. She searches the room for me when I speak, and her mother’s voice induces hunger pangs. Simply put, Emma has been aware of others before becoming aware of herself. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who developed a provocative grammatically based sociology, had it exactly right when he said that “I” is not, in real life, the first person. Before a child ever knows how to say “I,” she is called “you.” She is addressed long before she will be able to address anyone else.
The implications of this basic observation were completely lost on the framers of modern political thought. In John Courtney Murray’s delightful sketch, Locke, and with him all Enlightenment political thinkers, believed that society was a product of artifice, not nature: societies exist only because autonomous individuals have agreed to live together for their mutual benefit. Prior to giving consent to form a community, Lockean man is a “sociological monad,” a “little god almighty” whose freedom is unbounded except by the rights and freedoms of every other “little god almighty.” Social contract theory assumes that the individual and his consent are metaphysically antecedent to the community.
Emma Christine refutes this whole ideology at a stroke. While she was certainly an individual human being from conception, her experience of others is prior to the development of any articulated or strong sense of individuality. Even-especially-in utero she was anything but an autonomous individual. Perhaps the best characterization of Lockean man is that he emerges fully formed, like Adam, without an umbilicus. The truth according to Emma is the opposite: society is natural and primordial; fully developed individuality is a product of the “artifice” we call nurture. Society is a given; the self is an achievement. Paradoxically, we become ourselves, and become aware that we are selves, only as we love, speak, and live with other selves.
The individualist bias of modern political philosophy is arguably a product of an even more fundamental theological error. According to Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, Western theology has typically divided its teaching on the being and attributes of God from its teaching on His trinitarian character. Implied in the very structure of Western dogmatics is the assumption that God’s unity is prior to, and more basic than, His communal nature. Zizioulas argues that it would be more faithful to Scripture and the Church Fathers to say that the communion of the three Persons constitutes the being of God. In the new metaphysics that developed as the Church wrestled with the revelation of God’s character in Scripture, the communion of divine Persons came to be understood as a “primordial ontological concept and not a notion which is added to the divine substance or rather which follows it.”
Though I think Zizioulas goes a bit off in saying that being and communion are identical, it is certainly fundamental Christian teaching to say they are inseparable and mutually determinative. What is true of God’s nature, Zizioulas rightly goes on to suggest, is also true of mankind, made in the image of God. Human being too is necessarily communal being: “Outside the communion of love the person loses its uniqueness and becomes a being like other beings, a ‘thing’ without absolute ‘identity’ and ‘name,’ without a face.”
The myth of Lockean man lives on, with enormous and disastrous social and political consequences. If Zizioulas is correct, the reduction of others to mere tools for my self-improvement is inherent in modern political thought. Surely the Enlightenment notion of autonomy is one of the seeds from which the current American obsession with self has grown. As Paul Vitz recently commented, we live in a nation of 260 million supreme beings. And each is a jealous god.
In the face of such powerful and deeply rooted centrifugal forces, we could do worse than to relearn the lessons of Emma’s hand.
Peter J. Leithart contributed “Toward a Post-Apollonian Theology” to our January issue.