The Person: Subject and Community — The Last Of Three Installments of One of Wojtyla’s Most Important Essays

2.3. We: The Social Dimension of Community

I believe it is extremely important to distinguish the social dimension of community from the inter-personal dimension. The need for this distinction is dictated by the different profiles of community, profiles that in a symbolic, but also very precise, way are expressed by the pronouns I—thou and we. I and thou refer only indirectly to the multiplicity of persons joined by the relation (one + one), whereas directly they refer to the persons themselves. We, on the other hand, refers directly to the multiplicity and indirectly to the persons belonging to this multiplicity. We primarily signifies a set—a set, of course, made up of people, of persons. This set, which may be called a society, a group, etc., is not itself a substantial being, and yet, as I said above, what results from accidents from the relations between human persons, in some sense comes to the fore here, providing a basis for predication primarily with respect to all and secondarily with respect to each one in the set. This is precisely what is signified by the pronoun we.

Clearly, then, the we introduces us to another world of human relationships and refers to another dimension of community, namely, the social dimension, which differs from the previous dimension, the interpersonal dimension of community found in I—thou relationships. In the following analysis of the social dimension of community, I shall take the position that community is particularly compatible with the person as a subject, with the personal subjectivity of the human being, with the fact that each human being is an I or a thou, and not merely a he or a she. He and she seem to refer primarily to people as objects, just as they does. I intend to analyze the social dimension of community not so much from the perspective of the he, she, or they, but—in a way parallel to the previous analysis—more from the perspective of the I and the thou. I also shall not be discussing society, but only the social dimension of human community, which is precisely what the pronoun we signifies. I should note right at the start of this analysis that not only does this pronoun refer to many subjects, to many human I’s, or selves, but it also refers to the unique subjectivity of this multiplicity. And in this respect a we differs from a they.

If a we is many human I’s, or selves, then—like the I, or self—it may be conceived and understood through activity. A we is many human beings, many subjects, who in some way exist and act together. Acting “together” (i.e., “in common”) does not mean engaging in a number of activities that somehow go along side by side. Rather it means that these activities, along with the existence of those many I’s, are related to a single value, which, therefore, deserves to be called the common good. (By speaking in this way, I do not mean to use the concepts of value and good interchangeably, much less confuse them.) The relation of many I’s to a common good seems to be the very core of social community. By virtue of this relation, the people involved in it, while experiencing their personal subjectivity—the factual multiplicity of human I’s—are aware that they form a specific we, and they experience themselves in this new dimension. This is the social dimension, different from the I—thou dimension, although in it the persons remain themselves (they remain an I and a thou), but the direction of the relation is fundamentally changed. This direction is determined by the common good. In this relation the I and the thou also find their mutual relationship in a new dimension: they find their I—thou through the common good, which establishes a new union between them.

The best example of this is marriage, in which a clearly delineated I—thou relationship, an interpersonal relationship, takes on a social dimension when the spouses accept into this relationship the set of values that may be defined as the common good of marriage and—at least potentially—of family. In relation to this good, their community appears in activity and existence in a new profile and a new dimension, namely, the profile of a we and the social dimension of a couple (not just one + one). The couple do not cease being an I and a thou, and they also do not cease being in an inter-personal I—thou relationship. In fact, their I—thou relationship in its own way draws upon the we relationship and is enriched by it. This also means, of course, that their new social relationship imposes new duties and demands on the interpersonal I—thou relationship.

Now that we have a basic outline of the we relationship, we may ask, by analogy to the previous analysis: to what extent and in what sense is each I constituted by the we in a way similar to how the I is constituted by the thou in interpersonal relationships? Human experience confirms that this does happen. Of course, when speaking here of the constitution of the human I, I am assuming all that I said in the first part concerning the personal subjectivity of the human being. I am not referring to its constitution in the metaphysical sense, for in that sense every I is constituted in its own suppositurn. In contrast, the constitution of a concrete I in its personal subjectivity takes place in a special way through activity and existence “together with others” in social communities, in the dimension of various we’s. It takes place differently from the way it occurs in the I—thou dimension, for in the we dimension the relationship has a decisive significance for the common good. Through this relationship, a human being, a concrete I, discovers different confirmations of his or her personal subjectivity from those that occur in interpersonal relationships. And yet this confirmation of the subject I in the community we agrees profoundly with the nature of this subject. Perhaps it is just such verification that lies at the basis of all that has ever been said concerning the social nature of the human being.

Essentially speaking, a we does not entail a diminution or distortion of the I. If de facto this sometimes happens (I dealt with this in The Acting Person), then the cause should be sought in the realm of the relation to the common good. This relation can be defective in various ways—both on the side of the human I (or many such I’s) and on the side of what is regarded as the common good for many I’s.

This topic comprises an extensive area of philosophy, and above all of social ethics, which I shall not go into here in any depth or detail. Similar to my analysis of interpersonal relationships (I—thou), I shall not discuss the different forms and varieties of social community—the different forms and varieties of social reality (societies, social groups, circles, etc.)—in which all human beings exist and act. In my analysis of the social dimension of community, I basically wish to grasp and illuminate the meaning of this dimension primarily in the aspect of the personal subjectivity of the human being—and thereby show the compatibility of personal subjectivity and community. In this aspect, where the autoteleology of the human being and the whole problematic of human self-fulfillment naturally comes to the fore, community, too, must present not only a factual, ontological (and thus metaphysical) meaning, but also a normative (and thus ethical) meaning.

First of all, then, the “common” relation of many I’s to a common good, by virtue of which this multiplicity of subjects appears to itself (and to others as well) as a specific we and as that we, is a particular expression of the transcendence proper to the human being as a person. In a particular way, too, the relation to the common good actualizes this transcendence. Here we should recall what was said in the first part of this essay with regard to transcendence and its strict connection with the self-fulfillment of the subjective self. Conscience, as a key element of the self-fulfillment of the personal self, points in a special way to transcendence and, so to speak, lies at its subjective center. Objectively, transcendence is realized in a relation to truth and to the good as “true” (as “befitting,” honestum). The relation to the common good, a relation that unites the multiplicity of subjects into one we, should likewise be grounded in a relation to truth and to a “true” good. The proper dimension of the common good then comes into view. The common good is essentially the good of many, and in its fullest dimension the good of all. This multiplicity can be quantitatively diverse: two in the case of marriage (no longer just one + one, but a couple), several in the case of a family, millions in the case of a particular nation, billions in the case of all humankind. Hence, the concept of the common good is an analogical concept, an analogy of proportionality, since the very reality of this good is subject to differentiation. The common good of a married couple or a family is one thing, that of a nation another, and that of humankind still another. The human we is also realized in them in an analogous way. In all of these realizations, however, the common good corresponds to the transcendence of the persons and forms the objective basis for their constitution as a social community—as a we.

The reality of the common good in the whole wealth of its analogies determines the direction of the transcendence that lies at root of the human we. This transcendence, however, belongs to the structure of the human I; it is not in principle opposed to the personal subjectivity of the human being, but in principle corresponds to it. This does not mean, of course, that social life is a realm free from conflict. We know only too well from experience that just the opposite is true. In The Acting Person, I attempted to point out some varieties of such conflict, merely indicating their different forms and scope. Nevertheless, in principle the social dimension of community enters compatibly into the whole tendency toward self-fulfillment proper to human subjectivity. The common good, as the objective basis of this dimension, represents a greater fullness of value than the individual good of each separate I in a particular community. It, therefore, has a superior character—and in this character it corresponds to the subjective transcendence of the person. The common good’s superior character and the greater fullness of value it represents derive ultimately from the fact that the good of each of the subjects of a community that calls itself a we is more fully expressed and more fully actualized in the common good. Through the common good, therefore, the human I more fully and more profoundly discovers itself precisely in a human we.

The common good is often a difficult good; perhaps it is even so in principle. We Poles know from our own history how much the common good we call “Poland” or “our homeland” has at times cost particular individuals and even whole generations of our countrymen and women. The amount of effort expended in achieving the common good, the amount of sacrifice of individual goods—to the point of exile, imprisonment, and death—testifies to the greatness and superiority of this good. The situations mentioned here by way of example (and very telling ones indeed, especially the extreme situations) are convincing proof of the truth that the common good conditions the individual goods of the members of the community, the human we. In extreme situations, it seems as though in the lived experience of certain members of the community those individual goods tend to lose their reason of being without the common good. This does not mean, however, that the sacrifice of oneself or one’s life for the common good comes down to a simple “tipping of the scales” in favor of the common good over the good of the individual in one community or another.

Because the common good appears as superior, and as such corresponds to the transcendence of the person, confronting the person’s conscience and either agreeing with it or giving rise to conflict, the question of the common good must be a central issue for social ethics. The history of societies and the evolution of social systems show that we are constantly struggling to attain the “true” common good that corresponds to the essence of both the social community proper to the human we and the personal transcendence proper to the human I. The historical facts tell also, however, of the repeated emergence of various kinds of utilitarianism, totalitarianism, and social egoism. Already in the smallest and most basic human we, marriage and the family, we find signs of these different deviations—proportionate, of course, to this community and its particular nature. As the multiplicity of human I’s increases, social community, the unity proper to the human we, becomes more difficult, obviously on different levels. But I already said that the common good is a difficult good.

The privileged status of this good, the reason for its superiority in relation to individual goods, derives, as I said, from the fact that the good of each of the subjects of the community, which defines and experiences itself as a we on the basis of the common good, is more fully expressed and more fully actualized in that good. This also accounts for the fact of social community, the fact of the constitution of a we by many human I’s. In itself, this fact is essentially free from utilitarianism; it lies within the realm of the objective and authentically experienced truth of the good, which is also the truth of conscience. In behalf of this truth, human beings as members of a community embrace the hardships connected with the realization of the common good—at times even to the point of the extreme situations mentioned above. In behalf of the same truth of the common good, however, they also achieve all those values that go to make up the true and inviolable good of the person. This finds particular expression in our own day, as evidenced in numerous declarations and actions. Community, the human we, in its various dimensions, signifies a human multiplicity with the kind of structure in which the person as a subject is maximally actualized. This, too, will be the meaning of the common good in its various analogies, this the reason for its superiority, which is experienced by the personal subject at times dramatically, but always in a basically ethical way.

We—as I said at the outset—does not signify just the simple fact of a human multi-subjectivity. It refers not only to the multiplicity of human I’s, but also to the special subjectivity of this multiplicity, or at least to a decided tendency toward the achievement of such a subjectivity. This is obviously a diversified tendency, which should be understood and realized in proportion to the different we’s and in accord with the specific communal nature proper to each of them. This tendency, together with the resulting realization of the subjectivity of the multiplicity, develops in one way in the case of a we such as marriage or the family, in another in the case of a particular circle, association, or social group, and in still another in the case of a nation, a country, or, finally, all humankind (the term “human family” also speaks very eloquently in this regard). In these different dimensions, the human I’s display a readiness not only to think of themselves in categories of a we but also to realize whatever is essential for the we, for social community. In the context of such community, therefore, and in keeping with its human essence, they also display a readiness to realize the subjectivity of the many, and, in the universal dimension, the subjectivity of all—for this is what a complete realization of the human we entails. It seems that only on the basis of this kind of social community, one in which a factual multi-subjectivity develops in the direction of the subjectivity of the many, can we perceive in the human we an authentic communio personarum.

We all know, however, how many obstacles and counter-dispositions stand in the way of this readiness, prevailing over it from various sides. We also know how much we are continually on the road to realizing the human we in different realms, a road that in so many places winds both backward and forward, depending on what holds sway in different periods and on how the balance of the realization of the different we’s, and ultimately the universal we, evolves.

In any case, an analysis of social community points in this regard to a basic homogeneity of the personal subject and human community. That at which the development of the different we’s in the whole wealth of their analogies aims is a clear reflection of the human I, of personal human subjectivity, rather than something opposed to this subjectivity. And if it happens to be opposed, human beings as subjects must institute reforms. The social community of the we is given to us not only as a fact but also always as a task. All of this, in turn, confirms that the subject as a person has a distinctive priority in relation to community. Otherwise it would be impossible to defend not just the autoteleology of the human self, but even the teleology of the human being.

2.4. Alienation as the Antithesis of Participation

The above analysis of interpersonal community and social community seems to entail a number of consequences. First of all, the concept of community cannot be used univocally, since it refers to different kinds of realities. The reality of social community cannot be completely reduced to the reality of interpersonal community, nor can the latter be reduced to the former. Between the I—thou relationship and the we relationship there exists a difference of profiles that seems to extend to the very roots of the two relationships. One can only say—and even should say—that the I—thou relationship exists within various we relationships, which do not and certainly should not annihilate the thou relationship, but should rather facilitate and promote it. Similarly, one can and should say that various types of we relationships run through the I—thou relationship. The social and interpersonal dimensions of community in various ways mutually permeate, imply, and even condition one another. Still, the profiles of these relationships remain basically different and separate. From the normative point of view, we should strive to develop, maintain, and expand I—thou and we relationships in their authentic forms. This means working to bring about the most harmonious disposition of communal and personal life possible, to which the well known principle of subsidiarity (principium subsidiarietatis) also refers.

Secondly, when viewed in the context of the preceding discussion, the meaning of participation and also of alienation as its antithesis takes on greater clarity. While noting the different kinds of community that occur in I—thou and in we relationships, the separate dimensions of inter-personal and social community, I have maintained throughout this analysis that the human being as a person serves as a basis of analogy with respect to them. Moreover, it seems that an analysis of community from the point of view of the personal subjectivity of the human being—as I presented (though merely in outline) above—allows us to establish certain basic tenets concerning community, i.e., concerning the discovery of the very patterns of communal reality. The reversal of this order seems not so much dangerous for the truth of the image in question as quite simply impossible. We can speak meaningfully of community only in the light of persons, which means only in the context of the person as the proper subject of existence and activity, both personal and communal, and only in relation to the personal subjectivity of the human being, because only this aspect allows us to grasp the essential property of human I’s and their relationships, both interpersonal and social. And that is precisely why the level of the subject (which is nevertheless an objective level from the epistemological and methodological point of view) would seem to allow for a fuller understanding of both participation and alienation.

In viewing alienation as the opposite or antithesis of participation, I have in mind the person and both dimensions of community, the we and the I—thou. In each of these dimensions, participation is connected with transcendence, and so it is grounded in the person as a subject and in the person’s innate tendency toward self-actualization, toward self-fulfillment. We fulfill ourselves as persons through interpersonal I—thou relationships, as well as through a relation to the common good, which allows us to exist and act together with others as a we. These two different relations and their corresponding communal dimensions also entail two different profiles of participation, which I outlined at least partially in The Acting Person. That sketch, as I already mentioned, needs to be analyzed and developed in greater detail, which I have done to some extent in this essay.

The present analysis tends to confirm me in the conviction that participation should be seen as a property of human beings, corresponding to their personal subjectivity. This subjectivity does not enclose people within themselves or make them impenetrable monads, but—on the contrary—opens them up to others in a way proper to a person. Participation, then, both in the case of the interpersonal community I—thou and in the case of the social community we, can and should be seen as an authentic expression of personal transcendence and as a subjective confirmation of this transcendence in the person. It might seem as though transcendence toward a common good would lead us away from ourselves, or, more precisely, would lead us all away from the human being. A thorough analysis of this good, however, shows that the human being is deeply inscribed in the true meaning of the common good—the human being not as conceived in the species definition, but the human being as a person and subject. For this reason, too, the true meaning of the common good, its full “integrity” (honestas), is and must be in science a central issue for social ethics and in practice a matter of the greatest responsibility.

Although in their profiles I—thou and we communities are distinct and mutually irreducible to one another, in the experience and development of communal life they must permeate and mutually condition one another. The fully authentic human being, the human being as a person, the one whose personal identity is disclosed through I—thou relationships to the extent that those relationships have the profile of a genuine communio personarum, is the one who is and must be permanently inscribed in the true meaning of the common good if that good is to conform to its definition and essence. That is why in The Acting Person it seemed possible to define participation (in its social profile) as a property by virtue of which human beings tend (also) toward self-fulfillment and fulfill themselves by acting and existing together with others. Although this definition is based on the person as a subject rather than on community—on the I rather than on the we—and, consequently, seems partial and incomplete, it nevertheless allows us to discover the social profile of community equally well. Participation thus understood conditions the whole authenticity of the human we, a we that develops objectively on the basis of a relation to the common good but that also—on the basis of this same relation—tends toward the development of the true subjectivity of all who enter into the social community. The passage from multi-subjectivity to the subjectivity of the many is the proper and full meaning of the human we. Participation, understood as a property of each I, by virtue of which that I fulfills itself by existing and acting “together with others,” is not opposed to such a meaning of social community. In fact, it seems that only when understood in this way can participation ensure both that meaning and, more importantly, the realization of social community: the realization of the human we in its full authenticity as the true subjectivity of the many.

Participation in this sense—as a property of the person, by virtue of which each person is and remains himself or herself in a social community—seems to be a necessary condition for an authentic communio personarum, both in we relationships and in interpersonal I—thou relationships. Both of these relationships involve openness, and both develop within the context of the transcendence proper to the person. An I—thou relationship opens one human being directly to another. To participate means in this case to turn toward another self in the context of personal transcendence and, therefore, to turn toward the full truth of that human being. In this sense, then, to participate means to turn toward humanity. This humanity is given in the I—thou relationship not as the abstract idea of the human being (in The Acting Person, I treat this problem as belonging instead to the epistemological foundations), but as a thou for an I. Participation in this relationship is equivalent to the realization of an interpersonal community in which the personal subjectivity of the thou reveals itself through the I (in some sense reciprocally as well). Most importantly, however, this is a community in which the personal subjectivity of both the I and the thou are anchored, safeguarded, and developed.

Alienation is the opposite of participation; it is its antithesis. The concept of alienation, as we know, was employed in Marxist philosophy, but even independently of this it has become an aspect of modern anthropology, of contemporary thought on the human being. What, then, is alienation? How should its essence be conceived? Regardless of all that has been said concerning what was or is a real or supposed form of alienation, it is always worthwhile and even fundamental to ask what alienation is in itself. In fact, only an answer to this question can validate our judgments concerning the actual forms of alienation, that is, our judgments concerning what was, is, or may be an instance of alienation.

When I say that alienation is the antithesis of participation, this should be understood in the light of what I said earlier in formulating the state of the question of the second part of this essay on the person. I said there that the whole problematic of alienation refers not to the human being as an individual of the species, and thus not to the human being as conceived in the species definition, but to the human being as a personal subject. I take the position that alienation is essentially a personalistic problem, and, in this sense, clearly both a humanistic and an ethical one as well.

As the antithesis of participation, alienation contributes to or (depending on the alienating factor) creates an occasion for depriving people in some respect of the possibility of fulfilling themselves in community either in the social community of a we or in the interpersonal community of an I—thou. Alienation can and in many ways does occur in both of these dimensions of community. In the social dimension, the presence of alienating factors is apparent when the multiplicity of human subjects, each of whom is a particular I, is unable to develop appropriately in the direction of an authentic we. The social process, which ought to lead to the genuine subjectivity of all, is then checked or even reversed, because human beings cannot find themselves as subjects in this process. Social life goes on as though beyond them—not so much in opposition to them but rather “at their expense.” They, in turn, although existing and even acting “together with others,” do not fulfill themselves in this life, either because they have estranged themselves or because the society, through some faulty structure, does not give them a basis for self-fulfillment or even denies them the rights needed for it. This, of course, is not a complete and exhaustive picture, but only an outline, suggesting an understanding of alienation as the antithesis of participation in the social sense. Depending on its proportions, this type of alienation constricts or even annihilates the human we. And it does so not just with respect to one I or another (as in the case of estrangement), but—as history and the contemporary era teach—in dimensions of whole social groups, societies, and classes and even entire nations. I am not attempting here to analyze this social phenomenon; my only concern at the moment is to apprehend the feature that will allow us to formulate a more precise definition of the essence of alienation.

In an analogical form—but, of course, while preserving the whole distinctness of this relationship, which I discussed earlier—we can detect this feature in the interpersonal dimension of community, in relationships of the I—thou type. Although this dimension is generally not commensurate with the we dimension quantitatively, it is sometimes even more painful qualitatively, since human life is probably lived out more in I—thou dimensions than in we dimensions. In the I—thou dimension, alienation as the antithesis of participation signifies a constriction or annihilation of everything through which one human being is another self for another human being. This subverts the lived experience of the truth of the humanity, the truth of the essential worth of the person, in the human thou. The I remains severed and disconnected from the thou, and so it is not fully disclosed to itself either. In such interpersonal relationships, the “neighbor” also disappears and all that remains is the “other,” or even a “stranger” or an outright “enemy.” This, too, however, is only a kind of outline, suggesting the meaning of alienation in the interpersonal dimension. Community in this dimension becomes distorted and disappears in proportion to the disappearance of the lived experience of humanity, which is the experience that authentically draws people together and unites them.

By taking the position that in both dimensions of community alienation is the antithesis of participation, I wish to emphasize here from the negative side the same point that formed the crux of this entire analysis: that the reality of human community in both of its dimensions, the I—thou as well as the we, develops in the context of the personal subjectivity of the human being, and develops in relation to it specifically and primarily. Alienation as the antithesis of participation, and thus its opposite or negation, does not so much “dehumanize” the human being as an individual of the species as it threatens the person as a subject. On the other hand, participation as the antithesis of alienation confirms and emphasizes the person as a subject. In this sense, participation may also be regarded as a distinctive “property” of the person, for it fosters the person’s self-fulfillment both in interhuman and in social relationships. In each dimension, it safeguards the transcendence proper to the person.

My reflections are drawing to a close. I do not intend to analyze alienation itself in this essay. What I said about alienation above is neither a description of the phenomenon nor an attempt to develop it systematically. As we know, a great deal has been written about this topic. The concept of alienation has become an important and even fundamental category of contemporary thought on the human being. At the same time, despite the numerous pronouncements concerning what alienation is—even those known from Marxist philosophy alone—there is no completely established view concerning what alienation is, or what constitutes its essence.

I have not dealt here with this topic ex pro fesso. The real purpose of these analyses collected under the title “The Person: Subject and Community” was to investigate the relations that occur between community (interpersonal and social) and the personal subjectivity of the human being. Toward the end, however, I saw a possibility of proposing a reduction of the various current descriptions of alienation (which contain only an assertion or suggestion that alienation occurs in certain situations) to the realm of the person as subject and community. I believe that by means of such a reduction—and the present analysis can also serve as a tool to this end—the fuller essence of alienation is revealed. And only with a fuller grasp of what alienation essentially is do we have a basis for saying what it is in particular instances or situations, and why.

In the second part of this essay, I mentioned a number of times that we cannot speak of alienation on the basis of the species concept “human being,” but only in relation to the personal subjectivity of the human being. This is a preliminary assertion, in a sense still intuitive. Nevertheless, I believe that this analysis of the personal subjectivity of the human being, carried out here in the context of the person as subject and community, can by means of this intuition also contribute to the investigation of the nature of alienation.

Blessed Pope John Paul II


Blessed John Paul II was the 264th Pope.