It’s fascinating how certain ideas can unite all people, yet we can be so unaware of their presence.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Personalism posits ultimate reality and value in personhood – human as well as (at least for most personalists) divine. It emphasizes the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person, as well as the person’s essentially relational or social dimension.”
The philosophy of personalism begins with the belief that every human life is sacred and significant, and that we’re all interconnected. It embraces a healthy love of self and extends to a love for all humanity. I’m loved and worthy of love. My life has a purpose. I have a contribution to make for the betterment of humanity. You are my sister. You are my brother. You are sacred as well and you too have a significant contribution to make. Let’s embrace the power of love, and work together for peace and prosperity.
Personalism stands in stark contrast to the ideal of individualism, where each person is an island and needs to look out for number one. It also contradicts the collectivist ideal of sacrificing the rights and responsibilities of the individual for the good of the cause.
Though the word ‘personalism’ was not used until the 20th century, the idea is ancient and can be seen in the writings of Plato and many other great philosophers. It also transcends the concept of religion. There are Christian personalists, Islamic personalists, Buddhist personalists and atheistic personalists. It’s a thread of truth that weaves through all of humanity, as evidenced by its persistence, and its enduring and positive impact.
Many of the greatest and most beloved leaders of our time embraced this philosophy.
Civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. studied and incorporated personalism. This clearly resonates in all of his words and actions.
One of the most prolific writers on personalism was the Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyla. He stated, “The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”
Wojtyla went on to become Pope John Paul II. As people listened to his words and embraced his philosophy in every corner of the world, we entered a new era of human history as the Iron Curtain collapsed.
Though Canadians tend to keep their religious beliefs to themselves, some of the most influential and iconic leaders of the 20th century were Christian personalists. For example, Pierre Trudeau, the man who spearheaded official multiculturalism in Canada, was strongly influenced by the personalism he studied and discussed in forward-thinking Catholic institutions.
The ideas of personalism remain prominent in Canada. They echo many of the First Nations teachings, which are growing in prominence.
Because it’s a philosophy, personalism is not exclusive to any religion. Because the ideas are universal, it’s not attached to any particular culture. It’s therefore a concept that brings people together.
In studying our past, especially the history of the 20th century, we can see that the further the paradigm of a government moves from the ideals of personalism, the more destructive it becomes. It’s very tempting to see the world in terms of ‘us versus them,’ denying the humanity of those we blame for our problems. It’s also very tempting to place a cause ahead of the sacredness and freedom of the individual. These ideas, however, have always led to failure.
Personalism embraces the goodness in every one of us. It encourages us to become our best selves, and it requires love and respect for each individual sharing the planet with us.
As we take time to explore and expand on these principles together, we can create a world that we’re proud to leave to our children, a world where everyone can thrive.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.