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Two Men From Galicia

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04/15/2005Christopher Westley

With the death of Pope John Paul II last week, many have compared his intellectual contributions to those of Ludwig von Mises. Comparisons are certainly apt, as both men have much in common. That their experience with 20th century totalitarianism shaped their lives is well known. It is less well known that they both spent their formative years in a similar area of Poland—Mises's ancestral home of Lemberg and John Paul's Krakow are in an area of Poland known as Galicia.

When Mises grew up, the Habsburg family was still in power and this region had not yet succumbed to the forces of modernism then spreading across Europe. Mises himself would be a lifelong friend of Otto von Habsburg. That family's influence no doubt still characterized the region when John Paul was born some two generations later. During the beatification of Emperor Karl in Rome last October, one news report stated that John Paul himself—previously Cardinal Karol Wojtyla—was named by his parents for Karl von Habsburg. (At the time of John Paul's birth, Emperor Karl's martyrdom to the advances of the Progressive Era was well under way. He would die three years later.)

So it was a Catholic culture, aristocratic, and somewhat non-democratic, that shaped Mises and John Paul into top-rate intellectuals within their realms of the social sciences. Their intellectual formation—reflecting several centuries of Scholastic influence on the Continent—contrasted with the modernizing tendencies of Europe at a time when Hegel was still the most popular philosopher in Germany. Aristotelian ideas were still very strong in Austria as well as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the decades leading up to World War I.

Both Mises's and John Paul's philosophies center on the human person, as suggested by the titles of each man's important treatises—Mises's Human Action and John Paul's The Acting Person. In both of their writings, there is a strong emphasis on the sanctity and centrality of the individual. The key difference, however, is that John Paul offers a broader philosophical foundation for how persons act (and how those acts affect our understanding as individuals of what it means to be human). In contrast, Mises's objective is narrower, and some might say somewhat easier, in that he only wants to explain human action. Nonetheless, their efforts complement each other and reflect a similar approach to social science.

Significantly, their writings underscore the importance of human freedom and the evils of highly centralized and bureaucratic societies. Each man, in his own way, dedicated his life to the protection and the advancement of civilization.

Their approach was scientific, with emphases on traditional metaphysics and natural law. Neither could be considered a utilitarian in the Benthamite sense, which requires an objective measure of utility. Mises's a priori method was the approach of Old Europe and one that was less conducive to the centralizing tendencies of the late 19th and 20th centuries. His approach was truly radical—it attempted to refocus positive social sciences to their original, non-utilitarian roots—at a time when science and government had long since merged with false hopes for peace and human advancement.

By the time of the publication of Human Action, this approach was already anachronistic, and much of the mainstream economic literature focused on how best to manipulate the human person so as to achieve the State's goals. In this literature, the human person had become merely an economic agent in the social scientist's Petri dish. The tradition of Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson, and Milton Friedman would cement the idea that economics primarily exists to formulate policy for the State.

Today, this history is well known to students of the Austrian school of economics. In 1969, the time that John Paul published The Acting Person, it is hard to think that the future pope was not familiar with the writings of Mises, although there is no evidence that this was the case. If not, then the similarities in philosophical approach reflect their similar geographic and cultural influences.

Austrians will find much to admire in the philosophical writings of the future John Paul II. What follows are some quotations from The Acting Person that reflect this point.

The inspiration to embark on this study came from the need to objectivize that great cognitive process which at its origin may be defined as the experience of man; this experience, which man has of himself, is the richest and apparently the most complex of all experiences accessible to him. Man's experience of anything outside of himself is always associated with the experience of himself, and he never experiences anything external without having at the same time the experience of himself. (p. 3, opening paragraph)

. . . [W]e cannot say that experience as such exists only in one moment . . . and there is only the work of mind shaping “man” as its object on the basis of a unitary empirical moment or sequence of such moments. The experience of man, of myself . . . lasts as long as there is maintained that cognitive relation in which I am both subject and object. (p. 4)

On self-ownership: . . . [O]ther men as objects of experience are so in a different manner than I am for myself or that every man is for himself. . . . This disparity occurs because I am given to myself as my own ego and thus more directly and differently than any other man who is not myself. (p. 5)

For our position is that action serves as a particular moment of apprehending—that is, experiencing—the person. This experience is, of course, inherently connected with a strictly defined understanding, which consists . . . in an intellectual apprehension grounded on the fact that man acts in innumerable recurrences. The datum “man-acts,” with its full experiential content, now opens itself up for exfoliation as a person's action. (p. 10, italics in original)

Action is not a single event but a processlike sequence of acting; and this corresponds to different agents. The kind of acting that is an action, however, can be assigned to no other agent than a person. In other words, an action presupposes a person. This has been the standard approach in different fields of learning that have as their object man's acting, and this is especially true of ethics, which treats of action that presupposes a person, that is, presupposes man as a person. (p. 11)

We assume that actions provide the particular moments for apprehending and hence for experientially cognizing the person. Actions, therefore, are the most adequate starting point for comprehending the dynamic nature of the person. (p. 12)

. . . At any rate this is how Aristotle seems to have understood the inductive function of the mind. This view is not shared by modern positivists, such as J.S. Mill, for whom induction is already a form of argumentation or reasoning—something for which it is not for Aristotle. Induction consists in grasping mentally the unity of meaning from among the multiplicity and complexity of phenomena. In connection with our earlier assertions we may say that induction leads to that simplicity in the experience of man which we find in it in spite of all its complexity. . . . Induction opens the way to reduction. It is precisely the need for examining, explaining, or interpreting the rich reality of the person, which is given together with and through the actions in the experience of man, that has inspired this study. Thus we think it a waste of time to demonstrate or prove that man is a person and his acting is “action.” (p. 14–15)

In the inner dimension of the person, human action is at once both transitory and relatively lasting, inasmuch as its effects, which are to be viewed in relation to efficacy and self-determination, that is to say, to the person's engagement in freedom, last longer than the action itself. . . . In this way, we begin to glimpse the proper meaning of the assertion that “to perform the action brings fulfillment.” Neither performance nor fulfillment is identifiable with efficacy. The performance of an action, through the fulfillment it brings, is coordinate with self-determination. . . . To fulfill oneself means to actualize, and in a way to bring to the proper fullness, that structure in man which is characteristic for him because of his personality and also because of his being somebody and not merely something; it is the structure of self-governance and self-possession. (p. 151, italics in original)

As the structure of the person which we have described here is centered on self-governance and self-possession, these together form the basis of man's self-determination. If man as a person is the one who governs and possesses himself, then he can do so also because, on the one hand, he is responsible for himself and, on the other, he is in some respects responsible to himself. Such a structure of the person is, as previously noted, indicative of the specific complexity of the man-person. For he is at once the one who governs and the one who is governed by himself, the one who possesses and the one who is his own possession. He is also the one responsible as well as the one for whom and to whom he is responsible. (p. 173, italics in original)

It is not only human nature that forces man to exist and to act together with others, but his existing and acting together with other human beings enables him to achieve his own development, that is, the intrinsic development of the person. This is why every human being must have the right to act, which means “freedom in the action,” so that the person can fulfill himself in performing the action. (p. 275)

Mises and John Paul II rightly rank among the most important thinkers of the 20th century. Both focus on the human person. For John Paul, this focus leads to information about the being and the role of self-ownership in living a full life, while for Mises, it leads to information about the economy and civilization, as well as of the costs of interventionism and war.

This focus also causes them to be critical of social systems that must inhibit human freedom in order to function. Each man's experience with totalitarian regimes leads to the conclusion that social systems are for men, not men for social systems. John Paul penned the most pro-market encyclical in Catholic Church history, openly embracing the business economy. Nor is it surprising that John Paul's public statements condemning the United States' invasion of Iraq sounded like something out of Human Action's chapter 34 (“The Economics of War”).

To be sure, Mises would find much to criticize in the personalism of John Paul, and John Paul was no Austrian economist. However, both profoundly believed in the protection of private property, the enforcement of contract, and the necessary relationship between commerce and civilization.

That two men from Galicia, one an agnostic Jew and the other a Catholic prelate, would become significant contributors to the cause of human freedom in the 20th century is remarkable. One hopes they have had the chance to meet.


Contact Christopher Westley

Christopher Westley a professor of economics in the Lutgert College Business at Florida Gulf Coast University and an associated scholar at the Mises Institute.

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