Personalism understands humans as unique persons who hold an inviolable freedom and dignity, and who at the same time are connected to and engaged in communities – or brotherhoods, in the words of the UN human rights declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (article 1).
It is far from coincidence that there is such harmony between personalism and the anthropology of the UN human rights declaration. French personalist and philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was instrumental in forming this fundamental declaration about humans and our rights.
Later on, American civil rights proponent Martin Luther King (1882-1973) took the personalist anthropology as his point of departure. First, he was theoretically interested in personalism, writing his Ph.D. dissertation on personalism at Boston University, and he later backed up his words with action in his activist struggle for the rights of blacks in the US.
Like Luther King, the South African Archbishop and freedom fighter Desmond Tutu(f. 1931) is deeply influenced by personalism in his struggle against apartheid. Tutu is a promoter of the African concept Ubuntu, which he translates in the following way: “A person is a person through other persons”.
It is no coincidence that both Luther King and Tutu were proponents of nonviolent resistance to the oppressive systems. Causing damage to a human body, and ultimately taking a human life, must be the ultimate violation of that person’s worth and right.
In personalism, systems and institutions are never more than means, with the purpose of serving humanity. Systems should promote a person’s unique freedom and dignity. However, systems, whether they are ideological, social or governmental, have a dangerous tendency to become totalitarian. They evolve from means into aims, from something that serves into something that demands obedience and submission.
The Russian personalist Nicolai Berdyaev(1874-1948) believed that all humaninstitutions are in constant danger of error and abuse and that this is mainly because of the process that he calls “objectification”. The human subject sets up concepts, ordinances, and institutions in order to serve human life, but instead these take on a life of their own, become objectivized, and end up demanding that humans submit to them and serve them. The only defense against such tendencies is what Berdyaev calls the personalist transvalutaion of values: The values of society must be saturated with personalism.
Ingrained in personalism, then, is a critique of systems, a critical view of the established order. This is true when systems are obviously oppressive, as with communist rule up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. But western societies may also be said, in a more obscure manner, to be ruled by an alienating and, in a sense, totalitarian ideology – the economic system. Personalists therefore see a need for a critique of capitalism.
Czech system critic, and later-to-be president, Václav Havel (1936-2011) would hardly call himself a personalist, but in several ways, he speaks to a personalist tradition. Two good examples are his account of the nature of power and the necessity of “counter-power” and his thoughts on “anti-political politics”.