01-01-2010 - Traces, n. 1

juan bautista FUENTES

Defeating today’s
strongest temptation

From the abstraction of the Enlightenment to tragic modern solitude, the Spanish philosopher explains why the only hope is that man can say, “I am loved.”

by David Blázquez and Carmen Giussani

“Who needs others in order to live.” When he speaks of the “individual,” Juan Bautista Fuentes is not speaking of an abstract concept, but of someone who is “unrepeatable.” He lectures in metaphysics at Madrid’s Università Complutense, and has dabbled in psychology and history, in biology and social sciences. He was a convinced Marxist, but abandoned that position when he realized it was a “trap.” Today, his research is a critique of the concepts imposed by modern times, reformulating the razón vital of Josè Ortega y Gasset–a historical reason, the way toward understanding the life of the individual. We asked him to help us to understand Fr. Julián Carrón’s words at the last assembly of the CDO.

In his talk, Carrón identified individualism as the strongest temptation in this period of crisis…
The concept of “individual,” as an abstract individual, is typical of modernity. The Enlightenment was a violent break with earlier tradition and with the concept of “person.” The concept of the single, unique person was replaced by the theoretical concept of the individual, or the citizen. For the Enlightenment, the individual, separated from all communitarian or historical belonging, is essentially solitary; he lives a spiritual solitude, even though he proclaims universal brotherhood. The true individual, the person in his concrete singularity, is the one who is aware that he owes what he is to others–firstly to his parents–and that he needs others in order to live. Christian anthropology is that which has defended the true individual most; it has always spoken of the unrepeatable individual.
I quote: “The individualist sees in the other a threat to his attainment of happiness, as in the saying that defines the attitude of this mentality: homo homini lupus.”
The basic mistake in our mentality is that of having inverted the order of economic means and communitarian ends. Accumulating wealth takes the place of the ends, producing a very painful personal and social laceration. The economic crisis is primarily a crisis in community life, which exasperates greed for economic goods and generates an economic crisis. The inevitable tension between the individual and the community undergoes the effects of original sin, the ongoing tendency to fall. When in Europe we speak of a social fabric that is born of Christianity, we are not speaking of an idyllic or paradisiacal reality. Chesterton said that a Christian society is not a society of virtuous men, but simply of men, and Nicolás Gómez Dávila says that a Christain society is not a society of men who don’t do wrong, but in which they acknowledge when they do wrong. Only then is correction possible.

So it’s not an ethical problem?
It’s a moral problem, of trust between people. In a society for which economy is not everything, in a pre-modern society, when a person got to know a stranger, he immediately considered him a collaborator, a friend. The basis for human relationship was trust, a priori.

Whereas now?
When one is faced with a stranger, he treats him as a potential enemy. This lack of trust is what has brought about the proliferation of rights.  Underlying the exacerbated concept of “rights” typical of the modern era—and of which Spain is giving a woeful example—is a reactive, preventive presupposition. We all demand rights to defend ourselves preventively from the threat that others represent. What Fr. Carrón says about the proliferation of rules is quite right. It presupposes that we must defend ourselves from the harm that others (whom we don’t even know) could cause us. It’s monstrous. 

“This is the paradox of modernity: the more it encourages individualism, the more it is forced to multiply the rules to restrain the ‘wolf’ lurking in each of us.” This judgment conforms to the conception of the modern state….
The drama of the modern state is that it arrogates to itself the presumption–through the sovereignty it ascribes to itself–to organize communitarian life as if there had been no pre-political or meta-political life before. And the tragedy is that we are beginning to have it no longer. The modern state is able to rise up like a predatory eagle over social life in order to plan it from square one, since it has been this social life that  opened the way for it, as the fabric of the community gradually breaks down. It ends up as a form of totalitarian state. There have always been tyrannical and despotic states, but the totalitarian state is a very precise modern product–a state that intends to plan civil life totally, to impregnate social life with scorn for everything that existed before. It is an absolute abstraction of real human life, which aims at social engineering of a geometric kind on this life. It is perverse and constitutively terrifying. I ask myself: how can you plan social life?

What’s the answer?
It is an impossible venture. Communitarian organisms, born of solidarity in human life, cannot be programmed. The modern state was defined during the Enlightenment, which is the project through which human reason–since it attributes to itself an absolute, positive jurisdiction–can plan social life in purely rational terms. So all the existing communitarian traditions must disappear, since they are an obstacle. The tragedy is that you can begin to outline this project only when communitarian life begins to disappear, and all that remains is the abstract selfishness of Hobbes’ homo homini lupus cited by Fr. Carrón.

With such a scenario, what alternative do we have?
Frankly, I’m very worried. But even if it will cost me a lot of effort, I don’t want to give in to anthropological pessimism. I don’t think there is a political or economic way out of the situation we are in, not until the communitarian fabric is regenerated. And this is the fascinating aspect of people like you, of all your works. Here there is not a political alternative, but rather a meta-political alternative. There is no other way out, other than building community as far as possible, time and time again, without flagging.

Where can we find the strength to build without giving in to skepticism? Carrón replies with an affirmation of Fr. Giussani: “You can’t remain in the love for yourself unless Christ is a presence like a mother is a presence for her child.”
There will be times when we will lack the strength, but what can we depend upon? On what is there. This simple affirmation is the opposite of modernity, which wants to suppress what exists so as to replace it with a project based on nothing. I would rather say, let’s start off from what is there, or nothing. Where is the presence of Christ? Where someone loves you; where someone all of a sudden says, “I’m loved!” And this makes you go on wanting to love. There is no other way. What is left of this experience is the hope for political life.

So as not to fall into the two extremes of violence–toward oneself and others–you have to be sure that in your daily life someone loves you and so you yourself can go on loving. All progressive teachers would laugh at such an affirmation, but this elementary fact is the deepest truth. I was a Marxist for many years, but when I saw that it was a huge trap I realized that universal love in the abstract does not exist. Those who claim they are acting in the name of an abstract universal love are, in fact, many times, acting out of hatred or rancor. Love that is not concrete leaves no space for true charity. Love can only be concrete and personal. That is why an experience like that of the CDO is so wonderful, from what I hear from your reports.