Chapter Two (6/8)

The Building Blocks of Any Human Order

We now know the starting point of Arizmendiarrieta’s own thought, his awareness of the total crisis of a civilization. An old world is dying; it is necessary to build a new one.

"Bourgeois individualism is dead," said Maritain.1 "Five centuries of history are teetering," Mounier continued. "We are witnessing the collapse of a zone of civilization born at the end of the Middle Ages, both consolidated and undermined by the industrial era, capitalist in its structure, liberal in its ideology, bourgeois in its ethics."2

"A new civilization, a new man," demanded Mouniere.3 A new humanism, Maritain4: "Europe aspires to a new civilization (…) to an order in which each human being can enjoy social as well as political liberty, and the working classes can achieve their greatest historical moment."[^ch2-77

We must begin right now, Arizmendiarrieta will say, the construction of this new order to which we aspire, doing now what is possible now, while continuing to fight for that which can only become reality in the future. The new order, if it wishes to be human, will need to be pluralistic, a wide open field of freedom.5 But whatever form it may take, it must rest upon the foundation of education, work, and the recognition of the dignity of man.

In our view, these have been the central ideas of Arizmendiarrieta, or guiding ideas [ideas fuerzas], as he will take to calling them, in his effort to train young workers. In the development of these three building blocks of any human order—in our case that of the cooperative movement—Arizmendiarrieta shows himself to be deeply personalist. Mouniere recognized that in his own conception of the personalist order he had taken French reality as a foundation. "Let other national temperaments," he declared, "find the same inspiration in forms more appropriate to their own temperament, on different human and institutional material."6 Arizmendiarrieta will build on Basque reality, and more concretely, on the reality of Mondragon in the ’40s and ’50s.

Dignity of the Person

Mounier, in his critique of naturalism, will in fact make use of a quote from Marx: "Man is a natural being, but he is a human natural being."7 A long tradition in Western culture has considered man to be on the highest rung of the ladder of creatures in nature, on the very tip of it, even rising above it. Beyond him, the infinite space of the divine opens up. Mankind finds itself between nature and the divine, partially freed from nature, and at the same time chained to it, overcoming it in his titanic effort to ascend through sheer willpower and the lightning bolts of his intelligence. In this view, both Judeo-Christian roots and the classical Greek thought, myth and philosophy converge in various ways.

The eternal tension implicit in this concept of man, between angel and beast, is evident throughout the history of thought, according to whichever tendency is preferred. On the one hand, the idealist danger of "angelism" is manifest from Plato to Hegel, which Feuerbach will brandish energetically, lauding the originality of man with respect to the rest of the universe, his freedom of spirit, his ideas and beliefs, his conscience, and his creative will. On the other hand, from Calicles to Nietzsche, there are no fewer dangers in defining man in purely natural terms, completely lacking in any higher order of values, thrust into the dark realm of his animal roots, a violent mass without spirit, governed by the fateful rules of the flock or the herd, with no principles beyond instincts and the law of the strongest. "Because the preface"—warns Maritain—or the beginning of fascism and of Nazism is ignorance of the spiritual dignity of man, and the theory that human life and morality are regulated by purely material or biological values."8

The personalist current comes down decidedly in the line of transcendent humanism, of the man who overcomes man,9 thus overcoming the limits of his will and his own reason. For the Personalists, each man, open to the absolute, is himself an absolute. He is not a passing moment in time. He is not part of a whole (social or natural) into which he is absorbed. "The person," says Mounier in words that Arizmendiarrieta has underlined in his reading, "is an absolute with respect to any other material or social reality, or any other human being. He can never be considered as part of a collective; family, class, state, nation, humanity. No other person, certainly no collective, can legitimately consider him as a means to an end. God himself, in Christian doctrine, respects his freedom, although he may breath life into him from within."10

Both Maritain and Mounier severely criticized Marxism for not recognizing, even denying, this transcendent human dimension and its absolute value. Arizmendiarrieta, within a different context, seems not to have felt the need to make the same criticism, no doubt more in tune to the Marxism of the workers in his own surroundings, with whom he hoped to connect, than to academic and doctrinaire Marxism. When he highlights the dignity of man (his inviolate freedom, etc.) his criticism points rather toward the all-encompassing State, capitalism, the apathy of consciences, which he intends to shake up and move to action. For the same reason, for Arizmendiarrieta, human dignity is not so much something which one possesses and which others must respect, as it is something which each person must achieve and impose on social reality. Man must be aware of the dignity which, by rights, is due to him. But it is worth nothing if he is then unable to bring about an order built on the demands and requirements of dignity. Human dignity, in his thinking, as much or even more than a principle, is an objective to be attained.

Defining man as in tension between what he is, in fact, and that which by his own effort he can become, Arizmendiarrieta begins with the premise that current humanity, engulfed in crisis, is a "monster," acting and thinking as such. But, unlike animals, men are skillful and open to change and can transform their environment and, by doing so, transform themselves.

Mondragon has a popular legend, mythically associated with the name and coat of arms of the town, of a violent dragon which devoured all it encountered, people and livestock, terrorizing the region.[ch2-84] Although generally not a friend of literary devices, on this occasion Arizmendiarrieta made use of the following allegory to express his thought:

"Once upon a time there was a fairy who was condemned to appear, at certain times, in the form of an ugly, poisonous snake. Anyone who treated her badly during her "serpent" moments was immediately and forever excluded from her blessings. Nevertheless, to those few who, despite everything, never quit loving her, protecting her, and pitying her while she was a "serpent" she appeared again in all her un-earthly beauty and made them the beneficiaries of all her blessings, favors and kindnesses. It must be hard to see in this beautiful fairy, condemned to appear at certain times as a repugnant serpent, any man, youth or child who does not enjoy a minimum level of spiritual and material assistance the lack of which impedes the development and the cultivation of the most beautiful and noble virtues and which encourages the appearance of the lowest and most base instincts. Let us not forget that all men, of whatever class or condition, bear the mark of the divine, which makes them worthy of all consideration and which, if they are treated as they deserve, will not fail to become beings full of goodness, understanding, and virtue. And we will all benefit" (EP, I, 89; Cf. CAS, 197-198)


  1. Maritain, J., La educación en este momento crucial, Desclée de Brouwer, Buenos Aires 1950, 149. On p. 184: "Manchesterian liberalism is good and dead."

  2. Mounier, E., Manifiesto al servicio del personalismo, Taurus, Madrid 1972, 13.

  3. Ib. 15.

  4. Maritain, J., op. cit., 149.

  5. Maritain, J., Humanisme intégral, Aubier, Paris 1968,169.

  6. Mounier, E., op. cit., 91-92.

  7. Mounier,E., Le personnalisme, PUF, París 1978, 18.

  8. Maritain, J., La educación, 190.

  9. Pascal, Pensées, Nr. 434.

  10. Mounier, E., Manifest, 60. "The word "absolute" here can cause us confusion," Mouniere writes in another place. "The person is, through the creative will of God, an absolute, insofar as, through his model and through the ontological perfection that he is called to realize fully beyond time, he is ‘the most perfect creation in nature,’ a perfection which the life of grace elevates as well to the infinite. It is such that, not only can nothing in nature prevail against it, but also that God himself, having refined it and having made it potentially one with Him, is linked through his creation, through his Redemption, and He can neither destroy him nor treat him in any fashion but as a person. But this [personhood] is not an absolute in the sense that its prominence is free of all conditions of servitude, of time and place, and is called upon to meet, immediately and unconditionally, its full potential. Mankind is situated, ontologically and historically, in a situation which forms part of its very definition, as well as of his ultimate potential. Customs, politics, and thus a Personalist anthropology, can only be identified in reference to this situation, outside of which we abandon the real and, with it, usefulness. In this way, the concrete existence of the person is characterized in a double entry: his ontological character and his historical character" (Ib. 278). Concerning the critique of Blondel of the "absolute" character of personhood recognized by personalism, and the polemic caused by his critique, cf. Nedoncelle, M, Maurice Blondel et les équivoques du personnalisme, en: Explorations personnalistes, Aubier, Paris 1970, 251-261. [This note was torture, and really needs to be reviewed by a theologian or a philosopher.]

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