Self and others: From Identity to Relation

Self and others: From Identity to Relation

Original Title: Io e gli altri. Dall’identità alla relazione, Edusc, Roma 2010. Antonio Malo

Pascal said that "all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber" (Pensées, n. 139). Pascal’s tough judgment is not simply a tirade against activism, but a defence of the need to study, rest and meditate, in his typical paradoxical style.

Allow me to take a slightly intimate digression to introduce the book review of Self and Others: From Identity to Relation written by the professor of Philosophical Anthropology at the University of Santa Croce, Antonio Malo. My personal circumstances during this summer have compelled me to verify the sentence of the French philosopher and mathematician, and thus confront this challenging but illuminating book. Once the forced time of rest taken due to health problems had concluded, and while I spent a few days in the country with my mother - 84 years old and a widow as of three years-, I told her in a moment of intimacy to make her happy: “Mom, I read a book that made me realize that neither I nor my siblings- and said among us, each one of the other four love her a lot and know how to manifest it- can replace the emptiness that dad left.” It was something obvious, and almost banal, but “rediscovered” thanks to reading this book. My mother immediately responded, as one who naturally learned the essential anthropology leading a loving life: “Well of course- and how else could it be? He [my father] is I, and I [my mother] am he.” Afterwards, while she continued her usual domestic duties as ordinary as always, she showed me yet again the photographs, letters, and memories of her children.

The wisdom of my mother has summarized in a fleeting moment the bulk of Malo’s book, where the author offers a very modern, at the same time antique, anthropological analysis of the structure of the human person.

Sexual identity crisis

In my opinion, the novelty of this successful and mature attempt to rethink personal identity is precisely the discovery of the constitutive character of relation, and relationships. Some relations are given or imposed by biology (filiations, fraternity, paternity and maternity) others are natural or spontaneous (eros and love), while others are free (friendship). But all are "available" to be integrated and fulfilled in order to make us what we are called to be but are not yet. This is because we are corporeal beings and thus temporal beings. Each one of us is, without a doubt, an "individual substance of a rational nature," but we are also that which we do and furthermore, we are also that which others have left us by our relationships with them. We are therefore also our "biography."

As the author says, even if “identity” and “relation” are apparently abstract concepts, they have to do with "a concrete and singular reality such as human corporality. Above all, they have to do with that which is conditioned by such corporality: one’s self, the very source of all human acts, which reveals one’s own personal uniqueness. This study aims to demonstrate the relationship among these realities because- and this is in the central thesis of the book- the origin and destiny of human liberty finds itself in relation with others” (p. 7).

The book is divided into five chapters. The first examines the current crisis of sexual identity (the question of gender) at its roots: identity crisis and the challenges it presents. Through a brief historical study of the crisis, Malo shows the importance of the sexual differentiation between man and woman, not only for the formation of one’s personal identity, but also and especially in interpersonal, family and social relationships.

When going to the bottom of the crisis, in the second and third chapters, through a critical dialogue with French deconstructionism (especially Derrida and Foucault) and typical feminism, the author shows how deconstructionism has given a strong ideological support to the demands of feminism, converting it, to a large extent, into an ideology of fragmented individualism, disconnected experience, of the moment, and the dissolution of the self. Malo proposes a new focus in understanding identity and relationship: “sexual individual, self, and personality are studied through their reflection in the gift, because it is capable of assuming different levels of identity and their differences.” These two chapters, certainly the most challenging, boldly propose a metaphysical anthropology of the person that permits an understanding of both the human person and its nature. This metaphysical anthropology assumes the acquisitions of classical philosophy, and responds to challenges posed by both modern claims, such as the equation of identity to self-consciousness, and late-modern ones, such as the denial of identity itself and substitution of differences.

The fourth chapter studies the family as transcendent union of differences. It examines the different types of relationships within the family and their influence on personal identity. "The concept of generativity (generation, education or personal growth) is the key to explaining the meaning of these family relationships" (p. 19). Particular attention ought to be given to the chapter about the role of the family in the development of the anthropological roots of sociability or virtues of the social “fabric” (piety, observance, honour, obedience, truthfulness, kindness, generosity, gratitude and vindication).

The fifth chapter examines friendship as the most personal expression of human relationships and therefore, the ideal model and paradigm for all relationships. Because it is the most personal of all relationships, it is also the most potentially humanizing. This is why, if its characteristics are present in relationships, whether they are given or imposed, such relationships become perfective and not destructive of the person.

The structure of identity: person, personality, and I

It is not easy to summarize in a few lines the essence of Malo’s book. I will do it taking his concluding words that present the general guides for his anthropology of human relation. The author sustains the existence of a threefold structure of human love, made from need, self-dominion, and donation, which correspond to the threefold aspect of the human person (the personal being, self and personality).

“Each type of human love is born under the form of need with respect to the other, and when it matures, it opens up to the virtues that allow for donation. The end of this donation is to render the other capable of self-possession so that he may be able to give himself at his turn (…) Dependence, virtue, and friendship help people to enter into a relationship, and through this, to grow and mature as persons. This structure of dependency-virtue-friendship that we can encounter at the origin of personal identity, is also found in all types of love: human love (paternal-maternal, filial, fraternal) and supernatural love. Each one of these types of love begins as a need that will become a donation” (p. 328). Malo reminds his readers that one ought not to confuse donation with feelings, with the will of union, of power, etc: “The difference between the will of power and donation is derived from the fact that the first tends to impose itself in a clear way (oppressing the other) or in a masked way (forcing the other to feel guilty for his inadequacy), while the second gives to the other the power to give himself. Thus, donation is characterized by three elements: respect for the person, independence, and communication” (p. 358). Obviously, this is supposing an eternally faithful and not needy donation as the foundation of human love, which is not auto-sufficient, that is an original Love.

The correspondence of this threefold structure of love with the structure of the person is almost a mirror reflection: personal being, self and personality are all three pillars of the concrete and singular person. “In receiving one’s being, the human person begins to be such, radically and forever. Being, in so far as it is received, is possessed by the person. The reception of one’s being- or its possession- is the human essence, which is the beginning of loving. As a consequence, loving belongs to essence. Unlike a being that- though originating in time- is perfect, love has need of time in order to mature (…) Thus, within the personal essence, one can distinguish between that which is natural (the power to love) and that which is personal (the actualization that is always relational, in so far as it implies the actualization of the others)” (p.351). That is why without self-dominion, that is the ethical perfection of the self, there cannot be donation. But neither virtue nor self-dominion is an end in itself, as it is proposed by the Stoic ideal and by ethical voluntarism. “Only when one opens himself (the self) to the otherness without trying to engulf him, the self begins to be personality. In the personality, the self is radically open to the other. The self does not possess itself anymore except to communicate himself. With the self-donation, the person fulfils his “ought” (…) Human essence, therefore, is made up of otherness, not only as an object of his own intentionality and symmetry, but also as a subject of gratitude and communion. In this way, personality is nothing other than the communion of one’s own self with the other: of himself, of what he possesses, of the love for the other. To think of relationship not only in the context of dependence, but above all in the context of communion, means to think of it as a constitutive factor of the personal essence, as the end of the person and the very relationship” (p. 353-354).

A proposal for a cure

Malo's book is a diagnosis and a proposal for healing a sick and tired culture where people, programmed to be happy- they cannot help wanting to be happy- try in vain to become happy against the "program". They establish "relationships" that are not incorporated as relations because they do not want the bonds that they entail. Thus, for example, people search and multiply, through technology, virtual relationships; in this way they become confused; or they hide themselves, or disguise themselves in order to escape from relationships or their bonds.

What about the symbolic culture created by the media, especially the images of family and family relationships they present? The whole culture that we have absorbed, and are unconsciously absorbing, does not prepare us to love. The symbolic culture built through the history of film, novels, television, etc… speaks only of romantic love, which is the first step in love. The environmental culture is impregnated with selfishness that is sugar-coated and masked with hypocrisy. Then there are belligerent minorities with an agenda to transform culture according to the gender ideology that strongly influences the media and influence through the media to change the relationship between nature and freedom.

As a comical note that illustrates this, I propose a file available online called Software Wife 1.0. A customer of the new program addresses the computer company that has sold the software to him about the problems he encounters and demands “technical” solutions:

"Dear agents of Service and Maintenance: Last year I exchanged the version of GIRLFRIEND 7.0 to WIFE 1.0 and I noted that the program has started a process of unexpected CHILD 1.0 that takes up much space and valuable resources. In the brochure explaining the program, it did not make any mention of this phenomenon. Furthermore, WIFE 1.0 self-installs in all other programs and starts up automatically at the beginning of any other application, interrupting all system activity. Applications such as: out-ON-bike 2.3; of travel-adventureS-4.0; night-of-fun-with-friends 2.5; Sunday sTROLL-5.0 do not work anymore, and the worst thing is that the system crashes every time I try to load them.

Every so often, a hidden program (a virus?) starts, called MOTHER-IN-LAW 1.0 that seems to be a resident in memory and can lock the system or, at best, makes sure that WIFE 1.0 will behave in a totally unpredictable way. For example, it no longer does any command that I give. There was no way to uninstall this program.

I cannot keep WIFE 1.0 minimized while running some of my favourite applications. I'm thinking about returning back to the old program Girlfriend 7.0, but the function uninstall does not work. Can you help me? Thank you.


Dear friend: This is a very common cause for complaint among users of WIFE 1.0, but is due to, in most cases, a basic error of the concept. Many users switch from Girlfriend 7.0 to WIFE 1.0 with the idea that WIFE 1.0 is merely a program of "Entertainment and Utilities." However, WIFE 1.0, as opposed to Girlfriend 7.0, is a complete operating system. And its creator designed it to control the whole system.

Self and others: From Identity to Relationship is a book aimed at professional philosophers, particularly anthropologists. But it is also useful for creators of media, think thanks on the family, and researchers who study the relationship between family and culture. It stimulates thought and opens exciting horizons for those who desire the good of people and society.

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