Society and Sanity Detailed Book Summary

Listen to this article

Title: Society and Sanity
Author: Frank J. Sheed

TLDR: Frank Sheed argues that a healthy society can only be built on a proper understanding of the true nature of man – as a being made in the image of God, possessing an immortal soul, and called to live in loving relationship with God and others. He critiques modern trends that devalue the human person and erode personal responsibility, advocating for a society that fosters freedom, reverence, and the flourishing of individual personality.

Chapter 1: Sanity Is the Point

This chapter sets the stage for Frank Sheed’s exploration of a fundamental principle for building a good society: understanding the true nature of man. He asserts that all social institutions are designed for human beings and are built by human beings. Therefore, understanding what a human being truly is becomes essential for evaluating and building a healthy social order. Sheed points out the widespread tendency in modern society to ignore this fundamental question, focusing instead on immediate concerns like happiness or efficiency. He argues that this approach is akin to building a house without understanding the materials or its purpose, leading to instability and ultimately, collapse.

Frank Sheed uses the example of education to illustrate this point. Modern education, often driven by the State, aims to prepare individuals for life. Yet, the State, by embracing a neutral stance on fundamental questions about the nature of man and the purpose of life, operates in a state of ignorance about what it truly means to equip someone for living. This inherent contradiction, according to Sheed, reflects a broader societal neglect of fundamental thinking, a widespread “wishful thinking” that substitutes desires for reality.

He argues that this lack of foundational understanding leaves societies ill-equipped to address critical moral and social issues. Whether it’s divorce, slavery, or human equality, the only path to intelligent answers lies in first understanding what a human being truly is. Without this foundation, societal debates devolve into mere exchanges of prejudices and emotional reactions, ultimately leaving only the option of force to settle disagreements.

Sheed acknowledges the difficulty in persuading people to engage in this fundamental reflection. The common reaction is to dismiss the question as obvious or unnecessary, relying on inherited practical agreements on how to treat others. However, he points out that this superficial understanding fails when confronted with differing views, such as those espoused by totalitarian regimes. Ultimately, understanding the essence of man becomes a prerequisite for reasoned dialogue and the construction of a truly human society. The chapter concludes with the urgent question: “What is man?” – a question that needs answering before we can truly address the challenges of building a good society.

Chapter 2: Man Essential

Sheed delves into the Christian understanding of man, which served as the foundation for Western civilization. He summarizes this understanding in three core ideas: man is made in the image of God, possesses an immortal spirit, and is redeemed by Christ. Though these ideas might seem antiquated to a modern audience, Sheed argues that understanding them is crucial for comprehending the civilization built upon them and for addressing its current crisis.

Sheed unpacks the meaning of being “made in the image of God,” explaining that it encompasses man’s capacity for power, knowledge, and love, albeit in a limited way compared to the absolute nature of God. This likeness resides in the soul, a spiritual and immortal entity destined for eternal union with God. The essence of this spirit lies in its permanence and freedom – the freedom to know, to love, and to choose its path.

Contrary to religions or philosophies that denigrate the body, Christianity, according to Sheed, upholds the sacredness of both spirit and matter. The body, intimately linked to the soul, partakes in man’s eternal destiny, further emphasizing the holistic nature of man. Both the material and spiritual realms operate under laws given by God, and man’s well-being hinges on living in harmony with them.

Sheed then argues that while this view of man originated from divine revelation, it can be confirmed through reason and experience. He examines the inherent difference between matter and spirit, demonstrating that man’s capacity for thought and his awareness of himself as a thinking being point to the existence of an immortal soul. Similarly, he uses the order and complexity of the universe to argue for the existence of God as its creator.

This Christian view of man, Sheed argues, is the foundation for understanding human rights. Unlike concessions granted by society, these rights are inherent to man because he is man, endowed by God with a particular nature. Sheed outlines some of these rights: the right to life, to bodily integrity, to spiritual integrity, and to act in accordance with the moral law. This understanding, he asserts, is essential for defending these rights against the encroachment of the State and for building a society that respects the dignity of each individual.

Chapter 3: Reverence

This chapter builds on the previous chapter’s definition of “Man Essential” and argues that reverence for the human person is essential for a truly human society. Sheed contends that unless we value every man simply for being a man, irrespective of his abilities or shortcomings, a livable social order is impossible. He argues that the Christian view of man – made in God’s image, possessing an immortal spirit, and redeemed by Christ – provides a solid foundation for this reverence, while other views struggle to establish man’s inherent value.

Sheed traces the historical struggle to establish this reverence, highlighting how even great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato failed to fully grasp the inherent worth of every human being. Christianity, on the other hand, has consistently championed this principle, teaching that every person, however damaged by sin or injustice, deserves respect and care because of their divine likeness and eternal destiny.

Sheed then criticizes the widespread tendency in modern society to treat people as things, reducing them to their function or utility rather than recognizing their inherent personality. He provides examples ranging from the impersonal interactions with waiters to the dehumanizing nature of prostitution and the alienation between employers and employees. This objectification of human beings, he argues, leads to a lack of respect and a profanity that undermines the foundations of a healthy society.

Furthermore, Sheed criticizes the unchecked embrace of technology and processes without considering their impact on human well-being. He argues that the focus should not be solely on efficiency but also on whether a particular method enhances or diminishes the human person. Finally, he applies this principle of reverence to the treatment of individuals from other races and those with disabilities, emphasizing that their inherent worth as human beings outweighs any perceived differences or perceived lack of usefulness.

Sheed concludes by reiterating the vital importance of reverence in building a just and humane society. He acknowledges the difficulty in consistently seeing and valuing the inherent worth of every human being but argues that the effort is essential. Without it, the tendency to profane, to objectify, and to dehumanize will prevail, ultimately leading to a society that fails to honor the true nature of man.

Chapter 4: Man Existential

Sheed emphasizes the importance of studying not only the essence of man, but also the realities of human existence, recognizing the diversity and complexity of individual lives. He calls this “Man Existential” and argues that this study is essential for understanding how the general principles of human nature manifest in individual lives.

He explains that while the definition of man reveals the core truths of his being, it doesn’t capture the nuances of how those truths play out in real life. It doesn’t explain the differences between men and women, the complexities of emotions, the power of desires, or the often-unpredictable nature of human behavior. Therefore, to understand man fully, one needs to engage with the realities of human experience.

Sheed introduces two factors that contribute to the complexity of Man Existential: damage and freedom. He acknowledges that human beings are flawed creatures, prone to error in their thinking and actions. He highlights the ways in which people can misuse their reason, become slaves to desires and habits, and act against their own best interests. This “damagedness,” Sheed argues, is a universal human condition.

However, he balances this understanding with the recognition that man is also free. Despite our flaws and tendencies towards self-destruction, we possess the capacity to choose differently, to act reasonably, to overcome our weaknesses, and to strive for good. This freedom, according to Sheed, makes human behavior unpredictable and adds a further layer of complexity to the study of Man Existential.

He stresses the importance of understanding both the commonalities and the differences between individuals, acknowledging the role of individual choice and unique experiences in shaping who we are. He criticizes social planners who ignore this diversity and try to build systems based on an idealized, uniform view of man.

Finally, Sheed advocates for a deeper engagement with the realities of human experience, urging us to study not only the definition of man but also the lives of real people. He concludes by emphasizing the importance of loving and appreciating the “whole tragic-comic complexus of humanity” for building a society that truly serves the needs and honors the potential of each individual.

Chapter 5: Realism

Sheed challenges the prevailing notion of “realism” in society, criticizing its narrow focus on the negative aspects of human nature. He argues that true realism involves considering all aspects of reality, including those that inspire reverence and compassion.

He begins by defining “realism” as taking things as they actually are, considering all the facts. He then criticizes the common tendency to selectively choose facts, ignoring those that are inconvenient or challenging. He describes the “realist” as someone obsessed with exposing the negative and the discreditable, often missing the deeper realities of both good and evil.

Sheed argues that this type of realism, exemplified by Machiavelli in “The Prince,” ultimately leads to a dehumanizing view of man, reducing individuals to their weaknesses and treating them as objects to be manipulated. He criticizes Machiavelli’s principles for ignoring the essential nature of man and for ultimately proving ineffective in achieving lasting success.

Beyond this critique of Machiavelli, Sheed points out the widespread tendency of leaders and social planners to ignore the realities of human experience. He highlights instances where historical figures and movements failed because they disregarded obvious truths about human nature and behavior, such as the Inquisition’s persecution of heretics and Karl Marx’s proposal to abolish property.

He then contrasts this flawed “realism” with a true understanding of man, which recognizes both his essential nature and the complexities of his existence. Sheed argues that this true realism, grounded in a holistic view of man, is essential for building a just and humane society. He emphasizes that it requires not only acknowledging human limitations and flaws but also recognizing the inherent dignity of every person and striving to restore each individual to their full potential.

Chapter 6: Law

Sheed explores the relationship between freedom and law, arguing that true freedom is found not in rejecting law but in understanding and harmonizing oneself with it. He connects this principle to both the natural laws of the universe and the moral laws governing human behavior.

He begins by highlighting the way in which scientific discoveries, by revealing the laws of nature, actually increase human freedom. Understanding the laws of flight, for example, allows man to conquer the air. Similarly, understanding the laws governing our bodies and minds allows us to live healthier and more fulfilling lives. Sheed argues that this principle applies to all of God’s laws, including the moral law.

He then distinguishes between physical laws and moral laws. Physical laws, he argues, are descriptive, revealing how things work. Moral laws, on the other hand, are both descriptive and prescriptive, not only revealing the consequences of actions but also commanding us to act in certain ways. However, Sheed emphasizes that both types of laws operate objectively, with consequences for those who ignore or violate them.

He outlines two ways in which we learn the moral law: through its inscription in our nature and through divine revelation. The laws of morality, according to Sheed, are woven into the fabric of our being, evident in the way our powers and needs function. When we violate these laws, we experience internal conflict and a sense of guilt – the protest of our nature against misuse. However, this internal compass can be distorted by damage and rationalization, requiring the further guidance of explicit teaching from God.

Sheed traces the progressive revelation of the moral law through the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Christ, and the ongoing guidance of the Church. He highlights the centrality of love in the moral law, arguing that God’s commands are ultimately expressions of His love for man and should be obeyed out of love.

Finally, Sheed emphasizes that the moral law, like physical law, is a statement of how things work. Ignoring or violating it, he argues, is not only morally wrong but also practically foolish, leading to individual and societal damage. He concludes by reiterating that true freedom lies in understanding and harmonizing ourselves with God’s laws, finding liberation through obedience rather than rebellion.

Chapter 7: Love

This chapter delves into the central role of love in human relationships and society, highlighting its practical importance alongside its moral imperative. Sheed argues that love, specifically the love of neighbor as oneself commanded by Christ, is not merely a sentiment but a foundational principle for building a just and functional social order.

He begins by addressing the seeming impossibility of loving all men, particularly one’s enemies. He acknowledges that this command, even for those who believe in God, can appear unrealistic and impractical. However, Sheed argues that God, who knows human nature intimately, would not give an impossible command. He explains that the love Christ demands is not primarily emotional but an act of the will, a deliberate choice to will the good of another.

Sheed clarifies the nature of this love, contrasting it with reverence and pity. While reverence acknowledges the greatness in another and pity responds to their weaknesses, love goes beyond both, encompassing the whole person with warmth and a sense of fellowship. He emphasizes that true love involves not only willing the good of another but also understanding their struggles and responding to their needs from a place of shared humanity.

However, Sheed warns against sentimentality, emphasizing that love must be grounded in realism and a clear-eyed recognition of another’s faults. He argues that true love can coexist with the need to address harmful behavior, even to the point of resisting or restraining an aggressor. He clarifies the Christian paradox of loving one’s enemies, even when forced to act against them, emphasizing that willing their good remains an obligation even in the midst of conflict.

Sheed then explores the practical implications of love for building a healthy society. He utilizes St. Augustine’s definition of society as a group united by agreement about the things they love, arguing that love for one another is the only unifying principle that can overcome the divisive nature of other desires. He contends that competition, while sometimes useful, ultimately exacerbates self-interest and undermines social harmony.

He concludes by emphasizing the importance of trust, a natural consequence of love, for fostering cooperation and reducing the burden of suspicion and safeguarding. He acknowledges the tendency towards selfishness and deception in human nature but argues that most people would act decently if they believed others were doing the same and if they understood the harmful consequences of widespread dishonesty. Ultimately, Sheed argues that restoring trust requires cultivating a shared moral code, rooted in the authority of God, and fostering a societal atmosphere that values love, reverence, and trust as foundational principles.

Chapter 8: The Nature of Sex and Marriage

This chapter initiates Sheed’s exploration of marriage and the family, focusing on the nature of sex and its purpose within the natural order. He argues that sex, primarily intended for procreation, finds its most fulfilling expression within the framework of marriage, serving both the continuation of the human race and the enrichment of individual lives.

Sheed begins by criticizing the typical modern attitude towards sex, which reduces it to a pursuit of pleasure without engaging in meaningful reflection. He argues that sex is a powerful force that requires intelligent understanding and control, lest it become a destructive force in individual lives and society. He advocates for using reason to guide our sexual impulses, ensuring that they serve the well-being of the whole person.

He then addresses the purpose of sex from a natural perspective, concluding that its primary aim is procreation. Sheed acknowledges that individuals may have different motivations for engaging in sexual activity but emphasizes that this does not negate its fundamental purpose. He contrasts this view with the Puritan idea that sex is inherently sinful and the hedonist idea that it is merely a source of fleeting pleasure. He argues that both perspectives fail to grasp the profound connection between sex and the creation of new life, a truth recognized even in ancient pagan rituals.

Sheed then explores the seeming paradox of entrusting the continuation of the race to a force as turbulent as sex. He argues that marriage provides the necessary framework for reconciling this tension, channeling the powerful energy of sex into a constructive force that serves life. He emphasizes the importance of permanence in marriage, arguing that it is essential for providing the stability and security needed to raise children to maturity.

Sheed then challenges the notion that marriage is merely a trap designed by nature to serve its own ends. He argues that by fulfilling nature’s plan for procreation, individuals also experience personal fulfillment. He contrasts promiscuity, often seen as the ultimate expression of sexual freedom, with monogamous love, arguing that it is within the committed relationship of marriage that sex achieves its true potential.

He explains that marriage allows for a depth of union impossible outside it, both physically and emotionally. He argues that promiscuity, while offering a variety of experiences, ultimately leaves individuals “inexperienced” in the true meaning of sexual intimacy. He concludes by emphasizing that embracing the natural order of marriage does not diminish the power of sex but rather enhances it, providing a framework for its fullest and most lasting expression.

Chapter 9: Marriage and the Law of God

Sheed shifts the focus from the natural purpose of marriage to the teachings of God, outlining the Church’s understanding of marriage as a divinely ordained institution governed by specific laws. He emphasizes the indissoluble nature of marriage and the importance of sexual integrity within its framework.

Sheed begins by summarizing the two key tenets of the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage: sexual activity is reserved for marriage, and marriage is monogamous and indissoluble until death. He argues that these principles, rooted in divine revelation and consistent with the natural order, provide the best framework for fulfilling the purpose of sex and promoting human flourishing.

He then delves into the nature of marriage as a relationship that arises from a contract. He distinguishes between the contract, freely entered into by a man and a woman, and the relationship, created by God. He emphasizes the importance of a genuine intention to marry, meaning a lifelong, exclusive union open to the possibility of children. He explains that the Church can grant a decree of nullity if it can be shown that a genuine contract was not made, but once the relationship is established by God, it cannot be broken by human will.

Sheed uses the biblical phrase “two in one flesh” to illustrate the profound unity created in marriage, comparing it to the union of Christ and His Church. He explains the husband’s role as head of the family, emphasizing that this authority is not a license for tyranny but a responsibility for loving leadership modeled on Christ’s love for the Church. He clarifies the wife’s role as heart of the family, highlighting her importance in nurturing love and transmitting moral values to children.

He then addresses the mutual rights and responsibilities within marriage, highlighting the entitlement to normal sexual union and the obligation to approach it with generosity and a willingness to serve the other’s needs. He criticizes both coldness and excess in sexual expression, emphasizing the importance of understanding, skill, and mutual respect for achieving a fulfilling physical relationship.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the spiritual dimension of marriage, particularly for baptized couples who receive the sacrament of Matrimony. He explains that the sacrament elevates and strengthens the natural bond, providing grace to help couples live out their commitment and fulfill their duties. He also addresses the Church’s teaching on virginity as a higher calling, arguing that it does not diminish the value of marriage but rather exemplifies the sacredness of sex as a gift from God, capable of being dedicated to Him in both married and consecrated life.

Chapter 10: Marriage Existential

Sheed acknowledges the gap between the ideal of marriage and the realities of lived experience, exploring the challenges and complexities faced by couples in navigating the demands of a lifelong commitment. He emphasizes the importance of understanding, reverence, and mutual self-giving for overcoming these challenges and achieving a successful marriage.

He begins by acknowledging the limitations of preparation for marriage, emphasizing that the full reality of this intimate union can only be grasped through experience. He compares marriage to a vast and turbulent sea, for which no amount of land-based training can fully prepare one. The unique closeness and interpenetration of personalities, he argues, create both opportunities for profound joy and potential for deep hurt.

Sheed then explores the ways in which personal flaws and shortcomings can impact a marriage. He highlights the challenges of navigating differences in temperament, habits, and values, arguing that even minor irritations can become magnified in the close quarters of married life. He emphasizes the need for humor, self-awareness, and a willingness to prioritize the good of the relationship over personal preferences.

He then addresses more serious character flaws that can threaten the stability of a marriage, such as anger, jealousy, laziness, or financial irresponsibility. He emphasizes the importance of unselfishness and a willingness to work for the good of the other, acknowledging the potential for resentment and martyrdom when these efforts are not reciprocated.

Sheed also explores the challenges posed by the inherent insufficiency of human beings to meet all of one another’s needs. He argues that expecting a spouse to fulfill needs that only God can satisfy inevitably leads to disappointment and resentment. He highlights the importance of recognizing these limitations and turning to God for the ultimate fulfillment of our deepest longings.

Beyond these challenges, Sheed explores the problem of thin or underdeveloped personalities, recognizing that many couples struggle to build a fulfilling relationship with limited resources. He argues that marriage itself, by demanding engagement and mutual self-giving, can foster personal growth and development. He emphasizes the importance of reverence, grounded in a recognition of the other’s inherent dignity, for nurturing love and overcoming the temptation to manipulate or control.

He then addresses the powerful and often unpredictable nature of sexual desire, recognizing its potential to both strengthen and disrupt a marriage. He acknowledges the challenge of maintaining sexual satisfaction and fidelity over a lifetime, particularly in a culture saturated with unrealistic expectations and temptations. He highlights the importance of mutual understanding, communication, and a commitment to meeting the other’s needs for preserving a healthy sexual relationship.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the importance of grounding marriage in a clear understanding of man, God, and the purpose of life. He argues that this foundational knowledge provides the framework for navigating the complexities of marriage and for finding lasting joy and fulfillment within its embrace.

Chapter 11: Society and the Nature of Man

Sheed explores the foundations and purpose of society, arguing that it is a natural extension of man’s social nature and essential for the full development of human potential. He emphasizes the distinction between Society and State, highlighting the vital importance of preserving a sphere of freedom and personal responsibility within a well-ordered social order.

He begins by highlighting the insufficiency of the family to meet all of man’s needs and provide scope for all his powers. Individuals require a broader context for learning, for economic cooperation, and for protection against external threats. Sheed argues that these needs necessitate the formation of larger social groups, with families uniting within a broader Society.

He then contrasts the common perception of Society as a necessary evil with its true nature as a positive good, essential for human flourishing. He emphasizes the inherent drive in humans to connect with others, the enrichment that comes from shared experience and collaboration, and the limitations experienced by those who live isolated from their fellows. He criticizes the tendency, particularly among Catholics, to seek refuge in the Church as a substitute for active engagement in the broader society. He argues that while the Church provides profound spiritual nourishment, it cannot fully replace the fulfillment found in participating in the natural order of human relationships and social responsibility.

Sheed then addresses the need for authority and power within Society, arguing that a well-ordered social order requires a system for promoting the Common Good and for resolving conflicts between individual interests. He emphasizes that the authority of the State, which he refers to as “Caesar,” is ultimately derived from God, as evidenced by the teachings of Christ and the apostles.

He clarifies that this divine right does not imply absolute power or freedom from accountability. He argues that the State exists to serve man, not vice versa, and that its authority should always be exercised in a way that respects the dignity and fosters the development of its citizens.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the vital importance of understanding the true nature of man for building a just and humane society. He argues that both the rulers and the ruled need to grasp the inherent value of each individual, recognizing their rights and responsibilities within a divinely ordained order. He argues that this understanding, rooted in a vision of man as made in God’s image and destined for eternal life, provides the foundation for a truly human civilization.

Chapter 12: Social Fact and Political Order

Sheed delves further into the relationship between Society and State, emphasizing the importance of grounding political structures in the realities of human experience. He argues against imposing pre-conceived political systems on societies without considering their unique cultural and historical contexts.

He begins by distinguishing between the Social Order and the Political Order. While the State represents the organized structure of authority and power within a society, the Social Order encompasses a wider range of human activities and relationships, driven by individual choice and voluntary associations. He argues that the State should grow organically from the Social Fact, reflecting the shared values and aspirations of its people.

Sheed then criticizes the modern tendency to conflate the Political Order with the Social Order, highlighting the dangers of the State encroaching on areas of personal freedom and responsibility. He uses the example of the Welfare State, acknowledging its noble intentions but cautioning against its potential to undermine individual initiative and create a dependence on governmental control.

He then examines the consequences of ignoring the Social Fact in establishing political systems. He criticizes the pursuit of a World State or World Federation, arguing that such a structure is impossible without a pre-existing global society united by shared values and experiences. He also criticizes the imposition of one country’s political system on another, whether through democratic idealism or totalitarian ambition, arguing that it ignores the unique historical and cultural context that shapes each society.

Sheed further argues that the Political Order should not attempt to reshape the Social Order to fit its own pre-conceived mold. He criticizes the tendency towards nationalization and increasing state control, arguing that it concentrates power in the hands of the government and undermines individual liberty. He emphasizes that true vitality flows from a society characterized by personal responsibility, voluntary cooperation, and a vibrant social fabric independent of state control.

He concludes by emphasizing that the key question is not “Who is Caesar?” but “How much power?” He argues that the proper role of the State is to serve the Common Good while respecting the dignity and fostering the freedom of its citizens. He warns against the seductive nature of power, which tends to expand its reach regardless of the form of government, and advocates for a vigilant defense of personal liberty and a healthy balance between individual responsibility and state authority.

Chapter 13: Caesar and Citizens

This chapter explores the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, emphasizing the importance of both choosing capable leaders and creating a societal atmosphere that fosters responsible citizenship and a respect for law.

Sheed begins by acknowledging the challenge of finding good leaders, recognizing that no system, whether hereditary or elective, guarantees the selection of wise and virtuous rulers. He argues that the quality of leadership ultimately reflects the moral and spiritual state of the society it governs. Therefore, the primary focus should be on creating a virtuous society, from which good leaders will naturally emerge.

He then addresses the unique challenges and temptations faced by those in positions of power, acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining reverence for one’s subjects when constantly confronted with their flaws and self-serving behaviors. He argues that rulers, particularly in democracies, are susceptible to the temptation to manipulate public opinion and prioritize their own interests over the Common Good.

Sheed also emphasizes the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, arguing that the right to choose one’s leaders comes with a duty to exercise that right intelligently and responsibly. He criticizes the tendency to rely on superficial impressions or emotional appeals when evaluating candidates, urging citizens to engage in careful study of their character, their principles, and their track record. He also emphasizes the importance of understanding the complexities of government and the challenges faced by those in power, advocating for a more informed and nuanced approach to political engagement.

He further argues that the role of citizens extends beyond merely electing leaders. They have a responsibility to create a moral and spiritual climate that fosters good government. This involves establishing clear standards of right and wrong, holding leaders accountable to those standards, and actively promoting a culture of civic virtue and respect for law.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the interconnectedness of individual character and the health of society as a whole. He argues that a just and flourishing society requires both wise and virtuous leaders and an engaged and responsible citizenry. He emphasizes that democracy is not a magical system that produces good government automatically but rather a demanding enterprise that requires ongoing commitment and active participation from all members of society.

Chapter 14: Liberty, Equality, Personality

Sheed tackles the concepts of liberty, equality, and personality, critiquing common misconceptions and emphasizing their true meaning within a Christian understanding of man and society. He argues that true liberty is grounded in responsibility, true equality lies in the inherent dignity of the human person, and true personality emerges from the flourishing of the spiritual self.

He begins by exploring the concept of liberty, arguing that true freedom is not merely the absence of external constraints but the capacity to act responsibly in accordance with one’s nature and God’s law. He criticizes the modern tendency to equate freedom with personal gratification, arguing that this ultimately leads to a loss of true liberty through enslavement to desires and external control.

Sheed then addresses the concept of equality, arguing that all men are equal in their essential nature as persons created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. However, he acknowledges the existence of accidental inequalities in talents, abilities, and circumstances. He argues that these differences, while not grounds for asserting superiority or inferiority, should be recognized and utilized for the good of society.

He criticizes the pursuit of absolute equality in outcomes, arguing that it is both impossible and ultimately harmful to human flourishing. He emphasizes the importance of rewarding merit and fostering excellence, recognizing that differences in effort and achievement naturally lead to differences in social status and material reward.

Sheed then explores the meaning of personality, arguing that it is not merely a collection of external traits but an expression of the inner self. He emphasizes the spiritual dimension of personality, highlighting the importance of developing one’s intellect, will, and character for achieving a vibrant and impactful personality.

He criticizes the modern tendency to flatten personality through mass media and standardized products, arguing that this undermines the unique value and potential of each individual. He argues that true personality flourishes in a society that values diversity, encourages individual initiative, and fosters the development of the spiritual self.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the vital importance of understanding the true nature of man for building a society that upholds liberty, equality, and the flourishing of personality. He argues that this understanding, grounded in a Christian view of man as a free and responsible being created in God’s image, provides the foundation for a just and humane social order that respects the dignity and fosters the full potential of each individual.

Chapter 15: Personality in Eclipse

Sheed explores the ways in which the modern world has undermined the concept of personality, both in its philosophical sense and in its everyday understanding. He argues that this devaluation of the human person has led to a weakening of individual character and a dangerous susceptibility to external manipulation.

He begins by contrasting the two meanings of personality: its philosophical definition as the spiritual capacity for knowing and loving, and its popular understanding as the unique set of qualities that make an individual impactful. He emphasizes the interconnectedness of these meanings, arguing that a strong and impactful personality emerges from the flourishing of the inner self.

Sheed then traces the historical assault on the idea of personality, highlighting the decline of belief in a personal God and the rise of materialist philosophies that reduce man to a mere animal or a collection of chemical reactions. He argues that this devaluation of the human person has stripped life of meaning and left individuals feeling insignificant and adrift.

He then shifts focus to the more recent phenomenon of “personality flattening,” which he attributes to the rise of mass media and standardized products. He argues that these forces, driven by a desire to reach the largest possible audience, have homogenized culture, discouraged individuality, and fostered a passive acceptance of pre-packaged ideas and experiences.

Sheed criticizes the manipulation techniques employed by advertisers and propagandists, who exploit human weaknesses and fears to create a sense of artificial need and desire. He argues that these methods, while effective in the short term, ultimately erode personal autonomy and undermine the capacity for critical thinking and independent judgment.

He concludes by emphasizing the dangers of this “unmanning” process, arguing that it weakens individual character, undermines social vitality, and creates a fertile ground for totalitarian control. He calls for a renewed emphasis on the inherent dignity and value of the human person, advocating for a society that fosters individuality, encourages personal responsibility, and resists the forces that seek to reduce individuals to a faceless mass.

Chapter 16: Vitality

Sheed addresses the crucial question of vitality in individuals and society, arguing that true vitality stems from living in harmony with one’s nature and God’s laws. He emphasizes the importance of freedom, responsibility, and a sense of purpose for fostering a vibrant and flourishing social order.

He begins by defining vitality as the natural consequence of health, which he defines as a state of being fully oneself and functioning freely in accordance with one’s nature. He argues that any attempts to distort or constrain the human person, even with benevolent intentions, ultimately diminish vitality and weaken both individuals and society as a whole.

Sheed then criticizes the erosion of personal responsibility and initiative in the modern world, arguing that excessive state control and the provision of pre-packaged solutions undermine the capacity for independent judgment and action. He uses the example of the Welfare State, acknowledging its benefits but cautioning against its potential to create a culture of dependence and passive acceptance.

He then explores the importance of voluntary cooperation and social engagement for fostering vitality, arguing that individuals thrive when given opportunities to exercise their talents and contribute to the well-being of their communities. He emphasizes the importance of family life as the primary school of love and a vital source of social strength and stability.

Sheed also addresses the need for a clear sense of purpose and meaning in life, arguing that individuals and societies lose vitality when they lack a vision of what life is for and where it is heading. He highlights the importance of religion in providing this sense of purpose, arguing that a secular worldview, while capable of organizing material affairs, cannot provide the spiritual nourishment needed for lasting vitality.

He acknowledges the tension between the demands of the State and the needs of the human person, arguing that rulers often prioritize efficiency and order over the freedom and responsibility that foster vitality in their subjects. He criticizes the tendency to treat citizens as interchangeable parts in a machine, rather than as unique individuals with inherent dignity and potential.

Sheed concludes by emphasizing the vital importance of reverence for the human person for building a society that fosters true vitality. He argues that rulers and citizens alike must recognize the inherent worth of each individual, respecting their freedom, fostering their responsibility, and providing opportunities for them to contribute to the common good. He envisions a society that cherishes individuality, encourages initiative, and empowers its members to live fully and freely in accordance with their true nature.

🙏 Your PayPal Donation Appreciated

Select a Donation Option (USD)

Enter Donation Amount (USD)


As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you.

Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Scroll to Top