The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood
By Gil Bailie.
Angelico Press, 2023.
Paperback, 336 pages, $22.95.

Reviewed by Robert Grant Price.

One question of the moment is whether the West can survive without Christianity as its keystone. Gil Bailie, author of The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self, says no. The many blessings we in the democratic West take for granted “will not long survive the waning of the faith that made them possible.”

Bailie is the founder of The Cornerstone Forum, “an apostolate dedicated to calling attention to the unique cultural, spiritual, and anthropological significance of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” and author of two other books that address what the person is and how we can live better lives. 

In this newest book, he examines this impending, all-too-possible crisis facing Western societies by studying the construction, evolution, and coming apocalypse of the sovereign self. To embrace the sovereign self is to view the human person as free “to become whatever it might wish to be, notwithstanding any moral, cultural, social, or biological facts.” Think of Satan in Paradise Lost: the king of his own sad castle, able to do whatever he likes but ultimately imprisoned in pandemonium. “To be free in this sense,” Bailie writes, “is to be profoundly impoverished, deprived of the heritage, commitments, human bonds, and unique circumstances which condition human life and enrich it.”

Deeply read—Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self is a compendium of quotations from the wise and learned—Bailie traces the genesis of the sovereign self to the thought of René Descartes, who thought it a good idea to abandon the communal search for truth and to go it alone—to doubt the truths of others until it can be confirmed through one’s own efforts. This seed, from which the “poisonous fruit” of the sovereign self blossomed, was taken up by the “morally defective” writer and child abandoner Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who embodied this romantic notion of the autonomous self-constituting self better than anyone else. In his Confessions, Rousseau has the audacity to write, “I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.” 

“Few,” Bailie notes wryly, “inhaled those fumes [of self sovereignty] as deeply as the great writer who claimed to have no precedent and no imitator, but who was obviously mimicking Augustine’s Confessions.”

Bailie follows the progression of self-understanding through the “nihilistic hysteria” and “culture of death” promulgated by Friedrich Nietzsche and Sylvia Plath to arrive at the cultural sabotage demonstrated in the works of the charlatan Howard Zinn and the fabulist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose counterfactual histories make Americans prey to globalists “who see value in unanchored individuals.” Should the distorted understanding of the self stagger on, tyranny awaits. “There is a symbiotic relationship between radical autonomy and autocratic political control,” Bailie says, and anybody who’s been watching the world around them knows he’s right. 

The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self is a close study of a shadow world. It is a chronicle of loss—the loss of a coherent and true understanding of the human person. The modern individual, Bailie writes, has “bartered away his ability to be a person in exchange for the dubious luxury of functioning as a self.” The difference between the sovereign self and the person provides the axis around which much of Bailie’s book revolves. The sovereign self wants nihilism, career, and narrative; the person desires memory, a mission, and truth. 

If this book needs anything more, it is a fuller portrait of personhood, a portrait fleshed out for its own sake, rather than appearing in the book as a counterpoint to the sovereign self. This is not to say that Bailie glosses over the deep meaning of person, but to point out that in spending so much time deconstructing modern delusions about the self, he steals time away from showing the better way. When he does turn to the question of the person, he often hovers in the mist of enigma. This may, in fact, be a product of the theological import of what he means by person, a concept that originates in the Trinity and in the Greek word persona, meaning “mask.” 

Bailie leverages the words of others to help make sense of this strange idea. “Man finds his center of gravity, not inside, but outside himself,” he quotes Jacques Maritain. “The individual exists for society, but the society exists for the person,” says Pope Benedict XVI. Still, the idea remains mysterious, cloaked in language and history, a concept as engaging as it is frustrating. The person, Bailie says, is “sacramental,” but what is a reader to do with such an understanding? Is the answer to say that you don’t “do” anything with such knowledge? Or is the problem rooted in environmental concerns—that the West has become a habitat so well suited to the sovereign individual that to understand what it means to be a person requires a paradigm shift both in the mind of the curious penitent as well as the entire world where he finds himself? Can we even understand what it means?

Environment turns out to be the missing piece in developing an understanding. “Person” is a distinctly Christian knowledge, and it cannot easily be understood out of context. The fact that the context in the West has changed so dramatically is a religious phenomenon. Contemporary Christian thought no longer understands its own metaphysics. To take one example, Hallow, the popular prayer app, offers users music, scripture read by celebrities, and other prayer tools that a person can access alone, before or after work, from the comfort of home, along with resources to achieve better mental health, routines for meditation, and help for getting better sleep at night. While better than nothing, this approach appeals to the sovereign self, to the consumer and to the individual who wants to customize his faith, to make it user friendly. The fact that Christian advocates were so staggered by the blows of the New Atheists and other enemies of the faith shows how lost the faith has become and how much the faith needs to recover the mysteries it once understood. Christianity has “remarkable resources” at its disposal to refute erroneous claims and jealous attacks on its treasures. But the faithful didn’t. And as long as they play according to the terms of the consumer-minded, self-actualizing sovereign self, they will continue to lose in the public square.  

Bailie draws heavily on the work of his friend, René Girard, the French Catholic literary theorist, to explain what makes personhood sacramental, and to show how the sovereign self degrades over time, while the person does not.

Humans are mimetic creatures: we learn through imitation. Consciously or unconsciously, the person who believes this romantic fantasy must look for ways to be different from others, and from the people who came before them. The effort is never-ending and all-consuming. Inevitably, the points of difference will shrink and become more obscure as the individual looks for new ways to prove originality. After generations of copies, the image degrades. What the self was supposed to be becomes inscrutable. 

Bailie explains how the person who imitates Christ draws directly from the source of personhood. The direct reference produces a clearer image of what it means to be a person. The person who goes to the source finds a sense of self and being that needs no mark of difference yet is authentic. 

Bailie is a man who understands. The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self shows an understanding of the person as it existed through the ages. He delves into theology and literature and takes unexpected forays into the oeuvres of Arthur Miller and Bob Dylan. The argument has a roving quality, moving from one idea to the next in a way that seems unsystematic but is nonetheless intriguing and coherent. 

The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self offers rich soil for novices interested in learning more about Christian understanding of persons and much for experts to harvest. 

Robert Grant Price is a university teacher and communications consultant.

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