Memory and Identity, Personal Reflections by Karol Wojtyla a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, could be described as a collection of philosophical essays, detailing the late Pope’s thoughts on various topics or subjects such as freedom, patriotism, democracy, to name but a few. When I say “thoughts”, I mean that in the heavy sense of the word – the thinking expressed in this book is truly impressive in terms of its broadness, depth, clarity and logic, and is firmly routed in the body of philosophical thought. Having said that I believe the aim of the book is to discuss these issues somewhat in layman’s terms, so to speak.
If I understand it correctly, I suppose you could say the central thesis of this book is the link between memory and identity, specifically how memory creates and shapes human identity, and how the memory of the Church, as the living body of Christ, impacts the identity of humanity.
There is plenty of discussion here also about the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, of which the Pope was intimately acquainted with. The most interesting thing to arise from this particular topic was for me his believe that there are de facto totalitarian regimes in place today in the West, in the guise of benign “liberal” systems of governance. These systems are based on the belief that freedom means the freedom of the individual to do whatever they please, with no regard to the freedom or impact of their actions on others. This is deemed to be “culturally progressive” etc, whereas in fact Pope John Paul points out this is a completely primitive morality. He defines freedom as the freedom to love your neighbour, to treat others as you would be treated, in keeping with Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and that only a morality that includes group freedom, including the freedom of the most vulnerable, can be deemed to be truly moral. For me, there is a powerful resonance in that message. Also, he points out that just as Hitler’s Nazis carried out the atrocities of the Holocaust, the “extermination” of so many innocent lives (Stalin of course should be mentioned for his exterminations), the extermination of innocent lives still continues in many countries today, in the form of abortion. Whatever your creed or belief, this is a fact – innocent human beings are being killed every day, in States where it is deemed legal and just to do so. Whether you think it is morally just to do so is not what the point of the discussion here – I am merely pointing out the reality that today (and every day) innocent human lives are taken, and this “taking of lives” or killing is supported by the state – this is a fact of the world we live in. Innocent human lives were “taken” or killed under the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and this killing was also legal in those totalitarian states.
Whatever your religious beliefs or non-beliefs, this book is highly recommended also as an interesting historical read – particularly of European history. There are so many fascinating historical snippets of information I hadn’t been aware of, and its clear John Paul II’s knowledge of history was formidable. For example, and maybe somewhat embarrassingly for me, the origin of the terms first, second and third world were explained in a passing comment, but that was revelatory to me! Also of course, this is a chance to get first-hand the thoughts of one of the most, if not the most, important and influential players on the stage of late 20th century politics. His insights on the collapse of the Soviet empire are golden – is there anyone better placed then he to provide commentary on the collapse of the Iron Curtain?
From a Christian point of view it is also inspiring and solace-giving, especially the many references he makes to Christ as Redeemer, and how the history of God is overlay-ed on human history – it gives you hope that there is a meaning to our lives.
Perhaps most striking was the interview with the Holy Father at the end of the book about Ali Agca’s assassination attempt. Firstly, his belief that the Virgin Mary “guided” the path of the almost-fatal bullet, and his sense in the immediate aftermath as he lay bleeding-out heavily that all would still be fine, is simply spine-tingling stuff. But there was a chilling undertone when he subtly implied that Ali Agca’s dialogue and conversations with him were solely aimed at getting knowledge of the Secret of Fatima from the Pope – he really paints a frightening picture of the cornered assassin for-hire, obsessed with his new quest to get the Secret of Fatima.
A fascinating read, straight from the mind of one of the 20th century’s undeniable giants.