Summer 2006

The Dramatic Nature of Life: Liberal Societies and the Foundations of Human Dignity

David L. Schindler

“Though there is much movement and much noise and sometimes great violence in democratic societies today, there is virtually no drama.”1

Human life and action realize their integrity only insofar as they are dramatic, and they are truly dramatic in the end only insofar as they engage to the full their creaturely nature before God. This I believe is the burden of the thought of John Paul II. Evangelium vitae speaks of a struggle in our time between good and evil, between a “culture of life” and a “culture of death” (EV, 28). Such a struggle would surely seem to suggest a drama. My proposal, however, is that, though there is much movement and much noise and sometimes great violence in democratic societies today, there is virtually no drama, and that it is just the absence of drama that highlights the nature of our societies’ drift toward a culture of death.



First, some brief and basic etymological notes. “Drama,” from the Greek, means literally deed or act. But the term refers more commonly to a life or theatrical performance involving tension and conflict that stirs the imagination and evokes the passions. These two meanings cannot be cleanly separated: we are not disposed really to count as a human action one that is bereft of passion or lacking in dynamic quality and depth.

The term “life,” rightly understood, indicates more than bare physical existence. As we know from Aristotle, it signifies an ordered power that comes from within, a power bearing interiority and hence depth. This interior power enables the richness and intensity characteristic of what we spontaneously judge to be alive, in contrast to the dull repetition of what survives but remains inert and indeed superficial (super-facies: on the surface), and the movement of which is merely a function of external forces.2 It is human life, whose interiority takes a spiritual form, that manifests the fullest richness and intensity of life among the beings of the world.


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1. A version of this paper was presented at the conference, “Loving Human Love: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II on Marriage and the Family,” which took place in Rome, 11–13 May 2006, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Lateran University.

2. Of course, no being in the cosmos is altogether lacking in interior power. On the contrary, every being participates analogically in a kind of (metaphysical) interiority, by virtue of creation. Cf. inter alia the work of Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Gift: Creation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1982).