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On Being a Person

The word “person” is not to be confused with what we call “personality.” Each human being is a person. Not so many persons are “personalities.” And not all “personalities” are admirable. We might likewise hope that the word “person” was exempt from the ambiguity that is attached to the words “values,” “dignity,” and “rights,” words that can, if we are not careful, be made to mean almost anything.

At first sight, the word person is not so easily able to mean its opposite. Jacques Maritain was famous for distinguishing between the individual and the person. As individuals, we are related as parts to the whole. But as persons, each of us is a “whole.” In that latter capacity, we transcend any community in which we are a mere part. Each person has a transcendent destiny that is both personal and open to others.

I recall years ago being puzzled by the caution that the great Canadian philosopher, Charles De Koninck, expressed about the word person. In particular, as Catholic thought was more and more tending to fix on the word person, here was a man of considerable insight who thought something in the notion of person was dangerous. How so?

The famous definition of Boethius that a “person is an individual substance of a rational nature” was not bad. The word person came from the Greek theatre. An actor wore a mask that identified him on stage. The actor took on the persona of his role in the play. Thus, the person of the actor while acting was not his person in real life. The stage, unlike a book, enabled the actor to “become” the “person” he depicted.

Trinitarian theology was based on the notion of person. Within the Godhead were three “persons.” One God, without contradiction, included three divine “Persons.” How was this seeming impossibility to be understood? Augustine pointed out that we are, each of us, one being, but we have intellect and will by which we include what is not ourselves without our becoming more than one being.

Holy Trinity fresco by Luca Rossetti, 1739 [St. Gaudenzino Church, Ivrea, Italy]

Each divine Person was a relation to the other Persons. The Father was not the Son, the Spirit was neither the Father nor the Son. Yet, each Person was wholly open and related to the others. The Christian Godhead was not lonely, but relational within itself. A person is thus not an isolated being, but one open to the others. To recall a problem in Aristotle, God did not create because He was lonely.

Human persons are not divine. We are each substantial beings, but our very being is open to, but not absorbed by, others. Each human being is conceived and born as a person. Each is invited to live within the Trinitarian life of God. This participation is the purpose of the existence of each person. This invitation can be refused. You do not cease to be a person if you reject the divine invitation. In effect, you choose yourself rather than joining your own person with the other persons, human, angelic, and divine to whom you are invited and called.

In reading Peter Augustine Lawler’s new book, American Heresies and Higher Education [1], I came across his insightful discussion of transhumanism. As I was reading it, the name De Koninck kept coming back to my mind. By now, we are used to the “autonomy” of the person. But this modern “autonomy” does not mean what person-as-a-relation to others means. It indicates rather that the person’s self-definition depends on nothing but oneself.

Usually, even in totalitarian ideology, we find the notion of sacrificing for some cause or future good. But we can imagine how the word person might not look any further than itself. Thus, what concerns us is exactly our particular, concrete person. We see that it dies. We want a technology or technique that saves not people down the ages, nor others, but ourselves. We are no longer oriented to anything other than our particular selves. It is futile to worry about the future or others. The only meaning to life is our unique person. How do we overcome its fragility?

If one looks carefully at such thinking, it seems like a parody of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The latter doctrine, however, did not deny the fact of death. Death now becomes the evil that science seeks to eradicate – not for the race but for this individual person.

This result, it strikes me, was precisely why De Koninck was concerned with the notion of “person,” why he so stressed the common good. He saw how, like “duties,” “rights,” and “values,” “person” could become a dangerous threat to actual human beings in what they are. Indeed, here is another reminder that the neglect of clear thinking about the truth of things will itself lead us to deny what we really are, persons ordered to eternal life.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.