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Paper delivered during the St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture Series. Arts and Letters, UST


Jove Jim S. Aguas, Phd






            Today, there is so much violence in the world.  Everyday we  hear about killings, kidnappings, rapes, abortion, terrorist attacks, hunger, wars and many other acts of violence.  The irony of this fact is that while the human person is the very victim of this violence, it is the same human person who is the perpetrator of such violence.   Man is a paradox, for while is bestowed with dignity and good nature,  he is also capable of doing evil and inflicting harm on others.  But let us focus of the brighter side of man, his dignity as a person.


Man is in a privileged position among God’s  creatures in the world  for he alone is gifted with spirit, with intellect and will.  He is the only being in this world whom we can call a person.  John Paul II writing as Karol Wojtyla said: 


“A person differs from a thing in structure and in the degree of perfection.  To the structure of the person belongs an  “inner”  in which we find the elements of spiritual life and it is this that compels  us to acknowledge the spiritual nature of the human soul  and the peculiar perfectibility of the human person.”[1]


            In contemporary philosophy we always refer to the human person as a concrete subject and a fellow man,  stressing the fact that the human person is not just an abstract and logically defined concept, but more significantly a concretely existing subject who co-exist with his fellow human persons and  ordained for interpersonal relationship.


The human person, both as a subject and a fellow man enjoys an inalienable dignity. [2]  This dignity is based on the very fact that man is a being created by God in His own image and likeness. The book of Genesis tells us that God created man his own image and likeness,  male and female he created him.  And man depends on God for his existence and activities.  This  basic dignity comes directly from God’s creative act not  from any action on the part of man.


While human person and human dignity have become the favorite concepts and bywords in contemporary discussions, like in philosophy, anthropology, politics, religion and even in discussions about social and political issues, there is a lack of proper understanding of what really these concepts and realities are.  Sometimes, these realities I would say are often used to justify certain interests or philosophies, like a government program or policy that would promote the dignity of the human person, when in fact it does not.  So to attract and gain acceptance of their programs or policies, some people would use the terms human person and human dignity, but they do not fully understand  the meanings of  these realities. So there is  a need to put on the discussion table these concepts and realities once again to allow us to gain a better insights about them. And for our purposes we will turn to the  thoughts of the St. Thomas Aquinas, who although belongs to the middle ages, his ideas are still relevant today if we can also revitalize his philosophy and allow St. Thomas  to have a dialogue  with other philosophers  about contemporary philosophical issues.[3]  



St. Thomas on Person



The Essence of Man


In order to find out why man has a dignity of and by himself, we must examine the principle of whatness of man, his essence.  In this sense, we need to go back to metaphysics, for it is metaphysics  that provides us the ontological and ultimate ground of the essence of man and it is through metaphysics  that we gain a better insight about the essence and reality of the human person.  A real philosophy must have some grounding on metaphysics, for a real philosophy must touch upon being.  This is not to say that Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysics is the only metaphysics, but we cannot deny the fact that Aristotle  provided us with a comprehensive metaphysics and this which taken up by St. Thomas.


Essence and  existence, (esse) are the intrinsic constitutive principles of a real being. Essence, however, is basically a potential principle which requires actuation by existence or esse.  Essence is that which makes a thing what it is.   It is the principle of determination and limitation. Essence is individuated in the reality but because it is universal in the mind,  it is sometimes confused with other concepts which all are universal. But  unlike other concepts,  it a real principle of the reality. But essence does not only tell us what a thing is but what it is to become or what it ought to be. Essence has a concrete content and has natural tendencies.  It is not an inert but a dynamic principle so that it is the principle of operation.[4]


Many simply ignore or  deny that man has an essence because they understand essence erroneously as an inert and not a dynamic principle and also not as a potential but an actual principle. Such an understanding of essence is generally either a logical understanding of essence, conceived as an abstract, formal and strictly universal concept like other concepts, or an epistemological understanding of essence, imagined as something unknowable beneath the attributes of a thing.[5]


The universal human essence explains the simple fact that one may say that human individuals A  and B are both  human or man  despite all the differences between them. In other words, the universal human essence enables us to express in reality the logically minimal and yet metaphysically fundamental identity of two concrete existing men insofar as they share in one and the same human species, that is, humanity.[6]


Understood as a potential principle, the human essence does not contradict the diversity of customs and cultures.  Man’s capacity for language,  for example,  explains rather than contradicts the diversity of languages because this capacity of his is not for one particular language.  The capacity to worship the divine does not contradict the diversity of religious beliefs  rather it explains it.  Furthermore the universal human essence does not contradict the particularity of the individual and his free self—creation but rather it renders both possible.[7]  It is noteworthy in this context that there is no such a thing as the completely and exclusively, that is, absolutely, particular, all  essential characteristics, that is characteristics that proceeds from the  human essence, of an individual are universal. The particular is in fact an individualized universal.



Spirituality of the human essence


Agere sequitur esse. What or how a being is, so it acts. Action follows being and operation follows essence. Essence is the principle of operation and is known through its operations.  In the case of man the highest operation is intellection and  St. Thomas showed that intellection is a spiritual operation and, therefore, the human soul is a spiritual substance. St. Thomas’ reasoning proceeds more precisely from the immateriality or spirituality of the object of intellection to that of the human soul.  From the immateriality or spirituality of the object and immateriality of the operation  we know the  immateriality or spirituality of the intellect  and immateriality or spirituality of the subject - man. [8]


The immateriality or spirituality of man signifies man’s actuality.  Which in  turn, signifies beingness and perfection. Consequently, the spirituality of the human soul signifies its actuality, and with it,  its beingness and perfection.


The spirituality of the human essence is founded on the human soul’s per so subsistence, The human soul’s per so subsistence means that it is so spiritual that it exists and acts of and by itself, independently of the matter. This shows the degree of beingness, actuality and perfection it possesses.


St. Thomas teaches, however, that human soul is the substantial form of the body and is, at the same time, its  subsisting form.[9]  This self-subsistence of the human soul is the basis for his teachings that it is not educed from matter as that it does nut come from the souls of the parents and is immediately created by God and that it is incorruptible and everlasting.[10]



Human Essence as Ground of Self-Actualization


Human essence understood as potentiality is the ground for the self-actualization of man.[11]  Rather than  a hindrance for man’s self- expression and freedom, it  provides the ontological ground by which all these human determinations possible.   For how can man make possible his self-determinations, if in the very first instance he is not a subject with his distinct essence?


“As essence is the principle of potentiality, determination and limitation, the universal human essence makes possible the human individual’s self-creation as an actualization and realization of the human essence as his own essence.”[12]  And consequently since essence is the principle of what is and also what ought to be, the specifically human essence of the human individual does not only render his self—creation a free and responsible one but also bestows upon  the individual  the responsibility of conforming his self—creation to his nature and to rationality, which is his specific difference.



Nature of the Human Person


St. Thomas, following  the ideas of those philosophers  before him like Boethius assigned the name person to individual  beings with rational nature.  He wrote:


So a special name  is given among all other substances to individual beings having a rational nature, and this name is ‘person’.   Thus in this definition of person, the tern ‘individual substance’ is used to refer to a singular being  in the category of substance; ‘rational nature’ is  added to mean the singular being among rational substances.”[13] 


Of course, the human person is not just a metaphysical concept nor the concept of person. The human person is the concrete, existing human individual. The human person denotes the presence of a living human individual. But the metaphysical concept of person denotes the essence of person, by virtue of which person is person.  We have to note that the metaphysical concept of person is not merely one concept among many different types of universal concepts in the mind but it is a concept which stands for the metaphysical reality of the person in the real world. As a concept, the concept of person is universal and thus is hound to be abstract. Therefore, the concept of person expresses only in an abstract and universal manner what the individual person is.



As is well known, St. Thomas followed Boethius definition of person.  The person according to Boethius is on individual substance of rational nature.  Substance is a being which is complete in itself so that it exists independently. It is that which endures in change and is subject of properties and operations.


The Boethian definition of person denotes the ontological structure or essence of a person.  It is therefore an essential determination rather than an existential determination.  However, the categories and principles of the  realist and existentialist metaphysics of St. Thomas, brings out the  existential aspect of the human person.


The person is a spiritual being, a being having rational, intellective soul and essence.  Hence the person and the spiritual being mean ontologically the same. The degree and kind  of personality of as person correspond to the  spirituality of a spiritual being.  Hence the human person and  the human spiritual being also mean ontologically one and the same thing.   And in the hierarchy of beings, man is the lowest person, the lowest spiritual being.[14]


The Boethian definition of person is simple but profound in meaning. Although there have been many definitions or explanations about the essence of the person, such definition, although too abstract,  has validity even in our days. St. Thomas accepted this definition. But there are others, however, who reject it for a variety of reasons, arguing that man is a mystery which defies any definition, that person is indefinable and, finally, that the metaphysical definition or concept of person is abstract, and is, therefore, inappropriate for denoting the concrete human individual.


            Indeed man is a mystery, a paradox in himself, but to say that he defies definition in the sense that we cannot say anything sensible about his essence is absurd. As a mystery  we would rather, live, act and relate with the human person, appreciate his existence rather define his essence.  But since our concern is to investigate the essence of man, then we are bound to pose a definition.  For one requirement of a sound philosophy is the articulation of meaning and therefore any philosophy of the human person must be able to come up with a definition of the person, albeit imperfect.


We acknowledge, the limitation of a metaphysical definition, since man not just a concept and not simply a metaphysical reality, but a concrete human individual, then a metaphysical definition is inadequate.  That is why we have to show and define man, the human person in concrete and human condition.   This is not to say that we have to abandon completely  metaphysics, for after all, man is a being.



Basic Dimensions of the Human Person           


Contemporary philosophers including many Thomists, remind us of the importance of the concept of person.  Ontologically, one does not need to say anything more about a human being than he is a person. But what does it mean concretely to be a human person?  The human person has two basic dimension, first his personality or personhood and second his sociality.


The human person’s personhood is rooted in his spirituality.  From the thoughts of St. Thomas we find that the spirituality  of man constitutes  the very core of the human person and from this core springs his intentions, thoughts, motives and feelings.  Hence while it could be said that man shares the vegetative and sentient faculties and operations with the plants and animals  such faculties and operations cannot be reduced to the level of the plants and animals, for such operations are grounded on the spiritual  and rational nature of man.   And because of this spiritual dimension,  the human person should not be reduced to the level of things or objects or animals.   Karol Wojtyla, who was influenced by Thomistic  principles     believed   that   man's   subjectivity signifies  the person’s  "irreducibility"  to the level of things and animals,  the human person  is not just some sample of nature, he occupies a special place in the order of created beings.  He stressed it clearly when he wrote:


  The  person is not  an  "individualized  humaness;"  it actually consists rather  in the mode of individual being that  pertains to  mankind  alone.   This  mode  of  being    stems from the fact that the peculiar  type of being proper to mankind is personal. [15]


However, although this spiritual aspect of man is the very core of his being, the human person is not just a spirit or a pure spiritual subject, he is a concrete subject, incarnating his inner self through his body.  The human person is a concrete I, existing and acting.  In other words, man is not just a being specifically defined but as a "concrete I," a concrete subject living himself."[16]  In other words the human person is a concrete individual.


In the field of concrete experience,  the human person is given both as  a  specific  subject and a  concrete  "I"  that  is nonrecurrent and unique.  Therefore we have to understand him  both as  a subject and a concrete "I" that is both  existing and acting.  As a unique and concrete subject he  stamps his  existence and every  utterance, action  and attitude with uniqueness.  The human person as a unique and unrepeatable  subject possesses  and dominates  himself.  He alone decides for himself and determines his own existence and action, he alone thinks for himself, wills for himself, loves for himself.


A person is self-subsistent: he is  self-oriented and self-purposed.  This means that he is an end in himself;  a being with  an absolute value. A person has a dignity of his own which is not bestowed on him by another. His incommunicable, inviolable and absolute rights are not subject to negotiation.  A person is radically free.  In the sense that he has the right and freedom of responsible self-creation and self-fulfillment.


The human person possesses himself as self-awareness, self-presence, self-orientation, self-governing and self-mastering.  The spiritual essence of the human person enables him to be actively self. He is self-manifesting and self-communicative, self-sharing and self-giving. And, finally, the human person is self-transcending. He transcends himself in the sense that he goes beyond all what is relative and temporal and  can relate with the absolute and eternal.


The human persons capacity for intense self-possession expresses itself in a conscious, free and responsible self-creation. Self—possession does not mean to lock oneself up in himself but to be self-giving.   By virtue of the spirituality of his essence, the human person is a being open to the world.


The second dimension of the human person is his sociality.  The human person is a social individual.  The human person is a member of the society only as a being, infinitely transcending the society.  Definitely, the scope of the human personhood is wider than that of his sociality. The human personhood is ontologically prior to the human social  dimension.    Therefore, a society which is worthy to be called human, is a society of persons, founded on the ontological principle of common human spiritual essence and not on contract alone.[17]  So,  while it is true that society emerged from contract or consent among rational individuals,  it must be emphasized that those who entered into such contract are human persons who has the inherent capacity for interrelation and communication.


The human person is a member of the society  first by his nature and secondarily by contract.  And therefore the human social dimension must be based on the personhood of man.  Only such a human social dimension which rooted on his personhood,  can provide all the means which are necessary for mans self-fulfillment as a person.   Hence while it is true that man is by nature a social being,  he is first and foremost a person.


Man’s personhood and sociality are his two basic dimensions and although they interpenetrate and also overlap each other, one is not reducible to the other.  The latter is founded on the former.  The human sociality is an aspect of the human person’s self-manifestation and self-sharing  and also that of his openness to the world and to others.  Man is not created by, the society but the society is created by man.  Man is clearly not indebted to the society for his humanity and personhood.  But man can fulfill himself to the full extent only as a member of the human society. 




St. Thomas on Human Dignity


Personhood: Immediate Cause of Human Dignity


            Man has dignity because he is a person.  According to St. Thomas, the “person,” refers to that which is most perfect in the whole of nature, namely, to that which subsists in rational nature.  Now since God has all perfection and we attribute every perfection to him, then it is just proper to use the word person when we speak of him.  However,  we can also use the term person to other rational  substances in a lower sense.[18]


Human dignity is rooted in man’s personhood, the dignity of man is based on his spiritual essence .   As we have already mentioned, the immateriality or spirituality of man signifies man’s actuality.  Which in  turn, signifies beingness and perfection. Hence, the spirituality of the human soul signifies its actuality, and with it,  its beingness and perfection. The human dignity is, therefore, founded on the spirituality of the human essence as the principle of actuality. The human dignity is the expression of the high degree of beingness,  actuality and perfection that the human essence possesses.   In final analysis, the human dignity is then founded on, and the expression of, the beingness, actuality and perfection of man as a spiritual being.  But such essence and beingness and perfection, do not proceed from man himself, but from a  Divine Being who is the source of perfection and being.


The dignity of man of man then, though  grounded on his essence as a person, acquires a greater significance because it came from a divine source.  Man’s personal essence is a participation of the divine personal essence hence his dignity is a participation  of the divine dignity.   But how do we explain this participation of the divine dignity?  St. Thomas’ answer,  because man was created in the image and likeness of God.



Man as Imago Dei: The Ultimate Foundation of Human Dignity


 In what sense is man created in the image and likeness of God?  In what sense do we participate in the dignity of the divine?   St. Thomas provides us with the philosophical ground and explanation for these assertions.  He wrote:


…all creatures are images of the first agent, namely, God,  because the first agent produces its like.  Now, an image’s perfection is found in reproducing the original through  resemblance, this is why an image is made.  And so all things are made in order to  acquire as their last end a divine likeness.[19]


While all creatures bear some resemblance to God, only in a rational creature  do we find a resemblance to God in the manner of an image; other things resemble him in the manner of a trace.[20]   Hence God exists in things in two ways:  first as an operative cause, and in this way he exists in everything that he creates and second in a special manner in rational creatures that are actually knowing and loving  him or are disposed to do so.[21]   St. Thomas further wrote:


Man is made in God’s image, and since this implies, so Damascene tells us, that he is intelligent and free to judge and master of himself, so then, now that we have agreed  that God is the exemplar cause of things and that they issue from his power through his will, we go on to look at this image, that is to say at man as the source of actions which are his own and fall under his responsibility and control.[22] 


It is clear then that man is made after God’s image.   The likeness to God in terms of image means that :his being in God’s image signifies his capacity for understanding, and for making free decisions in master of self.” While in terms of likeness means that “he is in his likeness refers to the likeness of divine virtue, in so far as it can be in man.”[23] 





Of course it is not only St. Thomas and the Church that have stressed the dignity of the human person.  The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in the light of his categorical imperative, stressed the value of the human person as an end in itself. Man, and that is every rational being, for him exists as an end in himself.  Kant stressed: “Act  so that you treat humanity whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”[24] 


The encyclical  “Pacem in Terris”  stressed that any human society, if it is to be well-ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature.[25]


Every person has basic rights and responsibilities that flow from his human dignity and that belong to every  human person, regardless of any social or political structures. These rights include those things that make life truly human. Corresponding to our rights are duties and responsibilities to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good of all. And as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable so they cannot in any way be surrendered. [26]


Human persons therefore must never be treated as a means to whatever end. All human persons  are ends to be served by the social and economic institutions that make up the society.   Human persons are not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined political, social and economic goals.   Societies must uphold the dignity of persons and must treat them not as tools or instruments but as the very end they have to serve.


Only where man is considered as person, can there  be not only an absolute foundation for the absolute meaning of human dignity and the inviolability o~ human rights but also ontologically founded unity and equality of members of the society as sharing the same human essence and, finally, can chore be also a genuinely human social order, which promotes not only such material values as. social, economic and political and visible cultural values but also such spiritual values as, intellectual, moral and religious values, all of which man as a person needs for his self—fulfillment. The all—embracing and ultimate end of the society is the self—realization of man as a person.


Christianity stressed that every human person is loved by the Creator, made in His image and likeness and destined for eternal friendship and communion.[27]  Each human being must be accorded the due respect because he participates in the dignity of God, the Creator. Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred.[28]


Today, there is  a growing awareness of the sublime dignity of the human person, who stand above all things and whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Every human person then must have ready access to all that is necessary for living a genuinely human life.[29]


[1] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility.  trans. by H.T. Willets, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 121.

[2] The term dignity was taken from the Latin term dignus  which means worthy of esteem and honor, due a certain respect, of weighty  importance. In ordinary discourse,  dignity is used only in reference to human persons.  The early Greeks, held that not all human beings have worth and dignity,  most humans  are by nature slavish and suitable only to be slaves.  Most men do not have natures worthy of freedom and nature proper to free men, hence they never used the term dignity for all human beings but only to a few. While other traditions have limited dignity to some kinds of men, the Judeo-Christian tradition made human dignity a concept of universal application.  See, Michael Novak.  “The Judeo-Christian Foundation of Human Dignity, Personal Liberty and the Concept of the Person.”

[3] While others may have some resentment towards Thomism branding it as “medieval” we can still revitalize it by new hermeneutic  that would allow new understanding of  Thomistic principles.  Aristotle and Plato lived much older than St. Thomas and addressed ancient issues, but we never brand their philosophies as too “ancient.”

[4] Cf. Etienne Gilson. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1952, pp 115-121.

[5] Chang Wook. The Ultimate Foundation of Human Dignity in St. Thomas Aquinas. Acta of the Fourth International Conference of the Asian Association of Catholic Philosophers. Humanity in the 21st Century: Towards A New Vision. Seoul: The Research Institute of Korea, CUK, 2000,  p 95.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Cf. S. Th., I. q. 79, a.3, a.5; q. 84, a.6; q 85, a.1.

[9]  Cf. S. Th., I, q. 76, a. 1.

[10] Cf.  S. Th., I, q. 85, a. 6; q. 90, a. 2, a.3.

[11] Some existentialists, particularly Sartre criticized the conception of human essence as hindrance to man’s freedom and self-creation.  According to Sartre man creates his own essence, there is not such thing as divine creator who created for man his (man) own essence.  Man exists first and gradually creates his own essence.  However, this position is inadequate, for it that cannot answer  the problem of the essence of an existing subject who must have some basis from which he could create something.

[12] Ibid. p. 96.

[13] S. Th., I, q. 29,  a. 1, c. ( adding “individual” we eliminate the notion of a reality that can be assumed by another.  Thus the  human nature in Christ is not a person because it is assumed by a greater being, namely the  Word of God. S. Th., I, q., 29,  a. 1, c ad. 2.)

[14] Chang p.122.

[15] Karol Wojtya. Acting Person. trans of Osoba i Czyn by Andrzej  Potocki,  established  in  collaboration  with  Cardinal Wojtyla by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka for publication in the  Reidel Book  Series Annalecta Husserliana. (Dordrecht, Holland;  Boston, USA; London, England: D. Reidel Pub. Co., 1979),  p. 83.

[16] KarolWojtyla. "Subjectivity and the Irreducible  in  Man." In  Analecta   Husserliana.   (1978)   p. 111.

[17] John Locke pointed out in his Social Contract Theory that society is the result of a free contract among men, for mutual protection of rights and security.  The same thought was expressed by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Although they differ as to the nature of the man.

[18] S. Th., I, q. 29, a. 3, c.

[19] Summa Contra Gentiles I, 19.

[20] S. Th.,  I, q. 93, a. 6, c.

[21] Cf. S. Th., I, q. 8, a. 3.

[22] S. Th., 1a, 2ae, Prologue.

[23] S. Th., I. Q. 93, a. 9, c.

[24] cf. Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans by L.W.Beck (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1959) pp.428-29.

[25] Encyclical Letter “Pacem in Terris” Pope John XXIII, April 11, 1963.  #9.

[26] “Pacen in Terris” #9.

[27] Novak. Ibid.

[28] See “Economic Justice for All” Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social  Teaching and the US Economy.  US Catholic Bishops, 1986.  #28.

[29] “Gaudium et Spes,” Pastoral Constitution on the  Church in the Modern World.  Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965. #26.

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