THOMAS: ON HUMAN PERSON AND HUMAN
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.”
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. 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.
St. Thomas on Person
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Human Essence as Ground of Self-Actualization
Human essence understood as potentiality is the ground for the self-actualization
of man. 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.” 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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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." 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 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
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
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.