Dennis McInerny Series – What is a Person (Part II)

What Is A Person? (Part II)
By Dennis McInerny

For the Platonist, the human person is the soul. The body is but a temporary incumbrance, and a most bothersome one at that, from which we will be freed permanently on the day we die. On that happy occasion, released from bondage to the material, we will become again what we originally were—purely spiritual creatures.

For the materialist, on the other hand, the human person is the body. The soul is only a fiction invented by certain benighted types who can’t face the fact that reality is simply matter and nothing but than matter. All of our human experiences, including things like consciousness and thought, can be explained entirely in terms of matter. And when the body dies, says the materialists, that is the end of the story.

Both the Platonists and the materialists have gotten it radically wrong concerning the true nature of the human person. We are neither pure spirits, like the angels, nor are we, like the animals, creatures whose nature is dominantly material. In one way we are comparable to the angels, in another way we are comparable to the animals, but we cannot be classified unqualifiedly with either. St. Thomas, repudiating both the Platonist mistake and the materialist mistake, says crisply: “Man is not the soul, nor is he the body.”

The human person is a composite creature, made up of both body and soul. In philosophy, we explain the existence of any particular substance (a substance is simply an actually existing being) by the presence in it of a form, a substantial form. The form of a thing is the dynamic internal principle that makes it precisely what it is. In living creatures the substantial form is called the life principle (anima, in Latin; psyche, in Greek). In human beings the life principle is the rational soul, which is described as an incomplete substance. The body, too, is called an incomplete substance. These designations serve to stress the point that it is body and soul together, and neither alone, that constitutes the human person.

Both body and soul are incomplete substances, but of a profoundly different kind. When we consider the human person as composed of body and soul we must be careful not to think in crude quantitative terms, supposing a human person to be made up, say, of one half body and one half soul. The two composing elements of the person, material and spiritual, are by no means equal. It is the spiritual element, the rational soul, which is inestimably more important, for it is the soul which simultaneously establishes a human being and a human person. Without the rational soul, there simply would not be a human being, but neither would there be a human person. That is why it would be incoherent to argue that there could be present a human being and not a human person. The two are inseparable.

So, then, a human person is a creature composed of matter and form, but the two are not of equal worth. St. Thomas emphasizes that “it is form alone [i.e., the soul] that in a way peculiar to itself serves as the cause of a being of this type.” In other words, it is the soul, the spiritual element, which essentially determines a human person to be a human person. Personhood, we may say, is founded in the soul. We commonly speak of the soul being “in” the body, but St. Thomas makes the arresting observation that it would actually be more accurate to refer to the body as being in the soul. His meaning here could be expressed by saying that the soul completely encompasses the material body within its life-giving embrace, and thereby constitutes it specifically as a human body.

These philosophical considerations concerning the nature of the human person are of the utmost importance, for they underscore the truth that human personhood is a fact grounded in the way things actually are in the objective order. Human beings do not choose who is and who is not a person. What they do choose, tragically, is to refuse to accept persons simply for what they are.

We often speak of our “having” a body, but, strictly speaking, it is not so much the case that we have a body as that we are a body (albeit not exclusively), and that is because corporeality is part of our essence as human persons. It is even more emphatically true of personhood that it is not something we possess. As persons we are the possessors, for personhood constitutes our very identity. We are persons, and to repeat a very important point, we are persons right from the beginning, from the first moment of our existence as human beings.

Personhood, we say, is incommunicable. This means that personhood is not something that is common to many. All of us, as human beings, of course share a common nature—human nature. But personhood is not shared. Each of us is a human being in a way that is singular to each of us. It is not to indulge in sentimental language, then, but simply to speak the plain truth, to say that each human being is unique and unrepeatable. Personhood is the explanation for that uniqueness.

It is the massive ignorance of the true nature of the human person, so prevalent today, which makes abortion possible. If it were to be realized by all parties concerned that, from the moment of conception, there is a human person who is in our midst, and indeed a completely innocent human person, it would then be unthinkable that anyone could ever suppose that there could be a “right” to do mortal harm to that person.

But, some might continue to insist, we are dealing with something so tiny, so minuscule! Such is the case, but this is to take into account only a part of that “something,” and by no means the more important part. When we think in exclusively material terms in this context, we inevitably miss the person, for the person can only be seen in terms of the spiritual. It shows a remarkable lack of creative imagination to so fix one’s attention on the small size of the bodily human being dwelling within the mother that we fail to take into account the soul—that which constitutes the person as a person. Yes, the human body at that beginning stage is very small indeed. But, from the moment of conception, there is nothing in the least bit small about the person as such. It is the soul that “makes” the person, and the soul, which is purely spiritual, has no dimensions, then or thereafter. The human person is as decisively present at the first moment of conception as it is throughout all the many years that may follow.

Philosophy can be very helpful in providing us with a sound understanding of the nature of the human person, but whatever is of value in its message in this regard is owning to a source that is beyond philosophy. The eminent Scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain once remarked that philosophy was only able to get it right about the human person after it began to assimilate the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. No purely natural learning will ever be able to apprize us of the full truth about human personhood, because that is a truth which transcends the natural order. We only begin to grasp the full import of a human person when we realize that, in each instance, we are face to face with a creature whose reality transcends the natural order, an inimitable “someone” who was eternally intended by God, and eternally intended for God.

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of the North American District Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our newsletter by mail, simply sign up on our newsletter subscription page.

May 5, 2010