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Essay: Aquinas' understanding of the human person

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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy essays
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  • Published: September 17, 2015*
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  • Aquinas' understanding of the human person
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INTRODUCTION
The moment you open your television or newspaper you will see that there are so much violence and injustice in the world. There are terrorist attacks, bombings, killings, kidnappings, wars, racial discrimination, exploitation, rapes, abortions, hungers and many other acts of violence. Recently, the world was surprised because thousands of people were killed and hospitalized because of the political and religious protest in Venezuela and Ukraine. In this violence, man is the main culprit, but at the same time he is also the very victim. It is a sad reality. However, man by nature is good because he is made in the image and likeness of the Absolute Good, but he is still capable of doing evil and inflicting harm to others.
Among other corporeal being, man has the privileged position. He is endowed with rationality and good nature. The very reason why man falls into violent tendencies is that he has forgotten the true nature of what to be a person.
With the realities mentioned above, the writer believes that it is imperative to re-understand again what it is to be a human person. This article aims to examine Thomas Aquinas’ concept of person and hopefully to apply it in the modern context so that the different violence and injustice against to human person will be addressed.
AQUINAS’ UNDERSTANDING OF PERSON
The classical and unsurpassable definition of person was given by Boethius in the sixth century: he defines person as ‘persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia.’ A person is an individual substance of a certain nature, namely rational, which nature accounts for the form or specific difference of the particular substance.
Following the ideas of Boethius, Aquinas attributed the name person to individual beings endowed with rational nature. In the Summa, he wrote:
‘..also the individual of the rational nature have a special name even among other substance, and this name is ‘person’. Thus, the term individual substance is placed in the definition of person, signifying the singularity of being in the genus of the substance and the term rational nature is added as signifying the singular being among rational substance.’
In the book The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Gilles Murphy argued that Aquinas highlighted two significant concepts in the definition above.
First, he highlighted the concept of individuality. An individual substance is characterized by its own ‘mode of existence’. The individual substance does not exist through another, but in itself. The act of existing through itself is the fundamental characteristics of substance, and thus of the person. A person is an individual substance which possesses its own being in itself, having a complete knowledge of its own act of existence. The very first thing which one sees about the person is its character as an irreducibility real singular, a determinate entity, singular and distinct from anyone else.
Then, Aquinas highlighted rationality as the specifying feature of persons. Rationality includes all the spiritual and cognitive faculties of the human person. It is the power of reason that differentiates him from all other corporeal entities. It is the power of reason that makes him a person. All of these character traits ground the dignity of person. Man’s dignity and respect flows from his rationality and not from some other quality. Man who is endowed with rational nature, is an agent of truth therefore he must be ‘treated as a person and not as a thing.’
AQUINAS ON MAN AS A LIVING PERSON
Analysing Aquinas definition of person as an individual substance with rational nature, one will find it too abstract. However, Jove Jim Aguas said that ‘human person is not just a metaphysical concept, rather he is a concrete being, existing human individual, a concrete I’. To clarify his points, he wrote:
‘..The human person is a concrete I, existing and acting. 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. Then, as a unique and concrete subject, he stamps his existence and every utterances, action, and attitude with uniqueness. The human person as a unique and unrepeatable subject possesses and dominates himself.’
This understanding of person highlighted the ‘concrete I’. Man as human person is a self-subsistent individual. He is totally independent, self-oriented and self-purposed. He owns his own existence. In other words, man as a living person is fundamentally focused on the concrete I which primarily refers to his very self. The letter I in the LIVING pertains to the concrete I, the isolated I, a self-subsistent being who alone decides and determines his own existence, his actions, he alone thinks, wills and loves for himself.
AQUINAS ON MAN AS A LOVING PERSON
As what has been mentioned above, a person is an individual substance ‘ a concrete I, self-independent ‘ which possesses its own being in and through itself, having a complete grasp of its own act of existence. To specify what he means by individual substance, Aquinas wrote:
‘..further still, in a more special and perfect way, the particular and individual are found in the rational substance which have dominion over their actions, and which are not only made to act, like others but which can act themselves; for actions belong to singular. Therefore, also the individual of the rational nature has a special name, even among other substances and this name is person.’
Aquinas highlighted specifically the significance of action on the existence of the individual substance. The person acts through themselves. He argued that the self-expression of being through action is fundamentally the goal of its existence in the universe. It only means that everything exists for the sake of its operation (action); indeed operation (action) is the ultimate perfection of everything. It follows, then, to be a person, is to be in action.
In the article Person, Being and St. Thomas, Clarke argued that the only way that beings can connect with each other is through action. He added that the full meaning of to be is not just to be present but to be actively present, to express its active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. The person as an individual substance, as existing in itself, naturally flows over into being as relational, turned towards others by its self-communicating action. In Clarke’s words, the human being is substance-in-relation. Substance-in-relation means human person is both substantial and relational. At first, a person is an independent, separate, and self-existing being actively possesses its self-consciousness, but he is also actively oriented toward others by his active loving self-communication.
A quotation from W. Norris Clarke, would somehow capture the proportional connection between the substantial and relational dimensions of human person. He says:
”Substantiality and relationality are equally primordial and necessary dimensions of being itself at its highest intensity. And the ultimate reason why all other beings manifest this relationality as well as substantiality is that they are all in some way imago Dei, their ultimate Source, and supreme synthesis of both. Then, all being is, by its very nature as being, is dyadic, with an ‘introverted’ or in-itself dimension as substance and an ‘introverted’ or toward-others dimension as relational through action.
Aquinas said that it’s natural for man to take delight in living with other human beings. Hence, human person is a social individual in which his whole being is directed toward others especially other person through sharing of one’s self. This sharing of one’s self means considering what is truly good to others, which in itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, as defined by Aquinas as ”willing good to another for its own sake”.
Clarke argued that the only way to become an authentic person is to become a lover. One needs to live a life of total self-giving and receiving in which both of them are of equal dignity and perfection. Then, authentic love will not be complete unless it is both actively given and actively-gratefully receive. Moreover, the perfection of person is essentially relational, starting from the concrete-I going to concrete-others culminating in communion. Therefore, man as a loving person is fundamentally ‘other-centered.’
CONCLUSION
From the discussion and analysis above, we were able to elucidate Aquinas’ understanding of the human person. Thomistic philosophy has a profound understanding of what it is to be a human person. It explicitly elaborated that human person is a substance-in-relation which essentially has two dimensions ‘ substantial and relational.
In the substantial dimension, man as human person is considered as the concrete I, an individual existing being who is self-subsistent, self-oriented and a self-purposed individual endowed with rationality. This rationality differentiates him from the whole world of objective entities. This is man’s distinctive character as person.
On the other hand, in its relational dimension, the human person cannot be looked on as a primarily isolated, self-sufficient individual, but because of its innate dynamism, he is intrinsically ordered toward others by its self-communicating action. The ultimate reason why all beings possess this innate dynamism toward action and self-communication is that they are participating in the infinite goodness of the one Source, whose very being is identically a self-communicative LOVE. Love as defined by Aquinas as ‘willing good to another for its own sake’, pushes man to be with others.
In short, Aquinas is telling us that man as a human person is called not just to be a LIVING PERSON whose orientation focuses on the ‘concrete I”, but man is definitely called to become a ‘LOVING PERSON’ whose inclination is always directed to the ‘concrete Others’.
APPLICATION
In the modern society, the human person is used as a means in order to achieve one’s end or goal. Human persons are not means to be exploited for more political or economic goals. All human persons are ends to be served; we must uphold the dignity of persons and must not treat them as tools or instruments.
The notion of person and his dignity transcend ideological, cultural and political differences. Regardless of color, religion, creed and belief, we are all human person and we enjoy the same dignity. Such essence and dignity are shared and must be enjoyed by all human person, they are what transcend the limits posed by the differences in worldviews, beliefs, convictions and ideologies. Violence arises when man’s shared essence and dignity are overshadowed by their differences. This is what Aquinas wants us to do: we as human person, imago Dei, are not just called to be a living person but fundamentally because of our rationality are being called to be a loving person ‘ with innate dynamism toward action and self-communication to others because we are participating in the infinite goodness of the one Source, whose very being is identically a self-communicative LOVE.

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