A New Conception of Being and Personhood - "Person, Being, and St. Thomas" - Norris Clarke SJ

This article from Norris Clarke SJ is a longer and more difficult article if one is not familiar with some of the basic terminology of Thomistic philosophy and metaphysics. That being said, the article is very interesting and claims that modern philosophies that explore human subjectivity can be successfully synthesized with a traditional Thomistic metaphysics of person. Clarke holds this view because he claims that, even though St. Thomas didn't choose to explicitly address these ideas, they are still implicit in the ideas that he put forth. If successful, Thomistic Personalism does provide a new way of exploring the meaning and nature of personhood. 

"The perfection of being-and therefore of the person-is essentially dyadic, culminating in communion."

Clarke begins this article with an interesting claim, that personhood isn't just one mode of being, it is actually what it means to be when one moves beyond the limitations of lower material things. Clarke mentions that the goal of this article is to logically extend Thomas' thought into an area that he didn't explicitly explore in his lifetime. So Thomas has a beautifully articulated notion of the intelligibility and act of being by which things exist and display their existence, allowing them to be known by others. He doesn't necessarily explore the specifically human aspect of this inner revelation of being. That is what Clarke wants to bring out of Thomas' work in his reflections. 1

In the Medieval period theologians explored the difference between a human nature in general versus an individual person possessing that rational nature, as this was essential to understanding the doctrines about God and the incarnation properly. 2 However, "... as a result, the relational, self-communicative dimension of the person, flowing from its very status in being, was left in the shadow. The two notions were ready and waiting to be brought together. But St. Thomas did not quite get around to making the junction explicit."

St. Thomas could have used the notions formulated to explain the relation persons in the Trinity in his explication of the nature of man, but simply resorts back to the traditional Boethian definition. 4 What he missing was a type of intellectual revolution, the idea that relation could be a mode of being of utmost importance for persons. The Trinity shows that personhood is defined, so to speak, by a type of relationality where one cannot fully be themselves without the other. Clarke states that if, in St. Thomas' view, being is at its core something active, something which by its existence encounters the other, then personhood as fundamentally relational is simply the height of being. 5

Clarke explores more that it means for being to be active and relational in this next section. 

"The dynamic, relational notion of being"

What does it mean that being is "intrinsically active and self-communicative?" Clarke points out that while this is not an explicit formulation of St. Thomas, it is an idea that runs throughout his metaphysical work. The idea is that the form or essence of a thing, what makes it to be, is its "act of being." [It is the fundamental existence at the immaterial root of the being of a thing. Aristotle calls this "energia" or "entelechia"] This existence which an entity has through its act of being allows it to interact with other existing things, as well as to communicate itself through its intelligibility, or the ability of the mind to know the thing. 6 Thus all being communicate themselves to others through their existence. When things reach their maximum potential of their being it is a maximal type of self-expression to others at the same time. Thus, the expression "act of being" represents, what Clarke calls, "innate dynamism" of being as its fundamental core is a type of operation, the act of existing. 7 The core of beings is not a static state, but a "dynamic" one, one characterized by continual movement or energy. Thus, this prime act leads to the fulfilling of the potential of a thing, and at the same time pours forth its goodness into the reach of others. 8

"Existence itself (esse) now becomes for Thomas the ultimate root of all perfection, with unity and goodness its transcendental properties or attributes, facets of the inexhaustible richness of being itself. And once the Platonic realism of divine ideas is overcome, Thomas's Supreme Being, the pure subsistent Act of Existence, can become identically Intelligence and Will, and the intrinsic self-diffusiveness of the Good turns into Love, self-communicative Love. The ultimate reason now appears why all beings, by the very fact that they are, possess this natural dynamism toward action and self-communication: they are all diverse modes of participation in the infinite goodness of the one Source, whose very being is identically self-communicative Love." 9

What Clarke is saying in this quote is that when this understanding of being is then turned toward God, it becomes clear that God, himself, is the ultimate embodiment of truth and goodness, communicating itself and overflowing into all creation. Being is in its highest form, relational. For being not to be relational means that it would be indistinguishable from non-being. To be known it must also communicate itself. Being then if known and understood through its self-manifestation, through its dynamic and communication "act of being." 10 Clarke's point that he is getting at here is that, just as Aristotle included in his Categories, that being necessarily creates a category of relations between things. A unique phrase that Clarke formulates in his other works is that, "To be is to be substance-in-relation." [As a side note here I think that Clarke's work is very helpful in untangling problems of explaining how divine simplicity and the relationality of the Trinity are not contradictory, as he is clearly showing, being has a dual quality to it as two sides of the same coin, to be in oneself it at the same time to be in relation to others.] The term that Clarke uses to express this dual nature of being is "dyadic." 11

Clarke claims that this dyadic notion of being formulated, at least implicitly by St. Thomas, was lost after the Scholastic period because of faulty notions of substance put forward by Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Thus, the implications of Thomas' work have been unappreciated until the 20th Century. Another consequence of this is the lack of understanding among 19th and 20th Century secular philosophers regarding the nature of substance. Many reject it because they have a false notion of it. They only consider the exterior relations without seeing that to have an exterior is to require that interior act of being which is the source of self-communication. 12

"Application to the Person"

Clarke then turns and discusses how personhood is not something added on to being, as though it were some extra or unnecessary part of it. Rather, he says that, for St. Thomas, personal beings are the natural conclusion of an act of being which is not brought down by material existence. 13

"In a word, when being is allowed to be fully itself as active presence, it necessarily turns into luminous self-presence - self-awareness, or self-consciousness - one of the primary attributes of person. To be fully is to be personally." 14

This means that if personhood is intimately connected with being, and the act of existence, then it is central to personhood to that same dynamic self-communicative activity as central to it as well. 15 Thus to be a person is to seek to communicate the good of one's own being to another, to be receptive of the good of another to oneself. "Person is essentially a 'we' term." Here we have come to the core notion that our own subjectivity, our inner self, calls out for relation with others from the core of its being. 16 

Here then is the link between Thomistic metaphysics and the use of contemporary Existential or Phenomenological philosophy of person. Clarke has established that the metaphysical substance of person is to be something in active relation with the world and others, and therefore this is the a grounding in which one can begin to investigate the subjectivity of man, as man's subjectivity must follow this fundamental structure laid out by his metaphysical substance. Man's objective nature and subjective experience must be part and parcel of the same human being. It also follows from this that relationships are not something optional or added on. Every human is relational by nature. "The person is intrinsically ordered toward togetherness with other persons - and any other persons accessible to it - i.e. friendship, community, and society." Man's dyadic nature is at once substantial and interpersonal. Thus the role of love is central to this discussion as well. 17

"Receptivity as a Perfection of Being and Person"

At this point in the article, Clarke is going to move from a firmer foundation in St. Thomas to an path of exploration which is more speculative and less grounded in Thomas. Here he is getting into the idea, not of self-communication, but of the corresponding receptivity which is necessary for the interpersonal relation to be complete. He says that we need not think that receptivity is passivity, but at the human level, it is something that is active and necessary in order to achieve the perfection of human relations. 18 This is seen most perfectly and clearly, again, in the notion of the relations of the Trinity. 19

"Authentic love is not complete unless it is both actively given and actively - gratefully - received. And both giving and receiving at their purest are of equal dignity and perfection. The perfection of being -and therefore of the person - is essentially dyadic, culminating in communion." 20

Here Clarke credits contemporary philosophy for being the stimulus for the development of these thoughts and furthering of St. Thomas' philosophy. 21


Clarke mentions two objections to his ideas. First, the fundamental theological belief that God did not have to create anything outside of himself, that he was complete in himself. Does this inherent intersubjectivity of persons imply that God would have to create us? Second, that these ideas too simply lay bare the mystery of the Trinity, which the Church has told us is not accessible by reason alone. Does it go against this? 22

He responds to the first objection by saying that he does not like Thomas' formulation of God diffusiveness of his goodness, holding that God only had to diffuse his goodness once he had created, but not before. 23

This seems to me a cop-out--and an unnecessary one. Through overcaution, in order to safeguard the freedom of creation, Aquinas has pulled back from following through consistently with his own principles. In the texts which we have cited he clearly asserts as a property of all beings as actual that it pour over actively to self-communicate its goodness by producing another actuality similar to itself, and that this is most appropriate for God also. This active self-communication clearly means more than just the attraction of a final cause on already existing beings." 24

A resolution to the first objection could be that God's self-communicative goodness could be perfectly satisfied in himself, and therefore creation not have been necessary. In this way, one can keep both Clarke's insights, and Christian dogma intact. He adds to this that the Church's insistence that The Trinity goes beyond reason is enough to show that he ideas cannot be contradicted either. Thirdly, he says that because finite and contingent creatures could be an infinite number of ways, that God then must have chosen them to be this way, and therefore been a free choice of God's in creation. 25 Then Clarke goes farther and says that it would be illogical given the nature of God that he not create, though it is still a free choice. "The rationality of love is a unique kind of rationality transcending the limits of logic (though not contradicting them)." 

Moving to the second objection, are we making the Trinity something that is philosophically necessary? 26 Clarke holds that it is implied in the concepts of person and love that there be a beloved for God to love. He thinks that this doesn't mean that we reach a Trinity of persons, but that there must be something more than one. 


In conclusion, I leave you with this parting quote from Clarke summing up his conclusions. 27

"This retrieval which would first highlight the intrinsically expansive, self-communicative, and therefore relational dimension of existential being as such, then apply this to the person as the fullest realization of what it means to be. Thereby would be generate da metaphysics of the person as intrinsically self-communicative, relational, and therefore interpersonal, whose natural self-expression on the highest level would be love." 28


1 - W. Norris Clarke, “Person, Being, and St. Thomas,” Communio 19, no. 4 (1992): 601–618: 

http://www.communio-icr.com/files/clarke19-4.pdf  pg. 601

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