Thomas Aquinas' Notions of Personhood - "Thomistic Personalism" - Karol Wojtyla

Thomistic Personalism by Karol Wojtyla 

This post is about a paper that Karol Wojtyla presented at an academic conference in 1961 during a gathering of philosophers at the Catholic University of Lublin. In the paper presentation Wojtyla lays out the traditional Thomistic framework that is being used in this new philosophical synthesis known as "Thomistic Personalism." Not only will he introduce you to the basic concepts of personhood in the Scholastic tradition, but he shows where there is a point of new departure and exploration that characterizes this new synthesis. 

The Foundation of "Personhood" Laid by St. Thomas 

Wojtyla begins this presentation by pointing out that he is investigating Personalism within the framework and categories of St. Thomas' philosophy. While St. Thomas had not addressed directly the problems that Personalism seeks to investigate, he says that St. Thomas thoroughly laid the foundation for the understanding of what personhood is, as well as the tools by which to speak about it precisely. He also points out that Thomistic Personalism is primarily concerned with the person in the realm of action and interaction with others, and therefore he will make use of St. Thomas' ethical works as well. 1

Continuing to reflect on the role of St. Thomas in this, Wojtyla points out that Thomas' treatises on personhood were aided in part by the Patristic era. The Patristics sought to define terms like "person" and "nature" more rigorously in an attempt to correctly understand doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ. Thomas too acts in a similar vain, though Thomas adds an insight to the equation, namely that if personhood is the perfection of the created order, then it too much exist in God the creator in the highest manner. God must be personhood itself. 2 Therefore, there is a philosophical vain of investigation into personhood as well. The beginning of this philosophical formulation Thomas takes from Boethius, that a person is an "individual substance of a rational nature." Wojtyla points out, though, that the emphasis may be incorrect. A rational nature must exist in something more fundamental, a person ... not a person existing in a rational nature. A concrete person embodies as an individual the requisite spiritual capacities of rational thought and accompanying freedom of choice. 3 "The person, therefore, is always a rational and free concrete being, capable of all those activities that reason and freedom alone make possible." 4

St. Thomas also gives another definition for the human person, that of a composite of matter and form. The "hylomorphic" view. In this perspective, the soul is that source and form of being which provides the actuality of the person, while the matter is the prerequisite physical conditions of the body. This means that personhood is specifically the result of the soul, as its faculties of knowledge and free will are immaterial powers. In the union of body and soul, the soul will also express itself through the actualizing of a concrete body. 5 Within Thomistic Personalism, then, as opposed to Platonism or Cartesian philosophy, it is clear that the soul will manifest itself in the body in a positive way, affecting the senses, the personality, the emotions, etc. 6 "According to St. Thomas, all the faculties of the human soul work to perfect the human being, and so they all contribute to the development of the person." 7 The soul and body are united as one being, whereas in Cartesian philosophy the soul and body exist parallel from one another, giving rise to the idea that one's consciousness is all that one is, on a personal level. Lose consciousness, and what does your body matter? Thus, there is a modern tendency to denigrate the importance and meaning of the body. 8 We, likewise today, put freedom as an aspect of one's conscious experience to do whatever we want as something fundamentally human, though everything may be determined anyway. [If I may add, a major contradiction between schools of Contemporary philosophy. In the Darwinian view we are deterministic animals, responding to the environment based on our genes. In the Atheistic Existentialist view we are pure will, a determining consciousness which molds the world out of one's desires. So which is it?] Splitting consciousness away from the body, as its own phenomenon, then makes it such that personhood is reducible to consciousness and its structures. 

For St. Thomas, rather, consciousness is a manifestation of the deep metaphysical reality and union between the matter of the body and the rational form of the soul. 9 "The person acts consciously because the person is rational. Self-consciousness, in turn, is connected with freedom, which is actualized in the activity of the will. Through the will, the human being is the master of his or her actions." 10 Now, Wojtyla says that St. Thomas' view is so metaphysically grounded that he does not end up treating the content or experience of being a self-conscious being. He gives the grounding and foundation of it, without exploring that which is unique to it. 11

Human Creativity 

Wojtyla, towards the end of his presentation focuses in on the idea of "creativity" associated with our ability to rationally think. By thinking we are able to uncover more about being than is presented on its face. We draw out those latent truths in things we can begin to shape them and craft them, we can master the world around us. We transform the exterior world, we can also transform ourselves as we continue to comprehend ourselves more and more deeply. 12 "Creating as derived from thinking is so characteristic of a person that it is always an infallible sign of a person, a proof of a person's existence or presence." 13 

The Will, Freedom, and Morality 

The most perfect use of this creative power is that of acting and creating in the moral realm. It is our intellect that allows us to know what is true, and importantly what is the truth about goodness. Is something truly something I should desire and pursue as a good? Is this the proper situation and condition under which I should pursue such a thing? This truth about the good is the foundation upon which we exercise our freedom to choose our own moral actions, "creating" or determining what type of person we become, either morally good or evil. In the view of St. Thomas, such a power of freedom must always be subordinated to truth, that is to the highest good. 14 "... freedom is not given to us as an end in itself, but as a means to a greater end ... freedom exists for the sake of morality and, together with morality, for the sake of a higher spiritual law and order of existence - the kind of order that most strictly corresponds to rational beings, which are persons." 15

Human Love 

Love, in St. Thomas' thought, is the natural experience of the goodness of a thing, a goodness which attracts you and draws you towards it to respond in kind. This attraction towards the good operates on two planes. There is the physical - the sensory - but then there is also the spiritual, which operates on the level of personhood - experiencing and engaging with someone in their rationality and their freedom. 16 When love is authentic it properly orders its attractions in line with the dignity of the other, the beloved. When this happens, when another is cherished according to their proper dignity, then the two can share a new form of goodness, that of community and spiritual harmony. This idea of the correct understanding of the human person as subject and object in relation is at the heart of what Personalism is about and provides an adequate foundation for moral action. Finally, we can likewise point to a relationship with the ultimate person, God, as the fulfillment of all human desire and being. 17

The Individual Person and the Common Good 

Just as important as the relationship between two persons, is the relationship between all people together who make up a community or society. The nature of a human community also reflects the dignity proper to the individual person in being a rational and free creature. Therefore, there must also be a morality to understanding how this relationship should unfold. 18 "The basic question that must be resolved in social morality is how to create a system of relations between the individual and society that results in the fullest possible correlation between the person's true good and the common good that society naturally seeks." 19

Such a relationship between the individual and state must avoid extremes in which one or the other takes precedence. If the individual takes advantage of the whole of society, that violates their dignity as persons. On the other hand, if the collective benefits itself at the serious expense of the individual, likewise has a moral violation occurred. Rather, the balance that Wojtyla presents is one in which both the individual and the society are respected in their fundamental dignities. The individual should subordinate themselves to the good of the whole, even if this requires some sacrifice on their part. But this subordination can never strip the dignity of their individual personhood away from them, say a freedom of conscience to object, or the fundamental rights which are necessary for the life and flourishing of the individual. 

The Person is Eternal 

Because of the immaterial nature of rationality, the person is a spiritual being, one that survives the death of the body. 20 "That which is spiritual cannot undergo disintegration, destruction, or death." 21 Thus, it makes sense that in analyzing the content of the moral values which man seeks after, that one comes to the conclusion that the highest form of them are themselves immaterial and a-temporal, like Platonic forms. Therefore, it only makes sense that the fulfillment of the person is found in their Absolute version, which is God himself. 22 "Such values include truth, goodness, and beauty, as well as justice, love, and, in general, all the values by which the person as such continually lives. ... While it is true that Thomistic personalism is a philosophical view, it would be hard to deny that this supernatural perspective not only corresponds to it extremely well, but also even ultimately explains everything that, when viewed in the light of reason alone, must remain a deep and impenetrable mystery of human existence." 23

1 - Wojtyla, Karol. Catholic Thought From Lublin: Person and Community Selected Essays. "Thomistic Personalism". Trans. Theresa Sandock, OSM. (Peter Lang, NY, 1993) Pg.165
2 - 166
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