Foundations of Personalist Philosophy - Man as Substance-in-Relation - "Person and Being" by Norris Clarke S.J.

Man as “Substance-in-Relation”

In his book Person and Being, Norris Clarke S.J. explores, and lays out, the most basic acts of all beings, to exist and to exist in relation to other things, or in the way he phrases it, to be a substance-in-relation. He then applies these fundamental ideas to the human person. Clarke draws themes and conclusions together from the work of St. Thomas Aquinas which St. Thomas himself did not specifically address. 1 Thus, the book is in line with St. Thomas' teaching, but is an extrapolation of Thomas' explicit work. The book is broken up into two major chapters. The first is Being as Dynamic Act, and the second, Application to the Person. 2 This post will summarize the overall theme of the book, explaining what this definition, substance-in-relation, 3 means, and how it translates in an explanatory fashion to the human person as self-possessing (substance) 4 and relational, 5 who has their ultimate goal in communion. 6 

Substance-in-Relation Explained

What does the term substance-in-relation mean in terms of explaining the nature of a being? The definition can be broken into two parts. Firstly, we must look at “substance.” Everything in the world has an ontological substance that informs prime-matter to make it become what it is in actuality. For example, the substance of a rock informs prime-matter to make it a rock. This substance is something which exists on its own, and is the “abiding unifying center” of the being. 7 The second part of the definition, “in-relation,” refers to some of the most basic or fundamental acts of a being, which are “self-manifestation,” “self-communication,” and “receptivity.” 8 Self-manifestation is the first most basic act of beings, because as Etienne Gilson says “Not: to be, then to act, but: to be is to act.” 9 In other words, beings manifest themselves according to the actuality, or perfection, of their substantial form. So, self-manifestation is the actualizing of a substance in matter according to its level of perfection. 10“For consider what would happen if one attempted to deny that every real being is active, self-manifesting through action. Suppose a being that really exists, but does not act in any way, does not manifest itself in any way to other beings. There would be no way for anything else to know that it exists; it would make no difference at all to the rest of reality; practically speaking, it might just as well not be at all.”11

The second most fundamental act of beings is self-communication, in which the being communicates its own perfections and goodness to others. Being is good, so the more real or actual something is, the better it is, and the more perfection it has to share with others. St. Thomas says that beings tend to rest in their goodness, to share it with others because they are imbued with their own “richness of existence,” 12 and to naturally want to share this goodness, however small it might be. So the central act of existence is to spread its goodness to other beings in self-communication.

Receptivity is also a part of the second half of the definition, in-relation, because how can self-communication exist without a receiver to communicate it to. Clarke suggests that since self-communication is a central aspect of being that so too must receptivity, which is the act of receiving another’s perfections, otherwise, no communication of perfection would ever become complete. “Without receptivity, no communication can become actual and complete itself.” 13 Clarke, summarizing Aquinas, says that being “because it is poor, i.e., lacking the fullness of existence, and so it strives to enrich itself as much as its nature allows from the richness of those around it… .” 14

Clarke says that, while it is true that in lower beings reception can mean poverty insofar as there is a change from potentiality to actuality, when it comes to higher beings that receptivity is not a imperfection because receptivity at the level of a person involves the joyful welcoming of another’s love, and that love is a “purely positive perfection.” 15 Self-communication and receptivity as shown are the most basic acts of beings and form what is called “relationality”, which is the second part of Clarke’s definition of being. It is simply a kind of giving and receiving, or the interaction of beings relating to one another by communicating their perfecting to one another. This relationality leads toward community, because if beings innately self-communicate their perfections to others, and they also receive from others, then they will form relations. Without relationality, “there would not be a connected universe… .” This forming of relationships with other beings around them, of “communicating and receiving”, Clarke defines as a kind of community. These communities start off small, but together they form larger and larger groups, and eventually form a unified whole. 16 In the second half of Clarke’s book one can see how the definition “substance-in-relation” takes form in the human person. 

Humans Are Relational Beings

How do these basic acts of beings manifest themselves at the level of the human person? Like everything else, the human person has a substance as well. Only, this substance, or soul, is not exhausted just in informing prime matter such as with lower beings. It is actualized according to its perfection, so not only is manifested in matter, the body, but also pours over into two completely spiritual faculties, which are the intellect and the will. 17

Since self-manifestation results in a body and a spiritual soul, the human person is, as St. Thomas would say. an “embodied spirit,” and also “that which is most perfect in all of nature". We are the highest of all the animals, but the lowest of all spiritual persons. 18 We have many organic faculties such as seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, etc., as well as two spiritual ones. The two spiritual faculties are the intellect and the self-determining will. The spiritual faculty of the intellect results in a person being self-conscious, or aware of oneself. This self-consciousness allows us to be present to ourselves from within us, and to be able to speak “I,” knowing that we are speaking. Clarke says that in “I,” the subject and the object are the same. Because of this, one can prove the existence of a spiritual soul. All matter takes us a certain area, and matter cannot overlap, so when we say “I,” the subject and the object overlap, they are the same, which material matter cannot be. Therefore, the subject, or the one saying “I,” is greater than any “material mode of being.” 19 

The second spiritual faculty is the free “self-determining” will. This will gives a human person the power to be in control of his or her actions, and to determine who he or she is by those actions. From this, morality is placed as a part of everything one does on a conscious level. 20 A person’s actions form them into who they are as a moral agent. They shape them, and will set the foundation for what they will choose in the future. So when one chooses an action freely his or her whole moral being becomes in line with that act, whether good or bad. 21 By the fact that human persons have a spiritual and immortal soul which manifests itself in a self-consciousness intellect and a self-determining free will (which makes us, as St. Thomas would say, “dominus sui,” our own lord), we are free to make our own decisions. We are not completely controlled by our instincts, and therefore, enabled to love/ The human person is different than every other animal or material being and is truly, as Clarke says, self-possessing. The in-relation aspect of Clarke’s definition, when applied to the human person, takes a form that, while building on what was said previously about lower beings, is something completely unattainable by any other material creature, love. 

The first part of relationality is self-communication. If all beings are self-communicating and spread their goodness to others, than this must manifest itself in the person also. This idea goes beyond Aristotle, who though the form sought to perfect itself, and moves toward what Clarke calls a “metaphysics of love.” 22 When this principle of self-communication is applied to the human person, it manifests itself in love; the desiring of the flourishing of another, and communication of our goodness. “Now when this intrinsic dynamism toward self-communication is realized on the level of person being as such it turns into a self-conscious, free self-communication. In a word it turns into love of some form.” 23

This love, to become complete, must be received by the other person. This leads into the second part of in-relation. Clarke asserts that receptivity, which is receiving the perfections or love of others, is a perfection itself. For the reason that their always has to be receiving if there is giving. Receptivity, on the level of the human person, is part of true friendship; the welcoming acceptance of another love and returning the same back. Ontologically, between friends, receptivity is in its “nature a positive perfection,” because the receiver is glad fully, receiving the giver's love, and therefore is actively receiving. So it is an “act to act rather than of act to potency." Clarke gives an example to make this clear. "To make this clear, all we have to do is to remove in thought the aspect of motion and change. Thus if person A timelessly gives perfection X to person B, then B does not first lack perfection and then later receive it, but always possesses it in act. And if we add that B receives X in equal fullness to A’s possession of it, then no potency is involved at all. There is only the possession of perfection X plus the purely positive relationship of active, grateful welcoming of it as a gift from A.” 24 (One other possible reason that “receptivity” might be considered a positive perfection, although Clarke does not mention it, is that on the level of the human person, when self-communication turns into self-giving love, it is possible for the receiver to reject that gift, and therefore it is not always actualized or completed. So because it is not always received, it is a positive perfection to be able to able to receive the love of another properly or completely. It is the same with God, the human person, because he or she has a free will, has the capacity to reject God’s love. Therefore to be able to receive it is a perfection in itself.)

So the second half of Clarke’s definition in-relation which is self-communication and receptivity on the level of the person, takes form in the giving and receiving of love. From when a human person is still in his or her mother’s womb, until the day he or she dies, he or she forms relationships with others. These relationships become communities of different sizes. They start off small and gradually grow larger. When one is born, he or she forms relationships with his or her mother firstly, and then with his or her father, and the rest of the family. Then as one grows, he or she develops friendships and forms a community of peers. As one graduates school and enters into the work force, he or she joins the working community. Humans are also all part of countries, and in the largest view; the whole world is a kind of community. 25 In reality though, in our most important and loving relationships, one is not only led to community, but further than that ... to communion. This is marriage for some, but for all people this is the relationship with Almighty God. Here the human person comes to their final and total fulfillment. St. Thomas said that self-communication is the goal of beings, one’s “flowering” or perfection, and that “every substance exists for the sake of its operations.” The flowering of our beings is the giving and receiving of love, and thus the human person exists, ultimately, to love God and to receive His love. 

An Image of the Trinity

One might come up with the question, “Why do we do all these things?” The answer is simple, because we are made in the image of Almighty God. All of these principles fit right into the doctrine of the Trinity. God, Himself, is the “pure subsistent act of existence,” and His intellect and will are perfect and identical. Also “the intrinsic self-diffusiveness of the Good turns into personal love, self-communicative love.” This can been seen in how God the Father completely poured out the fullness of Himself, and his nature, into God the Son, and then how the love of God the Father and God the Son completely pour out their love into the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. 26 Clarke also says that all the members of the Trinity are ontologically equal. And because of this God the Son and God the Holy Spirit actively receive the love of God the Father, which “…must be a purely positive perfection connatural to being itself.” 27 The members of the Trinity are also completely one, in total communion with each other. 28 The doctrine of the trinity illumines what it truly means to be. 29 From this we can see that all beings are created as some kind of image of their maker. Man, though, is most especially created in the image and likeness of God as “substance-in-relation.” He is immortal and self-possessing (which is self-consciousness, and self-determination), giving him the ability to love and to be loved by others, and most importantly by God Himself. Man, thus shares in the divine life of God in a way that no other material being can.

1 - Clarke, Norris S.J. . Person and Being. (,) Pg. 6.
2 - Table of Contents
3 - 14
4 - 42
5 - 64
6 - 79
7 - 16
8 - 12, 6, 20
9 - 8
10 - 6, 7 
11 - 12, 13
12 - 10
13 - 20
14 - 10
15 - 21
16 - 14
17 - 6, 7
18 - 33
19 - 43, 44
20 - 49
21 - 54
22 - 71, 72
23 - 76
24 - 84, 85
25 - 67
26 - 11
27 - 21
28 - 86, 87
29 - 12