The Human Person – A History

Robert McNamara

The question of the identity and dignity of the human being is a primordial question, one basic and axiomatic. It not only affects each of us individually, but also all human individuals at all times and in all places. It is a question metaphysically significant, as well as one with great practical import. It is a question we simply must ask, and the answer we discover will determine the course of our lives. It will shape our ethos and attitude, and will motivate our concrete actions and general behaviour, both to ourselves and others, and also to God.

Given its foundational character, it is not surprising that the question has, in various forms, troubled thinkers throughout history, from the earliest of Greek philosophers, when properly philosophical thought first began, up to and including present day personalistic philosophy and theology. It is the question that is implicitly contained in the pithy Greek aphorism inscribed across the portico of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: "know thyself". It appears in numerous Platonic dialogues in various forms, and receives an in-depth and penetrating analysis in Aristotle’s On the Soul.


However, it is only with the dawn of Christianity that the question receives sufficient clarity, and it is only with the presence of Christ that the question is given convincing answer. The Person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God-man, and subsequent Christian thought inspired by this historical event, has had a decisive impact on our understanding of the human being precisely as a person.

And this is true not only religiously and theologically, but also philosophically, culturally and ethically. The various theological controversies of the early centuries of Christianity – regarding our understanding of the two central mysteries of the faith, the Incarnation and Trinity – saw the question itself first deepened and clarified, and then answered with philosophical rigour.

Reflection on the question continued into the first centuries of the medieval period, when a full and robust definition of the person was first formed by the philosopher-theologian, St Boëthius. This definition became classical and was further clarified and developed in subsequent thinkers, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas who, appearing late in the medieval period, furnished a clear and comprehensive understanding. In this way, the originally faith-based theological controversies were progressively philosophically deepened, and through this our understanding of the human being precisely as a human person was enriched.

Over a series of articles, we will approach this question of human identity and dignity: exploring the history of the term ‘person’ up to its eventual definition by St. Boëthius; investigating the deepening of understanding given the definition by St. Thomas Aquinas; and overviewing contemporary understanding as found in the writings of Karol Wojtyła (St. John Paul II).

Person: a brief history of the term

The Greek term, prosopon, as well as its Latin equivalent, persona, are those that were initially used to denote the mask worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman drama. Importantly, the term signified the mask not only as symbolic covering, as a mere facial appearing of the character, but specifically as it was spoken through, and so as animated from within – i.e. it signified the interior of the character as it was exteriorly expressed.

From this primary and basic signification, the term progressed in meaning and came to be applied not only to the mask of the actor, but also to the dramatic character represented by the mask. In this way persona evolved in signification from simple and static mask to complex and living character, moving from the exterior to the interior, from the superficial appearance to the substantial reality. It came to be a signifier for the interior hub of the dramatic story, the centre-point around which all significant dramatic dialogue and action revolved.

From this early evolved attribution, the term again developed in range and meaning and in time came to encompass also the characters portrayed in narrative texts. This ancient form of reading texts – in which the characters in ancient narratives were designated with the word prosopon – was made possible because of the nature of the texts themselves, where the style of narrative was one in which the historical events portrayed were not merely recorded as simple narratives, but were scripted in dramatic format.

The poets of antiquity did not simply narrate events, whether historical or fictional using standard prose, but rather placed the characters of the stories in an active and real-time dialogue. In this way, the key characters were given life and expression and the story was animated from within by the thoughts and speech of the various characters.

Sacred Scripture

In the text of Sacred Scripture, Christian writers found something similar to this dramatic format, where biblical events involving divine activity were often scripted in dialogical form. The inspired writers introduced dramatic roles as a way of allowing the most significant characters of Scripture to manifest themselves and to speak, and so to progress the Biblical narrative from within.

Christian theologians of the early centuries, particularly Tertullian and Augustine, naturally and unsurprisingly interpreted the biblical texts using the then common exegetical form of prosopographic exegesis. In this way, according to the very same manner as their secular contemporaries, the Church Fathers came to apply the term persona to the characters portrayed in the sacred texts of Christianity.

Now importantly, certain scriptural texts have the Divine Reality speak directly within the text itself. These brief but significant extracts reveal the presence of an intelligent deity, one in dialogue with creation, and also within Himself. These texts are of great value towards properly understanding the being of God. Precisely as dialogical, they reveal the presence of a multiplicity in the divinity. (The ‘We’ of the book of Genesis is one early and classic example: God says, "Let Us make man in Our image and likeness" (Gen. 1:24).)

Church Fathers

In consequence, the early Church Fathers began to apply the then philosophically uncontroversial term persona to the multiplicity found in God. In this way, the multiplicity of distinct Individuals within the one God was first denoted by the term person – the term person was applied to each of the Individuals of the Trinity.

Accordingly, when this primary mystery of the Christian faith was eventually formulated and defined, the term person became a central element of its definition: one Substance in three Persons. God is one, but as one He is a multiplicity of Individuals, Father, Son and Spirit, and so is a Trinity of Persons.

Following this, and by strict corollary, the mystery of the Incarnation was also formulated using the term person: One Person in two natures. The term is here used to denote the Second Person of the Trinity in His unified assumption of human nature in the Incarnation. The Son is one, but as one of a divine nature He has taken to Himself also a human nature, yet still remains one being, fully human and fully divine.

In this way the term person came to assume its divine signification: first as signifying the different Individuals found in the Trinity; and then also as signifying the unity of the Incarnation. Obviously then, the term person became one of incomparable significance for Christian thought, while its importance for the western philosophical tradition grew in proportion.

Divine and human

Significantly, alongside this theological development the term person had also evolved in the secular sphere, and had come to be applied to all members of society with civil and legal rights, to all who could be designated as actors in the drama of public life. This mundane political usage was mirrored by the Christian community which began to signify ecclesiastical dignitaries by the term, and then also all those Christians with standing in the community of the Church, and finally, all individual members of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Over time, these manifold and varied uses of the term – divine, secular and religious – all converged, and both God and man came to be signified by the very same term, person. Importantly, this divine and human co-signification was made possible precisely because of the Christian teaching which regarded the human being as created in the image and likeness of God. The impact of this central Christian teaching of the Imago Dei cannot be overestimated, and it has had an incalculable impact on our understanding of the human being, precisely in his identification as a person.

Using the term ‘human’ when denoting an individual is different from using the term ‘person’: whereas human signifies our place on the horizontal dimension of creation, the term person signifies our vertical likeness to God. The human being is like God, and so both the human individual and the Divine Individual can be identified by the very same term, person. One could say that the term person captures, in one word, the doctrine of the Imago Dei and all that comes along with this important revealed teaching.

Thereby is also signified all the manifold relationality of the human person to the Divine Persons: we can have a certain communion with God because we are like God, because we are persons like the Divine Persons. Our naming as persons (in contradistinction to merely human) implicitly signifies our ability to be in relationship with God.

The person defined

Now, with this convergence of divine and human meanings, the time was ripe for a philosophically full and rigorous definition to be given to the person – one that corresponded to its divine, angelic and human signification – and thereby to achieve a full and mature understanding of the human individual as personal. At the dawn of the medieval period, a Christian philosopher-theologian, Anicius Boëthius (480–524 AD), stepped up to the challenge and was the first to pen an adequate definition.

In the context of a theological controversy regarding the Incarnation, and by reasoning according to the philosophical heritage of Plato and Aristotle, Boëthius concluded that there are three essential features of the person as such: substantiality, individuality and rationality. In consequence, Boëthius defines the person as "an individual substance of a rational nature".

We could call this a definition of the essential being of the person, a definition of ‘the what’ of the person, his nature. In contrast to a physical or biological definition, it is a metaphysical definition. As such, it is the definition that is most adequate both to the reality itself, and to our understanding of the reality.

Our understanding

It is a definition that expands our understanding past the mere physical or biological of the human being, and traces its roots into the very being of the human species and individual. It thereby creates a truly adequate ground for our assessment of the human being, and of human activity. It gives us a way of looking upon the human individual that enables a greater depth of understanding of the unique individuality of the other, and thereby capacitates us for a fuller relationship to the other.

Moreover, since it can be applied to divine and angelic individuals as well as human, it defines the human being not only as he is knowable in his relation to the rest of created reality – as one biological species among others, i.e. as a rational animal – but also as he is knowable in his relation to other personal beings, angelic and divine.

Obviously, this fact alone provides a radically different context and framework from within which we can see and understand the human individual. This definition became classical for Christianity and the western philosophical tradition, and is the hinge around which all later Christian thought on the person rotates. This is especially so during the late medieval period and with the thought of the scholastic theologians. In the next article we will investigate this.

Robert McNamara is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, U.S.A., at their European study-abroad programme in Gaming, Austria


Faith Magazine

July - August 2016