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 JMC : The Person and the Common Good / by Jacques Maritain

III Individuality and Personality

IS NOT the person the self? Is not my person my self? Let us consider the singular contradictions to which this term and notion of self give rise.

Pascal asserts that "the self is detestable." This expression is a common-place of Pascalian literature. In every-day language when we represent someone as "self-assertive," do we not mean that he is self-centered, imperious and dominating -- scarcely capable of friendship? A distinguished contemporary artist once remarked, "I do not like others"; a remark that reveals a strongly asserted personality. In this sense, we might construe personality to consist in self-realization achieved at the expense of others. So construed, personality would always imply a certain selfishness or imperviousness because no place remains for anything or anyone else in the man who is busy with himself.

On the other hand, is it not a serious reproach to assert of a man that he has no personality? Do not heroes and saints impress us as men who have reached the heights of personality as well as generosity? Nothing great is accomplished in the world save through a heroic fidelity to some truth which a man who says "I" sees and proclaims; a heroic fidelity to some mission which he, himself, a human person, must fulfill; of which, perhaps, he alone is aware and for which he lays down his life.

But let us turn to the Gospel; no personality is more magnificently asserted than that of Christ. Revealed dogma tells us that it is the personality itself of the Uncreated Word.

Here, in contrast to the expression of Pascal that "the self is detestable," the words of St. Thomas come to mind; "the person is that which is most noble and most perfect in all of nature."{24} Whereas Pascal teaches that "the self is detestable," St. Thomas teaches that whosoever loves God must love himself for the sake of God, must love his own soul and body with a love of charity. Concern for self -- or what contemporary psychology calls introversion -- can wreak much havoc. Those who have been reared in a strict Puritanism are said to complain of a suffering, a kind of interior paralysis, created by self-consciousness. On the other hand, philosophers, above all St. Augustine and in modern times Hegel, teach that self-knowledge is a privilege of the spirit; that much human progress consists in the progress of consciousness of self.

What do these contradictions mean? They mean that the human being is caught between two poles; a material pole, which, in reality, does not concern the true person but rather the shadow of personality or what, in the strict sense, is called individuality, and a spiritual pole, which does concern true personality.

It is to the material pole, the individual become the center of all, that the expression of Pascal refers. St. Thomas' expression on the contrary refers to the spiritual pole, the person, source of liberty and bountifulness. Thus, we are confronted with the distinction between individuality and personality.

This is no new distinction but a classical distinction belonging to the intellectual heritage of mankind. In Hindu philosophy, it corresponds to the distinction between the ego and the self. It is fundamental in the doctrine of St. Thomas. Contemporary sociological and spiritual problems have made it particularly timely. Widely different schools of thought appeal to it; the Thomists, certain disciples of Proudhon, Nicolas Berdiaeff and those philosophers who, prior to the invasion of the young existentialist group, already spoke of "existential philosophy." Hence it is all important to distinguish between the individual and the person. It is no less important to understand the distinction correctly.

. . . .

Let us consider individuality first. Outside of the mind, only individual realities exist.{25} Only they are capable of exercising the act of existing. Individuality is opposed to the state of universality which things have in the mind. It designates that concrete state of unity and indivision, required by existence, in virtue of which every actually or possibly existing nature can posit itself in existence as distinct from other beings. The angels are individual essences; the Divine Essence, in Its sovereign unity and simplicity, is supremely individual. Pure forms or pure spirits are, of themselves or by reason of that which constitutes their substantial intelligibility, in the state of individuality. For this reason, St. Thomas says that each angel differs from any other as the whole species of lions differs from the whole species of horses or from the whole species of eagles. In other words, each angel differs specifically from every other; each is an individual by the very form (absolutely free from any matter) in which its being consists and which constitutes it in its species.

The situation of terrestrial things, material beings, is quite different. According to the Angelic Doctor, their individuality is rooted in matter in as much as matter requires the occupation in space of a position distinct from every other position. Matter itself is a kind of non-being, a mere potency or ability to receive forms and undergo substantial mutations; in short, an avidity for being. In every being made of matter, this pure potency bears the impress of a metaphysical energy -- the "form" or "soul" -- which constitutes with it a substantial unit and determines this unit to be that which it is. By the fact that it is ordained to inform matter, the form finds itself particularized in such and such a being which shares the same specific nature with other beings equally immersed in spatiality.

According to this doctrine, the human soul, together with the matter which it informs, constitutes one substance, which is both carnal and spiritual. The soul is not, as Descartes believed, a thing -- thought -- existing on its own as a complete being, and the body another thing -- extension -- existing on its own as a complete being. Soul and matter are the two substantial co-principles of the same being, of one and the same reality, called man. Because each soul is intended to animate a particular body, which receives its matter from the germinal cells, with all their hereditary content, from which it develops, and because, further, each soul has or is a substantial relation to a particular body, it has within its very substance the individual characteristics which differentiate it from every other human soul.

In man, as in all other corporeal beings, the atom, the molecule, the plant, the animal, individuality has its first ontological roots in matter. Such is St. Thomas' doctrine on the individuality of material things. This common characteristic of all existents, namely, that in order to exist they must be undivided and distinct from every other existent, does not in corporeal beings, as in pure spirits, derive from the form which constitutes them at such and such a degree of specific intelligibility. In them, this common characteristic is realized below the level of intelligibility in act which is proper to the separated form -- whether it is separated in real existence or by the abstractive operation of the mind. Corporeal beings are individual because of "matter with its quantity designated." Their specific form and their essence are not individual by reason of their own entity but by reason of their transcendental relation to matter understood as implying position in space.

We have characterized matter as an avidity for being, having of itself no determination and deriving all of its determinations from form. In each of us, individuality, being that which excludes from oneself all that other men are, could be described as the narrowness of the ego, forever threatened and forever eager to grasp for itself. Such narrowness in flesh animated by a spirit derives from matter. As a material individuality, man has only a precarious unity, which tends to be scattered in a multiplicity. For of itself, matter is inclined to disintegration just as space is inclined to division. As an individual, each of us is a fragment of a species, a part of the universe, a unique point in the immense web of cosmic, ethnical, historical forces and influences -- and bound by their laws. Each of us is subject to the determinism of the physical world. Nonetheless, each of us is also a person and, as such, is not controlled by the stars. Our whole being subsists in virtue of the subsistence of the spiritual soul which is in us a principle of creative unity, independence and liberty.

. . . .

We have sketched briefly the theory of individuality. Personality is a much deeper mystery, and to probe the depths of its meaning is considerably more difficult. Perhaps the most apposite approach to the philosophical discovery of personality is the study of the relation between personality and love.

"Not the person but only its qualities do we love," Pascal has said. This is a false statement, and exhibits in Pascal a trace of the very rationalism against which he strove to protect himself. Love is not concerned with qualities. They are not the object of our love. We love the deepest, most substantial and hidden, the most existing reality of the beloved being. This is a metaphysical center deeper than all the qualities and essences which we can find and enumerate in the beloved. The expressions of lovers are unending because their object is ineffable.

Love seeks out this center, not, to be sure, as separated from its qualities, but as one with them. This is a center inexhaustible, so to speak, of existence, bounty and action; capable of giving and of giving itself; capable of receiving not only this or that gift bestowed by another, but even another self as a gift, another self which bestows itself. This brief consideration of love's own law brings us to the metaphysical problem of the person. For love is not concerned with qualities or natures or essences but with persons. "Thou art thyself," says Juliet "though not a Montague . . . Romeo, doff thy name, and for thy name, which is not part of thee, take all myself." To bestow oneself, one must first exist; not indeed, as a sound, which passes through the air, or an idea, which crosses the mind, but as a thing, which subsists and exercises existence for itself. Such a being must exist not only as other things do, but eminently, in self-possession, holding itself in hand, master of itself. In short, it must be endowed with a spiritual existence, capable of containing itself thanks to the operations of the intellect and freedom, capable of super-existing by way of knowledge and of love. For this reason, the metaphysical tradition of the West defines the person in terms of independence, as a reality which, subsisting spiritually, constitutes a universe unto itself, a relatively independent whole within the great whole of the universe, facing the transcendent whole which is God. For the same reason, this tradition finds in God the sovereign Personality whose existence itself consists in a pure and absolute super-existence by way of intellection and love. Unlike the concept of the individuality of corporeal things, the concept of personality is related not to matter but to the deepest and highest dimensions of being. Its roots are in the spirit inasmuch as the spirit holds itself in existence and super abounds in existence. Metaphysically considered, personality is, as the Thomistic School rightly asserts,{26} "subsistence," the ultimate achievement by which the creative influx seals, within itself, a nature face to face with the whole order of existence so that the existence which it receives is its own existence and its own perfection. Personality is the subsistence of the spiritual soul communicated to the human composite. Because, in our substance, it is an imprint or seal which enables it to possess its existence, to perfect and give itself freely, personality testifies to the generosity or expansiveness in being which an incarnate spirit derives from its spiritual nature and which constitutes, within the secret depths of our ontological structure, a source of dynamic unity, of unification from within.

Personality, therefore, signifies interiority to self. And because it is the spirit in man which takes him, in contrast to the plant and animal, beyond the threshold of independence properly so called, and of interiority to oneself, the subjectivity of the person has nothing in common with the isolated unity, without doors or windows, of the Leibnizian monad. It requires the communications of knowledge and love. By the very fact that each of us is a person and expresses himself to himself, each of us requires communication with other and the others in the order of knowledge and love. Personality, of its essence, requires a dialogue in which souls really communicate. Such communication is rarely possible. For this reason, personality in man seems to be bound to the experience of affliction even more profoundly than to the experience of creative effort. The person is directly related to the absolute. For only in the absolute is it able to enjoy its full sufficiency. Its spiritual homeland is the whole universe of the absolute and of those indefectible goods which are as the pathways to the absolute Whole which transcends the world.

Finally, we turn to religious thought for the last word and find that the deepest layer of the human person's dignity consists in its property of resembling God -- not in a general way after the manner of all creatures, but in a proper way. It is the image of God. For God is spirit and the human person proceeds from Him in having as principle of life a spiritual soul capable of knowing, loving and of being uplifted by grace to participation in the very life of God so that, in the end, it might know and love Him as He knows and loves Himself.

If our description is adequate, such are the two metaphysical aspects of the human being, individuality and personality, together with their proper ontological features. However evident it may seem, in order to avoid misunderstandings and nonsense, we must emphasize that they are not two separate things. There is not in me one reality, called my individual, and another reality, called my person. One and the same reality is, in a certain sense an individual, and, in another sense, a person. Our whole being is an individual by reason of that in us which derives from matter, and a person by reason of that in us which derives from spirit. Similarly, the whole of a painting is a physico-chemical mixture by reason of the coloring stuff of which it is made, and the whole of it is a work of beauty by reason of the painter's art.

Of course, material individuality is not something evil in itself. Obviously as the very condition of our existence, it is something good. But it is precisely as related to personality that individuality is good. Evil arises when, in our action, we give preponderance to the individual aspect of our being. For although each of our acts is simultaneously the act of ourselves as an individual and as a person, yet, by the very fact that it is free and involves our whole being, each act is linked in a movement towards the supreme center to which personality tends, or in a movement towards that dispersion into which, if left to itself, material individuality is inclined to fall.

It should be noted here that man must realize through his will that of which his nature is but the sketch. In terms of a commonplace -- and a very profound one -- which goes back to Pindar, man must become what he is. And this he must do at a sorrowful cost and with formidable risks. He himself, in the moral order, must win his liberty and his personality. In other words, as observed above, his action can follow the bent either of personality or of material individuality.{27} If the development occurs in the direction of material individuality, it will be orientated towards the detestable ego whose law is to grasp or absorb for itself. At the same time personality, as such, will tend to be adulterated and to dissolve. But if the development occurs in the direction of spiritual personality, man will be orientated towards the generous self of the heroes and saints. Thus, man will be truly a person only in so far as the life of the spirit and of liberty reigns over that of the senses and passions.

Here we are confronted with the crucial problem of the education of man. There are some who confound the person with the individual. To effectuate the development of personality and the freedom of expansion to which it aspires, they reject all asceticism; these would have the tree bear fruit without having been pruned. Instead of self-fulfilment, the man, thus educated, achieves only dispersion and disintegration. The heart becomes atrophied and the senses exacerbated, or else all that is most human in man recoils into a vacuum veiled in frivolity.

Others misunderstand the distinction between the individual and the person; they mistake it for a separation. These believe that there are two separate beings in each of us, the one -- the individual, the other -- the person. Their motto is: "Death to the individual, long live the person!" The pity is that, in killing the individual, they also kill the person. The despotic conception of the progress of the human being is no whit better than the anarchistic conception. Its ideal seems to be first, remove the heart -- painlessly if possible -- then replace it with the heart of an angel. The second is by far the more difficult operation, and succeeds more rarely. Instead of the authentic person, exhibiting the mysterious visage of the Creator, a mask appears, the austere mask of the Pharisee.

It is the interior principle, namely, nature and grace, which matters most in the education and progress of the human being, just as it is an inner principle which matters most in organic growth. Our instruments are simply the aids; our art is but the servant and cooperator of this interior principle. The whole function of this art is to prune and to trim -- operations in which both the individual and the person are interested -- in such wise that, within the intimacy of the human being, the gravity of individuality diminishes and that of true personality and its generosity increases. Such an art, to be sure, is difficult.


{24} "Person signifies what is most perfect in all nature -- that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature." Sum. Theol., I, 29, 3.

{25} And also collective realities constituted of individuals, such as society (unum per accidens).

{26} Cf. My work The Degrees of Knowledge, Appendix IV.

{27} Cf. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, Le Sens Commun, la Philosophie de I'Etre et les Formules Dogmatiques, 3e et 4e Úditions, 3e Partie, Chap. II.

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