Francesco E.M. Giordano

General Studies in the Humanities 345

The University of Chicago

Professor Bernard Schumacher, PhD

15 November 2001

Human Being and Human Person:

Jacques Maritainís Notion of the Person in the Contemporary Setting


A person is an individual substance of a rational nature. Boethiusí sixth century definition still echoes today as one of the first clear definitions of person in Western Philosophy. However, though Western Philosophy has changed dramatically since the sixth century, moving from a metaphysically-based philosophy to a generally empirically-based philosophy, the question of what a person is still holds as an important question. Literally confronted with issues of life and death in our fast-paced, utilitarian society which often views people as commodities for the market place, it is important to investigate exactly what it is that we are talking about when we say "person." Philosophers like Fr. Norris Clarke, SJ, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, and Emmanuel Mounier discuss this issue by trying to bring the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, who agreed with and elucidated Boethiusí definition, to the forefront of the contemporary debate on the notion of the person. Since it would go beyond the scope of this paper to write exclusively on all four of the aforementioned philosophers and their "opponents," Jacques Maritainís The Person and the Common Good will be discussed with reference to other philosophers. According to Maritain, the person is seen as more than an isolated individual body, but as a dynamically interior person able to grow deeply in oneself through the others with whom he or she communicates, therefore seeing the person in terms of relation to other persons.

Is the person merely an individual substance of a rational nature as Boethius asserts? While empiricists like Locke focus on the rational nature, emphasizing on consciousness as essential to being a person, is there perhaps also a relational aspect to the personís rational nature as other persons nurture the personís growth? After all, even if substance per se is not considered, can the discourse emphasize relation between these apparent substances we call persons? Fr. Clarke, SJ, a phenomenologist, would certainly assert this relational aspect, seeing this "journey" through life as essentially the relation between substantial persons in a community, thereby emphasizing the necessary union of substance and relation. While both Boethius and St. Thomas Aquinas were defining the person within the discourse of the Trinity, Jacques Maritain and other contemporary Christian philosophers use the relational aspect of person, as would be found in the Triune God, within the discourse of person and society. After all, contemporary society is much more prone to understand a discourse about society than one about the Triune God, so in order to have a cogent argument in contemporary society it is essential to mention society per se. While some philosophers, like J.P. Sartre, defined this relational aspect as a contentious relation between people, others, like Gabriel Marcel, argued that this relational aspect is in fact a loving, productive aspect that is necessary to the person. This loving relation is further emphasized by Jacques Maritain, who, unlike Gabriel Marcel, explicitly identifies God as the paradigm of this perfect, loving, subsisting relationship.

Jacques Maritain begins by explaining the distinction between personality and individual. The personality is spiritual, and the individual is material. He is evidently deriving this distinction from St. Thomas Aquinas. Using Aristotle, St. Thomas makes the distinction between the soul and the body, in fact saying that when death occurs, the anima separata is no longer a person. The person, in order to be fully a person, must have the body and the soul, and once the Final Resurrection takes place, these souls and bodies will be re-united and be once again persons. The material individual, or body, is very important, but Maritain shows how, though it is essential, it is the lesser of the two. He says at one point, "Matter itself is a kind of non-being, a mere potency or ability to receive forms and undergo substantial mutations." This is by no means meant to discard the body in a Manichean way because, after all, according to St. Paul, the body is "a temple of the Holy Spirit" that needs to be respected. Personality, on the other hand, is subsistence, the subsistence of the spiritual soul communicated to the human, i.e. individual, composite. Personality signifies the interiority of oneself, the ability to reflect about oneself. While the Personality is unified spiritually, the individual body is "scattered in a multiplicity" with individual parts, and both personality and individuality necessarily make up the person. St. Thomas, in fact, talks about the composite made up of parts for man in reference to the individual. However, for God who is Spirit, he talks about the simplicity of the Whole, of which the personality is made in the image.

Like St. Thomas, Maritain uses the notion of person thinking about the Triune God, three Persons in such communion as to be one God, but he then extends the notion to society. Herein rests the essential notion of relation with others that Maritain emphasizes throughout his text. In fact, he says that Personality tends by nature to communion; this communion, in turn, is most perfect in the "Trinitarian Society," three wholes in one Whole. Since the human person is created in the image of God, then this same interiority and communion must exist in what it means to be a human person. How does this communion, or close relation, exist between persons? If persons are very interior, then it must be an expression of this interior life with one another. Expressing this interior life with one another further deepens the interior understanding of each person engaged in the dialogue. This is where the notion of communication, which is clearly manifest with philosophers like Charles Taylor, becomes important. It is so important that Maritain says that personality, of its essence, requires a dialogue among souls. The more incommunicability there exists among people, the more separated they become, and Maritain admits that deep communication among souls is rarely possible. This makes for a profound affliction of incommunicability within people because they are unable to express the depths of the experiences of their souls neither to others nor to themselves.

Understanding this notion of relation and communication, then why could one not define an intelligent animal like a dolphin or a chimpanzee as a person? After all, proponents of this definition of person say that dolphins and chimpanzees have been studied, and it is clear that communication exists among them. Are they not also a form of society? Maritain would say that though a person does indeed require membership in a society in virtue of his dignity and needs, "animal groups or colonies are called societies only in an improper sense. They are collective wholes constituted of mere individuals," of parts and not of wholes. He uses bees and their bee hives as an example, saying that there is a public good and not a reciprocal common good among the bees. In a common good, there is a reciprocal effect. Man, being a political animal because of his rationality, develops through a character training that society provides via social institutions like the family first, church, school, political parties, and socio-economic conditions. In developing through this character training, the person contributes to society, whereas the bee simply contributes to the hive, to the public good, without receiving any character development for itself from the hive. The person and the common good imply one another. The old saying reminds us, "All for one, one for all." For bees, rather than "All for one, one for all," it is "One for all," what Maritain would call a totalitarian type of good. Therefore, though there may appear to be a society of sorts among animals, it is a misconception, an anthropomorphism, of these groups on our part.

"It is therefore common to both the whole and the parts into which it flows back and which, in turn, must benefit from it." This sums up rather well the contribution of each whole person to the whole of the common good. However, what does one do when confronted with the issues of severely mentally-handicapped persons, comatose persons, other such persons, abortion, or euthanasia? They do not seem to be contributing to the common good, nor does the common good seem to be helping them. Maritainís Thomistic notion of relation would certainly find a contribution of the most severely handicapped people to the common good, even if it is not materially evident, but it is interesting to pose the question and see where that could take the argument. Before proceeding in the argument, though, it is important to see why Maritain would find a contribution. In the Catholic mindset, every cross a person has to bear has a contribution, and this cross could indeed be a severely mentally-handicapped family member. After all, it is in living with our crosses that we imitate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Severely handicapped people, like Helen Keller, for example, are definitely not the easiest people with whom to live or to work, but there is much to be learned from them, much that they, in effect, do contribute to society. Yes, there are far worse cases than Helen Keller, but if we can be patient in learning from Helen Keller, what is to say that we cannot be patient in learning from a severely mentally-handicapped person? There are many situations from which we learn, situations which we would never have thought worth our time. How are we to know the value we will receive from these people unless we give them the most basic right, the right to life? If someone is willing to argue that life is not the most basic right, then it would interesting to hear that argument because it is rather difficult to fathom even having other rights unless this right is observed. One can then ask, "What about a corpse? Corpses are often treated with respect at funerals. " The only reason a corpse would have a right would then be attributed because it was once a living person and because of the respect for the family members and friends of this once-living person, therefore implying the necessary relation to other persons with the memories they hold.

With respect to abortion, the aforementioned dilemma of an embryoís contribution to the common good can be argued in terms of potentiality. The embryo is a person because the teleology of the embryo, of the first cells of the embryo, is a full-grown baby person, and the teleology of the baby person is an adult person. There is a potential adult in the initial embryonic stages of this person, even though there may not be an actual essence of this adult, just as there is a potential adult in any new-born baby. The initial cells are the first cells of a potential adult. In fact, abortion is often called termination of a pregnancy. This implies that there is a termination of a work-in-progress, the termination of the growth of a person, one who is nourished by the mother, the first member of the common good whom he or she encounters who helps him or her become the baby he or she is meant to become. In turn, he or she grows to become an adult and contribute to the common good which contributed to his or her growth.

People may argue that this is merely potential, like a prince is a potential king. If a prince does not have the same rights as a king because he is merely a potential king and not quite there, then a potential person who is a bundle of embryonic cells does not have the same rights as a person. Apart from the fact that the embryo is not merely a potential person but an embryonic person with the potential of an adult person with potential self-consciousness, this argument also does not take into account that if one were to kill the prince, there would be no future king once the present king dies. Therefore, one must protect the prince precisely because one day he will be king. He might not have the rights of a king, but he has the rights of a prince who will one day be a king. It is a question of time, and there is certainly something to be said about protecting future rights. After all, it is not all about the past, as Tooley and others assert, when this person was self-conscious; one could also make the argument about the future. One must protect an embryo that one day will be a child, or else we might as well not have any more children, and once we all die out, then humanity dies with us.

The aforementioned conclusion may sound extreme and unrealistic, but it shows precisely how crazy an argument for abortion can become. Yes, often the criteria for a suitable argument are based on the intellectual handicaps, etc. foreseen in the embryo, but the problem with being selective with specific criteria is that we could essentially come up with random criteria that may now seem unrealistic and unacceptable which would then seem realistic and acceptable. For example, what appears unrealistic to us would be to abort a fetus because the fetus is growing into a red-haired baby-girl and not the brown-haired baby boy a couple would prefer. This is where this line of reasoning can take us. It is simply barbaric! We consider ourselves civilized, looking down on ancient, bellicose civilizations that killed their baby girls, but how are we really any different? That can be how far we take this dishonest argument since consequences for whatever small act we commit now are more far-reaching than we can now imagine. We have the last century to prove our point with the atrocities committed by Stalin and Hitler alone, atrocities that were certainly "scientifically" justified. These atrocities, however, were merely extreme cases because, sadly, the seemingly-innocuous eugenics programs we started in the United States, Planned Parenthood among them, chose certain characteristics that were not considered favorable and argued to eliminate such characteristics, chief among these were handicapped persons and persons of color.

In se, in fact, according to Peter Singer, it is implied that if one could kill a severely mentally-handicapped fetus, as Singer asserts should be possible, then one could kill a severely mentally-handicapped child, which could lead to killing a severely mentally-handicapped person. This indeed becomes like Nazism. We have to think of long-term consequences of our moral-political actions now because it really does not take long to go down a "slippery slope" and reach extreme proportions of inhumanity in human behavior. We certainly have enough history to teach us that concept!

Michael Tooley makes an argument in support of abortion and infanticide, using Lockean empiricism to defend his position. He argues that the potentiality argument is insufficient in defending a pro-life stance. Throughout his article, he sees society as a public good, evidence of his utilitarian ideology. It is clear from the start that he has a utilitarian way of thinking. He says, "Most people would prefer to raise children who do not suffer from gross deformities or from severe physical, emotional, or intellectual handicaps. If it could be shown that there is no moral objection to infanticide, the happiness of society could be significantly and justifiably increased." This is quite an assertion on what will bring about the aggregate good of society! The aggregate good of society is a public good, and it is very much fitting with the utilitarian model. The problem with this utilitarian model is that it treats people as parts, not as wholes, who somehow must fit into the machinery of the whole of society. Maritain would certainly disagree with this mind-set. Given the complexity of society, however, how can anyone even judge the utility of an individual? Many artists and scientists were at first regarded by social institutions as bizarre and useless. Many are respected only after their deaths; others were respected later in their lives. Einstein, for instance, failed Mathematics in his early school years. Benedetto Croce, a very important Italian Literary critic, never even finished his university degree, but he became one of the foremost professors in early Twentieth Century Italy.

Who would have ever known that this would happen when these two important figures were seen in their early years? Everyone deserves a chance. This is the so-called "American way." Then why is this adage passing by unnoticed for embryonic persons? Of course, Tooley, Singer, and others in their school of thought would never assent that the embryo is a person, but what is to say that the embryo is not a person? Is not the person a work-in-progress? Is there not a continuum from one stage of life to another? If so, where does one draw the line? If one cannot draw the line, then we must accept that the person is a person from the very start. As Peter Singer admits, in fact, "the dispute about abortion is often taken to be a dispute about when a human life begins."

Peter Singer continues, and I will let him ironically speak on the conservative position: "On this issue the conservative position is difficult to shake. The conservative points to the continuum between zygote and child, and challenges the liberal to point to any stage in this gradual process which marks a morally significant dividing line. Unless there is such a line, the conservative says, we must either upgrade the status of the zygote to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child to that of the zygote; but no one wants to allow children to be dispatched on the request of their parents, and so the only tenable position is to grant the fetus the protection we now grant the child."

Tooley begins his argument in defense of abortion and infanticide by using the particular-rights principle which states: "It is a conceptual truth that an entity cannot have a particular right, R, unless it is at least capable of having some interest, I, which is furthered by its having right R." Therefore, unless an entity is capable of achieving its interest, an interest of which it is self-conscious, it does not have a right to life. He cites a kitten as an example. Since the kitten has an interest in not feeling pain, it has a right not to be tortured, but it does not have a right not be killed quickly and painlessly because it does not have an interest in its continued existence since it has not even been self-conscious of this continued existence. Tooley quickly moves to question what interest an embryo could have if an embryo is not even self-conscious. However, at one point he refers to his deprogramming/reprogramming example, and he says that "it is not even sufficient that they be desires associated with the same physical organism."

It is with this deprogramming/reprogramming example that Tooley undermines his argument because it is then reasonable to wonder if these desires could be expressed by others, seeing a person in relation to others, as Maritain would assert. What if it is the desire of oneís loved ones that he or she stay alive? What if it is the desire of society and its institutions, laws, and virtues that all persons of a certain metaphysical definition stay alive? The point of this sort of interrogation is to show that his argument is not well-founded. He has as his foundation this desire, i.e. this interest and preference to satisfy a desire for happiness. It is odd to see the foundation based entirely on a subjective interest and not on any particular objective good of the person. What if the person is too young to understand his or her interest? Does that mean that he or she deserves to die? What if the person is too young to see what is really good for him or her? What if he or she eats too many sweats, thinking they are good and not realizing the risk of diabetes and tooth-loss that is at stake? When does the person see his or her own best interest? Why is this the criteria, after all? If the criteria changes to support the argument that abortion and infanticide is good and proper, then there is no telling what properties he would choose to defend the killing of less intelligent people, people of a certain creed, people of a certain race, or whatever else he would choose. What is the criteria to choose the criteria of self-consciousness, after all? It is certainly not unrealistic, but one can say that it is arbitrary. There certainly need to be more criteria. Therefore, to protect all views, we must protect all of life, from its potentiality to its actuality.

Euthanasia, comatose persons, and severely mentally-handicapped persons are all related insofar as the utilitarian ideology so prevalent in society today is concerned. Some would say that these people have nothing to contribute to society, and society has nothing to contribute to them, so they may as well be dead. Before even returning to Maritainís argument, one can see that this is negated even by Tooleyís argument because all that is sufficient for the person is that this person be at least one time self-conscious. More importantly, however, this way of thinking does not perfectly grasp the extent of Maritainís argument, or the relational emphasis of what a person is. Studies show that elderly people who have pets are happier and less lonely. These pets communicate, though not as profoundly as a person, but they communicate with their body language, thereby keeping these elderly, home-bound people entertained. What is to say that an elderly person who has worked all his life, even becoming President Ronald Reagen, who now finds himself home-bound with Alzheimerís disease is not also very important to his family members? We can return to the question of respect for a corpse, who is no longer a person according to St. Thomas and (therefore) Maritain. Why do we care so much about respecting a corpse at a funeral? These two questions relate. Insofar as this comatose or Alzheimer-inflicted person relates to others via memories, even if he or she has been a severely mentally-handicapped person all his life, he or she would be a person. Then, what is to say that an animal who means something to someone is not a person because of that meaning? Well, the issue rests on potential again. These are accidents of the essence of person from which these people suffer. Even if they suffer their entire lives, they could have been potentially different, potentially very deep, reflective people. A dog, on the other hand, which is severely mentally-handicapped and is miraculously healed would not become a very deep, reflective person. He would become what he is meant to become as a dog and nothing more.

In many ways, Peter Singer and these other philosophers are mere rhetoricians because they use common age-old values or values of our age to lure readers in, but they are not necessarily honest about some of the consequences. Peter Singer, for example, never explicitly talks about some of the consequences of his reasoning, and some of these possible consequences have been addressed with this paper. If one really wants to look, it is clear that many other negative consequences could be found. He lures in his audience with the idea of happiness, a universal idea with which everyone certainly agrees and finds appeal. However, he does not address the dimensions of happiness, pain, and suffering. There are many dimensions to happiness, beyond mere capitalistic and material pleasure. Many countries have very poor people who have large families and are happy. Mother Teresa once said of the United States that we are the loneliest of people. Was she that far-fetched? In many cases, she was correct. One has merely to look at the isolation many Americans feel when they have to resort to computer simulation games because they do not talk to their neighbors. There is not a direct correlation between material well-being and happiness. This is made as a priori an assumption and never questioned in many of these articles and books. They could accuse a more conservative position of not addressing over-population or other issues, but these types of issues are not resolved with a "birth-control band-aid" but with long-term economic programs. The list of issues is endless, and the countless books indicate just how profound this discourse is.

Maritain would also emphasize the metaphysical notion of the soul in this whole argument. There is a uniqueness to each person beyond a mere DNA individuality, Maritain would assert. However, since philosophers like Tooley could not accept this premise because they clearly do not believe in substance per se, the phenomenological response would have to cater to the experience people have of one another and of the world around them. This relation is brought into the argument in spite of the non-realization of an essential potential criteria, like self-consciousness. After all, the empirical, Lockean argument Tooley uses is one based on the experience of the self-conscious person. This is a person without a soul for a soul would be too metaphysical of a concept to accept for an empiricist. Therefore, a Thomistic Phenomenologist like Maritain could begin a discourse with Tooley with Phenomenology having something in common with Empiricism, i.e. experience. At one point, Tooley says in response to generalized potentiality, "For why should it make a difference whether the potentiality resides in a single organism, or in a system of organisms that are so interrelated that they will in the normal course of affairs, due to the operation of natural laws, causally give rise to something that possesses the property in question?" He is certainly correct in assuming that since the "generalized principle deals with any action that prevents an organism, or system, from developing the relevant property" that an anti-abortionist would "certainly want to accept this generalization." The empirical experience people have of one another is extremely important. It is particular of the modern mind-set that we should think of man as autonomous. As Donne once said, "No man is an island unto himself." Man necessarily has experiences with others for the benefit of others and for the benefit of himself. We cannot prevent this experience from taking place because it helps both the person in question and the society that benefits from the personís presence. The personís growth as a person has very specific characteristics that contribute to society, whatever these characteristics may be. No one is really in any place to judge characteristics that are better or worse for society; society can learn from any experience, and that is what history teaches us. This person is useful to society, and a utilitarian approach which does not give him or her the opportunity to prove his or her utility empirically contradicts itself in some respects. Mounier says it clearly at one point when he says, "Over against the shallow world of rationalism, the person is ever an affirmation of mystery." We have no way to know in advance the contributions of a personís potential. We have no way to know in advance the contributions of a severely mentally-handicapped person to those who care for him or her, or even to science itself. No one is useless! Just as there is a mystery about what the future holds, there is a mystery about what the future contributions of any one person may be. Everyone deserves a chance to live!



1. Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947, various pages.

2. Boethius, The Theological Tractates. Latin-English. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 73-93.

3. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Everymanís Library, 1971. Chapter 27, pp. 274-93.

4. Marcel, Gabriel. "The Ego and Its Relation to Others" in Homo Viator, Translated by E. Craufurd. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1951, pp. 13-28.

5. Maritain, Jacques. The Person and the Common Good. Translated by J.J. Fitzgerald. Notre Dame, Indiana, USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, pp. 31-89.

6. Mounier, Emmanuel. A Personalist Manifesto. Translated by the Monks of St. Johnís Abbey. London: Longmans, 1938, pp. 67-88.

7. Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Translated by K. Blamey, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 27-39.

8. Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1st Edition. Chapters 2-7.

9. Taylor, Charles. "The Person" in M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes (Eds.). The Category of the Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 257-81.

10. Michael Tooley. "Abortion and Infanticide" in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Volume 2, number 1, Fall 1972, pp. 37-65.