Reconstructing the Person: A Meditation on the Meaning of Personality

The usage of the word “person” in our culture illustrates, simultaneously, its ambiguity and its curious power. Advertisers have caught on to the electricity in the word and have attempted to use it to their profit. No doubt you have received more than one embossed envelope marked “Personal! Urgent!! Open Immediately!!!” The first sheet that falls out of the envelope is blazoned in large letters with your name bordered in black or gold, informing you that by the mere swirl of your signature you will have won more than a million dollars. On the first mailing you may be addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Ms., with middle initial, but the tone of a second missive becomes less formal—”Dear Kenneth”—and finally it warms up to downright cozy: “Dear Ken,” with the implication that you can’t be so stupid as to miss the chance of a lifetime. What is of importance to notice is the use of the personal names and forms of address, and the belief that they have pulling power—that is, the power to pull money out of your pocket.

There is even more, however, to the current usage of the word person. We say, of a charming person, that he or she has a fine personality, meaning that he or she makes a pleasing self-presentation. On the other hand, if we say of some celebrity that he or she is a personality, we refer to the projection of a public image that may or may not correspond to reality. The tabloids make their profit by shamelessly exploiting this suspected discrepancy between surface and depth.

Taken together, these uses of the word “personality” indicate a surface impression, and the advertisers, PR agents, and campaign advisers stress its passing importance. As the ad has it: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

In contrast, the adjective “personal” and the noun “person” usually denote depth. If an inquisitive questioner crowds me too closely, I am liable to say, “Back off! That’s personal!”, meaning that the inquisitor has encroached upon a privacy not open to casual scrutiny. A deeper meaning still is the experience of being taken for what and who one is. After a well-conducted interview, we are liable to say, “You know, I was treated as a person,” that is, not as an item, function, or cypher.

There is an ambivalence in the various forms of the word. On the one hand, the term suggests something manifest and public; on the other, something hidden and private. It is a paradoxical term, for it suggests both something superficial and something precious. More still, it can suggest something possessing a unique dignity.

Ancient Sources

These present-day traits are found in the ancient sources of the term. A brief history of the word “person” sheds light on its meaning and on the reality for which it stands. The term has retained a remarkable consistency among the European languages, and its career can be traced from its origins to its present use. This suggests that it is a historically conscious term that calls each human being toward a realization of the dignity of the thing that possesses the name.

The term originated among the Etruscans, that little-known people who inhabited the area just north of Rome. From its beginning, the term has been associated rather closely with religious sensibilities, and indeed, it takes its origin from the cult of the goddess Persephone, who spent part of the year above the ground and part under the earth. The word used for the mask in her cult was Phersu. It both manifested the goddess in the daylight of her fecund power and hid her in the obscurity of her destiny.

As the Romans absorbed the elements of Etruscan culture, the meaning of the word underwent a rapid expansion. In the Roman theater it was used more generally to designate the mask through which the actor spoke the script (we still preface plays with the “dramatis personae“). It referred to both the actor and the device through which the actor sounded the character’s personare. This close association with the spoken word recommended the term to the Latin grammarians, who divided the speech-forms into first, second, and third persons: “I, thou; it; we, you, they.”

The term, then, exhibits a close association with the manifest and the hidden, and with representation and communication. But the element of dignity is present as well. For in the transference of the term from the deity to humanity, Roman jurisprudence did not initially confer it upon each and every human being, but only upon those who possessed full civic status. Children, slaves, women, and usually foreigners were not accorded the status of persons in the law, but only male adult citizens who were entitled to bring a case before the courts and have it heard.

Finally, with Cicero, the term took on a metaphysical meaning and denoted what is distinctive in each individual as contrasted with the humanity shared in common by all. In the short period of three centuries or less, the Latin term had acquired an unusually rich contextual meaning.

Meanwhile in Greece, a term (prosopon) with a different etymology began a career that would merge with that of the Latin persona to name this distinctive reality. It placed the emphasis upon a direct face-to-face visual encounter (pro-,ops-, on: to see and be seen), so that the highly charged aspect of intimacy came to the fore (as in the I-thou relation). For this reason, the term was associated with the human face, which, as Aristotle tells us, is more than a physiological structure because the face expressively reveals a distinctive inner (i.e., personal) meaning.

In the later development of the term, the biblical scriptures played a role as a third source. In the interplay of late Judaic and Hellenic cultures, appeal was made to the notion of personification in order to interpret passages in the bible, especially those referring to Sophia. The Septuagint translators of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek used the term prosopon, as the sounding mask through which the Lord spoke (“out of the mouth of the Lord”). The Latin translators naturally enough rendered that word as persona, so that both the Greek and Latin usage converged to introduce the term respectively into the Eastern and Western European languages.

New Developments

The next marked development—one might even call it a surge—occurred in the context of theological doctrine. The great Church Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries wrestled with the wondrous fact of faith: that Jesus the Christ is Lord (Christos Kyrios!). This demanded a new vocabulary toward which the Fathers groped. Once adopted, the term received a new and deeper meaning: for if Christ was both God and man—”fully God and fully man”—possessed of both divine and human natures, yet he was also singularly one, even unique. The formula arrived at is still confessed by most churches that call themselves Christian: One (divine) person (hypostatically, i.e., personally) uniting two natures (divine and human).

This naming of Christ was by no means a dry linguistic event, for in uniting humanity with divinity in such an intimate way—that is, by drawing human nature in the closest possible way into the very being of the divine person—the whole of humanity was called to an unprecedented dignity.

Neither was the term “person” said of Jesus alone, but also of the Father and the Holy Spirit within the Trinitarian Godhead. The term “person” was, indeed, an extravagant one! For by way of faith, it opened up a vision into the interior life of the Godhead itself: the Father eternally begetting his only begotten Son in a love that overflowed into the very person of the Holy Spirit. This mutual feast of love was sustained by the traffic between the divine persons.

Then, too, following upon the Trinitarian love, as a model to be imitated and a reality to be participated in, a new sense of intimacy shaped the bonds between human individuals. Its first expression was that of the assembly or church. A new kind of friendship, a new fellowship, emerged with the call to an unprecedented intimacy with each other and with the persons of the Godhead. Here love itself received a new name: agape or charity. Moreover, human beings were called to a new dignity, that is, to be nothing less than the adopted children—one might even say, in a new sense, the “love-children” (kata charin)—of the Trinitarian God. And so, when in the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas defined the human person as intelligent and free and having dominion over his own acts, he placed that definition of the person in the context of the commands to love God and neighbor.

Modern Developments

The third major development in the term can be signaled by the founding declarations of modernity. In the 17th century the term underwent simultaneously a new intensity and a narrowing, for the center shifted to an all-but-exclusive interest in the human subject. The medieval theological context gave way to an intense concentration upon the possibilities of human agency both in coming to knowledge and exercising his freedom.

Open transcendence had hitherto been one ingredient in the religious sense of the term, but now transcendence came to be seen as proper to some other world, a world given over to faith understood as merely subjective private opinion. It seemed as though one were slicing an orange and had left a questionable part of it aside. But transcendence is not so easily suppressed. Instead, the modern contraction is rather like squeezing an orange, so that all the elements or aspects remain but take on a new shape.

Modernity changed the notion of person: All of the elements remain—the manifest and hidden, the communicability, the distinctiveness, the special dignity, and the intimacy—but they take on a new configuration. Different elements come to the fore; others retreat. While the modern notion of person retains the essential features of the older notion, they take on a new arrangement, highlighting some features, such as autonomy and control, while downplaying others, such as transcendent openness.

We may illustrate this contraction by contrasting modern psychological introspection with religious interiority. Modern introspection is typified by Descartes’s inward journey that comes to rest in the famous assertion, “I think, therefore I am.” Both interiority and introspection pass within from the outer world to the human subject; but introspection stops there, only to issue forth from this new and certain starting point, either in order to control nature or in order to establish intersubjective relations.

Religious interiority possesses quite a different dynamic, for it passes beyond the human subject. Instead, the subject becomes a footstool from which the sinner repents in order to place himself or herself in humility before the vast uplands of the sacred. In modern introspection, the human subject becomes the first principle, both theoretically and practically: psychologically as an individual, politically as the secular state. All things, then, are referred to the human subject as the final court of appeal. There can be no doubt that this has engendered the enormous interest and creative energy associated with modern novels, art, autobiography, and psychology. There can be no doubt, either, about the rich yield of this intense interest in the human adventure, a richness that emerged from the Middle Ages to achieve an unprecedented appreciation of selected features of the human person.

Unanswered Questions

All the elements traditionally associated with the term are present in the contemporary understanding—the play of appearance and ground, the demand for communication, the appreciation of distinctiveness, the insistence upon dignity and value, the expectation of intimacy. At first it seems that transcendence is missing from this modern list of features constitutive of the person. But the hunger for intimacy so characteristic of the present culture is the form that transcendence takes in the modern milieu. It is not surprising that a sense of transcendence remains, albeit reduced, given that human beings have always been, and still are, persons.

We must pose, however, a series of questions about the contemporary configuration: Does the modern contraction and its resultant configuration adequately realize the openness to which the person is called? Or does establishing the finite subject as primary not predispose the referral inevitably to the self as final arbiter—either to the individual self (as in classical liberalism) or to the public self (as in the political alternative of state collectivism)? And does this not introduce a certain closure, either to other selves (as in secular humanism), or at least to a finite horizon of possibility?

Second, can there be intimacy in its deepest, nearest form without an openness that invites further communion and an inexhaustible depth? There can be no doubt that there is in our present culture a prevalent hunger for intimacy far beyond sexual intimacy. Here we encounter the paradox again, for the very word itself (intimius) associates this hunger with relations possessing meaningful interior depth. Yet at the same time, today’s public speech forecloses all references to a dimension that transcends functional and relatively external human achievements, as though such interiority is not worthy of consideration in the public realm.

Third, can there be adequate depth of communication? There is today a pronounced interest in language and communication, but much of it rides on the surface. Is language best conceived as a closed system or as the dynamic that casts itself beyond expression toward an ultimately ineffable reality that cannot be exhausted by words?

Fourth, can there be a dignity that is not rooted in the functional value of each person (in productivity, in results produced, in winning at all costs), but in simply being there, in the absolute presence of each person? Thomas Aquinas gave to this actual presence the name esse, the very existing actuality of the person. Here is the root of the existential depth in each person. This unique and ultimately inexpressible dignity proper to each person qua person is rooted in the sheer act of that person’s act of being (esse). Devoid of insight into the radical value of each person, will this culture move more and more toward personality in the superficial sense, with a certain emptiness as the result, in which openness will mean the barren absence of privacy?

It is a paradox that an unlimited openness also preserves the deeper sense of intimacy, an intimacy that cannot adequately be brought to verbal expression, since it possesses a kind of secret that suggests the mystery of the unique, and presages the adventure awaiting each genuinely personal encounter. All of this points toward the inescapable need to liberate a transcendence from the more confined human concerns.

What is needed is a transhuman dimension, if not that of the goddess Persephone and the pantheon of the Immortals, then, more radically still, the Trinitarian communion of persons. Transcendence must, at the very least, refer to that which is not confined to human subjectivity and human collectivity. The new configuration must resituate the integrity of each person within a context that breaks through the social horizon.

The French philosopher of the concrete, Gabriel Marcel, put it well when speaking of the Being in which we as persons find ourselves. Marcel described it as an inexhaustible plenitude that outstrips each and every analysis and that calls us to a fuller participation in it and with it. The person is the condensation point of such being, who is called to immerse himself or herself in its mysterious fullness.


  • Kenneth L. Schmitz

    Kenneth L. Schmitz is professor emeritus of philosophy at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

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