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Persons and Personal Identity

Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, K.Wojtyla
on Person and Ego

Mary T. Clark

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ABSTRACT: Today the connection between "person" and the "I" is acknowledged in many respects but not always analyzed. The need to relate it to the reality of the human being has sparked the present investigation of the philosophical anthropology of four thinkers from the late ancient, medieval, and contemporary periods. Although it may seem that the question of the role of the "I" with respect to the human being hinges on the larger problem of objectivity v. subjectivity, this does not seem to be the case. Many topics, however, are necessarily entailed in this investigation such as individuality and universality, soul and body, consciousness and action, substance and history, the self and the other, the metaphysical and the phenomenological, and experience and the ethical. At the end of this study we arrive at more than a grammatical use of the "I." From reflection on the contributions of Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Wojtyla, the ontological role of the "I" is identified. In doing so, one realizes that the ontological does not forsake the concrete, but penetrates it more deeply. Indeed, that was what Plotinian philosophy claimed to be doing: recognizing the richness of human reality.

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A common interpretation of Plato's theory of human reality is to identify it with "soul." It has been for some a problem as to whether or not Plotinus adhered to his master's position on this point. H. J. Blumenthal initiated much discussion when he asked: "Did Plotinus believe in Ideas of Individuals?" (1) Supported by apparently contradictory texts Blumenthal concluded that Plotinus did believe at times in such ideas, and at other times did not. One way that commentators take in such cases is to state that inconsistency is the mark of great thinkers. Hilary Armstrong did not do this. (2) He reconciled the apparent contradictions with the use of new punctuation for the most decisive text against individual forms for human beings. The passages often taken as contradictions applied to quite other realities. Plotinus position is to be taken from Ennead V,7,1 lines 18-23:

No, there cannot be the same forming principle for different individuals, and one man will not serve as model for several men differing from each other not only by reason of their matter but with a vast number of special differences of form. Men are not related to their form as portraits of Socrates are to their original, but their different structures must result from different forming principles.

As Armstrong points out, Plotinus' higher self is not simply identical with the individual form of a particular human being. The higher self which Plotinus interprets as the intellect or Nous which does not come down is nevertheless said to be a soul. In Ennead V.3 humans are described as reasoning souls, wandering between embodiment and intellect. But humans can transcend their reasoning souls and identify themselves with their higher soul or intellect and even transcend that to arrive at union with the One, an unknowable Selfhood to which, according to J.P. O'Daly, (3) it is urged on by love, given by the Good, which is what the One's Selfhood is.

The composite human being, that is, the human person as embodied rational soul is rightly represented by its higher self or the "I" as the self-governing principle of the totality of humanness.

Plotinus clearly sees the human being as deriving from the One First Principle, through Form-Intellect and All-Soul. In this sense he is not a dualist. But he recognizes the material components in any given family and environment as contributing distinctive features to individual personalities. But he also recognizes the free "I" or higher soul which chooses how the material circumstances will be used to reach the human goal made possible by the union of truth and love.

It is not appropriate to posit another Ego called by Armstrong the empirical self .

If, as he says, and I think rightly, that Plotinus is only talking about different attitudes toward what is of greatest value within the human possibilities for action, then there need only be one "I" or higher self which exercises self-determination in the empirical world, and with regard to one's opening to the transcendent world where transcendent means the realm of truth, goodness, beauty, distinct from but not separated from the sensible world. Indeed, Plotinus said that the sense-world is in one place, but the intelligible world is everywhere. (4)

Thus self-realization is union with the Good to which the higher powers of knowing and loving open human beings. The human "I" is the possessor of an embodied spirit with the vocation of bringing the human spirit to its true fulfillment. In union with the Good one's focus widens to include the good of all rather than that of one's particular personality. The human being, individual as it is, escapes the narrowness of its own concerns to take an outlook that is universal and providential. This is the only advantageous way for human individuals to participate in universality. Plotinus is to be congratulated for not remaining only with Plato's universal forms of man as higher than that of individuals. There can be no friendship between universal forms as there can be between particular individuals. To surrender the high value of friendship would be disastrous.

In his searcb for as much understanding of God as humans can attain by human reason working in the light of Faith, Augustine developed a philosophical anthropology. (5) He thought that to take seriously one's religion is to strive to understand it. And this entails a certain degree of self-knowledge. He concluded that if humans only are made to the image of God, that image must be found in that which differentiates them from animals. He looked to the rational soul, therefore, and to the soul's highest part as the one nearest to God, namely, mens, mind. For a human person is what he is, Augustine taught, primarily in virtue of his spiritual substance.

Recognizing that openness to the divine resides in the intellectual activities of knowing and willing, Augustine spoke of mens as the spiritual eye of the soul. In assigning to it the power of self-possession by self-knowledge and self-determination, he gave to the mind the role of personal leader, represented by the grammatical pronoun "I" without, however, equating the mind or soul with the human person. For him the human spirit permeates all parts of the body and can orient them toward the human person's spiritual destiny.

In referring to the mind as the "I" or self-presence, he included memory, intellect and will. Because one is never without mind and yet not always thinking about oneself, there is memory of oneself. The mind acts and speaks in the name of the whole human person, body and rational soul. The inner "I" of the self-conscious spiritual soul is a reality every mature human being experiences, but this does not entail the human person being defined as "consciousness" or "self-consciousness". It is, one may suggest, the power and the glory of being human but not the total reality of human personhood.. "The complete nature of man," wrote Augustine, "is made up of spirit, soul, and body." (6) For Augustine, moreover, the self that is remembered and known is not only the substantial human individual but the individual as a divine image.

The "I" is a knowing mind or conscious subject of various spiritual and bodily activities. These spiritual acts distinguish persons from non-persons, yet mind is part of a rational soul present throughout a body that it has formed According to Augustine, there is one single reality which thinks and which animates the body and is the principle of physiological activities. (7) The "I" as a self-conscious mind is also conscious that it is a part representing the whole. This was sometimes done in Scripture when the whole human being was referred to as soul or body. The whole person can be signified by each of its parts. (8)

Augustine was non-Platonic in his philosophical anthropology. The expression "human person" always meant for him the human subsisting substance. He said that the human soul is naturally inclined to live in a body, (9) and that "whoever wishes to separate the body from human nature is a fool." (10) He never offered a metaphysical explanation of how body and soul are united. He considered their union very mysterious but thought that it was realized in and by the activity of mind.

The personal "I" acts by means of mental parts and bodily parts, but Augustine insists that the self-determining principle acts on behalf of one single person. The unity of all human experiences has to be in the self-conscious mind, for what other part of the embodied spirit can be aware? Self-reflection is impossible for material realities. Without providing a metaphysical explanation of human unity (such as act-potency) he nevertheless taught that the physiological life-principle in humans was one with the rational life-principle while he distinguished their roles. (11)

Augustine was very aware that according to Scripture God said: "Let us make man to our image and likeness," not let us make man's mind to our image and likeness. Finding, as he did, in the mind an analogy of God's inner life as the divine Processions, he nevertheless regarded the human person, an embodied soul, to be fully represented by the self-conscious Ego who determines all personal actions to exist and to be whatever kind they are. (12) Since the rational soul brings about a human person, personhood for Augustine derives primarily from the human soul but refers to a man or woman constituted of a rational soul and human body. This composition of soul and body is a personal unity. (13)


The most quoted remark of St. Thomas Aquinas about the human person is a statement concerning its value. He said: "Person refers to that which is most perfect in the whole of nature, namely, to that which subsists in rational nature." (14) But he became more philosophically definitive in the following statement:

...we correctly speak of substances as individuals.... Now, particularity and individuality are more specially and perfectly present in rational substances who control their actions..... For it is proper to individuals or singular substances to act. So a special name is given among all other substances to individual beings having a rational nature, and this name is "person." ...

In the opinion of some theologians, "substance" as found in the definition of person refers to "first substance"... Yet the addition of "individual" is not unnecessary. For what we eliminate by the word..."first substance" is being universal or partial.....but by adding "individual" we eliminate the notion of a reality that can be assumed by another. (15)

It is commonly known that in adopting Aristotelian form-matter as act-potency principles, Aquinas kept the human body and soul together in a close metaphysical unity with the one rational form, virtually sensitive and vegetative, bringing its spiritual existence to the body.

There is an echo of Augustine's self-conscious "I" or Ego (representing the human person) in the Thomistic view of knowledge. As F. D. Wilhelmsen has pointed out, the ego for Thomas "is simply spiritual [or intellectual ] existence totally open to itself in its very becoming what is not "itself" but an "other". (16) St. Thomas discusses this as "all knowledge taking place through the assimilation of the knower and the known." (17) In .this way the ego is constituted in the act of knowing the other. This makes the self "a reflective phase of intellection"......This self-reflection through becoming the other is the ego." . The act of knowing is open to its own being, with the intellect judging its own relation to reality: such is intellectual reflection. Thus the ego is a function of the truth as known. Perhaps this is why Aquinas wrote so many articles on knowledge and very few, if any, on the "self" which arouses such interest today.

To say that there is no substance which equals the ego is not to deny the substantiality of the human person. The ego is what I am as knowing and doing: it is, Thomas Aquinas would say, a myselfness which is my history.

This analysis is rooted in Aquinas' theory of knowledge: that the knower becomes the known; that the intelligible species is not what is actually understood but that by which the intellect understands. There is no representative picture between the knower and the reality known. Judgment is the act of union with the real; in judgment the subject and predicate signify the same thing in reality. To find the ego or I as concomitant with intellectual activity is to verify that only human persons and not natures are the subjects or agents of human activities.

In this position Aquinas joins with Augustine who said: "I understand that I understand." (18) This is knowledge knowing its own relationship to the real. In conclusion, therefore, according to Thomas Aquinas, the "ego or self-consciousness, consciousness of self, is simply spiritual activity taking "itself" in hand and measuring its own conformity to the real." (19)


The philosopher, Karol Wojtyla, better known as John Paul II, accepted Thomas Aquinas' view of the human person as a substantial entity of rational soul and human body but also examined human existence from a phenomenological perspective. In this way he has expanded and improved upon Boethius' definition of a human person as "an individual substance of rational nature." Moreover, Wojtyla fully accepts Aristotelian hylomorphism and Aquinas' adapting of Aristotelian act-potency to existence-essence.

He believes, however, that the phenomenological method can illuminate certain ethical facts that are crucial for gaining a more comprehensive view of human persons. Using this method he approaches human experience without abstracting from its concrete conditions. This is, of course, the way of Merleau-Ponty.

Among such experiences is the universal one of conscience where we experience our actions as good or evil. Although the justification for such an experience is in the metaphysical order where the nature of the good is investigated, the phenomenological method reenforces the Thomistic position of the mutual relation of soul and body within a human person.

It is in the act of self-determination (20) that Wojtyla finds the personal being as agent not only of what is done in the external world but also in the fashioning and developing of a unique personal being.  In his 1976 Harvard lecture he said: "I possess self not so much through self-consciousness as through self-determination."

Wojtyla's first encounter with Thomas Aquinas as a seminary student was through a book on metaphysics in the perspective of Transcendental Thomism. (21) He told his Examiner that the vision he gained from this study was more precious to him than the good grade he had received. It was for him a confirmation of his personal experience as the experience of personhood.

All know that his thesis for qualification as a university professor was devoted to Scheler's discussion of the objective status of value as experienced phenomenologically. Later he rejected much of Scheler's thought but admits making use of insights from Merleau Ponty.

Wojtyla echoes Aristotle in seeing human dignity not only in rational consciousness with the emphasis on self-determination but also in virtuous actions. Wojtyla taught that the moral experience of a human person is an important manifestation of "who" he or she is. The "who" of a human person is a "becoming" and cannot be defined, only described. He stated: "Person.....is the subsisting subject of existence and actions which cannot be attributed to rational nature." Is the purpose of personal life to be found within nature?, asks Wojtyla. He answers that human experience reveals a certain transcendental character to human actions. He therefore cites "action" as a phenomenon open to common awareness, capable of ever more refined description. That is why he focuses on the Acting Person, the person as a subject of actions, and concludes that a person is of rational nature and the subsistent subject of existence and actions. (22)

The emphasis on action harmonizes with Wojtyla's respect for experience. Yet he never thought that phenomenonology sufficed to interpret even sensible experience. For however undeniable are the differences of the functions of sense and intellect, it is to be stressed that human knowledge constitutes an organic and not merely an organizational unity. In experience is contained not only the sensuous but also the intellectual element. For this reason we may say that human experience is already an understanding.

The same applies to the human person as the object of investigation. The basis for understanding him or her must be sought in experience. Any human act includes the intentional, the pragmatic, and the ethical aspect. The experience of any human action is an experience of the "I" that is doing the action. This doing is personal action. It entails the consciousness of being the agent, of the personal self, of being solely responsible for the action as good or evil. But the act of self-determination for Wojtyla is more than a "doing"; it is a "becoming". In deciding to move toward this or that value I am deciding about myself, whether by this act I become good or evil. In self-determination the ego or "I" encounters itself as object of its action. The self is revealed. In the act of self-determination one experiences oneself as a person. In self-determined actions that are directed toward others for their benefit, the acting person becomes more fully himself as person, since only persons are able to make a disinterested gift of themselves to others. Karol Wojtyla emphasizes more than Aquinas the relational as well as the substantive character of person as revealed in mature acts of self-determination.

In concluding, let us recall that whether the "I" or Ego is born in acts of consciousness or acts of will, whether the "I" is eventually identified with soul or with mind, the highest part of soul, with intellect or will, the "I" nevertheless signifies the total human being constituted of soul and body which ontologically is a human person.

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(1) H.J. Blumenthal, "Did Plotinus believe in Ideas of Individuals?", Phronesis 14, 1969, 77-96.

(2) H.A. Armstrong, "Form, Individual and Person in Plotinus", Dionysius, I, 1977, 49-68

(3) G.J.P. O'Daly, Plotinus' Philosophy of the Self, Shannon, Ireland, 1973.

(4) Plotinus, Ennead V,9,12,14-15.

(5) M.T. Clark, Augustine, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994, 30-33.

(6) Augustine, De anima et ejus origine IV.13.19.

(7) Augustine, De anima et ejus origine IV.13.19.

(8) Augustine, De Trinitate XIV.8.11; V.1.2; X.10.14; XV.7kk.11.

(9) Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram VII.27.38.

(10) Augustine, De anima et ejus origine IV.2.3.

(11) Augustine, De Trinitate XII.4.4; VII.6.11.

(12) Augustine, De Trinitate XV.5.7; Epistula 137.3.11; De civitate Dei V.11.

(13) Augustine, De civitate Dei XXI.7.

(14) Thomas Aquinas, St. Summa Theologiae I,29,3,c.

(15) Thomas Aquinas, St. op.cit. I.29, ad 2.

(16) F.D. Wilhelmensen, "The "I" and Aquinas" Proceedings ACPA, v. 51, 1977, p. 51

(17) Thomas Aquinas, St. Summa contra Gentiles I.65.

(18) Augustine, De Trinitate X.11; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.87,3,c.

(19) Wilhelmsen, op. cit. p. 55.

(20) K. Wojtyla, "The Personal Structure of Self-Determination," Tommaso D'Aquino nel suo VII Centenano, Roma, l974, 379-390.

(21) K. Wais, Metafizyka, 1924.

(22) M.T. Clark, "An Inquiry into Personhood," Review of Metaphysics, 46, 1, 1992,3-28.

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