“Reconstructing the Person: A Meditation on the Meaning of Personality” by Kenneth L. Schmitz (Crisis, April 1999)

Kenneth L. Schmitz, professor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., writes:

“From its beginning, the term [person] 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.

“In the Roman theater [person] 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 both to the actor and the device through which the actor sounded the character's per-sonare.

“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. … Meanwhile in Greece, a term (prosopon) with a different etymology began a career that would merge with that of the Latin persona. … It placed the emphasis upon a direct face-to-face visual encounter. … For this reason, the term was associated with the human face. … 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.

“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. … 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.

“The third major development in the term can be signaled by the founding declarations of modernity. … 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. … Modern introspection is typified by Descartes's inward journey that comes to rest in the famous assertion, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ … 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, [on the other hand,] the human subject becomes the first principle. … All things … 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.

“But the hunger for intimacy so characteristic of the present culture is the form that transcendence takes in the modern milieu. … We must pose, however, a series of questions. … [C]an there be intimacy in its deepest, nearest form without an openness that invites further communion and an inexhaustible depth? … [C]an 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).

“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. … The French philosopher of the concrete, Gabriel Marcel, put it well when speaking of the Being in which we as persons find ourselves. … The person is the condensation-point of such being, who is called to immerse himself or herself in its mysterious fullness.”

!Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.

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