The Three Views of the Human Person

"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

There are two ways to view the world. We either attempt to see the world rightly as it was intended by the divine author, or we fancy ourselves the arbiters of truth and pronounce the nature of things by our own lights.

When it comes to the human person there are at least three distinct ways to see and understand man. Not surprisingly, these three ways correspond to our tripartite human condition as Plato might have us understand it. He said we have a belly, head and heart. By the belly we can understand our physical selves as interpreted by the five senses and our appetites. By the head we can infer the faculty of the intellect and our rational capacity. By the heart we can recognize our wills to love and hate by the freedom of our own autonomous choices. Corresponding to these three features of the human person there are the scientific, philosophical, and theological views of man. These three views are not mutually exclusive, but in full, woven together in their proper proportions, comprise a view of the totality of man.

The Scientific View of Man

It is a most evident fact that we are physical/material beings. With our five senses we confirm by every second of our existence that we operate materially in this world hemmed in by the limits of time and space. The scientific view of man considers the human condition in all its purely material phenomena. It is prone to hold that empirical science is the highest way of knowing and that man has appeared in time and space as an accident of evolution. As such, we are apt in this reductionist age to conclude that there is nothing beyond the material.

As Aristotle said, “All learning begins in the senses.” The problem with the scientific view of man is not that we may begin with it, but that we may end with it. The more technologically advanced we become, the more people seem to believe that by empirical means we can explain all of reality. The sole reliance on the scientific view of man gives undue weight to a dreadfully incomplete fossil record and is likely to conclude that man is a sophisticated ape.

By the scientific view of man, notions of God and creation are increasingly considered superstitious. Philosophy is being reduced to material terms and now even morality is becoming secularized. Utilitarian justice and education characterize this truncated view of man by inventing algorithms and calculi aimed at giving the greatest advantage to the greatest number, while calculating the least disadvantage for the smallest number and creating measures and tests for things that in times past were rightfully considered immeasurable, things like human happiness and educational achievement.

Though many elements in the scientific view of man may be factually correct, this view comprises a most base understanding of man and taken by itself becomes a deadly reduction of the reality of human existence. It sees humans as means to be used, not as ends to be loved. It can reduce humans to weights and measures in an equation. It can allow for humans to be manipulated, used, and eliminated if deemed an imbalance in the final outcome. We are rational creatures so we must go beyond the merely material to examine how the gift of our intellects provides insight into the human condition not afforded by the material sciences.

The Philosophical View of Man

To transcend the limits of the scientific view of man we turn to more abstract considerations of the universal characteristics of being by examining the proper meanings of “person” and “nature” in the philosophical view of man. When talking about human beings, we cannot mention a “nature” without mentioning a “person” connected to it. The first important thing to notice is that “it is the person who possess the nature and not the other way around.” Although the isolated scientific view of man is likely to conclude otherwise, the nature does not possess a person. Nature answers the question of “what we are, and person answers the question of who we are.” All beings have natures, and when we ask what a being is we are asking about its nature. However, not every being is a person, “only rational beings are persons.” At a minimum, let us define the person as a being possessed of consciousness, self-awareness, an intellect and a will. These facts allude to a wide range of intellectual and moral implications nonexistent in beings which are not persons.

Frank Sheed explains in Theology and Sanity that by our natures we discover what we are. “It follows that by our nature we do what we do for every being acts according to what it is.” By these facts we discover another distinction between nature and person. By our natures we do many things–speak, love, sing, and breathe. A dog, by his nature, can do only one of those, and a stone by its nature can do none. So nature is “not only what we are, but the source of what we can do.” Even though it is by our natures that we see what kinds of things we are capable of doing, it is not our natures that decide to do them, it is the person that decides to do them. As Frank Sheed summarizes, “The person is that which does the actions, the nature is that by virtue of which the actions are done, or better, that from which the actions are drawn.”

The philosophical view of man implies that we are moral as well as intellectual beings. It provides the framework to discover the nature of human excellence embodied by the perennial virtues towards which all men of good will tend. The philosophical view of man ought to orient the scientific view of man. The philosophical view of man can anchor the material notions of man in the universal truths about the nature of being. This in turn allows for the discovery of the objective standard concerning virtue and vice available to all human souls who earnestly seek.

The philosophical view of man speaks to man’s rational nature as a composite of both body and soul. It is by the right use of reason that man discoverers reality and by a proper view of philosophical man, one can learn much about the common nature that applies to all humans. There is much truth goodness and beauty in this view of man, but it is not the complete view. One may come up short if he stops with a philosophical view of man and ignores the role of the Author of Life.

The Theological View of Man

The fullest and most comprehensive view of man is the theological view. The theological view considers the substance, origin and end of the human person. We are gifted the revealed truth about these three aspects of the human person and we gain invaluable assistance from the philosophical view of man in a support role for understanding the theological view of man. In a similar way, the scientific view of man has the potential to be of service to both the philosophical and the theological view of man if it is properly understand as the servant, not the master.

It is revealed truth that man is made in the image and likeness of God and at the same time of material. In Genesis 2:7 we learn that “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” We are made of material but infused with immaterial life and the gifted image of God Himself by way of the intellect and will. The fact that we are “animal” in a physical sense, and “rational” as well as “moral” in an immaterial sense can mislead us to believe that we are a compound of the physical and rational, body and soul, but this is not the case. Both the animal and the rational are abstractions from a single substance known as the human person. We are in fact a composite of body and soul in that an animal body is a human person by virtue of its form, that of a human soul. A body without a human soul cannot be a human person. It is the soul that is the substantial form of the body. As Thomas Aquinas would have us understand, a man is a single substance resulting from “the determination of matter by a human form” (soul). In summation, a man is “the individual substance of a rational nature.”

The theological view of man explains his origin in an opposite way from the scientific view of man, which considers that man evolved by accident. The theological view asserts that God created man on purpose with divine intentionality as an ineffable act of love. Man is a creature created by God in His created universe. Every single thing in existence is created by God except God Himself, he is the uncreated Creator. All men are made by a distinctive creative act. Being a composite of material and spirited soul gifted life by our Creator calls us to conform our conceptions of reality to the moral and intellectual principles elucidated by the Eternal, Divine, and natural laws.

In learning what we are, and of our divine origins, we are compelled to discover the ends of man intended by our Creator. Man, like every other created thing, tends towards its natural end. Since all that God created is good, and man is created good, all created things properly end in giving glory to God. Man’s specific end is intended to be in eternal beatitude. As St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly put it, “to possess God in full in the beatific vision is to have our powers fully realized, fully perfected, and to find them at rest, in perfect happiness for all eternity face to face with God.”

Being made in the image and likeness of God it takes into account the fullness of the human person by considering the relationship between the two faculties of the soul, the intellect and the will, which comprise the image of the Divine Creator. In learning of our substance, origin and final end, we learn that we have certain duties in our short time here if we are going to properly fulfill the ends of the theological view of man.

The Three Views Combined

It is important not to choose only one of the views of man, but to recognize the comprehensiveness of the theological view and valid parts of the other two as they serve to fulfill the theological view. They must all be taken in their proper spheres, with the proper weights, range, depths and limits. All three views correspond to varying degrees to some aspect of the realities concerning the existence of man. The rightness or wrongness of the views depends on how one weights each specific view. The most basic view is that of the scientific man. There are real and present facts associated with this view and many elements of it can be verified by observable data. The problem with this view of man is in giving it an improper weight. To give primacy of place to the scientific view of man is a deadly misunderstanding. One example of the ensuing confusion is that with this truncated view one is likely to conclude that God is made in the image of man.

The theological view of man subsumes the philosophical view of man and sees the right use of reason as the handmaiden to a proper understanding of man’s creaturely status, his place in the Created Cosmos and his final end in heaven. It also properly subsumes the scientific view of man returning the significance of scientific knowledge to its proper and diminutive weight amongst the sciences. Scientific knowledge is meant to be the servant of the philosophy as philosophy is meant to be the servant of Theology.

As John Henry Cardinal Newman would recommend to us, we ought to “rebuild the Jewish Temple and to plant anew the groves of Academus.” This is to say that we ought to see man in his supernatural glory by the fountainhead of theological truth in Jerusalem and to embrace the heights of natural man emanating from the fountainhead of philosophical truth in Athens. Newman goes on to explain that sacred and profane learning are “dependent on each other, correlative and mutually complementary, how faith operates by means of reason, and reason is directed and corrected by faith.” All this can be confirmed by certain elements of empirical science, but never led by it. If we can get the three views of man in their proper orders and give them their proper weights, we can see that the three views are meant to be complementary and of service to one another. We can then return to the endeavor of building up civilization by colonizing heaven as it was always intended.


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