Tuesday, October 29

The Nature of a Person

St. Bonaventure, St. Francis, St. Augustine, Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Maxine Hong Kingston, Montaigne and Sartre were all individual writers, saints, and philosophers who wrote on the nature of a person. In past entries, I have endeavored to determine that the universe appears to have a divine origin, that the very fingerprints and echoes of the Creator can be seen the creation, and that man was a unique creation of God’s partly designed to have dominion and care over his creation (a duty at which we often fail). But what is a human being? Are we simply our bodies? Are we our memories? What constitutes a human being, and what is the nature of the person? How do we define the soul? According to the Creation account in Genesis, Man was created on the sixth day from the elements of the earth and imbued with a soul. In fact, this can be seen in light of existentialism and its opposing viewpoint. Biblically, man is set apart from the rest of God’s creation and is given a special purpose. In fact, the Scripture declares that “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:13-16; see also Jeremiah 1:5). This brief article is not intended to be an in-depth exploration of the nature of a person but a fleeting glimpse as gleaned from various writings that can be related to the topic.

According to Sartre, who promoted Existentialism, his theory of “existence precedes essence” argument is the idea that my personality, my likes and dislikes, my memories and various other things do not come about until after I am born - after I begin to exist. However, as there is no essence or identity until after we begin to exist, it is humans who define their own nature after they have begun to exist already and after they have already been tainted by their own essence. In existentialism there is no God and therefore no human nature. C.S. Lewis contested this, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”  If God created human nature so that in some ways, essence precedes existence – or rather, the very essence of human life is placed in the form of a soul upon the moment of conception and that the soul which already is formed by essence then will always exist as a soul, even after the existence of the body has ended. Since God created man on the sixth day, our essence therefore preceded our existence, but this still does not explain what the nature of a person is.

Montaigne sought to explain then nature of a person in his own self. He believed that when he was gone, he did not want men to look at his writings and say, “This is how he lived and thought – that is what he meant – if he could have spoken on his death bed, he would have said so-and-so and such-and-such…” (162). He taught that “It is not my deeds I write – it is I and my essence.” Indeed, Montaigne claimed “My book has made me as much as I have made my book.” For Montaigne then, he does not state but we can surmise that the creator and the creation are therefore inexorably interconnected and intertwined. He believed that the nature of man is to live his own life, to search within himself and have his thoughts dwell on knowing and learning more about his or herself. This can be seen in light of the question of identity as well, which Aurelius and Kingston both examine.

For both the Roman philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius as well as Kingston, the question of identity shapes and forms the nature of the person. What is the question of identity? Marcus Aurelius notes, “You’re a Roman and a man” (152). In the ancient Greco-Roman world your identity was shaped and given through your town, your nationality and/or the name of your father. For example, in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, after Odysseus has injured the Cyclops he reveals his identity as Odysseus son of Laertes, King of Ithaca. In antiquity, revealing your name meant that your opponent could have power over you and use your name against you (similar to anagnorisis, Greek term for when your identity is revealed to someone else; cf. Oedipus and his mother). This is found in ancient demonology and black magic as well, so that once the name of the demon is revealed you gain control over it. For our purposes at least, we see that Marcus Aurelius is appealing to the Roman sense of identity – “You’re a Roman” – and expecting this appeal to have special significance to the reader. In like manner, Kingston’s sense of identity is not only formed by family, but also by her Chinese background, which informs her identity as well. Chinese practices, culture and beliefs are mentioned by Kingston just as Roman practices, culture and beliefs are mentioned by Aurelius. While Aurelius also believes that the nature of a human is that we are currently in the form of “dirt and defilement” and in the next life we will be “intelligence and spirit” – similar to St. Paul’s notion of the first and second body in the New Testament – his relevancy to this Step is the sense of identity we have from our cultural and national background.

In his work, Aurelius points out a two-fold notion: we are not our bodies but are indeed our mind (or soul/spirit), so that when this first body (which has cultural background attached to it) decays, our identity still remains. Aurelius notes also that it is better to look deep within ourselves for solitude as opposed to going deep into nature – similar to the Oracle and Delphi’s command to “Know Thyself,” and reminds us that the soul “observes itself, analyzes itself, makes itself what it wants itself to be… [and] reaches its own proper goal at whichever point the finish of its life is established” (155). For him, an additional property of the soul is  both love and truth, which are both properties of God. We then conclude that in our first, earthly bodies, our identities are often attached to the place we claim as home (Troy son of Matthew of Hinsdale), but we realize as we leave this present state and move into the spiritual life that we truly only find identity in ourselves. However, as St. Augustine said, if we search within ourselves we will begin to see the artwork of the Great Artist and in the end, realize that our identity is found in God Himself, and not in earthly identity at all.

As a result, according to St. Bonaventure, our very nature is interconnected and intertwined with our mind. This mind allows us to realize the existence of the Divine Creator. For example, we use our mind to judge, and on occasion we use our mind to judge our mind. As such, the judgment must come from elsewhere, Bonaventure contends, so “our mind is able to judge by this law in as far as this law has been impressed in the mind. But nothing is superior to the human mind except He alone who has created it” (133). Bonaventure may have the biblical prophet Jeremiah in mind here, who claimed that God has the law written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). He essentially states that our mind can be used not only for this reason – to reason out the existence of God – but it can be used in its three-fold purpose, mirroring The Trinity. The first type (metaphysics, mathematics and physics) mirrors the Creator and Father; the second type (grammar and logic) mirrors the Word (Jesus) and the third type (monastic, familial and political) represents the Holy Spirit. However, while we may mirror the triune God, we are not ourselves God, as Satan so forcefully found out. 

Similarly, St. Francis exclaimed, “Take notice, O human, of the outstanding position in which the Lord God has placed you!” (135). Francis then proceeds to elaborate that while we have creatures and other things lower than us, we are still lower than God; no matter how much knowledge we gain, riches we earn, miracles we perform, etc, “none of these things represent your true nature, you are in no way responsible for them, and you absolutely cannot glory in them. Rather it is through our infirmities that we can glory and assume the burden each day of the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (135). St. Augustine also has much to say on human nature. He taught the concept of Original Sin, the doctrine wherein Adam and Eve sinned, and we are therefore born with their sin, and sin is therefore passed down from person to person. However – Augustine says – we all sin regardless of our ancestor’s Original Sin, so sin would corrupt us whether we had Original Sin or not. He notes that “the human soul, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but that God is the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (139).

Therefore, we come to a crossroads on the nature of a person. Some believe that it is your parents, your cultural background and your place of origin that shape your identity, whereas others believe it is searching deep within yourself. St. Bonaventure, St. Franics and St. Augustine believed that mankind was created with a special and unique purpose, but that sin corrupted our God-given soul, and while we bear witness to the light which is God, he had to become the Godman in order to shine His light upon us, and only by accepting the invitation and coming out of darkness do we find the true light: not only the one who created light in our creation, but is Himself light. We may agree with Montaigne and search within ourselves, but St. Augustine would argue that if we search within ourselves deep enough we will begin to recognize the artwork of the Greatest Artist, and that by digging within and looking above ourselves we find God. We may climb the steps of Jacob’s ladder our whole life in order to grasp the heels of the divine, but we spend all our life attempting to figure out the nature of that journey, the purpose of the journey, the way we embark on that journey, and once we reach the heels of the divine we find our true selves. In this, we find the nature of man.

Antonius, Marcus Aurelius (2013). from meditations (notes to himself). In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 152-155). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Augustine. (2013). from confessions. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp.136-151). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Bonaventure. (2013). on seeing god through his image imprinted in our natural powers. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 132-134). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. (2013). from a song for a barbarian reed pipe. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 156-161. Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Montaigne, Michel de. (2013). from why I paint my own portrait. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 162-165). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (2013). from existentialism as humanism. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 166-173). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

St. Francis. (2013). the fifth admonition. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 135). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

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