Rev José Mario O Mandía
“Why am I me?” I remember asking myself this question as a child. Little did I know that it was a philosophical question, a question about individuality.
For material things, the question of individuality is relatively easy to figure out. Let us assume we have two very identical tables in front of us. What makes one table different from the other? Obviously, it is not the fact that they are tables, that the two of them have the same form (see “Bite-size Philosophy,” no 28). The form makes them similar, rather than different and individual.
The two tables are different from one another because each one is an individual chunk of matter. Thus, we can say that matter is the principle or source of individuation: matter makes this table different from that other table. This applies as well to non-rational living beings (e.g., cats, dogs): the principle or source of individuation is also their matter.
When we talk about human beings, however, it seems that (aside from matter) there is another factor that makes you different from me or any other person. What’s more, we are aware of this difference, we are conscious of our individuality. Indeed, as St John Paul said, each one of us is “singular, unique, unrepeatable.”
“My nature as human is the same as yours,” writes Fr Joseph de Torre in Being is Person, “but my personhood, my individuality is unique and non-transferable and unrepeatable. This finding of metaphysics has dramatically been confirmed by modern genetics. The structure of the DNA is the same for all — double helices. However, the composition of each DNA is unique and unrepeatable.”
Each one of us is aware that he or she is not another person. This awareness stems from our intellect. Moreover, each one of us also makes choices that shape us and define us. This comes from our will. Both intellect and will are powers of our non-material and spiritual soul. Hence, each human being is individual not only because he has a material body, but also because of his soul. The soul is an additional principle of individuation for humans. The soul contributes to making every person “singular, unique, unrepeatable.” Indeed, the faith confirms this truth and adds an important information: each soul is individually created by God. Thus the Psalm sings, “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
This leads us to another concept: that of “person.” The English term “person” comes from the Latin word “persona” which, in turn, was adapted from the Greek term prosopon, referring to masks worn by actors on stage. Each mask represented one character. Simply put, “person” is an individual character in a play.
Roman law adapted the term to indicate anyone who knows what he is doing and is responsible for it. In other words, a “person” is one who can act freely and responsibly (cf “Bite-size Philosophy,” no 48), and therefore can be held liable and culpable for a wrongdoing.
It was Catholic Theology that further enriched the meaning of “person,” as theologians tried to find an adequate explanation for the central mysteries of the faith: namely, the Blessed Trinity and the union of two natures (human and divine) in the one Person of Christ.
This deeper understanding of the term “person” led to “the eventual abolition of slavery, social and political inequalities,” explains Fr de Torre in the essay cited above. “The acclaimed achievements of modernity — democracy, human rights, self-rule, liberty and creativity — have actually come from the Christian theologians of the 15th century,” he writes. This is how Father Francisco de Vitoria, OP (1483-1546), considered the father of International Law, was able to defend the rights of the American Indians during the times of the Spanish conquest.