"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The hypostatic union is the union of two natures, one divine, one human, in the person of the Word made flesh. What is meant by person, personality?

The classic definition is that of Boethius: [736] Person means an individual substance having a rational nature. Of this definition St. Thomas [737] gives the following explanation.

Person signifies an individual subject, which is first intellectual, secondly free, i. e.: master of his own acts, [738] one whose acts are self-initiated. Person, he continues, being the primary subject [739] which bears all predicates attributable in any way to its being, is itself incommunicable to any other subject. To each human person, for example, belong and are attributed, his soul, his body, his existence, his faculties, his operations, the parts of his body. [740].

This explanation simply makes precise that notion of person already held by the common sense of mankind. In everyday speech, when we speak of person, we mean that deep inward self-ownership, that ontological personality, which is the root, first of the self-conscious ego, and this we may call psychological personality, and secondly of that self-controlled use of liberty, which we may call moral personality.

Person, personality, thus defined, is found in men, in angels, and, analogically, in God. In God, moreover, according to revelation, there are three persons, three subjects intellectual and free, which have each the same intellect and the same liberty, the same act of understanding and the same free act, by which all three are one principle of external operation. This same notion of personality allows us to say that Jesus too is a person, one sole intellectual and free subject, one sole ego, although he has two natures, one divine, one human, and hence first two intellects, and secondly two liberties, His human liberty, however, completely conformed to His divine liberty. When Jesus says [741] that He is the way, He is speaking according to His human nature. But when, in the same text, He adds that He is the truth and the life, He is speaking primarily according to His divine nature, which makes Him truth itself and life itself. "All things whatsoever the Father hath are Mine." [742].

What is the formal and radical element of ontological personality? Here the Scholastics divide into opposed camps. Scotus, who denies real distinction of essence and existence, who denies further real distinction between suppositum (quod est) and existence (esse): answers thus: Personality is something negative. In any particular individual humanity (in Peter or Paul) personality is the denial, the absence in that person of hypostatic union with a divine person. [743] Suarez [744] says that personality is a substantial mode which follows the existence of a particular individual nature, and makes that nature incommunicable. He cannot admit, as Thomists do, that personality is presupposed to existence, since, like Scotus, he denies real distinction of essence and existence.

But even those who admit this real distinction are not all of one mind in defining personality. One view, that of Cajetan, [745] who is followed by most Dominican and Carmelite Thomists, [746] defines personality as follows: [747] Personality is that by which an individual nature becomes immediately capable of existence. A second view, less explicit, but almost identical, is that of Capreolus, who says that personality is the individual nature as that nature underlies its existence. [748] A third view, that of Cardinal Billot [749] and his disciples, says that personality is existence itself, as actualizing the individual nature.

By what criterion are we to arrive at the true definition of personality? [750] We must start with the nominal definition, furnished by common usage, a definition which all theologians intend to preserve. Now, by that common usage, when we use the word "person" or its equivalent pronouns "I," "you," and "he," we mean to signify, not a mere negation, not something accidental, but a distinct, individual and substantial thing, even though its existence be contingent. Why, then, should the philosopher or theologian, in his search for a real and distinct definition, abandon this nominal definition of common sense? Let him rather follow the method indicated by Aristotle [751] and St. Thomas, which requires that we proceed, first, negatively, then positively.

1. Ontological personality, then, that by which a subject is person, cannot be a negative something. [752] If personality is to constitute the person, it must itself be something positive. Further, the personality of Socrates or of Peter must be something in the natural order, and hence it cannot be defined, as Scotus wills, by the negation of hypostatic union, which belongs essentially to the supernatural order; a consequence would be that personality, the personality, say, of Socrates, would be something naturally unknowable.

2. Ontological personality is not only something positive, but also something substantial, not accidental, because "person" means a substance, a real subject of accident. Hence personality, speaking properly, ontological personality, is not formally constituted by self-consciousness, which is rather an act of the person already constituted, an act which manifests the person which it presupposes. Similarly, personality is not constituted by freedom of will, which is a consequence that shows the dignity of the person who is already constituted. Moreover, in Jesus, we find two self-conscious intellects and two free wills, though He is one sole person, one sole ego. Hence personality is something positive and substantial. Let us now compare it with those elements in the line of substance which it most resembles.

3. Is personality identified with nature [753] as found concrete in the individual? No, because person is a whole which has nature indeed as a part, the essential, formal, and perfective part, but still only a part. [754] Were nature not a mere part, but the whole of person, we could say "Peter is his nature." But since person contains more than nature, we say "Peter has human nature."

4. Is then personality identified with individualized nature which underlies existence? [755] Again no, because the concrete singular nature of Peter is not that which exists but is that by which Peter is man. That which exists is Peter himself, his person. Hence personality is not the concrete singular nature as preceding existence. Further, were this view granted, since as in Christ there are two natures, so there would likewise be two personalities, two persons.

5. Nor is personality to be identified with existence. Existence is attributed to created persons as contingent predicate, not as a formal constitutive predicate. No creature is its own existence. Creatures have existence, but the distance between "to be" and "to have" is measureless. Only God is His own existence.

In every creature, St. Thomas [756] repeats, that which exists (the suppositum, the person) differs from its existence. Existence, he says elsewhere, [757] follows both nature and person. But it follows nature as that by which the thing is what it is, whereas it follows person as that which has existence. The word "follows" in this passage expresses a sequel that is real and objective, not a mere logical consequence. And thus, if existence follows person, it presupposes person, and hence cannot constitute personality.

Further, if existence formally constituted person, then the created person would be identical with his existence. Peter would be his own existence, he would not simply have existence. St. Thomas [758] would be wrong in repeating: In every creature person differs from existence.

In other words, the fundamental argument of the Thomistic thesis runs thus: That which is not its own existence is really distinct from that existence, really, that is, anteriorly to any mental act of ours. Now the person of Peter, and much more his personality, is really distinct from his existence, and existence is in him as a contingent predicate. God alone is His own existence, a truth of supremest evidence to those who have received the beatific vision.

6. To recapitulate. Ontological personality is a positive something, a substantial something, which so determines the concrete singular nature of a rational substance that it is capable, without medium, of existing in itself as a separate and independent entity. [759] More briefly, it is that by which a rational subject is that which exists (quod est): whereas its nature is that by which it belongs to its species, and existence is that by which it exists.

Existence is a contingent predicate of the created person, it is his ultimate actuality, not in the line of essence but in another line. Hence, since existence presupposes personality, personality itself cannot be [760] a substantial mode posterior to existence.

Hence we may say that personality is the point where two distinct lines intersect: the line of essence and the line of existence. Personality, speaking properly, is that by which an intellectual subject is that which is. This ontological personality, which constitutes the ego, is thus the root, both of the psychologic personality, that is, of the ego as self-conscious, and of the moral personality, that is, of self-mastery, of self-initiated activity. Thus Christ's person, as theologians in general say, is the personal principle (principium quod) of His theandric actions, and thus gives to His acts their infinite value.

This objective definition of personality does but make explicit the content of the nominal definition which common sense accepts. Personality is that by which the intellectual subject is a person, as existence is that by which it exists, hence personality differs both from the essence and the existence which it unites into one complete whole.

Hence created essence and its contingent existence do not make one sole nature, [761] but they do belong to one and the same subject (suppositum): [762] nature as its essential part, and existence as its contingent predicate. This terminology rests on Aristotle's doctrine of the four modes of predicating per se, i. e.: of saying that this predicate belongs to this subject. We have the first mode in a definition, the second mode when we predicate a characteristic of the essence, the third when we predicate something of an independent suppositum, and the fourth when we predicate of an effect its proper and necessary cause. [763] Following this accepted terminology, we see that created essence and its contingent existence make one complete whole as belonging each to one suppositum, in the third mode of predicating per se.

Ontological personality thus conceived, far from preventing union between essence and existence, is rather that which unites the two and makes them one complete whole.

Such is the conception of personality defended by Cajetan and the majority of Thomists. This conception, they maintain, is the metaphysical foundation of grammatical usage in regard to personal pronouns, and of the verb "to be": he is a man, for example, or he exists, or, he is active, he is patient, and so on.

The texts of Capreolus are less explicit. "Nature as individualized under existence" is his definition of personality. We have said, with the majority, that personality is that by which individualized nature becomes immediately capable of existing. Now that which exists is, precisely speaking, not the nature of Peter, but Peter himself, Peter's person. Thus Cajetan, though he speaks more explicitly, does not contradict Capreolus.

In clarification of this doctrine, held by most Thomists, let us quote a few more texts from St. Thomas. The form signified by this name person, he says, [764] is not essence or nature, but personality. The contrast with nature shows that personality is something substantial. Again he says: [765] The name person rests on personality, which expresses subsistence in rational nature. This means, in other terms, that personality is that by which a rational subject is capable, first of separate existence, second, of self-initiated activity.

Again, speaking now of Christ directly, he writes thus: [766] Had not His human nature been assumed by a divine person, that nature would have its own proper personality. Hence we may say, speaking inexactly, that the divine person consumed the human personality, because the divine person, by being united to the human nature prevented that nature from having its own personality. In other words, personality, though it is not a part of the essence, is still something positive and substantial, not identified however with existence which, in a created person, is something contingent. Existence, he said above, [767] follows person which is the subject of existence.

Lastly, speaking now of the Trinity, he says: [768] The three divine persons have each one and the same existence. This text shows clearly that personality differs from existence, since in God there are three personalities but only one existence. Similarly he says: [769] Existence is not included in the definition of person (suppositum). Only God is His own existence, whereas in a created person existence is a predicate, not essential, but contingent.

Now for some consequences of this position. Person is to be found in man, in angel, and, analogically, in God. By personality the intellectual subject becomes the first subject of attribution, the subject of which all else in him is predicated, the center from which all else radiates, the ego which possesses his nature, his existence, his self-conscious act, his freedom. By deviation, this principle of ownership and possession [770] can become the principle of egoism and individualism, which prefers itself to family, society, and God. But while egoism and pride are thus an abuse of created personality, an enormous abuse, rising even to the denial of the Creator's supreme right, still the right use of personality, psychological and moral, grows into truth, self-devotedness, and sanctity.

In what, then, consists the full development of created personality? It consists in making ourselves fully independent of inferior things, but also, and still more closely, dependent on truth, on goodness, on God.

Propriam personalitatem haberet; et pro tanto dicitur persona (divina) consumpsisse personam, licet improprie, quia persona divina sua unione impedivit ne humana natura propriam personalitatem haberet.

Himself. The saints are complete personalities, since they recognize that human personality grows great only by dying to self so that God may live in us, may rule us ever more completely. As God inclines to give Himself ever more and more, so the saint renounces ever more completely his own judgment and his own will, to live solely by the thoughts and will of God. He desires that God be his other self, [771] more intimate than his proper self. Thus, from afar off, he begins to understand the personality of Jesus.

But the saint, however high, is still a creature, immeasurably below the Creator, eternally distinct from God. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God gave Himself, in the highest conceivable manner, to humanity, by uniting Himself personally to humanity, in such wise that the human nature thus united becomes one sole ego with that Word, which assumed forever that human nature. Thus, there is in Christ one sole person, one sole intellectual and free subject, even while there are two natures, two intellects, two freedoms. Hence Christ alone among men can say: [772] "Before Abraham was, I am." "The Father and I are one." "All that belongs to the Father belongs to Me."

To clarify this hypostatic union, St. Thomas [773] proceeds as follows: According to Catholic faith, human nature is really and truly united to the person of the Word, while the two natures remain distinct. Now that which is united to a person, without a union in nature, is formally united to it in person, because person is the complete whole of which nature is the essential part. Further, since human nature is not an accident, like whiteness, for example, and is not a transitory act of knowledge or love, the human nature is united to the Word not accidentally, but substantially. [774].

Christ, then, is man, though He has no human personality. But His humanity, far from being lowered by this union with the Word, is rather thereby elevated and glorified. From that union His humanity has an innate sanctity substantial and uncreated. To illustrate. Imagination, the highest of sense faculties, has a higher nobility in man than in animal, a nobility arising from its very subordination to the higher faculty of the intellect. A thing is more noble, says Thomas, when it exists in a higher being than when it exists in itself. [775].

Whereas individuation proceeds from matter, personality, on the contrary, is the most perfect thing in nature. [776] Thus in Jesus, as in us, all individualizing circumstances, of time and place of birth, of people and country, arise from created matter, whereas His person is uncreated.

This union of two natures therefore is not an essential union, since the two are distinct and infinitely distant. Nor is it an accidental union, like that of the saints with God. It is a union in the substantial order, in the very person of the Word, since one real subject, one sole ego, possesses both natures. [777] Hence this union is called the hypostatic union.

This teaching of St. Thomas, and of the majority of Thomists, rests, first on the words of Jesus concerning His own person, secondly on the idea of person accessible to our natural intelligence. Hence this doctrine can be expounded in a less abstract form, in formulas that elevate the soul to sure and fruitful understanding of this mystery. [778].

But a more subtle question arises: Is this hypostatic union of two natures something created? In answer, it is clear, first, that the action which unites the two natures is uncreated, because it is an act of the divine intellect and will, an act which is formally immanent in God, and only virtually transitive, an act which is common to the three divine persons. It is clear, secondly, that the humanity of Jesus has a real and created relation to the Word which possesses that humanity, and on which that humanity depends, whereas the Word has only a relation, not real but only of reason, to the humanity which it possesses, but on which it does not depend. On these two points there is no discussion.

But there is discussion when the question is posed thus: Is there a substantial intermediate mode which unites the human nature to the Word? Scotus, Suarez, and Vasquez answer affirmatively, as do likewise some Thomists, the Salmanticenses, for example, and Godoy. Thomists in general answer negatively, appealing with justice to repeated statements of St. Thomas. Thus he says: [779] "In the union of the human nature to the divine, nothing mediates as cause of this union, nothing to which human nature would be united before being united to the divine person: just as between matter and form there is no medium. So likewise nothing can be conceived as medium between nature and person (suppositum)." Thus the Word terminates and sustains the human nature of Christ, which human nature thus constituted depends directly, without medium, on the Word. And creation itself, passive creation, is nothing but a real direct relation by which the creature depends on the Creator.

Further, St. Thomas holds [780] that the hypostatic union is the most deep and intimate of all created unions. The human nature, it is true, is infinitely distant from the divine, but the principle which unites them, namely, the person of the Word, cannot be more one and more unitive. The union of our soul to our body, for example, however immediate it is and intimate, is yet broken by death, whereas the Word is never separated either from the body or from the soul which He has assumed. Thus the hypostatic union is immovable, indissoluble, for all eternity.

This deep inward intimacy of the hypostatic union has as consequence the truth that there is in Christ one existence for the two natures. [781] This consequence, since it supposes real distinction between created essence and existence, is denied by Scotus and Suarez, who thereby attenuate that union which constitutes the God-man. St. Thomas thus establishes his conclusion: [782] There can be, in one and the same person, many accidental existences, that of whiteness, for example, that of an acquired science or art: but the substantial existence of the person itself must be one and one only. Since existence is the ultimate actuality, the uncreated existence of the Word would not be the ultimate actuality if it were ulteriorly determinable by a created existence. Hence we say, on the contrary, that the eternal Word communicates His own existence to His humanity, somewhat as the separated soul communicates its own existence to the body at the moment of resurrection. "It is more noble to exist in a higher thing than to exist in one's self." [783] "The eternal existence of God's Son, an existence identified with divine nature, becomes the existence of a man, when human nature is assumed by God's Son into unity with His person." [784].

Scotus and Suarez, as has been said, since they reject real distinction between essence and existence, reject likewise the doctrine of one existence in Christ. They not only attenuate the hypostatic union but even compromise it, because existence, as ultimate actuality, presupposes subsistence or personality. Hence, as Thomists say, if there were two existences in Christ, there must be likewise two persons. One thing St. Thomas [785] insists on: one person can have but one sole existence.

This doctrine shows the sublimity of the hypostatic union. Under this union, just as the soul of Christ has the transcendent gift of the beatific vision, so the very being of Christ's humanity, since it exists by the Word's uncreated existence, is on a transcendent level of being. Here we see in all its fullness the principle with which St. Thomas begins his treatise on the Incarnation: Good is self-communicative, and the higher is that good the more abundantly and intimately does it communicate itself.

Christ's personality, then, the unity of His ego, is primarily an ontological unity. He is one sole subject, intellectual and free, and has one sole substantial existence. But this most profound of all ontological unities expresses itself by a perfect union of this human mind and will with His divinity. His human mind, as we have just said, had even here on earth the beatific vision of God's essence, and hence of God's knowledge. Hence, even here below, there was in Jesus a wonderful compenetration of vision uncreated and vision created, both having the same object, though only the uncreated vision is infinitely comprehensive. Similarly there was perfect and indissoluble union of divine freedom and human freedom, the latter also being absolutely impeccable.

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