What is a person?

When Orthodox sign themselves they do so with their fingers arranged in a way that commemorates the three persons in one substance of the Trinity and the two natures in one person of Christ. The notion of ‘person’ is obviously basic to the thought of the Church. But what does it mean?

A standard definition was given by Boethius, according to whom a person is ‘the individual substance of a rational nature’ (naturae rationabilis individua substantia).  More fully, Locke regards a person as ‘a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking being in different times and places.’ While these definitions are a bit abstract, most people would probably agree that they more or less correspond to what they think a person is. But it is possible that the Church has something different in mind.

The terminology used in classical discussions about the Trinity and Christ is not entirely consistent, but word translated ‘person’ is frequently the Greek word prosopon (the package I’m using is not friendly to the Greek alphabet; Lampe’s Lexicon p. 1187f provides an intimidating amount of detail on its usage.) The literal meaning of prosopon is ‘face’ or ‘countenance’, and the word is made up of two Greek words,  pros (to, towards)   and  ops (eye, face). So the word expresses an understanding that one’s identity as a person arises from being in front of the face of another, of relatedness to other persons. This is true of the Three who constitute the Trinity, two of whose persons, the Father and the Son, take their names from their relationships, and given that humans are persons as well, it will also be true of us. ‘It is the potential which constitutes man, the potential to be opposite someone or something, to have one’s face towards someone or something, to be a person. It is the potential to say “I”, addressed to “you”, to converse, to share.’ (Christos Yannaras) Hence, as Rowan Williams expresses Yannaras’ thinking, ‘[t]he reality or unreality of entities depends on their relatedness or non-relatedness to persons…Personhood is not a part of human nature, it defines nature…’ (in Sobornost6 1972, 417). Or, as Levinas expresses the thought of Martin Buber, ‘Man does not meet, he is the meeting.’ (warm thanks to Neil P for this quotation.)

Doubtless it would be possible to take this line too far. A significance latent in its etymology need not be present in the consciousness of people who use a word; and l  wonder whether there must be something about persons independent of their relatedness to others (otherwise, what exactly would it be that is doing the relating?) But such an understanding of what being a person involves has deep implications, not least in the way we deal with other people.

This post is published on a day of danger and sorrow for the people of Brisbane and the surrounding region. May the damage be limited, and restoration swift!