The roots of Personalism

The story of personalism is the story of how the human person has been defined throughout history.

The roots of personalist philosophy go as far back as antiquity. Broadly speaking we may say that the foundation of personalism, the concept of the person, was developed in the confrontation between Greek philosophy and the new Christian way of thought in the first few centuries after Christ.

As is so often the case, the concept of personhood is indebted to Aristotle. Aristotle asserted that humans are the only beings characterized by reason, logos. Animals are otherwise identical to humans, but they are áloga, without reason.

The word “person” is used by Tertullian (155-230) in discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, and it would soon play a major part in the Church’s development of the doctrine of Christ and the conception of the Trinity in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

It also influenced thought concerning the human person. Theologians held that since humans are created in the image of God, the individual human must also be conceived of as reflecting the personal traits of God, or at least as having the potential to do so – to develop personality.

In Roman law the concept of personhood became a special category in the essential distinction between a person and a thing. The introduction of the concept occurred simultaneously with changes to Roman culture and increased freedom in society. Anyone who could show up in court was a person, which had consequences for their overall status.

Once Roman law attained personal structure, all humans were regarded as free, except for slaves. A free man was a person and had personality. As a natural consequence, a moral dimension arose; every person was also independent, autonomous, and responsible. Later developments have added a psychological dimension: the person is the mature human being.

Austria’s king Theoderic (454-526) assigned to the philosopher Boethius (480-525) the task of defining what a human being is. He arrived at the conclusion that: “Persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia” – a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. This definition was to have great influence upon all future discussion of the nature of the human person.

The first historical occurrence of the concept of personalism is found in German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who in 1799 used the term Personalismus in his book Reden über die Religion. He stressed the importance of that which is actively personal, including the religious feeling.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, personalist schools were formed in various countries. Russia, France, Germany, Poland, and the US are countries with a strong personalist tradition, developing personalist philosophy in cooperation with, as well as over against, other worldviews and anthropologies such as socialism and liberalism.