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Descartes defended the existence of a barely knowable God, and his account of the soul, as we have seen, is diminished and naturalized. As we read him, we find a self-conscious ‘self’ performing a limited number of the functions of the older ‘soul’; being more or less identified with mind alone, it has lost its intrinsic connection with the physical body.1 When we turn to John Locke, often hailed as the primary constructor of the modern ‘self’ and stage-setter of debates on its nature – with those thought-experiments about multiple personalities with which we are now familiar – we find that while the voluntarist God is still there, the account of the ‘person’ is radically changed.
Once the Stoics had drawn attention to the qualitative uniqueness of individuals, and attributed it to differences in form, the problem of the nature of that form might expectably have been discussed within a non-pantheist, but still providentialist and specifically Platonist world view. That brings us to Plotinus, who took up the question of individuality, albeit hesitantly, even incoherently, and without apparent awareness of the full significance of the issues involved. His chief ‘anthropological’ concern was to defend Plato’s two-substance account of the soul–body relationship and to fend off Aristotelian and Stoic attacks on it. His attempt to do that – though apparently convincing the young Augustine – can hardly be called an unqualified success.1
In the course of the eighteenth century Locke’s work on personal identity was followed up in divergent ways: some pursued his thoughts in the same direction, emphasizing especially the ‘science-fiction’ accounts he gave of the possibility of brain-fission, and generating further problems not only about the diachronic continuity of the person but eventually, as in the case of William Hazlitt (whose work in this area was almost entirely neglected at the time), as to whether it is rational to worry about our future selves, immortal or not.1 Other post-Lockeans, like Stillingfleet, Butler and Reid saw grave moral and spiritual danger in Locke’s claims, above all in that he seemed to suggest that persons are to be viewed not in terms of continuing substances but in terms of relations between material parts of the human being.
Aristotle tells us that apart from individual men there is no Man; that is, the word ‘man’ is used simply to designate the set of human beings all of whom share a common humanity. He implied that particular individuals (neither individuals in general nor individuality as such) are the cause of human individuals; the individuals who were my parents are the cause of the individual person who is me. Starting from that axiom, I shall try to answer four related questions:
1. How can we best understand individual persons?
2. What, if any, metaphysical and axiological implications are to be derived from such ever-improvable understanding?
3. Are there any coherent reasons to claim that each person is not only unique but further is possessed of intrinsic dignity?
4. If we all possess equal dignity, are our obligations to all members of the human race identical?
After about 1660 much English-speaking Protestant Christianity transformed itself, not least among the élites, into first Unitarianism (especially in what would become the United States), then into an increasingly godless moralism – and even among the godly morality was increasingly identified as the essence of religion. The push towards seeing philanthropy as the best religion-substitute began in earnest with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). However, philanthropy seemed to require a revised philosophical foundation if it was no longer to be dependent on religion; that is, normally on the worship of a voluntarist and demanding God. And changes of religious belief will entail changes in attitudes to the person.
In the eighteenth century, as we have noticed, God gradually disappears from philosophical reflection on human nature, the soul tending to be replaced by the mind or self. But these too gradually begin to be dissolved; already a number of thinkers are proposing to explain mental activity entirely in material terms, the mind being regarded as an epiphenomenon of the brain. And since for hundreds of years, ever since late antiquity, the soul had been understood not only in terms of a form of the body or as the real ‘I’ as well as more theologically as the bearer (whether or not naturally) of human immortality in a theistic universe, it is hardly surprising that reflection on the soul became transmuted into discussion of the self. Nevertheless, generally in the eighteenth century the self was still treated as a substance, albeit the accounts of the person proposed by Locke and his successors had introduced the reduction of both the self and the person to convenient illusions.
Despite the citation of Newman, this book will make no claims about the immortality of the soul or of the person. Its subject is far less theological, though overall not unreligious. What I want to try to answer is the more elementary question of whether the concept of ‘person’, as developed over time, adds anything (or should add anything) to our understanding of what it is to be human: a question which has to underlie Newman’s challenging statement.
Help came from an unexpected quarter. Soon after Hutcheson’s work was published there appeared a series of novels of sentiment (‘sentimental’) from the pen of Samuel Richardson. They differed substantially from the earlier and more ‘libertine’ tales of Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe and earned the contempt of Henry Fielding who offered alternatives in his own picaresque novels and parodied Richardson’s seemingly hypocritical Pamela in the person of his own blatantly hypocritical and immoral Shamela. Nevertheless, Richardson was directing the novel into new and very popular territory. In Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–8) he highlights the moral and psychological dilemmas of very ordinary people, especially females. But his heroines are no longer the free-thinkers, libertines or whores – whether or not eventually penitent – of Behn and Defoe, but sweet – at times almost sugary – ‘nice’ people, hence to be read as moral exemplars by ordinary folk.
As we have seen, Boethius and Duns Scotus are hinge-figures; Kant is another, for two reasons: first because he marks a significant point in the gradual shift from talk of human dignity, which is Christian language, to rights-talk, which at least was to become post-Christian; and second, and relatedly, because Kant seems to many to offer the best chance of preserving human dignity and human rights without recourse to religious premises.1 I believe this hope delusory.
Virtual morality might be re-described – if hyperbolically – as a deceptive guise of moral nihilism: a recourse to what is deemed to be in the interest of safety or survival at the expense of truth. In its various mutations it is more widespread than the previous discussion has perhaps suggested, as an article by Richard Robinson, written some eighty years ago, confirms. In ‘The emotive theory of ethics’, Robinson (1948) claims that no moral judgments are true, yet he does not reject morality, being in this not unlike those Feuerbachian clergymen who deny the existence of God but claim not to be atheists. Such perversities should, of course, be distinguished from the opinions of moral-sense theorists such as Hutcheson and Hume whose claim that we possess a moral sense is intended as empirical, pointing to objective fact about human nature. That may be mistaken but does not involve deception, hence cannot be denoted a dishonest nihilism.
Up to this point we have been tracing, in broad outline, the development of a concept of the human person as a unique and uniquely dignified individual composite of body and soul. And we have attended to the Christian thesis that man is created in the image and likeness of God, recognizing it as the justification of that intrinsic dignity which we all share, whatever our social ‘estate’. In the second part of this study I shall argue that in the early modern period what I have called the Mainline Tradition was widely, if with some hesitation, abandoned: not least because beliefs about God and the soul – essential preconditions for its further development – were being discarded. We shall have to ask whether that discarding implied that earlier beliefs about human dignity could intelligibly be retained – or whether alternative justifications of our status and worth were perhaps identified, bearing in mind that even if alternatives fail to preserve our intrinsic worth, it does not follow that the Mainline Tradition is fit for that purpose.
The myth of Prometheus can be read diversely: as a challenge to mankind to aspire, to challenge the gods, even in effect to claim to be a god; as an example of arrogance which should not be imitated and should be punished; or as all of the above. In the early nineteenth century the first of these would be promoted, by those who hated the Christian God, denied his existence and aspired to fill the gap with super-humans. Prometheans had not always been so apparently coherent in their claims about human capacities – whether moral or more normally artistic in some form; in the Renaissance Prometheus was usually invoked by those who still retained much of their Christian theism. In that earlier time, such views were in part a reaction against an extreme of self-denigration often preached in the Middle Ages – typified by Pope Innocent III’s De Contemptu Mundi – but already they could go beyond what had previously been recognized as orthodox Christianity, a fact recognized not least by Luther. Thus, Ficino’s ‘Know yourself, divine race in mortal clothing’1 comes perilously close to the Platonic view, always recognized as unchristian, that man is naturally immortal rather than made so by grace. A century later Giordano Bruno – a pre-enlightened voice anticipating the omission of historical Christianity from the Charter of the European Union – went much further; we should abandon the Christian centuries and return to a revised version of Graeco-Roman paganism.
Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith, in their different ways, thought that sympathy/empathy was the key which would free us not only from what they saw as the morally impotent rationalism of many of their predecessors but also from imprisonment in the obsessive self-serving on which Hobbes was convinced the honest man must rely to escape, by force or fraud, from the war of all against all in which he is otherwise trapped. Smith went so far as to claim that sympathy with others could be an engine by which to develop those powers of self-control which he judged the foundation-stone of the moral outlook
As we move from Scotus into what is more normally thought of as the early modern period, we will notice five destructive approaches to the Mainline Tradition – often originally developed in more or less separate interests. The first tends to subordinate the search for virtue to the supposedly more basic search for human rights; the second minimizes or eliminates the effects of original sin; the third replaces the concept of soul, with its Christian implications, by that of mind or ‘self’; the fourth limits or eliminates the role of God in human affairs; the fifth moves from discovering and respecting nature’s ‘laws’ to denying final causes and seeking to master the physical universe.
In this extended essay I have traced the origins of a number of contemporary disputes about the nature of the human person, setting them against what I have identified as the ‘Mainline Tradition’: that is, what was to become a specifically Christian account of the human person gradually built up from its philosophical origins in Greece and the theology of the Hebrew Bible and through Christian centuries in Europe down to the High Middle Ages. I have argued that a substantial portion of such an account had been developed – though still presented somewhat incoherently – by the time of Thomas Aquinas in the late thirteenth century. I have then gone on to show how although subsequent thinkers right down to our own time have added potentially important material to the tradition – not least by extending accounts of self-awareness and the human powers of imagination – there has also developed what can be seen as an attempt, whether more or less conscious, to demolish the earlier Tradition and substitute something very different: a supposedly more scientifically objective and impersonal ‘contemporary’ account of human nature that has the effect of calling that nature’s ultimate worth ever more into question.