Person vs Individual

Person vs Individual March 11, 2008

The relationship between the notion of a person and the notion of an individual is interesting and complex. The long history of Christian theology and its discovery of the theological person is important, but need not concern us here. The notion as it developed from Christian theology (based in part, to be sure, on pre-Christian anticipations of Christian personalism) has been accepted in society and is now employed by Christian and non-Christian alike. What concerns us are the meanings behind the terms, and what they mean to us as Christians.

Despite what some might think, a person is not an identical concept to that of the individual. A person is a relational entity and can only be known when it is seen in relation to others; the individual is an entity trying to exist on its own, separated from everything outside of itself. We experience being as persons; we are given our personal vocation by God, and this defines who we are as a person. We have a common human nature with other human persons. This allows us to be in communion with one another (analogous to how the persons of the Trinity participate in the same divinity and are in communion with one another). How we relate to one to another demonstrates who we are as a person (once again analogous to what we see in the Holy Trinity). Even though our personal existence is given to us by God, he has given us a role in its development – he has given us a creative freedom which we use to present who we are to others.

If there had been no sin, there would have been distinction without division in humanity, and we would have had an open relationship with each other and with God. It would have led to the experience of the fullness of the divine life. That is, even if there had been no fall, there would have been an incarnation of God, because God became one of us, not just to save us, but to open us to the fullness of God’s internal life. It was what God desired for creation, as Bulgakov points out, “One can even say that God created the world in order to become incarnate in it, that He created it for the sake of His Incarnation. The Incarnation is not only the means to the redemption; it is also the supreme crowning of the world, even in comparison with its creation. In the Incarnation, God showed His love for creation,” Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 169.

But this is not what happened. The universe we live in is a fallen universe. Our mode of existence is fallen. We experience reality not as perfect, relational persons, but as individuals separated from, and divided against, one another. Even though there is but one human nature, we wouldn’t know it, because the individual is experienced as being greater than our nature, causing self-love to grow. The distinctions between persons have become dividing-lines in human nature, whereupon humanity is turning against itself. “The self-love and cleverness of men, alienating them from each other and perverting the law, have cut our single human nature into many fragments. They have so extended the insensibility which they introduced into our nature and which now dominates it, that our nature, divided in will and purpose, fights against itself,” St Maximos the Confessor, “First Century of Various Texts,” in Philokalia Volume Two. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), #46. Sin is the source for division in the world; whenever we see and experience the world divided against itself, we see the effects of sin. And this, sadly, has its greatest outlet in our own lives as we turn ourselves into individuals set apart from everyone else. “The root sin or the root of all sin is the assertion of oneself as oneself, without relation to that which is other, i.e., to God and to all creation. It is self-immersion without self-transcendence. All particular sins are only variants or manifestations of the stubborn self-immersion of self-hood. In other words, sin is the power of the protection of oneself as oneself that makes the person a ‘self-idol.’ It is the power that ‘explains’ I through I, not through God, and grounds I in I, not in God. Sin is the fundamental striving of I by which I becomes firm in its isolation and makes of itself the unique point of reality,” Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 132.

Some might think that the individual is prior to the person, but this cannot be. We are contingent in our existence; we do not make ourselves to be. In our very existence, we are who we are only in relation to some external source for our existence; that is, we relate to the world through our parents (and God). This means, in our existence, we exist as relational persons first. Indeed, one can say even our awareness of ourselves as selves comes from our relations with others. Hans Urs von Balthasar has a beautiful description for where he thinks this process begins: “Now man exists only in dialogue with his neighbor. The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of unlimited being opens itself for him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; (2) that that love is good, therefore all Being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Retrospective (1988),” pages 111 – 119 in My Work In Retrospective. Trans. Kelly Hamilton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 114.

It is only after we come to realize distinctions in the universe that we reify them. Because of our fallen mode of existence, that process begins almost at the same time we realize our relationships with others. The ego develops and quickly puts up a barrier or wall around itself to defend itself from all which would seek to eliminate or weaken it. And since this happens at such an early stage of life, it is easy to how the individualistic ego takes control of our conscious awareness, so that we interpret the world by its guidance. What was prior to it has been regulated to the subconscious; that prior experience still influences us, but those influences are lost to our conscious awareness unless we struggle to reform it, forcing it to allow us access to our subconscious life. Even the voice of God, our conscience, can either be manifested in our life consciously or subconsciously, depending upon how much we have worked to integrate our personal existence into our conscious awareness (the process of which I partially described in “On the Conscience and Our Response to It“),

Certainly we must realize that individualistic experience is not the way God wanted us to encounter life. But because of the fall, the effects of sin manifested themselves in us; concupiscence now gets in the way of our experience of reality and directs us to develop an awareness of ourselves as individuals at the earliest stages of life; it is by concupiscence that our reification of nature, and especially of our turning the person into an individual, begins, and it is through concupiscence that our ego is guided to build up its wall to defend itself from all outside attack. The ego exists in us like a parasite. And we must realize its influence transcends our conscious existence; it has seeded itself in our subconscious in such a way that a cursory glance through the subconscious will make it seem as if the subconscious confirms the priority of the ego, of the individualistic self. Through the years, it works very hard to cover up our original, pure relational self, because a real awareness of that person works to destroy the illusion of the ego. The individual can only exist as a fallen person; and it is for this reason that, for the person to live and thrive, for the pure image and likeness of God within that individual to be cleared from the mire of sin, the individuated self must be given up and die. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,‘” (Mt 16:24-25). Only when we deny ourselves, deny our individualized existence, put it to the cross, and let it die, will we find true personal life. But the more we struggle to preserve it, that much of our person will be destroyed, until, in the end, we can lose our personal life and find ourselves in the perpetual habit of the ego, which is the experience of hell. Of course, whether or not anyone will let the ego takes such control that their personal life is totally destroyed is not known. And if, on any step on the path to hell, one turns against the ego and opens oneself to God, God can resurrect what the ego previously destroyed; all does not have to be lost.

From what has been said here, we can understand the problems inherent within individualism. It trumpets the individual, placing this self upon an idolatrous pedestal. And yet it tries to find a way to explain why society exists at all; that is, it tries to explain why political structures are necessary in a world of individuals. “The old naïve social atomism, associated with the rationalistic individualism of the eighteenth century, considers all harmony, all unity, of social life to be possible only as a result of conscious, deliberate agreement among individuals. In their common interest, individuals agree among one another that they will observe a certain common order of life, that, as far as possible, they will not hamper and harm one another, that they will subordinate themselves to certain general rules, or to a commonly elected authority, and so on. The unity of society is the result of voluntary, conscious agreement of the wills and actions of individuals. This is the essence of the once-celebrated theory of the ‘social contact,‘” S.L. Frank, The Spiritual Foundations of Society. Trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987), 36. Of course, not everything is erroneous in a political system based upon individualism. For behind the individual is a real person. Individualism turned into social theory tries to suggest reasons why individuals need to cooperate with one another, and it borrows answers from our personalistic existence; even though it regulates the individual as the highest good, it contradicts itself, by admitting, in the process of politics, that the individual is not self-sufficient and is in need of others. And this simple fact is but one of many fractures one can discover behind any political theory based upon individualism to open it up into something better, something more benevolent. Nonetheless, individualism continues to influence and shape society because it helps serves the individualistic ego in its attempts to defend itself; it builds itself upon the desires of human concupiscence, and finds ways to satisfy them. It helps make us, like Satan, feel like gods in the world. “In the creaturely, sinful world, love for one’s own, that is, in essence, love for oneself, acquires the character of self-love and prejudice, in virtue of which this ‘one’s own’ is prized not at its essential and true worth but precisely as one’s own; this is the egotistical admiration of one’s own image, ‘narcissism.’ Herein lies the principle of the fall of Satan, who fell in love with himself, who came to love his own with an egotistical, self-asserting love,” Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, 105.

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  • Mark D.


    Very nice. However, it must be countered, as I am sure you agree, that even though persons are not fundamentally individuals in the pejorative sense you elaborate, they are nevertheless each uniquely images of God, in his ultimate uniqueness.

    Here, Hopkins helps wonderfully:

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.


    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves–goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Cying What I do is me: for that I came.

    I say more: the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
    Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the feature of men’s faces.

  • Mark D.

    And then there is the person uniquely gone foul:

    I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
    Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
    Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

    Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
    The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
    As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

  • Mark

    Right — the person is quite unique — just like the persons in the Trinity are unique and that uniqueness is found in their relations, so is the human person unique, found in their relation but also how they develop that relation (which I plan to discuss more later).

  • Mark D.

    “Even though there is but one human nature, we wouldn’t know it, because the individual is experienced as being greater than our nature, causing self-love to grow.”

    Is this not philosophically misleading in an important sense? Human nature, though that which we all share, only really exists in unique persons, who each are conceived and loved into existence by God in their very uniquenes.

  • Mark D.

    is conceived…in his/her…

  • Mark

    Unique persons, of course, are not individuals, but persons who are open-to-others in communion; that nature of course is only personalized, and the persons are indeed unique; yet it is the same human nature, it is one, which is why the humanity of Christ is our humanity and what happens to him happens to us. This is also like what we see with the Trinity; there is one nature, the persons are unique, yet each person is fully God and that communion of persons makes the issue not self-love, but personal, sacrificial love which opens up and gives to the others — and it is for this reason the experience of one person of the Trinity is the experience, in some sense of the whole Trinity.

    But the point is when we create the egoistic individuality, we turn that individual as above the nature itself; this is why Protestantism in its individualism cannot understand the common destiny of humanity — the universalism of Christ’s work. So the point is that very individual, being unnatural, tries to put itself even above the nature itself. And our experience then is influenced by that individual which closes itself off from the rest of the world, and sees the nature almost as an accidental predicate to that individual, and that there is no “homoousios” between my human nature with yours because of it.

  • Mark D.

    I concur. But a Christian ethic must not only take into account human nature in general, but the unique mission given to one’s self in order to develop true personhood fully. The ‘more’ over common nature can refer to either the relationally severed individual (which you talk about); or, more importantly, the unique X by which God commissions me to be (pesonally) me most fully.

  • Mark

    Of course there is more which needs to be discussed about the person — which is something I am going to be doing (as you can probably tell, I am trying to do this as a series of inter-related posts). The next one (so far at least) should go more into the question of the “uniqueness” of the person and what I hinted about in here — that there is a personal development which not only takes our vocation from God, but where there is freedom of the person to develop their personal uniqueness as well.

    This post was more or less focused on the individual and the problems of individual/individualism because of how individualistic our culture is and the need for Christians to realize how unChristian such individualism is (although, as I pointed out, not entirely in error).

    I agree there are more ethical issues involved. I wanted to say more about Christian personalism vs individualism to deal with that ethical issue — but then I thought this post was probably long enough (for most readers) and if I plan to do more on the person as person, I can reflect more on that there.

  • Mark D.

    Thanks. This is an area in which I have pondered the issues amateurly for the past decade and a half. I look forward to your further posts.

  • Mark

    You are welcome! (I am glad some people at least are reading the longer posts and getting something out of them)

  • For a point of clarification which might help some people. My use of the term “individual” comes from the meaning of the word which suggests, ” distinct, indivisible entity.”

    We also use the term in other ways, sometimes more loosely, such as when we call an individual an “instance” of some genera. But then it can mean either a distint, cut-off indivisible (and incommunicable) entity, but it doesn’t have to be.

    But I think from the root meaning of the words (and cognates to it) should be considered and used as one investigates what it means to be a human person — and that is exactly what I did here.

  • Excellent post, Henry. The distinction between person and individual is not one that should be isolated to academic circles like some esoteric protect, but ushered into the public sphere so that every person in society recognizes himself and others for what they are: communal creatures. How many of our social ills could be better addressed if we based our society on an idea of personhood?

  • Kyle

    Thanks — and right. This kind of discussion often remains in philosophical and theological circles — and yet needs to move beyond and to become an active and not just passive critique of society by showing not only what is wrong in how society is lived, but what roots of truth are behind it to move and work for something better. It’s why I thought a post like this would be helpful and really demonstrate the root problem of individualism itself.

    Of course, it is one thing to recognize this; it is another to do what needs to be done, to figure out the full ramifications of personalism — and to live it out; I, of course, fail daily and I know it, but it is in the judgment of the self, in that recognition that I can also reach out for that help to move beyond my failings and not feel left trapped in and by them.

  • Morning’s Minion


    Great post,– in fact, this should be in Vox Nova’s all time top 10. It shows very clearly that the social contractrian state (that underpins laissez-faire liberlism) is opposed to the Christian message, on some fundamental level. It also re-inforces the idea that we are one, and that people who try to play up divisions in the human race are turning their backs on the redemption of Christ.

  • Very interesting. Lots to chew on there.

  • MM

    Thanks – I don’t know if it is top ten material (I never judge my writing so highly), but I do think it is a helpful post, if nothing else to help move things forward in a positive direction.

  • Adam

    I hope it is digestable 🙂

  • I suggest that there is another threat to individualism, not from personalism but from the psychological and neurological sciences.

    Some neuroscientists go so far as to claim that the self is illusory, proving that even “self-denial” can go horribly wrong.

    The idea that the individual person is an indivisible entity has difficulty in explaining emotional turbulence or psychological disorder. The assumption of the rational individual ignores or denies the “other law” in our members which Christians often explain as an effect of Original Sin.

    Phillip Rieff has described psychological man as one similar to Plato’s Democratic Man. All his faculties: will, intellect, desire, instinct, have lost their ordering principle. At most, psychological man can turn to therapy to mitigate the negative effects of this dis-order, but he has lost the resources by which he may restore order to his soul.

    This fragility of the ego in the face of *internal* enemies also explains the self-asserting defenses of egoism alluded to in this article.

    The psychological approach also drives me to qualify the idea I see here that all sin is a sin of commission or omission against another. Incontinence, for instance, is obviously also a sin against oneself.

  • Kevin

    While I didn’t borrow from Western psychology for my post, I will admit, I did borrow from psychology ( I will let people discern which kind) as I thought through with what I wrote.

    Of course, this whole topic that is expressed in this post could be explored on so many levels and issues — and Western psychology can reinforce some of the points I made; although I would say their view of the conscious and unconscious, the ego and the person are not going to be exactly my own.

  • Mark D.


    Hate to drop names, but I was actually an undergraduate student of Philip Rieff. He literally changed my life. Even had me transfer universities, going into my 4th year (my parents were ready to murder me). Check out the posthumously published Sacred Order/ Social Order. vol. 1 and 2, on U of Virginia P.

  • Kyle says:

    “The distinction between person and individual is not one that should be isolated to academic circles like some esoteric protect, but ushered into the public sphere so that every person in society recognizes himself and others for what they are: communal creatures.”

    Indeed, you are correct!

    In this regard, it has been ushered into the public sphere by Jacque Maritain who was one of the two principles responsible for the drafting of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

    Since Marxism and Capitalism stood at odds over the notion of the “individual”, there was a need to find a term other than “individual” for purposes of the document. Maritain interjected the notion of the “person” into the Declaration.

    Sadly, the substance of the person has not been articulated to the point where it can impact the wider culture.

  • Gerald beat me to it. I was literally reading Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good when I came upon this post. Well written, Henry!

    Pax Christi,