Dear Donagh

…. I can't remember when, but you said something once about personality that gave the impression you didn’t think it was important.  It comes back to my mind now and then.  Could you elaborate? Joe B.


Dear Joe,

Neither can I remember, but it is a subject worth thinking about, now that you mention it. 

Yes, we glorify personality.  We even call some special people ‘personalities’.  If you say that some event will be packed with personalities, people will be very disappointed if they find just a lot of ordinary people there.  Mind you, this narrowing of the word ‘person’ isn’t due entirely to magazines such as ‘Hello’.  When I lived in Rome years ago I was asked one day to accompany a cardinal on a trip.  I hopped into the back of the car, the most suitable place for an ordinary man, I thought.  But the cardinal (who was English-speaking) reproved me.  “The custom here,” he said, “is that the person sits in the rear.”  That was a more exclusive use of ‘person’ than you will find in any celebrity magazine.  The irony is that we were just going for a walk in a nearby park – which had no separate areas for ‘persons’. 

So if we were to continue to rely on the word ‘person’ the first move should be to democratise it.  We should wrest it from the clutches of the eminent and restore it to every human being.  The much older understanding of ‘person’ was actually as wide as the human race.  In fact it was wider.  Scholastic theologians included angelic and divine persons as well as human.  A person, said one of them, is “a suppositum which can say ‘I,’ which exists apart, which is sui juris.”  (For ‘suppositum’ you can read ‘unit’.)  What do you think of that?  Is it worth fighting for?  I hardly think so. 

The divine persons certainly don’t “exist apart.”  The traditional doctrine of the Trinity (which these same Scholastics, of course, would defend) says that the divine persons “are constituted by their relationships to one another.”  In other words, it is their relationships to one another that make them who they are.  (This has the paradoxical effect of saying that the Absolute is absolutely relative!) 

As for human persons, there is some sense too in which we are what we are because of our relationships with one another.  We would all be at a great disadvantage if we never had a mother, for example!  Woody Allen said he was born in New York “because I wanted to be near my mother.”  Our mothers were the first, but not the last, who made us what we are.  It is fascinating to read about feral children who grew up with no human contact from an early age.  They were seen to have little or no self-awareness, they were incapable of social behaviour and (if found after the age of about twelve) incapable of learning speech.  It takes a community to produce a functioning human being.  So much for “existing apart.”

The Scholastic definition of ‘person’ was purely abstract and had no connection with what people mean today by person or personality.  So then both the ‘up in the air’ and the ‘down to earth’ understanding of personality seem to be equally pointless. 
I would enjoy seeing the word used less frequently.  Nothing real would be lost.  If instead of ‘person’ you just say ‘human’ you are on safer ground: it includes everything you want to include in ‘person’, but it has the advantage of not dignifying what is bad – ‘human’ includes good and bad alike.   Under the heading of ‘human’ we could then talk with clarity about ego and true nature.  The word ‘personal’ frequently dignifies a lot of stuff that is just an expression of ego.  To see such stuff for what it is, is to clear the ground for discovery of our true nature.  The true nature is the Christ-nature in us, as in St Paul’s statement: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  To flesh this out a little see the ‘Between Ourselves’ section of this site, 2002, ‘Praying’; and also 2008, ‘Is ego such a bad thing?’ 

Christian spirituality has not challenged the ego with sufficient clarity, and I think this is because the word ‘person’ has stood in the way.  It would be no loss to stop saying “I” all the time, and imagining that we “exist apart,” and it would be no loss to our real dignity if we were to stop looking for special seats, whether the front seats in the synagogue or the back seats in limousines.  Let’s drop the word, and see how we get on without it.


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to