The Concept of “Person” 2

“… this idea of person comes to us from Christian theology.”

In discussing the concept of “person”, I will refer to the work of the church Fathers, especially the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century, through the collective wisdom and insights of four prominent contemporary theologians and mystics:  Vladimir Lossky, Christos Yannaras, John Zizioulas, and Hierotheos Vlachos.

The great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958), in his seminal work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, tells us that, “We commonly use the words ‘persons’ or ‘personal’ to mean individuals, or individual.  We are in the habit of thinking of these two terms, person and individual, almost as though they were synonyms.  We employ them indifferently to express the same thing.  But, in a certain sense, individual and person mean opposite things, the word individual expressing a certain mixture of the person with elements which belong to the common nature, while person, on the other hand, means that which distinguishes it from nature”.

Lossky goes on to explain this distinction between “individual” and “person” in more detail:  “The man who is governed by his nature and acts in the strength of his natural qualities, of his ‘character’, is the least personal.  He sets himself up as an individual, proprietor of his own nature, which he pits against the natures of others and regards as his ‘me’, thereby confusing person and nature.”  This is the condition of fallen man, best described in English as ‘egoism’.

Lossky continues to further contrast “individual” and “person”:  “However, the idea of the person implies freedom vis-à-vis the nature.  The person is free from nature, is not determined by it.  The human hypostasis [person] can only realize itself by renunciation of its own will, of all that governs us, and makes us subject to natural necessity.”

Lossky goes on to tell us that the original idea of the “person” was conceived by, and can only be explained in terms of proper Christian theology:  “…the theological notion of hypostasis in the thought of the eastern Fathers means not so much individual as person, in the modern sense of the word.  Indeed, our ideas of human personality, of that personal quality which makes every human being unique, to be expressed only in terms of itself: this idea of person comes to us from Christian theology.”

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