Over the last few months there has been allot of talk of “personhood” in politics. On the political left there was a recent push to abolish the legal concept of “corporate personhood”, on the right there is recurring talk of a “personhood” amendment to the constitution designed to include fetuses.
Behind these discussions there is a complex legal, cultural and philosophical history. Since “person” means different things in different times and contexts, we tend to use the term equivocally, that is, use the same word to refer to different things. No wonder we get confused. If we look at the history of the word, we might be able to avoid some of the confusion.
1) Ancient Origins: The Theater.
Theater was a big part of ancient Greek and Roman life. Back in those days, the actors wore theater masks which both put them in character and had a mouth piece that amplified their voices. The Greek term for theater mask was prosopon (before-the-face), the Roman term was persona (which might have meant “sound-through”, or amplifier.)
There were stereotyped masks for different roles: a king mask, a slave mask, a hero mask, which the actors wore and by which the audience could readily identify them. So a “person” in early Rome was a stage character. We still use the term in this way on the front page of any playbill which lists the Dramatis Personae, the characters of the play.
2) Roman Law: The term “person” then gets used in Roman Law to mean any social actor with rights and responsibilities, whether an individual or a corporation, and we still use the term in this sense today. In Roman Law a whole family, including married children under the age of thirty, slaves, animals, and land, was a single “person” represented by the head of household. Some of that still carries over into our family law, such as when a married couple’s incomes are taxed together.
Here are some examples of legal persons we might be familiar with: Harvard University, Apple Computer, The United States of America. These legal persons are social actors which can enter into contracts, sue and be sued, pay and be payed, etc. Which leads me to conclude that many people (including a few congressmen with law degrees) who were jumping into the “end corporate personhood” movement simply did not know what they were talking about. If the business that employs me is no longer a legal person, the contract which obliges it to pay me is null and void; if I am injured on the job, I cannot sue my company for compensation. The state cannot tax a business if it does not legally exist. In fact, the state could not sue any person, corporate or not, since the state is also a corporate person.
3) Theology: This is where the concept of “person” goes off into an utterly new direction. Back in the 3rd and 4th centuries Christian theologians were arguing about what exactly was meant by the traditional teaching that Jesus Christ was “true God and true Man.” He couldn’t be two beings, but there did not seem to be any rational way of saying Jesus was God without denying his humanity, or vice versa. The solution was to argue that Jesus possessed a human nature (body, soul, intelligence, will, emotions, etc.) but that the innermost core of his being, his “person” was divine. Hence the formula you may have learned in catechism class: “two natures, one divine person.”
Then the theologians applied the concept “person” to the rest if us: any being naturally endowed with abstract intelligence and free will is a “person”. The term can be applied analogously to humans, angels, and even to God. A “person” in the theological vision is the highest, most dignified form of existence there is.
Needless to say, this is a radical departure from the theatrical or legal use of the term person, and there is not enough space here to describe in detail how this transformation of the term took place. The surprising thing is how much impact fourth century theology has on the modern concept of person.
4) Modernity: One of the hallmarks of modernity is the appreciation of individual rights and freedoms. The modern movement is in some ways anti-religious, but it owes the concept of human dignity to the theological concept of personhood, even as it rejects the theoretical foundation. Strange but true: had it not been for fourth century arguments about the nature of Christ, there would probably have been no Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.
By now you can see where some of the confusion comes from: when we argue about these political issues we are really using the term person in two different ways: one metaphysical, the other legal. Next time we can look at some of the applications of the problem.