John Zizioulas summarizes his "ontology of personhood" in an article in Christoph Schwobel's volume, Persons – Divine and Human.
Zizioulas begins with the question of the relation between being and personal identity: "It is all too often assumed that people 'have' personhood rather than 'being' persons," so that personhood "becomes a quality added, as it were to being." You have to be first, and then act as a person. This viewpoint rules out any possibility for an "ontology of personhood." Zizioulas, by contrast, argues that personhood "has the claim of absolute being, that is, a metaphysical claim, built into it." The answer to the question "Who am I?" can be "I am who I am," and that is a metaphysical statement. Not only "what" but "who" questions have ontological weight.
Zizioulas then more carefully analyzes the questions "Who am I? Who are you? Who is he/she?" The "who" calls for "definition or 'description' of some kind," and thus is a call "of and for consciousness," expressing a desire for articulate knowledge. Though this question seems to require "a developed degree of consciousness," yet "it is a primordial cry," which arises from the fact that we are faced with a "given world, and thus forced into self-assertion always via comparison with other beings already existing."
The "am" of the question is "a cry for security, for ground to be based on, for fixity." We ask the question of our being in the face of the fact that we have not always been here, and the fact that someday we won't be here again. It is a "triumphalistic cry," or "a doxological/Eucharistic one," because it expresses "a sort of victory over non-being." Zizioulas says that the sheer assertion of being implies transcendence, the "possibility or rather the actuality of a beyond," and thus the question/assertion of being implies a metaphysics.
The "I" or "You" or "He/She" of the question is a "cry for particularity, for otherness." To say "I" is to assert "a sort of uniqueness, a claim of being in a unique and unrepeatable way." This implies also a "cry for immortality," the desire not only to be in the unique way that I am, but to be me in the unique way I am forever. If the answer to "Who am I?" is "a mortal being," we have "removed the absoluteness from the ingredient 'I' and thus reduced it to something replaceable."
From this last point, it emerges that an ontology of personhood is an ontology of particularity, in which the particular rises to "primacy and ultimacy which transcends the changing world of coming and giving particularities." Greek metaphysics never arrived at this primacy of particularity, because the movement of Greek thought was always from beings to Being itself: "Particularity does not extinguish being. The latter goes on for ever, while the particular beings disappear." In a footnote, Zizioulas notes that this rules out any notion of metempsychosis, since on that theory "particular ceases to be absolute in a metaphysical sense, since it is implied that a particular being is replaceable by another one." For the Greeks "being . . . in the absolute, metaphysical sense cannot be attached to the particular except in so far as the latter is part of a totality."
Whatever form Greek metaphysics takes, this is a constant: "particularity is not ontologically absolute; the many are always ontologically derivative, not causative." As a result, there can be no personal ontology on Greek premises: "The truth of any particular thing was removed from its particularity and placed on a level of a universal form in which the particularity participated." For the same reason too, there can be no doctrine of personal immortality on Greek premises. What remains is Man, not the particular man, for the eternal is the absolute, and the absolute and eternal being must be universal rather than particular. Zizioulas sees this reflected in Greek tragedy, in which heroes are enslaved to moral order and rationality: "Man exists for the world, not the world for Man."
The reasons for this failure to reach an ontology of personhood are both logical and existential. Logically, we can conceive the particular only by categories, and this category is an "ousia itself which accounts at the same time for the being of the particular and of what transcends it." Existentially, death is a horizon prior to life. We have a "panoramic" view of things because there is a "horizon in which the particulars emerge," and this "'horizon' is a unifying principle conditioning the 'many' and hence prior to them." Death is ontologized, and death is universal; everyone dies. The many particular things are encompassed by something general, and particularity never emerges as absolute.
Turning to the "presuppositions" for an ontology of personhood, Zizioulas enumerates three. First, if particularity is to be ontologically ultimate, then being must be caused. Greeks knew of causation, of course, but causation always took place within being. The "world as a whole is not caused radically, i.e. in the absolute ontological sense, by anything else." Thus, necessity is built into the being of things: "Being is not a gift but a datum to be reckoned with by the particular beings." For the Bible, however, existence itself, the reality of the world as a whole, is "caused in a radical way by someone – a particular being." And this being that causes all things identifies Himself as "I am who I am," which is already "a step towards an ontology of personhood."
This applies not only to the world in general, but to human beings. What causes particular human beings to be? Not, as in Greek thought, some ousia, some general ideal of Man in which humans participate. Rather "what causes the particular human beings to be is Adam, i.e. a particular being." He appeals to what he describes as the Hebrew notion of a "corporate personality" in which a particular being includes man. And this same kind of thought applies to God. What is the "cause" of God? the Cappadocians ask. And they answer that it is not divine ousia, but a kind of divine Adam, the Father: "God's being, the Holy Trinity, is not caused by divine substance but by the Father, i.e. a particular being." Substance is indeed common to all persons, but "it is not ontologically primary until Augustine makes it so."
Here Zizioulas introduces the second presupposition of the ontology of personhood. He qualifies what he has said about Adam as the cause of humanity by saying that if Adam is to be the cause of all humans, then "he must be in a constant relationship with all the rest of human beings . . . directly, i.e. as a particular being carrying in himself the totality of human nature." This is not true of Adam. But here we have a disanalogy between divine and human persons: "In God it is possible for the particular to be ontologically ultimate because relationship is permanent and unbreakable." With God, relationship exists within substance, not as an add-on to substance. When we attempt to identify something, "we have to make it part of a relationship and not isolate it as an individual."
Particularity thus emerges as "being itself without depending for its identity on qualities borrowed from nature and thus applicable also to other beings." Each particular thing is constituted by relationship with other things, and this brings us to the "reality of communion in which each particular is affirmed as unique and irreplaceable by the others." Zizioulas claims that an ontology of personhood thus brings us to an ontology of love. This assertion of love is also an assertion of freedom: "God by being uncreated is not faced with given being: He, as a particular being (the Father) brings about His own being (the Trinity). The is thus free in an ontological sense."
Finally, Zizioulas introduces another qualification of the ontology of personhood. For God, being is communion; for God, the ontology of personhood is fully realized. But that is not true inherently for man. Man aspires to freedom but is not inevitably free. Zizioulas develops this point in four stages. First, "Man acquires personal identity and ontological particularity only by basing his being in the Father-Son relationship in which nature is not primary to the particular being." Second, what enables this is Christ, but not Christ in two natures but the fact that the two natures are "particularized in one person." Third, he says that a human being acquires this personhood only by taking "an attitude of freedom vis-à-vis his own nature." Biological birth "gives us a hypostasis dependent ontologically on nature," and so man must be born again to personhood. Baptism is this new birth, which gives "'sonship, the ontological significance of [which] is that Man's identity is not rooted in the relations provided by nature, but in the uncreated Father-Son relationship." Finally, he says that for humans to achieve personhood, for personal particularity to achieve ultimacy in human existence, human beings must overcome death.
Zizioulas concludes that the question of personal identity is thus a who rather than a what question. This has implications for the feminist movement, which stands against the reduction of women to a "what" instead of a who. He says that what and who questions are inseparable, but what makes a person unique is never the "whatness" but the whoness. Personhood is "not about qualities or capacities of any kind: biological, social or moral" but "about hypostasis, i.e. the claim to uniqueness in the absolute sense of the term." Uniqueness, further, arises from relationship that "constitutes by its unbrokenness the ontological ground of being for each person." If we follow the Cappadocian lead and identify the persons of the Trinity by their distinguishing personal properties, we can an insight into the nature of personhood: Someone "is and is himself and not someone else, and this is sufficient to identify him as a being in the true sense." He urges an "ethical apophaticism" that refuses to "give a positive qualitative content to a hypostasis," which would turn the person into a classifiable entity. We cannot determine the hypostasis of a person by some qualities they have, but simply from the fact that they are unique and irreplaceable.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 04:12 PM
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