When does the human person begin to exist? Part 5: “In an Intellectual Nature”

By David Fleischacker

“In an Intellectual Nature”

As we move toward the final installment that will complete the current inquiry that began over a month ago, we now turn to the last terms in the Thomistic definition of person: “In an intellectual/rational nature.”

St. Thomas identifies three types beings that are intellectual: God, Angels, and Human beings. God is the only being that is perfect in act, whose “essence” is Existence. Whose essence is an infinitely existing intellectual and rational Being. Angels on the other hand are created, and in their creation their forms are specifically unique. Each angel, in other words, is its own species. Human beings in contrast are intellectual beings that are on the “horizon of Being.” They start as mere potentialities in intelligence, and through the collaboration of the human race, they move toward the act or perfection of their minds and wills. Thus, they form one species, one race.

Still, what is meant by intelligence and rationality? Our understanding of these terms requires that we start with what is most known to us, which neither is God nor angels, but ourselves. We must start by understanding the nature of our own minds first, then analogically we can ascend to angels and to God. Of course, our goal here regards the human person, not the ascent to angels and God.

A small problem regularly arises however In discovering our own minds. Augustine was fond of pointing out in his Confessions, and a host of other writings, that many of us start in a distorted way in relationship to our minds. We tend to be “out of doors”, and understand all of reality in terms of images and pictures. We cannot fully be blamed for this, since we start living with our senses, and our knowledge starts in the senses. As Lonergan notes, in our earliest years of life we begin “in the world of immediacy.” And though our destiny is much different, we share with the animals this sense type knowledge of the world, and like the animals we transform that world with our motor responses.

However, as Augustine goes on to note, the very power by which we come to know even things in our senses is beyond the senses, and beyond the bodily. Our minds search for understanding, truth, and even wisdom. We can seek the good and the beautiful. We can search for the truly Wise and beautiful Beloved in whom we “move and live and have our being.” This very capacity to move toward the transcendentals and The Transcendent are not only the basis for our exploration of this world, but more fundamentally these relate us interiorly to God. Constitutive of our being is the fact that we are a “light of Being” as St. Augustine notes, or an Agent Intellect, to use the Aristotelian and Thomistic term. Our potentialities as intelligent knowers is realized through this light, as is our potentialities as seekers of truth and goodness.

To transpose this into Lonergan’s terms and relations, the human subject raises questions for understanding in an immediate relation to intelligibility, questions for reflection in an immediate relation to truth and being, and questions for deliberation in an immediately relation to the good. These questions are fundamentally an illumination of conscious existence, a kind of light of intelligibility, a light of truth, and a light of goodness. As lights these underpin, penetrate, and transcend any particular finite intelligibility, finite truth, and finite good. As underpinning, these lights start as a “known unknown” seeking answers. As penetrating, these lights illumine a known known. As transcendent, these same lights then become the source of further illuminations, further explorations, and hence they are the principle of transcendence. Ultimately, if one begins to question the very meaning and possibility of intelligibility and wonders if there is an unrestricted intelligibility that explains everything about everything; if one begins to wonder if there is an absolutely unconditioned Truth and Being that could provide the foundations for all contingent or conditional truths and beings; if one begins to wonder if there is an absolutely unconditioned Good that provides the basis for all finite goods, then two realizations open up. First, the strange and unrestricted potentiality of the human rational soul that cannot be happy without the realization of that potentiality. And secondly, that realization is not in the self, but in another, in the Unrestricted as Unrestricted, in God as God.

As a note, these short summaries of St. Thomas and Lonergan are merely pointers to their works up to which one needs to begin the magnificent climb if one really wants to grasp the fuller analogical meaning of an intellectual and rational nature. The human ascent to the metaphysical mind and its wisdom, and then beyond to the Transcendent is a profound if difficult and at times seemingly impossible journey. It cannot be recommended enough however.

So, where does this leave us with the question at hand? An intellectual and rational being is one in whom intelligibility, truth, and goodness are illumined, and ultimately theese are underpinned by love itself. This love binds intellectual, rational, and moral subjects to each other through the intelligible, the true, and the good. What this means for us, is that any being which has some intrinsic link to being intelligent, to being reasonable or rational, to being moral, to being in love is the key to understand the meaning of “in an intellectual nature.”

Why intrinsic? One could say that artifacts, for example, are linked to intelligence, rationality, and morality, and even love, but they are not intellectual/rational beings because these are not constituted by an interior relationship or an intrinsically intelligible relationship to intelligence, reason, responsibility and love. Only God, angels, and human beings fit the profile.

God is intrinsically linked as a total and unrestricted identity to intelligence reasonableness, goodness, and love because God is an unrestrictedly intelligent and intelligible Being, an unrestrictedly reasonable and true Being, an unrestrictedly responsible and good Being. “God is love.” Each of these are completely one with another as well. God’s intelligence and intelligibility is God’s reasonableness and truth is God’s responsibility and goodness is God’s love.

Angels are intrinsically linked to an intellectual nature in another way. They are not unrestricted. They are contingent and created. At the same time, their intellectual, rational, and moral beings are fully realized. They do not develop. Intrinsically, their realized intelligence, rationality, and moral existence constitute each angel in a unique way. In turn, this provides a way for distinguishing one from the other, hence each is a unique species unto itself. (Of course, I am using St. Thomas’ position on angels).

Finally, human beings are intrinsically linked to intellectual and rational life as well. But how? That is to be the topic of the next installment.

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