The Roman Contribution

The concept of the person to a considerable extent and in several respects developed out of reflection on the Incarnation and its implications. This, I suppose, is the main reason why, as it seems, there is no real counterpart in Islam of the Western philosophical concept of the person. [That there is no such counterpart, or, more precisely, that there is no term for such a counterpart in Arabic, was remarked in a conversation with me by Dr F. W. Zimmermann of St Cross College, Oxford; I am grateful to him for the observation but also have to rely on him for its veracity.]

The distinct conceptual development took place through a long and slow process in the West, through a series of conceptual and terminological twists and turns, an account of which cannot be given here. [See J. Daniélou, ‘La notion de personne chez les Pères grecs’, and P. Hadot, ‘De Tertullien à Boèce: Le développement de la notion de personne dans les controverses théologiques’, in I. Meyerson (ed.), Problèmes de la personne (1973), and M. Fuhrmann, ‘Persona, ein römischer Rollenbegriff’, in O. Marquard and K. Stierle (eds.), Identität (1979).] But in this development of the understanding of personhood before the application of the term to the human individual as a conscious, rational subject with free will, as it finally emerged through the differentiational experiences, it is important to stress the Roman contribution. This was a contribution both to the theoretical development of the concept and to the practical opening of the necessary space for a new flourishing of personhood.

The meaning of the mask and the dramatic role had come to be expanded to the social role and station of an individual, and thence the Latin term, persona, entered not only the definitions of the nature of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but also Roman law as signifying the legal subject. And in addition to this technical use in law, the characteristic application of natural law philosophy in Roman jurisprudence with its philosophical presuppositions regarding an objective, higher moral order, the idea of the rule of law, the principle of equal treatment of all citizens under the law, and the notion of limited government through its division in three branches and the limited terms of elected officials, were all quintessential, mature fruits and further applications of the differentiational experiences as passed on and elaborated in the wider culture of Hellenism as a distinctive civilizational legacy. They prefigured in antiquity the opening of the moral space of personhood which modernity, at its best, has sought to consolidate and expand.

With the decline of the Roman empire, however, it took a new historical power to withstand the ever looming threat of retrogression to cosmological closedness, to safeguard the space for the exercise of freedom that is essential to the realization of the practical implications of the metaxical existence of the person. The pull of the cosmological weight of historically existing societies remained strong in imperial Rome and beyond, and the Roman Church, with its claims of wordly power, was often seen to succumb to it, especially after the fall of Rome. In time, Protestant critics came to see it as representing a return to the Egyptian and Babylonian fleshpots: an organic, authoritatian, hierarchical order of the pagan, cosmological kind, immanentizing the transcendent through its collective ritualism, restoring polytheism in the cult of saints and pantheism in the symbolization of the cycles of nature in the liturgical calendar. More or less secular reactionaries, perceiving the problematic revolutionary potential of increasingly predominant interpretations of differentiation in its Christian form, would even approve of all of this.

Yet by and large, the Western Church, both by bringing its own differential teaching and by absorbing and transmitting some and in some respects even much of the mentioned legacy of pre-Christian Rome, indeed by institutionalizing its differentiential teaching with the help of this still at least partly differentiational legacy, did succeed in fulfilling the function of balancing and restraining to some extent both the Christian emperors and the monarchs of the rising nation states, who were all equally susceptible to yielding to the cosmological pull in a way that could have had as its consequence the loss of most of the values of differentiation.

The distinction and tension between Church and state, as well as the feudal order’s aspect of decentralization, were characteristic products of the de-divinization of the immanent sphere of power that followed from the experience of differentiation. And they are among the most important historical sources and preconditions of the social realization of the ordered yet free personal life or personal life of freedom. They opened a space for the practical, institutional recognition of the individual person as the main link between transcendent perfection and worldly imperfection, as the central locus of value, as the pivotal moral agent, and, as responsible for his spiritual destiny within a given, objective, dual order, the ultimate referent of the meaning of the events of history.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi