Is Man an Individual?

by Ian Bothur


A popular tendency of the modern mind is to regard the human person as a mere individual; as something like an atom of the human species, existing completely in itself and for itself. This tendency is not only the hallmark of the liberal tradition, but is implicit even in the most popular “alternative” political philosophies of today. Compounding this problematic notion is the now centuries-old influence of modern natural science, whose practitioners tend to pursue creation’s deepest mysteries by simple division.[1] These influences tend to seep even into Church documents. Gaudium et Spes, for example, defines the ‘common good’ as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”[2]

Community itself thus seems to be defined by the Church as a totality of individuals. However, as the pastoral constitution later qualifies, “the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.”[3] Here, the ultimate aim of political society is made quite clear; human perfection. The individualist tendency can thus be avoided if we understand man’s existence to be inseparable from the order of which he is a part. If man is a creature ordered to perfection, he is therefore ordered to society. And insofar as man is ordered to society, he is not an individual in the sense that he is “self-sufficient”; rather, the substantial unity which characterizes each man’s existence must exist within a unity of order by which he enjoys communion with others.

The Individual

Common use of the term ‘individual’ hides within it two distinct concepts: the first is the unity of a particular thing; the second is the thing as distinct from other things. With respect to unity, an individual is that which cannot be divided while remaining the same thing (i.e., the literal meaning of the term).[4] Of course, every physical thing is divisible, but once, say, a cow is divided in half, it would cease to be a cow and become two sides of beef. With respect to the thing’s distinction from other things, an individual is discrete and separate: this individual cow is distinct from the herd, because this cow is not any other cow.

What causes a thing’s unity is not what causes its separation from others, as Aristotle notes. Formal cause is responsible for unity. Thus, so long as the form is preserved, so also the individual: if my left hand were removed, it would cease to be my hand, but the remainder of my members would remain one body, because they are still united in my soul. We can therefore say that unity is a formal, immaterial quality of a thing. It is a thing’s material cause, however, which distinguishes one individual from another within the same species. Formal cause is enough to distinguish a cow from a horse, but when I say “this cow is not that cow,” I do so with regard to what the cow is made of. Two distinct cows contain two distinct collections of matter. That is, it is matter that allows forms that are the same in species to be multiplied in number. Just as wax allows the one form of a signet ring to be multiplied in many seals.

So, ‘individual’ refers in one sense to formal cause and in another sense to material cause. Individuality, then, allowing for both senses to be taken together, is a term by which we can know a thing’s essence, the composite of substantial form and determinate matter.[5] To adequately understand a thing at all is to intuit its essence, and therefore, when speaking of things as they really are, each sense of ‘individual’ must be understood with reference to the other.

The Person

In contrast to cows, each man is not merely an individual, but a person; ‘an individual substance of a rational nature.’ With this distinction, it would seem that human beings are individuals in one sense, and persons in another. It is on this distinction that Jacques Maritain famously posits his brand of “Thomistic personalism.” In his work, The Person and the Common Good, Maritain offers a summary of the distinction between ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’:

[S]uch are the two metaphysical aspects of the human being, individuality and personality, together with their proper ontological features. […] [W]e must emphasize that they are not two separate things. There is not in me one reality, called my individual, and another reality, called my person. One and the same reality is, in a certain sense an individual, and, in another sense, a person. Our whole being is an individual by reason of that in us which derives from matter, and a person by reason of that in us which derives from spirit.[6]

In speaking of individuality as the material aspect of man, Maritain must be speaking of ‘individual’ in only one of the senses described above; that by which a thing is distinct from others of the same species. Personality, however, describes an individual of a rational nature. Hence, the determining characteristic of personality is rationality. But man is rational by virtue of his soul, his formal cause, which is the unitive aspect of a thing’s individuality. So, perhaps Maritain means to use ‘personality’ to denote the unitive aspect of an individual and ‘individuality’ the distinguishing aspect.

It is clear, in any case, that he does not refer to ‘individuality’ in the unitive sense. In omitting this sense, he leaves only the material; and without reference to form, the purely material is unintelligible. Moreover, because all non-rational living things are individuals with a formal and material cause, they are not purely material, but neither are they persons.

The inherent problem with Maritain’s distinction is that it is made at too low of an order: the distinction between individual and person is a useful one, but man is more properly understood in his individuality as a discrete unity of substantial form and determinate matter. But rationality is a specific attribute of formal cause and hence proper to man as a species; it is not enough to distinguish between individual men. Therefore, individuality is not purely material, but involves even man’s rational nature.

Man is best understood in his personality as a being in a unique, rational relation to being. Thus while matter (whatever particular material his soul informs) is the principle or beginning of the distinction of one man from another, that beginning allows for spiritual differences. Although his intellect is specifically the same as the intellect of another man, his subjective apprehension of the world entails a unique, personal relation to the true and the good. Personality is therefore founded on individuality, but it goes beyond it. What distinguishes personality from individuality is not rationality per se, but the particular relation of a subject to the objects of his intellect and will.


Of course, things do not subsist as embodied essences or definitions, but as sharing in a certain nature, which entails not just the formal and material causes of a thing, but its final cause as well.[7] Simply put, a thing’s final cause is that for the sake of which it acts. In other words, it is the impetus of a thing to attain its end, which is its own perfection.[8] It is with respect to final cause that we understand the good; that is, whatever is good for a thing is good insofar as it is the end, the final cause.[9] It is also with respect to final cause that we can give an account of natural activity: whenever a thing acts, it acts for its final cause, to attain its own perfection.[10]

It is perhaps with respect to nature that order can most easily be understood. A thing that is perfect is also said to be well-ordered. Likewise, a thing that is lacking in some perfection is disordered. Things that are capable of activity are disordered if their actions do not pertain to their final cause. In one sense, then, to be disordered is to fail in being. To exist as a creature is to exist in order; to be absolutely disordered is not to exist at all.[11]

There are different kinds of order. Most generally we can say that order is a relation of before and after (priority and posteriority) of many to one beginning or principle. For example, the points on a line have relations of before and after to each other in comparison to the beginning point of the line: this is the order of the points on a line. Each of the four causes (matter, form, agent, and end), can be called a beginning or principle, and so there is an order corresponding to each of the causes.[12] The most important cause is the final cause, the cause of causes, and so the most important kind of order is the relations of before and after that many things or actions or parts have among themselves in comparison to their final cause.[13] To understand or to produce order is proper to intelligence, hence we can say that things are ordered by the activity of an intelligent principle that governs or moves them toward their end.[14] Ultimately, all things are governed by the Eternal Law of God, and it is in this Law that all creation is ordered.

 As activity entails final cause, and final cause implies order, all natural activity participates in the order of the Eternal Law. Man, however, acts according to his own free choice by virtue of his intellect and will. Thus, man’s participation in the Eternal Law is not diminished by his freedom, but is of a higher order than that of lower creatures, because in participating in the order of things to God, man first orders things to himself.[15] For example, when a cow eats grass, the grass is ordered to the good of the cow, because it is in the nature of cows to eat grass. But when a man eats a cow, it is not because it is in man’s nature to eat cows, but because it is in man’s nature to apprehend the good with his intellect and to decide how he might best pursue that good. In short, man can act by his own intellect as from a principle, rather than by the design of nature, and so governs lower things according to himself.

Of course, man’s intellect is not absolute, but is a participation in the Divine Intellect as its ultimate formal and final cause. Man’s mind does not render things intelligible; rather, things are intelligible insofar as they have a formal cause received from God. And as the knowledge of truth is the perfection of the intellect, and God is Truth, God Himself is the ultimate end of man’s intellect.


Order implies the unity of the many ordered. When a cow eats grass, the substantial form of the grass ceases to exist and its matter is incorporated into the cow. But as both cow and grass exist, one is ordered to the other (formally in one sense and individually in another), and from this relation arises a ‘unity of order.’ Thus, with respect to the same order, many things are said to be one.[16] This unity is not merely a semantic one, as one might call a pile of rocks “one.” Rather, a unity of order is necessary for the perfection of the individuals it contains. Our cow cannot exist without grass, and so long as it remains malnourished for want of it, it is imperfect.  Moreover, grass can exist well enough without cows, but not without a variety of other things. In fact, investigation into the order of any individual ultimately reveals the order of the whole universe in which it exists. Thus, St. Thomas calls the whole universe a unity of order.[17]

St. Thomas calls unity of order “the least of unities,”[18] but only with regard to the proximity of the principle by which things are made one. For example, an individual animal has unity by virtue of a formal principle, which is in a sense identical with the animal and cannot be separated from it. But the universe has unity insofar as all things are ordered for an extrinsic principle, which is God.[19] Hence, substantial unity is a “stronger” kind of unity than unity of order, but it does not follow from this comparison that unity of order is not a “real” unity. Rather, substantial unities necessarily participate by their nature in a unity of order.

Man finds his perfection in knowing and loving God, and therefore he is ordered to direct union with Him. It is precisely because man has an intellect and will that he is ordered to such a noble end. These same powers of his soul also enable man to order things lower than him to his own end (and what serves man is therefore elevated into a higher participation in the order of creation).

Persons are ordered to God, but as political animals by nature, they find their natural perfection in community with other persons. Man is ordered to participate in human society not only out of expedience; rather, he cannot attain his natural end without living in community. That man is a political animal follows from the ordering of social relations by his own reason; a reason that reaches its fullest power in the use of language, which is itself a socially acquired trait.[20] Furthermore, even a person who has attained perfection, who has no use for society, nevertheless delights in the goodness of others and is inclined to do good to them.[21]


We conclude that there are at least four ways in which every human being, as an individual, necessarily exists within a unity of order. First, every individual has his being as part of the order of the universe. In all his actions (even breathing), he is dependent upon other things for his existence. It is not his choosing that makes it so, but his very nature which determines what is good for him; what is necessary for the perfection of his being. Second, every individual human being is a person who bears a unique relation to other things by virtue of his rational nature. Each person actively participates in the order of creation by imposing order upon things to serve his own needs and ultimately to assist him in attaining his own perfection. Third, persons are, by virtue of their rational nature, capable of entering a unity of order with other persons. As man is a political animal by nature, society is necessary for man’s perfection not only as a prerequisite to meet his material needs, but as the proper operation of human perfection. And finally, the ultimate end of every individual is communion with God; man’s nature is part of this order, even though he is by nature incapable of attaining it.[22]

Therefore, Man is an individual part of a unity of order. Outside of this order, he is nothing.

[1] Natural science does regularly achieve many interesting findings with respect to the order of natural bodies; not just the very small subdivisions of matter.

[2] GS 26, §1.

[3] GS 74, §1.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 24 q. 1 a. 1 co.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia,trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968), 36 (IV.iii).

[6] Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, 3, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947). At

[7] Aristotle, Physics,199a12

[8] Perfection is synonymous with completion or the fulness of its own being.

[9] Aristotle, Physics, 195a 26

[10] Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate,22.i

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 52, a. 1

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 5, a. 3, c. I am grateful to Pater Edmund Waldstein for help with the general account of order.

[13] Thomas Aquinas, In Ethica I, lect. 1.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, 22.i

[15] The free participation of rational creatures in the Eternal Law is the Natural Law.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 39 a. 3 co.

[17] Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet VI, q. 11 co.

[18] Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 58 n. 5.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, q. 3 a. 16 ad 2.

[20] Aristotle, Politics, I.2, 1253a3-17

[21] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 4, a. 8

[22] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 5, a. 5 ad 1; Ia-IIae, q.3 a.8

Header Image: Standing Figures, by George Tooker.