Five Definitions of Man

Five Definitions of Man

Am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typho, or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny? Socrates, Phaedo

I have long wondered why Aristotle never really defined man, and why no one seems to have noticed. At our institution, freshmen read Porphyry before anything of Aristotle, and thereafter wittingly or unwittingly follow St. Thomas’s habit of using “rational animal” as the preeminent example of a definition. (That St. Thomas seems to inform this practice, though they have not read him, is suggested through how quickly Porphyry’s actual definition, “rational and mortal animal”, is forgotten.) The strength of the practice is seen in the seemingly total unawareness that Aristotle never uses the expression in his logical works we read, preferring “two-footed featherless animal” when he needs a non-mathematical definition. In fact, suspecting a wild goose chase but not certain because I have not read all of his extant works, I have challenged students and fellow faculty members to find anywhere that Aristotle uses the expression. So far the goose remains as elusive as the loon.

Thanks to working with a very diligent, studious and inquiring senior a few years ago, I have come to the conclusion that, if he ever considered it, Aristotle likely never used the expression in a logical work because it would lead his readers and students to think that the magical expression solved the greatest mystery in the sub-lunar universe, “What is man?” My student’s thesis work was driven by her strong intuition that only God’s revealed words have offered the best definition of man, “Let us make man to our Image and Likeness.” In the course of our discussions and re-readings of the Posterior Analytics, I have come to think that Aristotelean/Thomistic principles suggest five definitions of man, divided according to the different kinds of study that might think about man. Without going into too much argumentation, I offer them for consideration and discussion.

Logical – “Rational Animal” – Logic offers ways to define all things based on our common conceptions of them, apart from any specialized inquiry. This begins with categorization and proceeds through difference. With regard to substances, commonly accepted differences for each genus should be determined, and all those that apply to a particular being are its definition, when arranged according to priority and posteriority. Porphyry follows this when he determines that the differences of animals are rational/irrational, mortal/immortal. Since we no longer believe in the gods and their horses, we should only use the one division.

Political – “Political Animal Capable of Speech to Express the Useful and Unuseful (and consequently the Just and Unjust”) – In Politics I.1, Aristotle comes as close as he ever does to offering a formal definition of man (as in Ethics I.12 he comes as close as he ever does to the expression “rational animal”). This follows the logical pattern in identifying a genus (Political Animal includes herd and colonial animals, as cattle and bees) and a difference, adapting the pattern to the concern of the kind of knowledge he is seeking, identifying the whole of which man is a part, and suggesting something of his preeminent activity and final cause (speaking about the just, for the sake of the whole, potentially eternal city). Strikingly, Aristotle has already concluded near the end of the Ethics that the political life, while offering properly human happiness, is not a life of the individual as such, nor does it attain the highest happiness of which the individual is capable.

Natural – “Intelligent soul that gives life to a body capable of the imaginations suitable for thought.” The natural philosopher seeks the material and formal principles of each being and defines accordingly. Aristotle’s study of soul reveals that the highest soul has the power of intelligence and needs a body that makes understanding possible. Strikingly, Aristotle shows that the activity and the existence of the intellectual soul transcends the body which it informs.

Metaphysical – “A Purely Potential Intelligence that Must Share its Existence with a Body” – This is suggested by St. Thomas’s On Being and Essence, and follows naturally from the considerations found in the Political and Natural studies. Considered with respect to all being, man is not best seen as a composition of body and soul that is part of a temporal community, but against the backdrop of all the possibilities of intelligent (angelic) existence, whose differences are grasped according to degree of act and possibility in their existence. Our intellect is the lowest possible, beginning being with no actual understanding at all, and needing a body substantially united to it in order to come to know.

Theological – “A Creature Made by God to His Image and Likeness as the Culmination of His Material Creation” – This definition includes formal, material, efficient and final causes.


About Andrew Seeley

With over 30 years of immersion in a Great Books based, fully integrated curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College in California, I enjoy sharing the fruits of the discussions I have with students, colleagues and friends about authors and ideas. As the Director of Advanced Formation for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and a founding member of the Justin Martyr Fellows, I work to share my good fortune with Catholic educators and students around the country. As a lover of God, Church, family, America, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, I like to write about them in particular ways.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Reflections on the Books, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s