What’s a Person?

Ever since the US Supreme Court ruled in “Citizens United…” that corporations are “persons” who must be accorded all the rights of free speech, non-corporate persons like myself have been expressing their incredulity at what seems to be a bizarre claim. The flood of corporate money now corrupting our politics makes the matter more than theoretical.

Since I have been writing about the history and meaning of the concept of “person” since 1968, I thought I’d try to make a few comments for the little public of this journal.

“Person” goes back to the Latin “persona,” the word for the mask that was worn in public dramas. (Hence, some feel that it comes from “per-sonare,” to “sound through” in order to amplify the voice. Perhaps.) Other scholars claim that it goes back to the Etruscan (just north of Rome) “Phersu,” who seems to be an underground harlequin-like figure dressed in black and white who led the dead into the afterlife.

Thus, to be “phersu” meant to stand at the boundary between the known and unknown world, something that would relate to the real/unreal boundary between everyday life and drama.

In any case, it was also used to talk about those who had speech not only in the world of drama but also in the law. To have a “person” was to have the right to participate in legal proceedings as well as public life generally, constricted as it was in Roman times. Mainly, “person-hood” was confined to male heads of households.

It was Tertullian (2d century) who used it to apply to God’s presence in the world through the “persona” of Christ and the Holy Spirit. When it came time to develop the Trinitarian idea in the Latin church of the West, theologians came to speak of God being in three “persons.” (Believe me, you don’t want to hear about the fights between the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking understandings of these terms!) In this way, people could understand how God was participating in the drama of salvation that is human history.

Thus, as religion developed in the West it was God who had “person-ality.” So did the church, as the Body of Christ, which is the “second person” of the Trinity. As Christ’s “body,” the Church was also immortal, unlike the associations of human beings. It was a “mystical body” that was a bridge to life eternal.

In this way, by the thirteenth century, the Church brought into being the idea that there could be a seemingly human institution that could transcend the mortality of the individuals composing it.

At this point an entity that is seen as a “person” is now seen as a vital center of creative presence in the public drama of world history, that is, having divine origin. (Incidentally, this is where our word “parson” comes from.)

Between the sixteenth and twentieth century this concept of “person” then takes two roads. In the thought of English radical reformers, the “person-hood” of Christ is transmitted to believers through Baptism. They gain the right to appear in public as equals with a conscience. These conscientious individuals then form churches, which are associations of individual believers bound in covenant. This is the stream that feeds into American thought about freedom of conscience and association.

However, the idea of corporate personhood as found in the Roman Church eventually flows into nineteenth- and twentieth-century European theories that all of the institutions by which God orders our life participate in this church-inspired corporate personhood. (Not to be too troubling, but this is the intellectual line of Italian Fascist theories.)

In both cases, however, people were able to grant to human associations certain attributes of a fictional personhood (a “persona ficta”) so they could sue and be sued in court – the ancient Roman concept. However, they weren’t recognized as full, incarnate “persons” in the theologically-inspired sense.

What we have in the Supreme Court’s ruling is a slip from the idea of individuals as the bearers of “person-hood” to the claim that corporations have all the marks of “personhood.” Corporations have shifted from being “personae fictae” to being individual citizens.

This claim, more familiar to the European corporatist view, runs directly against the notion of individual personhood engrained in the English and American tradition that underlies our First Amendment. Does this mean it will not hold? I hope so. It’s killing our republic.

2 thoughts on “What’s a Person?”

  1. I agree with your opinion of the supreme court’s decision. It makes our supreme court appear almost as foolish as the current politicians running for the republican presidential office.
    Also, thanks for the history lesson. I appreciate the background information.

  2. I especially appreciate your historical tours of key concepts like “person.” Your review of “covenant” likewise enabled me to shake my head loose from current media definitions of law. As devoted as I might be to the concept of personhood applied to individuals, the stretch applying to corporations certainly seems extreme.

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