The Nature of Person:

A Comparative Analysis of the Thomist and Vedantic Perspectives on the Ontology of Self

By Frank Morales – University of Wisconsin-Madison

There are many different questions and problems with which the enterprise of philosophy concerns itself. These realms of inquiry have included attempts to ascertain the nature of reality, the existence of God, and the dictums and bounds of ethics. For Socrates, the starting point of all philosophical inquiry begins with the imperative to “know thyself”. For without knowing the nature of ourselves, as persons, how, so the argument goes, can we know anything? There are two approaches to uncovering the nature of person that have been taken in the history of both Western and Asian philosophy. One is an exploration of person in the very general sense of personhood per se; the other is a purely individual approach – “Who am I as a person?”. In the following, I will concentrate on the former approach in the form of a comparative analysis of two very different schools of thought: Thomism1 and Vedanta. I have chosen these two specific schools for two important reasons. 1) Both are recognized as systems which have been immensely influential both historically as well as in contemporary times2. 2) Yet, despite this fact, the dissimilarities between them are extremely pronounced, in some areas even antithetical. One is European, the other Asian. Thomism is grounded in an empiricism girded by faith, whereas Vedanta presupposes that truth can only be known via non-mediated intuitive perception. The goal of this paper is to discern the veridicality of the truth claims of each school on the subject of the nature of self.

I will begin with a brief description of the Thomist position. One of the most important and influential Christian philosophers in history was Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas’s genius lay in his ability to rationally explain various principles of the Christian world-view in a way that was logically rigorous, intellectually satisfying, yet not contradictory to the strictures of Christian faith. Aquinas’s aim was to show how, even though philosophy and theology were separate fields of knowledge, still the truths of revelation could be systematized with the help of reason, thus creating a science of theology. In order to accomplish this task, Aquinas depended quite heavily upon the general philosophical assumptions – especially the metaphysics – of Aristotle3.

Since Aquinas based so much of his own philosophical outlook on Aristotle’s ideas, it would thus be wise to first briefly examine some of those elements of Aristotle’s metaphysics which were most influential on Aquinas. According to Aristotle, every existent object to be found in this world, including human beings, is composed of two basic elements: 1) Substance, that which supports whatever qualities are contained in the object, and 2) Accidents, or those qualities and perfections which temporarily adhere to substances. As Leo Sweeney defines these two elements, “Substance is that by which a material thing specifically and generically remains what it is and yet receives various perfections. An accident is that by which the thing, while remaining specifically and generically what it is, is actually modified through a new individual perfection” (Sweeney, p. 66). Substance is that part of the individual that does not change, which is the field of stability upon which temporary perfections come and go. Substance is that component that makes the individual existent what it is, and without which the existent would cease to be. Accidental perfections, on the other hand, add nothing to the substantial essence of what an existent is. Accidental perfections – for example, a person’s hair color, weight or shape – may change, but they add nothing to what the person is in her deepest substantial essence. Substantial change, on the other hand, only comes about by the complete destruction of the existent. Thus for Aristotle (as for Aquinas), a human person is a composite of both stability and change.

Aristotle’s analysis of the individual person involves more, however. For he also divides substance into two distinct factors. First there is matter, which is the building material of which the existent is composed. Second is the form of an object. Form is the structure, the plan, which is responsible for organizing matter into a specified existent. An example of the relationship between matter and form can be seen in a sculpture. The marble of which the statue is composed is the material element of the statue. What makes the marble found in the statue different from the matter found in the pre-existent marble block is the imposition of form – a design, a pattern – onto the marble. For Aristotle, the human is a composite, a unity, of both matter and form. Moreover, soul, the animating force in the body, is nothing more than the form of the body. On Aristotle’s account, the essence of the human person and the human body are inseparable. Consequently, the soul does not survive the death of the body. Aquinas will naturally disagree with Aristotle on the question of the continuity of the soul after death. Moreover, though Aquinas would, over 1400 years after “the Philosopher’s” death, accept most of what Aristotle taught about the human person, he will include a new component not entertained by Aristotle: existence itself.

According to Aquinas, the essence of the human person is nothing less than an intrinsic unity composed of substance, accidents and existence. In order to fully understand Aquinas’s views of the concept of personhood, it is important to understand the crucial nature of the concept of unity. That evidence of both stability and change simultaneously exist in the individual shows that the individual is composed of diverse elements. The individual existent is a unity, then, of whole and parts. The nature of this unity, however, is of a specific and special kind, for the existent is not just the parts and not just the whole, but both. “In the case of man”, explains Etienne Gilson, one of the twentieth century’s leading Thomistic philosophers, “soul and body enter the constitution of his essence, so much so that, as is often said, man is neither his soul nor his body but the unity of both” (Gilson, p. 232). The human person is, for Thomas Aquinas, both body and soul.

To better comprehend the nature of this unity, it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of unity. In the first, accidental unity, there is only an extrinsic connection between part and whole. The individual member of a team, for example, could easily leave the team and be replaced without any essential damage being done to the team as a whole. This is not the kind of unity Aquinas says is exhibited in the human person. Rather, it is an intrinsic unity. In this kind of relationship, the part has a deep entitative dependency on the whole. The part has no function to fulfill divorced of its connection with the whole. In the human person (or any living unity, for that matter), the parts cooperate with the whole towards those goals which are intrinsic to them both. There is a symbiotic, intrinsic dependence of the part upon the whole and of the whole upon the part which is the constitutional basis of their unity. Thus, the human person, for Aquinas – as for Aristotle – is a single entity, and intrinsic unity of substance and accident, matter and form, body and soul.

One further interesting conclusion that Aquinas came to was that existence itself is a distinct component of the individual person and that it was separate from that which constituted a person’s essence4. Aquinas realized that there is a difference between the fact that a thing is and the fact of what a thing is. For example, an imagined hundred-dollar bill is something the nature of which can be cognitively understood, but it is valueless in comparison to an existing hundred-dollar bill. Whereas the imagined money is merely possible, being an abstract notion, the existing bill is actual. Consequently, it is real, of value and worth. Existence is the factor which is responsible for making a thing real. This being the case, existence is intrinsic to individual existing persons. The existent’s value and perfection are predicated upon existence; thus for Aquinas, what makes a thing real and of value is that it exists. To be real is to exist. Unlike Aristotle, Aquinas ascribes importance to an existent in that it is, not merely by what it is.

Like Aristotle, however, Aquinas was convinced that the human person consisted of a composite unity of body and soul. But, whereas Aristotle felt that the soul’s only function was to produce the actualization of matter, and that it did not survive the death of the body, Aquinas saw the soul as being both spiritual and everlasting. Despite this belief in the continuity of the person after death, however, Aquinas felt that the soul after death must be an incomplete person. For, though he was a philosopher by vocation, Aquinas was a Christian by faith. And the resurrection of the body was a central dogma of the church. The philosophical dilemma which Aquinas faced is summed up by Gilson in the following way:

“On the one hand, a theologian had to conceive men as endowed with a personal immortal soul, so as to ensure the possibility of his future beatitude. On the other hand, the Christian belief in the resurrection made it necessary for the same theologians to attribute to human nature as a whole, and not only to the human soul, a substantial unity of its own.”

(Gilson, p. 222)

On the Christian theological account, then, it was a theological necessity for the soul to be reunited with the body at the resurrection for the human person to be complete again.

In order to reconcile the demands of doctrine with the imperatives of reason, Aquinas taught that the human person did not consisted of soul alone. It is not that we are the soul, but that we happen to have a soul. For Aquinas, the soul is substantial form, that which modifies prime matter in such a way as to produce the limiting bounds of individuation. It is the actuating perfection that acts upon the pure receptive potency of prime matter. The human person is nothing less – and nothing more – than the actually existing concretized form of prime matter and substantial form, body and soul entitatively one, each incomplete without the other and created in the image of God. As we will see, the Vedanta school of philosophy has a radically different position on the relation between body and soul.

In traditional South Asian philosophy, subjective existential reality is firmly demarcated into a hierarchical order. Unlike the Thomist philosophers, the Hindu philosophers of the Vedanta school, make a very clear distinction between a person’s true self and a person’s apparent “self”. The various components of a human being are comprised of body (deha), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), ego (ahamkara) and consciousness, or soul (atman).5 Of these various aspects of the human being, it is without doubt atman which takes precedence. Atman is considered to be ontologically anterior and qualitatively superior to every other aspect of the human person, including – in a descending order of qualified dependence – ego, intellect, mind and body. Of these, logic tells us that only atman is eternal, being the ultimate identity of each living being. Several of the attributes of this true self known as atman are sat, chit and ananda, or unending being, consciousness and bliss, respectively. On the other hand, whereas the material body is thought to be composed of a combination of five gross material elements,6 mind and intellect are also considered to be material in nature as well, but of a “subtler” variety of matter. Indeed, unlike in the Western world, manas(mind)and buddhi(intellect)are considered to be material elements themselves.

Mind, for Hindu philosophy, is considered to be the sixth sense. Mind is the seat of imagination, desire and the subconscious storehouse of past experiences which give rise to memory. Like the five corporeal senses, the mind can be either a person’s greatest ally, or a person’s worst nemesis. The determining factor creating one or the other situation lies in the depth of control that an individual has over this powerful instrument. With one’s mind under the full control of one’s higher reasoning faculties, which in turn must be under the direct guidance of atman, one can achieve the self-realization and personal liberation (moksha) which is the goal of the Vedantic school. But a mind not in the subjugation of its possessor can lead to the delusion (maya) of misidentifying the true, eternal self with the body, which, according to the Vedantic world view, is merely illusory and temporary.

Intellect (buddhi), on the other hand, is considered to be the higher faculty which processes, categorizes and makes decisions about the information presented to it by both the physical senses and mind. Buddhi is the cognitive organizing dimension of the human being which serves as the seat of reason. It is buddhi which gives direction, purpose and focus to the mind. It is the referee of all the analytic functioning, logic and philosophic speculation that takes place in the playground of the mind. Despite being the wielder of all of these powerful cognitive tools, however, buddhi is still considered by all Vedantic philosophers to be subordinate to the atman, which is by its very ontological constitution transmaterial.

The dependent hierarchy of the various components responsible for what we know as a human person can be further illustrated in its entirety and by the following chart:7

1. Spiritual Component

(Individual consciousness at its most basic)

2.Subtle Material Components

(Ego, the individual sense of distinctness arising from identification with the body)

(Intellect, cognitive organizing principle)

(Mind, sixth sense; repository of mental activity)

3. Gross Material Components

(material body, which is composed of the following)

Kham Vayu Anala Apas Bhumi
(Ether) (Air) (Fire) (Water) (Earth)

Thus for the Vedantist the various components of which the human person is composed exists in a descending order of these elements. Manas takes precedence over the body, due to both qualitative superiority as well as the mind’s ability to perform functions that are considered complex beyond the body’s capabilities. Above manas there is buddhi, without whose higher cognitive organizational abilities the mind would be an uncontrolled menagerie of random memories, fantasy and impulses. Ahamkara is the principle which gives the individual human being an integrated sense of purpose and identity. It is the illusory “I” for which every other element functions. Finally, atman, pure, eternal consciousness itself, is considered to be fountainhead of all these various modes of material energy (prakriti). Having thus thoroughly analyzed the various aspects of the human person, one of the primary goals of the Vedanta school is knowing the intrinsic and unadulterated nature of the self.

According to the Brahma-sutras, the primary textual authority in the Vedanta tradition, the atman possesses several essential intrinsic qualities. Among these are nitya, or eternality, jnana, or knowledge and anu or finiteness. As explained, the body of the individual is temporal. It is not eternal by nature. Since the body is composed of matter, it necessarily shares in all of the qualities of matter. Everything that is empirically perceivable, that is, everything that we can see, hear, touch or trip over, is composed of material substance (prakriti). By its very ontological constitution, all that is material – including our very bodies – is temporary. All material things are in a constant state of flux, a state of perpetual becoming. They come into being, remain for some time, and eventually are resolved in a state of dissolution. The material body of the eternal, imperishable atman undergoes birth in a material body, a brief state of existence in that body, and finally witnesses the death of the body.

While a human being may experience a life-span of as much as one hundred years, when seen in the context of infinity, this period of time is no longer than the blink of an eye. Consequently, the corporeal body is rendered almost nonexistent in comparison to the eternal self, which is ever-existent. This is confirmed by the great Indian philosopher, Shankara (2nd century B.C.E.), in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita:

“The perishables are things which have an end or anta. For instance, the idea of reality, associated with things like a mirage, snaps when tested by means of right cognition. This is its ‘end’. Likewise, these bodies of the eternal and indeterminable self are as perishable as the bodies seen in a dream or projected by a magician.”

(Shankara, 1983)

The material body, being of a temporal and imperfect nature, is radically different from the true self, that self for which the body is just a temporary vehicle.

The self, according to the Brahma-sutras, is qualitatively superior to the body, being eternal, indestructible and immeasurable8. Krishna also states this clearly in the Bhagavad Gita when he says:

“Know that which pervades the entire body to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul. Only the body of the indestructible, immeasurable and eternal living being is subject to destruction…”

(2: 17 – 18)

The individual soul, the autonomous unit of consciousness, that alone is the true self. The atman, when contrasted with the body, is sat, or that which cannot but exist unceasingly.

In addition to being eternal, the true self of the human person, according to Vedanta, is jnatrtva, or of the nature of knowledge9. Ramanuja, India’s greatest Vedanta philosopher, makes a very clear distinction between the two senses in which jnatrtva can be understood in respect to the atman. First there is jnana, or knowledge, itself, which is the external object of knowing. Secondly, there is jnatr, or the knowing subject, the person. Atman is both composed of knowledge, as well as the one who knows.

Finally, the self is said to be anu, or finite in nature. The nature of this finiteness can be understood in several ways. First, the soul is believed by Vedantists to be finite in its literal size. The soul is atomic in size. In order to convey this notion, it is even said that the measurement of the soul is 1/10,000th the size of the tip of a hair10. Secondly, the term “finiteness” is used by the Vedantists to convey the complete dependence of the individual self upon the mercy and grace of the supreme lord, Brahman, or God. Additionally, the self is also said to lie geographically situated within the heart region (hrdi hy esha atma, Prashna Upanisad) and to pervade the body via its attribute of consciousness11.

Thus the Vedantic concept of person is one in which the soul is not merely an aspect, nor even merely a significant component, of the person, but actually is the person. All other aspects of the human being – ego, intellect, mind, body, etc. – are only secondary and ontologically dependent aspects of the person. Unlike the soul, these secondary aspects are temporary and are the by-product of the true self’s illusion12.

The Thomist and the Vedantist positions on the nature of person having thus been briefly described, I will now offer an argument for why the Thomist view is not as logically tenable as the Vedantist account. While seeming to uphold the significance of the soul as being the individual’s connection with God, the Thomist position makes several errors in its evaluation of the nature of the soul. Aquinas has subordinated the intrinsic spiritual nature of the person to the abstract concept of “man”. “Man”, explains Gilson, “not the human soul, is the substance; man, not the soul, provides a distinct object for the creative power of God” (pp. 233-234). It is the composite reality of man, an existent composed of a temporal material body and an eternal spirit soul, that is the real person in Aquinas’s system.

The problem that this view creates is that it directly contradicts Aquinas’s account of the very reason for the soul’s immortality. According to Aquinas, the soul is immortal because it is immaterial, intellectual and non-composite in nature. Anything that is comprised of parts is necessarily prone to corruption. Since the soul is simple, monadic, and not a composite whole comprised of lessor parts, the soul is not subject to decay. Again, on Gilson’s account of the Thomist position, it is “…man, not the human soul…” that is the ultimate substance of importance in the human personal construct. The problem with this claim is that “man” is itself a composite of soul and body, substance and form, according to Aquinas. “Man” is therefore a composite. Anything that is a composite, however, cannot be immortal, since it is then prone to decay13. Therefore, man cannot be immortal.

To take the problem a few steps further, Aquinas holds that the soul is immortal. This due to its non-composite nature. If the soul is immortal due to its not being composite, and the concept of man (the composite entity of an individual soul united with a physical body for a certain duration of time) cannot be eternal due to its composite nature, then the ultimate conclusion that this leads us to is the following. The soul is immortal; the body, due to being subject to the enervating nature of matter, is temporary. This natural and logical conclusion to Aquinas’ argument is – however inadvertent its original intent – seemingly non-different from the Vedantic position on the nature of person. Vedanta too teaches that the very basis of what we call “man”, or the human person, is the soul, the eternal true self, and that the present physical encasement of this true self is merely a temporary accident. Thus the conclusions of Vedanta vis-à-vis the nature of person are upheld by the very contradictions inherent in the Thomistic argument.

Overall, it can be said that both the Thomists and the Vedantists present compelling and systematic views of the nature of person. Though they are in agreement in their generally theistic outlook, the two schools are diametrically opposed when it comes to the question of the relationship between the soul and the body – Thomism upholding a unity of the two, Vedanta seeing the soul as ultimately independent from the temporary body. When the Thomist claims are examined, however, they are shown to naturally collapse into the Vedantic position from the weight of their own inherentr contradictions.


1. “In general”, states Leo Sweeney, a contemporary Thomist philosopher, “a Thomist philosopher is one who finds that the evidence adduced by Thomas [Aquinas] for his stand on existence and other matters is still genuine and valid, and who then elaborates the same conclusions.” (Sweeney, p. 81).

2. Speaking on the contemporary importance of Thomas Aquinas’s school of thought, Arthur Hyman has said, “Thomism thus has the status of a kind of official doctrine in modern times…” (Hymen, p. 503).

3. Indeed, Aquinas’s admiration for Aristotle was so profound that in his many works Aquinas refers to Aristotle merely by the honorific title “The Philosopher”.

4. This was a concept that was not invented by Aquinas, but borrowed from earlier philosophers. As Hyman tells us, “Aquinas took up the distinction between essence and existence already employed by the Muslims and used it to deepen Aristotle’s conception” (Hyman, p. 505).

5. In modern Western philosophy, there are two basic schools of thought on the subject of the compositional nature of the human being. The dualist Cartesian paradigm considers rational beings to be composed of two distinct elements: mind and body (respectively, rens cogitans and res extensa in DesCartes’ terminology). For the Materialist, on the other hand, there is body only.

6. These are fire, water, earth, air, and ether. While very similar to both the ancient Greek and Chinese attempts at an early elemental table, the idea of these five elements clearly has its origins in Samkhya philosophy.

7. This list is specifically taken from the Bhagavad-Gita (7: 4), which, as one member of the Prasthanatraya, or three textual sources accepted as foundational to Vedanta philosophy, is considered an authoritative account of these components. In its entirety, Krishna states in this shloka: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and ego; these eight are my separated material energies” (my translation).

8. “Individual self has no origin; because the Upanisads do not mention this, because its eternality is known from them…” II.3.17.

9. “The soul is a cognizer…” (Brahma-sutras, II.3.18).

10. This claim is originally found in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

11. The Brahma-sutras conveys this idea in the following way, avirodhah candanavat, “(The soul’s atomicity and the spread of its consciousness over the body involve) no contradiction, just as in the case of a drop of sandal wood paste” (II.3.23). It is believed in South Asia that sandal wood paste has very cooling properties, and if even a drop is placed on one part of a person’s skin, the cooling effect is felt throughout the person’s body. In the same way, though situated in one geographic location, the effect of the soul in the form of consciousness is felt throughout the body.

12. Further elaborating on this idea, in his commentary on the Brahma-sutras, Ramanuja wrote the following: “…the ‘I’ constitutes the essential nature of the inward Self…such consciousness of the ‘I’ therefore is not as is sublated by anything else has the Self as its object; while on the other hand, such consciousness of the ‘I’ as has the body for its object is mere nescience” (Thibaut translation, p. 72).

13. In his famous Summa Theologica, Aquinas has said, “…matter acquires actually being according as it acquires form; while it is corrupted so far as the form is separated from it”. (Question LXXV)

Copyright 1999, Frank Morales