No poem or painting could ever capture the fullness of what it means to be the variable, entangled, conscious, powerful, powerless, material, transcendent being that is a human. We might be tempted to leave the project of capturing the essence of human nature to the artist in a desperate gesture of resignation, of quitting. Man is a beast. Man is spirit. Man is both. Man is neither. One might cry out with Pascal on his metaphorical desert island considering, “…man left to himself with no light, as though in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror…” 1. Perhaps such a task ought to be left to the mystic or the artist. Rather than directly aspiring to know human nature, we might be better served to understand an intelligible pattern of human personhood. But, if we can proceed with a humble glance into the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Aristotle, and Aquinas a puzzling question can be even more enlightening than any specific answer. The question is, how can we say that we think about ourselves? Even further, what could it mean to have the odd ability to define ourselves to ourselves?

Kierkegaard for all his popularity is often left out of the common discourse on human nature as a sort of brooding figure. It is hard not to think about him in that way when one of his major concepts as a Christian existentialist is what he calls Despair. He also might be considered a peculiar place to look for a conception of human nature since if you were to look through all his volumes, it is unlikely that you would find a definitive ontology (what a thing is) of a human person. Even so, as some have tried to articulate like Dr. David Calhoun of Gonzaga University, beneath the maze of words that Kierkegaard has left for us it is possible that they imply a theory of human nature much like the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception. In one of his most famous works, The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard does something we might call phenomenal psychology. In short, he lays out a theory about human psychology according to their subjective experience of the world or their phenomenology. He expresses not only how the world seems to humans, but also how a human seems to him or herself. The advantage of such an approach to human life, our decisions, our experience, is that it does not sidestep a universal fact that no matter how much we try to understand ourselves or the world around us we are always going to “look through our own eyes”. We cannot avoid looking through the lens of our own phenomenal experience. Try to avoid it, dear reader. I dare you. You will find it is not so easy. Now add the problem of how we define ourselves on top of that. How do you define yourself? We could even question whether we can define ourselves, but that is too much for right now.

But before we write off Søren Kierkegaard as trippy nonsense, we can at least ask a quick question: what do we find when we look at Kierkegaard’s phenomenal psychology of the human self? Kierkegaard explains in his work The Sickness Unto Death that man can choose what he will be insofar as he can self-reflect. This is his recognition of man’s unique ability to freely define himself to himself, a key feature of existentialist formulations as he states in the opening passage of The Sickness Unto Death, “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in a the relation” 2. Did that perplexing description dissuade you from reading on? If it did, you wouldn’t be alone among scholars or poor students like yours truly. Yet with another look, we can start to see the implicit Aristotelian patterns peak through his theory when he recognizes the profound problem of defining oneself since, “In the relation between the two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation”3. Since man is a mixture of the “psychical” (here read soul or spirit as the intelligible form of the body) and the “physical” (matter, body, “stuff”), he is a problematic bifurcation in his experience when he defines himself to himself inappropriately. In this psychological analysis, there is mounting evidence that this “relation between the psychical and the physical” is the basis of Kierkegaard’s phenomenological stance and we have a suspiciously Aristotelian formulation4.

An Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of the human person does not see human nature as a combination of different substances, i.e., the soul “inhabits” a body. Although this might be an acceptable way of colloquially discussing human nature, it implies a certain dualism. How would something immaterial like the soul “touch” the body? How does it do things like “command” the hand to pick up a glass of water? There is a way of avoiding this dualism.

For Aristotle and Thomas alike, the soul is the form of the body. It is the pattern or structure of the material “stuff”. Of the soul and in contradistinction to some kind of dual substance, Aristotle says “It must be the case that the soul is the substance as the form of a natural body which potentially has life, and since this substance is actuality, the soul will be the actuality of such a body”, and later, “the soul is the first actuality of a natural body which has life potentially. Whatever has organs will be a body of this kind” 5. And further, to highlight that the soul is distinct from the body, but of a composite whole says “That is why there is no need to inquire whether the soul and the body are one, any more than the wax and the shape are one” 6. This is commonly referred to as hylomorphism applied to a human being. The form is not a different substance from the body, but rather they entail two conceptual distinctions for the reader. First, the soul and body represent two ways of observing the same human. We can speak about the arm or the leg or the cells of the body. We can also speak about the reason or the mindset or the character of the person’s soul. Both ways of describing are referring to the same composite, albeit in different ways. Secondly, even when insisting that the human person is a composite, one can view the different aspects of the soul or body as levels of power and potential. The matter of a human body is capable of many powers because it is structured in a certain way. It has the possibility or potential to do many actions like eat or drink or heal itself, and without a body, the soul lacks the capacity for activity in the sensible world. The soul as the form of the body represents the capacities to willfully attend, to reason, to desire, etc. It has powers and potentials of its own to grow in knowledge or virtue or be deprived by vice and ignorance. Here, there is a fractal pattern of the whole human person where there is a dynamic play between power and potential, between act and the possibility of acting. Concurrently in Kierkegaard, the examination rests at the level of psychological phenomena. It is the examination of the play between the powers and potentials of the psyche that is a “relationship”. It is a whole. Yet, this whole is born out of the tension between what the psyche is and what it could be, of power and potential. Such an approach from a psychological perspective can only be achieved if it rests in a similar structure from an ontological perspective; a perspective that must acknowledge a transcendent ability to do the work of reasoning and self-reflection. Hence, we might say that Kierkegaard needs Aristotle and Aquinas for his theory to be cohesive. But, more modestly, Kierkegaard is expressing a basic pattern of human experience.

In concurrence with Plato, Kierkegaard is revealing the problem between the material aspect of man and the immaterial aspect. He differs from Plato by revealing this pattern as present in the human psyche. Yet, in asserting that the project of the bifurcated self is a synthesis or coming together for “wholeness”, he is consistent with the unified body and soul as conceived by Aristotle and also with the human’s phenomenal experience of a unified self. The basic pattern is that actuality and potentiality have a meeting place in the human that is the self. The psychology that Kierkegaard describes depends on an ontology that accounts for a rational, self-transcending creature. It would be fair to say that symbolically, the structure of actuality and potentiality in the phenomenal psychology of Kierkegaard is intimately related to the symbolic pattern of the Aristotelian relationship between form and matter, between the actual and the potential. And Kierkegaard Himself leaves implications to this effect when he said, “Every human being is a psychical-physical synthesis intended to be spirit; this is the building, but he prefers to live in the basement, that is, in sensate categories. Moreover, he not only prefers to live in the basement—no, he loves it so much that he is indignant if anyone suggests that he move to the superb upper floor that stands vacant and at his disposal”7.

Arising out of the Christian understanding of human fallenness, the self-relation is fundamentally in Despair, which Kierkegaard coins as unease upon self-reflection at the discrepancy between the actuality of what man is and the potential of what he might become 8. Despair can mean not truly trying to be oneself, but it also means trying and not being able to achieve what one ought to be 9. The freedom man possesses to define himself is at the same time his source of despair. It is both a great advantage and a great problem. Although it sounds bleak, this is perhaps the most relatable and immediately experienced aspect of reality for us. We all have at least thought of something we wanted to be, of something we wanted to do, or of something we wanted to achieve. We also know that we often miss the mark and do not become what we could be. But it also means that we can be so much, and often more than we ever try to be. It means that for the human person, he is only an authentic self when he continually tries to resolve the tension in himself. He must always try to be more of what he is.

While Aristotle has provided a stable ontology of the human person as a unified whole 10, Kierkegaard pronounced that there remains a phenomenal tension between man as free and man as a necessity. “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity”11. Man is uneasy about the question of how we represent ourselves to ourselves. The only way out of the problem is to define oneself in the presence of God as the ground of a self-related synthesis with the help of Divine grace. The destruction of despair necessitates the self, “relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself the self is grounded transparently in the Power which posited it” 12. Without God, man is left with the impossible task of defining himself to himself. To attempt self-definition without a point of reference, without a beginning and end, would lead to an infinite regress. The relation that Kierkegaard explains, and that is universally experienced, would be like having mirrors in front and behind you, and an endless array without end or culmination. True Despair.

An Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of man provides a comprehensive foundation for man’s ontology, his essence. 13 Kierkegaard builds on this ontology with recognition of the phenomenal experience that man is a becoming thing that is constantly faced with the choice of what he will be but never able to fully realize this status. The human person can even transcend and reflect on this process. He or she can intentionally involve himself or herself in the process of becoming. If one were to say that man is a paradox, it would not be an arbitrary designation to avoid the problem of discovering what man is. Rather, it would be a powerful condensing of the meaning that man has the experience of being a self-relation that seems to transcend himself. If we were to accept a Kierkegaardian model for phenomenal psychology, it has two consequences for the individual. First, one can finally come to terms with the everyday experience of tension in their life between what they are at any given moment and their aspirations, dreams, promises, and potential. Even in the face of one’s heroes or exemplars, who may seem impossible to imitate at times, there is hope in the side of Kierkegaard’s “relation” that is full of possibility for greatness and authenticity. Secondly, one need not abandon our “givenness”, that part of us that is limited and constrained can be elevated by willing to be authentically ourselves. And that such authenticity requires ultimate, substantial, and personal reference to God Who has given us both our possibility and our finitude. Our given nature, our given experience of ourselves is not a dead end. It is a call to make a free choice to resolve the tension between “is” and “could be” by striving to see God and be seen by Him as the beginning and the end of all we are.

  1. Pascal, Blaise, and A. J. Krailsheimer. Collection Les Pensées. at 59. Penguin Books, 1966.[]
  2. Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. at 13. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.[]
  3. Ibid, 13.[]
  4. There is a question that may be prominent in the reader’s mind about why one should care about human ontology or phenomenal psychology on the one hand, or a comprehensive view including both perspectives on the other. Besides the famous words of Socrates to “know thyself” (See Plato’s Phaedrus, at 229e), we ought to consider that knowing how we experience the world or phenomena could give us key insights into what we ought to be doing as human persons. Yet, for fear of having a phenomenal conception of ourselves that stands on an ontology of sand, we ought to look for a theory of human nature that might be consistent with our experience. That does not negate the tension between a theory of human nature, a theory of a substance, and a theory of human psychology, a theory of the human subject. To read more about the more modern distinction between human substance and human subject, please see Lonergan, Bernard J, Robert M. Doran, and John Daniel Dadosky. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. Similarly, see https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/personalism/#IntSub, particularly section 6.3, regarding what it means to be a subject.[]
  5. Aristotle. De Anima, at 2.1.412a. Mercer University Press, 2018.[]
  6. Ibid, at 2.1.412b.[]
  7. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, at 43.[]
  8. Ibid, 14.[]
  9. See John 11:4. The very title of Kierkegaard’s work derives from the passage in John’s Gospel when Christ raises Lazarus from the dead. “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (John 11:4). Kierkegaard identifies in this passage the crux of human fallenness. Though it seems that Lazarus has died, he is indeed “sick” in the eyes of Christ. He is like humanity that is doomed in the process of self-definition without Christ’s death on the cross that conquers sin and death.[]
  10. Aristotle, De Anima, at 2.1.413a.[]
  11. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, at 14.[]
  12. Ibid.[]
  13. See “Human Exceptionalism and the Imago Dei: The Tradition of Human Dignity.” Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square, ed. Steven C. Dilley and Nathan J. Palpant. Routledge Annals of Bioethics. Routledge, 2012. 19-45. It should be noted that I do not wish to further a directly comprehensive theory of human nature. It should also be noted that I would not limit our understanding of human nature to substantialist or essentialist views like Aquinas or Aristotle would promote. The objective of this article is to observe a pattern in the human experience of power and potential, of actuality and potentiality, that plays itself out at different levels of analysis. This article desires to tease out the experience of this pattern both in something like a theory of human nature and in our direct experience of ourselves.[]