What is a Human?

April 2, 2020 | Published first in Catholic World Report

In my previous article, I argued that a woman is the kind of human who generates within herself. But we can define our terms still more. What does it mean to say a woman is a human?

Bodies and spiritual souls

The fact that we have been talking about bodily generation underscores that human beings are embodied. We are animals, in other words. We are a special kind of animal, however, because of the kind of soul that we have: we can think, and we can love. This means we have a spiritual soul; we can do things that are not, strictly speaking, material.

Just a minute, you might protest. When we think, we most definitely use our brains, and brains are material! Yes, absolutely, we use material instruments to think (such as our brain), but the thought itself is immaterial. You cannot take a picture of a thought. You can’t weigh love on a scale or measure it with a ruler.

The fact that we have these two aspects of ourselves, the material and the spiritual, immediately raises the problem: how do these two aspects relate? Two extreme ends of the spectrum of possibilities present themselves: maybe spirit and matter aren’t really different at all, but only seem to be. Or, on the other hand, maybe spirit and matter are completely different and opposed to each other.

These two options (monism and dualism respectively) ironically often wind up in the same place, because they both demand that we pick sides as a practical matter of living: either spirit OR matter will be privileged.

So, as Catholic novelist and doctor Walker Percy put it, we oscillate between “angelism” and “bestialism.” When we’re feeling angelic, we imagine we can hover above matter, that it’s just an illusion or otherwise not the real stuff of our lives. When we’re feeling bestial, we think matter is all there is, and we laugh at anything spiritual as childish superstition. Instead of these extremes, the trick is to accept both.


Philosophically, the approach that tries to accept both is called “hylomorphism,” which arises from the Greek words for matter and form. Form in our case refers to our spiritual soul, which gives our body life and makes us to be the kind of thing we are (human beings). The soul is not something you see under a microscope or locate in a particular part of the body—maybe in the pineal gland, as Descartes thought. Neither is our body “thinly buttered with soul,” as Frank Sheed put it.

Rather, the soul is the reality that holds our disparate parts together into one coherent, living whole. Think how mysterious “life” is. It is not the sum total of the material parts of an animal. You can pile up a lot of limbs and organs, even sew them together to resemble a man, and yet what you have is a lifeless pile of parts. You don’t have a living whole. The soul is the answer to the question, “What makes a woman into a living whole?”

This mysterious reality means that each part of the body is equally soul-ful. Your brain is not any more your soul than your pinky toe, nor any less. Your soul is not divorced from your body, because you wouldn’t even have a living body without your soul.

Hence, when a doctor treats a patient—say, when she sets a broken femur, she is not treating a femur. She is treating a person, who has a femur. Every human being is already a spiritual reality.


I introduced the word “person” in the previous paragraph, because it captures the difference between human beings and other animals. I have already said that human beings have spiritual souls, with powers of knowing and loving that make them more complex than other animals. Let me give an example to show what I mean. I have taught in a graduate institution for nearly 15 years. I have seen a wide variety of students, some quite gifted, some less so, but they all have one thing in common: they are all human. I have never had a gorilla register for any of my classes, not even one that knows some sign language. Despite what I have heard about the very real intelligence of dolphins and some primates, they do not have the kind of intelligence that leads them to ask the kinds of questions that even my most struggling students can ask: what is a human being? Why do I exist? Even questions as basic as: what is the weather tomorrow? Is there traffic on the Southeast Expressway again?

These are the kinds of questions that require not only some rudimentary thinking but actual rationality: the ability to abstract from sense data to universal definitions and principles, and the ability to formulate chains of reasoning from premises to conclusions. And, flowing from this rationality, the ability to give of themselves in selfless love, which is valuable precisely because humans are the kind of creature that can count the cost and still freely pay it.


If, however, the spirit (expressed in our knowing and loving) is not material, as I have argued, then one might object: why do we need the body at all? Why can’t we upload our consciousness to a computer database and discard the body, which causes us all kinds of difficulties, not the least of which is mortality? Let’s set aside how the uploaded-consciousness formula falls into all sorts of misunderstandings about consciousness itself, and let’s focus on the key anthropological issue. If the body is something disconnected from the soul, then it easily becomes a machine housing a ghostly soul. Near my home is a tattoo parlor called “Ghost in the Machine.” Presumably it exists to help ghosts permanently ink their respective machines.

A machine is a composite of “parts” (maybe even “male and female parts,” as people like to say). Parts in a machine are relatively interchangeable. If I am going to replace a part with a new one, the only really relevant question is “will the new part work better?”

When we view the body as a machine, then we fall into a functionalism about the body. It becomes something to control in order to make it more efficient, or maybe we even opt to ditch it altogether. We lose sight of the fact that I am my body, and I am not a machine. But this gets us back to the question: why the body?

Why the body?

Pope St. John Paul II can help us out here. He realized that the body has a very special role within the structure of the person: it exists to express the person. Without a body, our knowing and loving remain invisible and unspoken. The body makes visible and speaks. It reveals the unique person that God wishes each one of us to be. We have bodies to express the person.

This both elevates and right-sizes our bodies. We don’t exist for our bodies—to pursue some purely bodily goal, such as health or attractiveness. Rather, our bodies exist for us. Better, they are us, but as visible. The visibility of our bodies is not an end in its own right, as though the goal of a woman’s life should be her personal attractiveness. Rather, her personal attractiveness is a means to the end of expressing her person.

And here’s the real beauty of this: every body already does this perfectly well. No person was born “in the wrong body.” The body might need a variety of medical interventions to be restored to better functioning, but it never needs an intervention to become expressive of the person. The tired, unwell, or overweight body expresses the person just as beautifully and perfectly as the alert, healthy, or fit body. That’s not to encourage tiredness or obesity; but in this basic matter of expressing the person, these bodies do it also. In a world in which women especially are told that their bodies do not measure up, this is a truly life-giving message. Every woman’s body successfully fulfills its most important task, to express the person.

As Christians, we can go farther and say that every body expresses a son or daughter of God. The body of a baptized Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 6:19), making visible the love of God. For this reason, John Paul II said that the human body is a kind of “primordial sacrament,” because sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace. The body of the baptized person reveals the Creator’s love. This sacramentality of the body is a truly revolutionary Christian conviction.

What is it that bodies should express? Here John Paul II adds another insight: the body reveals that we are made for self-gift. He calls this the “spousal meaning of the body,” and it is true of every single human being, whether a baby, married, single, whatever. We only find ourselves, as the Second Vatican Council says, in a sincere gift of self. We only flourish when we are generous. We are made to love.


You can think of the human person as being composed of different strata of reality, which become more complex the higher you go. At the bottom are levels it shares with all other material things—the stratum studied by physics, for example, consisting of atoms and forces, or the chemical level. The biological stratum it shares with a smaller set of things: living things. It is at this level that we saw maleness and femaleness, or sex, become relevant, as the way in which we reproduce. Next, and along with the more complex animals, humans have a social and emotional layer. At the highest level are the powers that only the human being has among all material things: rationality and the ability to form community and friendship based on love. Again: we are made for self-gift.

All this refers to the human being as she has been created to be. You don’t need grace to have these levels; you get it as your human birthright. But the real purpose of all of these levels goes beyond nature (the purpose is supernatural): to be united to the triune God who loves us. This purpose cannot be discovered in a lab, obviously, and yet it is the only thing that makes sense of the whole.

Health for the human being would be what John Paul II tended to call “integration”: integrating all of these levels, from the lowest to the highest, all in the common project of moving toward the supernatural goal of union with God. This integration does not leave the lower levels behind, in a kind of “angelism.” We are not united with God as free-floating souls but as the body-soul composites that all human beings are.

But neither can integration allow the lower levels to freelance, so to speak, to go off and do their own thing, as though what the body does has no impact on the soul. This freelancing idea I also call “the undergraduate fallacy,” which is common in moral decision-making, to wit: “Yeah, maybe I got drunk and slept with a relative stranger last night, but that is just my body doing things. It doesn’t affect my basic goodness, which is not related to my body.” But our lower levels cannot freelance like this; everything we do in the body affects our whole person.

Another common version of this today is in transgenderism, in which the body is seen to be the enemy of the soul. The body is fundamentally altered in order to be, supposedly, in harmony with the soul, which is where you find maleness or femaleness. This idea implies that sex is not an inherently bodily reality but only begins at the higher level, at the level of the spiritual powers of the soul. That means that the therapy would consist of enacting the will of the higher level upon the biology of the lower level.

But sex, that is, whether one reproduces inside or outside the body, is not a pathology. It is a reproductive given, the way the other biological qualities are (and the physical and chemical ones too, for that matter). The task of the higher levels, of reason and freedom, is not to force change upon the basic, healthy realities of the lower levels. The task is rather to integrate those levels into the whole human complex—e.g., to order one’s emotions, thinking, and choosing in a way that utilizes rather than fights biological realities such as sex.

We live in a dis-integrated world, and all our cultural messages point to even more dis-integration as the secret to happiness. But no human being finds happiness by being at war with himself. This message of the Church can inspire the difficult but real growth in personal integration that our world desperately needs.


Copyright 2020 Catholic World Report. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.