Can the Human Person Reach Fulfillment Through the Self Alone?

Can the Human Person Reach Fulfillment Through the Self Alone?

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1. The touchstones of the question: a brief overview

The keystone of Aristotelian thought is the distinction between act and potency in every real thing, except for Pure Act itself1. Thus, this duality should also be accounted for in relation to the reality of human being. The following question arises in this context: does the Aristotelian position imply that human fulfilment is achieved through the human act or through the perfection of human potency? A close reading of Aristotle’s work suggests that the human potencies or faculties – above all, the habits of the intelligence and the virtues of the will – are realized over the course of human life; but there is insufficient evidence in the Greek philosopher’s texts to prompt the conclusion that fulfilment is a function of the active dimension of human being.

His penetrating analysis of the Aristotelian framework led Thomas Aquinas to posit a real distinction between the act of being and the essence in every created thing2. Nevertheless, as was the case in Aristotle’s work, the distinction is not read in relation to the human person in a detailed way. Moreover, Aquinas, like Aristotle before him, saw human development as a function of the spiritual potencies – intelligence and will – rather than the act of human being. For Aquinas and his followers, contemplation, the touchstone of happiness, is rooted in an act of the intellect; for many of Aquinas’s contemporaries, however, happiness was the fruit of an act of the will. Thus, happiness is attributed to the realization of one of the two higher human faculties, and never in a direct or radical way to the act of human being.

In the Greek and medieval philosophical traditions, therefore, as reflected in the work of their most renowned thinkers, the act of human being is regarded as perfect by nature, or at least as standing in no need of further perfection to allow for human fulfilment. The role of the human act is to ensure that human potency is fulfilled; the intrinsic perfection of the act of human being itself is never called into question. In this context, elevation to the supernatural plane in this life or the afterlife is regarded as the fulfilment of human potency, not as the direct fulfilment of the act of human being itself. This thesis is incomplete because self-knowledge is compromised: the difficulty lies in the fact that while the act of being realizes human potency, and grants it cognitive reason, the act of being itself remains unknown and is unknowable to human potency. The medieval solution to this problem was based on an appeal to the supernatural revelation that will follow this life: when God reveals the totality of human being in the next life, human being will be wholly fulfilled.

Among modern philosophers, Hegel is the one who addressed this question in the most detailed way, although he drew on a different framework of principles. The problem no longer consists of clarifying the meaning of the human subject, but of the complete self-unveiling of the absolute spirit. To avoid any sense of ‘false consciousness’ in the absolute spirit, Hegel sought to establish the identity of subject and object. In the synthesis of subject and object, the subject sees itself in a complete way in what is thought, and what is thought encompasses the subject. This synthesis is underwritten by a dialectic: potency, the starting-point, becomes act at the end-point of the historical process, for if there is no fulfilment in the present, there can be no truth. Thus, Hegel’s argument appears to rest on the identification of historical and philosophical progress. In the Hegelian school of thought, fulfilment is the presence in the mind of the truth – that is, the all3. Moreover, Hegel, the definitive idealist, held that this all-embracing, pan-logical vision was disclosed in a given historical moment through the emergence of his own philosophical work. However, there can be no future if complete fulfilment has already been achieved. Hence, all post-Hegelian philosophers are anti-Hegelian philosophers.

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger are the most anti-Hegelian of thinkers in the contemporary philosophical tradition; their criticism of Hegel is most pointed in relation to the question on which this paper centres. Kierkegaard addresses the question from an affective perspective: the unending repositioning of the past in relation to the present leads to boredom4. The solution that the Danish philosopher proposes is that noetic truth be replaced by supernatural faith, albeit without any verifiable or known content – a position that leaves a question-mark hanging over human, personal meaning. Nietzsche’s critique of Hegel is voluntarist: in the second of the Untimely Meditations, for example, he writes that: “People have scornfully called this Hegelian understanding of history the earthly changes of God; but this God for His part was first created by history. However, this God became intelligible and comprehensible inside Hegelian brain cases and has already ascended all the dialectically possible steps of His being right up to that self-revelation. Thus, for Hegel the summit and end point of the world process coincided with his own individual existence in Berlin”5. Given that it defers to the will, Nietzsche’s response to the problem of self-knowledge is not framed in terms of truth; rather, any reference to the truth is duly ignored. A lack of human meaning is an unavoidable conclusion of Nietzsche’s line of argument: not only is the future foreclosed, but the present too is dispensed with, and human being is forced to seek refuge in the past – the touchstone of Nietzschean thought is the doctrine of eternal recurrence6. Of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, Heidegger, whose thought is marked by the influence of Nietzsche’s work, offers the most emphatic response to Hegel’s account of the fulfilment of meaning in the present7. However, his position too is skewed towards voluntarism, which, as has been noted already above, calls the future of human being into question. Indeed, the line of inquiry pursued in Being and Time is drawn to a conclusion in the statement: “human being is a being-towards-death”8.

The absence of human meaning is a hallmark of postmodern thought9, whose philosophical roots lie in the work of Nietzsche. The will cannot be fulfilled though itself (an idea that had already been articulated by Schopenhauer): the desire of the will is insatiable – by definition, a potency – and nothing and no-one can give of what it does not have. Moreover, even if the will were to be fulfilled, the question of whether the heart of human being (the act of being), which cannot be reduced to either the intelligence or the will, may reach fulfilment would remain an open one.

To sum up, therefore, on the basis of the philosophical arguments advanced over the course of the history of Western thought, it would seem that human being cannot be fulfilled by reason or intelligence; nor may human fulfilment be regarded as a function of the will. Less still may such fulfilment be attributed to other dimensions of human being enabled by the action of these higher human faculties – society, language, work, culture, history, technology, economics, etc. The human person is not the sum of his achievements; man is more than what he does. Thus, human fulfilment is not encompassed by ethics either, because human being is not identical to human action. Moreover, a number of the philosophical theories concerning human fulfilment have foreclosed the future. Thus, any solution to the problem must focus on the act of being of the human person, which, by leaving open its historical and meta-historical future, may allow for the possibility of personal fulfilment.

2. The impossibility of complete self-knowledge as an ontological limit at the heart of human being

That knowledge itself never arrives at complete fulfilment suggests that the human being is ontologically limited. This limit is not directly dependent on the potencies which comprise the human essence; nor on the essentia-actus essendi compound of which human reality is constituted, which is often framed as follows: the essence limits the act of being. Rather, this limit is predicated on the act of being of the human person itself. Although habit and virtue may be the crowning perfection of human potential, they do not fulfil the active core of the human person. In line with what has been argued above, if the act of human being is not fulfilled in or of itself, it is open to fulfilment in a way that may not be understood without it: in other words, the innermost depth of the human is hope.

Human hope is not a virtue of the will, nor, to an even lesser degree, is it a passion of the senses; rather, it is the orientation of the free action of the human spirit. In relation to the action of the act of human being, to hope is not synonymous with to wait: to hope is to seek out personal fulfilment. No search for fulfilment would be possible without personal self-knowledge. Hence, hope foments the gradual discovery of one’s own meaning. Given that meaning lies beyond the self alone, the search defers to the one who may provide such meaning. To speak of the bestowing of meaning or its acceptance without reference to personal love would make no sense. In fact, hope is impossible without such bestowing and acceptance; and to give and receive is the definition of love. Nonetheless, hope does not lay claim to the bestowal of meaning, nor demands its recognition; as hope is free, so too must be its fulfilment. The one who bestows complete meaning in love may only do so freely.

“Thus is it shown that personal human being is created, or that it is incapable of reaching fulfilment in itself because it is wholly dependent on God”10. What is at issue here is a “manifestation”, not a “demonstration”; demonstration is a function of reason, and reason does not lie at the heart of human being. In any case, given that demonstration is done out of necessity and manifestation is done freely, to make manifest is greater than to demonstrate, for freedom is greater than necessity. We are aware in methodical terms that we ought to be fulfilled as human persons, but we are ignorant in thematic terms of the meaning of such fulfilment. Method refers here to personal human knowledge; the thematic, on the other hand, refers to the being which we are called to be and not yet are.

The human act of being is not originary (God alone is the origin); rather, it is oriented towards the future. Hence, the human person does not arrive at full knowledge of the act of being. It goes without saying, too, that the human essence of its nature is not wholly fulfilled; but its fulfilment depends on the act of being of each person – that is, the person each one is. The fulfilment of the act of being itself is beyond the person; likewise, it is clear that it cannot be fulfilled by the human essence. To be oriented towards the future implies that to be is to be in relation to a being that may bestow such fulfilment. Therefore, rather than say that the act of being of the human person exists, it might be more accurate to say that the act of being of the human person coexists; indeed, given that this coexistence is oriented towards the future, it might be still more accurate to say that the act of being of the human person will coexist. Since fulfilment is impossible if it is not sought out, such coexistence must be freely desired. In short, “the (human) person’s hope of fulfilment … cannot be achieved by the (human) person alone; this is what is referred to as the ontological limit”11.

Such fulfilment corresponds to the classical definition of happiness, at least insofar as it is articulated in Aristotelian and Christian philosophy. When the sense of human meaning is lost sight of in contemporary thought, man is no longer described in terms of happiness – as he was in the past. According to the classical definition, man is a being ordered towards happiness; however, given that such happiness is unattainable in the present time, man’s being is oriented towards eternity. Thus, rather than echo Kant by saying that man is an end in himself12, it might be said that the destiny or end of man is freely open to him. As a result, given that man is not an end in himself, the end of man is to be-in – that is, to be in the one who may bestow full meaning. This is an expansion of the idea of end, a form of hyper-teleology. Only that which has the measure of itself by virtue of its essence may be taken as an end in itself. However, anyone who acknowledges that his act of being surpasses his essence will recognise that the best attitude with respect to the essence is forgetfulness of self. Personal fulfilment is the polar opposite of human pretension 13, the claims of the self, which seeks to locate the meaning of the personal act of being in the human essence – that is, to demand one’s personal meaning of the human essence. However, the human essence neither has nor can it bestow such meaning; to seek it there is a waste of time, and may even leave the person at a loss.

The argument that lack of self-knowledge is the ontological limit on the act of human being depends on a recognition of such knowledge as radically dependent on the act of being – not merely accidentally so, as a minor addition: in other words, that the personal act of being is knowing, or that such knowledge is personal rather than rational.

3. The ontological limit on human being implies that human being is created

It might be argued that personal fulfilment may be found in any other human person. However, every human person is marked by the ontological limit – that is, no one can reach fulfilment in or of itself. It is difficult to see how a being which can neither reach fulfilment in itself nor bestow such fulfilment on itself could provide fulfilment for another. From this perspective, the difficulty appears to be intractable, and lead directly to anthropological pessimism. To sum up, the personal human act of being cannot seek meaning only in its essence, in itself or in the actions of other created beings. Moreover, a radical determination not to seek such meaning is to lay waste to the free action of the human spirit, a negation of the future: passivity and determinism.

The orientation of personal freedom towards the end entails an element of risk because the end is not assured; indeed, freedom must risk itself entirely. However, such risk is not irrational because it corresponds to the nature of a personal being who seeks out the fulfilment of meaning. The risk may be described as hopeful, trusting, even loving – but never absurd. To hope, to trust, to love are positive; to ignore them is to content oneself with an impoverished sense of meaning, to leave oneself open to the loss of personal meaning, to allow nothingness dig its burrow at the heart of the ente [the self] “like a worm”14.

As Kierkegaard pointed out, to cling to – to identify with – a pessimistic vision of existence is to invite despair. His definition of despair as the negation of the self 15 seems incontrovertible. Despair involves closing the door to the historical and post-historical future, seeking refuge in the past and the present. It might be argued that the significance of the past is not negligible; to which the response may be that when the past is truly taken on board it is recreated and the future possibilities contained within it disclosed. Likewise, acceptance of the present involves opening it up further to the future. A turning-away from the future, the shrinking of horizons appears to be a defining characteristic of crises in philosophical thought (the Sophists in the time of Socrates, the decadent schools of Greek thought after Aristotle, the philosophy of the Late Middle Ages after the golden age of the Scholastics, post-Hegelian thinking). The current crisis in philosophical thinking is of a distinctive kind: it amounts to anthropological nihilism because it negates a human future.

A human future full of hope is God alone. If it has no end, the submission of personal freedom is stunted, because what is being referred to here is not freedom from but freedom to. The death of God is the death of the depths of man: personal freedom and hope, his search for personal meaning and its fulfilment, his loving personal self-giving and its acceptance. Without God, personal freedom has no meaning, the deep truth of being human is meaningless; personal love finds no final end. As personal act of being without God, human being is death-in-life, and death forever afterwards. The position may be expressed as bluntly as this: if a personal God does not exist, man is not a person.

According to Aristotle, an active lack of hope is a defining characteristic of a weakened form of reality. Nevertheless, modern philosophy is committed to the present, and ignores or has forgotten hope. Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas, for instance, like those of his rationalist and idealist followers, are given in the present; the British empiricists are generally most concerned with present material goods, and the sensible feelings to which they correspond; Kant wondered what hope there might be once theoretical reason has been closed off and practical reason subordinated to the interests of the will; the work of Leibniz and Newton may be open to the future, but the idea of indefinite progress it contains is confined to the field of science. To Aristotle’s mind, however, all these hopes, however practical they may be, are small hopes; not even in the most tangential way do they touch on the innermost depths of the human.

Moreover, recent theories of anthropology offer little hope of hope – materialists (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, etc), historicists (Dilthey, Habermas, etc.), and culturalists (analytical philosophy, hermeneutics, pragmatism, postmodernism, etc.), failing on grounds of philosophical method or framework (phenomenological personalism, the philosophy of dialogue, communitarian personalism, etc.), or because of inherent problems (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, etc.).

Nevertheless, the human act of being does not pertain to a weakened form of reality: its natural hope is open to boundless growth. Augustine’s injunction is pertinent in this regard: “if you say enough is enough, you will die”. If man turns his back on his proper end, however, he may be reduced to insignificance. Hence, that true initiative is divine is cause for hope.



1 See Yepes, R., La doctrina del acto en Aristóteles, Pamplona, Eunsa, 1993.

2 See Gilson, E., El ser y la esencia, Buenos Aires, Desclée de Brower, 1965.

3 See Polo, L., Hegel y el posthegelianismo, Pamplona, Eunsa, (3rd edition), 1999.

4 See Kierkegaard, S., La enfermedad mortal, Obras Completas, Vol. XVI, (French edition), L’Orante, Paris, 1971.

5 Nietzsche, F., Untimely Meditations, (Walter de Gruitter, ed.), Volume III, 1, 304. (English:

6 See Polo, L., Nietzsche como pensador de dualidades, Pamplona, Eunsa, 2005.

7 See Polo, L., Hegel y el posthegelianismo, chapter 5; “El yo”, Anuario Filosófico, nº 170, University of Navarra, Pamplona, 2004.

8 See Heidegger, M., Ser y tiempo, (J. Gaos, trans.), F.C.E., México, 1987, 282; see also Berciano, M., “Heidegger: antropología problemática”, Propuestas antropológicas del s. XX, J.F. Sellés (ed.), Pamplona, Eunsa, 2004, 77-103.

9 See Foucault, M., Hermeneútica del sujeto, Madrid, Ediciones de la Piqueta, 1994; Vattimo, G., Más allá del sujeto: Nietzsche, Heidegger y la hermeneútica, Barcelona, Paidós, 2nd edition, 1992.

10 Polo, L., Antropología Trascendental, I. La persona humana, Pamplona, Eunsa, 2nd ed., 2003, 128.

11 Polo, L., Nietzsche, ed. cit., 321.

12 “Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means (…) but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always be regarded at the same time as an end”. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (

13 This statement bears some relationship to the evangelical injunction: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt., 10:39).

14 Sartre, J. P., L’etre et le neant, Paris, Gallimard, 1951, 57.

15 “In spite of the fact that a man is in despair he can perfectly well live on in the temporal, in fact all the better for it; he may be praised by men, be honored and esteemed, and pursue all the aims of temporal life. (…) They use their talents, accumulate money, carry on worldly affairs, calculate shrewdly (…) but themselves they are not; spiritually understood, they have no self” Kierkegaard, S., The Sickness unto Death, chapter 3. (