John Kelleher

John Kelleher : Persona and substantia in Boethius’ Contra Eutychen et Nestorium

     In this paper, I propose that we look at the problem of translation through a reading of Boethius’ Contra Eutychen et Nestorium. Using some of Jacques Derrida’s strategies in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy,’ I argue that the terms persona and substantia are undecidable in Boethius’ text. In order to better understand Boethius’ intentions- and that which exceeds them- I shall often point to these Latin terms as I read through the treatise.

      The Contra Eutychen offers the canonical definition of persona as an individua substantia rationabilis naturae, which has traditionally been rendered as a claim that the ‘person’ is an ‘individual substance of a rational nature.’ Marcel Mauss translated it thus in his essay, ‘A category of the human mind.’ However, there are serious problems with a rendering of this kind. Persona, as is well known, can mean a ‘mask’ or a ‘role’, amongst other things, in Latin. Boethius is aware of these possible meanings and he draws upon them to develop his concept of the individual ‘person.’ But Boethius’ persona is not yet ‘the person’: the concept of the ‘person’ is instead a product of Boethius’ text. If we translate persona too readily as ‘person’, we risk reifying what in Boethius is a ‘metaphorical’ (translaticam) term.

    Similar problems arise when we translate substantia as ‘substance.’ Though the English word ‘substance’ is derived from the Latin substantia, the word substantia in Boethius does not always refer to a ‘substance’. It often denotes a kind of action which I have rendered as ‘sub-standing’. ‘To sub-stand’ (substare) would mean to ‘stand below’ so as to lend a basis. Boethius is interested in exploring the relationship between substantia and substare, the verb from which it is derived,in a way that is difficult to replicate in other languages. In order to make this wordplay more apparent, I suggest that we leave substantia untranslated as we read his text.

     There are thus sound technical reasons not to translate persona and substantia too hastily. But the translation of these terms also has theoretical implications. Boethius tells us that persona, as he defines it, is itself a translation of the Greek term hypostasis.According to him, hypostasis properly refers to an individua substantia rationabilis naturae– that which he would designate with the term persona. But persona, on his account, is inferior as a designation because its proper meaning is ‘mask’. Where hypostasis is said to beclear, and the Greek language experienced, persona is said to be ‘metaphorical’, and the Latin language ‘lacking in appropriate terms’ (inops significantium vocum).

     However, the superiority of hypostasis is not quite as assured as Boethius seems to suggest. For, at a crucial point in the text, Boethius appears to think the individua substantia rationabilis naturae in terms of its difference from the actor’s role. One could thus argue that he needed that which was designated by persona– the ‘mask’ or the actor’s ‘role’-in order to think that which was designated by hypostasis.

      In the Contra Eutychen, then, the problem of translation has philosophical implications. Boethius may want persona to mean an individua substantia rationabilis naturae, but one could also say that his notion of the ‘person’ is constituted by its difference from the role assumed by an actor. The persona as ‘role’ would thus be literally inseparable from the persona as ‘individual substance’- something that is covered over when one translates persona as ‘person’.

Selected bibliography : 

Boethius The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand (London, 1918).

J. Derrida Of Grammatology tr. G. Spivak (John Hopkins, 1997).

J. Derrida ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ in Dissemination, tr. B. Johnson (The Athlone Press, 1981).

N. J. Allen ‘The category of the person: a reading of Mauss’s last essay,’ in The category of the person (Cambridge, 1985), ed. M. Carrithers, S. Collins, and S. Lukes.

M. Mauss, ‘A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self,’ tr. W. D. Halls in The category of the person (Cambridge, 1985), ed. M. Carrithers, S. Collins, and S. Lukes.

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