The body and human experience: how Karol Wojtyła developed Thomistic ideas

I recently submitted this research essay to my university. Feedback from my assessor are in italics and brackets:

What is the function of the body in human experience, according to Karol Wojtyła, and how does this develop Thomistic ideas?

According to Karol Wojtyla, whilst objects in the world should not be ignored, the human experience of the person is paramount. In other words, the human person’s worldly interaction is not merely the interaction his body has with the world. Such sensual interaction is proper in form as his interior life, or human experience, when understood as such. It is in the human experience where the person receives signals from the outside world, responds to them to varying degrees. What is certain is that he responds to these signals by asserting himself in his responses, as this is his nature.[1]

The strive to assert himself with “I” is what differentiates him from other animals, because it demonstrates free will. “I” indicates a self-determining choice made, a personal quality of incommunicability. The human person is not just unique and unrepeatable (inviolable) — his “I” is intrinsic to both his free will and interior life, beyond the control of others.[2] The human person experiences his inviolability profoundly because he is conscious of owning and relating to his interior life, including his intellect and will which is inaccessible to others. This gives rise to an individuality, autonomy and uniqueness that he experiences, collectively forming the virginity of the human person. He is a virgin by nature because he self-possesses and self-directs his interior life.[3] (It is unclear why the term “virgin” applies here.)

Wojtyla notes that when exploring the human experience of the person, as described thus far, the person refers to the whole person, and this includes his body. After all, the human person is a body-soul composite. Indeed, his virginity, inviolability, and incommunicability can only be expressed through his body, because his interior life begins with his body.[4] The implication of this is that man and woman would be driven by an interior motivation each in order to form physical relations with each other. For Wojtyla, such relations are most profound when expressed what is truly interiorly felt.[5] That is, not only is the human person’s body and interior life inviolable, his interior could be communicated through another person’s body, and the truest of such communication is in the form of mutual self-giving, as detailed in Love and Responsibility.[6]

The drive for such complementary relations is a bodily product of the human person, the authenticity of which is determined by whether one is merely attracted to the body of the other, or whether one loves the other through an exchange of their interior lives.[7] Any interaction a man and a woman have with each other is a sensory experience for both, specifically for both of their bodies. Their bodies can sense each other and therefore leave each other impressions.[8] The sensuality of the body is oriented towards enjoying the body of the other, and when this and mere attraction is not rationalised, it can lead to the objectifying of the subject, not love. For Wojtyła, the process of rationalising sensuality and such attraction is contemplative cognition, which leads to the virtue of chastity.[9]

The objectifying of the subject involves sensual lust, whereas contemplative cognition develops a total commitment to the subject, with a mature responsible attitude.[10] Chastity involves going beyond spontaneous erotic reactions between men and women, that is, subject loving subject. This is not the suppression of such reactions, rather, it is the reactive affirmation of the human person as a person at all times.[11] For Wojtyła, this defines self-giving at a level deeper than sexual differences and urges. All persons have an innate desire to self-give, and only in betrothed love can a husband and wife fulfil such a desire in each other, because it is only through this avenue does the subject go outside the subject to find a fuller existence in another subject.[12]

Mutual self-giving of the bodies is willed from the interior, because the body’s sensuality is vividly experienced in the interior, and this is, or should be, expressed outwardly to the other. It is for this reason that the conjugal act occurs, or should occur, within a marriage, because marriage is an outwardly expression of mutual self-giving.[13] Overall, Love and Responsibility argued that love is a function of the body in human experience, but that it must not be reduced to lust. That is, love is to be transformed into a self-gift to be expressed in marriage.

The person has two types of human experiences: action and passion (or being acted upon). A person’s action is intentional, an act that moves outwardly, and a person’s passion towards another makes the other the subjective ego.[14] In passion, potency becomes act, leaving the person receiving the passion in a state of becoming, the process of which Wojtyła referred to as dynamism.[15] Therefore, passion is not only the action of another upon the subject, but is also the dynamism occurring in the person, and affecting his body. Whilst Love and Responsibility integrates body, action and love, in recognising that his thoughts on transcendence were irreconcilable with dualism and idealism, Wojtyła’s The Acting Person built upon his previous work by introducing bodily dynamism and its relationship with action.[16]

The dynamism of the human person is somatic, or bodily, and is beyond his control, since it reacts to stimuli. Because the body has an exteriority and interiority, the somatic dynamism differs for the two. That is, there is an exteriority to the body because it is a visibly material reality that can be sensed by a subject, of another subject’s body.[17] This is so because the body’s image from another’s view forms a part of the person’s bodily self-image. More importantly, exteriority is a means of personal expression and communication.[18] But such somatic dynamism is not reducible to the material body — there is the dynamic interiority of the body that Wojtyla refers to as the human organism, in the sense of a systematic functioning of bodily organs.[19]

Because of the human person’s body, he belongs to nature, in the sense that he resembles vegetative and sensitive nature. He also wholly partakes in his outwardly existence, which is also his nature. His immediate relationship with nature defines his reactive somatic dynamism, and so his body reacts, just as other bodies in nature react.[20] The body reacts to other bodies, the will and intellect of said bodies that are expressed, and natural instincts of both body and psyche.[21] Wojtyła explained that the psyche includes various non-bodily aspects of human life that are, to some degree, somatically dependent.[22] To clarify, the psyche is not the soul, rather, it is the conscious awareness of emotion.[23]

An example of the human body’s, and by extension, the psyche’s, natural instinct is that of self-preservation and procreation, which demonstrates a reactive somatic dynamism of nature.[24] This natural instinct is not merely an emotive urge of the psyche, it concerns the whole human person.[25] Self-preservation, in the broadest sense, covers all aspects of body and psyche of the person, such as thirst and self-defence, and bodily functions like drinking and moving that enables such self-preservation.[26] The procreative instinct, however, lies deeper than the body. Wojtyla reaffirmed his Love and Responsibility conclusions by pointing out that the emotive urge is derived from the depths of the psyche, especially at the spiritual level.[27]

Whilst instinctive self-preservation is driven by the self for the longevity of the self, the procreative instinct is driven by the powerful desire to share with another human person. Procreation is not only instinctual, but it is also somatic and dynamic, at the bodily and almost-automatic psychical level. However, if the human person is conscious of these reactions, he is conscious to be able to direct his body’s procreative instinct to its proper end, the same of which could be applied to other dynamisms.[28]

He is conscious of the procreative dynamism via his psyche so that he is not only aware of the related instinct within, but so that he is implicitly aware that bringing it to its proper end is part of integrating his person for self-determining transcendence. (This phrase could do with more explanation, especially the “transcendence” part.) That is, to make good of the received human nature by realising the value of the human person who is responsible, who responds to both the objects and subjects of the world.[29] Failure to achieve such self-determination, or self-possession, disintegrates the subjective ego that lacks psyche. The lack of psyche in this regard affects the person cognitively in how he relates to the other, and associated decision-making.[30] That is, he can act against his nature, rather than integrating his nature.

In his later response to Humanae Vitae, Wojtyla clarified that the integration of the human person refers to the integrating of the body-soul composite. That is, integrating those somatic-psychical aspects of the person as described thus far. The implication here is that the body is not merely a human body for objectification. Because the body is not autonomous, free from intrinsic psychical considerations, procreative respect is owed to the body worthy of dignity.[31] This respect is paid by means of a self-determination that does not compromise the authentic means of self-determining, otherwise it would be self-defeating, and incapable of self-giving to the other.[32]

Wojtyla developed his philosophy about the function of the body in human experience, over the course of his works as detailed in this essay this far, culminating in his Theology of the Body (TOB) as Pope John Paul II (JPII). According to JPII, the body highlights to the human person his apparent solitude, especially if he is not in a state of sharing his body with another.[33] He recognises both this solitude and associated transcendence, by experiencing his body, and how it is different to other species. This bodily uniqueness he experiences epitomises to him how he is a subject, because his body is designed to allow him to use free will for ends proper to him. Therefore, his body expresses his personhood, and confirms his personhood — this expression was the first kind of its kind in the existence of human life.[34]

Woman came into existence as a response to the unique human solitude, followed by a human recognition that whilst woman’s body may be different to man’s, she nevertheless has subjective personhood deeper than body, just like him.[35] Of course, woman too, can experience solitude, and move towards self-determination, due to her bodily experience.[36] Because of this, when man and woman reciprocally self-give in the conjugal act, the meaning of their bodies is communicated.[37] This communication is deeper than reactive somatic dynamism — JPII pointed to the metaphysics of the gift that is God’s creation to understand the self-giving of the human body. Creation is a gift because the human person is part of creation, especially given that he is an image of God, able to understand the relationship between self-giving and creation.[38]

The body is both a gift and witness to every sense of creation,[39] and has an innate direction towards the other, and ultimately God. The implication of this is that the masculinity or femininity of the body is important in the sense that it defines the person’s identity,[40] but this is not limited to sex-based procreative capability. The beauty lies in marriage, which propagates the divine gift of creation intergenerationally.[41] Marriage brings mutual happiness in moving towards a reciprocal self-giving experience, which integrates body and soul,[42] and generates new persons with a desire for others, and ultimately God.

The reciprocal complementary meaning of masculinity and femininity lies in the above, and for man and woman to understand this meaning, they must be conscious of their spousal dynamism. In order for this to occur, spouses would have to consciously live out their call to mutual self-giving.[43] Whilst the meaning must be conscious to the person, the body and nature continue to have an objectivity that forms part of the spousal meaning. This is because the body has a spousal power to express self-giving love, for a proper end.[44]

Because of free will, nature does not completely dominate the human person. Differences between the male and female bodies is only the foundation to fully understanding the uniqueness of each subject — man and woman are not mere objects. Precisely because of masculinity and femininity does the person relates to the other as inviolable and incommunicable.[45] Since the body expresses personhood, and engages in somatic dynamism, naturalism is an inherently inadequate philosophy to answer the essay question.[46] However, JPII maintained his position that the human person must choose nature in order to properly love — if he acts against his nature, he disintegrates.[47]

Due to word limit, this essay will not further analyse TOB. But what has been analysed is a body of philosophical work, separate to the associated theological work, that has been built by JPII over the years, which concludes that the human experience is a unique gift, which comes from the divine gift of the body. The person, originally in solitude with his body, drives him to be free to relate to the other, to self-give. This is the spousal meaning of the body, which fulfils, so long as it is for the proper end.

Based on the above analysis, it appears that JPII’s work constitutes and developed Thomism. St Thomas Aquinas argued that the human person is a substantial composite of body and soul.[48] JPII built on this by arguing that when exploring the human experience of the person, their person refers to the whole person. That is to say, that the person is not merely a body-soul composite — there is an incommunicability to him as well, which Aquinas briefly implied.[49] This incommunicability moves him to further integrate his body and soul together. His composite is not an object, in fact, he is a self-determining subject, but so is the other. Indeed, his personhood in the Thomistic sense, includes the spirit of his soul, corporeal body and metaphysical being, which combined brings the subject to the forefront.[50]

(Well done on this essay Dana. You presented Wojtyla’s philosophy clearly and succinctly, pointing out logical connections between ideas. You also grasped the big implications of Wojtyla’s ideas. Your writing style is easy to read, clear and direct. To improve, there should be an evaluative section where you consider the merit of JPII’s views.)


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologica. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911–25.

Crosby, John F. “The Personalism of John Paul II as the Basis of His Approach to the Teaching of Humanae Vitae.” Anthropotes 5, no. 1 (1989): 47–69.

Kupczak OP, Jaroslaw. Destined for Liberty: The Human Person in the Philosophy of Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000.

O’Reilly, Ailbe Michael. Conjugal Chastity in Pope Wojtyla. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Petri OP, Thomas. Aquinas and the Theology of the Body. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2016.

Schmitz, Kenneth L. At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000.

Torchia OP, Joseph. Exploring Personhood: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Nature. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Waldstein, Michael. “John Paul II: A Thomist Rooted in St. John of the Cross.” Faith & Reason 30, no. 3–4 (2005): 195–218.

Wojtyła, Karol. Love and Responsibility. trans. HT Willets. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.

Wojtyła, Karol. The Acting Person. trans. Andrzej Potocki. Boston: D Reidel Publishing, 1999.

Wojtyła, Karol. “The Anthropological Vision of Humanae Vitae.” trans. William E May. Nova et Vetera 7, no. 3 (2009): 731–50.

Wojtyła, Karol. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. trans. Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006.

[1] Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. HT Willets (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 23.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Thomas Petri OP, Aquinas and the Theology of the Body (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2016), 142.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ailbe Michael O’Reilly, Conjugal Chastity in Pope Wojtyla (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010), 197.

[6] Ibid., 199.

[7] Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 123.

[8] Ibid., 104.

[9] Ibid., 105.

[10] Ibid., 145.

[11] Ibid., 171.

[12] Ibid., 126.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Boston: D Reidel Publishing, 1999), 71.

[15] Ibid., 96.

[16] Jaroslaw Kupczak OP. Destined for Liberty: The Human Person in the Philosophy of Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 132.

[17] Wojtyła, The Acting Person, 200.

[18] Ibid., 204.

[19] Ibid., 201.

[20] Ibid., 208.

[21] Ibid., 15.

[22] Ibid., 201.

[23] Ibid., 222.

[24] Ibid., 215.

[25] Ibid., 216.

[26] Ibid., 217.

[27] Ibid., 218.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Kenneth L Schmitz, At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 89.

[30] Wojtyła, The Acting Person, 195.

[31] Karol Wojtyła, “The Anthropological Vision of Humanae Vitae,” trans. William E May, Nova et Vetera 7, no. 3 (2009): 746.

[32] Ibid., 748.

[33] Karol Wojtyła, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), no. 6:3.

[34] Ibid., no. 27:3.

[35] Ibid., no. 8:2.

[36] Ibid., no. 10:1.

[37] Ibid., no. 10:4.

[38] Ibid., no. 13:4.

[39] Ibid., no. 14:4.

[40] Ibid., no. 20:5.

[41] Ibid., no. 96:7.

[42] Ibid., no. 30:3.

[43] John F Crosby, “The Personalism of John Paul II as the Basis of His Approach to the Teaching of Humanae Vitae,” Anthropotes 5, no. 1 (1989): 52.

[44] Wojtyla, Theology of the Body, no. 15:1.

[45] Ibid., no. 20:5.

[46] Ibid., no. 12:5.

[47] Michael Waldstein, “John Paul II: A Thomist Rooted in St. John of the Cross,” Faith & Reason 30, no. 3–4 (2005): 199.

[48] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911–1925), Ia, q. 75, a. 4.

[49] Ibid., Ia, q. 29, a. 3.

[50] Joseph Torchia OP, Exploring Personhood: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Nature (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 143.



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Dana Pham

Dana Pham

TransCatholic ⚧️✝️ | Liberal Arts student @notredameaus | Thomistic Personalist | social media content curator | all opinions expressed here are my own