What kind of relationship? On the “one”, the “many”, and things in the world

A metaphysics not merely of objects but of human persons needs to consider the distinctions in various forms of human relationality.

(Image: Timon Studler/Unsplash.com)

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part essay. Read Part Two here.

Should we consider “relation” a transcendental property of Being?

That may seem an odd question. The transcendental properties of Being are those that belong to all beings regardless of their type. The four classic transcendental properties of Being are unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. Some beings have the property of whiteness; others do not. Some beings have the property of hardness or roundness, or opaqueness; others do not. But all beings have some sort of unity, goodness, and beauty. Some contemporary scholars have suggested that we add “relation” to the list. Preeminent in this regard has been the work of the Jesuit scholar Norris Clarke. I have no dog in that particular fight, but I think we would certainly benefit from a deeper consideration of “relation” of the sort traditionally given in classical metaphysics to the other transcendentals.

The “one” and the “many”

There is, for example, the classic question of the relation between the “one” and “the many.” In the United States, we find inscribed on our money the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum”: from the many, one. This has been an unofficial political motto of ours for generations. “But what kind of ‘one-ness’ should this be?” we might ask. Because, as classical metaphysics teaches us, there are different kinds of unity. (None of this is meant to be complicated. These are the sort of things anyone would notice who took a moment to think about it.) There is, for example:

    • the unity of a single billiard ball;
    • the unity of a heap of clothes on the floor;
    • the unity of the parts of a car;
    • the unity of a herd of cows or a flight of ducks;
    • the unity of a basketball team;
    • the unity in a human body;
    • the unity of two parents and their child.

When we say about the United States that we wish to produce “from many, one,” which sort of unity do we have in mind? Like a herd of cows? Like the pistons and cogs of one vast machine? Or is there, perhaps, a different sort of unity for which we should strive? If so, what?

One way of approaching the question of the “one” and the “many” would be by means of an analysis of “relation” or “relationship.” Consider, for example, the different ways in which things can be related to other things. There is:

    • the relationship of location, as for example the relationship of a magazine sitting next to a pen or a cup sitting on the table;
    • the relationship a group in a particular order, as for example, the relationship of the billiard balls to one other when they’ve been racked and are ready for the break;
    • the relationship of paint to a wall.

The paint is “on” the wall in a way somewhat different from the way my backside is “on” this chair. The paint covers and protects the wall and makes it more beautiful. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my bottom and the chair.

But now consider the relationship between Person A and Person B if Person A sits on the lap of Person B. For the time being, Person B is functioning as a “chair” for Person A, but we would not say the relationship is quite the same. In one sense, if we consider merely physical location, it is no different. And yet we would say something was wrong if Person A treated Person B as nothing more than a “chair” — if Person A, for example, said to Person B something like “Sit still, you are my chair.” This would be to mistake their relationship.

How are we related to things in the world?

Of course, it doesn’t take a metaphysician to see that a major difference arises when we are dealing with humans and their relationship with or to the world. It is commonly said that human beings are fundamentally “relational.” We are not merely “in” the world like a potato in a pot; we are related to it. This is undoubtedly true, since in one sense at least, everything is related to other things in the world. Our task, therefore, is to identify the special kind of “relationality” that we human beings are capable of that other things are not.

One way we are related to the things in the world — a way that the cup sitting next to the pencil is not — is that we can perceive it through our five senses. I can see the cup, taste the coffee, smell the cookies being baked in the kitchen, and hear the music playing in the background. But there is more. I can know things. I can see the cup, know that it is a cup (and not a typewriter or mountain lion), and learn to use it properly. I know I shouldn’t drop the cup on the floor or tip it over unless I want the liquid to spill out. Not only can I see the blue sky, I can predict from past experience that it is not likely to rain anytime soon, and I can sense in a very different way that it is a lovely day. So in addition to being related to things by location, I can be related to them as known, as true, or as good, as desirable, or as beautiful, as inspiring awe, appreciation, or love.

Objects in the world are often enough not just objects to us; they are related to us in various ways. So, for example, to say that we are related to the world in and through our senses and knowledge is not meant to exclude the appetites and emotions. When we perceive a thing or know a thing, it is often “lit up” or colored by emotions or by a sense of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the context.

Let us say you get into an elevator, and you find beside you a large potted plant. If it is your potted plant, you would have one sort of relationship with it; another if it seems as though it had been left behind by someone else; and yet another if the hotel had decorated its elevators with potted plants. But the differences arise not merely because finding the potted plant was unexpected.

Consider the difference between unexpectedly finding a large potted plant in the elevator and finding yourself beside a large dog you have never seen before. Perhaps the dog will not move any more than the potted plant did, but you will have a different relationship with it; different again if after traveling several floors you suddenly recognize it as the dog you lost five years earlier. A golf ball sitting on my table is no more or less an object to me than a golf ball sitting fifteen feet from the hole on the final green at the Masters Tournament, but I would have a different relationship with the second than the first.

But now, instead of plants, golf balls, and dogs, consider the following: (a) riding up an elevator with one other person; (b) riding up an elevator with several people, none of whom know one another; (c) riding up an elevator with two people whom you do not know but who know each other and are discussing intimate matters; (d) riding up an elevator with two people, one of whom you know, the other you do not; (e) riding up an elevator with a person and his adorable dog.

Relationships on elevators are odd precisely because the proximity of location in an elevator that would usually characterize a more intimate relationship is often lacking between persons on an elevator. When you do not know the other person, but are in such close proximity, embarrassing questions arise to which there seems no good answer: Should I speak? Should we ignore each other? Should I treat the other person as I would a potted plant on the elevator, looking him up and down curiously, or should I ignore him altogether as though he weren’t there? Or should I treat him as I would an unknown dog on the elevator, making sure pepper spray is handy? Perhaps I should give a warm, friendly “hello” while also keeping a ready grip on the pepper spray. The nature of my relationship to the object is unclear, even though I see him and know that he is a person and not a dog or a mountain lion.

A big difference is introduced into my relation with things in the world if those things that I can perceive and know can perceive and know me in return. The potted plant simply sits there. It is not looking at me. The dog might be. In fact, it might be giving me a certain “look” that alters my relationship to it, depending upon whether he looks hungry, angry, or just “in need of a friend.”

This fact points to another dimension of my relatedness to things in the world. My relationship to various things, whether inanimate or animate, depends upon my interpreting signs of various sorts. Smoke may be a sign of fire, or it may simply be the sign of warm steam rising on a cold day. I have a very different relationship with smoke I see coming from the side of my house if I interpret it as a sign of fire, but quite a different relationship to it if I interpret it as steam venting from my dryer.

So too my relationship with sentient things will depend upon how I interpret various signs that accompany different mental or emotional states. Does the dog’s face, growl, and body language suggest he is vicious? Does the other person in the elevator’s face, growl, and body language suggest he is vicious? What is the tone of his voice? Is he making eye contact or looking away purposefully? How should I interpret that? As a desire to be left alone? Or as a sign of someone who is feeling guilty or planning something evil?

Thus even within the category of relationships between persons, we can, do, and often must, distinguish. Consider the different kinds of relationality one might have with what we loosely call a “neighbor.” We say of Person A, “she lives down the street from me, but I’ve never met her.” There were, when I was a young boy, houses of families on the street on whose doors you could freely knock, and other houses on whose property you were forbidden to venture. You would not dare to walk up the front walkway, let alone knock on the door. I have known others, however, who had “neighbors” on their street into whose houses they could walk freely at nearly any time of the day. I knew a woman whose family had a downstairs room into which they would welcome teenage friends of the family to “sleep it off” at any hour of the night or early morning to ensure that they would not drive home intoxicated. It is a very different relationship to have a neighbor at whose door you knock gingerly and wait quietly as opposed to one whose door you open yourself and walk in freely because you are considered “part of the family.”

“We’re in a relationship”

When asked about why they are seeing a young man or young woman more often, a contemporary teen might, after some hemming and hawing, admit: “We’re in a relationship.” This answer, even if painfully extracted, remains purposefully vague. What kind of “relationship” is it? One of location? She stands beside me a lot for some reason. Is she a “study partner,” a “friend,” a “good friend,” a friend you can share your deepest thoughts with, a “girlfriend,” a lover, a wife?

This isn’t just a matter of playing word games. It is, or should be, an attempt to bring to our awareness something we sense but need to name, because naming, expressing a reality in words, is one way we come to understand something, distinguish it from other things, and then value it properly. Naming isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about locking us in a box. It is about understanding and distinguishing things in ways that foster mutual understanding and stronger relationships.

What is my relationship to my family and to my work? To my boss? To my fellow workers? To my family members? My neighbors? What should be the relationship of my boss to me? Is it appropriate for him to call me at 10 p.m.? It is precisely our inability to foster clarity and mutual understanding about the nature of different relationships that has caused so many people in the modern world to be anxious, offended, or on edge much of the time.

It will likely not help much to say that our relationship to others should be a relationship of “love,” not because love is not important, but rather because the nature of that “love” will almost certainly depend on the nature of the relationship. I love my books; I love my friends; and I love my wife. The relationships are not the same. St. Augustine famously defined virtue as an ordo amoris, an “order of love,” in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. If Augustine is right about this — and I believe he is — then a key element of “virtue” will be a proper understanding of the different relationships we have with various things and persons.

A metaphysics not merely of objects but of human persons would need to consider the distinctions in these various forms of human relationality. Granted, as our analysis extends to human relationships, we might not want to call it “metaphysics” anymore. We might prefer to call it “ethics” or “politics,” under which headings we would attempt to bring some clarity to the various types and character of human relationships. But we would still be considering beings in relationship to one another. These latter studies of “ethics” and “politics” would have their own proper subject-matter, but they would be an extension of our basic study of relationality, not a complete replacement of it.

Now there has been a long tradition of thinkers throughout human history — Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious — who have affirmed that there is yet another important dimension of human relationality, that human beings are distinguished by their ability to be related not only to thing in the world, but also to the world as a whole, that persons can understand particular things, even themselves, within the context of the complex unity of larger wholes: this cog is a part of a larger machine; this light bulb is connected to a series of wires that brings power to the house and lights this light. So too persons are connected in various ways to this family, this neighborhood, this university, this company, this group of veterans wounded in Vietnam, this nation. What is controversial to some is the notion that we humans are related in a similarly meaningful way to the whole order of reality. This is a question we will take up in Part 2 of this reflection, “What Kind of Relationship with God?”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."


  1. An initial reference to Aquinas on transcendentals helps explain my assessment of an interesting article. “Saint Thomas follows the typical account of the transcendentals consisting of the One, Good, and True. The transcendentals are ontologically one, thus they are convertible. Where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also. At the beginning of the medieval period the philosophy of Aristotle was pre-eminent, kept alive in particular by the work of Arabic philosophers. The term “transcendental” was introduced into the west from Arabic philosophy [Ibn Sina] by Philip the Chancellor in the early thirteenth century. Thomas Aquinas reduced the number of transcendentals to three, namely Unum, Bonum, Verum the One, the Good and the True which he referred to as the Ens Realissimum, or the most real Being. Bonaventure added the term Pulchrum or Beauty to the list” (Jan A. Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought. From Philip the Chancellor ca. 1225 to Francisco Suárez, Leiden: Brill, 2012). More specifically Good is convertible with Being (ST 1a2ae 18, 3). Conceivably then we may add beauty as a relation to being. Now on relation and Norris Clarke SJ. At Fordham I attended Clarke’s lectures, disagreed with his repudiation of Thomas Aquinas on the dependence of Man’s existence on God’s act of existence. That human existence is not absolute rather dependent and conditional. For Clarke, relationship is a venue by which Man’s existence is affirmed as independent though in relation to God. Although transcendentals are properties of being. Of this specific existing man or thing. Relation if perceived as my understanding of how something is meaningful we’re discussing imputed knowledge. Author Randall Smith says he has “no dog in the fight” regarding Norris Clarke SJ and his argument for relation as a transcendental property of being. It’s an important question which Smith ends with, “We might not want to call it ‘metaphysics’ anymore. We might prefer to call it ethics or politics”. That is the right course since as said the transcendental is a specific property of being. He adds that this would instead be an “extension” of ethics and politics not a replacement. Referencing Augustine he adds, “A key element of ‘virtue’ will be a proper understanding of the different relationships we have with various things and persons”. What comes to mind is the relation of the preeminent virtue of Justice, how love of the other, Man relates to love of our environment. Of our care for the planet. This is not the Pontiff’s exclusive idea since previous pontiffs have addressed it. The contested issue is which relation must be given precedence. So discussion of relation in this context does have significant value.

    • You write: “At Fordham I attended Clarke’s lectures [SJ!], disagreed with his repudiation of Thomas Aquinas on the dependence of Man’s existence on God’s act of existence [subsistence]. That human existence is not absolute rather dependent and conditional.”

      Worthy of an article or two, and cause of unending centuries of human strife, is Clarke’s falsely-asserted independence of Man from God. On this subtle and yet crucial point:

      (a) Marx famously said (of our contingency): “this question is not permitted to socialist man.”

      And (b) Islam fails to comprehend human freedom (as in “the image and likeness of God”) only partly because of freedom’s abuse, holding instead that there can be no such “autonomy” since in the Muslim mind such autonomy competes with the singular autonomy of Allah and, therefore, is “blasphemy.”

    • As to Norris Clarke’s repudiation of Aquinas and God’s act of existence it centered on Aquinas’ doctrine that only in God is essence identical with existence. Consequently a man’s essence is not identical with his existence [this is exactly what Fr Clarke disagreed with, holding that what we are while created entirely substantiates that we are]. The reason why Aquinas taught differently is for one, we don’t find the cause of our existence in what we are, our essence. The problem impinges directly on the One and the Many. Aquinas’ doctrine corresponds to scriptural reference, the Apostle Paul, Book of Wisdom, and elsewhere where we read it is God who not simply causes things to exist, he also keeps all things in existence. Otherwise Man would not only be distinct from God but also independent of God, to the discredit of the One and the Many. Take the Trinity for example and the unity of three divine Persons. In Christ his human nature is created, his divine nature uncreated. Although the Persons are distinct as Persons they are One as One God. That cannot be true for Christ’s human nature. As Saint Athanasius taught Christ is God from the essence of his Father and man from the essence of his mother. Jesus’ essence from Mary cannot be an existence independent from the action of the Father who keeps both divine and human nature hypostatically united in one Person. Therefore we must say that the Person of Christ is divine. His human nature real and manifest to the world is retained through the omnipotent action of the Father. Man then cannot be existent simply by an independent relation [rather by participation in God’s existence as held by Severinus Manlius Boethius and later Aquinas], as if he were himself divine to who is his Author and who gives him existence. As it stands it is through the benevolence of God that all things exist and continue toward their ordained end, and for Man a journey toward exstatic unity with his Creator through a life lived in Christ his Exemplar. As such we become a unity related to Christ as mother, brother, sister relatives not by our existence rather by grace.

  2. Dr. Smith summarizes: “A metaphysics not merely of objects but of human persons would need to consider the distinctions in these various forms of human relationality.”

    Yes, this consideration, and yet more: a metaphysics of human “persons” also would need to consider the ANALOGY of us as relational persons distinct from the higher and deeper relationality of the self-disclosed mystery of Triune Oneness. That is, vertically more than horizontally, as toward the mutual indwelling (ultimate relationality!) of each of the three divine “Persons” of the Trinity, each fully distinct and yet each fully within the Others.

    Without this uncreated and subsisting Trinity at the core of created existence (a fully gratuitous and therefore “creating” core, not deterministic or merely emanating), it seems to me, the philosophical arguments, alone, remain ever at risk of dissolving into William of Occam’s Nominalism—-the practical convenience of mere words, e.g., a chair is not really a “chair”, but only a cobbling together of sticks, and these sticks, in turn, are simply woven celluloid strands, and the strands, molecules, etc. etc. etc. “Distinctions” ad infinitum: the accidental universe?

    So, thinking relationally, why do we as persons say “things” rather than no-things, and “universe” rather than mere star dust and other stuff? With St. Augustine, “You [!] have made us for yourself, and our ‘hearts’ [!] are restless, until they can find rest in You.”

  3. Actually, the chair is made more beautiful by the action of you sitting in it, fulfilling its function as a chair! (But not in the same way the wall is made more beautiful by the paint)


4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. What kind of relationship? On the “one”, the “many”, and things in the world – On God's Payroll
  2. What kind of relationship with God? – Catholic World Report
  3. What kind of relationship with God? - Catholic Daily
  4. What kind of relationship with God? - Catholic Mass Search

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.