The window above from the former Dominican priory chapel at Hawkesyard depicts the link between the Annunciation, the Cross and the Trinitarian life.
Brian Davies says in his book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas that writing about Aquinas always puts you in between two things because of his marvelous consistency, what he is saying about something affects what he is saying about something else – so the author is constantly using phrases as “We shall see…” or “As we have seen…”
We catch Dr. Davies in this midswim before he reflects on Aquinas notions of the human being. I could have cut it but it struck me as a good example of what the student of Aquinas is dealing with when he approaches him piecemeal (which we can’t help but do, I guess).
Studying Aquinas is a life-long pursuit. I’m happy I came to him on my own volition because the groans I’ve heard from students who haven’t more than demonstrate the dangers of the forced feeding that seems to go on in our Catholic seminaries and schools. Davies book is excellent BTW and I’m going to make the library copy I’m using now into a purchase at Amazon. And, no, I’m not going to buy if for $47 or whatever. Something nutty happens on Amazon when the publisher is running out of copies. I saw the hardcover for an Ed Feser book selling for $95 once. Look for the paperback or the used editions.
IN THE LAST CHAPTER I was trying to indicate what Aquinas says about the Trinity considered in itself. In the jargon of modern theology, I was concerned with his teaching on the `immanent Trinity’. But Aquinas also believes that the `immanent Trinity’ is the `economic trinity’. This thesis that `the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity’ is something of a commonplace in modern discussions of the Trinity. [See John J. O'Donnell, SJ, The Mystery of the Triune God London, 1988, 36 f.] The God we experience in creation is fully God as God is outside of creation. “God for Us” = “God in Godself” This can be contrasted with Eastern Christianity where the God we experience in creation is not fully God as God is outside of Creation. There is more to God than what we experience in creation. “God in Godself” is more than “God for Us”
As readers of Aquinas will discover, it is not a new thesis. For he thinks that God both acts in the world and is present in it. Aquinas also believes in the Incarnation and the sending of the Spirit. So he says that we can speak, not just of processions in God, but also of sending or missions. The Son and the Spirit are sent. We are dealing here, says Aquinas, `with a new way of being present somewhere’ (Ia.43.1). The Son comes to be present in a new way by virtue of the Incarnation. The Spirit comes to be present by virtue of the life of Christ and its consequences. These missions are entirely temporal – they have to do with what has happened in the history of the world. That is why he holds that the Trinity matters to us. He does not see the doctrine of the Trinity as a complicated exercise in speculative celestial physics. He thinks of it as a wonderful truth which is full of implications for people. For he believes that the ‘Trinity is `economic’ in and for humanity, and that its significance lies in the fact that we may come to share in its life.
Before we can appreciate why Aquinas thinks this, however, we will need to look further at his understanding of people. We have already seen something of what that amounts to, but the picture that has so far emerged still needs to be added to. Aquinas maintains that we share in the life of the Trinity as human beings, and to grasp the implications of that notion we must first know what he thinks human beings are.
Me and My Body
Aquinas obviously thinks of people as created, and as part of a world held in existence by God. Because he thinks of them as having intellect and will, he also thinks of them as being in the image of God, to whom intellect and will can also be ascribed. But properly to grasp what Aquinas thinks people are, as well as to give his understanding a context, it will help if we bear in mind two major views representing opposite ends of the spectrum of opinion concerning the nature of people. The first is Dualism. The second is Physicalism.’
By `Dualism’ I mean the very influential theory classically expounded by Descartes in texts such as his Meditations on First Philosophy and still advocated by some philosophers. According to Descartes, people are composed of two distinct kinds of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff, mind and body. These are connected and able to influence each other, but mind is radically distinct from body, and persons are identical with their minds, not their bodies. The real me is not my body; it is my mind, or, as Descartes sometimes says, my `soul’.
My essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing. It is true that I may have (or, to anticipate, that I certainly have) a body that is very closely joined to me. But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other I have a clear and distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.
The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John. Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, 1985), ii. 54.
Physicalism is really just the opposite of Descartes’ position. It holds that people are made up of one kind of stuff — matter of body — and that this includes all that we might call `mind’ or `mental states and processes’. A version of Physicalism is the so-called `Identity Theory’, which holds that mind and body are identical in that mental events or states are nothing but brain processes under another name. According to the Identity Theory, persons are identical with a set of physical states or events just as lightning is identical with electrical discharge, or just as the Morning Star is identical with the Evening Star.’
With these theories in mind, as good a way as any of describing Aquinas’s position on what people amount to is to say that he adopts a position midway between the extremes of Dualism and Physicalism. He denies that people are essentially incorporeal. So he is not a Dualist. But neither does he think that people are nothing but collections of physical processes. So he is not a Physicalist either. For him, people are composite individuals.
Aquinas’s teaching on the nature of the human person is close to that of Aristotle’s De anima. Aristotle thought that people are not two things, mind and body, but complex unities both mental and physical. Those who think of people as made up of two things often speak of them as being composed of body plus soul. Aristotle, however, rejects this way of talking. For him, people are ensouled bodies. `We can’, he says, `wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question whether the body and soul are one: it is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.
And such is Aquinas’s position. He agrees that we can speak about people by means of the words `soul’ and `body’. But he does not think of people as bodies plus souls. He holds that we are mental/physical units, where ‘mental’ and `physical’ are not simply reducible to each other. He says that a human being is `a compound whose substance is both spiritual and corporeal’. He thinks that to speak of us having souls is dust to assert that we are substances of that kind.
In the Latin of Aquinas, the word translated as `soul’ is anima, which means `that which animates’ or `that which gives life’. When he speaks of `soul’, therefore, Aquinas means something like `principle of life’. `Inquiry into the nature of the soul’, he writes, `presupposes an understanding of the soul as the root principle of life in living things within our experience. According to him, anything alive has a soul. And his view is that people are bodies of a certain kind, bodies with a certain kind of life (soul). Commenting on Aristotle, therefore, he explains:
There had been much uncertainty about the way the soul and body are conjoined. Some had supposed a sort of medium connecting the two together by a sort of bond. But the difficulty can be set aside now that it has been shown that the soul is the form of the body. As Aristotle says, there is no more reason to ask whether soul and body make one thing than to ask the same about the wax and the impression sealed on it, or about any other matter and its form. For, as is shown in the Metaphysics, Book VIII, form is directly related to matter as the actuality of matter; once matter actually is it is informed … Therefore, just as the body gets its being from the soul, as from its form, so too it makes a unity with this soul to which it is immediately related.
In Aristotelis librum De anima commentarium 2.I.234
The key words here are `the soul is the form of the body’. By `form’, Aquinas means `substantial form’. In the passage just quoted, therefore, he is saying that in the case of living things (in the case of things with souls) the principle of life (the soul) is what we get as we get the things with all their essential features or characteristics. The soul, for him, is the form of the body in the sense that living bodies of certain kinds have a principle of life.
So people, for Aquinas, are living things of a certain kind. But what kind of things are they? They are, says Aquinas, animals — living creatures of flesh and blood, things more like dogs and cats than sticks and stones. This means that much that is true of non-human animals is also true of people. They are, for instance, capable of physical movement. And they have biological characteristics. They have the capacity to grow and reproduce. They have the need and capacity to eat. These characteristics are not, for Aquinas, optional extras which people can take up and discard. They are essential elements in the make-up of a human being. And they are very much bound up with what is physical or material.
This line of thinking, of course, immediately sets Aquinas apart from writers like Descartes. Descartes maintains that I am my mind and that my body is something I have or something to which I am connected. For Aquinas, however, my body is not to be distinguished from me in this way.
For as it belongs to the very conception of `this human being’ that there should be this soul, flesh and bone, so it belongs to the very conception of `human being’ that there be soul, flesh and bone. For the substance of a species has to contain whatever belongs in general to every one of the individuals comprising that species.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.4
At several points in his writings Aquinas directly refers to the thesis that people are essentially substances different from bodies on which they act (a view which he ascribes to Plato). But he rejects it quite strongly.
Plato and his followers asserted that the intellectual soul is not united to the body as form to matter, but only as mover to movable, for Plato said that the soul is in the body `as a sailor in a ship’. Thus the union of soul and body would only be by contact of power. . . But this doctrine seems not to fit the facts.
Summa contra gentiles, 2.57
In Aquinas’ view, if our souls moved our bodies as sailors move ships, our souls and our bodies would be distinct things and could not make up one thing distinct in its own right. We would be an amalgam or a collection of things rather than a unity. He adds that if we are souls using bodies, then we are essentially immaterial, which is not the case. We are `sensible and natural realities’ and cannot, therefore, be essentially immaterial.
So Aquinas is clearly not a dualist. But nor is he what I have called a `physicalist’. For, according to him, people (unlike other animals) have intellect (or understanding) and will, which means that they are rational animals able to comprehend, think, love, and choose. From what we have just seen, it will be evident that Aquinas takes the human body to be an essential element in human life. He thinks that being a human person is being a bodily animal. But he also holds that understanding and willing are not physical processes. And this leads him, without espousing Descartes’ position, to speak of people as having both soul and body. It also leads him to hold that the soul can survive the death of the body.
Soul and Body
I say that Aquinas speaks of people as having both soul and body, and this might seem puzzling since I have also said that he does not believe that people are two distinct things: soul and body. But, though he denies that they are two distinct things, he still feels obliged to distinguish between what is true of people and what is true of bodies. That is because he holds that the human soul cannot he something corporeal, though it must be something subsisting.
In arguing for the non-corporeal nature of the human soul, Aquinas begins by reminding us what anima means — i.e. `that which makes living things live’. And, with that understanding in mind, he contends that soul cannot be something bodily. There must, he says, be some principle of life which distinguishes living things from non-living things, and this cannot be a body. Why not? Because, Aquinas continues, if it were a body it would follow that any material thing would be living, which is simply not the case. A body, therefore, is alive not just because it is a body. It is alive because of a principle of life which is not a body.
It is obvious that not every principle of vital activity is a soul. Otherwise the eye would he a soul, since it is a principle of sight; and so with the other organs of the soul. What we call the soul is the root principle of life. Now though something corporeal can be some sort of principle of life, as the heart is for animals, nevertheless a body cannot be the root principle of life. For it is obvious that to be the principle of life, or that which is alive, does not belong to any bodily thing from the mere fact of its being a body; otherwise every bodily thing would be alive or a life-source. Consequently any particular body that is alive, or even indeed a source of life, is so from being a body of such-and-such a kind. Now whatever is actually such, as distinct from not-such, has this from some principle which we call its actuating principle. Therefore a soul, as the primary principle of life, is not a body but that which actuates a body.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.1
In other words, the difference between, say, me and my pen is that I am not just a body. I am a living body. And that which makes me this cannot itself be a body since, if bodily things are alive just by being bodies, then all bodies would be alive, including my pen.
But why say that the human soul is something subsisting? The main point made by Aquinas in reply to this question is that the human animal has powers or functions which are not simply bodily, even though they depend on bodily ones. Aquinas maintains that knowledge comes about as the forms of things are received immaterially. When Fred has knowledge, there is more to Fred than what can be seen, touched, weighed, and so on. As Aquinas puts it, there is intellect or intellectual life, and it is by virtue of this that Fred is the kind of thing he is (a rational animal). Aquinas calls this `that by virtue of which Fred is the kind of thing he is’ Fred’s `soul’. So he can say that Fred is bodily but also that Fred is (or has) both body and soul. The two cannot be torn apart in any way that would leave Fred intact. But they can be distinguished from each other, and the soul of Fred can therefore be thought of as something subsisting immaterially.
The principle of the act of understanding, which is called the human soul, must of necessity be some kind of incorporeal and subsistent principle. For it is obvious that the understanding of people enables them to know the natures of all bodily things. But what can in this way take in things must have nothing of their nature in its own, for the form that was in it by nature would obstruct knowledge of anything else. For example, we observe how the tongue of someone sick with fever and bitter infection cannot perceive anything sweet, for everything tastes sour. Accordingly, if the intellectual principle had in it the physical nature of any bodily thing, it would be unable to know all bodies. Each of them has its own determinate nature. Impossible, therefore, that the principle of understanding be something bodily. And in the same way it is impossible for it to understand through and in a bodily organ, for the determinate nature of that bodily organ would prevent knowledge of all bodies. Thus if you had a color filter over the eye, and had a glass vessel of the same color, it would not matter what you poured into the glass, it would always appear the same color. The principle of understanding, therefore, which is called mind or intellect, has its own activity in which body takes no intrinsic part. But nothing can act of itself unless it subsists in its own right. For only what actually exists acts, and its manner of acting follows its manner of being. So it is that we do not say that heat heats, but that something hot heats. Consequently the human soul, which is called an intellect or mind, is something incorporeal and subsisting.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.2
Aquinas does not mean that the human soul is a distinct thing in its own right. His notion that it subsists does not entail that it is a complete and self-contained entity, as, for example, Descartes thought the soul to be. For Aquinas, my human soul subsists because I have an intellectual life which cannot be reduced to what is simply bodily. It does not subsist as something with its own life apart from me, any more than my left hand does, or my right eye. Both of these can be spoken of as things, but they are really parts of me. We do not say `My left hand feels’ or `My right eve sees’; rather we say `I feel with my left hand’ and `I see with my right eye’. And Aquinas thinks that something similar should be said about my soul. I have intellect and will by my soul. But it is not my soul which understands and wills. I do.
We might add that there is a further significant aspect of Aquinas’ thinking which distinguishes him from Descartes and the kind of dualism represented by him. According to Descartes (and to many of his philosophical successors) there is a problem when it comes to knowing the material world, but none when it comes to knowing the self. On his account, I know myself better than anything else. And I know myself as something non-bodily, as mind distinct from body, as a spiritual, non-material substance. This I do by introspection. The Cartesian view of persons typically lays stress on the importance of self-consciousness. According to Aquinas, however, there is no such thing as direct human self-knowledge, where the object known is something incorporeal. His view is that we come to knowledge of things as we encounter material objects and receive forms intentionally. And one of the things he takes this to mean is that we come to self-knowledge as (so to speak) we live a bodily life.
Since it is connatural for our intellect in the present life to look to material, sensible things, as said before, it follows that our intellect understands itself according as it is made actual by species abstracted from sensible realities by the light of the agent intellect.
Summa theologiae Ia 87.1
We come to know ourselves as we come to know about other things — by abstracting from sense experience. Or, in Aquinas’s words: `While the soul is joined to the body it understands by turning to sense images; it cannot even understand itself except in that it comes to be actually understanding through a species abstracted from sense images. (Summa theologiae Ia 98.2)
This, of course, entails that there will be considerable room for error when it comes to understanding what a person is. On Descartes’ model, persons are directly present to themselves and there is no room for error concerning what they arc. Just as I can look at a red patch and describe it accurately by gazing on it and describing what I see, so I can gaze on my (incorporeal) self and state what I see. For Aquinas, however, knowing what people are is the fruit of research. We have to learn what we are.
`Mere presence,’ he writes, ‘is not sufficient, and a diligent, subtle inquiry is needed. Many, for this reason, are simply ignorant of the soul’s nature and many are positively mistaken about it’
Summa theologiae Ia 87.1