Monday, December 22, 2008

On St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul and conception

A distinction between human life and the presence of a human soul is not philosophically tenable. Or at least not insofar as many who put it forward attempt to use St. Thomas Aquinas as support for their position.

It is true that St. Thomas, following the received embryology of his day, did not believe that the ensoulment of an immortal, rational soul happened until some few months after conception. What is never mentioned is that, given St. Thomas' understanding of the relationship between body and soul, this means that there was no human life until after the ensoulment of an immortal, rational soul.

The soul is the substantial form of the body. This means that the soul makes the body be the kind of being that it is and grants to it all the powers that it possesses. Now, a human being is a rational animal. This means that it possesses a rational soul, from which stem its powers of intellect and will. But, since the soul is the substantial form of the body, this rational soul is also the origin of a man's vegetative and animal powers, i.e. the powers of life, reproduction, growth, nutrition, sensation and local motion.

Now, in the received embryology of the day, the being in the womb after conception first possessed only a vegetative soul. Thus it possessed only the powers of vegetative life, nutrition, growth. After some development this vegetative soul was replaced by an animal soul. Thus the being no longer had simply vegetative life, but animal life. Thus, in addition to the powers of nutrition and growth it now began to develop the powers of sensation and local motion, as seen through the development of sense organs and limbs. Finally, when this animal development had reached a fitting stage, God would infuse the being with an immortal, rational soul. Animal life would now be replaced by human life, and the rational soul would be the origin not only of the powers of nutrition, growth, sensation and local motion, but also of the powers of intellect and will.

As this brief sketch hopefully makes clear, there was no human life before the infusion of an immortal, rational, human soul. For to have a human life is to be a human being, to be a human being is to be a rational animal, and to be a rational animal is have an immortal, rational soul.

Thus those who would use St. Thomas as cover for their pro-abortion positions demonstrate only that they know nothing of St. Thomas. For in St. Thomas there can only be human life were matter is informed by an immortal, rational soul. If it can be demonstrated that human life begins at conception, then, for St. Thomas, it would be demonstrated that a human soul is infused by God and present at the moment of conception. To say otherwise would be to imply a duality between body and soul that is entirely foreign to the thought of St. Thomas.

An interesting note: The Council of Vienna formally declared that "whoever shall obstinately presume in turn to assert, define, or hold that the rational or intellective soul is not the form of the human body in itself and essentially must be regarded as a heretic" (Denzinger, 30th ed., no. 481). The conclusion that can be drawn from this pronouncement and the brief philosophical sketch given above I will leave to the reader.


Anonymous said...

Ps 139 is a seminal verse for many Christians for the existence of life in the womb. But look at the rest of the verse.
PS 139:16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Note the writer David envisioned an unformed body before his days "came to be." What other conclusion can you derive but the "days comming to be" are after he has a formed body.

Christ had to explain to Nicodemus that we have to be born of
water ( the amniotic
fluid of the womb) and born again spiritually.

So our first life is after birth thru the birth canal and amniotic fluid. Our second spiritual birth is by faith by which we are imputed a new spirital life.

brendon said...

Your comment is tendentious, and, more importantly, incorrect.

1. You are using an English translation of the Bible. No English translation can be used for serious Biblical arguments because there are far too many of them, each with its own agenda and its own defects. A serious argument would have to be based upon the original language - in this case, Hebrew - or on an ancient translation that is recognized as being in some way definitive, such as the Septuagint (Greek) or the Vulgate (Latin).

I don't know Hebrew, but I do know some Greek and Latin. The Septuagint reads ἀκατέργαστόν, while the Vulgate reads imperfectum. Neither of these are best translated as 'unformed'. Rather, 'unfinished', 'incomplete', or 'imperfect' would be better. These words do not demand that the body not be a living, human body.

2. Reading "my unformed body" in the way you choose to is absurd. If the body is not informed with the soul, then it is not David's body at all because their is, as of yet, no David. David does not exist until he comes into being as a living, human person, which requires the existence of a composition of form and matter, i.e. soul and body.

Moreover, if their is no form, then there is no body, not even in the most basic sense of physical mass. Truly unformed matter does not exist. Everything exists as something, and it is form which makes a thing be the kind of thing that it is. Perhaps you would say that he simply means that the body has no soul, no human form. But if their is no human soul, then their is no human body. Yet David is clearly referring not just to some mass, but to his own human body. Your reading entirely destroys these manifest meanings.

3. Your reading that, "David envisioned an unformed body before his days 'came to be'," is not necessary, and seems contradictory to the text you quoted. Your translation separates, "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be," from, "your eyes saw my unformed body," by a period. This implies that, "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be," is a different thought than, "your eyes saw my unformed body." It is perfectly possible to read David to mean that the Lord saw all his days before he came to be even in an incomplete sense, such as the sense given in the previous sentence.

4. You are assuming that biblical translators and - assuming that these translators are correct, which I doubt for reasons already given - ancient Israelite kings are using the word 'form' - and therefore the word 'unformed' - in the same philosophical sense that developed in and from ancient Greek philosophy. It is entirely more likely that they are using the word in a more colloquial and less precise sense. Thus, you are committing the fallacy of equivocation, since the use of 'unformed' in the Psalm would thus not be contradictory to the use of 'form' in the way I am using it.


brendon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
brendon said...

5. You entirely misinterpret Our Lord's comment to Nicodemus. 'Water' is not opposed to 'Spirit' according to a natural/supernatural dichotomy. Both water and the Spirit refer together to sacramental baptism where sanctifying grace is imparted to a soul, and the soul is infused with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Nothing there is referencing amniotic fluid in any way.

6. Faith is not opposed to reason, nor contradictory of it. My argument in this post was a philosophical one based upon empirical experience. Since your reading is in no way required by the text of the Psalm - and, indeed, is dubious for reasons already given - you would need demonstrate my reasoning to be faulty. This you have not done. Indeed, you haven't truly interacted with my post at all. You simply posted a tendentious and dubious piece of scriptural exegesis.

7. The Catholic Church - the Body and Bride of Christ - speaks with His authority. This is because she possesses the keys to the kingdom - the keys being an ancient symbol of kingly authority delegated to a vicar or minister while the king was away. Not only does she not demand that I interpret this Psalm in the way you do, but her teachings blatantly contradict your dubious exegesis. Moreover, even when the empirical experience was lacking so as to call abortion murder, she still condemned it as an intrinsic and grave evil. When I am forced to choose between you and the Body and Bride of Christ - between some anonymous, hit-and-run commenter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth - my choice is manifestly clear.

swordnavitas said...

I am devotee of St. Thomas and before actually reading the part which tells of this three part idea I prayed to St. Thomas and asked for his help as I agree wholeheartedly that as you said
"to imply a duality between body and soul that is entirely foreign to the thought of St. Thomas."

And of course the angelic answerer of questions directed me to the Summa 1st Part Q75

"I answer that, To seek the nature of the soul, we must premise that the soul is defined as the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things "animate," [*i.e. having a soul], and those things which have no life, "inanimate." Now life is shown principally by two actions, knowledge and movement. The philosophers of old, not being able to rise above their imagination, supposed that the principle of these actions was something corporeal: for they asserted that only bodies were real things; and that what is not corporeal is nothing: hence they maintained that the soul is something corporeal. This opinion can be proved to be false in many ways; but we shall make use of only one proof, based on universal and certain principles, which shows clearly that the soul is not a body.

"It is manifest that not every principle of vital action is a soul, for then the eye would be a soul, as it is a principle of vision; and the same might be applied to the other instruments of the soul: but it is the "first" principle of life, which we call the soul. Now, though a body may be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, as the heart is a principle of life in an animal, yet nothing corporeal can be the first principle of life. For it is clear that to be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, does not belong to a body as such; since, if that were the case, every body would be a living thing, or a principle of life. Therefore a body is competent to be a living thing or even a principle of life, as "such" a body. Now that it is actually such a body, it owes to some principle which is called its act. Therefore the soul, which is the first principle of life, is not a body, but the act of a body; thus heat, which is the principle of calefaction, is not a body, but an act of a body."

Since the fertilized embryo becomes "animated" when it begins to divide into a multicellular organism and St. Thomas tells us that the soul animates the body to life... voila! I had such joy on reading this... I knew it would be inherently throughout, but this is plain as day.

Thank you for you blog,
Susie L.