The Soul and the Body

Phil’s been urging me to immerse myself in St. Thomas alone, rather than in his disciples, but I’ve resisted doing that. I find it most useful to approach new ideas from multiple angles, as it’s easier to discern their shapes that way. Here’s a vindication of my approach.

Part of the baggage of our cultures is Cartesian dualism, the notion that the body and the soul are entirely separate. This makes no sense, from the point of view of Christian doctrine, and Thomas had no such notion, as I’ve read; but in a book by Peter Kreeft I ran into the following passage, which really hammers home both the difficulty of overcoming our Cartesian heritage, and what a non-dualistic view of body-and-soul looks like:

The body is the content or material of the soul; the soul is the form of the body. We think it is a harmless platitude to say that we are one, not two; yet it entails the startling consequence that the answer to the question “What is the soul made of?” is “flesh and bones”, just as the answer to the question “What is this bunch of flesh and bones?” is “a human soul”.

There is no “me” without form (the soul) and matter (the body). I am a composite of the two, but not in the physical sense that an axe is a composite of a blade and a handle. The two parts are not separable. If I lose my form, I die…and though my soul continues, Kreeft suggests that this is a kind of cosmic obscenity, a deeply unnatural thing, to be rectified at the resurrection. (In fact, at one point he appears to suggest that between death and the resurrection one must have some kind of minimal body to exist at all.)

Herbert McCabe makes the point that form is that which is intelligible, which can be known through the intellect, and that matter is that which is unintelligible, which can not be known but can only be sensed. The use of the words matter and body in metaphysics is therefore not identical with our day to day meanings. And yet surely they are related? Surely our physical bodies are that which we can sense, while our souls can only be known?

4 Responses to “The Soul and the Body”

  1. “Form is said in many ways”, which is the Aristotelian way of saying, “Watch where you’re going!!”

    I guess I argue for reading Aquinas because he is a creative source. Obviously no one can read only St Thomas, but I just mean give as much preference as you can to reading him. Something happens beyond the merely conscious in reading him, you put on his manner of thinking and questioning.

    Anyway, you may or may not notice, but you are taking tremendous strides. Your vocabulary is cleaner and the illation is tighter, your questions more relevant, you’re well on your way.

  2. Part of my problem with those who come after is that they mix speaking secundum quid, ie speaking under a certain aspect, with speaking simpliciter about something, without making it clear that they are doing so. I find it cacophonic – take the quote from Kreeft – after reading it, do you think you will reply to others who ask what the soul is made of by saying “flesh and bones”? Of course not, you’ll say wait, let’s talk about what it means to make something up, about parts and wholes, about being a substance, etc. So is it just a rhetorical flourish by Kreeft? why should the rhetorical trump the metaphysical? That seems disordered, like saying (an example I used a couple weeks ago) that man is defined as an incarnate spirit, instead of a rational animal. That is improper, and never found in Thomas. Maybe that simplicity is what I love most about him.

  3. Will says:

    What I’m doing is reading Thomas for himself, and reading others as a source of examples. Take Kreeft as an example here. The book I found that passage in is called Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven (But Never Dreamed Of Asking). It’s not a book of Thomist philosophy; nevertheless, Kreeft writes from a Thomist point of view. And from that point of view, there is a sense in which my soul is made of my flesh and bone. And while it might be a rhetorical flourish, there’s a sense in which it is profoundly true, and reflecting on it showed me that I was still thinking about soul-and-body in a dualistic way. And had I stuck to Thomas alone, I might have gone for quite a while longer before I figured it out. I’m getting similar bits of light from Herbert McCabe’s On Aquinas.

    For what it’s worth, Kreeft agrees with you; in his abridgement of ST, he encourages readers to read Thomas rather than Thomists.

  4. Will says:

    il·la·tion (ĭ-lā’shən) n.

    1. The act of inferring or drawing conclusions.
    2. A conclusion drawn; a deduction. Also called illative.

    From the American Heritage Dictionary. Thought you’d like to know. (I certainly did.)