CT 85: Unity of the Possible Intellect (Part I)

Uncle Screwtape describes human beings as an amphibious combination of matter and spirit, of animal and angel. Thomas’ topic in this chapter is the precise nature of this amphibious combination. He clearly thinks it is of the first importance: this is the first chapter I’ve run into in the Compendium Theologiae that reads like an article from its big brother, the Summa Theologiae, complete with objections, a sed contra, and answers to the objections.

Here’s some background. Animals have a nature, an essence, a species, that serves them as their substantial form. It is a purely material form: it gives form to their matter, and has no immaterial aspect. And, within that species, all individuals have the same species, the same substantial form. There is one species, Dog, and there are many individual dogs. What makes them individuals—in Thomas’ lingo, what makes them “numerically distinct”—is their matter. This dog’s matter is distinct from that dog’s.

Angels are different. Angels are pure spirit with no admixture of matter. Each angel has its immaterial form, which is, indeed, its species. So how do you get multiple individuals within a single species, when there’s no matter to individuate them? The answer is, you don’t. Each angel is alone in its species.

And then you’ve got humans, who are individuated by matter, as animals are, but have an intellectual (and hence immaterial) soul, as angels do. All humans manifestly are of the same species: they share a single essence, a single nature, which gives them their form. And we say that the soul is the form of the body. Since apparently you only get one intellectual substance per species (as with angels) and one essence, one species, for all individuals within that species, this led some thinkers to suggest that human beings share a single soul, a single intellect. We appear to be many, but in our inmost selves, we are all one.

Thomas stoutly disagrees: as we have immortal souls, our souls, shorn of our bodies, must remain individuals. (Uncle Screwtape was right: human beings are weird.)

In my next post, I’ll begin working through the objections.

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