CT 93: Production of the Rational Soul

Thomas has established that each man has but one soul, the Rational Soul, which includes all of the faculties of the Sensitive and Vegetative souls. So where does this Rational Soul come from?

This ultimate and complete form, the rational soul, is brought into existence, not by the power that is in the semen, but by a higher cause. For the power that is in the semen is a bodily power. But the rational soul exceeds the whole nature and power of the body, since no body can rise to the heights of the soul’s intellectual activity. Nothing can act in a way that surmounts its species, because the agent is nobler than the patient, and the maker excels his product. Hence the power possessed by a body cannot produce the rational soul, nor, consequently, can the energy inherent in the semen do so.

I don’t want to debate (or explore) Thomas’ understanding of human reproduction. The point is that the Rational Soul, have an intellectual, immaterial component, cannot be produced by material and bodily activity.

Thomas says, “…the agent is nobler than the patient, and the maker excels his product.” What does me he mean by this?

First, the agent is the thing acting, and the patient the thing acted upon. If I carve a figure out of wood, I am the agent, and the wood is the patient.

Second, the agent brings about a change in the patient. Every change is a move from some potency to some act through some form. If I carve a piece of wood into the shape of a dog, say, then I have a taken a piece of wood, a thing that has the potential to take on the shape of a dog, and given that shape, that form, to the piece of wood. In other words, the agent gives a new form to the patient.

Now, no agent can give what it does not have. In order to bring about the change, I must be capable of so doing. I must know what a dog looks in order to carve a wooden dog. Thus, with respect to any particular change, the thing changed cannot be greater than the agent which is changing it.

In short, a physical mechanism cannot give a human fetus an immaterial soul; it does not have that form to give.

Moreover, a thing that has new existence must also have a new becoming; for that which is, must first become, since a thing becomes in order that it may be. Thus things which have being in their own right must have becoming in their own right; such are subsistent beings. But things that do not possess being in their own right do not properly have a becoming; such are accidents and material forms.

A person “becomes”, comes to be, when the egg is fertilized. Prior to that moment there was no person; after it there is. For that person to be, it must have come to be.

The rational soul has being in its own right, because it has its own operation, as is clear from our previous discussion.

Therefore, the rational soul is a substance, and must come to be. I’m not sure why having its own operation requires that the rational soul is a being in its own right. (One more connection I’ve not yet made.)

Now here’s the fascinating bit:

Therefore becoming is properly predicated of the rational soul. Since the soul is not composed of matter and form, as was shown above, it cannot be brought into being except by creation. But God alone can create, as we said above. Consequently the rational soul is produced by God alone.

A material being can come to be when a substantial form is given to matter. But an immaterial being cannot come into being in this way. It has to be created ex nihilo, from nothing. Only God can do that.

This had never occurred to me. It makes all kinds of sense, though. Through God’s providence, the world has a built-in mechanism for all kinds of things to come to be that doesn’t involve God’s active creation from nothing. But the human soul is different. That’s very cool.

We can readily understand why this should be so. In all arts that are hierarchically related to one another, we observe that the highest art induces the ultimate form, whereas the lower arts dispose matter for the reception of the ultimate form. The rational soul, evidently, is the ultimate and most perfect form that the matter of beings subject to generation and corruption can achieve. Therefore natural agents, which operate on lower levels, appropriately cause preliminary dispositions and forms, whereas the supreme agent, God, causes the ultimate form, which is the rational soul.

If the agent must be greater than the patient, then the greater the form to be imparted, the greater the agent must be. For the supreme form in the material world, the human soul, only God’s power will suffice.

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