Aquinas vs. Ovid: body, soul, and person

As she splashed his hair with revengeful drops,
she spoke the spine-chilling words which warned of impending disaster:
‘Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked–
if story-telling is in your power!’ No more was needed.
The head she had sprinkled sprouted the horns of a lusty stag;
the neck expanded, the ears were narrowed to pointed tips;
she changed his hands into hooves and his arms into long and slender
forelegs; she covered his frame in a pelt of dappled buckskin;
last, she injected panic. The son of Autonoe bolted…

What does it mean to say that Diana turned Actaeon into a stag?  I mean, I get it that she’s a goddess and can cause a deer to appear where a man once was, but what does it mean to say that the deer is still Actaeon?  According to the Philosopher, the unity of a thing (and hence our ability to identify it as the same thing in different states) comes from its substantial form, but Actaeon has just changed species.  While there may be some continuity of vital and sensitive processes, the essential nature of these has been altered.  It would seem that this is no different from saying that Actaeon was killed and his matter reconstituted as a deer, but this is not how we understand the story.  (Otherwise, the deer being killed by Actaeon’s dogs would be no new misfortune for the poor hunter.)  An Aristotelian might say that the poet cheats by having the deer experience human-like emotions and thoughts.  Still, we have all experienced moments of terror when reason abandoned us.  Couldn’t we imagine Actaeon’s last moments being like this, and it being consistent with the restrictions of deer-nature?  We can imagine this, and we know what we are imagining that makes seeing Diana and getting attacked by dogs be events that happen to the same being.  It is a single subjectivity, a single stream of consciousness, a single “I” that can attach itself to both experiences, even though the two experiences belonged to different natures.

Maybe that’s a silly way to start this topic.  It’s just a story, after all.  However, when the patristic generation of Christians came to explain the mysteries of the Faith, they had to face some similar issues quite seriously.  They had to explain how it is that Jesus Christ had two natures, divine and human, while being a single being.  Ordinarily, a single being must have a single nature.  “The nature of X” tells us the basic qualities of X, so how could there be two answers to the basic qualities of a single being?  Hence the Monophysite heresy:  there was a single nature–call it “Jesus-nature”–that had both divine and human parts to it.  Orthodoxy rejects this view, and rightly so, because it doesn’t make sense.  God knows things in a different way than we do, so when Jesus, say, knew about the sun, He either did so in a human way (using concepts) or a divine way (direct knowledge as its creator).  If he knew about the sun in some other way, then his nature is neither human nor divine, but some third thing.  If you say he knew about the sun in both of the two ways, that’s two ways of knowing, not one:  a divine act corresponding to a divine nature, and a human act corresponding to a human nature.  And this is the solution the Fathers accepted.  Christ has two knowledges, two wills, and two natures.  That is, he had two different modes of operation.  In what sense, then, is he a single being?  A new metaphysical principle of unity was needed, and we now translate this principle as “person”.  It was the same person who on the one hand understood the sun humanly (within the limits of 1st-century science) and divinely (which is absolutely perfect knowledge, with no need for mediation by human abstractions).

Similarly, in the Trinity, we have one nature–meaning one knowledge and one will–but three Persons possessing it.  In our post-Kantian times, we would say that there are three “I”s in the Trinity and one in Jesus Christ.  Indeed, Kant himself maintained that the unity of consciousness that we recognize as a precondition for meaningful experience does not constitute knowledge of the self as a unitary substance, meaning that Kant recognized in conscious beings a different kind of unity than substantial unity.  (I know many theologians don’t like to think of the persons of the Trinity as being separate centers of subjectivity, but I don’t see how the doctrine is meaningful otherwise.)  Ordinarily, one intellectual substance is one person, but in God this correspondence breaks down.  From the Trinitarian controversies also came the idea that in God the persons are distinguished by their relations to each other.  Indeed, we see a reflection of this even in ordinary intelligent creatures, where the one-to-one substance/person identification holds.  The final cause of the intellect being God Himself, each person ultimately is a distinct relationship to God.  Actaeon’s relationship to God, not to mention his relationships to other people–his being “the son of Autonoe”, for instance– seem to be able to survive the change of essence.  Relationships attach to persons rather than natures.  (Hence, Mary is the mother of God.)  Christian orthodoxy provides a remarkable way to see the world.  Beneath our outside relationships is our essence, our human nature.  Natural unity itself perhaps goes less deep than personal unity.  Then at the core of personal unity is another relationship.

The idea of the person is thus at the heart of Christianity, and it has shaped not only our thought but our organizations.  The basis of social life in Christendom (in stark contrast to Islam) is corporate personality, according to which we understand the state, the city, the Church, professional organizations, and large businesses.  Medieval society was corporate because Christians realized that groups could establish collective relationships to God (e.g. the Church herself as Christ’s body, the religious oaths at the formation of religious orders and may communes and guilds), and that in having their own relationship to God these collectivities had a sort of derived personhood.

Individual humans are, of course, persons in a more fundamental sense, with the promise of eternal fellowship with God.  This is an intellectual problem in itself.  If the soul is the form of the body, how can the soul continue to exist after the destruction of the body that individuated it?  Thomas Aquinas developed a particularly compelling hylomorphic understanding of the relationship between soul and body which did justice both to the incorporal aspects of the former and its profound unity with the latter.  Then when he goes to discuss personal immortality, the whole system seems to go off the rails.  Saint Thomas correctly realizes that in his scheme, a person can only maintain his identity through death and resurrection if it is both the same soul and the same body that is resurrected.  Thomas is forced to maintain that even after death the soul is tagged with specific parcels of matter.  Even setting aside the implausibility of this, he must then devote space in the Summa Contra Gentiles dealing with odd cases like who gets what matter on Judgment Day in cases of cannibalism.  It seems to me simpler to just say that when the soul ceases to inform the body and the body decomposes beyond recognition, that matter ceases to have any connection to any human soul.  Without a body to be the form of, the soul cannot function; arguably it cannot even exist.  On the other hand, there seems to be no problem in imagining myself continuing to exist after the destruction of my body.  Whether or not this actually happens, it is imaginable, so it doesn’t seem to be logically impossible in the way that the continuation of my body after the destruction of my body would be.  I wonder, could we say that, at death, both my body and my soul are destroyed, but I–the person–continue to exist, although temporarily unable to function because I need a nature to give me a mode of operation?  Then, at the end of time, God will give me a new glorified body and a new glorified soul?  Perhaps that’s meaningless, but hopefully I have at least amused you.

6 thoughts on “Aquinas vs. Ovid: body, soul, and person

  1. Bonald, I love the opening scene of this post — a fitting (and traditional) use of classical myth (traditional in the sense of using our Greco-Roman cultural heritage as a setting for discussing a topic — a practice that has a long history).

    If you would, please explain the following more:

    Indeed, Kant himself maintained that the unity of consciousness that we recognize as a precondition for meaningful experience does not constitute knowledge of the self as a unitary substance, meaning that Kant recognized in conscious beings a different kind of unity than substantial unity.

    Do you mean that our unity of consciousness presents us with an understanding of ourselves as unified subjects without any further metaphysical implications? Please tie the knots a bit more so that we can better see how this relates to your argument.

    As far as the particular “matter” that a soul informs — such isn’t even consistent from one moment to the next in this life, as Lewis remarks. My body isn’t the particular fleshy parts but the organized fleshy whole that is always changing its parts. The human soul seems to be a form that organizes a body in space and time. After death, if the soul persists, it persists in a shadow state since it no longer does one if its chief tasks.

    • It was Kant’s conclusion that unity of consciousness doesn’t give us metaphysical knowledge of ourselves, but I’m trying to take his reasoning in a different direction. That consciousness has a unity must have some sort of metaphysical ground. Suppose Kant is right that we can’t conclude that the mind is an Aristotelian or Cartesian substance just from this fact alone. That would imply that, whatever the metaphysical ground of the unity of consciousness is, it might be something else. To me, it seems to fit well with our intuition of personal unity.

      • One reason this post was confusing is that I’m way too sloppy with the words “nature”, “form”, “soul”, “essence”, and “substance”; ordinarily the first four mean about the same thing and are the glue that holds the fifth together, but we’re now pushing the limits of these identifications. When a man is turned into a deer, his nature changes, but does that mean he gets a different soul? It seems natural to say that he remains the same substance, meaning that there is some “glue” uniting the two states other than common nature. So in fact, I was holding on to the usual Aristotelian substance=essence identification to make Kant out to be saying something slightly different than what he actually said, something more amenable to my purposes. What I get out of the transcendental unity of apperception is that a single transcendental ego doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to a single nature.

  2. I believe hylemorphism says that our bodies and our vegetative and animal souls do die indeed, and only our rational souls survive into the afterlife. I don’t know Thomas’s view, but I believe this is one reason that we are committed to salvation or damnation upon death…we lack the material embodiments (including operating within time) that would allow us to make free acts. In this sense then, our afterlife pre-bodily Resurrection existence is of an incomplete, even amputated, person. Bodiless afterlife in Heaven is better than life here in our fallen state, but it is a radically incomplete and radically insufficient to the existence we will have when our humanity is restored to us with the resurrection of our bodies.

  3. Pingback: Three Persons, One Nature | Junior Ganymede

  4. “Without a body to be the form of, the soul cannot function; arguably it cannot even exist.”

    I thought that St. Thomas’s reasoning (based on a talk given by Fr. Brian Mullady) was that there is no organ which corresponds to the intellect, therefore the intellect is not part of the body, though it is part of the soul. Therefore, when the body dies the soul lives on — it doesn’t require matter to live on, since it didn’t require matter to live when the body was alive.

    This is the difference between a soul and a spirit: A soul is the animating principle of a body; a spirit is the animating principle of a body, together with an intellect. Both humans and animals have souls, but only human souls are spirits.


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