Summary Against Modern Thought: Human Souls Begin At Conception Part I

This may be proved in three ways. The first...
This may be proved in three ways. The first…
See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

The next several chapters are devoted to the question of when does human life begin. The answer is at conception. Why this is so will be proved, but we’ll have to have patience. It’s not so much the subject is subtle, but it is very large. We will not finish this week, so only answer the arguments made in this section; do not anticipate. The first paragraph sums up the situation with elegance. Also, there is in all of this ample and robust refutation of all modern misconceptions of the soul. For that reason alone,
these next few weeks will more than repay your time investment.

Chapter 82 That the human soul begins to exist when the body does (alternate translation) We’re still using the alternate translation.

1 Now, since the same things are found both to begin to be and to end, someone might suppose that, because the human soul will not cease to exist, neither will it have begun to exist, but, on the contrary, has always been. And it would seem possible to prove this by the following arguments.

2 That which will never cease to be has the power to exist forever. But no such thing can ever be truly said not to be; for the extent of a thing’s existential duration is exactly commensurate with its power of existing. But of every thing which had begun to exist, it is at some time true to say that it is not. Therefore, that which will never cease to exist, at no time begins to be.

Notes Understand that Aquinas is presenting the “other side” here. He’ll answer these arguments much later. These sort of ambiguities are cleared up using the literary device in Summa Theologica, where you always know where you are in an argument.

3 Moreover, just as the truth of intelligible things is imperishable, so is that truth, of itself, eternal; because it is necessary, and whatever is necessary is eternal, for what is necessary to be cannot possibly not be. Now, the imperishable being of the soul is demonstrated from the imperishability of intelligible truth. Hence, by the same reasoning, the soul’s eternity can be proved from the eternal being of intelligible both.

4 Also, a thing that lacks several of its principal parts is not perfect. But, clearly, the principal parts of the universe are intellectual substances, in the genus of which human souls belong, as we have shown above. If every day as many human souls begin to exist as men are born, then, obviously, many of the principal parts of the universe are added to it daily, so that it lacks a multiplicity of things. Consequently, the universe is imperfect. But this is impossible.

Notes Above, I said “don’t anticipate”, but I do not mean you shouldn’t try to refute these arguments before you see how our good Saint does (starting in paragraph 8).

5 Then, too, some draw their arguments from the authority of Sacred Scripture. For in Genesis (2:2) it is said that “on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made: and He rested from all His work which He had done.” But, if God made new souls every day, this would not be true. Therefore, no new human souls ever begin to exist, but they have existed from the beginning of the world.

6 Hence, for these and similar reasons, proponents of the doctrine of the world’s eternity have said that, just as the human soul is incorruptible, so has it existed from all eternity. That is why the upholders of the theory of the immortality of human souls in their multiple existence—I refer to the Platonists—asserted that they have existed from eternity, and are united to bodies at one time and separated from them at another, these vicissitudes following a fixed cyclical pattern throughout set periods of years. Advocates of the theory that human souls are immortal in respect of some single reality, pertaining to all men, which remains after death, declared, however, that this one entity has endured from all eternity; whether it be the agent intellect alone, as Alexander held, or, together with this, the possible intellect, as Averroes maintained. Aristotle, also, seems to be making the same point when, speaking of the intellect, he says that it is not only incorruptible, but also everlasting.

Notes Two things. First, Aquinas was not slavishly devoted to Aristotle, as we see. And second, here’s Plato on the soul. His “recollection” might have inspired later philosophical statements on the a priori (which I used to believe), which is to say, knowledge you are born with, that you don’t have to acquire.

7 On the other hand, some who profess the Catholic faith, yet are imbued with the teachings of the Platonists, have taken a middle position. For, since the Catholic faith teaches that nothing is eternal except God, these persons maintain, not that human souls are eternal, but that they were created with, or rather before, the visible world, yet are fettered to bodies anew. Among these Christians, Origen was the first exponent of this theory, and a number of his disciples followed suit. The theory, indeed, survives to this day among heretics, the Manicheans, for example, siding with Plato in proclaiming the eternity and transmutation of souls.

8 Now, all these opinions can be easily shown to have no foundation in truth. For it has already been proved that there does not exist only one possible agent intellect for all men. Hence, it remains for us to proceed against those theories which, while envisaging the existence of many human souls, maintain that they existed before bodies, either from eternity, or from the foundation of the world. The incongruity of such a notion is exposed by the following arguments.

9 For, it has already been established that the soul is united to the body as its form and act. Now, although act is prior in its nature to potentiality, nevertheless in one and the same thing it is temporally posterior to it; for a thing is moved from potentiality to act. Thus, seed, which is potentially living, preceded the soul, which is the act of life.

Notes Don’t skip lightly over this reminder: “although act is prior in its nature to potentiality, nevertheless in one and the same thing it is temporally posterior to it; for a thing is moved from potentiality to act.”

10 Moreover, it is natural to every form to be united to its proper matter; otherwise, that which is made of form and matter would be something preternatural. But that which befits a thing naturally is attributed to it before that which befits it preternaturally, because the latter is in it by accident, the former, through itself. Now, that which is by accident is always posterior to that which is through itself. It is, therefore, becoming to the soul to be united to the body before being separated from it. The soul, then, was not created before the body to which it is united.

11 Again, every part existing in separation from its whole is imperfect. Now, the soul, being a form, as has been proved, is a part of the specific nature of man. Hence, as long as it exists through itself apart from the body, it is imperfect. But in the order of natural things, the perfect is prior to the imperfect. It would, therefore, be inconsistent with the order of nature were the soul created apart from the body before being united to it.

12 And again, if souls are created without bodies, it must be asked how they are united to bodies. This union could he effected in but two ways: by violence or by nature. Now, everything violent is against nature, so that if the union of soul and body is brought about by violence it is not natural. Hence, man, who is composed of both, is something unnatural; which is obviously false. There is also the consideration that intellectual substances are of a higher order than the heavenly bodies. But in the latter there is nothing violent or contrary. Much less, therefore, does any such thing exist in intellectual substances.

Notes We still don’t know the how of all this. But Aquinas was not a modern day scientist.

13 Now, if the union of souls to bodies is natural, then, in their creation, souls had a natural desire to be united to bodies. Now, natural appetite immediately issues in act if no obstacle stands in the way, as we see in the movement of heavy and light bodies; for nature always works in the same way. So, unless something existed to prevent it, souls would have been united to bodies from the very beginning of their creation. But whatever obstructs the realisation of natural appetite does violence to it. That at some time souls existed in separation from bodies was therefore the result of violence. And this is incongruous, not only because in such substances there can be nothing violent, as was shown, but also because the violent and the unnatural, being accidental, cannot be prior to that which is in keeping with nature, nor can they be consequent upon the total species.

14 Furthermore, since everything naturally desires its own perfection, it pertains to matter to desire form, and not conversely. But the soul is compared to the body as form to matter, as was shown above. Therefore, the union of the soul to the body is not brought about in response to the desire of the soul, but, rather, of the body.

Notes That’s enough for one week. We’re only one-third through this Chapter, with several more to come—in which our saint ventures into the biological!

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