Saturday, April 22, 2006
Stuck between Plato and Aristotle
In his insightful book In Defence of the Soul (Oneworld Publications, 1998) Keith Ward of Oxford University states, "What Aquinas was doing was to try to tread a middle way between Plato, who saw the body just as an unnecessary appendage to the soul, and Aristotle, who denied any immaterial, substantive soul at all. Aquinas wanted the human soul both to be capable of independent existence and to be essentially the form of a particular body" (p. 37).
Where Thomas Aquinas agreed with Aristotle was in understanding the soul to be the life-principle or distinctive characteristic of all living things -- the "form (i.e., morphe) of the body" as Aristotle proposed. Hence, even plants and animals have souls, the latter having "sensitive souls" which give their bodies knowledge and sense perception (Ward, p. 36). These souls come into being through natural processes, arising from and informing their physical bodies. But once the body dies, so does the soul.
What Thomas did was to introduce a new idea to Aristotle's basic understanding of the soul, namely that human beings possess a different kind of soul which is created directly by God for each individual person. Like the animals, the human soul is constitutive of the body and performs the same "sensitive" and nutritive functions. But it is different in that it is rational, and thus must come directly from God. "Man," wrote Thomas, "is non-material in respect of his intellectual power because the power of understanding is not the power of an organ" (Summa Theologiae, Q.6 Art. 1; quoted by Ward, p. 36). In other words, rational thought cannot be performed by or arise from something corporeal, which means that the human soul is unique in being substantive and able to exist on its own -- hence immortal. However, an existence without the body would be unnatural since the soul was created for the body (contra Plato), or so Thomas argued.
As I reflect on these things I am struck, first, by how Aristotle's philosophy anticipated the advances made in contemporary thinking on this matter, particularly in what is being presented here in this blog as the "soul as emergent property" theory advanced by Ward and other notable theologians. But the second thing that strikes me is how captivated the Church has been by the thought of Plato. Apparently even Thomas Aquinas, who was almost singlehandedly responsible for weaving Aristotle's thinking permanently into the warp and woof of western theology, could not fully escape Plato's influence.
Until next time.
P.S. - I realize this entry may have raised many more questions about the emergent property theory than it answers. All in due time.