Aquinas: Connecting Body and Soul

Last week we talked about what souls are – at least according to Aquinas. Aquinas says that a soul is the formative principle of the human being. The distinction between an alive human and a dead human is that the living human has a soul inside. At death, the soul fucks off and the body is left inanimate – etymologically, that is, without soul (in-anima). This week, we’re talking about the relationship between body and soul. If bodies are physical things, how the fuck do they interface with these spiritual souls? I should note as well that none of these ideas are necessarily ones that I adhere to. I think Aquinas is interesting, and I want to learn more about theology so I can crush conservative Christianity and remake it into a contemporary force for good in the world, but mostly I just think it’s interesting. 

I should also note right off the bat that I’m not totally confident with the stuff we’re talking about today. I’ll try and soldier through, but there’s a lot of terms and I’m not necessarily going to be stunning with all of them. Read on at your peril, I guess. And I mean – sometimes it’s not even my fault, sometimes shit’s just confusing. For instance, Aquinas starts off in the preface to 1a.76 that “next we must consider the union of the soul with the body,” and then as the first relevant problem asks “whether the intellective principle is united to the body as its form.” Sorry, but what the fuck is the relationship between the intellective principle and the soul? For Aquinas, they’re the same thing – in 1a.75.6 he said that he regards the human soul to be an intellective principle. Really got to keep track of those terms though.

Okay. So Aquinas is asking whether the intellective principle (ie the soul) is united to the body as its form. That’s the first question we’re dealing with. What the fuck’s a form? According to the glossary in this version I’ve got, it’s “the innermost shaping principle: substantial form by which a thing has its own existence according to its kind.” Are we talking about Plato’s forms here? We’ll come back to that question later.

So if we’re rephrasing the question, Aquinas is basically asking whether the soul is like the innermost shaping principle of the body. That seems like a reasonable question – and if the answer is yes, that solves the issue of how the body and soul are related. If the soul is the fundamental shaping principle of the body, then your treatment of your body either will or will not correspond to the principles laid out by the soul. We might further ask, then, whether the soul can ever actually be sinful, given that it seems to kinda just be a set of blueprints at this stage. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s see what Aquinas has to say.

“The prime endowment by virtue of which anything acts is the form of that to which the activity is attributed.” 

Fuck’s sake Aquinas, I gave you a chance, and this is what you come out with. Now, I’ve just been teaching a writing course, and I’d like to point out a few grammatical issues here. First, you should section off the whole ‘by virtue of which anything acts’ bit and move it somewhere else. Second, ‘is attributed’ is passive and dumb. Third, ‘endowment’ is a nominalisation and would be better as an active verb. Fourth, who the fuck wrote this sentence and thought it was a good idea? Let’s see if we can’t drag some sense out of it.

Okay, so first you get endowed with stuff. So say you receive health – you’ve got your body, and you’re all healthy. You’re endowed with health – and because you’re healthy, you’re able to run and jump and have sex and do all the other normal healthy person things. Health allows you to do a bunch of physical activity – it is an endowment, and you can do physical activity by virtue of all this health that you’ve got. Seems like a blindingly obvious thing to say – really the important part is the second part.

So you’ve got your physical activity. We attribute that activity to the body – you run and jump and stuff with your body, right. Health is therefore the form of the body – it’s the form of that to which the activity (running etc) is attributed. So to reword Aquinas’s sentence into something less abysmal: when you’re endowed with a quality, and that quality lets you do stuff, then we can understand the quality as the form of the relevant part of your being. Thus health lets you do exercise with your body, and so it’s the form of your body – the body is the relevant part of your being here. Similarly with knowledge, knowledge lets you think, and so it’s the form of your soul. Remember, of course, that the soul is also the intellective principle. I wonder what the relationship between soul and mind is here – no, never mind, don’t ask that.

Anyway, given that principle, the soul is the form of the body because the soul endows the body with life. Life allows the body to do literally everything else, so the soul (which provides that life) is the form of the body.

Note as well that if the soul is the intellective principle, then understanding resides in the soul. For Aquinas, “understanding is separate because it is not the power of a bodily organ.” It’s something you do in your soul, which is non-physical. Note the implication here that understanding is primarily a spiritual thing – that’s a theory that has lots of tantalising developments. For instance, if understanding is a spiritual thing, then arguably you can’t understand the Bible unless your spirit is properly aligned with the will of God. Calvin would be very happy with that idea. Further, any scientific research or intellectual breakthrough is also primarily a spiritual event. There’s more to come on this topic, but for now, that’s how the soul is related to the body – at least according to Aquinas. Have a great Christmas!

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