What is the soul? In a way, this is the question Josh Merlo pushes us to answer in his recent piece, Christian Eschatology and the Thomistic Person. At question is the Thomistic anthropology which sees man as a union of body and soul, not simply identifying human persons with the soul, a position associated with Plato and Descartes. For St. Thomas Aquinas, a person is both body and soul, not simply one of them.
The issue is, what, then, happens when we die? If we hold to a belief in traditional Christian eschatology, there is the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. But, what, then, should we make of the soul while it is separate from the body? Can we really say that my soul is “me” when it is separate from the body, if I am meant to be both a body and a soul?
This is surely, I think, an issue for the Thomist interlocutor. But I do not think it is necessarily an irresolvable one. Paradoxically, I think the issue must turn on re-examining embodiment.
This brings us to St. Augustine. In Book XXII of Civitate Dei, St. Augustine gives us a long discussion of the resurrection of the body. It may be shocking to us is how much he insists on the continuing numerical identity of our current body compared to the resurrected body. The body will be renewed and perfected, but it will be the exact same material that makes up our bodies today. (1) This is even the case for bodies which are burnt or thrown into the sea, as Augustine reasons that God’s power can retrieve our bodies no matter what happens to them. Augustine discusses even the case of cannibalism (in which he decides that the matter in question is returned to the original owner, that is, the eaten one).
This, I think, can help us focus our discussion of the state of the soul. Augustine holds that the soul continues to be connected to the body it once animated by the power of God, that “their flesh rests in hope.” (2)
We can take this in two different ways. We can say that the soul is who you are, but that it requires in a special way the body in order to be whole. This would not be compatible with St. Thomas’s declaration that “Man is said to be composed of soul and body as some third thing constituted of two other things, and which is neither of them.” (3) However, it would solve our issue here.
If we wish to maintain St. Thomas’s distinction, however, Augustine’s focus on the body can help us do so. Augustine claims that God will “remake our flesh with wonderful and indescribable speed from all the material that constituted it.” (4) If all the parts of our body are gathered up by God and reconstituted, perhaps we can see the soul as just another part needed to complete the human person.
With this, our soul is another part of us awaiting the resurrection. On some level, you could say that “you” do not exist, or, at the very least, you exist only in parts prior to the resurrection. But taking the Augustinian model, these are parts of the same human person you were before death; recombining them with the power of God should not make a new person, but rather reconstitute the old in a new way. Even beforehand, we can still identify body parts with who they belonged to in life, otherwise the tradition of relics of saints would be meaningless. The body, as well as the soul, must maintain some markers of the person it belonged to.
In this way, a strong identification of the person with the body as well as the soul can exist within the requirements of Christian eschatology. I’m inclined to think that anthropologies that see the body as fundamental to personal identity are more conducive to Christian theology than those that place our identity only in the soul, since a fully-functioning, bodiless soul would seem to make the resurrection superfluous. More than that, I think we ignore embodiment on the issue of personal identity at our own peril.
- Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book XXIII, Ch. 8.
- Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book XIII, Ch. 20.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, De Essentia, Sect. 37.
- Augustine, ench. 23.88.Image 2