This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Aristotle and the intellect

It is easy to frame the relationship between Aristotle and Plato as one of opposition, but this can be misleading. It would be more accurate to say that they each adopted a certain approach or point of view with a unique emphasis. Plato was concerned with the transcendent, whereas Aristotle was focused on the immanent. Or, as Jean Borella puts it:

“To go from Plato to Aristotle is to change intellective climate. Plato is a ‘mystical’ metaphysician, Aristotle is a scientific philosopher. This difference in thinking ‘styles’ must never be lost sight of if one values the pertinence of certain comparisons.”[1]

With Aristotle we come to the now canonical definition of the soul as the ‘form of the body’. Jean Borella adds nuance to this definition by translating entelekheia (entelechy) as ‘the completed form’, making the original passage read: “the completed form of a natural body having life potentially within it.”[2] The soul, then, is what ‘informs’ and gives specific organization to the material body. One important point in Aristotle is that the soul does not really exist in separation from that which it informs, so that the soul does not just actualize a body, but the soul itself becomes real through this actualization, so that the two are inseparable. This is a departure from Plato’s theory of Ideas, which, according to many interpreters, are supposed to exist separately, as if on their own plane, apart from any actualization in the corporeal sphere.

Here we can see why, given this doctrine, the Catholic Church so strongly opposed any doctrine of ‘multiple principles of unity’, since all organizing activity is the work of the soul and to suppose a multiplicity of competing principles in the same relation is to destroy the unity of the human being. The unity of the human being is the soul actualized through the body.

Nonetheless, Aristotle could not ignore the varied functions performed by the human soul. For example, this soul was not only responsible for mental activity, but also for the functions strictly connected to bodily activity. In view of these distinct functions, and the fact that they are performed at different ‘levels’, he begins with the unity of the person but also distinguishes several ‘souls’ within the human soul. These are: the vegetative soul, common to all living beings whether plant, animal, or human; the sensitive soul, common to animals and men; and the noetic or ‘thinking’ soul, which is the possession of man. In this way, Aristotle returns to a tripartition, albeit one more capable of preserving the unity of the person.

This unity is not difficult to grasp until we come to the highest soul, the intellective part, possessed only by man. The intellect poses a problem because while the functions performed by vegetal and animal souls are easily connected to the body and therefore it is easy to understand why they are the ‘form of the body’ it is not so obvious when it comes to the intellect, because the intellect is not spatially located within the matter that is the body. That is to say, we cannot imagine the functions of the lower souls being performed while separated from the body, but intellection is different and separable:

“…if the whole soul holds together the whole body, we should expect each part of the soul to hold together a part of the body. But this seems an impossibility; it is difficult even to imagine what sort of bodily part mind will hold together, or how it will do this.”[3]

Here we can return to the famous formulation that the ‘soul is the form of the body’: for Aristotle, this is absolutely and plainly true for plants and animals, since the functions of their corresponding souls are inseparable from the particular bodies they inform, but what of the intellect, which is a part of the properly human soul and which Aristotle calls “a widely different kind of soul”[4] which “cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body”?[5]

The intellect remains what it is without strictly being connected to bodily functions, and so it is actually separable from the body, and therefore it is the mind alone which is immortal and eternal.

Here we wish to make two points in closing:

First, although Aristotle is credited with the formulation that the soul is the form of the body, it turns out that this might be an oversimplification: it is wholly true for plants and animals, but it is not strictly true for human beings, since the human soul is tripartite and the third ‘part’, the intellective soul, does not ‘inform the body’ in any way but remains something apart from it. The intellect is, we are told, supra-physical, and so it seems that things are not so simple as the oft-repeated formulation would have us believe, at least not for Aristotle himself. In fact, due to Aristotle’s remarks about the intellect, we can see that in some ways it remains just as problematic for Christianity as Plato’s doctrines. We will discuss the way in which Aquinas resolved this difficulty.

Second, it is interesting that for Aristotle the ‘scientific philosopher’, the intellect is the part of man that escapes precise description. We will continue to see this occur every time a paradigm is sought that will explain man in terms of nature, whether we are talking about the corporeal or the psychic. Whenever we approach the intellect, it recedes from our explanations and even a philosopher so great as Aristotle struggles to account for it except as something that pierces into nature from elsewhere.

[1] Love and Truth, p. 178.

[2] On the Soul II, I, 412a2.

[3] On the Soul, I, 5, 411b15-18.

[4] On the Soul, II, 2, 413b24.

[5] On the Soul, III, 4, 429a24-25.

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