This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

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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10.2. Greco-Catholic Anthropology

The presence of teleology

Teleology refers to the final end of a being, and the presence of teleology is a distinguishing characteristic of traditional philosophy as opposed to modern systems which either deny its validity or ignore it completely.

Before we enter into the specifics of a traditionalist anthropology, it is important to point out that for Aristotle as well as medieval Christianity, man is envisioned in terms of his spiritual destiny. That is to say, man is first and foremost a being who is in the process of becoming, and to study him as he is without regard to his final end is to study the acorn without allowing for the fact that its entire truth is expressed in the fully developed oak tree. The difficulty here is obviously the fact that oak trees are observable and therefore undeniable, whereas the destination of man is beyond his present state, making it very easily deniable from the point of view of materialist science. What we are dealing with, then, is a spiritual anthropology that addresses itself to man in his present state in addition to his post-humous state(s), asking if there are not aspects of his being which escape, even in his present state, the bounds of nature and touch upon the supernatural. We look at man and we ask: what is the truth that is being realized through life’s journey and what does its final realization look like, since this will be the fullest expression of the truth about man.

We will also emphasize that this must be the starting point and not an ‘addition’ to the purely empirical observations about man offered by profane science. In other words, we cannot, as some well-intentioned theologians have sought to do, try to take man as presented by atheistic science and then superimpose on that creature a theological superstructure. This does not at all suffice, as we will see below, since the creature presented to us is already disfigured beyond recovery and whatever kind of mental acrobatics are used by theologians to cobble together a soul are doomed.

Worst of all, this concession to the social sciences, which allows them to pre-determine human nature to be divinized post-facto by religion, grants secular anthropology a semblance of objectivity and depth that it could not possibly attain. The proper order of things is the reverse, whereby the spiritual doctrine of man provides the parameters for the development of social sciences, and it is the body that congeals around the soul[1] and not the opposite.

[1] This vocabulary and manner of speaking are admittedly very weak, but will soon be clarified.

An overview of tripartite cosmology

The human being not only develops within nature and is therefore subject to its laws, but it is also said that man is a ‘microcosm’ and expresses within himself the structure of the cosmos in its entirety. There cannot be any anthropology without a corresponding cosmology. We could say that modern philosophy erred in favor of an extreme idealism, divorcing man from his natural environment, while modern science erred in favor of an extreme materialism, denying any aspects of human nature that exceeds the observations of biologists.

Our intent here is to rescue man from the idealists and return him to his natural environment, while at the same time rescuing nature itself from the materialists. The result will be a more comprehensive vision of man and the cosmos allowing us to see the constitutional correspondences between them. Our anthropology will be affirmed repeatedly through an examination of the Greek and Christian doctrines about man, and it is these two traditions, synthetically integrated, that provide the basis for Catholic spiritual anthropology today, and this is why we occasionally refer to it as the Greco-Catholic view of the human being.

We will begin by examining the tripartite nature of reality, which permits us to see the real as composed of three ‘worlds’, each of which, by analogical correspondence, telling us something about the constitution of man as ‘a world unto himself’. These three are: the corporeal or ‘gross’ state; the subtle or ‘psychic’ state; and the spiritual or ‘pneumatic’ state.

The corporeal state

The term ‘corporeal’ refers to the bodily dimension of things, and more specifically here, the world of material, tangible objects. This is also called the ‘gross state’ as opposed to the ‘subtle state’, which we will discuss next.

This is a good starting point because the corporeal world corresponds to what, for most modern people, is imagined to be the whole of reality. We will see, however, that the traditional doctrine regarding the corporeal world is actual much more comprehensive than the popular image, the latter of which goes something like this:

The world is composed of ‘matter’, and this matter, if one examines it closely enough, is made of so many tiny, indivisible particles, originally called ‘atoms’, and these atoms come together in various combinations to form everything that is. The mechanistic interaction between these particles or particle-bodies, which also involves the accumulation and dissipation of heat, etc., goes to explain all phenomena and is even responsible, via ‘chance or accident’, for the production of the biological phenomenon we call ‘life’.

This oversimplified summary is not actually what is taught by science today, and, in truth, materialistic scientism has been mostly demolished by contemporary physics, which has for the most part given up on the possibility of finding a particle that is so small that it is indivisible, as atoms were once imagined to be. However, it is still the version of the world that is entertained in the popular mind, and so it is still ‘formative’ for anthropology. In fact, even religious people who would insist on a spiritual dimension do so only as an add-on to material reality described above, and we have already mentioned how this deforms the final product.

So much for the popular view, but where do the leading physicists stand? For the most part, the whole idea of ‘matter’ has dissolved: the movement was from molecule to atom, then atom to electron and its components. The effort to finally discover the particle that underlies all other particles eventually resulted in the realization that there is no such thing as an indivisible and therefore ‘subsistent’ matter, with its spatial combinations and interactions going on to explain literally everything else. In the light of quantum physics, we are finally ‘discovering’ what has always been taught by traditional doctrines from the Vedas to Aristotle: that stuff that underlies all of our reality is not ‘material’ at all. If we can speak of ‘particles’ that compose everything, they do not seem to be subject to the conditions of matter as we have always envisioned it. For example, these ‘primary’ particles are not actually locatable, they have no set configuration, with the eventual conclusion that it is not the particles but the electromagnetic fields in which we find them that are primary, and the fields themselves have no observable material cause.

In the words of physicist Jacov Frenkel:

“…it is not enough to say that it is impossible to know the exact position and velocity of a particle simultaneously. It must be maintained that, in general, there is no such thing as a well-determined position or velocity. Matter and light become fugitive indeed, and any hope of representing the world in terms of pictures and motions becomes nothing more than an empty dream.”[1]

In short, the underlying principle of unity of the material world is not situated in the material world, and this means that the ‘models’ such as the Niels Bohr image of a planetary atomic structure, with nucleus orbited by electrons, is perhaps useful as a representation but does not correspond to any real structure.

We have been discussing atoms and the breakdown of conventional materialist thinking at these miniscule extremes, but we encounter similar difficulties moving the opposite direction, taking molecules and the more complex bodies they go to form. The most basic question that arises is how these bodies actually hold together? How is it that a body actually ‘congeals’ into a body in the first place? What, ultimately, holds things together, including the human body and its flesh and organs? Based on the discussion we’ve been having, we are left with no real explanation, or at least no explanation that can be situated in the corporeal dimension. We would have to imagine or observe some kind of molecular hooks that fasten molecules to one another, but we can find nothing that serves this function.

The problem can be summarized by saying that since we now know that there is no particle that is not divisible, then we cannot even theoretically hope to find something that hooks things together, since the hook itself would be divisible and would need hooks to hold together the hooks, and so on without end.

Here we may touch on space, which is like matter (or whatever reality is mistakenly called ‘matter’) in that it is one of the conditions of the corporeal world. Space is extension, and is composed of the distances between points (with the point itself having no extension and therefore not actually manifest in space). In order for space to present itself, we need at least two points between which a line can be drawn, which becomes the first extension.

Within the context of what has already been said, we can say that space, like matter, is not as easy to pin down as once imagined, for space itself is not ‘stable’ at all. As physics teaches, the universe is in a state of expansion and has been since the beginning of time. It is an incomplete explosion, and is therefore in a state of flux and always will be, since the completion of the explosion (and the expansion of space) will at the same time be the destruction of everything for which that explosion provided the context. Lastly, this persistent flux, which provides the ambience for the universe, also provides the context for time, which would end with everything else once the potentialities of the expanding universe are exhausted.

Having remarked on the breakdown of materialism, where does this leave us, and what has this to do with the traditional doctrine? Aside from the fact that all of these developments bring modern science closer and closer to agreement with what the religions have always taught about matter (namely, that there is no such thing), it also brings us to the point where we can situation the corporeal within the context of a greater cosmology, and through this cosmology, an authentic anthropology.

What we find in traditional doctrines is that the corporeal is not so much a subsistent reality, a kind of sphere separate from and independent from those beyond it, but rather acts as a point of termination on a hierarchical spectrum emanating from the divine. The corporeal is a kind of crystallization—a limit—between an interior reality and an exterior unreality. It is a barrier of solidification that stands between the inward principle of all things and exterior dispersion and nothingness.

To illustrate using the language of myth, we can say that Adam was ‘clothed in animal skins’ (representing the material body) after having fallen from intimate contact with God, and so we can see our embodied state as a ‘saving grace’ that acts as a stop for our ‘fall’, prevents our descent into the obliteration which is the logical result of having rejected the Real.

What, then, is the principle of unity of corporeal bodies, since that is what we have been asking all this time? In answer, we borrow the words of Jean Borella:

“Real unity requires the actuality of a non-spatial form that is therefore psychic (or subtle) in nature, self-binding, in which a multiplicity of elements are immanent to one another. This mutual and trans-spatial immanence, which is the internal binding of corporeal elements and which makes a being of it, constitutes as it were a kind of brake which, from within, (relatively) slows and stops the process of centrifugal ‘dispersion’ according to which the physical world is manifested. Preventing the corporeal forms from lapsing into nothingness, it is indeed this—the formal unity itself, the individual form—that accounts for the substantiality of bodies, that is for their objective reality.”[2]

We can see then that the principle of unity could never have been found by examining particles, but is situated on a different plane that transcends the conditions (hence trans-spatial) of the corporeal. This leads us to the ‘formal’ state, where we find the ‘forms’ of beings, which is called in traditional cosmology the ‘subtle’ or ‘psychic’ world.

[1] J. Frenkel, Wave Mechanics, vol. 2, Advanced General Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), 517.

[2] Jean Borella, Love and Truth, p. 82.

The subtle or ‘psychic’ state

Having passed beyond the corporeal state, we are in territory that will almost certainly be ‘new’ to most readers, this being the point at which spatial conditions do not apply. This is the world of ‘soul’, which in the Greco-Catholic doctrine is the ‘form of the body’.

The term psychic ought to be addressed first because its usage today is mostly limited to Hollywood fantasy or else charlatans who claim to provide services that are called ‘paranormal’, for example through seances and the like. The doctrinal usage, on the other hand, is much more technical and not nearly so dramatic, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. What we call ‘psychic’ today is a distorted fragment of a science that may at one time have been operative but is now a matter of parlor magic.

To recover its full meaning, we will start by reminding the reader that the psychic is a ‘state of reality’ just like the corporeal and is no less real, even though more obscure. On the contrary, since the psychic world is also the formal world, the world of form, we could say that it is ‘more real’ than the corporeal, since here we find the principle of unity of all corporeal beings, and it is the ‘form’ of the being that is responsible for the structure and ordering without which they could not be what they are. This is true of man as a unity and for all of his component parts: limbs, organs, nerves, etc.

Doesn’t DNA with its famous ‘genetic code’ explain all of this, acting as the great ‘cookbook’ of all living creatures, so that attributing a non-spatial form as the principle of order is redundant? Here we can again only point to developments in genetic research, where we will find that the situation is much like what occurred with the theory of evolution: it was thought to explain everything, and to finally provide evidence of a ‘material cause’ for biological phenomena, eliminating the need for any non-material or supernatural hocus pocus. Unfortunately, the more the theory of evolution was examined, the more issues arose and the more inadequate it became, and soon Darwinism became Neo-Darwinism, which in turn became compromised and discarded. So it is with genetic research, which initially was presented as the answer to all of our questions and the ‘key’ to our ability to understand and even manipulate the mysterious self-structuring activity of living beings. At the present, this hope is breaking down. That is to say, we are beginning to realize that although there may be a link between a particular gene and a particular physical characteristic in a living being, we have no way of observing a causal relationship between the one and the other. The analogy of DNA being the code used to structure a being only holds if some force intervenes to read and execute the code, because a certain code might have a link to the structure of the eye, but it does not and could not ‘direct’ the construction of the eye. What we see is the link but not a deterministic relationship, and we definitely do not see a scale model of the eye embedded in the genetic code.

In the words of W.M. O’Neil:

“There is no way open yet for the deduction of manifest traits from the sequences of bases in the DNA molecule…For that matter, no one can yet say precisely how the ‘instructions’ coded in the molecule are carried out in cell differentiation.”[1]

The subtle world is the world of ‘thought’, but it is also the world of form, and form is the principle of order of living beings, which is precisely the element of the corporeal world that is inexplicable in terms of that world’s conditions and observable data. To go even further, we will say that it is incorrect to view the soul as some kind of fleeting presence in a foreign body, rather it is the body that is built up by the soul, which is in some sense its envelope (although any spatial metaphor is in this context invalid). Once the soul departs, the living being is no longer a being, even if the material structure of the organs and body take some time to decompose. From the instant the soul withdraws or is dispersed, that is to say, at the moment of death, the being is no more and only a corpse remains.

To touch on a point that will receive further development later, we will note that in this view, all living beings require a soul, for the soul animates the material body. This implies the presence of a soul in all living beings, plants and animals included. This will sound odd to contemporaries, even those who are religious, but without acknowledging this point the whole doctrine of the soul makes no sense. What distinguishes the human being from other beings is the presence of a specific kind of soul, absent in vegetable life (animated by a vegetal soul) and animal life (animated by an animal soul). But we must not get ahead of ourselves.

[1] W.M. O’Neil, Fact and Theory.

The spiritual or ‘pneumatic’ state

The spiritual state is the state of pure intelligibility, and differs from the psychic and the corporeal by an incommensurable degree. We saw that in passing from the corporeal to the psychic, the spatial condition is surpassed, and this creates conceptual difficulties from the start: all the more when we come to pass from the psychic, the world of form, to the spiritual, the world of the formless, which not only escapes time and space but even individuality. In the spiritual world we are dealing with supra-individual reality that is not yet ‘individuated’ by the presence of form. This is the Universal order, as opposed to the particular, a distinction that we will elaborate on below. Here we are not dealing with the principle of this or that, but with the Principle.

The tripartite constitution of man

Man, being situated in nature as outlined above, and being himself a representation in miniature of its overall structure, can be said to participate in each of these worlds. These three ‘parts’ of man are called in Latin corpus (body), anima (soul), and spiritus (spirit).

We can explain this by saying that man is a single reality, spiritual in nature, with the subtle and corporeal modalities (which originally would be potentialities) actualized in his present state.

Adam and the descent of man

Adam, as described in the book of Genesis, represents principial man, and the narrative that describes his becoming includes at the same time an illustration of what it means to ‘descend’ into nature and become ‘embodied’, and here again we can say that this process corresponds to the coming into being of the universe itself and all things within it.

In the first account of man’s creation, what we find is the creation of man in his primordial and unified state, which is why he is made in the ‘image and likeness’ of his Creator. The second account is somewhat different and signifies a kind of descent from that in which the spiritual is primary and in which it envelops the psychic and corporeal (the latter not yet separately actualized). Here it is said that God forms Adam from the stuff of nature and ‘breathes into his nostrils’ the breath of life, which is to say, the spirit, making of him a ‘living soul’. At this point we see the psychic actualized and as a separate state, no longer enveloped by the spirit as a pure potentiality.

The final stage of descent, which brings us to the condition in which man finds himself today, occurs after Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, at which point two additional symbolic actions take place:

First, Adam and Even realize they are naked and close themselves with fig leaves sewn together. This symbolizes the taking possession of a vegetal soul, to borrow the Aristotlean-Thomistic terminology. God takes notice of this and since separation from the Creator cannot but end in complete dissolution, he contrives a means of saving man by putting in place a kind of barrier between him and total dissolution, and this is the corporeal body signified by the garments fashioned by God for man: “And God made for Adam and his wife tunics of skin and He clothed them with them.”

This creation narrative is in fact a description of an inversion wherein principial man goes from a spiritual being containing within himself the psychic and corporeal spheres to fallen man in whom the order of things is reversed and ‘separated’ such that the corporeal envelopes the psychic and the spiritual recedes to his innermost depths where it remains always as a window and lifeline to the Creator, since any total absence of this spiritual presence would result in immediate obliteration into nothingness.

The accusation of trichotomism

The paradigm we have set before ourselves is, as we have said, tripartite: that man is body, soul, and spirit. From even a cursory reading of New Testament texts alongside the various commentaries of major Church Fathers, such a view seems self-evident and coincides with the structural anthropology proposed by other major traditions, namely Hinduism and Islam, and coincides with Plato and Aristotle’s doctrine. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has been wary of what is now called ‘trichotomism’ and has condemned as heretical any view that ‘cuts man in three’ and would deny that man is, rather, just body and soul.

This is a very complicated question, and to really unravel it would involve examining the controversies that led to these statements as well as the actual teachings of those accused of teaching this ‘trichotomism’. However, the simplest answer is that there is such a thing as ‘trichotomism’ that corresponds to something more like Gnosticism, and which attributes to man multiple principles and sets him against himself, and what the Church is ultimately trying to vouchsafe is the fact of man’s unity as a being. Since it is taught that ‘the soul is the form of the body’, this amounts to saying that the soul is the principle of unity, and so if we allowed for two souls we would have two principles of unity, and this would be destructive.

The first Council of Constantinople (870AD) stated:

“While the Old and the New Testament teach that man has only one reasonable and intellective soul, and while all of the Fathers and God-inspired doctors of the Church affirm the same doctrine, some, heeding perverse intentions, have come to such a degree of impiety as to imprudently teach that man has two souls.”[1]

And in 1312 the Council of Vienne issued the following:

“[W]e reprove as erroneous and opposed to the truth of the Catholic faith every doctrine and every thesis rashly affirming that the substance of the rational and intellective soul is not truly and by itself the form of the human body, or placing such in doubt…let whoever will nevertheless dare to obstinately affirm, defend, or support that the rational or intellective soul is not by itself and essentially the form of the human body, be considered as a heretic.”

It is important, when reading these statements, to take them for what they say and not to retroactively attribute to them the opinions of later theologians. For example, there is no mention whatsoever of the distinction in man between body, soul, and spirit, nor is the work ‘trichotomism’ used in the original texts. The intent is obviously very narrow. The term trichotomism is in fact a term coined much later, and these older texts are occasionally appropriated by these later theologians in order to reinforce a point that it is not at all clear they themselves intended to make.

At any rate, the anthropology we have begun constructing and will continue to develop in no way contests the statements put forth by the councils in the form of a body-soul dualism, since this is merely a different way of saying the same thing.

Suffice it to say that whatever is not ‘the body’, or whatever in man does not belong strictly to the corporeal world, can be called the soul, and this is what occurs, not only in Church documents, but in the New Testament itself as well as early fathers such as Augustine. But, when distinctions of nature and function are to be made, we will find that the very same authors do not hesitate to enunciate the tripartite structure of the human being.

Thus, it seems that certain theologians intend either to ignore large swaths of doctrine, or else they wish to present Scripture and the Fathers as ambiguous, contradictory, and careless in their terms.

The truth is that there are various ways of delineating the spiritual anthropology of man and, depending on the context and emphasis, sometimes a ‘consolidated dualism’ is more practical, while elsewhere, as we have already said, it is necessary to make more precise distinctions.


St. Paul and multiple dualisms

St. Paul is often oversimplified due primarily to the inadequacy of the English language, at least as we find it in translations. He too easily comes off as a proponent of a superficial dualism, which, if the original terms are examined, is hardly the case. Here we will try to utilize passages that for the most part speak for themselves, with explanatory notes included as needed.

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; may your whole spirit [pneuma], and soul [psyche], and body [soma], be kept sound and blameless in the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]

Next, a passage that makes a very precise distinction between the psychic body and spiritual body, which should be understood as the invisible principles, hierarchically necessary, that permit the corporeal body to be manifest:

“The body is sown a psychic body, it is raised a pneumatic body…Thus it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living soul [psyche]’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit [pneuma]. But it is not the pneumatic which is first but the psychic and then the pneumatic. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”[2]

The interesting point here is that St. Paul frequently makes use of oppositions, which explains also why he tends not to present a ternary but rather a duality, since oppositions require only two things. But his oppositions are not purely ‘flesh and spirit’, which is to say, the body and all-that-is-not-body, but in this particular case the opposition is between psyche and spirit. In other words, Paul presents his anthropology in pairs, for the sake of opposition, but the terms he opposes are shifting and sometimes he opposes the corporeal to the non-corporeal (where the psychic and the spiritual are merged into the same term) but, as in the case above, he sets aside the corporeal and speaks precisely of the opposition between the ‘soul and the spirit’.

This opposition between soul and spirit will seem preposterous to readers who have never been exposed to the distinction and who take the consolidation of man’s invisible reality into one term to be an absolute, but the same concept is reiterated by other New Testament writers such as St. James and St. Jude, although it would be difficult to understand by seeing only the English translations. “This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, beastly [psychike], devilish”[3] and “It is these who set up divisions, worldly [psychikoi] people, devoid of the spirit.”[4]

Without the bracketed clarification, the precision would be lost and the intention vague, but in this light we can begin to understand that the tendency among Christians to view the primary conflict as one between the material body and the soul, that is to say between the corporeal and the psychic worlds, is actually not quite accurate, and that there is a real opposition in Scripture between the psychic and the spiritual.

This can perhaps finally give clarity to the words of Christ himself, when he brings this opposition to the forefront:

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own soul [psyche] also, he cannot be my disciple.”[5]

And in another famous passage, we see Christ bring this distinction to the forefront in dramatic fashion:

“For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”[6]

What is incredible about this passage is that the pairs are related in such a way that the final pair, “the thoughts and intents of the heart”, accurately refer to the functions attributed to the soul and the spirit. The world of soul, the psychic, is the place of rational thought, hence the ‘rational soul’ attributed to man; the kernel of the spirit, on the other hand, is situated in the heart.

What is the purpose of making these distinctions? Often Paul is presented as a kind of moralist in the narrow sense of preaching against those vices connected to the bodily condition and our appetites or lusts involving material things. This is a result of the fact that he does preach in this way, but also, it is a result of the complete loss of the soul/spirit distinction such that all oppositions presented by Paul, whether between body and soul or between soul and spirit, are reduced to the former while the nature of the latter is left comprehended. And so the ‘variety’ and hierarchical presentations of Paul are lost, and he seems completely fixated on what begins to look like a total hatred of the bodily condition, which robs him of his profundity.

The purpose of a body-soul or body-spirit opposition is to get man to turn away from his inbuilt materialism; the purpose of a soul-spirit opposition is to get man to go much further, however, into what Paul calls the ‘renewal of the mind’ via the spirit, which is to say, he calls man to the possession of gnosis, the knowledge of God, which is not accessible by the exercise of the rational soul, but instead calls for an inner ‘conversion’ through which the spiritual reality that is given, in grace, to man, is permitted to actualize within us the ‘spiritual man’. The spirit in both cases being the in a sense identical, such that Paul can sometimes use the same term to refer to both the spiritual man and the Holy Spirit, hence this conversion is a spiritual unification with God: “he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit [pneuma] with him.”[7]

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:32.

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:44-47.

[3] James 3:15.

[4] Jude 19.

[5] Luke 14:26.

[6] Hebrews 4:12.

[7] 1 Corinthians 6:17.

Plato’s doctrine of the soul

We titled this section ‘Greco-Catholic Anthropology’ but have yet to discuss the doctrine of the soul as developed by Plato and Aristotle. This is necessary, not so much in order to understand the writings of the New Testament, but to understand the fully developed enunciation of Catholic anthropology produced by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aristotelian philosophy and its unique terminology are so integrated, in fact, that it is difficult to see how anyone unfamiliar with Aristotle (and Plato, for that matter) could properly understand Aquinas.

We begin, then, with Plato.

Plato famously described the body as a tomb (soma-sema) in the Gorgias, a tomb for the human soul, which is divine. One would assume from this that Plato despised the body and was the first Manichean, but the truth is not so simple.

The soul itself, although one, is divided into parts: the intellect (nous) which tends toward truth and the intelligible, situated in the head; the conscupisible or ‘appetitive’ (epithumetikon) which tends toward the corporeal and wordly domain, situated in the stomach; and the irascible (thumoeides), which is an intermediate part, situated in the heart.

Multiple images are used to symbolically convey these localizations and the part played by each. In the Timaeus the representation is identical to what was described above, but in the Republic Plato describes man as the ‘chimerical animal’ whose belly is formed by the Hydra (representing the appetitive part with its constantly multiplying desires), the chest by a lion (representing nobility and courage, but also anger), and the head by a human body, which here symbolizes the intellect.

Here we will recall what was said above—that from this we might assume that Plato’s view of the body is similar to what we get from certain isolated statements of St. Paul, wherein the flesh seems to be the source of all evil and therefore the enemy of man, who must wage war against his own limbs. Yet this is a superficial and inaccurate reading of both men.

The body, for Plato and for Christians, is not evil in itself, but is rather an instrument that has the potential to carry out evil acts and by its nature presents the ‘occasion of sin’ to the human person. The real possibility of evil resides in the soul itself, which succumbs to its appetites by way of the body. The body is the medium through which the senses are exercised, but it does not respond to what is seen, heard, or felt of its own volition: it is the soul that finds objects to desire, and which desires them in ways that might be fatal to itself.

Here is what Plato says:

“The soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars…philosophy can see that the imprisonment is ingeniously affected by the prisoner’s own active desire, which makes him first accessory to his own confinement.”[1]

What at first seemed like a precursor to gnostic dualism turns out, after an examination of the texts, to be an alchemical roadmap whereby the initial ‘prison’ becomes merely a point of departure as the individual learns organize his inner life according to a proper hierarchy which involves the intellective soul ruling the irascible soul, both of which rule the concupiscible soul, at which point the body is recruited and utilized properly. The individual, having thus achieved a healthy alignment of his inner reality, can then pursue the divine, with the ultimate goal being the ‘beatific vision’[2] familiar to Christianity.

Plato is neither trichotomist nor enemy of the body, but is merely offering anthropological framework that, in his view, would allow man to alchemically integrate all of his elements, enlisting their energies in view of a spiritual ascent.

In the end, the main difficulty for us is how the intellect of Plato is to be understood, since it seems at one moment a transcendent ‘other’ and at another moment intrinsic to the human being’s constitution. Here we find intimations of the intellect as a power in view of which our rational analysis breaks down, and this is why it is often described as ‘supernaturally natural’, straddling the line between the particular and the Universal, between Being and Beyond Being.

At this point we can move on to Aristotle, who was responsible for the continuation of Plato’s mission, albeit in a different way and with a different point of emphasis, and who would have such a profound impact on the development of later Catholic theology.

[1] Phaedo, 82e.

[2] Phaedrus, 250b.

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.

Christianity does not require Aristotle in order to speak about man

Aristotle’s formulation that ‘the soul is the form of the body’, taken for granted by modern Catholic theology as the answer to the unity of the person, is not, at least for Aristotle, so simple as it seems. In some ways his anthropology produces its own difficulties especially with respect to the intellect. Aquinas sought to resolve these difficulties but the point remains that Aristotle does not have ‘the answer’ and that his dialectic and terminology, however useful, had to be modified and re-formulated in order to be Christianized.

Additionally, and since we are about to examine the anthropological doctrines of the early Church, we should remind the reader that Aristotle did not come to Western Christianity until the 13th century, and so the preferred formula of modern theologians was not accessible to anyone for over a thousand years of theological development. This means that as we consider the writings of earlier theologians, we inevitably lean toward one of two possible positions: 1) Everyone before Aquinas, from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine, was only capable of producing incomplete or incorrect teachings about the soul. 2) Or, it is in fact possible to describe the constitution of the human person without reference to Aristotle’s work. The obvious approach, for us, is the latter.

Tripartite anthropology in the history of Christianity

As with St. Paul’s anthropological doctrine, we will not present an exhaustive analysis of doctrinal development but will only provide citations and commentary that we believe adequate to demonstrate that the tripartite view of man, which we have proposed, is neither novel nor unorthodox, even though it departs somewhat from the preferred formulations of contemporary (post-Aquinas) theologians.

Very early in the history of the Church we encounter the body-soul-spirit formulation via St. Irenaeus. Before we offer any citations, we will point out that Irenaeus was combating the errors of the Gnostics who had taken what would have been a normal ‘tripartite’ anthropology and absolutized each part as if it were its own class of human beings. These classes were the hylics, the psychics, and the pneumatics, each category corresponding to a tendency either ascending, neutral, or descending, with the result being that salvation was reserved for the third type only and determined by the nature bestowed on the individual and that alone.

In opposition to this extreme systematization, Irenaeus writes:

“The soul and the spirit are parts of man, they are not man himself; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was molded after the image of God.”[1]

As if in anticipation of the confusion displayed by contemporary theologians at this (quite Biblical) distinction between soul and spirit, who may wonder if this ‘spirit’ is a created and individuated thing or if it is the very Holy Spirit Himself, Irenaeus clarifies:

“For if any one take away the substance of flesh, that is, of the handiwork of God, and understand that which is purely spiritual, such then would not be a spiritual man but would be the spirit of a man, or the Spirit of God…But if the Spirit be wanting to the soul, he who is such is indeed of an animal nature and…carnal.”[2]

In short, the fully realized man is possessed of three ‘parts’, although the spirit may, in actuality, be lacking, in which case the being in question is called ‘carnal’. This is remarkably similar in form to the doctrine of St. Paul, speaking frequently of the ‘spiritual man’, and so on.

If there were any doubt about the necessity of considering the ‘spirit’ as a part of normal spiritual anthropology, Irenaeus continues:

“For that flesh which has been molded is not a perfect man in itself, but the body of a man, and part of a man. Neither is the soul itself, considered apart by itself, the man; but it is the soul of a man, and part of a man. Neither is the spirit a man, for it is called the spirit, and not a man; but the commingling and union of all these constitutes the perfect man.”[3]

And finally, with utmost clarity:

“[T]here are three things out of which, as I have shown, the complete man is composed—flesh, soul, and spirit. One of these does indeed preserve and fashion—this is the spirit; while as to another it is united and formed—that is the flesh; then that which is between these two—that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the spirit, is raised up by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts.”[4]

It is interesting to observe the dismay of certain moderns at this exposition. Taking as their starting point a simple body-soul dualism, the arguments of Irenaeus must be very confusing indeed. What we find, then, is that they immediately begin accusing the saint of having confused his anthropology, or else they engage in all manner of mental gymnastics in order to show that he does not actually say what he obviously says. We think he speaks clearly enough for himself.

Next, we come to Clement of Alexandria, a younger contemporary of Irenaeus. In the text that follows, Clement is commenting on the Gospel of Matthew 18:20, which reads:

“For there where two or three are reunited in my Name, I am in the midst of them.”

Regarding this passage, Clement passes through the levels of meaning, beginning with the most literal and exterior and eventually touching on the most profound, saying:

“In another sense the three are passion (thymos), desire and reason, the flesh, the soul and the spirit according to another denomination…When, having surpassed thymos and desire, man will love in deed the creation of God and the Creator of everything, he will live as gnostic…already ‘one’ here below in his judgement and truly spiritual, inaccessible in everything and everywhere to the reasonings of passion and desire, completed in the image of the Lord by the Craftsman himself, a perfect man, worthy of being called brother by the Lord, and friend and son at the same time. In this way the two and the three are reunited in the gnostic man.”

Somewhat later, during the 4th century AD, we are given the teachings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. Although complex, the anthropology of St. Gregory is summarized as follows:

“What constitutes the image of God, and therefore what belongs to man by nature, is the faculty of pure knowledge, discrimination and supreme illumination, in other words the intellect [nous]; the rest, the desiring soul and the affective soul, is added.”[5]

Also in the 4th century, a text from St. Epiphanius, which is short but significant because nested within a creed, a creed which in turn served as a kind of preliminary draft of the Creed of Constantinople. It runs as follows:

“We believe…in Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who was made man, that is, has taken on a perfect human nature, soul, body, and spirit and all that is of man, except for sin.”[6]

It is notable that this text was given as a kind of correction to the “trichotomism” of Apollinaris and is powerful because it sought to correct the heresy of the latter without, for all that, oversimplifying the matter.

Now again in the 5th century, the giant figure of St. Augustine appears, and he writes:

“There are three things of which man consists—namely, spirit, soul, and body [spiritus, anima, corpus]—which again are spoken of as two, because frequently the soul is named along with the spirit; for a certain rational portion of the same, of which beasts are devoid, is called spirit: the principal part in us is the spirit; next, the life whereby we are united with the body is called the soul; finally, the body itself, as it is visible, is the last part in us.”[7]

Could we hope for a more lucid agreement with everything we have said up to this point?

[1] Adversus haereses, Book V, 6, n. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., Book V, 9.

[5] On the Soul and the Resurrection.

[6] Dumeige, La Foi catholique, noum. 5.

[7] De fide et symbol, X, 23.

The significance of St. Thomas Aquinas

The contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas to the development of Catholic theology cannot be overestimated. He was a genius, and although not the first, he was, arguably, the greatest from the point of a view of sheer mental power. This much is generally acknowledged, but we would like to provide a few preliminary remarks that should be kept in mind when we look at his doctrine of the soul.

First, when a terminology gains currency, and if it is proven both effective and powerful, it can become the de facto norm, even if it is not, strictly speaking, the only way of enunciating the truth. In other words, even if a certain formulation (“the soul is the form of the body”) is not in and of itself definitive, it can become effectively irreplaceable once enmeshed in the official theological vocabulary.

Pope Pius X, in the 1914 encyclical Doctoris Angelici, says that this is precisely the case with St. Thomas:

The capital theses in the philosophy of St. Thomas are not to be placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or another, but are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based; if such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the Church.

In other words, Thomism is not necessarily identical with Catholic theology, but is now practically identical with it. This for the most part reasonable and well-deserved, since no other theologian has provided a framework so reliable and unassailable when it comes to a dialectical exposition of the faith.

We repeat: this is well-deserved, and so nothing of what we say here is intended to disparage St. Thomas or minimize his importance. We only wish to make clear certain dangers that come with this situation, the foremost of which is that it seemingly absolutizes a certain point of view that is not absolute. Once absolutized, it excludes all other possible enunciations, not only some of those offered in the thousand years prior to Thomism, but (and this is far more alarming) any that may possibly be offered in the indeterminate future.

To refer to another example of the same phenomenon, where a certain approach becomes so popular as to become artificially normative, we have elsewhere discussed how the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, profound and wonderful as it is, came to be seen as the only style of spiritual realization compatible with Catholicism. Anyone whose spiritual temperament does not coincide with the style of the two great mystics of 16th century Spain are given the impression that either they are somehow in error, or else that Catholicism has nothing to offer them in the form of spiritual method.

These same drawbacks, mutatis mutandis, occurred when Thomism became the normative theological vocabulary in the Catholic world.

With that said, we will briefly summarize the way in which St. Thomas envisages the soul.

There are, it is said, three souls (or ‘parts’ of the soul): the vegetative, the animal, and the intellectual.

As for the first two ‘souls’, they are a result of the generative process itself, which is to say they are not created directly by God but are produced from preexisting psychic or subtle substance in a similar way to how the body itself is not created directly but is formed from the existing material environment.

So far, this gives a certain unity to the human person and fits into the standard body-soul dualism. But what about the intellectual soul? For Aquinas, as for us, it is clearly something that is, by its very nature, cannot be situated in the psychic order, nor can it be a result of the generative act. Did not Aristotle say that it was something that comes from without, “through the door” of the heart? Aquinas agrees, and must allow for its presence within a fundamentally Aristotlean terminology but without compromising the unity of the soul.

His solution is that at its earliest stage, for example as an embryo, the human being is given form by the various souls in stages and, additionally, as the being moves from one stage to the next (for example, from vegetative to animal) the soul does not develop but is instead “replaced” by the higher type of soul, which carries on the functions of the lower type even while replacing it, since the higher can accomplish what the lower can accomplish.

This allows Thomism to account for the third soul, which is possessed of something categorically different than the two lower souls: mentality.

The explanation runs as follows:

“Thus the vegetative soul, which is present first (when the embryo lives the life of a plant), perishes and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, both nutritive and sensitive in character, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when that passes away it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without, while the preceding souls existing in virtue of semen.”[1]

We mentioned already that the Thomistic solution potentially raises more difficulties than it resolves. For example, if the rational soul performs a function categorically different from the two previous souls, which it is said to replace, its unity seems contrived from the start. It retains the ability to perform the functions of the lower souls, which were related to the organization of the body, but the power of the intellect is not tied to the body and is in fact separable from it. According to Aquinas himself:

“A body is not necessary to the intellectual soul by reason of its intellectual operation considered as such; but on account of the sensitive power.”[2]

The soul is called “the form of the body” in terms of its vegetative and animal functions, which is clear enough with regard to the lower two souls; but the third and most perfect soul, created by God and not generated through nature, performs a function that is radically different from what the soul had, until that moment, performed, and brings with it a new power, the intellect, which is separable from the body, even though in its vegetative and sensitive functions, the soul is inseparable from it.

It is hard not to suspect that we are dealing with the same old spirit-soul-body anthropology, except that, due to the historical challenges faced by Aquinas, as well as his thoroughly Aristotelian vocabulary, it is veiled behind a powerfully rationalized dualism. We do not, for all that, contest its value or orthodoxy; what we do contest is the wisdom of insisting on it as the end-all-be-all of anthropological formulations.

In sum, we would say that whatever the merits of Thomism, they do not disqualify the merits of Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, Origen, Jerome, and others; and it would be more beneficial if Catholic scholarship would, perhaps without even abandoning Thomism as a preferred standard, discontinue its unofficial monopoly on doctrinal expression.

[1] Summa Contra Gentile, Bk. II, ch. 89.

[2] Summa Theologiae I, q. 76, a. 5, ad. 2.