Eternal Life: Contradiction or A Simple Misunderstanding?

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By: John Mancini, Benedictine College

The Christian concept of the human being is one of mass confusion yet utter fascination. Is there nothing more remarkable than the idea that there exists something material that is so influenced by something immaterial that the former obeys the latter’s every command? We could sit for hours writing numerous pages regarding how awe-inspiring this is, but I digress. The purpose of this paper is not to marvel at the human being. Rather, I would like to try my hand at solving a metaphysical inquiry regarding human completion after death from a Catholic standpoint. In essence, I am seeking to address the question of whether or not we are truly whole once our souls have left our bodies to have eternal life with God. This may seem like a blatant affirmative response, considering “eternal” entails wholeness, but I argue that such a response is not so blatant: We, as human beings, are composed of body and soul, i.e. matter and form. If one of these parts is separated from the whole, as occurs at death, then how can we say that we are truly complete or eternal? We say it is ourselves that go to Heaven, yet at the same time maintain that it is only our souls that do so. If our souls are not sufficient to be the human Self, however, then this is a clear contradiction; we do not go to Heaven, our souls do. Thus, the issue at hand is that Catholicism teaches that we have eternal, complete life with God after death, and at the same time rejects this notion by acknowledging that we leave our bodies, i.e. a part of us, behind on Earth. I am going to attempt to solve this issue by rethinking how we view the form/matter composition, first seen in Aristotelian writings and later taken up by Saint Thomas Aquinas, to show that what the Church teaches is, in fact, not a contradiction at all.

Before I begin, I am hoping that this initial paragraph did not scare too many people off. Yes, this is going to be a metaphysical inquiry, but I am not going to assume that the reader has a complete understanding of metaphysics at all — heck, even experts in the field do not have a complete understanding of what it is they speak, and I am surely no expert! Hence, I plan to make this paper as accessible as possible, in effort that the everyday layperson can understand the things of which I write — though, I admit, it will help if readers have at least a little interest in philosophy, and it will also prove particularly difficult on my part to simplify something as complex as metaphysics. Nevertheless, allow me to clarify a few key terms: 

Metaphysics bears a great many definitions, but for this paper it will refer to the study of being qua being, or the study of being as such. All this refers is to what things are in themselves. So, if I was to study the metaphysical essence of a human being, I would study what it is that makes something a human; I would ponder what it means to be a human being. Luckily for us, the Catholic Church has an answer to this question: The human being is a creation of God that is the unique combination of body and rational soul. Here, “rational” merely refers to our ability to praise God, think, philosophize, and the like independent of our bodies. Our bodies may always be present in the action and even necessary to engage in it, but they do not instantiate a psychological circumstance required to rationalize; our minds or souls retain the ability to think regardless of our bodily states. Thus, we can praise God or question why we decided to hop on Clarifying Catholicism only to be confused by some 20-year-old philosophy student, without our bodies demanding that we do so. When we look to animals, on the other hand, all of their “rationalizing” is preceded by a physical phenomenon: They are hungry, so they eat; they are thirsty, so they drink; they are tired, so they sleep. In every waking act that an animal engages in, it is only in response to and in accordance with their bodies. They cannot philosophize or do anything of the sort because their bodies do not concern themselves with such questions. In this way, an animal’s soul is so attached to its body that an argument can be made that the body of an animal is its soul and life force — but that is an argument for another time. With that said, let me move on from the definition of metaphysics or the study of being to explain some of what Aristotle and Aquinas have to say about it.

It has already been established that the human being is body and (rational) soul. Aristotle was the first philosopher — and who many consider the first modern scientist — to address this unity as a “form and matter composition.” Bear with me while I explain this idea: Matter, for Aristotle, acts as “potentiality, while form is actuality” (On the Soul, 412a9). In this way, matter in its purest state is nothing, as it exists only in principle, i.e. as potential, and so must await actualization from form in order to become something in itself. Pure actualization or form, however, is also nothing, as action only exists with a body. When we apply this to living things, then, we must question what part of them is matter and which part is form. For Aristotle — and later Saint Aquinas —  “the body . . . exists as subject and matter” (On the Soul, 412a16-17). “Subject” in this context refers to something universal and common to all creatures. In other words, the body is subject in that all beings are identifiable through their bodies and all have bodies. It is form, however, that allows one body to be of a particular sort and allows for beings to have individuality. Form, then, is responsible for my being John rather than a mere human body — or copy of a body. Accordingly, Aristotle credits the soul as form; it is the actualization of our being and being of a specific type. All human beings, then, have the same matter in having a human body, but their souls vary and are completely distinguishable from each other, again, providing individuality. Thus, one’s soul is responsible for one’s particular body. Saint Aquinas takes this a step further to state that one’s body expresses his soul, meaning the soul is directly responsible for all of our physical and spiritual attributes. In other words, the reason an individual looks and even acts the way he does is contingent upon the way his soul was created and the qualities it bears. In this way, we can credit one’s personality to the manner in which his soul exists: “Since the form is not for the matter, but rather, the matter for the form, we must gather from the form the reason why the matter is such as it is” (Aquinas, ST I. Q76. A5). Now, this may seem to overcomplicate things, as this implies that if we truly seek to understand one’s personality, for example, we cannot or should not look to his past to see how it shaped him but rather to his immaterial soul to find these answers — which is clearly impossible from an earthly view. I say that this is true to a degree, and I think Aquinas would, too. Aquinas does not so much seek to downplay the role that earthly experiences can have in one’s life; he more so seeks to emphasize the role played by something immaterial in shaping our responses to such experiences: “[I]f anyone says that the intellectual soul is not the form of the body he must first explain how it is that this action of understanding is the action of this particular man” (Aquinas, ST I. Q76. A1). My favorite illustration of this idea is the following: Assume that two people have their minds completely erased, save for the knowledge of language. When we inform these two of this fact, one may exclaim, “Oh shoot!” or something much less flattering, while the other may say, “Huh, cool!” This is because, as Thomistic metaphysics dictates, each individual has a unique soul and so a unique method of interpreting information. Without an immaterial entity, however, why should people act differently or respond to similar situations differently? Theoretically, two people with no recollection of their identity should be the same person. We know, however, that this is untrue; one’s individuality is maintained no matter how similar he is to another — even identical twins! Hence, we look to the soul for a complete explanation regarding every aspect of human life.

With that said, the main purpose of introducing all of these terms and concepts is merely to show how tied to the body the soul is, i.e. it is part of what makes us a human being. In stating this, we also conclude that claiming to only be soul is not enough to constitute a human being; to be a human being we must have soul but only in such a way that it exists as the actualization of our bodies. Now, this points to an objection which Aristotle raises regarding the soul’s existence absent of a body. To Aristotle, the soul can only exist as the form of a body. Without a body, then, Aristotle questions how exactly a soul can exist, when it is pure actuality and so nothing in itself — recall that for a thing to live it must have a form/matter composition, which the soul does not (Metaphysics, 1035b20-21). Thus, Aristotle concludes that when the body perishes, the soul loses its means of living as well. This, of course, runs completely contrary to what the Catholic Church — and Saint Aquinas — preaches. Aquinas writes that the soul must be subsistent, able to exist away from the body, as we would otherwise not be able to understand the physical world: “[W]hatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else” (Aquinas, ST I. Q75. A2). Put simply, Aristotle’s view implies that the soul is part of the body; for if the soul perishes with the body it must share in its essential nature. At the same time, however, Aristotle argues that the soul rationalizes and comes to know the physical world absent of the body. If this is possible, then the soul cannot be bodily, as we only come to understand things from an outside view. This is why, for example, when we are in an intense argument we may not be able to see how irrational we may or may not be acting. It is only after the fact that we come to realize this, i.e. outside the argument. Hence, the human soul is subsistent because it is able to rationalize and logically consider the physical world, meaning it is something apart from it entirely (notice, however, that we must engage in thought-experiments such as these to deduce the soul’s nature because we do not have an outside view of it).

Now, while Aquinas has the reasoning to support his view, we can still pose Aristotle’s objection and ask just how exactly the soul can exist without a body; Aquinas only presents us with why the soul can exist without a body. I have an answer to this question and in presenting it, I will further resolve the main issue of this paper, i.e. “How can we say we have eternal life in Heaven with God if it is only one part of ourselves that is with Him?”

To reiterate, we are not pure soul nor pure body. We are human beings, a combination of body and soul. This does not mean, however, that we can only exist as body and soul throughout our lifetime — and this assumption is what causes the above objection. We have already established that form and matter remain necessary for something to exist. We have also shown that the soul, as pure act, cannot exist on its own. It does not follow, however, that the soul cannot exist without a body. I grant that the soul, in order to have existence, must actualize something; but what is to say that this actualization must be bodily for all eternity? I argue that, after death, we continue to have the same form/matter composition that we have right now but in a different way. The current form/matter composition is thought to be soul and body. I argue, however, that it is rather soul and action, the latter of which for earthly humans concerns only the body. At death, however, this changes; human action is no longer restricted to the body and rather concerns pure action, itself. Thus, we are still soul and action and still human beings at death, the difference being that our matter becomes essentially or materially changed and transformed. Our souls subsist, then, by continuing to actualize something. They simply do not actualize merely body but rather perfect action which then becomes particular to us. In other words, I do not believe — or am not sure — that the soul can, in fact, exist as something other than actualization, so I argue that, if it is to exist without the body, it must be able to do so in terms of non-bodily action. What is interesting in my position, however, is that it is not so different from what Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae. He writes that the soul exists as “an act of body” (Aquinas, ST I. Q75. A1). In other words, the body cannot act on its own. All bodily actions are the result of what the soul dictates, and the body only acts because the soul actualizes such movements. In short, the soul acts through the body. All I suggest, however, is that the soul, at death, is no longer limited in the type of action it can actualize. We will no longer strive for things on an earthly level and will be able to achieve new heights on a spiritual one. We, with the power of our souls, will have a new essence, one that is not bodily action but perfect, God-like action — and we are being given this new essence this very second. God is transforming us right now into Himself, as is the point of our being on Earth. When we leave this Earth, it is because God’s work has been completed; there is no more Earth can do for us. Hence, we may require further transformation (or purification) in Purgatory, or perhaps the Earthly transformation went well and we can join God with our perfected “matter” in Heaven — and this is how we maintain a complete, eternal life with God. We are still ourselves, or human beings, but with a different essence or matter. We still consist of the same form/matter composition as on Earth but in a more perfect way. We will transform from limited perfection to complete perfection. We will transform from ordinary human beings to extraordinary human beings. That, my friends, is how we can maintain that we have eternal life with God in Heaven.

Works Cited

Ackrill, J. L. A New Aristotle Reader. Princeton University Press, 1988. 

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. “Question 75. Man Who Is Composed of a Spiritual and a Corporeal 

Substance: and in the First Place, Concerning What Belongs to the Essence of the Soul.” SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Man Who Is Composed of a Spiritual and a Corporeal Substance: and in the First Place, Concerning What Belongs to the Essence of the Soul (Prima Pars, Q. 75), New Advent, 2020, www.newadvent.org/summa/1075.htm.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. “Question 76. The Union of Body and Soul.” SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: 

The Union of Body and Soul (Prima Pars, Q. 76), New Advent, 2020, www.newadvent.org/summa/1076.htm. 

Cooper, John M., and D. S. Hutchinson, editors. Plato Complete Works. Hackett Publishing 

Company Inc., 1997.

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