The Soul, the Faith and Aristotle


Kevin J Flannery SJ FAITH Magazine November-December 2006

An Answer to William Charlton by Kevin L Flannery SJ
A Response by William Charlton

Responding to William Charlton

In the May-June issue of this magazine, William Charlton, former head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Edinburgh and author of many works on ancient philosophy and, in particular, on Aristotle’s theory of the soul, published an article entitled, "The human soul as form: the relationship between Aristotle and Catholic teaching". I was originally invited by the Editor to write an article on a similar theme (roughly, “the soul”) to have been published alongside Charlton’s article; but, since, due to an oversight, I missed that deadline, the present article has become a response to Charlton’s. And that is not a bad thing since, while respecting greatly the years of careful scholarship and searching intelligence that lie behind the article in question, I am not entirely inagreement with Charlton. In this response, I will also make frequent reference to an article that Charlton published in 2001, entitled, "Aquinas on Aristotle on Immortality [in Whose Aristotle? Whose Aristotelianism? ed. Robert W. Sharples, pp.63-77] which is in many ways a companion piece to the article that appeared in these pages. I will refer to “Aquinas on Aristotle on immortality” as AAI, to “The human soul as form” as HSF.

Form, Matter and Composite

Much of the argumentation of HSF is unexceptionable and, indeed, very useful for understanding Aristotle’s conception of the relationship between form and matter and the way in which a soul might be a form. Charlton emphasizes the close relationship between form and matter, and he does so without falling into materialism. The key to avoiding the latter, he argues, is teleology: just as a lintel is that which it is in so far as it is wood (material) put to a certain purpose (to mark the threshold of a house), so an animal is flesh and blood which is arranged in a certain way but with a purpose. If one reduces one’s understanding of an animal to the arrangement of the material but without the purpose, one finishes with the position rejected by both Plato and Aristotle: that the soul is asort of harmony.[2]

The only hesitation I have with any of this concerns what Charlton says about the way form enters into the composite (i.e., the composite of form and matter). Charlton writes:

Although Aristotle uses the expressions “form,” “matter” and “composite” (sonolon) or “the two together” (to ek toutôn) he is careful to say that a composite whole does not consist of form and matter. “The syllable does not consist of letters and arrangement, or the house of bricks and arrangement” [HSF 24].

The latter quotation is from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, book eight. I would translate the lines [1043b5-6] somewhat differently, thus: “The syllable is not produced from its letters and their arrangement, or the house from its bricks and their arrangement.” This is similar to the Wittgensteinian point that when we represent the relationship between objects a and b as aRb (where R, of course, is the relation), we do not mean that R is the same type of thing as a and b (see Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus §3.1432). But that does not mean that
there is no such thing as a relation or that there is not a real difference between an object and a relation. So, it is perfectly legitimate to say that aRb consists of its objects (a and b) and a relation (R).

This indeed is consistent with—although not as strong as—what Aristotle says a few lines before the bit quoted by Charlton: “For soul and to be soul are the same, but to be man and man are not the same, unless indeed the soul is to be called man (and thus it is and is not the same)” [Metaph. viii,3,1043b2-4].[3] This is essentially a proof that the soul and the composite (the man, composed of body and soul) are different things: when we speak of the soul and when speak of what it is to be a soul (“the essence of soul”), we refer to the same thing; when, on the other hand, we refer to a man, we do not refer to what it is to be a man (i.e., the essence of man) since the essence involves no concrete matter but a man is made up of body (concretematter) and soul. So, the soul and the man are distinct things, although not in the way that object a is distinct from object b.

Aquinas would explain further that the human soul is distinct from the composite of which it is a part in a special way that distinguishes it from the souls of other animals. Other souls do not exist except in so far as the composite (the animal) exists. Animals are basically physical: just as heat does not really exist except in hot things, so animal souls have no existence except in animals. But, since reason is ultimately independent of the physical—as it must be if reason is found in God—rational animals, composed of body and soul, exist because the rational soul exists and not vice-versa. This makes the form of the composite man a part in a special way: it exists independently of the composite which exists (when it exists) because it (the form) exists [De unitate intellectus (Leonineedition), c.1 ll.622-53, 775-84].[4]

One Version of the History

Charlton sees any theory attempting to prove philosophically—that is to say, beginning from premisses having to do with the nature of reasoning— that the human soul is immortal as un-Aristotelian, un-scriptural, un-Christian and, therefore, unacceptable. The story he tells is this: the early Church, as evidenced by both the Old and the New Testaments, did not maintain that all souls were immortal but that a person could become immortal by living a good life.[5] Beginning with Justin Martyr, Christian doctrine becomes contaminated with Platonism [AAI 71], including the philosophical position that “the human soul stands to the human body somewhat as a weaver stands to his coat” [Phaedo 87B2-E5] and the idea that all souls are immortal, theincorrigible ones destined to “undergo 'the greatest, most agonizing and most terrifying sufferings for ever as a warning to others [Gorgias 525C1-8]'" [HSF 2]. This Platonic vision is still in evidence in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, which decreed that God created “the human creature, who as it were shares in both orders [the spiritual and the corporal], being composed of spirit and body” [HSF 28; Denzinger §800].[6] (One recalls that Charlton dislikes talk of man’s consisting of body and soul, although he does not reject the existence of the soul as such, which he connects with the living substance’s teleological nature.) Around the time of Aquinas, however, and officially at the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), the Church sets out tocorrect this erroneous line of thought, employing in the attempt the writings of Aristotle—interpreted, however, in a Platonic way, so that every man is still said to have a soul which will exist (after death) independently of the body.

As I have said, this situation is unacceptable to Charlton: “The result is a rather disquieting edifice [of doctrine], with unborn embryos having immortal souls but no previous experiences, and the wicked surviving to be tormented after death with no prospect of an end to their sufferings or another stab at life” [AAI 73]. Charlton shows a card or two here: besides rejecting the possibility of eternal punishment, he thinks that the presence of a soul depends on its possessor’s having experiences of some kind. In any case, the corrective to all this, according to Charlton, is a return not only to the original scriptural position but also to the genuine Aristotelian position. For Aristotle—notwithstanding Aquinas’s exegesis—offers no proof in the De anima that the soul is per se immortaland, indeed, he probably held to the belief, common among the “Asclepiadae,” that a person, if he was extremely virtuous, might become a god [AAI 76].[7]

The Soul in Scripture

What can we say about all this? Let us consider first scripture, then Church teaching as found in the Fathers and in magisterial statements, and finally Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle. Obviously, in the present context, none of these topics can be treated in any depth, but one can at least indicate the more prominent strong points and weaknesses of Charlton’s account.

Charlton’s remarks about immortality and the soul in scripture are not without foundation, but one could not really say that he stands upon solid ground since the type of foothold he requires is not to be found in scripture. It is true that we do not find in either the Old or the New Testament the idea that the human soul is immortal of its very nature; but that is because the Bible does not deal in philosophical argumentation—or even in theological argumentation such as one finds, for instance, in Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. In the Old Testament
Book of Wisdom (3.1-3), we read that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them; in the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died... but they are at in peace”; and, in the same chapter, the punishment of the wicked seems to belong primarily to the present world. This is consistent with Charlton’s idea that only the good are granted eternal life—but it is not, strictly speaking, inconsistent with the distinction between eternal life (the reward) and eternal death (the punishment) found at Isaiah 66.22-24.

Similarly, in the New Testament Christ says, “The children of this era marry and are given in marriage. But those who are judged worthy to achieve that era and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are capable of marrying” [Luke 20.34-35; quoted at AAI 70, emphasis Charlton’s]. But Christ also says, “Then he [‘the King’] will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink’” [Matthew 25:41-42]. In HSF [29], Charlton cites 1 Corinthians 15.54, where Paul says that at the final resurrection “the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality,” all this effected by the victorious Christ; but he ignoresRomans 2.6-8, where Paul speaks of eternal life for “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality” and then adds that, “for those who are
factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”

The Soul According to the Christian Tradition

But if scripture provides Charlton with some basis for his position, his account of the subsequent development of Catholic teaching is shaky at best. As we have seen, he argues that bad ideas about the soul’s immortality come into Christianity by way of Platonism (middle- and neo-), which puts forward philosophical proofs of the immortality of the soul and a dualistic conception of the relationship between body and soul. This Platonic corruption begins with Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165) and only receives its (partial) correction during and after the time of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). This situation is reflected in the contrast between the Fourth Lateran Council’s Platonic teaching that God created man with a mortal body and an immortal soul, and the Council of Vienne’s purportedlyAristotelian teaching that the rational soul is “per se and essentially” the form of the human body [Denzinger §902].

The structure of Charlton’s historical account is seen to be unsteady once one realizes that in fact Justin Martyr takes a position with respect to the soul’s immortality not unlike Charlton’s own. The souls of the pious are rewarded, Justin says; those of the wicked “are punished as long as God wills them to be and to be punished” [Dialogue 5.3]. What is more, Justin attributes this position to Plato, citing in support the Timaeus. The reference is probably to 41A7-B6:

O gods, works divine whose maker and father I am, whatever has come to be by my hands cannot be undone but by my consent. Now while it is true that
anything that is bound is liable to being undone, still, only one who is evil would consent to the undoing of what has been well fitted together and is in fine
condition. This is the reason why you, as creatures that have come to be, are neither completely immortal nor exempt from being undone. Still, you will not be
undone nor will death be your portion since you have received the guarantee of my will—a greater, more sovereign bond than those with which you were bound
when you came to be [trans. D. Zeyl].[8]

Ideas similar to Charlton’s appear also in Arnobius the Elder (d. c. 330) [Adversus Nationes 2.14-15, 29-34] and in his student Lactantius (c.240-c.320) [Divinae institutiones 7.5], both heavily influenced by Platonism.

Moreover, there is official Church opposition to Platonic dualism apparently as early as 543 with the anathemas against Origenism issued by Justinian and published by the Synod of Constantinople. There the proposition is condemned that souls, as a punishment for growing weary of divine contemplation, are cast down into bodies [Denzinger §403].8 Pretty much the same idea—this time attributed to Priscillian—is condemned again in 561 by the Council of Braga [Denzinger §456]. As to the immortality of the soul, the most important magisterial statement comes long after Aquinas: in 1513 the Fifth Lateran Council taught that the soul is immortal and infused individually into each human body [Denzinger
§1440]. Although Charlton seems to think that the Church could and ought to change this teaching, this is not going to happen. As recently as 1968, in the
so-called “Credo of the People of God” of Paul VI, the teaching was reiterated.[9]

Aquinas’s Interpretation of Aristotle

Regarding Aquinas’s exegesis of Aristotle, in AAI Charlton makes much of the differences between the treatment of the soul’s immortality in the Quaestio disputata de anima (1265-66) and in the Summa
theologiae (prima pars: 1265-68), and the treatment found in the earlier Summa contra Gentiles (1260-65). Writes Charlton: “In the Quaestio disputata de anima and the Summa theologiae Aquinas not only rearranges his material but drops the arguments on which he relied in the Summa contra Gentiles and puts all his money on a few lines in Aristotle’s De Anima III 4” (i.e., 429a18-24) [AAI 63, 67]. The reason why Aquinas reduces and qualifies his position, says Charlton, is that he is “responding, though unconsciously, to a tension in the Christian doctrine of a life after death which arises from its having two independent origins” [AAI 63] one Platonic, the other Jewish (and more or less Aristotelian). But Charlton does not mention Aquinas’s De unitate intellectus, which is similarly late(1270) and contains extensive discussion of Aristotle’s De anima. Moreover, it includes at least one of the arguments that Charlton says are abandoned by the time of the Quaestio disputata de anima and the Summa theologiae. It contains, that is, the argument that the intellect “is not destroyed but perfected by receiving forms of objects of thought” [AAI 64; see De unitate intellectus c.1 ll.318-34].

Comparing Aristotle with Scripture

Setting these details aside, Charlton’s attitude toward Aquinas’s exegesis of Aristotle is actually quite favourable. Although he regards as unacceptably Platonic any attempt to prove philosophically—beginning, for instance, from the properties of intellection—that the soul is immortal, he also maintains that Aristotle quite rightly leaves open the possibility that the human soul might exist independently of the body, even though it is the body’s form. This is consistent with the Thomistic idea we saw above, that the human soul is special in so far as the body-soul composite exists because of it and not vice-versa.

Charlton argues that the question whether “the concept of an intelligent thinker can serve as a form-concept for a human being is quite independent of the question whether a thinker can exist without a body.” And then he adds: “I see nothing to stop us from saying that a human being is primarily an intelligent agent constituted by bodily parts, but such an agent could cease to be constituted by anything material and exist without a body” [HSF 27].

Aristotle on the Soul's Immortality

Charlton’s only beef with Aquinas, therefore, is that he (Aquinas) thinks that Aristotle is out to prove that the rational soul survives the death of the composite man. Charlton acknowledges that there are passages in the De anima (and elsewhere) in which Aristotle suggests that the rational soul might survive death, but he finds in Aristotle no attempt to prove this.

If Charlton is right on this count, it would leave open the possibility that Aristotle held a roughly “scriptural” position on the immortality of the human soul: it might receive immortality as a reward.[10] There is reason, however, to believe that in the De anima Aristotle was indeed interested in demonstrating philosophically that the rational soul can survive death. The De anima consists of three books, the first treating the opinions of Aristotle’s predecessors, the second treating the senses (although this runs over into book three), and the third treating, among other things, the rational soul and its properties. But even in books one and two Aristotle makes it known that he is interested in the intellect’s separability.

In the first chapter of book one, he says (with clear reference to thought [to noein]), that, “if there is any way of acting or being acted upon proper to soul, soul will be capable of separate existence; if there is none, its separate existence is impossible” [De anima i,1,403a10-12]; and, in the first chapter of the second book, he suggests that certain parts of the soul “may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all” [ii,1,413a6-7]. Standing as they do in the first chapters of their respective books, these passages are clearly proleptic references to the arguments found in De anima iii,4-5. There Aristotle argues that reason “cannot reasonably be regarded as blended [memichthai] with the body” [iii,4,429a24-25], and he states that thought [nous] is“separable, impassible, unmixed” [iii,5,430a17-18] and that “this alone is immortal and eternal” [430a23].

Aristotle and Church Teaching

Over the long history of Aristotelian scholarship, there have been those who have argued that, in these later passages, Aristotle is talking about the Divine Intellect, not the intellects belonging to individual humans. But this hardly makes sense of their anticipation in chapters i,1 and ii,1. Moreover, just after the book three remark about intellect alone being immortal and eternal, Aristotle makes a back reference to another passage in book two. He speaks, that is, of the intellect’s impassability and (enigmatically) of memory loss. This is clearly a reference to De anima ii,4, where he says that, as the body runs down and eventually dies, “memory and love cease; they were activities not of thought, but of the composite which has perished; thought is, no doubt, something more divineand impassible” [408b27-29].

So, one does find in the De anima philosophical argumentation to the effect that the individual rational soul survives independently of the body. In the remarks and arguments about the separability of the intellect, Aristotle gives no indication that he means just the souls of the virtuous. This corresponds fairly closely to the Church’s teaching—clearly formulated at least since the sixteenth century—that all souls are individually created immortal. The Church has maintained this even while insisting—as it has done at least since the sixth century—that Platonic dualism is also incompatible with Christianity.

[1] I thank Fr. Stephen L. Brock for his constructive criticism of an earlier version of this essay.
[2] For Aristotle’s rejection of this position, see De Anima i,4,407b27- 408a18; see also William Charlton, “Aristotle and the harmonia theory,” Aristotle and the Nature of Living Things: Philosophical and Historical Studies, Ed. Allan Gotthelf (Pittsburgh/Bristol: Mathesis Publications/Bristol Classical Press, 1985) 131-50.
[3] I make use in this essay of the Revised Oxford Translation (Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984]). [4] In the latter lines, Thomas cites Aristotle’s De generatione animalium 2.3.736b12-15, where Aristotle says, “It remains, then, for the reason alone so to enter and alone to be divine, for no bodily activity has any connexion with the activity of reason.”
[5] From the Old Testament, Charlton cites 2 Mac. 7.9 and Wis. 5.15; from the New, he cites Lk. 20.34-35, Jn. 3:14-16, 6:53-8, 17:21, 1 Cor. 15 (various verses), 1 Thess. 14-17, 2 Thess. 1.9, Ph. 3.11, and Rev. 21.8 (see HSF 29 and AAI 71).
[6] Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum (edizione bilingue), ed.Peter Hünermann (Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, 1996). The quotation from IV Lateran appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §327.
[7] According to Charlton (citing L. R. Farnell, Greek Hero-Cults and Ideas of Immortality [Oxford: Clarendon, 1921] 401), “Asclepius was a human being who after a lifetime of outstanding service to humanity had become a god.” Asclepius was the Greek god of healing; since Aristotle’s father was a doctor, his family would have been of the cult of Asclepius.
[8] According to Cassiodorus [De institutione divinarum litterarum 2], Pope Vigilius gave his consent to the anathemas.
[9] “We believe in one only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creator of things visible such as this world in which our transient life passes,of things invisible such as the pure spirits which are also called angels and creator in each man of his spiritual and immortal soul” [Paul VI, “Sollemni hac liturgia,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 60 (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1968) 436 (§8)]. The two footnotes (which are fairly important) read: “3. See the First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, Denzinger §3002”; “4. See the Encyclical Letter Humani Generis, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950), 575; Fifth Lateran Council, Denzinger §§1440-1441.” The passage from Humani Generis reads as follows: “Therefore, regarding the doctrineof evolution—in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter (for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God)—the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions take place on the part of men experienced in both fields.” It is worth noting also that, in 1844, at the behest of the Congregation of Bishops and Religious, Louis-Eugène Bautain promised not to teach that it is impossible by means of human reason to give a true demonstration of the “spirituality and the immortality of the soul” [Denzinger §2766]. In 1855, at the behest of the Congregation for the Index and with the consent of PiusIX, Augustin Bonnetty subscribed to the following proposition: “Reason can demonstrate with certitude the existence of God, the spirituality of the soul, and the liberty of man” [Denzinger §2812]. (One notes the absence here of any mention of immortality.)
[10] Charlton is, of course, aware that Aristotle was not “acquainted with any Jewish writings, and the books of the Old Testament which express a belief in an afterlife are later than his time” [AAI 77].

William Charlton replies

I am pleased that my essay has elicited a reply from so learned and courteous a critic as Kevin Flannery, and I am grateful to him for correcting the insufficiently nuanced account I gave of Justin Martyr in the earlier essay which he also discusses. As another Catholic student of Aristotle, David Balme, once said, ‘Papers are better than books, because in a paper you give a ball a kick, and then it becomes someone else’s turn to kick it, and so progress is made.’
I agree with him that the Church teaches both that all human souls are "individually created immortal" and that the human soul is "essentially and per se the form of the human body". I should, perhaps, have given more credit to Augustine than to Plato for shaping the first doctrine. But the question which directly concerns me is whether these doctrines are compatible, whether they can both be true. I concluded with regret that I could see no way of interpreting Aristotle’s form-matter distinction which would allow them to be reconciled. The statement Flannery quotes from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215, the year of Magna Carta) that "the human creature" is "composed of spirit and body" seems to me dualistic; and so do the words he takes from the Fifth Lateran Council (1513) that it "isinfused [i.e. poured in, infunditur]
individually into each human body".

Flannery seems to hope that we can reconcile the doctrines by saying that matter and form, even though they differ in kind or logical type, are still components of that of which they are the matter and the form. Hereminds us that a relation in which one thing stands to another (like the relation of ‘being to the north of it’ in which Leeds stands to London) is different in kind from the things related but still real. But I do not see how this helps. I do not think he means that the relation of matter to form is different from matter and form but still real—that seems irrelevant. More probably he means that a form which something has is real and not the same as what has it.

Equally an intelligent agent constituted by flesh and bone is real and not the same as what constitutes it. But how can a form or a thing constituted by organic material be first created and then ‘infused’? Surely what is created and then somehow added to a body must be conceived as spiritual substance after the fashion of Descartes or Locke, if not a blend of the non-physical ingredients: Being, Same and Other as suggested, perhaps playfully, by Plato in the Timaeus.

Our editorial in our last issue argued for a philosophical reassessment of matter. This we hope was a further contribution to the task of attempting to show the coherence of Catholic teaching, the need for which Dr Charlton highlights by his reply.

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