Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ratzinger on Aquinas on Corporeality

I've read several of Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger's books, but I think the best I've encountered is the one I mentioned in the last post (on time). Lately I've been reflecting on how time and life go together like time and energy (in modern physics) and like time and money (in our financial lives). Clearly "to save time" means to escape the needless loss of a segment of our lives. The precariousness we attribute to the moment is really the precariousness of our biological lives. Hans Jonas realized this well:

Heidegger had talked about existence as care, but he did so from an exclusively intellectual perspective. There was no mention of the primary physical reason for having to care, which is our corporeality, by which we—ourselves a part of nature, needy and vulnerable—are indissolubly connected to our natural environment, most basically through metabolism, the prerequisite of all life. Human beings must eat. This natural law of the body is as cardinal as the mortality accompanying it. But in Being and Time the body had been omitted and nature shunted aside as something merely present.

...Perhaps my physical exposure to danger [as a soldier in the Second World War], a situation in which the precariousness of the body's fate becomes evident and fear of its mutilation becomes paramount, was responsible for my new reflections.

Anyway, enough transition from time to bodiliness! Among the many gems of Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life is this extended passage on the Thomistic conception of human corporeality:

The crucial factor in reaching this solution was the entry of Aristotle into Christian thinking during the course of the thirteenth century. The Platonic heritage, in many ways so useful for taking up the intellectual challenge of the biblical message, has led to the dilemma between spiritualism and naturalism just described. Of itself, it was unable to clear a path through the thicket. With the help of Aristotle, however, a non-sensualist realism could be formulated and in this way a philosophical counterpart to the pneumatic realism of the Bible could be found. The decisive step was the new understanding of the soul which Thomas Aquinas achieved through his daring transformation of the Aristotelian anthropology. We saw above that the picture of the soul which developed in definitive fashion from Christianity implied at the same time a new view of the body. In Thomas' interpretation of the formula anima forma corporis [soul the form of body], both soul and body are realities only thanks to each other and oriented towards each other. Though they are not identical, they are nevertheless one; and as one, they constitute the single human being. As both expression and being-expressed they make up a dual unity of a quite special kind. For our purposes, this insight carries a twofold consequence of a remarkable sort. First, the soul can never completely leave behind its relationship to matter. Greshake's idea that the soul receives matter into itself as an "ecstatic aspect" of the realization of its freedom, while leaving it for ever to the clutches of the necessarily imperfectible precisely in its quality as matter, would be unthinkable for Thomas. If it belongs to the essence of the soul to be the form of the body then its ordination to matter would be inescapable. The only way to destroy this ordering would be to dissolve the soul itself. What is thus emerging is an anthropological logic which shows the resurrection to be a postulate of human existence. Secondly the material elements from our of which human physiology is constructed receive their character of being "body" only in virtue of being organized and formed by the expressive power of soul. Distinguishing between "physiological unit" and "bodiliness" now becomes possible. This is what Origen was getting at with his idea of the characteristic form, but the conceptual tools at his disposal did not allow him to formulate it. The individual atoms and molecules do not as such add up to the human being. The identity of the living body does not depend upon them, but upon the fact that matter is drawn into the soul's power of expression. Just as a soul is defined in terms of matter, so the living body is wholly defined by reference to the soul. The soul builds itself a living body, a self-identical living body, as its corporeal expression. And since the living body belongs so inseparably to the being of man, the identity of that body is defined not in terms of matter but in terms of soul.

The easy vividness of Ratzinger's summary of Aquinas's doctrine makes it easy to appreciate Ratzinger's resonance with Hans Jonas (a favorite of his)! Also note how he brings out the truth of Origen's apparently erroneous formulation.

In Thomas, these insights find their determinate expression through the Aristotelian understanding of prime matter and the role of form connected with this. Matter which does not belong with some form is materia prima [primary matter], pure potency. Only in virtue of form does this materia prima become matter in the physical sense [i.e., the modern sense]. If the soul be the only form of the body, then the ending of this form-relationship by death implies the return of matter to a condition of pure potency. This reversion should not, of course, be thought of as occupying a distinct moment in time: we are making an assertion in ontology. In point of fact, the place occupied by the old form is at once taken over by a new one, so that physical matter remains as it was. However, since this physical matter is not actualized by a different form, it is something fundamentally different from that which existed before when the soul was the form in question. Between the living body and the corpse there lies the chasm of prime matter. Consistently maintained, therefore, the Thomistic teaching cannot preserve the self-identity of the body before and after death.

Matter of itself (that is, without form) has no identity, no "individuation"; it is "pure potency," as Ratzinger says following the Aristotle Scholastics. Like modern bumper sticker slogans, the medieval maxim that "matter is the principle of individuation" is often invoked by superficial philosophers without real understanding.1 Really it is form that individuates material things: the real meaning of the slogan is that matter is the principle by which a material thing's form modified. In other words, material things' forms can't change unless they have matter, the principle of change. Benedict Ashley drove this point home for me in a conversation some years ago.

This might seem to be an advantage in the case of the question of resurrection. Yet it has anthropological and ontological consequences which are strange, to say the least. For this reason, Aquinas' new anthropology, summed up in the formula anima unica forma corporis, called forth stiff opposition and ecclesiastical condemnations. At the philosophical level, it denied the identity of the corpse of Jesus with him who was crucified. Incidentally, if the body derives its identity in no way from matter but entirely from soul, which is not passed on by a man's parents, there would also be another problem here concerned with conception, with the genuineness of parenthood. This is why Thomas himself held back from embracing the consequences of his own theory and, in the question of the resurrection, fenced it in with additional considerations meant to supply for its deficiencies. Only Durandus of Sant Pourcain (c. 1275-1334) dared to accept all the consequences entailed in Aquinas' starting point, basing the identity of the risen body exclusively upon the identity of the soul. His remained a somewhat isolated voice in the medieval period. During the nineteenth century it was adopted by Billot, Michel, and Feuling.

Not quite sure what he means about the problem of the genuineness of parenthood. Except perhaps that if the immaterial soul is created (or infused) directly by God, then to what extent can one's parents be said to be the parent of that soul, which is the person himself? (Anyone know how this one is answered?)

(Also have to admire the translator's use of the English subjunctive: "If the soul be".)

Next Ratzinger turns in his brilliant way to discover the core concerns (behind the limitations) motivating the philosophical doctrines in order to do justice to them in a modern formulation.

In its original shape, the Aristotelian concept of matter and form underlying Durandus' thesis is no longer conceivable to us: the simple repristinization of a thoroughgoing Thomism is not the way we seek. The synthesis which Thomas formulated with such brilliance in the conditions of his century must be re-created in the present, in such a way that the authentic concerns of the great doctor are preserved. Thomas does not offer a recipe which can just be copied out time and again without further ado; nevertheless, his central idea remains as a signpost for us to follow. That idea consists in the notion of the unity of body and soul, a unity founded on the creative act and implying at once the abiding ordination of the soul to matter and the derivation of the identity of the body not from matter but from the person, the soul. The physiology becomes truly "body" through the heart of the personality. Bodiliness is something other than a summation of corpuscles.

Truly Ratzinger at his best!


1. I suspect that this section would have been a good one for a couple Catholic philosohers to have read (and re-read and pondered thoroughly) in order to avoid the silly assertion that "we think the resurrection involves God's reassembling at least some of the numerically same particles that once were in our living bodies (us) when we were alive—and thus it is a true resurrection, that is, a re-arising." Invoking particles (modern matter) rightfully sets them in the cross hairs of physicist Steve Barr. If they simply meant "matter" in the Aristotelian sense, they would be equally wrong, because as we've seen matter as such has no identity. Modern, quantum-mechanical matter and Aristotelian matter coincide in this lack of individuation. The irony is that we have two Catholic philosophers defending the mechanistic conception of matter (in envisioning the resurrection, no less!), and a modern physicist (himself Catholic, but one who no openly admits of being no philosopher) effectively defending the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic view. (Another example of how the story of modern physics has turned to support the tradition, but not one Barr documents.)

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1988), 178-181.

Hans Jonas, "Wissenschaft as Personal Experience," The Hastings Center Report 32: 4 (Jul.-Aug., 2002), pp. 27-35. (Quoted: 31-32)


Anonymous said...

Applied Christian politics 101, or the "culture" of death dramatized all over the planet. Such was/is INEVITABLY the case when the church was coopted by the Roman state, and thus became a key player in the Western drive for total power and control over everyone and everything.


Both of these dramatic Truth telling images are featured in The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford.

A book which describes the origins and historical on the Invisible Mega(DEATH)machine that now patterns every minute fraction of Western "culture", and by extension the entire world.


cantueso said...

I have seen this by accident and it is late now, got tired eyes, and I cannot continue reading.

Ratzinger is a great writer when he writes in his own name. If you have time, look up "On the position of the Altar". It is about Church architecture and why the altar should look "to the East". He almost bitches, yes, says it was never a question of turning your back on the people, and he explains that wonderfully well, but does show his anger, and yet I wonder whether anybody noticed it.

This would be in his book on the liturgy, but I read it online, found it at the Ratzinger fan club. There was also his article on sacred music, where he wants us to sing "with the angels".That is his most personal writing and would be the hardest to peddle out there.