Riddles of hylomorphic humans

(I number the points to make it easier for you to object. There is little intrinsic progression of the ideas. )

1a.) All sides agree that the divine cannot be hylomorphic, there is a dispute over whether angels have a different sort of matter than cosmic things, and its clear that the theory is a perfect explanation for the individuation and mobility of natural things. Human beings cannot be perfectly assimilated into any of these groups. We know that there has to be some way in which we use an analogy or negation of hylomorphic theory to explain the intrinsic constitution of humans, but eschatological questions quickly show the underdevelopment of our theories.

1b.) Aristotle’s striking and mystical language in De Anima III.5 is an attempt to describe just such a negation and analogy – commentators have always read this passage as speaking of an undivided agent intellect for all persons, but this would be a nonsensical thing to include in a treatise on the soul. It’s better to just read it as a first sketch of how one has to speak about that dimension of the human person whose intrinsic constitution cannot be hylomorphic, and which therefore is not individuated or numbered or even properly a species.

2.) The Franciscan/ Dominican dispute is still open over whether Christ would have become incarnate whether there was sin or not, and for the same reason it is an open question what role death would have played if not for the fall. The perfect innocence of man allowed for threats, and the first Adam might well have been called to accept death in the same way the second Adam was. As it stands, we got a death that was ambivalent but slanted overwhelmingly towards hellfire, which was clearly a great and horrible evil. But perhaps without a fall death would have still been the way to the resurrected body, though with none of the risk of hellfire.

3.) Hylomophism demands that corruption and generation are two dimensions of a single process. In human beings, however, a properly personal element survives this process. Taken in this way, hylomophism points to an idea of death as the rebirth of the person. This is not a dismissal of death – the person really dies. But this death of the person is only logically distinct from the regeneration of that person. Given the fall, we are much more cognizant and terrified of the corruption than the rebirth (indeed, the prospect of rebirth is mostly horrible). Without the fall, however, it’s hard to see how we would not be far more cognizant of the rebirth. We could presumably just look around at the glory around us to see what death would bring us.

4.) So far as hylomorphism is an account of the eduction or induction of forms from matter, it does not apply to human beings. Our form is a created one, and creation is not generation or even a sort of motion. Other things are created too (the basic elements and forces and the cosmos as a whole) but none of these is a person or properly personal element.

5.) St. Thomas’s main problem was accounting for why men had bodies if they did not need them to know. His response is that they needed them to know fully and completely.  This conclusion is demanded by the sense that man has an unchanging species and this species is material. But St. Thomas has already modified the sense of what it is for a human being to be material: every other animal cannot exist without matter whereas man has an intrinsic order to matter. But is this an intrinsic order to the corruptible matter it now has, and with which it was first created? If so, then the spiritual resurrected body cannot be a perfection of it. If not, then some sort of separation of soul and corruptible body is necessary in order for it to attain to the spiritual body that it is intrinsically ordered to. Death.

6.) Our anthropology is very difficult to separate from our theology or mythology. Religions impress on us that we don’t have a clear enough sense of what death is to know what a human is without them. Philosophy sees the suggestions of the religions and is incapable or ruling out all of them. We can know man dies, but we can’t tell if this is something horrible or desirable or ambiguous or contingent. Reason can’t tell us, net-net, whether this is a gain, a loss, or two completely incomparable states. It cannot rule out a further historical state (Resurrection, Mormon heavens, a Norse death of all things including the gods, etc.)

7.) St. Thomas: the resurrected body is one with form perfectly adequate to its matter. Objection: the elements already have this, but they do not suggest the resurrected body. No one has gazed on a cloud of gas or a lump of iron and been impressed by its likeness to the risen Lord.


1 Comment

  1. Dylan said,

    March 28, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    This isn’t a response to a specific point, but the trajectory of these reminds me of two papers by a friend. On body and soul, he’s not a Thomist, however. (Neither am I, for that matter.) But I would expect they would make fodder for interesting responses to some of your points.

    Jacobs, “Are Created Spirits Composed of Matter and Form?” https://www.academia.edu/1788495/Are_Created_Spirits_Composed_of_Matter_and_Form_A_Defense_of_Pneumatic_Hylomorphism

    idem, “Created Corruptible, Raised Incorruptible,” https://www.academia.edu/9290253/Created_Corruptible_Raised_Incorruptible_The_Significance_of_Hylomorphic_Creationism_to_the_Free_Will_Defense

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