Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Aquinas, Creation and Immortality

One of the great temptations of blogging is to make knowledgeable-sounding assertions based on something you're pretty sure you remember reading from a reputable source a while back. It's an informal medium, and so even when you're writing about a semi-academic topic, you feel like you can get away with things.

Of course, sometimes you get called on it, and sometimes that's probably a good thing because it leads you to find out something interesting, and thus blog more. The other day I said:

Aquinas questioned whether "and thus death came into the world" could be literally accurate, because according to the Aristotelian philosophy creatures do not change in kind, and a change from being mortal to immortal would be a change in kind. (Aquinas argued that the "death" that came into the world was "death" in the spiritual sense often used in scripture, rather than "death" in the biological sense. Thus, Aquinas actually addresses the question that some ask about Genesis and biological evolution: how could there have been evolution before the Fall if death only came into the world after Adam's sin?)
A commenter promptly called me on the assertion, and since I was working from a memory (which may have been second hand in the first place) I had to do a little homework before I came up with Summa, Part I, Question 97 where Aquinas deals with the question of man's immortality before the fall.
So here, more precisely, is what Aquinas has to say:
First, on the part of matter--that is to say, either because it possesses no matter, like an angel; or because it possesses matter that is in potentiality to one form only, like the heavenly bodies. Such things as these are incorruptible by their very nature.

Secondly, a thing is incorruptible in its form, inasmuch as being by nature corruptible, yet it has an inherent disposition which preserves it wholly from corruption; and this is called incorruptibility of glory; because as Augustine says (Ep. ad Dioscor.): "God made man's soul of such a powerful nature, that from its fulness of beatitude, there redounds to the body a fulness of health, with the vigor of incorruption."

Thirdly, a thing may be incorruptible on the part of its efficient cause; in this sense man was incorruptible and immortal in the state of innocence. For, as Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19 [Work of an anonymous author, among the supposititious works of St. Augustine): "God made man immortal as long as he did not sin; so that he might achieve for himself life or death." For man's body was indissoluble not by reason of any intrinsic vigor of immortality, but by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God. This entirely agrees with reason; for since the rational soul surpasses the capacity of corporeal matter, as above explained (76, 1), it was most properly endowed at the beginning with the power of preserving the body in a manner surpassing the capacity of corporeal matter.
This actually reminded me a little bit of Tolkien's description of the gift given to the men of Numenor, that so long as they remained virtuous and did not try to grasp immortality, they could choose the time of their own deaths, releasing themselves to God rather than being driven from their bodies by frailty or illness.

This is not the same thing that Aquinas is describing, but it is similar in interesting ways -- with Tolkien's ingrained Catholicity, I suppose it's hardly surprising. Aquinas believed because of Aristotelian natural phiosophy what I would tend to believe based on the evidence of modern science: that it is in the nature of biological creatures to be mortal, and that were an animal nor mortal, it would not be the same species with which we are familiar -- indeed, that an 'immortal horse' is not a horse at all, but a substantially different creature sharing the same appearance of a horse.

However, he needed to square this with the biblical description of Adam and Eve as being immortal until the Fall. His solution is elegant, and I agree with it, though perhaps with one opening for variation. Creatures were still mortal, he concludes, but man's pre-fallen soul was given by God a supernatural degree of control over the body, such that it could preserve the body from all corruption so long as the soul remained in perfect submission to God.

I would assume this left animals mortal, since animals do not possess a rational soul and will infused by God and thus nothing would have preserved them from death or disease. What strikes me as interesting is the question of whether man would have remained bodily immortal, or if eventually he would have voluntarily released soul from body in order to be united with God in heaven. Of course, the Church tells us that after the end of all things we will be reunited with our perfected bodies. Given that man is intended to be constituted of both body and soul, and that man in his unfallen state must have had a perfected body, perhaps there would be no call for an unfallen Adam and Eve to ever leave their bodies. And yet, would there be something lacking in our path to salvation if we never reached the beatific vision of heaven? Did Adam and Eve experience God in the form like the beatific vision, or is that one of the results of the fall, like Christ's saving mission. Is this another benefit of Adam's "felix culpa"?


Rose said...

Well, obviously a body doesn't rule out the beatific vision, since we're supposed to continue enjoying it after the end of the world, when we get our bodies back. I always supposed that unfallen man would have never died at all, but each person would at some point receive the beatific vision, possibly accompanied by some spatial translation (into the eighth dimension!)--exactly as Our Lady experienced, if you go along with the theory that she did not die before her Assumption.

Also, it occurs to me that the glorified body (at least as commonly speculated) seems to have more, er, "powers" than Adam & Eve were implied to have. Though it occurs to me that we have very little to go on for such speculations, and very little assurance that we can even imagine what it would be like. ("Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard," &c.)

Rose said...

Also, while saying that animals died even before the fall squares you with evolution and Aristotle, that does leave you facing the issue that nature does seem in some ways very fallen. Even if you argue that lions and tigers and bears are all part of the circle of life, diseases and parasites and cancers don't seem like something that one would want to say God designed. (And one could argue that the nearly universal human urge not only to use animals but adopt and care for them might be a sign that it's part of our stewardship of the earth.)

Though if you're not going to say that God created such things, you'd be left having to go with the theory that Morgoth-- I mean, Satan in some way introduced suffering into the material world, in which case you could argue lions and such as being a "felix culpa" that God brought out of the mess that the devil introduced. Though one could argue that the theory gives too much power to the devil; it certainly does leave one to wonder what God was originally shooting for...

Paul said...

I think your explanation could be made clearer by distinguishing between two senses of the word 'mortal'. I am mortal because my body will certainly die. Adam was mortal because it was possible for him to die (though only if he chose to lose the sanctifying grace of God).

As for animals being mortal: there was already something wrong in creation, even prior to the sins of our first parents, and this is shown by the existence of the serpent.

Also, though animals did not possess immortality through a gift of sanctifying grace, that did not necessarily prevent it being achieved it by some other means.

As for a Numenorian-like relinquishing of body in order to to achieve the beatific vision of God in Heaven: since Jesus had the beatific vision every second of his life, there can be no necessity for a human to lose body in order to gain the beatific vision. (One might also observe that God would come to talk to Adam and Eve in the garden.)

Rose said...

I'm not sure that the existence of the serpect is neccessarily a sign of something wrong in material creation--at least, not if you're folowing the conventional interpretation that it is in fact the devil, who is something of an interloper, as it were.

John Farrell said...

One of the most beautiful expositions of Aquinas on immortality can be found in a long forgotten gem by Etienne Gilson: "Being and Some Philosophers". I understand it has been reprinted recently by some publisher, but not sure which.

I got my own copy through a book finder. I highly recommend it.

Paul said...

To Rose: I said there was something wrong in creation (and I did not use the word 'material' to limit it to just the solely material part of creation). Now, certainly there was nothing wrong with creation (which the devil was part of) when God made it. But something had evidently changed for the worse before Adam and Eve arrived. Jesus said that the devil was "a murderer from the beginning", so that the arrival of the purely physical death of animals prior to Adam and Eve may have been part of that murder.

Darwin said...

Time is one of the great difficulties in reconciling the "spiritual history" (if you will allow the term) with the physical history (to the extent that we have been able to discern it) portrayed by science. The biblical account in Genesis is concerned with how humans came to be the fallen creatures (yet still made in God's image) that we know today. To that end, it concentrates on what is relevant to that question.

However, our current understanding of the physical history of the universe suggests that the universe came into being billions of years before our first human parents received their souls.

If we are to agree with Augustine (if memory serves) that the angelic nature their direct experience of God means that angels would make an instantaneous decision to accept or reject God (and assuming, as I believe the Church has always taught, that the angels were created before the physical universe) then clearly Satan and the other fallen angels were already at work at the time of the creation of the physical world. Still, the vast swath of time that passed between the creation of the universe and the fall of man seems (at least to us a temporal creatures) at least somewhat at odds with the Genesis account. Of course, perhaps its a question of your frame of reference. The bible is primarily concerned with the relation of man and God, and angelic beings are mentioned only tangentially. Perhaps the eight to eleven billion years before Adam and Eve constituted the playing in time of the initial revolt of Satan and his follows against God's will.

That said, I'm not sure that physical creatures as we experience them (creatures that eat and excrete waste and reproduce and such) are meant to be immortal. I imagine (and I'm not sure one can say anything much more definite on the topic than "imagine") that had man remained unfallen he would have lived out some fairly long number of days in a state not so different from out own (save for sin) and would then have been assumed into heaven, perhaps in a way not unlike Our Lady.

Patrick said...

"Still, the vast swath of time that passed between the creation of the universe and the fall of man seems (at least to us a temporal creatures) at least somewhat at odds with the Genesis account."

Not to sound rude, but why? At what length does time come to be at odds? I don't see how any length of time could be intimidating to God.

For my own angle, I have never found "short history" theology appealing. I tend to like things "epic" so a long history appeals to me more.

Darwin said...

Maybe "at odds" was the wrong phrase. I certainly accept a long history rather than a short one. Indeed, young earth theology seems to me to fly in the face of reason.

I guess what I meant is that since the Genesis account is tightly focused on God's relationship to man and man's relationship to the world (and doesn't make any effort to discuss the history of the world beyond its relevance to man) there's not room explicitly left for the history of the world between the its first creation and the creation of man. The author doesn't bother to say, "After the universe was created, several billion years passed while stars and planets formed. Then the oceans formed on earth. Then life began. Then, several billion years later, man came to be was ensouled by God."

Partly, I think, the human author didn't himself possess this knowledge, and given that the exact history and age of the material world is not relevant to our salvation, the Holy Spirit didn't see fit to correct him in his cosmology. Also, it is not (as Aslan might say) "our story" but rather the story of the world around and before us and its relationship to God.

However, because the Bible is specifically "our story" and not a detailed history of the entire universe, I think it is easy, for someone with the mindset that the Bible is not only wholly true but also the whole of truth, to assume that because the period between the creation of the universe and the ensoulment of man is glossed over, that is therefore didn't exist. This, I think, would be a mistake.

Paul said...

Calling it a "spiritual history" is perhaps tendentious. The first chapters of Genesis are relentlessly physical, and culminate in a description of the physical penalties that come about from the Fall. That certainly does not mean that a spiritual reading cannot be legitimately read from it: but it is not only a spiritual history.

The intention of the author was not to give a chronologic description of creation -- the author is describing an ordered way in which the universe was prepared for the benefit of man. For example, I see the author's first use of "day" to refer to only the distinction between light and dark, and thus not referring to any precise measurement of time. So, an account of what preparation took place; but not strictly time-ordered.

In which case, I do not see any clash between a chronologic description of creation (as investigated by science) and the Genesis author's account.

As to when the angels were created: Aquinas says that opinions are divided. Some say that angels were created before material creation, and some say simultaneously. But in either case, angels would be able to interact with the material universe at any point in time -- and hence before Adam and Eve.

Darwin said...

I suppose given the modern abuses of the term I should avoid using the term "spiritual" at all in such circumstances.

You're right that Genesis certainly deals with physical issues, though in terms of their teleological and escatological (sp?) meanings, not in a scientific or historical sense.

Paul said...

The author of Genesis relates those parts of history of relevance to all; so, in that way, it is both historical and teleological. It could be said to be not a historical document only in the sense that the author has no intention of including those parts of history which are interesting, but not of any direct relevance to each of us.

If one takes "scientific" to refer to a chronologic ordering, or to a precise description of causes and effects in the physical realm, then the author is not writing that kind of scientific document.

Anonymous said...

Your Account I think about the animals seems a little flawed in the sense that, just as our body and souls are both the subject of redimption so is the material creation that waits in groaning for the revelation of the sons of God.

EJ Sofel said...

Beatific vision is traditionally thought to eliminate the possibility of sin--that the manifest good of God is so overwhelming that, seeing it face to face, one can no longer choose against it.

So we would have to assume that A&E did not see God face to face. Could they have later? I suppose.