When Does The Person Begin?

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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

The human body

It could be said that seven characteristics enter deeply into the constitution of human bodily life.  The first is a spatio-temporal integrity which is a manifestation of a true indivisibility unto itself and a true distinction from other things670.  This does not exclude the possibility of twins nor of the other characteristics of livings things, either in the course of early development particularly671 or as permanently so, such as digestion, injury, loss of a part and so on.  The second is the three types of germ cells from which all subsequent development proceeds672. &nsbp;The third is the distinction between reproductive cells and tissue cells673 which, if it exists early enough674, militates against the idea of a particular generation passing on to a subsequent generation a modification of the species which has developed in the life time of that generation.  The fourth is that the sex of each individual is determined at conception675; and, in a sense, the sex of the child is a recapitulation of the origin of human beings as male and female and at the same time an intrinsic part of what Pope John Paul II calls the genealogy of the person676.  The fifth is the homeostatic balance and repair of the whole677: two clear indications of a subordination of the parts to a whole678.  The sixth is the dynamic order of biological development679 which proceeds from the beginning in anticipation of its end680: a clear indication of the fact that the development of the human body is simultaneously a manifestation of the person.  The final characteristic is that an organism which is ordered to the end of a human soul, is an organism which is fundamentally fitted to be the organ or instrument of that soul.  A particular feature of how the human body fulfils its ordination to this end is the brain: 'while the exercise of intellectual abilities is non-bodily it has a bodily vehicle, namely the brain'681; and inherently ordered to this are the interrelationships of the movement of the musculo-skeletal system to the will, of physiology and endocrinology to emotion, and of the heart682 of man which is his conscience to what is true, right and good.

The body as ordered to the soul is primitively expressed in the etymological root of the hebrew golmi, the word from which comes the expression of 'my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16); the word golmi is rendered as 'unfinished vessel'683.  Therefore the relationship of the soul to the body is primitively expressed in terms of one thing which bears within it another thing: of one 'exterior' thing which is ordered to another 'interior' thing: of one 'exterior' thing which gives a complementary expression to that 'interior' thing.

Parts of a whole

The relationship of parts to a whole is at work on a number of levels: the internal unity of all that exists684, which is comparable to the parts which go to make up an arrow; and secondly the end of the whole universe which is also the ulitmate end of each and every part of it, namely God, which is comparable to the beginning, the middle and to the end of the arrow in flight685.  The structure of society and the society of the Church686 are yet other and different organs of the family of man which is at the same time, properly understood, the one family of God687.  Finally, the order of the head of the human body to the members of it, just as with each 'bodily organ'688 and the cells which constitute it, just as with the diverse processes and material activities of each part of those cells, are again an interrelated system of parts to wholes which, in a developmental sense, are in their turn individually and cumulatively necessary to the development of the whole.

A hierarchical or a chronological order?

While it is possible, however, to hierarchically order the varieties of existent things, it does not follow that this hierarchical order is also the chronological order of their sequential development, one from and to another.  It may be, for instance, that each type of being689, such as the animal and human being, has an analogous but different order of development: analogous because of its one maker; but different according to the variety of ingredients available to the maker.  This idea resembles a type of what is called creationism690; however, it is a type of creationism that would not wish to exclude the possibility that the 'formless matter' (Wis 11: 17) which the Creator has first made, is a formless matter which that same Creator subsequently, and in the course of time, instantiates with the shape and form characteristic of each species.

Thus matter in its fundamental or first informed state is plastic and of such a kind that it is both natural to make things with it and to conceive of it as that which God first made (Gn 1: 2; Wis 11: 17), and out of which He then made everything that takes either a shape, a living form (Gn 1: 20-21) or the spiritual soul-form of man.  For this is a common beginning of both biblical and philosophical thought691; and it is indeed indicative of the two ways in which unity is understood692: the first is the unity which comes from the one maker of things, which would exclude sin as made by God; and the second is the unity which comes from the material out of which things are made, which in terms of creation as a whole would have to include both the spiritual and the material orders of creation.

The essence of a thing

Understanding what a thing is, is sometimes called understanding the essence of a thing.  The essence of a thing is that which can be defined693; and it is the understanding that "reads within (intus legit) by grasping the essence of the thing"694.

In a second but related sense, the existence of something and its essence are not two things, but a metaphysical distinction within the one thing695.  For if the essence of a thing is what kind of thing it is, then it follows, on the basis of the distinction between matter and form, that the essence of a thing must necessarily involve both signate 'first matter' and form696; and, therefore, depending what kind of form this first matter "receives" will determine what kind of thing it essentially is.

Finally, it also seems as if the essence of a thing is related to the existence of a thing in such a way that they are 'two constitutive and really distinct principles, related as potency and act'697. &nbnsp;Thus it would seem that the existence of a thing is the act698 by which an essence exists: an essence which is ordered to that existence as that which will develop is ordered to that which already exists: as the potential to an activity which can only follow on the existence of a being which can then be made manifest by that same activity.

The making of things

The purpose of this section is to establish, if I can, the original sense in which 'form' was used, the better to understand its application in the following expression.  'The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body'699.

The starting point for this brief consideration of the origin and development of the concept of 'form' is one which is common to both biblical and philosophical thought700: the form which is understood as the shape which an object comes to possess at the end of a process of change701.  This is also known under the name of 'formal cause' and is also when an object comes to possess a new shape or 'determination'702.  In this initial stage of meaning, the term form is obviously related to sight, and it is sight which is commonly used to signify understanding.  Thus there is a parallel development between the concept of understanding as a kind of seeing and the concept of form as that which is 'received' in this kind of seeing703.

In a very compact statement all this is summarised in the following way: form is from 'the Latin forma, a term signifying figure or shape or "that which is seen" (Gr. ειδοs) 'and' it came to signify the intrinsic determinant of quantity from which figure or shape results, and then to mean the intrinsic determinant of anything that is determinable'704.  In other words, the external form of an object is to sight what the internal 'form' of an object is to understanding.  Secondly, this progression from an external sense impression of a thing to an understanding of the internal nature of that same thing, is a progression which is a characteristic common to both biblical and philosophical thought; it is, therefore, a progression natural to man.

The resemblance between the Greek word ειδοs and the english word idea seems to have some etymological and linguistic justification705.  This resemblance proceeds by way of Plato who argued to the existence of what St. Thomas Aquinas assimilated to the following: objects of the divine thought which he called 'the eternal exemplars according to which all things are made'706.  Thus one begins to see a relationship between what is made and an idea.  This relationship, because it is predicated of God's act of creation on the analogy between that act of creation and the human activity of making things, gives rise to the following analogical understanding of God's act of creation: it is the incarnation of an idea.  In other words, just as the maker of an object has an idea which does not leave his mind but which nevertheless becomes embodied in an object through the action and instruments of everything which goes into the translation of an idea into an artifact, so God brings things into existence without imparting Himself to them as if they are some kind of emanation of His substance.

For man, then, the idea of what he will make is the 'germ' of a process by which what did not 'extramentally'707 exist comes to exist; and in this sense it could be said that his idea is ordered to the intention708 of realizing that idea in an extramental object709.  But not only is the 'idea' the germ of the process but it is also and inseparably the end to which the process of making is directed, indeed directing the very process by which comes about the realization of that end.  Thus the idea of what to make is to the material out of which it is to be made, as form is to material, as what is complete as an objective to what can complete it as an artifact, as act to potency.

Therefore a thing can only have one form in the sense that it can only be the realization of one idea710.  For 'form' in this sense is precisely what makes the objective oneness of a thing; and, therefore, form in this sense is already an ordering of parts to a whole.  Thus if the object is a shelf then the joints, the size, shape and number of the actual shelves, the wall fixings and the finish are all implied in their subordination of parts to a whole.  In other words, while many things go to make up a whole; the whole is by definition one thing; and, moreover, it is that one thingness which is designated by the word 'form.'  Thus there can be no more fundamental expression of the unity of what has come to exist as an extramental fact than that of saying what the 'form' of an object is.  For the 'form' of an object defines the unity of that object so fundamentally it can be said to be what that object is; and the definition of what an object is as inseparable from that object as the essence of a thing is to its existence.  Therefore it can be said that the 'germ' of the idea is now 'incarnated' in the object in the nature of the relationship of 'form' to 'matter' in an existent thing; and, because of this, there can be no actual distinction between what that thing is and its existence as an actual thing.

But there are as it were two inseparable aspects to this.  On the one hand the idea that is incarnated is a particular instance of the universal thing called humanity711 and, therefore, in this sense the 'form' of the human being is what constitutes the unity of that thing as human; however, the idea that is incarnated is also a particular person and in that sense both the form of the body, which is its soul, and the body itself, together and inseparably constitute the definitively and actually unique totality of the incarnate 'idea' which is the person.  Therefore, while it can be said that the 'positive principle present in a subject at the end of a change is called form'712., the end to which this is ordered and to which the soul is the one to the many of the body713, is the incarnate-creation of the whole idea: the person God loves into existence!

Finally, the change of the material substrate of wood into the form of a shelf is at once a modification of what exists and the bringing into existence of a newly existent thing: what is continuous with what existed before is the material substrate; and what is discontinuous and newly existing is the shelf which is at once the 'form' and the material substrate of wood.

If this kind of understanding is now sort of applied to the creation of a human being as we normally understand it to occur, it can be said that there is a substantial change, the termini of which are on the one hand the human sexual gametes up to and including the moment before their unification, and on the other hand the moment of fertilization or activation of the egg by the sperm.  This change takes an 'indivisible' instant714 in which there is no process of time and which is effectively the one true act of both man and God in effecting the one existential beginning to the person so begun.  In other words, 'form' is to 'body' what the unity of a thing is to its parts, and this in two respects: firstly, from the point of view of defining what gives the unity to the parts in terms of what kind of thing it is that now exists, which is in this case an instance of the embodied human form or soul, and is called the human being; and secondly, from the point of view that what now exists as body and soul exists as one thing.

Furthermore, there is still the continuity of the human flesh which now exists as a true human body with the human flesh of the sexual gametes which, together and with respect to their mutual and complementary difference, now constitute the bodily beginning of the person whose body it is.  Thus the person is the totality of God's idea which is realized through the unique unification, by a true act of man, woman and God, of three things: the historical flesh of man as created from the beginning by God and transmitted through the generations in the flesh of the sexual gametes; the particular expression of this in the actuality of the particular sperm and egg which unite at conception; and, finally, the soul which God at that same instant of conception both creates and creates as one with the body which, together with everything else, is the complete715 realization of the idea of that person which God saw to create.

The human form

The point of these considerations is to show how basic is the perception that matter is ordered to form: first to form as to the shape of matter; then to form as to the inner determinant of that external shape.  This presupposes what is understood by the 'material cause' of an object and is an equivalent outcome to the activity of an 'agent cause', namely that the object comes to posses a new shape or determination, which is called its 'formal cause'716.  Thirdly, form is then understood as the inner determinant of any determinable thing717.  Fourthly, form is understood as orientated to the end of matter, which is also and otherwise known as its 'final cause'718: an end which is in general the personal 'manifestation of the glory of God'719.  Finally, form is understood as that which unifyingly informs the one act of existence of which the body is the material manifestation; and, in this sense, the form is both what determines the one thing a thing is and is the principal origin of activity720.  Thus it could be said that a form is proportionate to that which it informs in the sense that the form of an active thing is necessarily a dynamic principle: a principle of activity; whereas, in the case of a stationary object such as a statue, the formal cause of that statue does not possess this potential to activity721 with respect to the act which determines what it is, nor does the object it informs possess a potential to be activated in this way.

It is therefore possible to speak more specifically of the human form, too, in the sense of the materiality of the human being: the form of the human body in the equivalent sense to that of the marble out of which the sculpture is made722.  It is with respect to the latter sense of the human body that it could be said that the parts of the body which transmit the flesh of a human creature are radically unalterable and untransferable.  Thus 'Pius XII rejected the transplant of sex glands from an animal to a man as being immoral.  The reason (not given by Pius XII) is that it seems such a transplant cannot be accomplished without serious modifications of a physical and psychic order'723.

Secondly, it is with respect to the form of the human body in the sense of the 'material cause' of the human being that one will have to consider the fact that the sperm activates the egg at fertilization; and, therefore, it may be necessary to consider that activation as co-determining the activity of the whole human person and, in one sense, the material reason whereby it is possible for the human soul to inform and activate the bodies activities as precisely the activities of a human being animated by a rational soul.

Finally, it is as a kind of accumulation of these meanings that one can say that the soul is the form of the body, although in the particular sense of the dynamic unity of the human being that man is; secondly, the body is ordered to the soul as to the end724 which is at once a transcendental fulfillment725 of it: the person to whom God has 'given' the vocation to love Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 3: 32) and which is elsewhere put in terms of first love God and then your neighbour as yourself (Mk 12: 29-31).

Therefore the body is ordered to the soul as to the end726 which is at once a transcendental fulfillment727 of it: the end of being a person who is loved and called to love.

670 L. M. Corvez, Individuality, page 474 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
671 Life Before Birth, Reflections On The Embryo Debate, by Robert Edwards, (London: Hutchinson, 1989), page 52.  Abbrev. LB.    Back
672 H. E. Wachowski, Biology, II, page 572 of Vol II, NCE.    Back
673 A. Wolsky, Embryology, page 300 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
674 Cf. ACB, pages 122-123.    Back
675 ACB, page 122; cf. also MD, art 1, page 5.    Back
676 Cf. LTF, art 9, pages 9-11.    Back
677 A. M. Hofstetter, Organism, page 758 of Vol X, NCE.    Back
678 A. M. Hofstetter, Organism, page 757 of Vol X, NCE.    Back
679 A. Wolsky, Embryology, page 300 of Vol V, NCE; and cf. H. E. Wachowski, Biology, II, page 573 of Vol II, NCE.    Back
680 Cf. B. M. Ashley, Teleology, pages 979-980 of Vol XIII, NCE; and cf. Aristotle's Poetics, pages 27-28 of translated by I. Bywater and included in an anthology of writing on Aesthetics, ed. J. Stolnitz, and part of the series Sources in Philosophy, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1965).  Abbrev. AES.    Back
681 Linacre Centre Papers, Prolongation of life, Paper 1, The principle of respect for human life, page 18, (London: The Linacre Centre, 1978).  Abbrev. LP1.    Back
682 Cf. VS, art 54, page 85.    Back
683 Brown, page 166.    Back
684 Cf. J. H. Wright, Universe, Order of, page 457 of Vol XIV, NCE.    Back
685 Cf. SuTh, Pt I, Qu 2, art 3, pages 13-14.    Back
686 Cf. Lumen Gentium, art 8, page 357 of VCII.    Back
687 PP, articles 76-80, pages 35-37: 4. Development Is The New Name For Peace.    Back
688 M. J. Fairbanks, Organicism, page 756 of Vol X, NCE.    Back
689 R. M McInerny, Being, page 230 of Vol II, NCE: 'Being is the first concept the human mind forms ... on the basis of sense experience of the things of this world is of something there, what is, being ...'    Back
690 Cf. P. B. T. Bilaniuk, Creationism, page 428 of Vol IV, NCE.    Back
691 Cf. AR, page 120; and cf. J. A. Oesterle, Art (Philosophy), page 867 of Vol I, NCE.    Back
692 E. McMullin, Matter, page 474 of Vol IX, NCE.    Back
693 A, page 97, 'It is clear that essence is that which is signified by the definition of a thing' (De ente et essentia, 2).    Back
694 F. E. Crowe, Understanding (Intellectus), page 391: the reference is to '(In 6 eth. 5. 1179)', of Vol XIV, NCE.    Back
695 A, page 97.    Back
696 A, page 97.  F. C. Copleston actually says, while quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, "In the case of material things 'the word essence signifies that which is composed of matter and form'" (De ente et essentia, 2).    Back
697 C. Fabro, Existence, page 723 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
698 Cf. Ibid.    Back
699 CCC, art 365, page 93.    Back
700 AR, page 122; Gn 2: 7; Job 10: 8; Ps 139: 13; Wis 9: 2; Wis 15: 11 and many others.    Back
701 V. E. Smith, Matter And Form, page 485 of Vol IX, NCE.    Back
702 G. F. Kreyche, Causality, page 344 of Vol III, NCE.    Back
703 Ysabel de Andia, The eyes of the soul, page 230 of Communio, Vol XIV, No 3, (Fall 1987).    Back
704 W. A. Wallace, Form, page 1031 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
705 Cf. J. F. Piefer, Idea, page 337 of Vol VII, NCE; and A Greek-English Lexicon, H. G. Liddell et al, (Oxford: At The University Press, M. DCCC. XLIX), page 364: eidos: IV. 'the form of matter, as opp. to the substance, Arist. Ausc. Phys. 2. 1, 9., 4.'  Abbrev. GK; and, finally, AQU, page 69.    Back
706 J. F. Piefer, Idea, page 338 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
707 Cf. R. M. McInerny, Being, page 230 of Vol II, NCE.    Back
708 Cf. AQU, page 80.    Back
709 J. F. Piefer, Idea, page 338 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
710 Cf. AQU, page 47.    Back
711 AQU, page 48.    Back
712 V. E. Smith, Matter And Form, page 485 of Vol IX, NCE.    Back
713 Cf. AQU, page 39.    Back
714 J. M. Quinn, Instant, page 546 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
715 Cf. J. D. Robert, Act, page 90 of Vol I, NCE.    Back
716 Cf. G. F. Kreyche, Causality, page 344 of Vol III, NCE.    Back
717 F. J. Collingwood, Form, pages 1013 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
718 Cf. G. F. Kreyche, Causality, page 344 of Vol III, NCE.    Back
719 Cf. E. G. Hardwick, Matter, Theology Of, page 483 of Vol IX, NCE; cf. also Dei Verbum, art 4, page 753 of VCII.    Back
720 Cf. ST, Pt I, Qu 77, art 1, page 118.    Back
721 Ibid.    Back
722 Cf. G. F. Kreyche, Causality, page 344 of Vol III, NCE.    Back
723 J. Paquin, Organic Transplants, page 756 of Vol X, NCE.    Back
724 ST, Pt I, Qu 76, art 5, page 116.    Back
725 Cf. J. Bobik, Entelechy, page 445 of Vol 5, NCE.    Back
726 ST, Pt I, Qu 76, art 5, page 116.    Back
727 Cf. J. Bobik, Entelechy, page 445 of Vol 5, NCE.    Back

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