When Does The Person Begin?

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


St. Thomas Aquinas says that 'the first thing we must know of anything is, whether it exists'728.

For if there was nothing in existence then there would be nothing to think about.  In the first place, therefore, is the fact of things.

Secondly, if I did not exist then there would be no activity of mine to manifest my existence729; indeed it would be impossible for me to raise the question of my existence, because this is already a manifestation of my existence.  In other words, whether it is the existence of "things" or of myself, it is existence that comes first.730  For while Descartes thought, "I think, therefore I am.," the very activity of his thinking presupposed the fact of his existence.  Therefore his thinking is evidence of his existence and in that sense proves it; but his thinking is not in itself and cannot be prior to his existence.  Although his thinking was, as that manifestation of his existence with which he was concerned, the reason which led him to the conclusion that he did in fact exist.

The more one considers the nature of an individual existence, the more possible it seems to assert that the individual's existence implies, in every respect, the existence of everything else in existence.  I understand this to be paralled in physics by the claim of the sort that each thing in existence requires the existence of everything else; in addition, and from the point of view of biology one can see that even the existence of a single celled creature is an existence as it were in the context of a whole of which it is a part.

The reasoning which Descartes followed is nevertheless useful because it demonstrates the difference between the human being and an inanimate thing.  For the act of reasoning to his own existence, is an act which both transcends 'the power of matter'731 and follows on the fact that he is alive732.  This is because our understanding of the evidence is itself an act which not every physical thing that exists can do and so is itself evidence of something which is not in itself identical with our physical existence.733  Therefore our understanding is itself evidence of the existence of something to which this activity is natural734; and what that something is is precisely the purpose of these paragraphs.  Therefore the life of a man expresses a power which transcends that of matter and it is this 'soul' which is related to it as 'form'735 to matter and as 'an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body'736.

In the celebrated expression of tradition, the soul is 'the "form" of the body'737.

The contrasting terms738 of soul and body are of such a kind as to seem a particular instance of a fundamental characteristic of human thought and the reality from which it proceeds: the resolution of things into dual unities.  In the case of this particular 'dual unity'739 of soul and body, what appears to exist is precisely the necessary difference between what exists as actual and what exists as potential.  The soul exists as that which is the actual determinant of what kind of being the particular matter is as a result of being informed by it.  This is because the soul as soul does not change and in that sense is said to be in act740.  The signate matter of the body exists as both the agent of the individuation of this universal form and at the same time this matter is as a potentiality741 to the act of the soul.  In other words the body as 'first matter' of a quantified kind is open to an actualization of it by a form742: to becoming a particular kind of being such as in this case the body of a human being informed by a soul; and secondly it can be said that the body and the soul 'mutually condition'743 oneanother and thus reciprocally contribute their complimentary difference to the totality of what it is to be a human being.  Finally, the difference between act and potentiality is fundamental to the ability of a thing to both undergo change and to remain substantially the same thing744.

Article 365 of the Catechism745 goes on to say that 'it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature'746.

The 'spiritual soul' is created immediately by God747.  It is not the product of either a prior process748, nor made out of anything prior to its own existence and so neither is the spiritual soul "produced" by the parents749 but by the will of God it is created by God, at conception, both immortal750 and of one being with the body.

The soul is that which 'animates or makes alive'751 the body; and the two principle activities in which life shows itself are 'awareness and movement'752.  The life to which this definition applies is at least the life which is common to all organic bodies or organisms753.  Life varies fundamentally as the form is animal or human, and the activities of this life are characteristically of two kinds: the first is called immanent and effects the perfection of the agent itself, namely the thing that acts; and the second is called transient and the effects of which terminate outside the agent754.

God is directly the agent or efficient cause of the existence of the soul; however, God does not make the soul out of His substance.  The substantial form which is what the soul is, is created from nothing in the same sense that the heavens and the earth were created out of nothing, not as in the sense of nothing as some kind of something, but in the sense of nothing absolutely.

Finally, in the book called the Wisdom of Solomon from which I have already and frequently quoted there is a remarkable insight into the relationship of the body to the soul, put not in those terms but in terms of the relationship of the soul to the man's life (Wis 15: 10).  The author refers to one who 'failed to know the one who formed him and inspired him * with an active soul * and breathed into him a living spirit' (Wis 15: 11); and that while one man 'in his wickedness kills another' ... 'he cannot bring back the departed spirit, nor set free the imprisoned soul' (Wis 16: 14).

728 SuTh, Part I, Qu 2, art. 2, page 12.    Back
729 Cf. A, page 158.    Back
730 CTOH, page 38.    Back
731 A, page 158.    Back
732 A, page 159.    Back
733 Cf, A, page 158.    Back
734 Cf, A, page 27.    Back
735 Cf. CCC, art 365, page 93.    Back
736 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
737 CCC, art 365, page 93.    Back
738 Cf. A. Belsey, Matter, page 539 of Philos.    Back
739 Angelo Scola, page 9.    Back
740 W. N. Clarke, Potency, page 633 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
741 Ibid.    Back
742 Cf. also J. C. Taylor, Potency And Act, pages 635-636 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
743 N. A. Luyten, Soul-Body Relationship, page 472 of Vol XIII, NCE.    Back
744 W. N. Clarke, Potency, page 633 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
745 'Catechism' will from now on stand for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992.    Back
746 CCC, art 365, page 93.    Back
747 CCC, art 366, page 93.    Back
748 Cf. Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 1950, (London: CTS [Do 265], revised edition 1959), art 36, page 21.  Abbrev. HG.    Back
749 CCC, art 366, page 93.    Back
750 Ibid.    Back
751 ST, Pt I, Qu 75, art 1, page 108.    Back
752 Ibid.    Back
753 A. E. Manier, Life, page 734 of Vol VIII, NCE.    Back
754 Ibid.    Back

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