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

One or many 'forms' to the human being?

A number of these different sections have touched upon the ancient question of the one and the many, which took a particular turn with the advent of the Aristotle-Aquinas doctrine of form and signet first matter.  In other words, is the person determined by one or many substantial forms?  This question brings together the following seven considerations.

Firstly, it will be seen from the earlier sections to which this discussion relates that I have frequently distinguished three forms of life: the first is the 'simplest' form of life which is the activity of atomic and sub-atomic particles; the second is the biologically living and active sperm and the corresponding egg; and the third is the spiritual soul.  Fundamental to this differentiation of the forms of life is the argument that each thing is determined to be what it is precisely by the kind of form it has: an animal form determines a being to be an animal; and a human form, namely the human soul, determines it to be a human being.

Secondly, the two types of substantial forms with which I am concerned here are the corporeal and the spiritual: the first characteristically animates an animal and the second a human being.

Thirdly, the animal is a corporeal substantial form the characteristics of which are 'educible' from the biological gametes and in that sense the antecedent 'matter' of each particular animal.  In other words the animal as a being does not exceed the capability of biological life, although it does exceed the capability of simply physical matter and vegetative life.  The 'eduction'793 of an animal is not, therefore, an explanation of how things such as animals exist in the first place, so much as it is a way of saying that once animals exist, the kind of thing they are does not require an act of God, like the creation of human being does, each and every time an animal is conceived in the normal process of animal reproduction.

Fourthly, the 'substantial form' of the human being is not a form which can be transmitted by the parents of the child; it is a form of life beyond the capability of matter to reproduce without the 'natural' miracle of the creation of the soul by God.  The coming into existence of the substantial form of the body, the soul of the body, is therefore an instance of what is called substantial change; this is a change of the 'form' of the matter where it could be said that one kind of form replaces another, while the signet first matter remains constant to this instantaneous change.  The termini of this change are the human gametes and the person.  In other words, there is first the biological order of human life in its separate condition of sperm and egg which, while ordered to the reception of a human soul is yet not in possession of it and thus is technically said to be in a state of 'privation'794 with respect to what it is going to become after the substantial change.  The second terminus of this substantial change is that after fertilization and the simultaneous creation and ensoulment of a human soul at conception, there is a person.  It should be noted, however, that from the point of view of the traditional use of this terminology the second terminus of this substantial change is the coming to be of the substantial form itself795.

The fifth consideration is the difference between the coming into existence of the person and the mystery of death as the separation of what came into existence as one at conception796.  The beginning of human life involves a substantial change of the following kind: there was no person and then, at fertilization, a person comes into existence through the creation and unification of soul and body.  The death of a person, however, involves another kind of substantial change in that the person does not go out of existence in the same sense in which the person came into existence.  In other words conception involves the coming into existence of what did not literally exist, namely the person, whereas death, while a separation of body and soul, is the separation of what is ordered to a subsequent reunification at the resurrection of the body and thus death is a change of state in what continues to exist.

A sixth point of relevance is that our baptism makes us a member of the body of Christ, just as our conception makes us a member of the family of man.  Secondly, our baptism is ordered to Christ's incarnation and paschal mystery as to the 'gift' of what makes this ontological union a gift prior to our acceptance of it797 and to the redeeming life which comes to us on our acceptance of it. &nbnsp;Finally, the ordered community of persons in which the Church consists - both horizontally in terms of each other and vertically in terms of the divine Persons - is a unity which follows on the true and prior acts of God, and yet involves the true and grace 'informed' human acts.  The Church expresses this in her own words when she says: God 'has shared with us his Spirit who, being one and the same in head and members, gives life to, unifies and moves the whole body.  Consequently, his work could be compared by the Fathers to the function that the principle of life, the soul, fulfils in the human body'798.  The Church, and indeed before the existence of the Church, the mystery of the Blessed Trinity in which the mystery of the Church exists, is a mystery of what could be called in a technical sense the mystery of substantial communion: the unity in diversity of persons.

A final factor is the faith-fact that the damned and the blessed are the two contrasting and definitive 'end' states of the change of the kind which makes us either good or evil: the substantial union of the blessed and the substantial separation799 of the damned; and the former is as necessary to life and happiness as the latter is an experience of pain and suffering which follows on the privation of it.

These considerations come together in the following two possibilities, each of which, with respect to human beings, presupposes the necessity of the union of form and signate first matter: either there is one substantial form per existent thing or there is more than one substantial form per existing thing.

An answer to this question begins with noting what constitutes a thing to be what it is, namely what kind of substantial form has come into existence.  In other words, the substantial form of a thing is what determines the kind of thing a thing is.  Thus there is at least as many kinds of substantial form as there are truly different kinds of things.  For physical matter, a plant, an animal, a human being, an angel and God are all different kinds of thing, although God is not in this series in the same way that others things are, nor are the various kinds of form the same in each case; however, the point is that each type of form is what in each case radically determines the being of that thing.  While, therefore, it is the person which God brings into existence, it is nevertheless true that each person has the form which is characteristic of that category of being common to each one, namely that of the human soul.  It is from this perspective that one can see that St. Thomas Aquinas argues that each thing can only have one substantial form800.  For each thing can only be one thing.  If, therefore, it were to be possible for a thing to be one kind of thing and then another, as with the suggested sequence of human development from a plant, through the animal and finally to the human stage of development, then each radically different kind of being would require a different type of 'form.'

The second part of an answer is that the substantial change from non-being to being, which in this case is the conception of a person, is a radically different substantial change to that of the death and subsequent resurrection of that same person.  In the first type of substantial change a person comes into existence from diverse 'elements'; whereas in the second type of substantial change there is a change in the state in the already existing person.  It is interesting to note that the first type of change can be described as a move from the many to one, and that the second type of change can be described as a reversion of the one to many801; however, on the basis of the previous distinction between non-being to being and the life and death of that same person, it is the initial substantial change of the many to one which is literally true, whereas the second change, of the one to many, is only true relative to the continuation of things in existence which are now separated whereas they were united.

It is therefore useful to consider the respective insights concerning the beginning and the end of life.  At the moment before the beginning of a person there is an existing 'germ' of bodily life which is called the sperm and the corresponding human egg to which each is reciprocally ordered.  Thus there is in existence at the moment before the person begins to be, what can be called the transmitting germ of bodily human life and there is in existence the human egg, with all its equally necessary and characteristically different contribution to the beginning of human bodily life; however, in contrast to what happens at the beginning of human life is what happens at the end of the life once begun: the body dies.  In other words the elements which were distinguishable as the basis of human bodily life at the moment before fertilization, are now no longer distinguishable, after conception, as separate to the life of the whole which came into existence at conception.  If, therefore, there were two substantial forms at conception, namely that of bodily life and that of spiritual life, then at death, when the spiritual substantial form departed from the body it would leave a living human body behind802.  But in so far as what is left is not living in the spiritual or biological sense, it can be concluded that the act of conception was an act which insolubly united the biological and spiritual life of the person at conception.  For on the one hand we can assert that there is a 'germ' of bodily human life before conception, and on the other hand it can be asserted that after conception the bodily human life so conceived is the life of the person from conception onwards.  Furthermore, just as the germ of human bodily life does not exist except in terms of the matter so organized to this end, so it can be said that the physical matter of which the body is made is integral to the life and death of the person.  In other words the nature of conception has radically integrated every part of what constitutes the whole who's beginning it is.  The nature of the relationship of the body and soul at death, however, remains a a mystery.

The third part of an answer is the factor of what can be 'educed' from the unity of conception.  In other words, if what can be educed from a material is what does not go beyond the 'form' of life characteristic of it, then nothing is educed from the moment of conception that was present before that moment, in that it is at precisely that instant that a new form of life comes to exist.  However, it is obvious to modern science that there is a continuity of 'substrate' between the moment before conception and the moment of and subsequent to conception, which is of such a kind that conception could be said to be an activation of the development of that substrate in such a way as that it is now the activation of the development of the whole person.  Thus it seems that one can describe a kind of eduction of human life which follows on and is co-existent with, the creation and infusion of the soul by God.  It therefore seems that the natural activity of the biological order which ends and begins at conception, is that which the soul as an act completes and which the soul as a source of activity actuates.  The sense in which I have just used eduction is therefore related to the sense in which traditionally the signet first matter is said to individuate and reciprocally condition the soul which now informs it.

Thus it could be said to be significant that at precisely the point that God creates the soul which completes and animates the human body, there is the 'outward' sign of the moment of fertilization which is in its own right the 'natural' end of the complex of factors contributing to conception and the 'natural' beginning of the person.  In other words, one can easily and without effort apply the analogy of the nature of a sacrament to the beginning of the human person: there is an outward sign of an inward grace; and that outward sign corresponds, in the natural meaning of what it signifies, to the work of God within803.  It could be argued, then, that it was for want of this perception of the precise moment of fertilization, or understanding its precise content, that there was no clear reason, historically, for assigning a particular 'moment' to the beginning of the person.  For just as a sacramental action has an 'outward sign' so it would seem perfectly natural that the action of God which completes and begins the creation of the person, is an action which is co-terminus with the natural and observable biological beginning of the person.  Thus it could be said that if one had to compare the point of natural conception with the point of implantation804 with respect to which of these 'moments' was the more natural outward sign of the inward act of God which begins the life of the person, then quite simply one would have to conclude that the moment of natural conception is it.

In conclusion, if it is the substantial form of a thing which determines what that thing is, then three implications flow from this principle.

Firstly, that the dead body of a human being is determined as of its conception to be what it is, namely the body of a human being.

Secondly, that this body exists as ordered by and to and for the particular soul which determined it in life.  In other words it is as if the body exists to the soul as the human word of Scripture to the Holy Spirit which inspired it.  For just as the word of man could not be the Word of God if it were not for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so the body could not be a human body if it were not for the soul through which it came to be what it was.  The corpse is, therefore, not so much a sign of the 'absence' of the soul, which in some sense it is, so much as a sign of the 'privation' of the fullness of life to which it was and from the beginning, originally ordained.

Thirdly, the question no longer seems to be what things are in isolation, except when considering the ultimate and terrible states of separation from God; rather, what seems to emerge is a pattern of developing inter-and-intra-substantial communion and union.  In other words, the question of the unity or the plurality of substantial forms with respect to the human being is a question which has to be asked and answered in the context of the full mystery concerning man.  For first there is physical matter, biological life and the singular substantial form established by God at conception and which constitutes the being so created as human, which is co-exstensive with the fact that the person now exists and thus in some sense exists in Christ.  Secondly, there is the act by which Christ makes us to exist in Him as to the beginning of our ultimate end of union with God, which is our baptism.  Finally, there is the act by which our baptism is brought to its definitive 'end' of communion with God and the saints in the glory of heaven.

It therefore seems no longer a matter of a substantial form which establishes us in our human singularity, although this is true and significant, so much as the act of our redemption which establishes us in a relationship which begins our ontological completion and communion with God and our neighbour, which can only be called a created mystery which 'imitates' and participates in the 'substantial communion' of the three Persons in one God.  Furthermore, the act of baptism by which God establishes us in Christ and which constitutes the beginning of our salvation, is an act which ontologically presupposes the naturally existing subject of this act, which is that we first exist as the subject in relation that we ordinarily are, and so in a way establishes the beginning of a new ontology: a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5: 17).

For if a thing is what it is according to the nature of the 'form' which informs it, then the human being is transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit which informs human nature to the extent that each of us wills and which God so gives.  It could be said, therefore, that it is the 'form' of the Holy Spirit which makes what is diverse, one, to the extent that all of these diverse elements are unified in the holiness of God: a hierarchical and yet communal Church of the holiness of God; and it is in this sense that the Church of Christ could be said to be made perfect by the same Spirit which unifies and activates it as the soul does the body.

Finally, however, and with respect to the precise question with which this section began, it could be said that it is the act of existence by which the person comes to exist - which is both a true human act and a true act of God - that in itself and of itself constitutes the indissoluble reality which is as it were the ontological basis of the resurrection of the body and the reunification of the body and the soul.  But this act of existence falls as it were at death into the distinction between the corporeal body and the spiritual soul: a distinction which serves the puposes of God with respect to our salvation and manifests the fundamental pair of 'elements' which together make our single nature.  Thus, in the end, the separation of death is with respect to the one act of existence at the root of human being.  Therefore the corpse expresses the corporeality which follows from that one act of existence, when and only when the body is divorced from the soul; and the soul expresses the spirituality of the 'form' which also and inseparably follows from that one act of existence and which, as the soul, is otherwise and normally the life, indeed the 'form' of that body.

793 V. E. Smith, Matter And Form, page 487 of Vol IX, NCE.    Back
794 D. A. Callus, Forms, Unicity And Plurality Of, page 1024 of Vol V.    Back
795 V. E. Smith, Matter And Form, page 485 of Vol IX, NCE.    Back
796 Ibid.    Back
797 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, art 22, page 923 of VCII.    Back
798 Lumen Gentium, art 7, page 356 of VCII.    Back
799 SD, art 18, page 41.    Back
800 D. A. Callus, Forms, Unicity And Plurality Of, page 1025 of Vol V.    Back
801 Cf. AQU, page 39.    Back
802 Cf. ST, Pt III, Qu 5, art 4, page 483.    Back
803 Cf. Inter insigniores, art 5, page 339 of VCII, Vol II: "Sacramental signs", says St. Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance" (footnote 19 on page 345: 'In IV Sent., dist. 25, q. 2, quaestiuncula 1a ad 4um').    Back
804 Cf. LML, footnote 19, page 16.    Back

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