Beyond Human Death

What Awaits Us Beyond Death?

For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I will see my God. Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom.

Job 19:25–27

The skull of St. Thomas Aquinas on display at the Dominican convent of Toulouse, France, in preparation to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Angelic Doctor’s canonization.

We continue our discussion of St. Thomas’s exploration of the beginning and end of human life, and focus upon the post-mortem state of the human soul. (As mentioned previously, we will not discuss the event of death itself in detail, either in terms of its philosophical analysis, or in terms of its biological and medical principles, or in terms of the bioethical, ethical, or moral theological questions that arise when trying to comprehend human death. A good starting point for those interested is Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., Biomedicine and Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 262–309.)

Virtually no human culture lacks an understanding of the afterlife. Socrates ponders the post-mortem fate of his soul in Plato’s Phaedo, admonishing his friends that “those also who are remarkable for having led holy lives are released from this earthly prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth; and those who have duly purified themselves with philosophy live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansions fairer far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time would fail me to tell.” (114c) Greek and Roman heroes in the Odyssey and the Aeneid visit the underworld, and Dante sings of the totality of the drama of cosmic salvation in his Divine Comedy.

Our goal in what follows—a mere philosophic voyage unattended by a Virgil or a Beatrice—is to explore the existence of the human soul after death, the characteristics of the human soul in such a state, and that it will be, in fact, an interim or intermediate state. Even the philosopher can conclude that he awaits the resurrection of his body, and this not for sentimental reasons but sound ones, albeit such reasons do not grant the hope which Job possessed. We will not be reincarnated, replicated, or duplicated, but resurrected.

7.10. Is There an “After Death” for Me?

St. Thomas’s affirmative answer to this question has been examined previously, but we should look carefully at the order in how he establishes this:

  1. The human soul (qua in the genus of intellectual substances) is incorporeal. (ScG, II.49)
  2. The human soul is immaterial. (ScG, II.50)
  3. The human soul is not a forma materialis but a forma materiae. (ScG, II.51)
  4. The human soul receives being (esse, the act of existence) as its act. (ScG, II.52–53)
  5. The human soul is incorruptible. (ScG, II.55 and II.79)

Hence, there is post-mortem state of existence, but is this state of existence a kind of life? Are we immortal? Can the intellectual soul act or operate? Note, for instance, that in ScG, II.82, Aquinas argues that the souls of non-human animals are not immortal because “the operation of the soul of a dumb animal (namely, sensation) cannot be without the body.”

7.11. Is There “Life” After Death?

We should recall an objection and its response in ScG, II.80–81. The fifth argument attempting to show that the human soul corrupts with the body’s corruption can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. A substance cannot exist without its proper operation.
  2. All the operations of the human soul require the body. (proven by induction)
  3. So, the substance of the human soul cannot exist without the body.
  4. “It is accordingly evident that no operation of the soul can remain after death.”
  5. “Therefore, neither does its substance remain, since no substance can be without operation.”

St. Thomas replies by denying the second premise, albeit with qualifications: “We say that it is false, since those operations remain which are not exercised through organs. Such are to understand and to will.” The operations which “do not remain are the ones exercised through corporeal organs,” at least, they cease “to be in act, but they do remain in radice, which is the essence of the soul.” (Ferrariensis, In ScG, II.81, n. X; Leon.13:510)

St. Thomas is steering through a dilemma here, as he clarifies elsewhere when addressing the question about the knowledge of the anima separata.

The difficulty in solving this question arises from the fact that the soul united to the body can understand only by turning to the phantasms, as experience shows. Did this not proceed from the soul’s very nature, but accidentally through its being bound up with the body, as the Platonists said, the difficulty would vanish; for in that case when the body was once removed, the soul would at once return to its own nature, and would understand intelligible things simply, without turning to the phantasms, as is exemplified in the case of other separate substances. In that case, however, the union of soul and body would not be for the soul’s good, for evidently it would understand worse in the body than out of it; but for the good of the body, which would be unreasonable, since matter exists on account of the form, and not the form for the sake of matter. But if we admit that the nature of the soul requires it to understand by turning to the phantasms, it will seem, since death does not change its nature, that it can then naturally understand nothing; as the phantasms are wanting to which it may turn.

ST, Ia, q. 89, a. 1, c.

How to steer between Platonism and extreme Aristotelianism?

Aquinas appeals to the principle that “the soul understands in a different way when separated from the body and when united to it, even as it has a different mode of existence, because a thing acts according as it is.” Operari sequitur esse. Thus, while the human soul during this life thinks through its corporeal cognitive instruments, the human soul existing after death does not think or will in this way. We become similar to—albeit without becoming—the separate substances, the angels.

Nor does this happen unreasonably, because, since the human soul, as shown above (ch. 68), is on the boundary line of corporeal and incorporeal substances (as though it were on the horizon of eternity and time) approaches to the higher world by withdrawing from the lower. Therefore, when it shall be wholly separated from the body, it will be perfectly likened to separate substances as to the manner of understanding and will receive their influence abundantly. Accordingly, though our act of understanding as regards its mode in the present life ceases when the body perishes, another and higher mode of understanding will take its place.

ScG, II.81

His resolution in ST, Ia, q. 89, a. 1, c. is similar:

As nothing acts except so far as it is actual, the mode of action in every agent follows from its mode of existence. Now the soul has one mode of being when in the body, and another when apart from it, its nature remaining always the same; but this does not mean that its union with the body is an accidental thing, for, on the contrary, such union belongs to its very nature, just as the nature of a light object is not changed, when it is in its proper place, which is natural to it, and outside its proper place, which is beside its nature. The soul, therefore, when united to the body, consistently with that mode of existence, has a mode of understanding, by turning to corporeal phantasms, which are in corporeal organs; but when it is separated from the body, it has a mode of understanding, by turning to simply intelligible objects, as is proper to other separate substances.

Also, we will retain our intellectual memory (“since the intelligible species are received indelibly into the possible intellect”), and we will still possess the spiritual “emotions” such as pleasure, love, or joy.

Nevertheless, it is still good that the intellectual soul is joined to a body, because “in the natural order human souls hold the lowest place among intellectual substances,” and this is part of “the perfection of the universe.” While God understands everything through one “concept,” namely, His own Essence, and the higher angels “understand by means of a number of species, which nevertheless are fewer and more universal and bestow a deeper comprehension of things,” and the lower angels “possess a greater number of species, which are less universal, and bestow a lower degree of comprehension, in proportion as they recede from the intellectual power of the higher natures,” it is not so with us. Our separated mode of understanding does not itself become better:

If, therefore, God had willed souls to understand in the same way as separate substances, it would follow that human knowledge, so far from being perfect, would be confused and general. Therefore to make it possible for human souls to possess perfect and proper knowledge, they were so made that their nature required them to be joined to bodies, and thus to receive the proper and adequate knowledge of sensible things from the sensible things themselves; thus we see in the case of uneducated men that they have to be taught by sensible examples. 

It is clear then that it was for the soul’s good that it was united to a body, and that it understands by turning to the phantasms. Nevertheless it is possible for it to exist apart from the body, and also to understand in another way.

St. Thomas, ST, Ia, q. 89, a. 1, c.

In other words, “it is through a certain participation in the species given by means of the divine light that the separated soul is able to understand, although not in a perfect way, but in a way that is rather ‘confused and general,’ since the soul was created to naturally turn to phantasms for its understanding. Yet Aquinas insists that this way of knowledge . . . is not in itself unnatural, ‘for God is the author of the influx both of the light of grace and of the light of nature [i.e. reason].’” (Melissa Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” Nova et Vetera 17, no. 1 (2019): 57–91 (, at 74. The quotation from Aquinas is from ST, Ia, q. 89, a. 1, ad 3.)

To conclude this section, we note:

  • The post-mortem intellectual soul does have operations after death, and in a certain respect such operations are superior to those in this life, but not all things considered.
  • This soul’s being is radically incomplete, because the anima separata still retains its nature of being a form of matter.

In other words, since the separate soul still thinks and wills, it appears that I survive my own death, which seems like a very odd thing to say. On the other hand, as a disembodied soul, it seems to be no longer the same I who exists in such a way. Another odd thing to say.

7.12. Do “I” Survive Death?

In this section, we will survey the landscape of a contemporary Thomistic debate about the post-mortem soul. This will require a few steps. In this section, we examine the debate, while in the next section I propose a resolution to it. What we will not do is attempt to track down or understand the genealogy of the debate and its many details. In what follows, I draw heavily upon and borrow central passages from a paper by Fr. Phillip Neri Reese, O.P., “The Separated Soul and the Human Person,” which was given at the Angelicum, Rome, December 2022 at the Eschatology and the Human Person Conference, and which is available online. A helpful introduction to the debate, along with many references to its sources, is Eitenmiller’s article, cited above.

(1) Do I Corrupt, Do I Survive, or Will I Be Incomplete?

Is the anima separata a person? Or, after I die will I still be a person? There are three positions, broadly speaking, taken on this question:

  • Corruptionists answer “No.”
  • Survivalists answer “Yes.”
  • Incompletionists answer “Yes and no.”

Let us consider some arguments for each view, starting with the corruptionists.

Corruptionism: The separated soul is not a person.
The Basic ArgumentI will die. Death is corruption. So, I will corrupt.
The Part-Whole ArgumentNo part is the same as the whole. The whole is the person, one of whose parts is the soul. So, the anima separata is not a person.
The Essential ArgumentNothing can survive the loss of things essential to it. At death, the human person loses something essential to it, viz., the union of body and soul. So, after death the human person ceases to exist.

As Fr. Reese points out (see 3:40ff in the video), such arguments make corruptionism intuitive and yet philosophically robust.

Let’s now examine arguments for survivalism.

Survivalism: The separated soul is a person.
The Proper Operations ArgumentWhatever engages in operations proper to a human person is a human person. However, the anima separata engages in such operations (knowing, willing). So, it is a human person.
The Moral ArgumentThe proper subject of punishment or reward is a person. But, after death, God punishes or rewards the separated soul. So, the separated soul must be a person.
The Intercessory Prayer ArgumentOnly persons are the subjects of intercessory prayer (whether on their behalf or on our behalf). However, we do pray to those who have died. Thus, they are still persons.

Here, Fr. Reese points out that such arguments make clear that “the debate also has ethical, eschatological, and ecclesiological consequences.” (5:38ff)

Lastly, let’s consider the viewpoint of incompletionism. In essence, this position thinks that the corruptionists are right to deny that the separated soul is a person simply speaking, but they are wrong to fail to say it is a person in a qualified way. Conversely, incompletionism thinks the survivalists are wrong to affirm that the separated soul is a person simply speaking, but they are right insofar as it is still a person, albeit qualifiedly.

Incompletionism: The separated soul is an incomplete person. 
The Best Explanation ArgumentThe incompletionist’s position explains both what the corruptionists and survivalists get wrong as well as what they get right. Doing this is the mark of a more adequate and superior theory. So, incompletionism is the better view.
The Criteria ArgumentIf the separated soul meets the Thomistic criteria for a person in an incomplete way, then it is an incomplete person. But it does meet the criteria incompletely. So, the anima separata is an incomplete person.
The Hoc Aliquid ArgumentIf the separated soul is an incomplete hoc aliquid (“this something”), then it is an incomplete person. But the separated soul is an incomplete hoc aliquid. Thus, the anima separata is an incomplete person.

Fr. Reese rightly notes that “what [these arguments] lack in intuitive force they make up for in nuance and attention to detail.” (8:52ff)

(2) Layers in a Philosophical Debate

Continuing to follow the exposition of Fr. Phillip Neri Reese, let us distinguish three types of questions when it comes to issues such as these. (A side note: this distinction will be helpful later when studying theology; compare to the littera, sensus, and sententia of medieval biblical theology.)

Three questions to ask about the exposition of a philosophical position.
Exegetical QuestionDid a particular historical Thinker X, in point of fact, hold position Y?
Coherence QuestionOught Thinker X to have held position Y, given the other views that Thinker X holds?
The Truth QuestionShould we hold position Y? In other words, is position Y true?

Now, part of the difficulty with this debate over the personhood of the separated soul is that it must operate on all three levels. Did St. Thomas hold that the anima separata is a person? If he did not, then, given other things that St. Thomas held to be true, ought he to have concluded that the separated soul is a person? Finally, what ought we to think? Is it true that the separated soul is a person, or is this false? 

Depending upon how these questions are answered, it could turn out that St. Thomas leads us away from the truth, or it might turn out that he was thinking inconsistently. “Thomists will be vindicated in their Thomism only if the answers to all three questions align,” concludes Fr. Reese (13:41ff). Here, Fr. Reese goes too far. It burdens “Thomism” as a school of thought with too much emphasis upon exegetical triumphalism at the expense of speculative truth, which St. Thomas himself disagrees with, “because the study of philosophy aims not at knowing what men think, but at what is the truth of things.” In De Caelo, lib. I, lect. 22, n. 228.

Fr. Reese also distinguishes between verbal disputes (debating over words and how we use them) and substantive disputes (debating over how things are), and thus there could be a more complex table, but I’ve decided to simplify. Here is how the debate stands.

Exegetical Question: Did St. Thomas hold that the separated soul is a person?No, so …!No, but …!No, and yet …!
Coherence Question:Ought St. Thomas to have held that the separated soul is a person?No.Yes.No.
The Truth Question:Is it true that the separated soul is a person, or is this false?It is false.It is true.Yes and no.

(3) What Is a Person?

Before proceeding, it will be good preparation for what follows to review briefly how St. Thomas defines “person.” In this, he follows Boethius: “A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” (St. Thomas, ST, Ia, q. 29, a. 1.) What about the terms in this definition? “The term individual substance is placed in the definition of person, as signifying the singular in the genus of substance; and the term rational nature is added, as signifying the singular in rational substances.” (Ibid., in the body of the article. Consider also De Potentia, q. 9, a. 2, c.: “Hence, to indicate that it is in a special manner an individual in the genus of substance, it is stated that it is an individual substance; and to indicate that it is in a special manner an individual of rational nature, it is added, of rational nature. Accordingly, by describing it as a substance, we exclude accidents from the notion of person, for no accident can be a person, and by adding individual, we exclude genera and species in the genus of substance, since they cannot be called persons; and by adding of rational nature, we exclude inanimate bodies, plants, and dumb animals, which are not persons.”)

The name ‘person’ is used analogously of humans, angels, and the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, St. Thomas asserts that “in the created world the person is the highest perfection: the person is perfectissimum ens.” (Karol Wojtyla, Person and Community: Selected Essays, transl. by T. H. Sandok, OFM; Catholic Thought from Lublin, vol. 4 (New York: P. Lang, 2008), in the essay “Thomistic Personalism,” 167.) Clearly, the meaning of the word “person” and the realities it signifies give the word a noble character. This is far deeper than Locke (a person is defined by identity of consciousness), and far better than Hobbes (‘person’ is a nominal locus of attributed action). (John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, ch. 27, n. 11: “We must consider what person stands for;—which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, ch. 16, “A person is he whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed, whether Truly or by Fiction.”)

‘Person’, therefore, names a perfection. It does not name a perfection of relationships, even if a person may be perfected by certain relations. Rather . . . person names a perfection of substance, not perfection of this or that substance, but rather, it names a more perfect kind of substance.

Daniel Lendman, “The Separated Soul as a Person In Virtute,” 4; a paper given at the Angelicum, Rome, December 2022 at the Eschatology and the Human Person Conference.

Indeed, the name “person” is a nomen dignitatis (Ibid., 7, citing Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference Between “Someone” and “Something”, transl. by O. O’Donovan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)). In some contexts, one might define “‘person’ as a being with the radical capacity for intellectual cognition and free choice.” (Ashley and Moraczewski, “Cloning, Aquinas, and the Embryonic Person,” 195n27.) However, this is not Aquinas’s definition. Indeed, the debate about the personhood of the separated soul runs the risk of equivocating on the meaning of “person.”

It would appear from the debate regarding whether or not the soul is a person that there are at least two equivocal notions of “person” at play here. The first notion is the objective, metaphysical view, the one that is clearly indicated by Aquinas in citing Boethius’s well-known definition of person as an “individual substance of a rational nature.” The second view, however, is one of the modern notions of person as a sort of reified center of consciousness, which I would like to call the subjective, “existential” view. St. Thomas’s understanding of “person” is obviously that of the objective, metaphysical sense, which presumes that the individual substance be complete, and not only a part.

Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” 86.

Following St. Thomas’s use of the word “person,” therefore, how ought we to answer the debated question about the separated soul? Even some followers of St. Thomas, such as the great commentator Cardinal Cajetan, when faced with the question of the separated soul, called it a “semi-person.” If a person names a more perfect kind of substance, however, a “semi-person” sounds like a “semi-perfection.” Caution must be taken with the language of a semi-person, for in such a case one might fall into the conclusion that the soul or even the human nature of Christ constitutes a “semi-person”. But the person of Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity, and the idea that Christ in His human nature is also a “semi-person” becomes “semi-Nestorianism.” (See ST, IIIa, q. 2, a. 3, ad 2: “Hypostasis signifies a particular substance, not in every way, but as it is in its completeness. Yet as it is in union with something more complete, it is not said to be a hypostasis, as a hand or a foot. So likewise the human nature in Christ, although it is a particular substance, nevertheless cannot be called a hypostasis or suppositum, seeing that it is in union with a completed thing, viz. the whole Christ, as He is God and man. But the complete being with which it concurs is said to be a hypostasis or suppositum.” See also Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 227n121, as well as James Dominic Rooney, O.P., “Survivalism, Suitably Modified,” The Thomist 85, no. 3 (2021): 349–76 (, at 370–71, and Reese, “The Separated Soul and the Human Person,” at 38:36ff.)

7.13. A Virtual Person?

Is the anima separata a person? It is not; however, the post-mortem intellectual soul is a virtual person, a person in virtute. This resolves the debate in favor of the corruptionists, while also retaining the truth grasped in part by the other two views.

(1) The Exegetical Question

As briefly noted above, most of the disputants actually agree on the answer to the exegetical question. The clearest text in which St. Thomas argues the corruptionist position is the following.

But because someone could still say: I do not care about sins, I do not care about the dead, as long as in this life I have peace and quiet. Therefore, he adds a third incongruity, when he says: if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable [I Cor 15:19].

And he rests on this argument: if there is no resurrection of the dead, it follows that nothing good is possessed by men except in this life alone; and if this is so, then those who suffer many evils and tribulations in this life are more miserable. Therefore, since the apostles and Christians suffer many tribulations, it follows that they are more miserable than other men, who at least enjoy the good things of this world.

But there seem to be two doubts about this reasoning. One is that what the Apostle says does not seem to be universally true, namely, that Christians are confident in this life only, because they could say that, although our bodies do not possess any good things except in this life, which is mortal, yet according to the soul they have many good things in the other life.

This can be turned aside in two ways. In one way, because if the resurrection of the body is denied, it is not easy, rather, it is difficult, to sustain the immortality of the soul. For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. But it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and, as it were, nothing; and that which is against nature and per accidens be infinite, if the soul endures without the body. And so, the Platonists positing immortality, posited re-incorporation, although this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, we will be confident only in this life.

In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man, and my soul is not I [et anima mea non est ego]; hence, although the soul obtains salvation in another life, nevertheless, not I or any man. Furthermore, since man naturally desires salvation even of the body, a natural desire would be frustrated.

St. Thomas, Super I Cor., c. 15, lect. 2, nn. 923–24;

Apart from this text (containing ideas to which we return below, in 7.14), there are a few other key texts we must consider.

The separated soul is a part of rational nature, and not a whole rational human nature; wherefore, it is not a person. [Anima separata est pars rationalis naturae, scilicet humanae, et non tota natura rationalis humana, et ideo non est persona.]

De Potentia, q. 9, a. 2, ad 14.

Survivalists are not deterred by the apparent clarity of such texts. For instance, right after quoting the above text, Jason Eberl writes: “So a separated soul partially fulfills the definition of person, since it is at least something subsistent and clearly rational, but it is not wholly a substance and does not possess in itself the entirety of a human being’s rational nature.” (The Nature of Human Persons, 227.) (However, in what other case is this allowed? A triangle partially fulfills the definition of ‘square’ but does not thereby deserve the name.)

The trouble of tendentious exegesis highlights how important the totality of the definition is, and leads one to wonder what might be the most important term in the definition. We must proceed from exegetical questions to those of logical and philosophical coherence. While the word “person” does not occur in the following passage, it expresses the reasoning underlying the corruptionist position taken by Aquinas. It is basically the part-whole argument:

This particular thing can be taken in two senses. First, for anything subsistent; second, for that which subsists, and is complete in a specific nature. The former sense excludes the inherence of an accident or of a material form; the latter excludes also the imperfection of the part, so that a hand can be called this particular thing in the first sense, but not in the second. Therefore, as the human soul is a part of human nature, it can indeed be called this particular thing, in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense, what is composed of body and soul is said to be this particular thing.

ST, Ia, q. 75, a. 2, ad 1.

Thus, since the human soul is just a part of human nature, but a person is defined as having a rational nature, it follows that the separate soul is not a person.

(2) The Questions of Coherence and Truth

Can we show that St. Thomas not only holds the corruptionist view, but also does so coherent with his own principles and that corruptionism is, in fact, the truth of the matter? The key to seeing why corruptionism is true lies in seeing what “rational nature” adds to the definition of person.

This can be seen by contrast first. In what follows, we consider Daniel D. De Haan and Brandon Dahm, “Thomas Aquinas on Separated Souls as Incomplete Human Persons,” The Thomist 83, no. 4 (2019): 589–637 ( (Their view is criticized by Fr. Reese and Daniel Lendman, as well as by Mark Spencer, who holds a survivalist position, in “Survivalist, Platonist, Thomistic Hylomorphism,” Quaestiones Disputatae 10, no. 2 (2020): 177–84, which is a response to De Haan and Dahm, “After Suvivalism and Corruptionism: Separated Souls as Incomplete Persons,” Quaestiones Disputatae 10, no. 2 (2020): 161–76.)

Daniel De Haan and Brandon Dahm propose the following three criteria to defend incompletionism. The first two clearly flow from Boethius’s definition.

Criteria for “person”
Subsistence“If a being is a person, then it is a per se subsistent individual.” (598)
Rationality“If a being is a person, then it is a supposit that performs rational operations in virtue of the rationality of its nature.” (608)
Completeness“If a being is a person, then it is complete or a whole.” (611)

1. OperationalCan the being in question perform its proper operations?
2. ExistentialDoes the being in question exist per se and not per accidens?
3. FormalIs the thing in question a complete form?
4. As a SuppositIs the thing in question a supposit that acts and has accidents?
5. Species/EssenceIs the thing in question complete in its species or nature?

The “completeness” criteria are subdivided by the authors. “Complete” is another name for “perfect,” and makes good sense as criteria for being a person. Indeed, the corruptionist’s part-whole argument depends upon the idea of completeness or incompleteness, and constitutes a point of agreement. What De Haan and Dahm add, however, is that by fulfilling some of the criteria for completeness, the separated soul is an incomplete person:

A human being that is complete according to its species includes a body, but the anima separata does not animate a body. So, the anima separata is specifically incomplete; however, it is complete operationally, formally, existentially, and as a supposit.

De Haan and Dahm, “Thomas Aquinas on Separated Souls as Incomplete Human Persons,” 623–24.

Now, Fr. Reese objects to this argument (see 32:22ff). For instance, the second and fourth ways of being complete are already included in the criterion of “subsistence,” and the third and fifth ways of completeness amount to the same thing. Additionally, the separated soul is missing its completeness of being the form of a body, and its operations or activities are incomplete for the same reason.

However, even if we grant that the separated soul has all these distinct modes of completeness, a difficulty still remains. Specifically, the fifth way of being complete, to be complete in species or nature, is the most important of all five. That is, in order for the separated soul to have any manner of completeness in operation, existence, form, or individuality, it must be of a certain sort or kind: “The fifth condition, completeness in species, is the most essential condition of them all. Accordingly, lack of completeness in species would undermine the completeness in the other four orders.” (Lendman, “The Separated Soul as a Person In Virtute,” 8, and see 7–8.) Lacking completeness as a rational nature, the other modes of completeness are themselves incomplete. The argument why the soul is a person in virtute can now be given:

  1. The separated soul subsists in its being as an individual intellectual substance which was the form of a body.
  2. What subsists in such a way is incomplete in the species of a rational nature but complete as the formal principle of such a nature.
  3. However, to be such is to be a person in virtute.
  4. Therefore, the separated soul is a person in virtute.

Some explanation is in order.

  • The definition of a person in virtute is that which is incomplete in the species of a rational nature but complete as the formal principle of such a nature
  • The first premise is supported by arguments referred to above, see §7.10.
  • The second premise is true because the anima separata is incomplete in the species of a rational nature, since it is no longer the form of a body. However, it does not lack anything qua such a form, considered absolutely or in itself, because it is still the principle of a human person.
    • The separated soul remains such a principle in two ways.
    • First, in its being or existence. Its act of existence is identical to the act of existence of the deceased human being whose soul it was:
      • “The same act of existing that belongs to the soul is conferred on the body by the soul so that there is one act of existing for the whole composite,” and yet “while the soul can subsist of itself, it does not have a complete species, for the soul needs the body in order to complete its species.” (St. Thomas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Anima, q. 1, ad 1)
      • “The form of other things subject to generation and corruption is not subsistent of itself, so as to be able to remain after the corruption of the composite, as it is with the rational soul. For the soul, even after separation from the body, retains the being which accrues to it when in the body, and the body is made to share that being by the resurrection, since the being of the body and the being of the soul in the body are not distinct from one another; otherwise, the union of soul and body would be accidental. Consequently, there has been no interruption in the substantial being of man as would make it impossible for the same man in number to return on account of an interruption in his being, as is the case with other things that are corrupted, the being of which is interrupted altogether since their form does not remain and their matter remains under another being.” (St. Thomas, ST, Suppl. IIIa, q. 79, a. 2, c.: This text and the subsequent one are highlighted in Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” 63n25 and 68n44)
    • Second, in its relation to the powers of a rational nature. It contains in root form all those powers of a human person which depend upon the body for being and activity:
      • “The sensitive and other like powers do not remain in the separated soul except in a restricted sense, namely, in root form [in radice], in the same way as a result is in its principle: because there remains in the separated soul the ability to produce these powers if it should be reunited to the body. Nor is it necessary for this ability to be anything in addition to the essence of the soul.” (St. Thomas, ST, Suppl. IIIa, q. 70, a. 1, c.)
    • The name “person in virtute” expresses how the powers of the person are contained in radice, because one way in which “things exist virtually is the way the form of the effect is contained virtually in the cause.” (Lendman, “The Separated Soul as a Person In Virtute,” 12)
      • Describing the separated soul as “personal” but not a person, as Eitenmiller does, is truthful but not as precise. Fr. Rooney’s proposal is that “there is a term Aquinas uses that can apply to the situation of the rational soul: ‘personality’ (personalitas). Aquinas uses ‘personality’ in theological contexts, parallel to his use of the generic term ‘humanity,’ as referring to things having the disposition to constitute a person.” See “Survivalism, Suitably Modified,” 370, et passim. This is unsuitably called a form of survivalism, for personalitas is such a disposition only because of the priority of the complete rational nature, and, as such, differs only verbally from person in virtute.

“In other words . . . , even though the soul is not the person as such, it ‘is the noblest and most formal subsistent principle, root of the noblest operations of the ‘I’.’” (Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” 91, quoting Steven Long, personal correspondence.)

We conclude that the separated soul is a person in virtute.

(3) Resolutions to the Debate

We should note how the corruptionist’s case can address the opposing views.

  1. The above arguments answer the incompletionists’s three main arguments. The best explanation is best only if true, while the criteria and hoc aliquid arguments do not attend sufficiently to what is most formal about being a person.
  2. The proper operations argument, proposed by the survivalists, correctly draws upon the truth that the separated soul can think and will. However, because it is incomplete in the species of a rational nature, such operations are themselves lacking in completeness and are not the full expressions of the proper act of human persons.
  3. The moral argument correctly notes that the person is due punishment or rewards. However, St. Thomas himself argues that such just desserts are due to someone because of the soul: “Consequently, both reward and punishment are awarded to the body through the soul, and not to the soul on account of the body. Hence there is no reason why the punishment or reward of the soul should await its reunion with the body.” (St. Thomas, ScG, IV.91; see also Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” 79–81, and Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 236–37.)
  4. The intercessory prayer argument, on the one hand, seems to neglect that the Church does, in fact, pray for the souls of the faithful departed. On the other hand, the common way of speaking about departed persons is sufficiently accounted for by synechdoche, in which we name the whole by a part or vice versa.
  5. The corruptionist view also preserves in a better way the tragedy and violence of the event of death, even if death does have natural causes. The separated soul is not “still a person but a damaged, a mutilated person,” (Richard Purtill, quoted approvingly in Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 230) as if death were the severest sort of amputation, precisely because death is not damage. Damage involves accidental changes, not substantial ones. If something is to be damaged or mutilated, “it is also necessary that the substance remain.” (Metaphysics, V.27, 1024a12–13) As Aristotle notes: “Not even the things that are wholes are mutilated by the privation of any part. For the parts removed must be neither those which determine the substance nor any chance parts, irrespective of their position; e.g. a cup is not mutilated if it is bored through; but only if the handle or a projecting part is removed.” (Metaphysics, V.27, 1024a21–25)

7.14. Will I Ever Be Whole Again?

Already in what has been said, the topic of the resurrection of the body been raised either directly or indirectly. If I cease to be a human being, a human person, at death, surviving only as a person in virtute, is this state to be continued forever or is it only an intermediate or interim stage?

(1) Is the Resurrection of the Body a Philosophical Subject?

“Do Christians have any evidence, outside of the faith, for holding that there will be a resurrection?” (Montague Brown, “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body,” The Thomist 56, no. 2 (1992): 165–207 (, at 165) We might approach the question in a quasi-scientific fashion, examining near-death experiences. Or, perhaps this can only be known by faith and defended from incoherence by giving various arguments or answering objections. Lastly, the necessity of bodily resurrection might be defended by philosophical argument. This last strategy is, in fact, the one deployed by St. Thomas (for instance, see ScG, IV.79–81; these three are discussed by Brown, “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body,” 167–72). At the same time, however, “is it not the ultimate presumption to try to prove philosophically what is a matter of revelation?” (Ibid., 185)

The philosopher, however, does not trespass into theological or revealed territory. “To say that, because the soul is immortal and the form of the body, there will be a resurrection of the body is merely to say what is naturally due the human being by creation.” (Ibid., 204) The precise quality or state of life of the resurrected body remains unknowable to the philosopher (although Plato told plenty of “likely stories” about it). Thus, “to say that the resurrection of the body is natural is not in any way an attempt to explain away the gift of our salvation.” (Ibid., 206)

(2) Why Wonder about Resurrection?

The dual evidences of sensation and thought, with their respective requirements for body and an immaterial soul, lead Plato to say one thing and Aristotle [!!!] another. Each recognizes the immaterial nature of knowing and hence the immortal character of the intellectual faculty; but they take radically different positions on what the intellect’s relation to the body might be. Plato says that the human being is the soul, but then cannot account for why the soul is tied up with the body. Aristotle Averroes, standing firm on the unity of body and soul, ends up saying that reason is our temporary visitor; but then he cannot account for the immediate conviction that it is oneself who understands and wills.

Ibid., 178. Brown argues that Aristotle held the position of Averroes. I disagree [!!!].

The evidence of human nature leads us to wonder about being naturally whole again, after death.

(3) Philosophical Arguments for Bodily Resurrection

The two main arguments have actually already been quoted, above, in the commentary of St. Thomas on I Corinthians. (So, corruptionism turns out to provide reason for resurrection!)

Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical arguments for the resurrection of the body are based on the immediate experience and understanding of what it is to be human. We think, and hence are immortal as to the rational soul. But it is not our souls that think: we think—these composite unities of soul and body. The soul is naturally the form of the body. Separated from the body by death, the soul is in an unnatural state; and since an unnatural state is unstable and requires a restoration of the natural, there must be a resurrection of the body.

Ibid., 206

Or, as Eberl puts it, “Aquinas thus considers bodily resurrection to be morally, as well as metaphysically, necessary.” (The Nature of Human Persons, 229) Let us look briefly at the two arguments, found in the second-to-last and the last paragraph of the quotation, above, from Super I Cor., c. 15, lect. 2, n. 924.

  1. The natural justice argument
    1. The separation of soul and body after death is an unnatural state.
    2. No unnatural state can be permanent.
    3. So, the separation of soul and body after death can be permanent.
  2. The natural desire argument
    1. We naturally desire bodily resurrection (since it is a naturally better state).
    2. No natural desire can be in vain.
    3. So, the natural desire for bodily resurrection cannot be in vain.

The first argument, the natural justice argument, implicitly draws upon a principle that we established in ScG, II.28, that there can be something that God owes to creatures in justice. In this case, it is the natural state of the human soul. This supports the second premise of the argument. We also use the very same matter-form disposition principle used when discussing the beginning of human life and appeal to the teleological principle for why the human soul is united to the human body, for “it is emphatically Thomas’s position that the human soul is imperfect without the body. It is the unity of soul and body which is natural and for the good of the soul.” (Brown, “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body,” 176)

(4) How Bodily Resurrection Is Possible

There are two main objections that must be faced. (Other objections could be considered; see St. Thomas, ScG, IV.80–81, or ST, Suppl. IIIa, q. 75, aa. 1 and 3.)

  1. Agent causality problem: “First of all, there is the question of how the resurrection can happen.” That is, even though the separated soul has a natural tendency or desire for reunion with the body, neither it nor the body seem able to effect this union, nor any other created power. 
  2. Material causality problem: “Secondly, if the union of body and soul is broken at death . . . , then how can the same individual be resurrected since one criterion for individuality would appear to be the continuity of the body/soul composite?” (Brown, ibid., 185)

The answer that St. Thomas gives to the first problem is direct: our resurrection is effected by the power of God. Thus, as far as the agent causality goes, it is supra-natural, a type of miracle. However, the end of resurrection is still natural:

Resurrection is natural if we look at its final cause, inasmuch as it is natural for the soul to be united to the body, but its efficient cause is not natural, since it is caused by the power of God alone.

St. Thomas, ScG, IV.81

Elsewhere, Aquinas states that “[Christ’s] rising from the grave was a sufficient argument to prove that men are to be raised up by Divine power, not only from their graves, but also from any dust whatever.” (St. Thomas, ST, IIIa, q. 51, a. 3, ad 3) While this is a theological claim, it has a philosophical core: “Aquinas is asserting here what can reasonably be understood as a general principle concerning the limits—or lack thereof—of God’s power in effecting resurrection.” (Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 223n83)

This brings us to the solution to the second problem. If the same individual is to be raised from the dead, then how is this possible without my body and, thus, its matter? “The key to a separated human soul’s individuality is its relationship to a particular body of which it is the substantial form. While it is not acting as the substantial of a body when separated, a human soul does not lost its natural inclination to be the substantial form of one particular body.” This ontological memory of the soul ties it to its body.

But which material parts are included in this body? After all, we replace our material parts constantly, and after death our corpses are reduced to ash and scattered by decay and other causes. This raises the specter of the “Ship of Theseus” problem. Now Aquinas was well aware of the continuous replacement of matter during one’s life. He did, after all, require food. (See John Chandlish, “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dynamic State of Body Constituents,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 23, no. 3 ( 1968): 272–75 ( See also Quodlibet VIII, q. 3, c)

What is in man materially is not directed to the resurrection except insofar as it belongs to the truth of human nature; because it is in this respect that it bears a relation to the human souls. Now all that is in man materially belongs indeed to the truth of human nature insofar as it has something of the species, but not all if we consider the totality of matter; because all the matter that was in a man from the beginning of his life to the end would surpass the quantity due to his species . . . . Wherefore the whole of what is in man will rise again if we speak of the totality of the species which is dependent on quantity, shape, position and order of parts, but the whole will not rise again if we speak of the totality of matter.

St. Thomas, ST, Suppl. IIIa, q. 80, a. 5, c. See also Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 221–22.

Furthermore, the separated soul is still the form of a body, at least dispositionally, and thus retains corporeity and can actualize the same sense organs. (See the text quoted above from ST, Suppl. IIIa, q. 70, a. 1, c.) It is still a human soul, and thus the form of a rational, animal (sensate), and living (vegetal) thing. I will be raised as myself and not as another person because of the identity of my soul and any matter remaining or supplied.

For the same reason that God, in restoring the risen body, does not reclaim all the material elements once possessed by man’s body, he will supply whatever is wanting to the proper amount of matter. Nature itself has such power. In infancy we do not as yet possess our full quantity; but by assimilating food and drink we receive enough matter from outside sources to round out our perfect quantity; nor on this account does a man cease to be the same individual he was before. Surely, then, divine power can do the same thing much more easily, so that those who do not have sufficient quantity may be supplied from outside matter with whatever was lacking to them in this life as regards integrity of natural members or suitable size.

St. Thomas, Compendium Theologiae, I.160.

7.15. Death Is Not the End, and Other Conclusions

  1. Aquinas’s thinking about resurrection and “the truth of human nature” retroactively sheds light on the beginning of the human person. There is a certain natural developmental integrity and fittingnessto the existence of a human person from its earliest stage. The “timeline” of the nature and existence of a human person certainly does contain odd stages. At the same time, however, there is a sort of ontological broken symmetry: our beginning requires supra-natural causality of the soul, and our last “change” requires it for the body. “Hence, our nature, and thus our natural reason, is couched in miracle. That we are and what we are cannot be wholly explained by any natural data. But the idea that the resurrection of the body is natural in a way that complete annihilation (materialists), or the immortal existence of the soul alone (Plato), or the destruction of the person when the composite of soul and body corrupts (Aristotle/Averroes) are not should be welcomed for what it is: not some wish fulfillment in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary (who knows what death is?), but the sane and fruitful gift of reason.” (Brown, “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body,” 187–88)
  2. Also, both our beginning and our end manifest anti-Catharist/Albigensian incarnational truths. We are human animals the whole way through in virtue of the matter-form disposition principle, the priority of form in defining our complete essence, and the teleological principle that it is good that our souls and bodies are joined.
  3. We now have more of story in regard to the drama of human existence.
    1. The universe is a communion of persons, but angels needed to complete the scene (see next reading); then, we must set things in motion in Book III.
    2. The human soul, in its very “roots,” is also a clearly apt subject of purgation. (See Eberl, The Nature of Human Persons, 236–37, and Eitenmiller, “On the Separated Soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” 81, and Brown, “Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body,” 200)
  4. The discussion also shows the clear need that theology has for philosophy: “As Ratzinger puts it: ‘The integrity of faith depends on rigor of philosophical thinking, such that careful philosophizing is an irreplaceable part of genuine theological work.’” (Ibid., 203, quoting Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, transl. by M. Waldstein and Aidan Nichols, O.P., 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 269 (in the first edition))
  5. Lastly, the post-mortem state of the separated soul provides grounds for the fittingness of the Assumption of Mary: “From this we can see that she is there bodily. . . . Her blessedness would not have been complete unless she were there as a person. The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude.” (Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, n. 32, quoting St. Bonaventure. See also Charles De Koninck, “The Person of Mary and the Dogma of the Assumption,” Laval théologique et philosophique 6, no. 2 (1950): 357–61, at 360)

We might also wonder if talk of the resurrection pushes philosophy beyond its limits. In Summa contra Gentiles Book III we will also reach such limits. Recall that it is only in Book IV that St. Thomas will (a) begin to discuss the truths of the faith that resolve some of these philosophical aporia, and yet even then (b) certain philosophical arguments will be used to manifest with probability the truths of the faith. A clear case is arguments for the resurrection of the body.

As Fr. White notes, “Aquinas’s realism regarding the hylomorphic unity in man allows us to see, at the very least, the rational fittingness of the resurrection.” (Thomas Joseph White, O.P. The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 452) We saw above that some—namely, Brown—place a very strong emphasis on such argumentation as demonstrative. However, other Thomists think this goes too far. (See John F. X. Knasas, “Suffering and the ‘Thomistic Philosopher’: A Line of Thought Instigated by the Job Commentary,” in M. Levering, P. Roszak, and J. Vijgen, eds., Reading Job with St. Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 185–219, as well as his book Aquinas and the Cry of Rachel: Thomistic Reflections on the Problem of Evil (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 79–86)

In ScG, IV.79, St. Thomas does state that “reason also supplies an evident proof of the resurrection, provided we bear in mind what has already been proved.” Ferrariensis (In ScG, Book IV, ch. 79, n. II (Leon.15.249–50)), also cautions: “St. Thomas does not intend to prove the resurrection of the body by demonstrative reasoning, for this is impossible for us, since it is among those things pertaining to the faith simply speaking. But he intends to show that to some degree one could be persuaded by probable reasoning, ‘supposing those things which have been shown above’ … for in this way the position of the faith is shown to not be irrational.” Aquinas’s three rational arguments for bodily resurrection are at least converging lines of argument bolster us to assent.

The arguments of philosophy are harmony for the melodies of the faith, philosophy and natural reason are the bass and alto parts to the tenor and soprano voices of theology and faith. This harmonization is not a mere mixing or blend but a sort of transmutation. As St. Thomas states elsewhere, “Those who use philosophical doctrines in sacred Scripture in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine.” (Super Boetium de Trinitate, q. 2, a. 3, ad 5)

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