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Thomas Aquinas and the Individuation of Persons

by Montague Brown
In a world in which scientific materialism dominates the common
person's view of the universe and in which millions of people live under
various kinds of socialism and statism, we who have a heritage of respect
for individuals might weIl ask on what this respect is based. Just what is it
that makes us individuals? And is there a reason why individuals ought not
to be treated merely as chance configurations of atoms or as members of a
social order that transcends them? I believe that a study ofthe thought of
Thomas Aquinas can help us in answering these questions.
The answer will involve two stages. First of all, it is necessary to
determine what it is which is the basis for our individuality. The standard
Thomistic answer is to say that it is our particularized matter. This,
however, I think is insufficient, for it fails to show why people have a
dimension ofindividuality not attributed to granite boulders, or maple trees,
or sheep. Another option is esse or existence. Although this can be applied
universally to all dimensions ofreality in a way that matter cannot, it, too,
fails to specify why it is that personal individuality differs from that ofother
things. Athird answer, one which can be found in the texts of Aquinas and
which I think is the correct answer, is the rational soul. This first stage of
the discussion will itselfinvolve two parts: one will look at these possibilities
in the light of the intrinsic principles of the human being; the other will
consider the human being in the light of extrinsic ends, particularly the
perfection of the universe.
The second stage of the essay will involve a consideration of how the
dignity of persons depends on their individuality and why it is wrong to
refuse to recognize and honor individuals. This done, we should have some
justification for the respect we give to individuals, and renewed strength to
withstand materialism in its metaphysical and social n1anifestations.
The first consideration is to discover what is the intrinsic principle of
individuation in persons. The standard answer Aquinas gives to the issue
of human individuality is to say that human beings are individuated by
matter. However, it is not our materiality in general that individuates us,
for Aquinas insists that the essence of the human being includes both
rational soul and body.l To have a rational soul as the form of the body is
what it means to be a human being; we all have such a composition. We
belong to the genus animal because of our living and sensing materiality;
we are placed in a species of animals by our form, the rational soul. We are
unique members ofthe species because of our particular matter, that is, our
individual bodies. According to the doctrine as stated, differences between
persons depend on quantitative and materials factors. One person differs
from another because ofthis flesh and these bones. We are of one species by
our soul and its information of sorne body; we are unique by having quanti-
tatively different bodies.
As Aquinas sums up this thesis on individuation:
"Matter is the principle ofindividuation for all inherent forms.,,3 But what
about persons? Surely we are unique in a way that is not merely dependent
on having different bodies. There is not just a quantitative difference
between uso Human beings are unique in a way that cabbages and crocodiles
are not. Matter, as the principle ofindividuation, does not account for this.
One cannot deny that matter figures in our individuality. Certainly;
individuation is tied up with the presence ofmatter in our essence. It is only
because there is matter (and not just intellectuality) in our essence that we
can be members of a species. Matter when signed by quantity indicates
individual instantiations of rational animal. But to say that matter can
carry the whole load of explaining human individuality is to say too n1ucl1.
Examining the things ofthe universe in themselves and not, for the moment,
in their relation to others, one finds that the only time matter comes close
to explaining individuality is in the case of inanimate things, like different
pieces of quartz or different hydrogen atoms. In them quantity pretty much
does sufficiently explain differences ofidentity, why one is one and another
is another.
But this kind of explanation will not work even for plants and animals,
never mind human beings. Individuation, it is true, is only possible within
living species because matter is part ofthe essence. Ifthere were no matter,
each individual would be its own species, like the angels. But the individu-
ation is actual beGause the continuing existence ofthe kind is only through
propagation. This is why there are individuals within the species: the
1 For an extensive treatment of this point, see Armand Maurer, "Form and
Essence in the Philosophy ofSt. Thomas," Medieval Studies, 13 (1951): 165-76.
2 Aquinas calls this principle of individuation, which is quantitatively unique
matter, signate matter (materia signata), De Ente et Essentia 11, 6.
3 " materia est individuationis principium omnibus formis inhaerentibus."
ST 111, 77, 2. There are innumerable other texts in which Aquinas calls matter
the principle of individuation. Among them are: De Ente I, 6; ST I, 3, 3; SCG
I, 21, [4]; Comp. Theol., 154.
survival ofthe species requires it. The form ofthe thing is such as to demand
the continuing production ofindividuals for its own continued existence.
In the case of human beings matter appears even less sufficient as the
explanation of individuation. Individual human beings do not continue to
live on' only, or even most importantly, by propagating the species (although
this is one way that we do so). Each human being is, in a way, forever; for
the rational soul, at least, cannot be destroyed.
Thus the explanation of
human individuality lies more in the soul than in the sequential existence
ofmaterial instantiations. And so our bodies, as important as they are, are
not the sole or even the most striking element in our We are
more individualized by our souls than by our bodies.
Asecond option for individuation which can be discovered in the writings
of Aquinas is that central metaphysical principle esse, that is, existence.
Without existence nothing would be at all: and if there were nothing, there
obviously would be no principle ofmatter which might serve in one way or
another as the principle of individuation. This fact that there is a world at
all is what we call creation; and God creates a world ofdiversity and relation.
At the core of every created thing is esse which is its most fundamental act,
its own existence in its dependence on the Creator. Each thing, as directly
dependent on God for its existence, is thus radically individual. "According
as things have existence, so they have unity and plurality.,,6 Each thing has
its own unique relation of dependency on God and possession, as gift, of a
unique existence. However, granted that all things are radically individual
insofar as each is related in a unique way to God, the giver of all existence,
the question we began with still remains unanswered: are human beings
individuated in exactly the same way as all the other things of our experi-
ence, or is there something in human persons which accounts for the dignity
4 How rationality implies immortality will be explained below.
5 Addressing this issue in his article, "'Alteritas' and Numerical Diversity in St.
Thomas Aquinas," Dialogue (Canada) 16: 693-707, David Winiewicz concludes:
"Matter is, indeed, a principle of individuation but, more properly, it is only a
co-principle. Being (esse) is a prior cause of diversity than matter" (pp. 704-05).
James B. Reichmann, in an article entitled "St. Thomas, Capreolus, Cajetan,
and the Created Person," New Scholasticism 33 (1959): 1-31, notes that "esse
is the reality which renders a created being absolutely incommunicable" (p.30).
6"Adhuc, secundum quod res habent esse, ita habent unitatem et pluritatem."
Comp. Theol., 71. Ed. Leonine Commission (Rome: 1979) Opera Omnia, 42:
104. All references to this work below are from this edition. EIsewhere, St.
Thomas says explicitly: "It [the distinction of things] is not on account of the
diversity ofmatter as a primary cause; ... non sit propter materiae diversitatem
sicut propter primam causam." SCG11,40 [2]. Ed. Leonine Commission (Rome:
Desclee & C. - Herder, 1934) p. 130. All references to this work below are from
this one volume edition. Later, in chapter 45, we read that is God who is the
first cause of everything, and that his primary effect is esse. See also ST I, 47,
1, and De Potentia 111, 16.
ofwhich each is possessed and which we immediately respect? Aquinas says
that in human beings, sensation is specifically different than in the other
animals, for it derives from the rational soul.
Our intellectuality colors all
our activities. So, too, does it color the issue of our individuality. And while
it is correct to say that esse individuates us (as it does all tI1ings), this does
not tell us much about individuation of persons as distinguished from
individuation of other animals, plants, and inanimate things.
There is a third option for what individuates human beings, one for which
St. Thomas himselflays the ground by compelling arguments: the rational
Aquinas says in many places that the human soul is a substance; that
is, it exists, in some on its own.
It is not merely the form ofthe body
the way, for instance, the soul of a pine tree informs its cellulose. It has an
activity of its own in which the body does not share, and therefore it can
exist without the
The activity in question is, of course, knowing. Knowing is always ofthe
universal and the timeless. One knows, for example, that a mountain is not
a valley, or that a goldfish is not apond; and one knows this will be true
whenever and wherever mountains and valleys or goldfisl1 and ponds exist.
Now one could only know the timeless and universal by an operation that
is itselftimeless and universal, and so by reflection we understand that the
intellect's operation is unbounded by space and time. It is immaterial and
nontemporal. But only an immaterial thing can have an immaterial oper-
ation. Therefore, the rational soul is immaterial and thus not limited to a
bodilyexistence. It is a substance in its own right, able to exist on its own.
The soul does not require another substance in which to exist the way an
accident does. Nor is it bound inextricably to matter as a material form (say
the form of a mushroom or a mouse) is; for if it were, it could not have
intellectual knowledge.
To know something is to be that other thing
7 De Pot. V, 10, ad 4.
8 Henry Veatch makes an allusion to this point about angels and human souls
being self-individuating, but passes it off as unimportant for his study, which is
of "such substances as there are in the natural world," for which matter is the
principle of individuation. "Essentialism and the Problem of Individuation,"
Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 46 (1974):
54-73, p. 65.
9 ST I, 75, 2. See also SCG 11, 51, 55, 65; De Pot. 111, 9, 11; De Anima I, 14; De
Spiritualibus Creaturis I, 2.
10 St. Thomas makes a crucial distinction in ST I, 75, 2, ad 1. When he says that
the human soul is subsistent, he means that its being is not being in another as
an accident or as a material form. However, it is not complete in its own specific
nature, for it is not a thing, but the fonn of a thing-the complete human being.
Aquinas is ever careful to redress the balance between these two surprising
concurrent features of the human being: knowing and Knowing
implies an immaterial activity which requires an immaterial agent; but the
human being is not an angel. To be human is to be a profound and mysterious
intentionally, to have its form while retaining one's own form and existence.
Material things can receive another form only bylosing theirs in substantial
change, that is, only by ceasing to be.
It is in retaining our own form and existence while having other forms
intentionally that we are self-conscious. The soul can reflect on itself; we
know that we know.
But a material thing cannot bend back on itself in
such a w a ~ Extended in space with its act always one ofincomplete motion,
it cannot return upon itself completely: one part would be covering another
and therefore not at the same time covering itself. That the soul can and
does do this indicates that it is not material. We are simultaneously
thinking and aware of the full activity of this operation. I am presently
thinking about one ofAquinas's arguments for the subsistence ofthe rational
soul, and at one and the same time am aware that I am doing so. Although
one might want to say that things limited by space and time provide the
ground for my thinking in the sense that they provide the raw materials
from which I abstract universals, nevertheless, the very fact that I amaware
of space and time indicates that I transcend them. We measure space and
time, and the measure is never one of the things measured.
Granted that the human soul is immaterial and subsistent, what follows
for the issue of individuation? Aquinas says whenever speaking of the
angels (who, like the soul, are intellectual substances) that they are individ-
uated by themselves;12 they are, in fact, different species.
They cannot be
members ofa species, different from each other because ofparticular matter,
because they have no matter. But neither does the human soul have any
matter. Immateriality and intellectuality go hand in hand.
It would
appear, then, that every intellectual being, as intellectual, is individuated
by itself. This has been shown to be true for angels and is certainly true for
God;15 and, to the extent that they are intellectual, it is true of human
beings, as weIl. In one place where Aquinas discusses intellectual sub-
stances prior to differentiating between angels and human souls, he says in
general that "they are not able to differ from one another by a material
difference since they lack matter; hence if there is plurality in them, it is
necessary that it be caused by a formal distinction, which constitutes
diversity of species.,,16 Matter may be an indication of our individuality, but
it is not the cause of it.
However, there is some rough ground here, for we are not angels.
Aquinas insists that the rational soul is the form of the body, and therefore
is tied up with particular matter. What is more, if one speaks of human
unity ofthe nlaterial and the immaterial.
11 De Veritate I, 9.
12ST 1,3,3.
13ST I, 50, 4, c; De Ente. VI; SCG 11, 93; De Spirit. Creat., 8; De Anima I, 3.
14"Immunity from matter brings with it intelligible being; immunitas enim
materiae confert esse intelligible." SCG 11, 91, [5], p. 214.
15ST 1,3,3.
souls as individuated by themselves, what is to happen to the commonality
ofhumanity? Is there no human species?
Let me first address the issue of the relation between the rational soul
and the body with which it forms the human composite. Aquinas does say
that the soul is tied intimately to the body, that each human being is
individuated by the relation of soul to body. However, the body is not the
cause ofthe individuation. Rather, the soul is individuated according to the
body; that is, each human soul is unique in that it is a subsisting form which
demands a particular body to inform. "Souls are multiplied in accordance
with the multiplicity ofbodies; nevertheless, the multiplicity ofbodies will
not be the cause of the multiplication of souls.,,17
Let us look at one of Thomas's arguments on this point in more detail.
In the second book of the Summa Contra Gentiles, he makes the general
statement that "whatever must be co-adapted and proportioned to another
simultaneously receives, with that other, multiplicity or unity, each from its
own cause.,,18 Now body and soul must be adapted to one another simulta-
neously because together they make up one human being. If the being of
the form depends on the matter (as in material composites) then its multi-
plicity or unity does too. However, the human soul does not depend on
matter, for it has an act transcending matter and therefore subsists in itself.
Therefore, although souls are multiplied together with matter and in pro-
portion to the matter, their multiplicity and unity do not depend on the
matter. Each soul subsists in such a way as to require some particular
formation offlesh and bones for its perfeetion. The rational soul is in no way
for the sake ofthe body; rather, the body is for the sake ofthe soul, as matter
is for form, or more generally, potency for act.
And this saves the specific community of human persons. The fact that
each human being is, through his or her soul, individuated by itself does not
speIl the destruction of all commonality among human beings. Each human
soul agrees with every other human soul in the fact that it needs a particular
kind ofbody for its very intellectuality to flourish. "Just as it belongs to the
human soul, according to its species, that it be unified with such a body, so
16"Non enim ad invicem possunt differre materiale differentia, cum materia
careant: unde si in eis est pluritas, necesse est eam per distinctionem fonnalem
causari, que diversitatem speciei constituit." Comp. Theol., 77, vol. 42, p. 106.
17" ... multiplicantur quidem animae secundum quod multiplicantur corpora,
non tarnen multiplicatio corporumerit causa multiplicationis animarum." BCG
11, 80-81, [7]; see also BCG 11, 75 & 83, and BT I, 76, 2 ad 1.
18" ... quaecumque oportet esse invicem coaptata et proportionata, simul
recipiunt multitudinem vel unitatern, unumquodque ex sua causa." BCG 11,
80-81, [7].
19This is not to say that the soul is prior in time to the body. There is no doctrine
ofreincarnation or transmigration ofsouls in Aquinas. Eachhuman soul comes
into being with a body: more properly, the human person comes into being-the
composite of soul and body. See BCG 11, 83, espe [11 & 26].
this soul differs from that soul numerically only because it has a relation to
a numerically other body. And thus human souls are individuated . . .
according to bodies, not as if the individuation were caused by the bodies"
(my emphasis).20 The human soul is intellectual potentially, and requires a
body to allow it to come to perfection.
We are not possessed of innate
knowledge but must abstract what we understand from the sensible world.
Through the senses we have direct access to this world. Through abstraction
ofwhat is essential in the things we experience, we come to know. There is
an element of the world acting upon us in our knowing. To receive this
element, we require a body. And so each subsisting human soul, informing
and individuating each person, is signed with the requirement for a partic-
ular body.22
If the soul is a subsisting form, the11 what can be said of other subsisting
forms (the angels) can be said ofit as weIl. And since the soul is the form of
the body, its characteristics characterize the composite. The intellect (as
form) is the principle from which the sensation derives; the intellect (as
form) is also the primary principle ofindividuation in the human composite.
Aquinas is clear in stating that each angel is its own species. Although he
is careful to deny this in the same identical sense to humanbeings (otherwise
the soul would be united to the body only accidentally, and the human being
would not be one substance),23 the implications ofAquinas's thought cannot
be simply ignored. To deny that each person is unique notjust quantitatively
but also, and more importantly, intellectually is to reject obvious evidence.
Thus, one could say that we are individuals by form as weIl as matter. And,
in a real sense, we are individuated by matter because our souls demand it.
The higher (actual) is never for the sake ofthe lower (potential). Therefore,
the soul, which is the act ofthe body, is not for the sake ofthe body, but vice
2"Sicut enim animae humanae secundum suam speciem competit quod tali
corpori secundum speciem uniatur, ita haec anima differt ab aliud numero solo
ex hoc quod ad aliud numero corpus habitudinem habet. Et sic individuantur
animae humanae ... secundum corpora, non quasi individuatione a corporibus
causata." BCG 11, 75, [6].
21Comp. Theol., 80; see also BCG 11, 83, [26].
22Robert O'Donnell, in a helpful article on this subject, comments that "It is
possible to have many individuals within the same human species precisely
because each human soul is by nature the substantial form of an individual
material body." "Individuation: An Example ofthe Development in the Thought
ofSt. ThomasAquinas," New Bcholasticism 33 (1959): 49-67, p. 67.
23"Souls are, according to their substances, the forms ofbodies: otherwise, they
would be united with bodies accidentally; and thus, out ofbody and soul there
would not come something essentially one, but only one by accident; Sunt enim
animae secundum substantias suas formae corporum: alias accidentaliter
corpori unirentur, et sic ex anima et corpore non fieret unum per se, sed unum
per accidens." BCG 11, 80-81, [8]. See also, BT I, 76, 1; 89, 1; BCG 11, 57, [3];
versa. both are for the sake ofthe human being, but within the
essence, body is for the sake of soul.
The conclusions of philosophical explorations provide us with two doc-
trines seemingly incompatible: (1) the human soul is subsistent, and thus
is, in some sense, individual of itself; (2) the soul is the form of the body,
forming together a composite merrLber ofthe human species. The very words
he chooses to introduce his treatise on man in the Summa Theologiae clearly
state this puzzle: "On Man Who Is Composed of aSpiritual and a Corporeal
Substance.,,24 Thomas spends a good deal of time proving that the human
soul is subsistent.
He spends perhaps even more time insisting on the unity
ofthe Properly speaking, it is the person who understands,
not the soul. Thomas says most explicitly: "1 am not my soul.,,27 Two
substances are one: that is truly mysterious. St. Thomas's effort is to try to
show how and why each of these doctrines must be true, and neither nlust
be subsumed under the other.
One might object that it seems absurd for an immortal soul to be
connected to a corruptible body, and opt for one side of the equation or the
other: either we really are our souls, in which case the fact that the body is
corruptible does not matter; or we really are just material composite beings
who, like animals, cease to exist when our bodies cease to function. But
Aquinas will not accept any option, no matter how simple or clever, which
denies obvious natural evidence.
By examining the nature ofthings, one
24"De homine qui ex spirituali et corporali substantia componitur." ST I, 75.
Thomas says again most explicitly: "It is necessary that some substance be the
form ofthe human body; ... necesse est aliquam substantiam formam humani
corporis esse." De Spirit. Creat. I, 2, Questiones Disputatae (Rome: Marrietti,
1953) 11: 375. All references below are to this two volume edition.
25See above, note 9.
26"It can be said that the soul understands as the eye sees, but it would be more
appropriate to say that the man understands through the soul; Potest igitur dici
quod anima intelligit sicut oculus videt, sed magis proprie dicitur quod homo
intelligat per animarn.: ST I, 75, 2 ad 2. For other texts, see In 111 Sent., 5, 3,
2; De Ente. 11; SCG 11, 57; 59; 69; 76; 83; ST I, 75, 4; 76, 1; In 111 de Anima, Lect.
VII, no. 690; In VII Meta., Lect. 9.
27" ... anima mea non est ego." I ad Corinthias 15, L. 2, In Omnes S. Pauli
Apostoli Epistolas Commentaria (Taurini: Marietti, 1929) 1:392.
28In answer tojust such an objection, Aquinas replies that we must not ask what
God could have done or should have done (How could we reach behind the very
first principle for something prior by which to judge it?); but rather, we must
express what truth we glean from our experience. "But if anyone should say
that God could have avoided this necessity, it must be said that, on the
constitution of natural things, we are not to consider what God can do but what
belongs to the nature of things. Si quis vero dicat quod Deus potuit hanc
necessitatem vitare, dicendum est quod in constitutione rerum naturalium non
consideratur quid Deus facere possit, sed quid naturae rerum conveniat." ST
I, 76, 5 ad 1, vol. 1, p. 458a.
finds, on the one hand, that the use of reason implies that the soul, which
has this activity that transcends space and time, must itselfbe above space
and time, and, on the other, that one experiences knowing as one's own
knowing, intimately associated with this thinking animal, with this body;
Aquinas is ever careful to balance one affirmation with the other, never
allowing our intellectuality or our physicality to completely dominate the
picture. On this issue he follows Aristotle in claiming that the highest
natural form ( t l ~ e human soul) is also separate; that is, the rational soul is
non-material yet in-mattered.
Thomas stresses that it is the individual
human composite who understands, not the soul using the body nor a
participation in universal soul. However, having made this point he goes on
to insist that although the soul is the form ofthe body, it yet has an act that
transcends the body, which establishes it as a subsisting thing. Unlike any
other natural form, the human soul is not completely bound by matter.
While the acts of all other material things involve matter, human beings
have an act which does not-thought. "And so, although the soul according
to its essence is the form of a body, nothing forbids some power of the soul
from not being the act ofthe body.,,30 If some part is not the act ofthe body;
then it is not dependent on the body for its existence. Although it may
require the body for its completion, its act ofthinking is not limited by the
body. The soul does not depend on the body for its existence (first perfection);
but it does require the body for its operation oflearning by abstracting from
sensible things (second perfection). Thus the soul at once exists apart from
the body, and yet is naturally united to the body for its perfection, or more
precisely, for the perfection of the human being.
One finds Aquinas striking this same balance concerning the state ofthe
soul after death. Since the rational soul has an operation that is immaterial,
it likewise must be immaterial. What is immaterial is incorruptible. But
what happens to the other side of the issue, Le., the insistence on the soul
as the form ofthe body and naturally needing the body for its perfection? It
would seemthat the soul sloughs offthe body at death and continues to exist
without it as if it really did not need it in the first place. To handle this
problem, Aquinas says that the soul has one mode of existence in this life,
and another after its separation from the body, but that its nature remains
the same. To be separated from the body is unnatural for the soul, and the
soul then exists in an imperfect state: still it can exist without the b o d ~
29ST 1,76,1 ad 1. The reference to Aristotle is to Physics 11, 2(194b12).
30"Et ideo nihil prohibet aliquam eius virtutem non esse corporis actum,
quamvis anima secundum suam essentiam sit corporis forma." ST I, 76, 1 ad
4, vol. 1, p. 450a.
31SCG 11, 68, [12]. Concerning first and second perfections, see ST I, 6, 3 and
De ver. 112.
"Therefore, it is clear that it is on account ofit being better for the soul that
it be united to the body ... ; nevertheless, it is able to exist separated.,,32
Still, it does seem odd for a thing that is everlasting like the soul to be
tied up with something like the body which must decay. Since the soul is
everlasting and the body is not, while in composites form and matter are in
all ways interdependent, it would seem impossible for the soul and body to
make up one thing. Aquinas answers by stressing the character of the
human soul as requiring a body. Even when it will exist in aseparated state,
it will always naturally desire to be reunited with its b o d ~ and in that
separated state remain incomplete. "The human soul remains in its exis-
tence when it has been separated from the body, having an aptitude and
natural inclination to union with the body.,,33
St. Thomas's solution to this enigma of what he calls two substances in
one is to say that the being (esse) ofthe soul as subsistent is the being (esse)
of the composite.
"It is necessary that some substance be the form of the
human body.,,35 A substance exists on its own. And a composite exists
through its form, which in the case ofthe human being is also a substance.
Thus, although the doctrine might seem to suggest two substances in one,
there is only one act ofbeing, specifying one substance. "The soul commu-
nicates that existence in which itself subsists to corporeal matter; and from
this the intellectual soul makes one thing, so that existence, which is ofthe
whole composite, is also ofthe soul itself ... and on account ofthis the human
soul remains in its existence when the body has been destroyed.,,36 The soul
shares its act of being with the body because it is the kind of intellectual
substance which requires a body for its perfection.
This is, indeed, a way of expressing a solution which takes into account
both evidences, but it hardly completely dispels the tension; nor, I think, is
it meant to. What Aquinas is doing is simply affirming that both evidences
are significant, neither to be ignored. He does this by saying that subsisting
32"Sic ergo patet quod propter melius animae est ut corpori uniatur, et intelligat
per conversionem ad phantasmata; et tamen esse potest separata." ST I, 89, 1,
vol. 1, p. 551a.
33" ... anima humana manet in suo esse cum fuerit a corpore separata, habens
aptitudinem et inclinationem naturalem ad corporis unionem." ST I, 76, 1, ad
6, vol. 1, p. 450b. Whether or not Aquinas has a philosophical doctrine of the
resurrection of the body requires textual analysis which is beyond the scope of
this present paper. While it seems to this writer that he does, the issue is too
large to be treated in passing here.
34ST I, 76, 1 ad 5.
35" ... necesse est quod aliquam substantiam formam humani corporis esse."
De Spirit. Creat. I, 2, vol. 2, p. 375.
36" ... anima illud esse in quod subsistit, communicat materiae corporali, ex qua
et anima intellectiva fit unum; ita illud esse quod est totius compositi, est etiam
ipsius animae ... et propter hoc anima humana remanet in suo esse, destructo
corpore." ST I, 76, 1 ad 5, vol. 1, p. 450ab. See also SCG, 11, 68, [3]; 87, [3].
form and subsisting composite is one being. This is indeed mysterious:
however, it is not whim but the fruit of careful philosophical consideration
of what it is to be human.
In addition to arguments for the rational soul as the primary principle
ofhuman individuation from an examination ofintrinsic principles, we may
also consider the place form has, and the rational soul in particular, in the
extrinsic order of the perfection of the universe. As a matter of fact, the
explanation of what form is and why things have such and such a form
requires an explanation in ternlS of creation, providence, and the perfection
ofthe universe. The species ofplant or animal, which is determined by the
form, has apart to play in the perfection of the universe, if not, as Aristotle
seems to have thought, as permanently instantiated species through time,
then at least as part ofthe process of evolution and the intelligible structure
of the universe. As species are more important to the perfection of the
universe than just individuals of a species, the perfection of the universe
requires individuation within the species and the continued existence ofthe
species through propagation that this guarantees. Thus plants and animals
have forms which become more intelligible when seen in the light of their
part in the order of the universe.
As for human beings, since our forms are immaterial rational souls, they
come into being by a direct act of creation on the part of God, without any
mediating causality, and take their permanent places as parts ofthe struc-
ture of the universe. Each soul is an integral and everlasting part of the
universe, and its existence depends by way offinal causality, on the perfec-
tion ofthe universe, and by way of efficient causality on God's creative act.
The individuality of human beings is thus proclaimed by the divine fiat of
every new human life. To be sure, we are unities of body and soul, the
material and immaterial, the temporal and the eternal. Nevertheless, the
cause of our individuality is not the potential principle of matter, but the
active principle of soul, created and embodied for the perfection of the
In a question from the second book of the Summa Contra Gentiles
where he is discussing the perfection of the universe, Aquinas builds the
following argument. The reason why there exist many individuals of the
same kind among corruptible things is that the species may be preserved.
What cannot be perpetuated by one individual is carried on by propagation.
(But at least in a way this is not true for human beings, for we are, insofar
as we are intellectual, immortal.) Aquinas proceeds to say that it is by the
multiplication of species, that is, the diversity of things, that the universe
37 See De Pot. V, 5; SCG 11, 46; ST I, 47, 1 & 2.
38SCG 11, 93.
is most ennobled, and that it is in the separate substances, more than
anything else, that the perfection of the universe C011sists. Therefore,
Thomas concludes, "it agrees better with the perfection ofthe universe that
they should be a p l u r a l i t ~ diverse according to species, than that they should
be many according to number in the same species.,,39
Now in another place St. Tl10mas speaks about the perfection of the
material universe as consisting in the production of individual human
The purpose ofthe material universe is to provide a place ofnurture
for a body capable of receiving a rational soul. The end of the universe lies
not in the coritinuation ofthe human species, but ultimately in the produc-
tion ofindividual persons, who, to the extent that they are intellectual, are
individuated by themselves, who are, in a way, multiple species. Like the
separate substances, human beings, through their souls, are integral, per-
manent pieces ofthe universe, figuring in its order and perfection.
The place the human being holds within the universe is dramatically
central. Aquinas says that the human being is the matrix between the
material world and the intellectual world. On the one hand, we can think
and therefore are not merely material beings; on the other, we are not, in
the end, angels, for our souls require bodies to be what they are. Only we
of all creatures can, in a way, pull all created reality together; and this
because only we are, in a way, all things. Of all material things, only we can
think; of all intellectual substances, only we are material. "And in this way
it is possible that the perfection of the whole universe may exist in one
thi11g.,,41 This fact, rather than being the great stumbling stone in our
explanation ofwhat it is to be human, is a clear and wonderfullight shining
on the order of all creation.
We are the highest material thing, and the
lowest intellectual thing, and the only thing that is both. "And hence it is
that the intellectual soul is said to be as ifit were the horizon and boundary
of corporeal and incorporeal things inasmuch as it is an incorporeal sub-
stance, yet nevertheless the form of the body.,,43 And this union of the poles
39"Magis igitur competit ad perfectionem universi quod sint plures secundum
speciem diversae, quam quod sint multae secundum numerum in eadem
specie." SCG 11,93, [5], pp. 216-17.
4De Pot. V, 5. See also Comp. Theol., 148, and De Spirit. Creat. I, 2, where
Thomas says that the soul is "the end of all natural forms; finis omnium
formarum naturalium" (vol. 2, p. 376).
41"Et secundum hoc modum possibile est ut in una re totius universi perfectio
existat.: De Thr. 11, 2, Quaestiones Disputatae, vol. 1, p. 27.
42"In this way we can consider the marvelous connection among things; Hoc
autem modo mirabilis rerum connexio considerari potest." SCG 11, 68 [6], p.
43"Et inde est quod anima intellectualis dicitur esse quasi quidam horizon et
confinium corporeorumet incorporeoruminquantumest substantia incorporea,
corporis tarnen forma." Ibid. In another place Thomas adds that the human
soul exists "as if on the horizon of eternity and time; quasi in horizonte . . .
of reality is not an unstable, uncertain, and temporary liaison between
incompatibles. No, Aquinas insists that it is not in spite of but precisely
because the soul transcends the body that its unity with the body is so strong.
The human being is not less one than other composites, due to this myste-
rious two-in-one substantial unity, but more one. "The more the form
conquers the matter, the more a unity is made from it and the matter.,,44
In a passage from his treatise De Substantiis Separatis
Aquinas speaks
of n1aterial things as finite from above and below. They receive the act of
existing in a limited way, and their forms are limited by the matter in which
they are received. By contrast, the angels are limited from above but not
from below. Like material things, they receive existence from God, but
unlike material things, they are not limited to a particular material instan-
tiation. But neither are human beings. Although we exist in a particular
body, we are not limited by that body. We are able to be other things
intentionally. We transcend the limitations ofmatter by knowing, and the
range of our knowing is intrinsically infinite, as it is for an intellectual
beings. As the matrix between the material and the immaterial, we are
individuated in the ways appropriate to both. Like material things, we are
individuated by matter. Like immaterial things, we are individuated by our
intellectuality. And like an created things, we are individuated by our
existence (esse).
So far in this essay, I have stressed an aspect of St. Thomas's philosophy
which I think has not been sufficiently emphasized. The human being is
individuated by the soul as weIl as the body: In fact, the body is not the cause
of individuation; rather it is because the soul is the kind of soul it is that it
requires a body. Apparently, then, the soul is prior to the body as a principle
ofindividuation. Thus our uniqueness as individuals rests in the first place
on our souls. However, this must not be taken to mean that the body is
undignified or in any sense demeaning. The human soul alone is only
potentially intellectual: it is through the body that it comes to know, that it
becomes actual.
From an that we can gather, the human being is in a unique, and one
might say privileged, position within the universe; only human beings are
intellectual and material, existing at the horizon of mind and matter. The
soul without the body is incomplete, existing in an unnatural state. Our
perfeetion, and hence the perfeetion of the material universe, depends on
the unity of the soul and the body. We are all things insofar as potentiany
we can know them, by sense and intellect.
And we are all material things
aeternitatis et temporis," adding that our mode ofaction covers all things, those
which change and those which know. SCG 11, 80-81, [12], p. 193.
44" . quanta forma magis vincit materia, ex ea et materia efficitur magis unum."
SCG 11, 68, [6], p. 167.
45De Sub. Sep., 45.
46In 111 de Anima, Lect. 13, no. 787. For more on Aquinas's notion of man as all
in the additional sense that we are the final cause ofthe physical universe.
Gur bodies are the most complex of all material unities, the end product of
billions of years of evolution which has produced a body that can, in
cooperation with an intellect created directly by God, know that universe
and that very process of evolution-almost a kind of self-justification of
matter, for our unity is such that one might say that we are thinking matter.
The diversity of the material world is focused in the human being through
evolution and rationality. As Aquinas says: "Therefore, in a certain way the
whole ofnature seems to be on account ofman, inasmuch as he is a rational
animal.,,47 The human being is the final cause and, in a way, the perfection
ofthe material world. But the perfection ofthe entire universe is the final
cause for the individual knowing world which each person iso Each human
individual is a permanent integral part of this larger perfection due to his
or her rational soul.
Granted that the human being (in general) is the matrix of all things,
and the individual person an integral and permanent part of the universe,
why should this command our respect? St. Thomas says, following Scrip-
ture, that each person is the image ofGod because ofhis or her intellect.
God creates a world. Each one of us, in a way, recreates the world, for the
human beingis potentially all things. And each one ofus recreates the world
in a unique way. We are n10re than just members of a species: each one of
us is, due to his or her intellectuality, a new creation both in the sense that
each one of us must be created (as to the rational soul) directly by God 49
and, more to the point I ammaking now, in the sense that each ofus, through
knowing, recreates the world. Therefore, to denigrate the individual is to
denigrate, in a way, all things. It is to deny our very life and
Thus, although it might appear that a political ideology which programs and
effaces the individual in the name of the good of all is inculcating an
unselfish attitude, the attitude that is really spawned is one ofindifference
to other individuals and, in this, a kind of indifference to oneself and the
things, see James H. Robb's excellent short work Man as Infinite Spirit
(Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1974). In it he writes: "There is,
therefore, in us, according to St. Thomas a principle ofbeing that is the likeness,
actually and virtually, although not determinately, of all that is or can be known
by us" (p. 11).
47" ... igitur quodam modo propter hominem, inquantem est rationale animal,
tota natura corporalis esse videtur." Comp. Theol., 148, vol. 42, p. 138.
48"Neither is the image of God found in the rational creature itself unless
according to mind; ... nec in ipsa rationali creaturi invenitur Dei imago nisi
secundum mentem.: ST 1,93,6, vol. 1, p. 577b.
49ST I, 90, 2.
good one is trying to foster. Thus, by an apparently paradoxical backlash,
this kind of unselfishness leads to the impossibility of being genuinely
unselfish. Agenuinely unselfish act requires the conscious free choice to put
the self second, based on an awareness ofwhat one authentically values. To
claim to care for the whole while preventing the flourishing of individuals
who are, through their intellectuality, potential instantiations ofthat whole,
is to be in contradiction. It is to be in the absurd position of simultaneously
caring and not caring about the same thing.
Let us clarify this argument by spelling out its implicit premises and how
these lead to its conclusion. As in all arguments concerning value and
obligation, the first premises must be drawn from the realm of practical
reason, for there is no getting value from fact or obligation from theoretical
reasoning. The simple fact that we are individuated by our rational souls
and therefore are permanent features of the universe does not oblige us to
respect each individual. Why should a feature of the universe or the
universe itself, for that matter, be respected? The key element in showing
moral obligation is to show that one involves oneself in practical contradic-
tion if one acts against that obligation, if one values something as good but
then acts in a way that rejects that recognized good. Now there are some
fundamental goods which we all recognize immediately inasmuch as we are
humans, such as life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, and friend-
ship.50 Ifwe recognize these to be basic goods yet act against them, that is,
treat them as not worthwhile, then we have abandoned all reason in our
actions, and these actions become arbitrary and unjustifiable. Thus, we
have an obligation not to act directly against a basic good.
Now life is a basic human good. It makes no sense to promote any course
ofaction that has as its direct end the destruction oflife, for the destruction
oflife is the destruction of all courses of actions and makes all possible ends
unattainable. Insofar as we want to attain human goods, we want to live.
Even the move to denigrate the individual in the name ofthe common good
has the preservation and enrichment of life as its goal. But this vision of
human life is unjustifiably truncated, for human life is not merely biological
or sentient: it is also and preeminently intellectual. This means that
human life has individual significance and is notjust a matter ofthe survival
of the species. Because of our intellectuality, we are potentially all things.
We naturally desire to know and this desire is unrestricted. (Here we find
another basic good, knowledge, entering the picture.) To impose a party line
or group policy which prevents this potential from flourishing is to deny the
good of knowing. This is also to deny the good of specifically human life. To
deny these fundamental goods is to be in practical contradiction, to be
50The central text for Thomas's presentation ofthese fundamental human goods
is ST 1-11, 94, 2. This basic position has been advanced in recent years by
Germaine Grisez and John Finnis. To their works I owe much ofmy thinking
on the subject.
unjustified in our actions. The denial or restriction of the individual's
potential to think and to choose is the denial of what we all fundamentally
value-life and knowledge. Justification for an action which goes against
the first principles of justification is in1possible to come Hence such a
policy of intentionally denying the importance of the individual could never
be unjustified.
From Aquinas we learn that life and knowing are fundamental human
goods, or rather he reminds us of what we already implicitly know. It is
immediately evident as soon as we know what "life" and "knowledge" mean
that we value them as essential elements in our well-being. From Aquinas
we also learn, or again are reminded ofwhat we already know, that human
life is saturated by All that is human is informed by the
rational soul, by knowing. Since knowing is an activity in which the body
does not share, the seat of thought must be immaterial and a substance in
itself. And since the soul is subsistent, it is immortal and an integral part
ofthe order ofthe universe. Every intellectual substance is individuated by
itself, for it has no other essential distinguishing feature. Thus intellectu-
ality and individuality go together. To value intellectuality and the pursuit
ofknowledge which is central to human life is to value the individual. Thus
the respect we pay, or ought to pay, the individual is justified. To an age in
which materialism in its metaphysical and political forms tends to demote
the individual before the whole, the wisdom ofSt. Thomas offers wholesome
Saint Anselm College,
Manchester, New Hampshire