Indigenous Religions

Thomas Aquinas’s Body-Soul Dualism And The Hierarchy Of Human Dignity In Brazil – Theological Origins Of A Nation’s Self-Understanding, Part 3 (Vinicius Marinho)

The following is the second of a three-part series.The first can be found here, the second here.

In sum, Boff proposes that a person is an indivisible body-soul unity who exists in dialogical relations and can transcendence social limitations by loving the socially inferior.

Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue also emphasizes the capacity to love. Love is the way through which the Shekinah wishes to reunite.[1] So the double command to love God and neighbor is always personal.[2] Every person is a temple of the Spirit (Paul), so people must love the neighbor as Tabernacles worthy of housing God’s honor.[3] In this way, love gives a “spiritual existence,” which Buber contrasts to a “natural existence.” Natural existence is the human mode of living in the totality of the world.[4] The Thou relation is the precinct of the spiritual existence.

In the Thou, God shows a “total Presence” which transforms its participants.[5] The Thou illuminates the human immediacy to the divine Presence in divine love. But human love is a kind of wisdom by which to live by,[6] an attitude-response which welcomes the full humanity of the other. For this reason, God will judge each of us according to our capacity to love one another.[7]

Love is the grounds of the dialogical capacity only insofar as it liberates. It is the basis of one’s capacity to revolt, resist, and overrule tyrannical or unfair interdicts to neutralize threats against human dignity. That is the reason love is not opposed to power, but its end.[8]

In the Bible, the human person is transcendental because it is relational and perfectly relational in the love which liberates. If “relatedness” defines a person (Gebara), a hierarchical society defines actual persons in unequal relations. If the person can overcome social limitations in relations (Boff), then it is clear that the hierarchical society confuses transcendence with the ascension to positions of superiority. As Paulo Freyre said, “When the education is not for liberation, the oppressed dreams of becoming the oppressor.” And if love is the attitude-response that allows truly dialogical relations (Buber), then love can overcome hierarchy.

The Hierarchical Person in Thomas Aquinas’s Substance Dualism

For Thomas Aquinas, the person exists in hierarchical relations. His incorporation of the Aristotelean “substance dualism” obfuscates the biblical view of personhood. Instead of Christ, Thomas’s model is Aristotle’s rational soul. In Aristotle’s theory of emanations (hylomorphism), every physical being is a compound of form and matter, which have different purposes, operations, and natures. All beings are either a form, a substance, or compound of the two. “Form” is the prior and more important entity which unifies a given matter making of it a single object. A form “generates” and unites to a matter.

Matter is potency and form is an act.[9] Matter is the potency to exist or become; that which is not, as such, a particular thing yet. A particular matter always serves a form or actuality because the form is the principle-being which animates, generates, and organizes the matter. It is the force behind an object’s existence. It includes boththe actual and the potential being in a matter-form “compound” or union. They unite but do not mix.[10]

Thomas accepts this premise in regards to the human person and defines the soul as a “substantial form.” Forms can be intellectual or substantial. The angels are an intellectual form because they are “intellectual” or “rational” beings who lack a material body. The human soul is a “substantial form” because the soul is “rational” but also essential, i.e., “substantial,” for the body’s existence.[11] The soul creates the body and exists in it. In the Aristotelean-Thomist vernacular, the soul is the “primary actuality” of the physical bodily organism.[12] The soul is therefore unique because it has an intellectual nature and a bodily existence. It is rational as the angels but lives in an “irrational” matter, as the beasts do. As a form, the soul never mixes with the body. Instead, they unite.[13]

The body and the soul unite for the soul’s purpose of knowing God.[14] The very character of human existence is cognitive, “to know.” That is the soul’s and the person’s purpose. A soul necessitates and employs a body to know objects. Since the body as such is pure potency or matter, it is completed “in kind and in being” by the soul.[15] And since the soul gives the body its actuality, a body without a soul will disappear. They form an unmixed “composite,” but the soul generates, shapes, and animates the body.

Fundamentally, the soul alone makes the human being a “person.” The body is a tool for the soul to know God.[16] And since matter always unites to and serves a form, the soul commands the body. It is the soul’s intellectual nature that qualifies the body as a human body and the body-soul “composite” as a human person. That the soul is a “substantial form” gives the person its being.[17]

In short, Thomas conceives of a hierarchical person whose body and soul hold different dignities. If the soul elevates human dignity, the body drags it down. The soul’s dignity is superior because its nature and degree of existence are superior too. Thomas believes that God is existence itself, the only self-existing being,[18] the Ipsum Esse Subsistens. In consequence, the more plentifully a being exists, the more it reflects its creator. Humans are the lowest of the rational beings because the intellectual soul unites with a body. But the person is above the animals, who lack a rational soul. The body is the highest kind of matter because of the dignity of the soul.[19]

Thus, the soul’s intellectual and superior nature[20] is the reason why the body-soul forms a human person and why its dignity is a human one. For Thomas, only the intellect (soul) reflects the divine image in the person.[21]

The Immortality of the Soul: One Nature, Two Modes of Existence

\The immortality of the soul is the most defining problem of Thomas’s dualism. Aristotle thought the soul would not survive the death of the body because the soul has no activity apart from it.[22] His premise is that something which does not operate cannot exist for much longer. A theologian, however, could not deny the immortality of the soul. To accommodate Aristotle’s dualism into Christian thought, Thomas had to warrant the conviction that the soul can operate without a body. But without it, the soul would be a form without matter or an “intellectual form,” which is the nature of the angels.

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.80 and 81, Thomas reiterates Aristotle’s premise that the operation which is natural to a thing is the one that is natural to its mode of existence.[23] The soul’s “mode of existence” is cognitive and perceptible in its activity. Thus, the soul’s nature is intellectual because the soul’s operation is “to know.” But it is also “self-evident” that the intellect is not a physical organ. Aristotle assumed that intelligere is an operation of the soul.

Although intelligere is not in a physical organ, it needs the body to perceive objects qua objects of knowledge. The soul knows rationally, by grasping conclusions about knowable objects after it refers them back to self-evident or “universal” principles. It does so with “phantasms,”[24] which are representations of sensible perceptions of objects to the intellect. It knows “phantasms” like the body knows the senses. Bluntly, the soul knows the essence of the objects perceived through abstractions that are extracted from the “phantasms”[25] which the senses produce.

Integrally accepted, the Aristotelean dualism negates Jesus’s promise that the soul is immortal and that the body will resurrect. The soul needs the body to know and to exist.[26] Given that existence equates activity, no substance can exist for too long without performing its natural operation. Perception, cognition, and memory are “located” in the body; the intellect is not. The first disappear after the death of the body; the second does not.

Thomas changes his mind in the Summa Theologiae, 1.89.1.[27] Again, he uses the adage “a being is according to its mode of existence.” How, he thinks the soul can know independently from the body: “nulla substantia destituitur propria operatione. Sed propria operatio animae rationalis est intelligere. Ergo post mortem anima intelligit.”[28] Remember, the soul is a substantial form. That is the reason its operation is intellectual. Being naturally “rational,” the soul must be able to operate without matter. The disembodied soul must know in a way that is similar to the angels. It no longer receives the forms of perceived objects. Rather, the intellect receives them directly “from above.”

The disembodied soul can know more in a more “abstract and universal” way.[29] While this mode of existence is not natural for the soul, it is superior because it more closely attains to the “intelligibles” above it. For Thomas, each being receives its influence from another, which is above itself per modum sui esse. Higher “intelligibles” are superior to cognitive phantasms because the former contain more universal and unified forms. Thomas’s underlying rationale is that God, who bestows all knowledge, is the simplest and most universal being.

Complexity, duality, and multiplicity pertain to the lower and embodied realms. Upon leaving the body, the soul approaches the higher and more universal substances.[30] The more united and universal the object, the higher its knowledge. The angels obtain their knowledge directly from God because they are closer to the most Universal and do not have physical bodies[31] Like the angels, the disembodied soul has fewer but more powerful universals for understanding.

Such a “disembodied” mode of knowing signifies the superiority of its embodied correlate. The more directlythe soul can share in the knowledge of God, the more the soul fulfills its purpose, which is to know God in total abstraction and universality.

Now Thomas faces a higher problem: Can the human soul really know like angels do? Recall that angels are purely intellectual forms whereas the human soul is a substantial form. The human natural mode of understanding must be corporeal, Thomas muses. After all, the body is beneficial to the soul. Otherwise, God would have created a permanently disembodied soul. Matter exists for the sake of form, not contrariwise. Form “generates” and animates matter. Because angels do not have a physical body, the angelic mode of knowing does not really suit the nature of the soul.

And since the human ex natura animae necessitates the sensible perceptions, the soul cannot know exactly as the angels do. The soul’s power to know through “infused species”[32] does not signify that it can know as much universally and abstractly as the angels. Disembodied humans know in a way that is familiar but inferior to the angelical knowledge. The composite body-soul est enin secundum essentiam suam corporis forma.[33] As an inferior kind of intellectual substance, the soul naturally receives forms from the material things, so the disembodied soul will receive the divinely “infused” forms in a lesser universal way when compared to the angels. Again, the criterion of differentiation is the hierarchy between the soul and the body.

Still, Thomas concludes the disembodied and the embodied soul have the same nature because they refer to one and the same person. The rational nature of the soul determines the possibility for it to exist without a body. While humans are a body-soul “composite,” the intellectual capacity alone justifies the soul’s natural and supernatural existences. The soul unites with, departs from, and will return to the body because it is intellectual.

All this implies the disembodied soul has a “supernatural” existence because knowledge through a body is natural for humanity. God placed the human soul in an ambiguous position, between a purely intellectual form (angel) and a matter (body). So the disembodied soul has a praeter naturam mode of existence because it can know abstract and universal intelligibles, even though it does not partake of the angelic nature. Praeter naturam does not mean beyond, external, or contrary to nature.[34]

It means, instead, an exception and a superior status, a special condition which supposedly is closer to God. Supernatural refers to that which functions in a familial but also superior way in relation to a properly natural function. It is exceptionally superior, but only so in function, not in essence. Natural and supernatural are two “formally distinct aspects of one reality.”[35]

The soul’s disembodied mode of existence and praeter status is reversible and temporary. Every soul needs a body and nothing that acts against its own nature can be everlasting, teaches Aristotle.[36] Because the soul is everlasting, as the Bible teaches, the soul must reunite to the body—somehow and sometime. Disembodiment is therefore temporary, though “superior.”

The immortality of the soul is for Thomas a philosophical necessity pressing for a theological conclusion about bodily resurrection. The resurrection is, for him, a logical truth with an evidens ratio in the soul’s nature.[37] He defends the immortality of the soul and the resurrection with a logical deduction. The disembodied soul is immortal but the immortal soul is not necessarily disembodied. For him, Christ’s resurrection has restored the body-soul union because it warrants the resurrection. In turn, the resurrection shows that the soul lives most naturally in a body.[38]

A Common Hierarchical Good

Thomas’s introduction of Aristotle’s dualism leaves a lingering problem. Aristotle and the Bible have different views of nature. While Thomas outlines a rational soul because of Aristotle’s natura, the Bible equates “nature” with “human nature” and defines the human person relationally, in the body-soul union. Both the Jewish and the Christian views have a concern for the human integrity. Paul saw the body and the soul united in an non-oppositional and non-hierarchical dialect.[39] Tertullian saw the body as a unified organism and the soul as an invisible but “concrete body.”[40] Because the Incarnation associates body to immanence and soul to transcendence, the “nature” of the person denotes one bodily-spiritual unity.[41]

Thomas does not sufficiently harmonize Greek dualism and biblical anthropology. Indeed, he coalesces the rationalistic soul with the body-soul union—hence the “composite” terminology. Still, this solution privileges Aristotle. After all, it is the intellectual soul that creates, unites, uses, and leaves the body. Thomas’s fundamental rationale is that all natural beings exist in a hierarchy of ends, so difference necessarily implies hierarchy. Matter is good but naturally inferior to form or soul.

Thomas integrates Aristotle’s natura to the notion of creation ex nihilo through causality. The Classical World did not consider creation ex nihilo. Creation was the perfection or augmentation of something that already exists.[42] Thomas took advantage of that connection.[43] According to McGinn, Aquinas understood that creation was simultaneously a truth of faith and of reason.[44] Nature implies a creator in the creature.[45]

For Thomas, a being’s natureconnects to a creator and indicates a purpose. In its way of living, a being exhibits something that is essential to its creator. That something tells us of the being’s origins and purpose. So, origins and purpose are deduced from a being’s “mode of existence.” Even though both ideas refer to causality, nature as natura and creation ex nihilo are different. Natura presupposes a prior something to be changed and creation out of the blue supposes an absence of being.[46]

Causality connects natura and creatio ex nihilo because it implicates in the human share of the divine reason. Creation ex nihilo and natura converge precisely in the conviction that something essential to a cause remains in its effects. For humanity, that something is reason, Thomas assumes. The divine reason of the creator is present in the rational soul like an effect contains something of its cause.[47]

The soul’s reflection of the divine reason has two implications. First, it is responsible for human perfection. Because they share of the divine reason, they are capable of knowing God. Consequently, body and soul are good, but it is the soul the protagonist in the human journey because its intellectual nature defines the human purpose and activity. The second implication is the natural law, which is “appointed by reason, just like a proposition is a word of reason.”[48] Since it is the “light” of the human intellect, reason tells what is to be done.[49] The law only binds because it is appointed by God’s reason.

The natural law has two fundaments. First is the divine law itself, whence all things derive their proper acts, inclinations, and ends.[50] Acts derive from inclinations, which derive from ends. God establishes all ends. All creatures participate in the divine law insofar as they possess inclinations to act toward their ends.[51] A creature’s action satisfies an inclination, which leads to a purpose. Each being is inclined to the act that is most suitable to its being according to its form.[52] A good action always conforms to the being’s natural end.[53] All humans have an inclination to do good according to practical reason because the rational soul aims at the knowledge of God, the supreme good.[54]

The second fundament of the natural law is reason. Reason adjudicates what is naturally right and good with regard to the human end. The “natural” character of the law is reason because the human soul is rational. Nature signifies something that is spontaneously an imperative, i.e., common, customary, or right. Similarly, it qualifies something which is so traditional, old, and ancestral that it is considered an intrinsic condition of existence.[55] In all cases, reason is the first principle of human action because it directs agents to their natural end.[56] God has made every human soul rational, with the knowledge of the law[57] and the power to know God.[58]

Because the divine law and reason founded the natural law, the common good is inevitably rational. Every good has the nature of an end, and every evil opposes an end,[59] thus all things to which humans have an inclination are naturally apprehended by practical reason as being good. Everything is good, but there is a hierarchy of goods, as there is a hierarchy of ends. The cause of all good is God and the end of all things is to know their original cause.[60] God, who is “reason Itself, is the ultimate good,[61] the goal of every human act, inclination, and knowledge.[62]  

In addition to being rational, the common good is universal because the natural law is universally superior to positive or conventional laws.[63] Aristotle suggested that the natural law does not require any positive juridical-political regime.[64] Thomas confirmed that from it emanate all other laws, maxims, commands, or rules.[65]

Being universal and having the nature of an end, the common good entails a universally valid hierarchy of ends.[66] Reason is superior to all other faculties in the hierarchy of ends because God is the rational Being par excellence. This hierarchy of ends is said to be sufficient for passing rational judgement on the “value” of all persons and communities.

The hierarchy of ends also implies a fixed set of relations based on command and obedience. The most rational persons have the power to rule others, for the common good.[67] In the natural law, the most rational is the most virtuous, thus the most superior. The superior dignity of the most rational resembles their excellence. Accordingly, the most legitimate political regime is the one in which the most rational persons rule everybody.

Unity-in-Hierarchy and Degrees of Human Dignity

The dignity of the human person is one in nature but plural in degrees because of a double hierarchy. The first hierarchy defines and establishes degrees of dignity through Brazil’s self-understanding. It suggests that dignity is the value a person has according to undeserved and unchosen socioeconomic “mode of existence.” The second hierarchy grounds the first and establishes that the dignity of the soul is superior to the dignity of the body. Both emanate from Thomas Aquinas’s substance dualism. The soul’s superior dignity constitutes human dignity because of the soul’s intellectual nature. The body, the soul, and the person are human and have a dignity inasmuch as the soul is superior to the body.

The person exists as a value unit in and because of the two hierarchical relations— individual and collective. The body-soul and natural-supernatural hierarchies define personhood as well as actual persons. A person is the “unification” of the disproportionate weights that someone has in the two hierarchical axes. The actual human person and dignity are calculable. They are the sums of the comparable measurements someone occupies in the natural-supernatural ellipse. Human dignity has one nature but is varied in degree.

Also, Brazil is a unity-in-hierarchy. Hierarchy is the foremost political value. So the national unity demands a hierarchy of dignity.[68] Unity-in-hierarchy begets relations based on command and obedience allegedly for the common good. People exist only in relations of subjugation and domination, which define one’s actual dignity. For one person’s dignity to increase, another must have less dignity or even lack it absolutely.

From these conclusive remarks emerge four implications. First, human dignity is relative and exclusive. It is the sum of comparisons among actual persons living in disproportionally valued “modes of existence.” Many have zero dignity. Second, the problem of human dignity is simultaneously theoretical and empirical. A people’s self-understanding is an a priori condition for the possibility of actual dignity because actual humans co-create their economic, political, and environmental relations. Third, hierarchical relations satisfy a hierarchical common good, one that maintains unequal human statuses.

In a hierarchical culture, the human end is the conquest of positions of superiority and command. The “common good” is achieved through the popular struggle to attain to positions of dominance. The “good” of the common becomes the perfection of the human ranking; the bolder the inequality, the better. Fourth, the “value” of hierarchy corrupts the notion of self-transcendence, presenting the goal of domination as liberation.

An alternative and horizontal concept is urgently needed. Perhaps, Boff and Gebara’s view is a start. Since humans are “more relations than being,” dignity depends more on relations that are based on a love attitude-response. The body makes one present and open to the other. There is no person without a body because existence implies interaction, of which the body is a sine qua non condition. For dignity to truly exist, it must be at once “corporeal and spiritual.”

Vinicius Marinho is a PhD student at the University of Chicago. He specializes in economic and racial inequality, production, liberation theology, and critical legal studies.

[1] The Shekinah is God’s dispersed Presence in creation.

[2] Paul Mendes-Flohr, Love: Accusative and Dative: Reflections on Leviticus 19:18 (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007).

[3] Margalit, The Decent Society, 53;

[4] Compare to the “It” relation. Martin Buber, “Religion as Presence” in Rivka Horwitz, Buber’s Way to “I and Thou” (New York, NY: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988), 69, 73; I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufman (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s), 53, 60, 82.

[5] Buber, I and Thou, 125.

[6] Leonardo Boff, Coríntios (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1999), 14.

[7] Matt 25:31–46.

[8] Ibid., 15–17.

[9] Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, 2.1, 212–16.

[10] Aristotle thinks that is true for physical objects, the human being, and even the polis.

[11] Aquinas, De Anima, II, 1, 221–24

[12] Ibid., 227-9; 233.

[13] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.75, a2; I, q75, a5; I, q76, a1; Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 56.

[14] Ibid., I, 75, a3; I, q47, a2, ad 1.

[15] Aquinas, De Anima, II, 1, 220.

[16] Étienne Gilson, Le Thomisme. Introduction au système de Saint Thomas D’Aquin (Paris, France: J. Vrin, 1922), 140; Aquinas, De Anima, 220.

[17] Aquinas, De Anima, 2.1.225.

[18] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2.3, ad. resp.

[19] “The soul is on the borderline of things corporeal and incorporeal.” Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2.68.

[20] Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences,; 26.1.1; 10.1.5.

[21] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.46.2,

[22] Aristotle, De Anima, 1.1.403, 3–25, 5–16.

[23] Anton C. Pegis, St. Thomas and the Problem of the Soul in The Thirteenth Century (Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978), 168–80.

[24] Aquinas, De Veritate, 19.1.

[25] Cognition and memory use phantasmas too, only in a more sophisticated manner.

[26] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2.81.5; Aristotle, De Anima, 1.4.408, 24–25; 3.5; 430a, 23–24; 24–25.

[27] Pegis, St. Thomas, 168–80.

[28] Aquinas, De Veritate, 19.1.

[29] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2.68, 3–6.

[30] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2.68, 3–6; 81.3–7.

[31] Aquinas, De Veritate, 19.1.

[32] The angelic knowing. Aquinas, De Veritate, 19.1.

[33] Ibid., 56-58; Quaestiones de Anima, 5–20.

[34] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.89.1.

[35] Dupré, Passage to Modernity, 173.

[36] Aristotle, De Caelo, 2.3, 286a; 17-18.

[37] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.79.

[38] Ibid., 4.81.3–4.

[39] Boff, A Ressurreição, 86–89; Dussel, El Humanismo Semita.

[40] Tertullian, de Ieiunio I.I, Corpus Christianorum 2:1262; 9.4;2:793.

[41] Boff, A Ressurreição, 100.

[42] The Classical World considered creation the perfection or augmentation of something.

[43] Aquinas, In Aristotelis Metaphysicorum, 5, 808­–823.

[44] McGinn, Thomas Aquinas’s, 90.

[45] Aquinas, In Aristotelis Metaphysicorum, 5, 824–26.

[46] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.46.2;

[47] Dupré, Passage, 168.

[48] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2 “Treatise on Law,” 91.2; 94.1; 90.1.2.

[49] Aquinas, De decem praeceptis in Collationes, 24, 7–8.

[50] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.91.2; 1.106.1.

[51] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, chap. 2.

[52] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2 “Treatise on Law,” 91.3.

[53] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 7.

[54] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2 “Treatise on Law,” 94.3; Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, chap. 7.

[55] Aristotle, Physics, 193, b13–19; 194, 27–30.

[56] Ibid., 2.9.200, 22.

[57] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2 “Treatise on Law,” 90.4.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.3, 983a, 25; Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, chap. 25.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, chap. 3; 7.

[63] Strauss, Natural Right, 81.

[64] Aristotle, Politics, 1284a 4–15; 1288a 15–29.

[65] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.2 “Treatise on Law,” 90.1.

[66] Strauss, On Natural Law.”

[67] Ibid, 137.

[68] The use of power is only legitimate if it serves the vulnerable. Gl. 5,1. 13; Boff, O Destino, 60.

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