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The Person in Medieval Thought

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the most influential of Catholic theologians, developed a largely Aristotelian conception of the person, but he also needed to make some qualifications. While he believed Aristotle's philosophy helped Christians to appreciate Christian teaching on the resurrection of the body, he still believed that Christian doctrine required an immortal soul to which the body would be restored at the general resurrection. Thus, he argued (and not very cogently) that Aristotle was wrong about the mortality of human souls.

Aquinas’ theoretical approach to the nature of the soul was to ask, first, in what kinds of activities do people engage. Then, he identified the kinds of operative powers needed to explain such actions. Finally, he concluded as to the sort of entity needed to account for all of these powers. The activities that he recognized included the biological functions of growth, assimilation of food, and reproduction. A higher set of activities included sensation, emotional responses to perceptions, and locomotion. But the highest faculties of all were the cognitive functions of understanding, judging, and reasoning -- along with the ability to be attracted to the objects of the understanding (will). This latter faculty is what accounts for human moral capacities, as well as for the attraction to God.

We can see that medieval theology drew on the prior Greek speculations. It did not seem possible to attribute human powers to the body, so theories were developed about an additional component of the person to account for them, e.g., the soul. Further, since living persons can perform the human capabilities and corpses cannot, the soul was also taken to be the life principle.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy

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