What does the Church think of reincarnation? (6)

What are the philosophical presuppositions and difficulties raised by metempsychosis?

The soul is in the body only occasionally, it remains foreign to it. Which presupposes a special conception of the soul and its relationship to the body.

Moreover, metempsychosis, which admits reincarnation in beings other than men, seems to grant the soul of plants and animals the same prerogatives as the human soul.

Some supporters of this thesis claim to still remember their past lives. This poses the problem of memory. Shouldn’t a change of body erase all memories of the past?

It is therefore necessary to successively study the soul in itself, then its relations with the body and, finally, the powers of the soul, in particular memory. The fifth part considered the soul itself.

body shape

Form does not refer to a good state of health: to be “in form”. Nor is it about the outer shape, the silhouette. It is an intimate and necessary component of natural reality, difficult to grasp, but on which all the physical reality that surrounds us depends.

Accidental form

Let’s observe the growth of a cherry. Very small when flowering, it blossoms little by little to reach its adult size. With its dimensions also changes its color. From green it becomes red through yellow. If it is picked when it is ripe, it undergoes displacement.

Thus, one and the same thing, such cherry, knows a series of variations. It is successively affected by several qualities. But these various characteristics – size, color, location – are not the cherry itself: it is a particular way of being that occurs in the already existing fruit to determine it. They are called “accidents” (from accidentoccur), accidental forms.

Likewise, a fabric is a “thing”, regardless of its color. The whiteness of wool is not wool. But the color gives it a way of being determined, the fact of being white.

Similarly, if we watch a child handle modeling clay, the material he is transforming certainly has a figure, but it is always capable of receiving another according to the whim of the child.

In these three examples, observation reveals two correlative elements. A subject which exists by itself, affected by its own qualities but which is distinct from it and remains capable of other qualities. This is the “material” element.

Matter, in this sense, is understood as a receiving subject, as capable of undergoing change. The material element is the “thing” that receives the accidents. The determining element that gives them this or that way of being is the “formal” element, the accidental form.

substantial form

Let us take an interest in the intimate constitution of things. Every natural being is made up of a material principle indeterminate, and a formal principle which gives the compound its very nature. Two phenomena of everyday life make us discover it: destruction and nutrition.

A burnt piece of wood has undergone a radical transformation. It is destroyed in its very being: it no longer exists as wood. But not everything has disappeared from what constituted it: an element has passed into the ashes. Part of the wood has lost its being of wood to become ash.

This element plays the material role seen above: philosophers call it the raw material. It is a component of all natural reality. The raw material is absolutely indeterminate. It must receive another principle to exist and be the matter of such a thing.

The principle which gives the raw material its determination is the substantial form. It does not content itself with giving a quality like the accidental form. It gives the compound its very nature.

The same phenomenon occurs in nutrition. The food is destroyed by digestion, it loses its own nature to be assimilated to the living body. Matter is, here again, clothed in a new substantial form, that of the living.

The eigenfunctions of the substantial form are three in number.

It is a completely indeterminate component of things, capable of being the material of all reality. The substantial form therefore has the primary function of giving nature to matter.

The form is the principle of the unity of the thing. It unites what, in itself, is diverse. Which means that in the living it is the form that presides over the organization and growth of the body. It directs the transformations of matter to make it a coherent and organized whole.

Finally, the substantial form gives to all being to exist. It finds in it its completion. It is said in philosophical language that form is the act of matter.

These considerations are decisive in answering the thesis of reincarnation.

In the living the substantial form is its soul. The soul is the life principle of the body. But life is “movement by itself.” Thus, the soul, principle of life and principle of action of the living, is also the principle of its being, it is its form. This definition provides new answers to reincarnation.

* Form gives matter its nature

If such an animal is a cat, it owes it to its feline soul. Such a man owes being a man to his human soul. A soul cannot therefore be conceived without a relationship to a body. Therefore, a determined soul cannot give another being than its own.

If therefore the transmigration of souls were possible, an individual who would have been, in a previous life, a squirrel or a leek, would forever be a squirrel or a leek. If his soul was that of a pig, he is, in the strong sense of the word, in his own nature, a pig.

* Form is the principle of unity of the thing

A soul of a given species will develop a body that corresponds exactly to its nature, which will allow it to perform the acts that are specific to it. This applies not only at the level of the species (with human soul, human body) but also in each individual. Which absolutely contradicts reincarnation. This would only be possible for a soul in an absolutely identical body.

An objection, at the heart of many followers of metempsychosis, sees the presence of the soul in the body as a punishment, a slavery from which one must free oneself as much as possible. It must be answered that the body is the organ, the instrument of the soul. It is not a humiliation for an agent to use a tool. On the contrary, the ability to use an instrument is for him a sign of dignity.

Thus, the fact that the soul is the form of the body assures the soul-body composite of a substantial, unique unity, while preserving for the human soul its dignity as a spiritual substance surviving the destruction of the body.

This function of the soul forbids the two opposite excesses: the excess of reincarnation which denies all solidarity between the soul and the body, and the error of those who reduce the soul to the mere organization of matter and therefore deny the human soul the rank of indestructible spiritual substance.

Fr. Jean-Dominique, PO

To be continued…

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What does the Church think of reincarnation? (6)

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