This essay is the first in a series entitled “Created in the Image and Likeness of God”. To see all the articles in the series, click on the tag at the end of the article.
In Aristotelian metaphysics, the objects of material reality have both matter and form. Matter is the material reality of an object, while form is the intelligible reality of the object. For example, a wooden table has both matter and form. The matter of the table is the wood. The wood particles give the table its reality. Without the wood particles, the table would not exist.
The wooden table also has a form. The form of the table is its internal structure, the harmonious relationship between its parts that make it what it is. For the wooden table, its form is its flat surface on top, its legs, its stability and its strength. If it didn’t have any of these immaterial characteristics, it would cease to be a table.
We can make a table from a different material, such as metal, but it would have to satisfy the formal criteria of a table: flat-surface, legs, stability, strength. The fact that a wooden table and a metal table are made out of different materials do not make them different types of objects. They are both tables. Aristotle would say that we have identified a species of object, in this case, tables.
However, if we changed one of the formal characteristics of a wooden table it would cease to be a table. If we say, removed one of the legs, the table would lose its stability, and so would not be able to carry out its function as a table. It would not be a very, happy table.
Some objects in reality only have a form, but not matter. Immaterial concepts like kindness, intelligence, sadness and courage only have a formal principle. They do not need a material subject to exist.
Supernatural beings, like angels, also only have a formal principle. Their nature is such that they do not require matter to exist.
Human beings, like tables, have both a material principle and a formal principle. We are made up of water, minerals and other particles that give us our material existence. However, we also have an intelligible internal structure, without which we would cease to be human beings. This is our soul. A short but comprehensive way of describing human beings is as ‘rational animals’. Our formal principle, what makes us what we are, is all the regular traits of animals: living, moving, sensing, reproducing, feeding, and one additional trait that animals don’t have: thinking and reasoning.
If we completely destroy any of these formal principles, we would cease to be human beings. Just like the table without a leg is no longer a table, the human being that doesn’t move, or doesn’t sense, or doesn’t eat, or most importantly, doesn’t think, ceases to be a human being.
Human beings are unique, in that we can exist for a time, apart from our material principle. Our hope as Christians is that persons who have died exist as immaterial souls until, at the end of time, their souls will be reunited with their bodies. But this is only a temporary state. Human beings were not created to be separated from our bodies.
In the life to come, Christ has promised us that those who believe in Him will resurrect just as he did, with a body, to live forever in happiness with God.
Thus, an important aspect of Christian anthropology is the unity of body and soul. Each man that has ever lived, has had a body. Each human soul that has ever been created by God, has been given a body. Our body, and our souls, are intrinsically connected and related. It is important to remember this if we are to understand Christ’s teachings, and find the narrow road that leads to eternal life.