Sunday, 12 January 2014

Question 91 – The Production of the First Man’s Body.

Why this Question Matters

Aquinas has treated of the creation of the human soul in Ia.q90. Now it is the turn of the human body. Was the first human body created ex nihilo or was it formed out of pre-existing matter; and did God form this body immediately or through some form of mediation?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: According to (the Vulgate version of) Genesis 2:7, God made man from the “slime of the earth”; in other words, man’s body was formed out of pre-existing matter rather than ex nihilo. One might have thought it more appropriate for the body of man to be created entirely ex nihilo, like his soul, given his central place in creation, but Aquinas argues against this.

He argues that man’s perfection derives from his particular place in the hierarchy of creation; within man is, in a certain sense, a composition of all things in that creation. Man has within himself a rational soul from the genus of immaterial subsistent beings; he is uniquely balanced in his constitution; he is bodily, made out of matter. Humans are a sort of “miniature world” and it is in this that they have their perfection. Therefore it is perfectly fitting that they are formed from the slime of the earth.

A2: We have seen in the previous question that God creates each human soul immediately ex nihilo. In contrast, the first article of this question argued that the human body is created out pre-existent matter. Is it also true that the creation of the body is mediated in some way or is the actual formation of the human body like that of the soul, performed immediately by God? The bulk of the objections to this article focus on the fact that if something can come to be through created causes (that themselves, of course, come to be by God’s primary causality) then there is no need to posit immediate formation by God.

Aquinas answers that the very first human body had to be made immediately by God as the appropriate previous material principles were not present in order to make such a body through created causes. Once the first human body was created it provides the material principle for the formation of further such bodies.

A3: When we look at human beings in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom we note that other animals possess attributes or tools that would come in very handy if we possessed them too. If man is at the pinnacle of the animal kingdom, can we really therefore say that the human body is appropriately constituted for such a position?

The key to the answer is that something is made as best as it can be made with respect to the end intended for it. There really is no point in making the furriest, fluffiest hammer as this really doesn’t help a hammer to be a good hammer. In the case of the human body, its proximate end is to receive a rational soul, and to that end it is appropriately constituted. One might object that this does not answer the question of why we might not have better version of what we already possess: for example, wouldn’t having a better sense of sight be an unqualified advantage? Aquinas replies that we must take into account the balance of the constitution of any animal; in humans this balance is set to achieve what humans are designed to achieve.

The reply to the third objection to this article contains an amusing discussion about why it is appropriate that human beings have an upright stature.

A4: This final article, on the description of the production of man by scripture, takes the unusual form of a set of objections simply followed by answers, without any formal central reply. It’s simply a collection of miscellaneous questions with no great uniting theme. The reply to the second of these objections associates Aquinas with the Trinitarian interpretation of the plurality contained in the phrase “let us make man” of Genesis 1:26. The other objections and their replies are straightforward.

Handy Concepts

  • Whereas all human souls are created ex nihilo by God, the first human body was formed out of pre-existing matter. The very first human bodies were formed immediately by God, but subsequent bodies come to be by material principles.
  • The attributes that human bodies possess are appropriate to the end that human beings are oriented towards.


  • In the second article Aquinas appears to be arguing that the very first human body has to have been created immediately by God as it is the very first exemplar of its kind and could not have been formed out of pre-existing objects by created causes. There is similar to the idea that like must create like and anything entirely new must be newly created by God. At this point one must naturally wonder what Aquinas would have made of the material part of the concept of evolution; of new forms of living being coming to be out of old forms.
  • In the third article, Aquinas’s argument that the balance of our constitution would be put out of kilter by an excessive ability in, for example, the senses, seems to require more justification. Perhaps things like a thick hide or excessive fur might be seen as incompatible with human ends, but this reasoning doesn’t seem to apply to all bodily attributes.

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