Reincarnation exerts a real force of seduction on Western mentalities. After a general presentation in the first article, the second article gave the judgments of the Church. The third and fourth articles presented the points of conflict between metempsychosis and Catholic dogma. The subsequent articles examine the question from the point of view of philosophy.
What are the philosophical presuppositions and the difficulties raised by metempsychosis?
The soul is in the body only occasionally, it remains foreign to it. This supposes a special conception of the soul and its relationship with the body.
In addition, metempsychosis, which admits reincarnation in beings other than humans, seems to grant the souls of plants and animals the same prerogatives as the human soul.
Some proponents of this thesis still claim to remember their past lives. Here is the problem of memory. Shouldn't a change of body erase all memory of the past?
We must therefore 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 is the soul itself.
Fitness does not mean good health: being “in shape.” It does not just concern the outward form, the silhouette. It is an intimate and necessary component of natural reality, difficult to grasp, but upon which all the physical reality that surrounds us depends.
Let us watch a cherry grow. Very tiny at flowering, it grows little by little to reach its adult size. With its dimensions its color also changes. From green it turns yellow, then red. If it is picked when ripe, it undergoes displacement.
Thus, one and the same thing, such as cherry, experiences a series of variations. It is successively affected by several qualities. But these various characters - size, color, location - are not the cherry itself: it is a particular way of being that occurs to the already existing fruit to determine it. They are called “accidents” (de accidere, to arise), accidental forms.
Likewise, fabric is a “thing,” regardless of its color. The whiteness of wool is not the wool. But the color gives it a way of being defined, the fact of being white.
Likewise if we watch a child handling modeling clay, the material he transforms certainly has a face, but it is always able to receive another at the whim of the child.
In these three examples, observation reveals two correlating elements. A subject which exists by itself, has its own qualities, but which is distinct from them and remains suitable for other qualities. This is the “material” element.
Matter, in this sense, is understood as a receiving subject, as capable of undergoing a change. The material element is the “thing” that receives accidents. The determining element that gives them this or that way of being is the “formal” element, the accidental form.
Let us take now take a look at the inner constitution of things. Every natural being is composed of an indeterminate material principle and of a formal principle which gives the combination its very nature. Two phenomena of everyday life serve as an illustration: 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 all of that of which it was made did not disappear: an element fell into the ashes. Part of the wood lost its wood-being to become ash.
This element plays the material role seen above: philosophers call it raw material. It is a component of all natural reality. The raw material is absolutely indeterminate. It must receive another principle in order to exist and be the matter of some other 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. Food is destroyed by digestion, it loses its own nature while being assimilated into the living body. Matter is, again, clothed in a new substantial form, that of the living body.
The proper functions of the substantial form are three in number.
It is a completely indeterminate component of things, capable of being the matter of all reality. The first function of substantial form is therefore to give nature to matter.
The form is the principle of the unity of the thing. It unites what, of itself, is diverse. This means that in the living it is the form that governs the organization and growth of the body. It directs the transformation of matter to make it a coherent and organized whole.
Finally, the substantial form gives everything to exist. It finds its completion in it. It is said in philosophical language that form is the act of matter.
These considerations are decisive in answering the thesis of reincarnation.
In living beings, the substantial form is their 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.
* The shape gives the material its nature
If such and such an animal is a cat, it owes it to its feline soul. Such a man must be a man to his human soul. A soul cannot therefore be conceived without a relation 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 has been that of a pig, he is, in the strongest sense of the word, in his very nature, a pig.
* The form is the principle of unity of the thing
A soul of a given species will develop a body which corresponds exactly to its nature, which will allow it to perform the acts which are proper to it. This applies not only at the level of species (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.
One objection, at the heart of many followers of metempsychosis, is the view of the presence of the soul in the body as a punishment, a slavery from which one should be freed as much as possible. The answer is that the body is the organ, the instrument of the soul. It is no humiliation for an agent to use a tool. On the contrary, the ability to use an instrument is a sign of dignity for him.
Thus, the fact that the soul is the form of the body assures the soul-body combination a substantial, unique unity, while conserving in the human soul its dignity as a spiritual substance surviving the destruction of the body.
This function of the soul prohibits the two opposite excesses: the excess of reincarnation which denies any solidarity between soul and body, and the error of those who reduce the soul to the sole organization of matter and therefore deny the human soul the rank of indestructible spiritual substance.
Fr. Jean-Dominique, OP
To be continued...