Our bodies seem to limit us. Even the most beautiful and healthiest among us will eventually succumb to disease, decay, and, finally, death.
As Christians, we are taught that the corruption of the body is a consequence of original sin, the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. We also believe that after the resurrection, our bodies will be restored to their pristine, pre-fall condition, free of corruption and graced with immortality. For the early Church Fathers, this belief in the resurrection of the body was premised on the conviction that the body itself is a good thing.
But why? Why were we given bodies in the first place? Why do we not become like angels in the next life, freed from the trappings of the body once and for all?
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the body was an encumbrance on the soul—a “tomb” as Plato famously described it. They believed in an afterlife, but not in the resurrection of the body. Instead, a deceased person became a “shade”—a sort of shadowy reflection of what one had been when fully embodied in this life.
The negative attitude towards the body is given vivid expression in the Roman epic the Aeneid, in which the titular hero of the poem, Aeneas, is granted an extraordinary tour of the underworld, where the shade of his deceased father Anchises reflects on the relationship between souls and bodies:
is in these seeds, their source is heavenly;
but they are dulled by harmful bodies, blunted
by their own earthly limbs, their mortal members.
Because of these, they fear and long, and sorrow
and joy, they do not see the light of heaven;
they are dungeoned in their darkness and blind prison.
When the Church Fathers argued for the resurrection of the body, they first had to convince their Roman audience that the body was a thing worth resurrecting in the first place. For Church Fathers like St. Augustine, the argument begins with the Christian belief that it was original sin that corrupted the body, making it a burden to the soul. Moreover, Augustine says that this sin originated with the soul, not the flesh. Responding to the above lives from the Aeneid, Augustine writes,
For the corruption of the body, which weighs down the soul, is not the cause but the punishment of the first sin; and it was not the corruptible flesh that made the soul sinful, but the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible.
Yet this still does not address the even more fundamental question of why we were given bodies in the first place. In other words, does the soul really need a body?
Tertullian, writing roughly two centuries before Augustine, says that it does. In a treatise defending the resurrection of the body, Tertullian writes that the body can’t function very well without the soul. “Is it not by its means that the soul is supported by the entire apparatus of the senses—the sight, the hearing, the taste, the smell, the touch?” Tertullian writes. In fact, the body actually empowers the soul—or, as Tertullian puts it, the soul receives a “sprinkling of the divine power” through the body.
The arts come through the flesh; through the flesh also effect is given to the mind’s pursuits and powers; all work, too, and business and offices of life, are accomplished by the flesh; and so utterly are the living acts of the soul the work of the flesh, that for the soul to cease to do living acts, would be nothing else than sundering itself from the flesh.
In other words, were we to be disembodied souls, we wouldn’t be able to achieve much, according to Tertullian. It is through the body that the human soul achieves its greatness—whether it be the painting of the Mona Lisa, the sculpting of the David statue, or building an architectural wonder, like the Golden Gate Bridge. For Tertullian, the body is necessary in an even more fundamental sense. Far from being a prison, the body is a precious vessel that enables the soul to express itself:
Consider carefully, too, whether the thoughts are not administered by the flesh, since it is through the flesh that they are distinguished and known externally. Let the soul only meditate some design, the face gives the indication—the face being the mirror of all our intentions.
In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas made a similar argument for the necessity of the body. But, instead of explaining why the soul wouldn’t be able to achieve much without a body in a world that is so physical, Aquinas argues that the soul’s ability to understand would be impaired, if not impossible, without a body. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas writes,
The fact however that the very act of understanding in the human soul needs certain powers that work through bodily organs, namely, phantasy and sense, is a clear proof that the said soul is naturally united to the body to make up the human species.
Implicitly then, to be without a body is an “unnatural state” for the soul, as one scholar puts it. While the soul may be able to exist in this bodiless state, there is not only little it can do, but also there is little it can know, according to Tertullian and Aquinas. Ultimately, there are two ways for the soul to have knowledge: either through embodiment, through which it can explore the world around it, or through a supernatural infusion of knowledge (according to the above cited scholar).
That God has chosen to implant souls in bodies (the first option) says something very fundamental about human nature—and how it is different than other created beings that exist as pure spirit (the angels and demons). Both beings have free will, but free will works differently for the angels then it does for humans. According to Aquinas, once an angel makes a choice, his “will adheres fixedly and immovably” to it. Not so for humans—we are flexible in making our choice: just as soon as we have made a choice for one thing, we can just as easily change our minds and choose its opposite, according to Aquinas.
The flexible will of mankind corresponds to how we come to know things. According to Aquinas, unlike angels, who “have their last perfection at once” we attain perfection in knowledge through “change and movement”:
[T]he lower, namely, the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all. Such is the condition of the angels, because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them.
Aquinas’ discussion about how we come to know things—a sort of process of trial and error—underscores why we need a body. As Aquinas wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles, the soul needs the body for sensation and it is through the senses that soul has understanding.
Clearly, a sensory body comes hand in hand with a soul that has a will that is both free and flexible. Sensation is, as Aquinas notes, an intense and diverse process. Consider a common analogy about disobedient children: a young child is determined to put his hand on a hot stove—perhaps out of defiance of parental authority, or to get to some forbidden food—only to quickly pull away after being burned. That child, who had freely chosen to touch the stove, then becomes just as resolved not to touch it any more. The child, once thinking the radiant heat of the stove to be an invitation to touch it, now understands the heat to be something else entirely.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to allow a rational being to fully exercise his free will than giving him a body. Indeed, far from being a dungeon for the soul, the body is fertile soil in which these fiery seeds from heaven can grow, be nourished, and ultimately blossom.
image: Raising of Lazarus by Luca Giordano / Wikimedia Commons