It might sound like a throwaway question along the lines of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But St. Thomas asked in all earnestness how many souls we have. More precisely, “Whether there are other souls besides the intellectual soul, essentially different from the intellectual soul, in man” (ST I, 76, Art. 3).
St. Thomas in his day knew the temptation was to imagine there were too many souls, not to imagine there was no soul at all. For someone to believe there is no soul at all would mean they simply don’t understand the meaning of the word soul. Surely they don’t pester the tour guide, “I’ve seen the library, and the dorms, and the classrooms, but where is the University?” The soul is not an extra something in the body, it has to do with the body being an organized, purposeful whole.
I think St. Thomas was right that it’s all too tempting to think of man as having too many souls. In everyday life we talk about ourselves in terms of a thinking part and a feeling part and we envision them at odds with one another, as if they had minds of their own. We may feel unhappy or angry without knowing why. Some people will become enraged at other drivers on the highway in a manner that is fully disproportionate to the situation. We eat more than we intended, and we smoke though we know it is bad for us. Even St. Paul described the experience of personal division when he said in Romans 7:23 that he felt as if he were governed by two laws, one within his members and another in his mind. We speak as though we are mere spectators to a battle between our animal soul and our intelligent soul.
Science goads us on. We learn, for example, that a person’s reasoning functions reside in the frontal cortex of the brain, that memories reside in the hippocampus, and that emotions go through the amygdala and involve the endocrine system. Thus we get swept away by the mechanical metaphor and envision each part of us being a cog in what is essentially a mechanical system which governs us through multiple little motors, strangers to one another.
St. Thomas assures us that there is indeed one rational soul that governs the total person, and this soul creates new capacities in us by subsuming the lower animal functions. In the infusion of the intellectual soul, all of the “component” parts, so to speak, are transformed and elevated into a new whole with new properties. We are not animal-men, we are a new creation. I just love that the German language has two words for the verb “to eat.” For animals, the word is fressen, and for humans the word is essen. Human nature raises the animal functions to a higher plane. Dogs don’t put linen on the dinner table and light candles, we do. They don’t engage in modesty or courtship either. God has elevated the animal nature in us.
How can the lower souls be elevated by the intellectual soul? We can envision this if we consider that we can take three sticks, each possessing the property of length, and combine them into a triangle which throws the sticks into a different ground against which new properties emerge, properties such as angle, side, base, height, and area. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts realize their latent potential when configured into a whole. The sticks, strictly speaking, are no more.
Confusion about the unity and integrity of the human person, and the soul, has profound consequences for how we think about ourselves. Take love for example. I would like to explore the concept of love briefly here to show how, just like the soul itself, love has both sensitive and rational aspects. Just as we can be blinded to the potential of a person by reducing him to degenerate animal and nutritive souls, i.e. brain parts or “motors,” so also we deprive ourselves of the joy of real love by having a false picture of ourselves as disjointed and dis-integrated.
The relevant part of the Summa Theologiae is ST, I-II, 26. On love. What St. Thomas says here is easily confirmed by personal experience, but I must note that his is a first rate psychology. It is a more insightful and nuanced theory of emotion than many of the theories taught in psychology textbooks today.
St. Thomas examines the semantic field of the idea of love, beginning with the Latin word amor to denote the core idea of love as a passion, or emotion. Amor is the innate motivating source that draws us out from ourselves toward life. It moves us unconsciously as it were towards an external object, toward a particular good we recognize as particularly fitting for us, toward something that we perceive as being able to complete us. It is the powerful inclination toward an object, whether that object is our favorite song, our spouse, or a very large slice of carrot cake.
The Greek word eros, which Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper provocatively described as “intoxicated god-sent madness” is recognized as an apt synonym for the Latin amor. By the way I learned much of what I know about the philosophy of love from Pieper and I highly recommend his work Faith, Hope and Love to all readers .
This love, amor, is a passion in the literal sense of something not being willed, but rather suffered within us; and more than that, amor is something that enraptures us and draws us forward with great urgency.
But St. Thomas goes on to differentiate two aspects of this love that appear in humans: not only is there a strictly sensitive love (i.e., love as passion) but there is a derivative, or analogous rational love, i.e., a love that is proper to a reasoning person. We are human beings with intellect and will. It makes perfect sense that since we are integrated living organisms whose animal nature is elevated by our intellectual soul, the passion of amor is likewise transformed into a purified love. Two rational species of love are: dilectio (=desire), with connotations emphasizing election and choice; and caritas (=charity), which is an evaluation of the object of our love as having very high intrinsic value.
Because we love rationally by our nature, our love has (or is supposed to have) depth and dimension. This triad of loves, amor, dilectio, and caritas reveals our true and complete nature. Anything less than this full picture of love is not the love of the whole person, it is the love of an animal. Do humans sometimes eat like animals? Yes we do. Do we feel good about it? No we don’t. Should we love and show affection like animals do, i.e. is it acceptable to be indiscriminant, selfish and impulsive? Modern love seems to say not only yes, but a most enthusiastic yes.
How does Christian love elevate the modern love which isn’t really love? Let’s compare the two.
The dimension of desire, dilectio, implies a decision as can be seen by the root election within the word. Pure amor becomes the love of a person for another person. You love your beloved not because you are in love with being in love, but because you chose him or her. You came to know them and you pointed to them and said, you, I choose you, by an act of my will. There is also the idea of exclusivity in the concept that love is choosing. Love is not a decision in the sense of drawing two columns on a legal pad and weighing the pros and cons, as if buying a horse. It is choosing the person with whom we wish to share a destiny in life. It is choosing the person whom we will allow to change us and shape our lives.
Now add the dimension of caritas. This lovely Latin word began in the ancient marketplace where it referred to something of great value. Thus the Roman author Varro used this word in a civil treatise to instruct farmers on what must be done in order that they might sell their produce at a high price, Ut tum vendas cum caritas est. The first Christians seized on this word as an expression for the intelligent, objective, dare I say infinite love one person has for another, and the love God has for us. Deus caritas est. The connotation of caritas applying to a thing of great value implies also that the lover is willing to suffer and undergo great pain and discomfort for the sake of the beloved.
Modern love emphasizes undifferentiated amor, and to the extent that it recognizes the complementary ideas of choice, deliberation, and caritas, it recognizes degenerate notions of these along the lines of weighing the pros and cons when buying a car, or seeing your car as better than other men’s cars. Modern love does not reckon with the intrinsic value of the beloved. Modern love is obsessive, possessive, and self-centered because it is after all the satisfaction of passion.
What happens if we sever amor from caritas? This is also an aspect of modern love. I will note again that the word caritas is most often translated as charity. In recent years, this has not been the case, and I believe the reason is that charity has become a pejorative term due precisely to its being severed from the holistic, Catholic love that gave birth to it. Charity has become a contemptible thing wherein the lover gives to the other out of pity, having been moved to action by the wretchedness of the receiver. It is almost a mechanical act performed out of guilt or obligation.
The saints show us a different kind of caritas. Their Christian love is shot-through with a joy and passion that the world does not understand. There is always amor in caritas. Josef Pieper tells us that the verb amare has roots in the word “same.” We have a natural love and attraction to other people in part because we recognize them as being like us. We sense we come from the same place, and that we are here on earth for a blessed purpose. A mysterious bond connects us. We can love others quite passionately in the act of charity if we see them clearly enough. G.K. Chesterton said we do not understand St. Francis of Assisi if we view him as merely a holy man; we must view him as a man who was passionately in love. This is what I am getting at.
In closing, let me offer a very familiar paragraph from the Bible, one that is read at many wedding Masses. I hope it takes on deeper meaning today, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians exactly what human love is and what it is not:
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NABRE translation).
Human love is intelligent, rational love. We know this because we are not merely animals, we are transformed into something new. It is this kind of transformation that God has in mind for us, and that St. Athanasius had in mind when he said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” We are destined for divinity as adopted sons and daughters of God. Our individual souls are the necessary and sufficient principles that manifest this possibility in us through love.
 Pieper, J. (1997). Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.