Peter Leithart and others have noted the post-modern phenomenon of what I shall call the impenetrable ego. In his book on baptism Leithart notes that the idea that the ritual actually affects the person (socially, psychologically, ontologically) seems eerie because we have this idea that “who I am is deep down inside and cannot be touched by anything from the outside” – a sort of Neo-Stoicism.
Since I have occupied my summer with readings of Aquinas I shall not digress. He had to fight with the gnostics as well (those who would radically separate mind and body, ego and flesh). Aquinas does not fall victim to scholarly critiques of the Medieval theology such as that of N.T. Wright; who says that the popular idea that when we die our souls go to heaven never to return was invented by the Medieval church. St. Thomas was waging war against the Albigenses (a.k.a. Cathari/Medieval Manichees). Fergus Kerr says we should read all of Aquinas with this context in mind.
Aquinas’s argument against the idea that “what is real in me is separate from matter” is fairly simple: Because the soul is only part of the person it cannot be spoken of as if it characterizes the whole. Sure, he also says that the soul is the form of the body – giving actuality to the body’s potential to exist. I’m not denying the “superiority” of the soul or the fact that Aquinas did not diverge from the traditional teaching that the soul is separated from the body at death. My point is to note the anti-gnostic strain in Aquinas’s teaching on the soul. He denies that phrases such as “my essence is the real me” or “who I really am is immaterial” can have any legitimacy. In his De Ente et Essentia he confirms this:
For the phrase human being expresses it [essence] as a whole (not cutting out demarcated material but including it implicitly and indistinctly in the way we said a genus includes its differentiating characteristics): so individuals can be called human beings. But the word humanness expresses it as a part (including in its meaning only what belongs to humans as humans and cutting out all demarcation), and so we don’t call an individual human being humanness. This is why the word essence is sometimes asserted of things (Socrates, we say, is an essence of sorts) and sometimes denied (Socrates’ essence, we say, is not Socrates).
“Essence”, says Aquinas, can refer to an individual human being as a whole and also to the part of the individual that is purely immaterial. Therefore, to say that the “essence” in the later sense is the real person is to say that part of the whole human is more human than the whole, which is a contradiction. It is like saying “my arm is the real me” or “my face is more me than the rest of me.” He demonstrates this more clearly in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:
For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. But it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and, as it were, nothing; and that which is against nature and per accidens be infinite, if the soul endures without the body. And so, the Platonists positing immortality, posited reincarnation, although this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, we will be confident only in this life. In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man: my soul is not me; So that even if soul achieves well-being in another life, that doesn’t mean I do or any other human being does. Moreover, since it is by nature that humans desire well-being, including their body’s well-being, a desire of nature gets frustrated.
He confirms here that a soul detached from the body is an incomplete human being. Therefore, neither the soul by itself nor the body is the true source of a person’s identity; rather, the composite body-soul which is the human being. As John Nevin says, “The soul to be complete to develop itself at all as a soul must externalize itself, throw itself out in space; and this externalization is the body.” (Mystical Presence, pp. 161, 162)