I don’t know if anyone today remembers Walter M. Miller Jr.’s post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. It won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1961.
I was introduced to it the year before by my college freshman Latin teacher. I haven’t looked at it for more than half a century.
Recently, though, while searching for something to post on my blog as a “thought for the day,” I came upon a quote from it: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”
Now, one of the things I’ve found about riffing off quotes, as I do in this column, is that a quote that intrigues you will often just stop you dead in your tracks. “Hey,” you say to yourself, “that’s something to write about.” Immediately, though, you realize you don’t know where to start. It is a peculiarly tangible mental state. Your mind is suddenly a vast open space and the quote you’ve come upon is like a bell whose single clang keeps resonating there.
The only thing I find I can do is make note of it, let the clanging subside, and escort the quote to the back of my mind.
But a funny thing tends to happen not long afterward: I come upon something that seems to have bearing on that quote I shelved. That happened with the quote from A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Not long after I posted it, I happened to pick up a copy of the philosopher Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality. I had read it some years back, but can’t say I retained any clear memory of it.
Pieper discusses this business about our being souls inhabiting bodies, and that at death soul and body separate. He quotes theologian Karl Rahner as saying that this way of putting it is “used so naturally that we must regard it as the classical description of death from the theological point of view.”
Pieper (1904-1997) was a Catholic and a Thomist, and he does not think this view is precisely correct. He objects to the view that the soul and body are two separate entities and that the soul is the true man. Were that so, then death would be an illusion, since the real me, my soul, would be unaffected. It would just go off by itself.
Pieper will have none of this. The man dies, he points out. The separation of soul and body is a tearing asunder of a man’s being. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: “The soul united with the body is more like God than the soul separated from the body, because it possesses its nature more perfectly.” We are, in other words, composite beings, made up of body and soul. Without a body we are not ourselves.
This seems reasonable to me. I doubt if any of us can conceive of life as a disembodied spirit. I certainly can’t.
Pieper, of course, believed in Original Sin, but he points out that this is not an exclusively Christian doctrine, citing Aristophanes’ speech on Love in Plato’s Symposium: “You understand nothing about Love, [Aristophanes] says, if you do not consider what has befallen the human race — by which, as it then turns out, he means principally the primordial fall of man, his loss through guilt of his previous wholeness.”
The upshot of this is that death makes sense, not as something natural, but as something condign: a just punishment for a grievous transgression, “the proper existential response” to which is “to think of the badness of death in conjunction with the still greater badness of the previous fault, and freely submit to the punishment.”
I mention all this, not to argue in favor of it, or to object to it, but simply because I think it is so different from what we usually hear on the subject. Oh, ask any practicing Christian if he believes in Original Sin and he will likely answer in the affirmative. But will he have ever seriously thought about the meaning of what he claims to believe? I think that is less likely.
Believers are quick enough to defend their faith when it is criticized, but are often slow to examine the implications of it.
Christians are, in fact, not distinguished by their belief in an immortal soul. What distinguishes Christianity from other faiths (there may be exceptions, but I don’t know what they are) is the belief in the resurrection of the body, on the grounds that the soul is not itself without a body.
The question of whether this is true or not seems secondary to me. The primary question would seem to be, “What exactly can this mean?”