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AQUINAS ON REINCARNATION MARIE I. GEORGE St. John's University Jamaica, New York I. INTRODUCTION AQUINAS EXPLICITLY addresses the question of whether reincarnation is possible on numerous occasions .1 Not surprisingly, his most extensive and subtle treatment of the subject is found in a work addressed to nonChristians , the Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas took it to be his duty as Christian philosopher to address errors which were apt to have a detrimental effect on the faith of Christian believers.2 In this spirit I have undertaken the task of presenting Aquinas's philosophical arguments against reincarnation. For nowadays belief in reincarnation is becoming increasingly widespread, even among Christians, in spite of the fact that it is incompatible with belief in the resurrection of the body. My treatment of the matter will necessarily be summary, both because of the large number of arguments which Aquinas proffers, and because a full understanding of Aquinas's arguments presupposes an understanding of his teachings on natural philosophy, and especially on the soul. 1 A partial listing of the works in which Aquinas discusses reincarnation is as follows: In Super Evangelium S. Matthaei, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P. (Turin: Marietti, 1951), n. 925, Aquinas refers to transmigrationem animae. Reference is made to the Pythagorean fables on the subject in In Aristotelis Librum De Anima Commentarium (Turin: Marietti, 1959), n. 131 (hereafter cited as De Anima). Extended discussions of reincarnation are found in Summa Contra Gentiles (hereafter cited as ScG), II, c. 83, ed. C. Pera, O.P., et al. (Turin: Marietti, 1961), and in Scriptum super Sententiis (hereafter cited as Sent.), IV, d. 44, q. l, a. 1 (Paris: Lethielleux, 1956). The Index Thomisticus indicates that the word "metempsychoseos" is used twice in the Catena Aurea (Matt.), but does not appear in any of Aquinas's own writings. 2 Cf. De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas. 33 34 MARIE I. GEORGE What is reincarnation? The problem in attempting to understand and to form a proper judgment about the idea of reincarnation stems from the fact that this word designates a cluster of disparate beliefs and doctrines, some popular, some philosophical , others religious. If reincarnation has always figured prominently in the religious and cultural fabric of Eastern thought, it has been less present in the West. In spite of some precedents in the past, it is only really quite recently that this idea has been gaining ground here, although in forms quite different from those of the East. The question, then, is a vast one. For this reason , among others, we intend to limit our consideration to those versions for which Western philosophers have offered a defense. Their claim is that upon death the spirits of at least certain people enter into other human bodies (generally those of newly conceived infants), or even into the bodies of lower life forms. Moreover, it is usually maintained that the kind of being one's spirit will enter after death depends upon how one has lived one's previous life. One might thus return as a queen, or as a poor and miserable person, or even as a slug, in correspondence to the goodness or evilness of one's former life. Aquinas's arguments against reincarnation are of two sorts. Sometimes he argues against what he calls the roots of a given version of the theory:' What he means by roots are positions the acceptance of which render reincarnation necessary or plausible. In showing that the roots are unsound, Aquinas refutes a given account of reincarnation, but does not refute the basic doctrine as such, for there may be some other account that would justify the belief. The other sort of argument which Aquinas gives positively establishes that reincarnation is impossible. We intend to consider here both sorts of argument.4 'Cf. IV Sent., d. 44, q. I, a. 1, sol. 1. 4 Note that Aquinas does not address the religious versions of the theory with the exception of Plato's theory which can be considered religious to the extent that it is derived from the Pythagorean mysteries. Aquinas interests himself in those theories known to him that both offer a rational account and have some plausibility. AQUINAS ON...


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