Body and soul

Rene Descartes, the Jesuit alumnus and 17th century philosopher, was an influential dualist. For him, the mind was a certainty while the body played second fiddle.


By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point

Our Jesuit educational tradition began with the emergence of schools in the humanistic tradition of the European Renaissance. The curriculum of those schools was the studia humanitatis, the study of what it is to be human.

This was in contradistinction to the medieval scholastic universities of the day whose particular focus was the education of the mind. A honing of the intellect, largely for the professions.

But the humanists were interested in the formation of the whole person – head, heart and hands. Exploring the best of literature, appraising humanity in human history, the persuasive communication of ideas, the cultivation of virtue, then music and art. The whole person – the transcendent elements along with the grounded realities. All important.

This week, the Bellarmine Academy gathered for a seminar on the philosophy of the body, Embodied Tradition. It was led by Fr David Braithwaite SJ (co-founder of the Bellarmine Academy in 2009, and founder of The Cardoner Project).

Fr David took us back to the Greek origins of dualism, that hierarchical separation of matter and spirit (body and soul). Plato had envisioned the soul being imprisoned in the body, and the body contaminating this soul. In this dualism, the two are contrasted and not seen as mutually beneficial to one another. The soul was the essential part of the human – what makes me ‘me’. The body? It was incidental.

Interestingly, in the mind of the Jewish sages and scriptures, the body and soul were seen in a partnership of equal responsibility. In harmony. Not at all at odds. Alas, the early Church adopted the Socratic model. The flesh was to be subdued. It led the soul astray. A number of heresies emerged from extreme positions of this view. Puritanism is a more recent emergence of such a distortion.

Among more recent philosophers, Jesuit old boy René Descartes, was an influential dualist. For him, only the mind was a certainty. The body was a doubtful reality, playing second fiddle.

Fr David traced recent philosophical movements in this mindset in phenomenology. The so-called “excarnation” or dis-embodiment of the person. Movements into the head only. The Covid lockdowns were possible accelerants of this dis-embodiment – isolation and Zoom meetings. Virtual reality also feeds it. He contrasted this with the notion of the body as being “our anchorage in the world”. We explored whether bodily habits (like kicking a goal in football or driving a car) curtail freedom. And is the body a third person object (that a surgeon might, say, operate on objectively) or a first person, a living body which is “constitutive of the possibility of experience”? Academy members were very engaged.

The next day saw me testing any possible dualistic world view. In the morning, John de Vega (SAC 2003) visited his alma mater. John is the Natural Bodybuilder Mr Australia 2022. He shared his insights, routines and values with Year 12 students Tom Carnevale and Joel Manconi. John spoke of a certain reverence of the body, treating it respectfully and well. Sadly, he spoke of others whom he knew who pursued their dream with performance enhancing drugs and supplements, only to die young and, ironically, destroy the object of their attention. A tragic dualism.

Photo by dilara irem from Pexels.

That afternoon I delighted in a cello performance by Marcus Tyler (Year 9) as part of at the Rising Stars Program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. There we witnessed head, heart and hands in full flight. The instrument almost an extension of the body. Fingers, bow, and strings communicating with the audience. The habit of practice shaping a freedom of expression to enchant. Not dualism – a harmony in every sense.

It made me call to mind how sensate is our Catholic tradition in its gatherings and liturgies. We are not pure souls stretching Godward. We are human persons in every dimension. The whole body prays, finds God. Just think …. We enter a church or chapel and sprinkle ourselves with holy water. We cleanse newcomers’ bodies with baptismal water. We anoint by rubbing oils into those receiving sacraments at sacred moments. We listen to music and bells. We sing. We light candles to see brightness and understand symbol. We burn and smell incense. We genuflect and kneel in reverence. Then we stand up in respect. We trace on our bodies the sign of the cross. Or strike our breast in sorrow. We shake hands, hug or kiss at a sign of peace. We eat and drink consecrated bread and wine. The body is part of our prayer.

Different religious faiths and traditions – indeed, different religious orders – have distinctive spiritualities, or ways of understanding and connecting with God. In the Christian tradition there are, for example, the “born agains” whose focus is Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour. There are those with a resurrection spirituality – drawn to a risen Jesus who has destroyed death. There is also the image of Jesus of the second coming who will “separate sheep and goats” and judge. They are all worthy expressions.

I think the most widely adopted spirituality within the Society of Jesus or the Ignatian tradition is an incarnational spirituality. Such a spirituality focuses on that cosmic event in the universe where God becomes one of us. Takes on our flesh. Assumes the lowly human condition. When God is enfleshed. Embodied. We share Jesus’ genes. We may even carry some of Jesus’ atoms! That’s how close God is to us.

No other religion makes such a claim. Many have deities described as coming to earth in disguise. Or they appear in visions. Or in some striking natural phenomena – like God appearing to Moses in a burning bush that was never consumed.

But we have God “in the flesh”. God is no dualist.

The consequence is that Genesis is underscored. When God created man and woman, God declared “this is very good”. So the whole human person is to be reverenced. Creation is thereby made holy as a place of God’s presence and delight.

Looking forward to next week, we anticipate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. That long-held and long-standing belief in the Church that Mary was taken up body and soul to be with God at the end of her life. Not just as an ethereal spirit, a soul, but an earthly body as well. All is sacred. All is of value. The body is esteemed. Esteemed by God, no less.

“This is my body,” affirmed Jesus at that final meal with his friends. In the face of sceptics and heretics we have always resisted any weaker interpretations of this Eucharistic gift as simply ‘symbol’ and ‘sign’. The Eucharist celebrates Jesus having a bodily birth. A bodily death. A bodily resurrection.

Bodies are extensions of ourselves. Our personhood finding fullness in the kingdom – here and hereafter.

This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.

Feature photo by dilara irem from Pexels.

Share This