Philosophy 103 - 6.2.2 Judeo-Christian Views of Self

The common view concerning identity in Judeo-Christian as well as other spiritual traditions is that the self is a soul. In Western thought, the origin of this view can be traced to Plato and his theory of forms. This soul as the real self solves the ship of Theseus dilemma, as the soul continuously exists from zygote or infant and is not replaced by basic building materials. The soul provides permanence and even persists into the afterlife.

Much of the Christian perspective on soul and identity rested on Aristotle’s theory of being, as a result of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, a medieval philosopher, followed the Aristotelian composite of form and matter but modified the concept to fit within a Christianized cosmology. Drawing upon portions of Aristotle’s works reintroduced to the West as a result of the Crusades, Aquinas offered an alternative philosophical model to the largely Platonic Christian view that was dominant in his day. From an intellectual historical perspective, the reintroduction of the Aristotelian perspective into Western thought owes much to the thought of Aquinas.

In Being and Essence, Aquinas noted that there was a type of existence that was necessary and uncaused and a type of being that was contingent and was therefore dependent upon the former to be brought into existence. While the concept of a first cause or unmoved mover was present within Aristotle’s works, Aquinas identified the Christian idea of God as the “unmoved mover.” God, as necessary being, was understood as the cause of contingent being. God, as the unmoved mover, as the essence from which other contingent beings derived existence, also determined the nature and purpose driving all contingent beings. In addition, God was conceived of as a being beyond change, as perfection realized. Using Aristotelian terms, we could say that God as Being lacked potentiality and was best thought of as that being that attained complete actuality or perfection—in other words, necessary being.

God, as the ultimate Good and Truth, will typically be understood as assigning purpose to the self. The cosmology involved is typically teleological—in other words, there is a design and order and ultimately an end to the story (the eschaton). Members of this tradition will assert that the Divine is personal and caring and that God has entered the narrative of our history to realize God’s purpose through humanity. With some doctrinal exception, if the self lives the good life (a life according to God’s will), then the possibility of sharing eternity with the Divine is promised.

Think Like a Philosopher

Watch this discussion with Timothy Pawl on the question of eternal life, part of the PBS series Closer to the Truth, “Imagining Eternal Life”.

Is eternal life an appealing prospect? If change is not possible within heaven, then heaven (the final resting place for immortal souls) should be outside of time. What exactly would existence within an eternal now be like? In the video, Pawl claimed that time has to be present within eternity. He argued that there must be movement from potentiality to actuality. How can that happen in an eternity?

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax