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Thought for the Day and the nature of the soul

In today;s Thought for the Day Lucy Winkett, rector of St James's Church in Piccadilly, was talking about the abuse that had taken place at the Winterbourne View centre for adults with learning disabilities. She rightly condemned this as cruel and iniquitous, but I was struck by one phrase she used: she referred to 'each soul inhabiting each body'. This interested me so much that I hardly took in the rest of what she had to say.

Christian listeners would, I imagine, have found nothing surprising in the reference to souls 'inhabiting' bodies. An immortal soul that separates from the body at death is what mainstream Christian doctrine presupposes. But where does it come from?

As Rosalie Osmond points out in Imagining the Soul, the Christian idea of the soul is very similar to that of Plato, who also conceived of the soul as immortal and departing from the body at death. Aristotle's account, in contrast, left little room for immortality or separation from the body. Yet it was Aristotle's philosophy that was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. 'Nothing in Aristotle's account leads to the idea of the survival of a human soul with an individual personality, but this difficulty was largely ignored or glossed over by later Christian commentators.'

So there seems to be a basic contradiction in the way that Christians conceive of human nature. Lucy Winkett's remark doesn't make much sense unless you understand it in a Platonic context, yet Christianity is based on Aristotelian philosophy.


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