Date of Award

Spring 1977

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Zedler, Beatrice H.

Second Advisor

Coffey, Patrick J.

Third Advisor

Wade, Francis C.


The age-old question of the meaning of death has a new urgency in our day. This study seeks principles for the construction of a philosophy of death in St. Thomas Aquinas' theory of the natural cognition of the separated soul. Since Aquinas' innovation in the metaphysics of the human person, which unites body and soul in a single existential act, makes him one of the great humanists of our tradition, he might be expected to provide such principles; for anyone who thus values our bodily life must make its termination intelligible. Since Aquinas makes human life fundamentally intellective, his theory of what the separated soul understands, apart from grace and the beatific vision, is fundamental to his view of what death is and whether it is good or evil. That theory underwent important development, from an optimism in which the soul functions perfectly in the mode of a separate substance, to a pessimism in which its natural cognition is considerably diminished. An analysis of the texts in their chronological order shows that this reversal was due to changing views on other fundamental points: the nature of intellection came to be a viewing of singulars in universals rather than universals in singulars; human intellection came to be essentially rather than accidentally dependent on phantasms; the reason for that dependence came to be diminished intellectual power rather than embodiment; and the naturalness of embodiment came to be a strong necessity rather than a mere given fact. After three chapters devoted to the early, middle, and mature doctrines, respectively, a fourth shows the pattern of development to have been the gradual abandonment of a vestigial Platonism dependent on Avicenna's psychology in favor of a Thomistic humanism marked by an increasing assimilation of Aristotle's notion of nature. A fifth chapter considers the mature doctrine as a basis for a possible Thomistic philosophy of death. Its pessimism calls for an explanation of death which is consonant with Aquinas' views on divine providence and the problem of evil, on secondary causality, on the supreme value of the individual human person, and on the soul as the unique substantial form of the body. Aquinas' effort to make death natural as an effect of the intrinsic corruptibility of matter is shown to fail because it is not consonant with these other Thomistic principles. Death is only made fully intelligible when seen in the light of divine revelation as penal, as an effect of original sin. Thus a Thomistic philosophy of death based on the theory of the natural cognition of the separated soul would have to be Christian rather than rationalist. As open to, though not probative of, an explanation of death received from religious belief, such a Christian philosophy of death would be distinct from, but essential to, a fully humanized Christian faith.



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