The life-and-death controversy over termination of pregnancies, as I intimated last time, continually leads me back to the metaphysical disputations rooted in our ancient philosophers. In broad strokes, the controversy is fueled by two different understandings of the reality of life itself. One comes out of the Platonic tradition as it has evolved in the Christian West over the centuries. In the Platonic vision our own world is a dim or distorted manifestation of eternal “ideas” (eidon)—the pure forms of things outside of but informing the transient world we inhabit. In the ancient Hellenic world, this relation of seen and unseen worlds underlay the so-called Gnostic myth of the way an eternal soul entered into flesh, dwelled on earth, and then returned to its pure immortal state among other eternal souls. I see this myth every week in the obituaries of my small-town newspaper. This is the mythic template for the original creeds of the Christian church, in which the eternal “word,” or Christ, became flesh (was incarnated), lived among us, was crucified, died, and ascended back into heaven to reign eternally with God the Father. It is a myth we celebrate every Christmas and Easter. It is deeply woven into the taken-for-granted metaphysics of many Christians.
This is the metaphysical and mythical worldview behind claims that “life” begins at conception, when, in this modern version, the eternal life enters into our world. In earlier centuries, as with St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul’s entry was delayed for thirty to six days (depending on your sex). In English common law, it entered upon “quickening.” What is enduring here is the notion that there is a “soul” or “life” that somehow takes form in this world in the fleshy materials of the womb. It is of the eternal, the absolute, the divine. It is the manifestation of the ultimate form of being. Here is the source of the sense that it lays absolute and timeless claims upon us.
In the classical world, it was Aristotle who formulated a quite different perspective on reality, one that sees it as a process of unceasing growth and development. Rather than being focused on the relation of the eternal and the transient, he directed our attention to the biological reality of constant change and self-organizing development. While this was often conjoined to a notion of the “telos,” the full realization of its inherent organizing principle, our attention in this view was constantly directed to the forms and processes of growth. This perspective, this metaphysic, underlay the subsequent development of Western science, finding in Aquinas (13th c.) its fundamental religious expression. Later, I would claim, it appears in an evolutionary form in the work of the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The life we know is not the manifestation of some pre-existent eternal “idea” or “soul” but a growth toward an ever-greater, more complex form of reality and consciousness— what Chardin called the Omega point.
It is this Aristotelian metaphysic, whether acknowledged or not, that underlies the conception of human pregnancy as the complexification of matter into increasingly conscious forms of life, with heightened value and claims on the lives of others as it gains increasing self-consciousness and autonomy. The emerging human being deserves our care from its very inception, but this is different from the absolute rights doctrine that sees it as the immediate manifestation of an eternal soul.
These are not easy ideas or distinctions to grasp immediately. I hope I have been able to dissipate at least some of the fog that may be besetting you as you make your way on this. In a sense, both are religious and metaphysical views that are informing our policy arguments. That the Platonic view has so deeply permeated Christian theology does not mean that the Aristotelian is any less “religious.” Indeed, the Thomistic tradition, even if ironically, attests to the enduring religious power of an Aristotelian metaphysic. It finds even more pronounced expression in the various evolutionary worldviews and myths of our own time.
In a sense, we need both emphases in our ethical debate, but only as emphases, rather than absolutes. Only then can we begin, it seems to me, to defang the poisonous rancor that now puts so many women’s lives in jeopardy, even if our previous legal regime led some to a callous disregard to the mystery of engendering and caring for the precious life we are and create.
Thank you so much for this post. I have been so distressed by the direction of our country, and our Supreme Court, and I deeply appreciate the clarity of this piece that helps me put this issue into perspective.
Your ethics classes at Andover Newton were my favorite classes!