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In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas presents many arguments for the immortality of the soul. Here is one of them:

[13] A further argument. It is impossible for natural desire to be in vain, “since nature does nothing in vain.” But every intelligent being naturally desires to be forever; and to be forever not only in its species but also in the individual. This point is made clear as follows. Natural appetite is present in some things as the result of apprehension; the wolf naturally desires the killing of the animals on which it feeds, and man naturally desires happiness. But in some other things natural desires results without apprehension from the sole inclination of natural principles, and this inclination, in some, is called natural appetite; thus, a heavy body desires to be down. Now, in both ways there is in things a natural desire for being; and a sign of this is that not only things devoid of knowledge resist, according to the power of their natural principles, whatever is corruptive of them, but also things possessed of knowledge resist the same according to the mode of their knowledge. Hence, those things lacking knowledge, in whose principles there is a power of keeping themselves in existence forever so that they remain always the same numerically, naturally desire to exist everlastingly even in their numerical self-identity. But things whose principles have not the power to do this, but only the power of perpetuating their existence in the same species, also naturally desire to be perpetuated in this manner. Hence, this same difference must be found also in those things in which there is desire for being, together with knowledge, so that those things which have no knowledge of being except as now desire to be as now, but not to be always, because they do not apprehend everlasting being. Yet they desire the perpetual existence of the species, though without knowledge, because the generative power, which conduces to this effect, is a forerunner and not a subject of knowledge. Hence, those things which know and apprehend perpetual being desire it with natural desire. And this is true of all intelligent substances. Consequently, all intelligent substances, by their natural appetite, desire to be always. That they should cease to be is, therefore, impossible.

The argument as I understand it (with the help of this blog post by Edward Feser) goes roughly as follows:

  1. If something has a natural desire for something, then that desire cannot be in vain, i.e. it must in principle be possible to fulfill that desire.
  2. All things have a natural desire to exist.
  3. Humans have knowledge of eternal truths about existence.
  4. Thus humans have a natural desire to exist forever.
  5. Therefore, humans exist forever.

My question is, what is Aquinas' argument for step 4, i.e. for the notion that humans have a natural desire to exist forever?

His argument for step 4 is given in bold, but I'm not really able to understand what he's saying. First of all he says "Hence, those things lacking knowledge, in whose principles there is a power of keeping themselves in existence forever so that they remain always the same numerically, naturally desire to exist everlastingly even in their numerical self-identity. But things whose principles have not the power to do this, but only the power of perpetuating their existence in the same species, also naturally desire to be perpetuated in this manner." I don't know what "numerical self-identity" and "existence in the same species" are. But in any case, whatever this statement means, he seems to think that it implies that those who have knowledge of eternal existence have a natural desire for eternal existence, and those who only have knowledge of existence in the here and now have only a natural desire for existence in the here and now.

Can someone explain Aquinas' reasoning?

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    "existence in the same species" presumably refers to "animal" (i.e. living things) reproduction that can be interpreted as a natural force (the "generative power") towards eternal perpetuation of the species. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 2 '17 at 17:49
  • Maybe useful : Aquinas: Human Identity and Immortality. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 2 '17 at 18:36
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    The conclusion of the argument seems to be: "The intellect can know truths which hold for all time. But desire follows knowledge. Therefore the intellect naturally desires to exist for all time. But a natural desire cannot be futile. Therefore the intellect cannot pass away." Highly debatable... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 2 '17 at 18:46
  • The part you have highlighted seems to rely on the distinction between things "lacking knowledge" and things having knowledge. These ones are agian divided between those "which have no knowledge of being except as now" that "desire to be as now" and thus "desire the perpetual existence of the species [through the "generative power"], though without knowledge" and the things that have knowledge [i.e. with intellect] "whose desire follows knowledge". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 2 '17 at 18:50
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"in their numerical self-identity"

"existence in the same species"

The original Latin of these two phrases is "secundum idem numero" (lit. "according to the same number," i.e., "to be numerically one" or individual/particular) and "secundum idem specie" (lit. "according to the same species"), respectively. For example, Socrates and Plato are not numerically one (they're distinct individuals), but they are specifically one (they're in the same species, both being humans).


§36 St. Thomas's short summary, De Principiis Naturæ, of Aristotle's Physics might help regarding this distinction (the context is the four causes as they relate to change):

36. Notice, nevertheless, that the end coincides with the form in something which is numerically the same, because that which is the form of the thing generated and that which is the end of generation are the same numerically. But it does not coincide with the efficient cause in a thing numerically the same, but in a thing specifically the same, because it is impossible that the maker and the thing made be numerically the same, but they can be specifically the same. Thus, when man generates man, the man generating and the one generated are numerically diverse, but they are specifically the same. However, matter does not coincide with the others. This is because matter, by the fact that it is being in potency, has the nature of something imperfect; but the other causes, since they are in act, have the nature of something perfect. However, the perfect and the imperfect do not coincide in the same thing.


he seems to think that it implies that those who have knowledge of eternal existence have a natural desire for eternal existence, and those who only have knowledge of existence in the here and now have only a natural desire for existence in the here and now.

How can he think think when the argument that precedes what you made bold leads to the conclusion that even "things lacking knowledge" can have "principles [in which] there is a power of keeping themselves in existence forever so that they remain always the same numerically" and thus "naturally desire to exist everlastingly even in their numerical self-identity"?

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    Not clear the text (and the same order) of the two last paragraphs... The highlighted part is a quote or for emphasis only ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 3 '17 at 9:34

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