Minding the Body

March 12, 2021 Updated: March 12, 2021

Commentary

“My mind thinks I’m still 25. My body thinks my mind is an idiot.” This piece of social media wisdom may not be the most subtle or sophisticated, but it probably is the most recent example of an imagined conversation or debate between body and mind.

In such exchanges, not uncommon in medieval and Renaissance literature, the mind (or spirit or soul—the terms were sometimes used interchangeably) is the superior party, the essence of the person. It might berate the body, which it associated with carnality, lust, and the flesh, for leading the soul into sinful and destructive behavior.

The body might reply that it was merely a pile of inert matter, unable to do anything without being directed and animated by the soul.

Or as in Plato, the body is pictured as a cage in which the soul was entrapped to be released only by death. Or as in some Eastern religions, it might be seen as a coat which one puts on or takes off but which has no life or meaning of its own.

The mainstream Christian (as well as Jewish) tradition rejects this mind–body dualism. It sees the human person as a mind–body composite, an ensouled body or an embodied soul. It gave an important place to the body. It rejected the idea that the soul was good and the body bad. The human body was God’s creation and was good.

God became man and dwelt among us, the orthodoxy proclaimed, and dwells in us still. The body was, as the well-catechized learned, to be treated with dignity and not abused by lust or self-harm.

But the ambivalent attitude persisted. The body was both the prison of the soul and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

As Robert P. George puts it in First Things, the old heresy that we are “non-bodily persons inhabiting non-personal bodies never quite goes away.” Indeed, it has become the new orthodoxy, central to woke ideology and identity politics in all its forms, imposed by schools, courts, and Twitter mobs alike.

Forgetting the Body

In modern times, the split between mind and body has become radical. The body is seen more or less as a machine, though one inhabited for a time by a soul or self.

It might seem odd to say that we neglect the body. After all, do we not idolize youth and physical beauty, seeking by all possible means to slow down our own aging and preserve the bodies we had when we were 25?

But when we think of ourselves, who we are as persons, it is as disembodied beings who have a body in the way we have a car. Both must be maintained properly to obtain proper wear from them.

But we are not our bodies, as we see it, or our cars. We don’t expect our body to have much to say beyond, “Look after me if you want to last and look good.” But it has much more to say.

The Body as Reality Check

The body provides a reality check when we look in the mirror and see we are not as we saw ourselves. Or find we can no longer run or see or lift weights as we once could. Or see a picture of our mother or father as they were 40 years ago, looking much as we did at the same age. But the mind or self has become disconnected from our bodily reality to an extraordinary degree.

Even talking in this way about the body telling us something suggests that the body is not us, but something we own. The real self as we think about it is about will and the capacity to choose. It’s associated fundamentally with mind in that sense, not body.

We see how extreme this divorce of body and mind has become in the confused and incoherent way liberal elites and the law think about major controversies of the day, such as euthanasia and the kinds of physical treatments used in cases of gender dysphoria, validated and enforced through the regnant ideology of transgenderism. These treatments do not seek to help patients be at peace with the bodies they actually have, male or female in every cell, but aim to adjust the body into some semblance of what the mind, for the moment, desires.

What the Body Tells Us

The body tells us that we are finite beings on earth, born as we die in complete dependence, and subject to becoming dependent once more because of illness or impairment at any stage in life. When the capacity to choose defines humanity, then we are all at times—birth, death, disability, a coma, even sleep—less than human.

Some entire classes of humans are reduced to subhuman status, like those with Down syndrome whom some countries decide as a matter of policy to kill while still in the womb.

Euthanasia has expanded rapidly, even for psychological reasons like depression, where suicidal feelings are not treated but acceded to. Or severe dementia, where there’s no possibility or pretense of consent or where consent is assumed on the basis of what the patient said he felt earlier in life when he was not a patient. In one notorious case in the Netherlands, the doctor drugged and killed a patient, asking the family to hold her down while she did so—and was exonerated and praised for it.

Suffering itself, even without consent at the time, becomes grounds for killing. Even children as young as 9 and 11, supposedly with their own and their parents’ consent, have been put to death to relieve their suffering in Belgium and the Netherlands.

When we deny the truth and meaning of the body as central to what it means to be human, we are not taking a higher, more “spiritual” path. We are trying to be as gods while dehumanizing the life we are given.

Paul Adams writes on ethics, marriage and family, and social policy. He is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii. He has also taught at Case Western University and the University of Texas.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.