Summer 2011

You Only Die Twice: Augustine, Aquinas, the Council of Vienne, and Death by the Brain Criterion

Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

For Augustine, to be alive is to have a soul, and death involves a process leading to the absence of the soul.4 For Augustine, therefore, not only do human beings have souls, but so do plants and other animals.5 Augustine’s view is not unlike what one finds, for example, in Plato6 or Aristotle7 where different levels of soul are discussed in terms of ascending degrees of complexity in their capacities, e.g., souls capable only of reproduction and nutrition, or of sensation and locomotion as well, or finally, of rational thinking.

St. Augustine taught that when “the brain by which the body is governed fails,” the soul separates from the body: Thus, “when the functions of the brain which are, so to speak, at the service of the soul, cease completely because of some defect or perturbation—since the messengers of the sensations and the agents of movement no longer act—it is as if the soul was no longer present and was not [in the body], and it has gone away.”8

What Augustine seems to have meant is that the person as we know him has died when the functions of the brain that are at the service of the soul cease completely. That is to say, he thought that bodily life may continue even though the soul has departed. The departure of the immortal soul is what the Church then and now understands to be the death of the person even though he or she will be resurrected. Death of the person, of course, does not mean death of the immortal soul, but its separation from the body.


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4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed from:

5. St. Augustine, De libero arbitrio I.8; De quantitate animae 70; De civitate Dei V.10.

6. Plato, Timaeus 89d–92c.

7. De Anima 414b–415a.

8. St. Augustine (De Gen. ad lit., L. VII, chap. 19; PL 34, 365).