What is Life? (3.2) Life as Psyche

In the last piece, we established the soul, or psyche, as an organic body’s life. We also conceived of gradients of this principle, and recognised it to consist, in essence, in degrees of immanent causation. Finally, we briefly considered the most fundamental aspect of the soul, “to threptikon,” which name we adopted from Aristotle’s nomenclature as he presented it in his classic treatise, De Anima, or “On the Soul.” We now wish to extend our consideration to higher actualities of life, which is also to say, greater intensities of immanent causation.

Saint Thomas Aquinas provided the most penetrating and comprehensive commentary on the Aristotelian corpus in the thirteenth century. One can hardly hope to approach the philosophical scope and perspicacity of either the Philosopher or the Angelic Doctor. One merely hopes, therefore, that this inquiry does not detract from their contribution to human knowledge. One’s measure of success will be merely to reflect, to extent of one’s limited capacities, the selfsame light which one’s forebears have expressed in surpassing brilliance. In his commentary on De Anima, Aquinas provides a concise summary of our inquiry in the last piece when he writes:

[The Philosopher] distinguishes between living and non-living natural bodies; and the living are those which of themselves take nutriment and grow and decay. Note here that this is said by way of example rather than definition. For, besides growth and decay, living things may exhibit sensation and intellectual knowledge and other vital activities. Immaterial substances, as is proved in the Metaphysics, Book XI, have the life of intellect and volition, though they cannot grow and do not take food. But because, in the sphere of things that are born and die, the threptikon (the principle of nutrition and growth) marks the point where life begins, this soul is here taken as the type of all living things. However, life is essentially that by which anything has power to move itself, taking movement in its wide sense so as to include the ‘movement’ or activity of the intellect. For we call those things inanimate which are moved only from outside.

In the clearest manner, Aquinas defines life as “essentially that by which anything has power to move itself…For we call those things inanimate which are moved only from outside.” In the respect, he corroborates the theory of life as “immanent causation” that we have thus far attempted to set forth. To this point, we have (1) evaluated and subsequently discarded several definitions of life in terms of the physical sciences, and (2) explored the principle of immanent causation in respect to the first order of the soul. This was to consider life as bios. Our investigation revealed this most fundamental degree of immanent causation to be the principle that makes an organism an organism. Next, we intend to explore the principle that could constitute the animality of the animal. This will be to consider life as psyche.

In the last part of this inquiry, we noted that an organism differentiates itself from an inert body in that it causes, maintains, and procreates its own formation, and that the death of an organism is the consequence this immanent formal causation having waned. To proceed in our exploration, we must further note an essential difference between mere organism and animal. In comparison with a cactus, an animal is animate. We can identify this principle as the animus, in Latin, or the psyche, in Greek, or the soul as rendered in plain Saxon. Aristotle conceived of this principle as extending down to plants as well. This he writes that “the soul (psūche)….is the primary act of a physical body capable of life,” and further establishes the following analogy: as sight (i.e. the act of seeing) is to the eye, so the soul is to the body. Despite that the soul is latently active as plant-life—as to threptikon—it is clear that the psyche first comes into its own in the animal; as the animation the animal body. In the present investigation, we will distinguish, therefore, between life as bios, which is at work in both plants and animals, and life as psyche, which works in animals alone. Obviously, “psyche” and “life” share a semantic overlap and thus one could also distinguish between psyche as bios and psyche as psyche, and further, psyche as zoë, which will be the subject of our next study. Such a designation has the advantage of illuminating the emergence of psyche as such in the animal, but it poses the obvious risk of obfuscation. For this reason, we will generally save the term “psyche” for a more specific designation and employ the term “life” in the broader sense to include everything that Aristotle would have called “psyche.”

The distinction between life as bios and life as psyche being established, one may, however, proceed to refine it. One may indeed perceive that some of the most complicated flora nearly initiate a participation in the higher life of the animal. Such a near-involution of psyche transpires in a brief period at the very systole of the blossom stage before the plant reverts to the near mineral (i.e. inanimate) condition as the seed. Orchids, for instance, approach animality to a far greater degree than mosses or ferns. This oscillation between the boundaries of plant-life hints at another essential property of life: rhythm. What in the plant appears only formally—as in the periodic emergence of leaves, or in the generation and corruptions of various organs according to the proper season—in the animal also appears dynamically, as actual movement. In this manner, we have implied the transition from to threptikon to to kinetikon—from the “nourishing” to the “motive” soul. Further, we can identify a shared function between the nourishing soul and the motive soul, in the same way that red and blue together make purple. This joint activity may call “the rhythmic soul” or “the respiratory soul,” in a figurative use of that term. This is a natural connection because psyche (ψυχή) is a derivative of psycho (ψύχω), “to blow.” Calling the shared function of the nourishing and motive faculties “the respiratory soul” has the advantage of revealing, by analogy, various functions whose connection might otherwise escape our notice.

Beginning with respiration proper: as the literal usage of that word indicates, we may immediately recognise a periodicity of function at each level of the animal soul. Thus, we can discover a respiratory rhythm that correlates to the activities of nourishing, motion, emotion, appetite, and sensation. We have treated the first of these already, and have introduced the second. We will take the latter three as our subjects later in this investigation. Suffice it to explain by way of example that respiration increases in intensity after an heavy meal and during childhood and adolescence, and that this increase is evidence of the correlation between respiration and nourishing, or generation and maintenance of form: to threptikon. The inverse of this relationship also holds. One can also observe a relation between the intensity of respiration with increased kinetic activity, and the inverse, and also with the arousal and diminution of appetite or desire. Similarly intensive emotional experiences exert profound effects on the rhythm and intensity of respiration. Indeed, this relation might be the most immediate, since no factor external to the soul is directly effecting this change. In this respect, we can conclude that the emotive soul bears the most direct relation to respiration and that the nourishing, the motive, the desiring, and the sensitive aspects of the soul are related in a secondary manner to respiration proper. We could extend the concept of respiration to include the pulse. The pulse would seem to share in the same correlations as pulmonary respiration. Indeed, a relatively consistent ratio can be observed, in both rate and magnitude, between the rhythms of blood and breath. The heartbeat seems to share a closer affinity to the nourishing soul and respiration to the sensitive and emotive souls soul.

We can further extend our concept of respiration to include sleeping and waking, however, if we conceive, by analogy. that a considerable part of the soul itself is inspired and expired by the corporeal body diurnally in the same manner as a volume of air is respired by the lungs in shorter intervals. In other words, the body breathes the animal soul just as the lungs breath air. The plant soul does not fully participate this diurnal respiration but all of the animal aspects do. This explain why animals awaken but plants do not. Animals asleep approximate plants in full-flower and the converse. Dreams are a result of these diffuse soul-aspects tickling the corporeal body and nervous system. Somnambulism notwithstanding, this reveals why a sleeping animal is inert, unaffected, impartial, and insensate, since the creature has exhaled its motive, emotive, appetitive, and sensitive souls and is therefore temporarily bereft of the corresponding faculties. In other words, the dormant animal is temporarily in that state in which the plants is continually.

We may now explore the contrary condition of waking, in which the animal is inspired by these soul faculties. Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature of fauna from flora is that the former is mobile. As a primary function of the threptikon in plants is to fix carbon by photosynthesis, the threptikon in the animal performs the complementary function. This unfixing of the carbon which the plants first fixed, via metabolism and photosynthesis, respectively, is both the symbol and the chemical foundation for the animal’s locomotion. As a symbol, we can note the contrast between the stationary nature of the plant in comparison to the itinerant nature of the animal. We can further note the fact that the silhouette of a tree is the inverted and reversed image of the alveoli of the mammalian lung, mammals representing the highest intensification of the animal soul faculties. Thus, a symbolic literacy reveals the reciprocal nature of plant and animal life. To understand the unfixing of carbon as the chemical foundation for animal mobility, we can note that this process generates ATP through cellular respiration, which biologists have identified as the chemical bearer of energy. Following Aristotle, we can call the faculty of motion to kinetikon. In animals, to kinetikon is immediately coupled to the other faculties of the animal soul. Thus, an animal’s locomotion is always a response to sensory, emotive, or appetitive stimuli. Human beings, by contrast, bear the potential to attain a condition of autonomy by bringing to kinetikon under the government of the rational soul, to dianoetikon, instead of capitulating to tyranny by sensation, emotion, and desire. In the next part of our inquiry we will be able to explore this relation in further depth. Suffice it to note at this point that an human being is least free when she acts according to her desire. Thus, insofar as autonomy is a virtue, the ethical human being is the one who has mastered his own arbitrary preferences.

As we noted above, the nature of animals is to sustain a mutual-implication between sensation, desire, emotion, and motion. Indeed an ordinary sequence of conditioning would involve a sense-stimulus exciting a desire. The latter would invoke an emotion which would kindle locomotion in the animal which would in turn render it susceptible to novel sensation. Thus a leopard sees a deer which excites the former’s hunger which excites it to give chase. The deer’s perspective would present the complementary image, moving from the sight of a threat, to fear, excitement, to flight. We can take this opportunity to identify these aspects of the animal soul by their Aristotelian nomenclature. The sensitive soul we will call to aisthetikon, the desiring soul to orektikon, and the motive soul to kinetikon. We should conceive of the emotive soul as a synthesis and distribution of the above, since each of these aspects is emotive. Sensation, for instance, is always affective in the animal, and is thus essentially emotive. The same is true in respect to desire. The fulfilment of a desire implies positive affect while anything else invokes negative affect. Motion, too, correlates to emotion in a more than accidental way: the latter often serves as the impetus for the former, as their etymological relation suggests. Thus we have delineated several aspects of the animal soul that serve to differentiate animal life from vegetation.

We may also observe greater intensification of life according to our theory of immanent causation. Whereas the plant worked upon itself to cause its own form as the threptikon, the animal compounds this reflexive influence. Sensation, desire, motion, and emotion are all instances of self-movement, or immanent causation. A bell does not have sensation even if sounded, for instance, because without an aisthetikon, it does not cause itself to sense. Also a fire does not hunger after air because it does not cause itself, by means of an orektikon, to desire it. Neither does a Mozart sonata feel itself nor a rain shower cause itself to fall because they lack emotive and motive souls respectively. We will make no assertion about whether a rain shower might participate an entity which does indeed immanently cause the rain to fall, like Gaia, for example. Suffice it to note that nothing, in principle, precludes this as a possibility, since I may shed a tear which is not itself sad but whose cause was still sadness.

With this, we will conclude this chapter of our investigation, in which we explored life as psyche. In the instantiation of to aisthetikon, to orektikon, to kinetikon, and the emotive soul, we discover an intensification of life, which we also understand to imply an intensification of immanent causation. We can also conceive of an involution, individuation, or inwardising, of powers which lower intensities of life participate in a diffuse manner: animals render as experience what plants participate as environment. We also discovered that the emergence of life as psyche stamped its signature on the animal as respiration, which we can understand as an expression of self-initiated immanent rhythmicity. In the section to follow, we will attempt to conclude our investigation by exploring life as zoë (ζωή).

Thanks to Aristotle, St. Thomas, Rudolf Steiner, and innumerable sentient beings.


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