What is Life? (3.3) Life as Zoë

In the last chapter of this inquiry, we explored life as psyche. We introduced Aristotle’s delineation of the animate soul into to aisthetikon, to orektikon, to kinetikon, and also conceived of an emotive soul as the active interplay of these three functions. We furthermore considered these soul-faculties in respect to their nature and to their degree of immanent causation. In contrast to vegetal life, we discovered animate life to present and involution, individuation, or inwardising, of powers in which vegetal life participates in a peripheral 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, in which we recognised an expression of self-initiated immanent rhythmicity. In this section, we will attempt to conclude our investigation by exploring life as zoë (ζωή).

The vegetal soul—to threptikon—is responsible for organic form. In actu, the vegetal soul nourishes a body and also performs the treble functions of generation, maintenance, and propagation of the same. The animal soul, in actu, animates the creature with the functions of sensation, desiring, and motion—to aisthetikon, to orektikon, and to kinetikon, to employ Aristotle’s terms. As we discovered in the last piece, the animal soul also enlivens a being with emotion and intensifies the rhythmic principle, which is the systole-diastole inherent in all life. In contrast to the largely extensive rhythmicity of plant-life, as in the periodic emergence of leaves along a stalk, the intensification of the rhythmic principle results in such processes as appetite and aversion, sleeping and waking, respiration, and heartbeat. The animal soul is a throbbing and a pulsing. The animal body is a physiological-physiognomical image of the basic desire-nature of the animal soul. We indicated in the last chapter how each aspect of life as psyche implicates all of the others: a sensation enkindles a desire, which is an emotion, which incites a motion, which invites new sensation, etc…. In this light, we can contemplate the animality of the animal, in its essence. By juxtaposition, this understanding will also serve to reveal the plant-nature: the ingenuous virtue of photosynthesis. Friedrich Schiller doubtless recognised the same when he wrote:

Seekest thou the highest? The plant can teach it to thee;
What nature does without willing it, go thou and do deliberately.

In positing a counterfactual ideal to which he will aspire, Schiller directly invokes a capacity of the soul that is beyond anything we have explored to this point. It is by no means self-evident how a person should be able to change himself from a state of deficiency to one of virtue, since only the state of deficiency is available to perform the change, and this state of deficiency is precisely what needs changing. That a condition of higher virtue could work upon one of lower needs no explanation. That the converse is possible, however, is something extraordinary for the reason that the higher condition does not exist to initiate the evolution. We have observed a similar process in the active threptikon, which unfolds the bud into the blossom and the chrysalis into the butterfly, for example. We can understand this ability, however, when we conceive of the threptikon as a power whose form extends in time in a manner analogous a material body’s extension in space. Thus, the oak already exists potentially even when only the acorn exists actually. This cannot explain how a person could set a moral resolution out of his own initiative without denying the very freedom that he used to set it forth. We must draw a categorical distinction, therefore, between the telos (i.e. purpose) that transpires by nature and that telos which is first created through the initiative of the very one who is to be its object. In this way, we have identified an higher degree of immanent causation than any soul-faculty heretofore considered could account withal.

In truth, we have implied this same faculty since the beginning. Indeed, the sheer fact that human beings can pose such a question as we have undertaken to do over the last pieces constitutes working evidence of this higher life. In either case—of setting forth an ideal to aspire withal, or of deliberately undertaking a chosen course of contemplation—one has, of one’s own volition, freely caused the very configuration of one’s soul. Further, one has originated this cause from no other source than the soul itself. This is to say that one has exercised a supreme degree of immanent causation.

In immanent causation of one’s own soul, we must conceive of the end as the effect, but also a cause. The second presents a paradox since the end does not actually exist at the time of causation, but only potentially so. Nevertheless, if it is to serve as cause, it must indeed exist actually, in some sense. This is necessary, for to suppose a nonactual thing could serve as the cause of something actual is a contradiction in terms just as to explain a bell actually ringing by my potentially striking it is a sequence without sense. Only what is actual can serve as a cause. We must conceive in respect to the soul, therefore, that there exists an higher actuality—a first cause—which pre-exists and issues forth contingent causes from out of itself. As a lantern draws a moth into movement without itself moving, so this first cause is also the last end. Speaking of this first cause and last end, Aristotle writes that “it moves as loved.” He continues in Metaphysics:

On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature. And its life is such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy but for a short time…And life also belongs to God; for the activity of mind is life, and God is that activity; and God’s essential actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God, for this is God.

Thus, in the actual exercise this highest degree of immanent causation, the human being partakes in the divine nature, if only for brief moments. Yet it is characteristic of all life to strive beyond itself. The Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible coveys the essential self-transcending nature of the human being in the most expressive manner with the phrase “Faciamus hominem ad imaginem nostrum.” This phrase, from the first chapter of Genesis, is often translated into English so as to say that God fashioned “Man in [His] image.” Saint Jerome, however, with the keenest insight, captured the spirt of the verse with his translation when he did not write “in imagine nostra,” but rather “ad imaginem nostrum.” This is to say, “God made Man towards His image.” Friedrich Nietzsche spoke in the same spirit when he wrote in the Prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra:

Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?

How are we to make sense of this?

Life as bios is a pure and earnest process of enlivening inert matter. In creating, maintaining, and procreating form, plant-life quickens material nature and overcomes its inertial tendency. As plant-life enlivens and overcomes inert matter, life as psyche enlivens and overcomes bios. Animal-life continually dissolves the form which the plant-life first created, sacrificing it in the furnace of metabolism for the advantage of sensitivity and locomotion. Life as psyche is a perpetual surging of systole and diastole, waking and sleeping, desire and aversion. The psychological world is a world not of objects, but of “affordances*:” behaviour-potentials woven of the very threads of passion. As psyche sublates bios in the animal, so in the human being is the potency to sublate psyche. The realisation of this potency, let us call “zoë” (ζωή). Unlike in the overcomings we have hitherto considered, however, to partake in spiritual life is not accomplished by nature nor by passion, but only by agency, which is to say, in freedom. This is no surprise given our study of the concentration of the immanent cause. In life as zoë, immanent causation has achieved such intensity as to depend, for its existence, on its own activity. As human beings, we may partake in all degrees of life even up to the highest, “the life is such as the best which we enjoy…[even if] but for a short time.” For this reason sages of all traditions have described the human being as a microcosm, a concentration of the macrocosm, an universe in miniature. The anthropos somatikos (bodily/somatic human) is the human being of to threptikon. The anthropos psychikos (soul/psychical/spirited human) is the human being in a world of passions and affordances. The anthropos pneumatikos (spiritual human)* is the human being who has freely laid down her life to receive it again; sacrificed her egoism for diaphaneity and thereby to receive translumination by the light of the world.

Thanks to Aristotle, St. Jerome, Aquinas, Nietzsche, and many others!

*Compare St. Paul’s delineation in his first letter to the Thessalonians 5:23


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