On Life and Death

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On Life and Death (350 BCE) 
by Aristotle, translated by George Robert Thompson Ross
Parts are numbered in the context of their part in the entire work (On Youth and Old Age, On Breathing and On Life and Death)

On Life and Death[edit]

Part 23[edit]

To be born and to die are common to all animals, but there are specifically diverse ways in which these phenomena occur; of destruction there are different types, though yet something is common to them all. There is violent death and again natural death, and the former occurs when the cause of death is external, the latter when it is internal, and involved from the beginning in the constitution of the organ, and not an affection derived from a foreign source. In the case of plants the name given to this is withering, in animals senility. Death and decay pertain to all things that are not imperfectly developed; to the imperfect also they may be ascribed in nearly the same but not an identical sense. Under the imperfect I class eggs and seeds of plants as they are before the root appears.

It is always to some lack of heat that death is due, and in perfect creatures the cause is its failure in the organ containing the source of the creature's essential nature. This member is situate, as has been said, at the junction of the upper and lower parts; in plants it is intermediate between the root and the stem, in sanguineous animals it is the heart, and in those that are bloodless the corresponding part of their body. But some of these animals have potentially many sources of life, though in actuality they possess only one. This is why some insects live when divided, and why, even among sanguineous animals, all whose vitality is not intense live for a long time after the heart has been removed. Tortoises, for example, do so and make movements with their feet, so long as the shell is left, a fact to be explained by the natural inferiority of their constitution, as it is in insects also.

The source of life is lost to its possessors when the heat with which it is bound up is no longer tempered by cooling, for, as I have often remarked, it is consumed by itself. Hence when, owing to lapse of time, the lung in the one class and the gills in the other get dried up, these organs become hard and earthy and incapable of movement, and cannot be expanded or contracted. Finally things come to a climax, and the fire goes out from exhaustion.

Hence a small disturbance will speedily cause death in old age. Little heat remains, for the most of it has been breathed away in the long period of life preceding, and hence any increase of strain on the organ quickly causes extinction. It is just as though the heart contained a tiny feeble flame which the slightest movement puts out. Hence in old age death is painless, for no violent disturbance is required to cause death, and there is an entire absence of feeling when the soul's connexion is severed. All diseases which harden the lung by forming tumours or waste residues, or by excess of morbid heat, as happens in fevers, accelerate the breathing owing to the inability of the lung to move far either upwards or downwards. Finally, when motion is no longer possible, the breath is given out and death ensues.

Part 24[edit]

Generation is the initial participation, mediated by warm substance, in the nutritive soul, and life is the maintenance of this participation. Youth is the period of the growth of the primary organ of refrigeration, old age of its decay, while the intervening time is the prime of life.

A violent death or dissolution consists in the extinction or exhaustion of the vital heat (for either of these may cause dissolution), while natural death is the exhaustion of the heat owing to lapse of time, and occurring at the end of life. In plants this is to wither, in animals to die. Death, in old age, is the exhaustion due to inability on the part of the organ, owing to old age, to produce refrigeration. This then is our account of generation and life and death, and the reason for their occurrence in animals.

Part 25[edit]

It is hence also clear why respiring animals are suffocated in water and fishes in air. For it is by water in the latter class, by air in the former that refrigeration is effected, and either of these means of performing the function is removed by a change of environment.

There is also to be explained in either case the cause of the cause of the motion of the gills and of the lungs, the rise and fall of which effects the admission and expulsion of the breath or of water. The following, moreover, is the manner of the constitution of the organ.

Part 26[edit]

In connexion with the heart there are three phenomena, which, though apparently of the same nature, are really not so, namely palpitation, pulsation, and respiration.

Palpitation is the rushing together of the hot substance in the heart owing to the chilling influence of residual or waste products. It occurs, for example, in the ailment known as 'spasms' and in other diseases. It occurs also in fear, for when one is afraid the upper parts become cold, and the hot substance, fleeing away, by its concentration in the heart produces palpitation. It is crushed into so small a space that sometimes life is extinguished, and the animals die of the fright and morbid disturbance.

The beating of the heart, which, as can be seen, goes on continuously, is similar to the throbbing of an abscess. That, however, is accompanied by pain, because the change produced in the blood is unnatural, and it goes on until the matter formed by concoction is discharged. There is a similarity between this phenomenon and that of boiling; for boiling is due to the volatilization of fluid by heat and the expansion consequent on increase of bulk. But in an abscess, if there is no evaporation through the walls, the process terminates in suppuration due to the thickening of the liquid, while in boiling it ends in the escape of the fluid out of the containing vessel.

In the heart the beating is produced by the heat expanding the fluid, of which the food furnishes a constant supply. It occurs when the fluid rises to the outer wall of the heart, and it goes on continuously; for there is a constant flow of the fluid that goes to constitute the blood, it being in the heart that the blood receives its primary elaboration. That this is so we can perceive in the initial stages of generation, for the heart can be seen to contain blood before the veins become distinct. This explains why pulsation in youth exceeds that in older people, for in the young the formation of vapour is more abundant.

All the veins pulse, and do so simultaneously with each other, owing to their connexion with the heart. The heart always beats, and hence they also beat continuously and simultaneously with each other and with it.

Palpitation, then, is the recoil of the heart against the compression due to cold; and pulsation is the volatilization of the heated fluid.

Part 27[edit]

Respiration takes place when the hot substance which is the seat of the nutritive principle increases. For it, like the rest of the body, requires nutrition, and more so than the members, for it is through it that they are nourished. But when it increases it necessarily causes the organ to rise. This organ we must to be constructed like the bellows in a smithy, for both heart and lungs conform pretty well to this shape. Such a structure must be double, for the nutritive principle must be situated in the centre of the natural force.

Thus on increase of bulk expansion results, which necessarily causes the surrounding parts to rise. Now this can be seen to occur when people respire; they raise their chest because the motive principle of the organ described resident within the chest causes an identical expansion of this organ. When it dilates the outer air must rush in as into a bellows, and, being cold, by its chilling influence reduces by extinction the excess of the fire. But, as the increase of bulk causes the organ to dilate, so diminution causes contraction, and when it collapses the air which entered must pass out again. When it enters the air is cold, but on issuing it is warm owing to its contact with the heat resident in this organ, and this is specially the case in those animals that possess a full-blooded lung. The numerous canal-like ducts in the lung, into which it passes, have each a blood-vessel lying alongside, so that the whole lung is thought to be full of blood. The inward passage of the air is called respiration, the outward expiration, and this double movement goes on continuously just so long as the animal lives and keeps this organ in continuous motion; it is for this reason that life is bound up with the passage of the breath outwards and inwards.

It is in the same way that the motion of the gills in fishes takes place. When the hot substance in the blood throughout the members rises, the gills rise too, and let the water pass through, but when it is chilled and retreats through its channels to the heart, they contract and eject the water. Continually as the heat in the heart rises, continually on being chilled it returns thither again. Hence, as in respiring animals life and death are bound up with respiration, so in the other animals class they depend on the admission of water.

Our discussion of life and death and kindred topics is now practically complete. But health and discase also claim the attention of the scientist, and not mercly of the physician, in so far as an account of their causes is concerned. The extent to which these two differ and investigate diverse provinces must not escape us, since facts show that their inquiries are, to a certain extent, at least conterminous. For physicians of culture and refinement make some mention of natural science, and claim to derive their principles from it, while the most accomplished investigators into nature generally push their studies so far as to conclude with an account of medical principles.

THE END