On the Vital Principle/Book 2/Chapter 1
|←Prelude to Chapter 1||On the Vital Principle by , translated by Charles Collier
Book 2, Chapter 1
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-- Chapter 1 --
THUS have the opinions handed down by former writers upon Vital Principle been delineated; and now let us retrace our steps, and again, as if at the outset of our inquiry, endeavour to define what it is and what the most general expression for it.
We say, then, that essence is a particular genus of entities, and that of it part is matter, which in itself is not any one particular object, as it is other than form and species from which each object derives its particular denomination; and that, in the third place, there is the derivative from both these. Now matter is potentiality, species reality, and that in a twofold acceptation, as knowledge and as reflexion; but bodies, and above all natural bodies, seem to be essences; for they are, in fact, the origins of other bodies. Among natural bodies some have and some have not life; and by life we mean the faculties of self-nourishment, self-growth and self-decay. Thus, every natural body partaking of life may be regarded as an essence; but then it is an essence in combination, as has been said. And since the body is such a combination, being possessed of life, it cannot be Vital Principle; for as it is itself more truly subject and matter, it cannot be among the subordinates of a subject. It follows, then, that the Vital Principle must be an essence, as being the form of a natural body holding life in potentiality; but essence is a reality,—the reality, that is, of a body such as has been described. Now reality is, in the twofold signification, either of knowledge or of reflexion; and that it may be regarded as knowledge is manifest in that sleep and watching co-exist as original properties, in Vital Principle; and equally manifest that watching is analogous to reflexion upon knowledge, as that sleep represents knowledge possessed but not employed. But knowledge pre-exists in the same individual, and the Vital Principle is, therefore, the original reality of a natural body endowed with life in potentiality; only this is to be understood of a body which may be organised. Thus, the parts even of plants are organs, but then they are organs which are altogether simple, as the leaf is the covering of the pericarp, and the pericarp of the fruit; and the roots are analogous to the mouth, for both take in food. If, then, there be any general expression for every kind of Vital Principle, it may be set down as "the incipient reality of a natural body which is organised"
It is, therefore, to no purpose to inquire whether Vital Principle and the body are one, any more than whether wax and the impress upon it are one, or whether the matter formative of any object and the object formed are one ; for one and being have many significations, but they are correctly designated as reality.
It has thus been explained generally what the Vital Principle is, and shewn that it is an essence, in its abstract signification, which implies the particular mode of being in any particular body, as if any instrument, an axe, for instance, were a natural body, the mode of being in the axe would be, at once, both its essence and its Vital Principle; for, were it once to be withdrawn, then, save in name, it could be an axe no longer. All this, however, relates to an axe, but Vital Principle is the mode and the cause of being, not in any thing like an axe but, in a natural body, having within it a principle of motion and of rest.
But what has been said may be better understood by reference to the parts of a body. Thus, if the eye were an animal, vision would be its Vital Principle, as vision, abstractedly considered, is the essence of the eye; but the eye is the matter of vision, and if vision be wanting, then, save in name, it is an eye no longer, any more than is that an eye which is represented in sculpture or painting. All that has here been assumed of a part may be made applicable to the whole living body; for, as there is an analogy between part and part, so is there between the whole sensibility and the whole sentient body, in the ratio of its sensibility ; but this must be understood of a body which yet retains its Vital Principle, and is, in potentiality, alive. The seed and the fruit are the representatives of such a body in potentiality ; and as cutting is the reality of an axe, vision that of an eye, so watching is the reality of Vital Principle ; which is to the body what vision is to an eye, and its own property to any instrument ; but this is to be understood of a body in potentiality. Thus, as an eye is a pupil and vision, so an animal is a body and Vital Principle.
It is then obvious that neither Vital Principle nor any of its parts, even granting that it may be divisible, can be separate from the body; for of some of its parts it is the reality; and yet there is nothing to preclude the possibility of some others being separate, as there are some which do not contribute to the reality of any body. It is doubtful, however, whether the Vital Principle is the reality of a body in the sense that a mariner is of his vessel.
Thus far, then, have we proceeded in our attempt to define and delineate Vital Principle.
Note 1, p. 58. Now matter is potentiality, species reality.] A few words may suffice for a further attempt to elucidate these terms. Matter, then, per se, has no definite existence, but with essence it becomes a something in potentiality, and then capable, under genial conditions, of becoming a reality, the specific and individual character of which depends upon form. Matter is said to be comprised in essence, and therefore the distinction between them is hardly discernible, but Aristotle, under the term essence, comprises elements (earth, fire, water and air) as well as derivatives from the elements, and that because, while all other bodies are to be considered as dependent upon them, they pre-existed to, and were the origin of all others. In another passage he assumes one universal, primordial, material essence, as the source whence all things which are have proceeded; yet still he admits of a peculiar essence for each genus, as the primal matter of pituita is whatever is sweet or oily, and as whatever is bitter is the primal matter of bile. Although essence may be an abstraction, yet a generic character is clearly assigned to it in the text, and even in recent times recourse has been had to such an assumption in order to explain the difference between the secretions of organs supplied with the same fluids and animated by the same nerves. Thus, it was assumed that there must be for each organ a peculiar essence, a substantia propria (ὑλιχὴ οὐσία), for the fulfilment of its functions as well as the maintenance of its relations and sympathies with the other parts of the system. The text seems to admit of only one essence and one matter to be as the matrix for all things, which is, of course, opposed to the doctrine of elements and the formation of bodies by them; but the hypothesis could treat of them only as primordial entities, however diversified by form their manifestations may be. Aristotle was the first, however, who made form to be the realising principle, to be that which confers upon matter specific character, and constitutes the series of being; and this has been adopted by modern physiologists, as Reil makes form together with variety in the combination of the elements "to be the cause of existing differences in organic bodies and their faculties."
Note 2, p. 58. But bodies, and above all natural bodies.] Living bodies, that is, are broadly distinguished from all others by the innate power of reproducing similar bodies, (similar in a specific sense, that is,) and which are the material for most of the works of man's hand; as the human intellect can confer upon its creations nothing save newness of form. Without asserting that all which is has emanated from living bodies, modern science has shewn that vast masses of matter, now inorganic, were the product of what once had life.
Note 3, p. 59. Thus every natural body partaking of life, &c.] The text seems to be in accordance with what had preceded, but it has been objected to by some on account of its supposed obscurity; it seems, however, to imply that the three primordial conditions, matter, essence and form, are necessary to, and concur in the formation of every specific body.
Note 4, p. 59. And since the body is such a combination, &c.] This passage is obscure both in wording and purport, but it seems to imply that the living body, being what it has been said to be, is independent and self-existent, and, as such, cannot be Vital Principle, because it cannot be among the subordinates of a subject, which is the part seemingly ascribed to Vital Principle, as merely realising what already had existence in potentiality.
Note 5, p. 59. Now reality is, in the twofold signification, &c.] These two terms, which, as has been said, pervade and illustrate Aristotle's philosophical writings, are, themselves illustrated, as it were, here, under the forms of sleep and watching—the one, being the analogue of potentiality, and the latter, of reality—and thus knowledge, although possessed, yet, if not exercised, is only in potentiality; but when actually exercised, it is raised up and converted into reality. It is not easy, without periphrasis, to fix upon an apposite term for the ἐγρήγορσις, which signifies, of course, a state the opposite to sleep—watching, adopted here, and the French réveil seem to imply a forced condition; and "being awake" is hardly definite enough.
Note 6, p. 59. Only this is to be understood of a body which may be organised, &c.] Organs are instruments subservient to the purposes of the living body, as the living body is subservient to the Vital Principle, and Vital Principle, in its turn, subservient to nature's design in creation. So that even plants, although insentient, have organs, but organs which, in contradistinction to those of animals, are homogeneous; as the leaf is said to be formative of all the parts of the fruit. Aristotle  distinguished the parts of animals, as is known, as homogeneous (ἀσύνθετα), that is simple or of one nature, as flesh, bone and sinew, and compound (σύνθετα), as hand, foot, &c., which are made up of different or unlike parts. Thus, all the parts which are heterogeneous or unlike, are made up of parts which are homogeneous or like, as a hand, for example, is made up of flesh, tendons and bones; while the parts of plants, on the contrary, are but developments of one simple part, that is the leaf. It is manifest that Aristotle here points, suggestively, to the development of organs by their own innate powers, and thus he may be said to have originated a doctrine which has been adopted, and, perhaps, realised as homologous physiology, by modern science. Goëthe, before the present century, had observed that "whoever looks even casually at the growth of plants, cannot but perceive that certain outward parts often change, and sometimes assume wholly, at other times, partially, the form of parts lying next to them. The secret affinity between the different outward parts of plants, as leaves, calix, corolla, stamen, which are naturally developed out of one another, has been long known; and this process, whereby one and the same organ is seen to undergo manifold changes, has been designated Metamorphosis of Plants." The pericarp is, of course, the seed-vessel, the covering, that is, of the seed, (as the pod of leguminosa, the hairy covering of the chestnut, or the pulpy coat of fruit,) and the germinal part of seeds is by Aristotle compared to the prolific end of the egg which is attached to the oviduct, (τῇ ὕστερᾳ,) as the seed is to pods, husks, or other forms. The seed and fruit are well said to be analogous to an animal body in its state of potentiality, (which may be likened to a state of hybernation,) as ages may pass away without extinguishing that latent existence which, under favourable conditions, being resuscitated, can resume the actions of life. Note 7, p. 59. And the roots are analogous to the mouth, &c.] This is one of those suggestive allusions which characterise Aristotle's writings, and seem to have anticipated knowledge that was yet to be realised; for had it been worked out, science might long since have been in possession of the doctrine of homology. The passage shews that Aristotle had perceived that parts might be designated after their functions rather than their forms, for it is the same process in plants, he observes, only they take in food by their roots, out of the earth, already concocted, and hence they have no excrementitious matter; as for them, the soil and its warmth are as a stomach, while animals have within them a soil, that is a stomach, from which they draw nutrition, as plants do from the earth, until digestion have been completed."
Note 8, p. 60. It is, therefore, to no purpose.] An exemplification of matter and form, as body and Vital Principle, by the analogy of wax and the impress or form given to it by the seal; for these may typify a reality, as a statue may typify a reality in the form given to the marble.
Note 9, p. 60. It has thus then been explained.] This is a wider and closer exemplification than had been given, both of the nature and influence of Vital Principle as the essence in living bodies—for it is to the living body, according to this analogy, what the special property is to the instrument. Thus, vision is the essence of an eye, as cutting is that of an axe, for, could the organ or instrument be deprived of those faculties, they would no longer, save in name, be eye or axe; and this holds good of the living body, which, if deprived of its essence, its Vital Principle that is, being no longer able to fulfil its purposes in creation, is not to be regarded, save in name, as an organised body.
Note 10, p 61. It is then obvious that neither Vital Principle, &c.] There is an apparent contradiction in this passage, owing to the want of completeness in the argument—the Vital Principle, as the essence, cannot be distinct from the organs of the body, since they depend upon it for their functions; but the mind, being impassive, (ἀπαθὴς ὁ νοῦς) and the cause of all the higher faculties, may exist apart from all which is corporeal and even sentient, and thus survive the body's death and decay. Thus, Aristotle has elsewhere observed that it is scarcely possible for anything to be of higher value or more influential than the Vital Principle, and quite impossible that anything should be more so than the mind.
Note 11, p. 61. It is doubtful, however, whether, &c.] Whether, that is, the Vital Principle is separable from the body, as the mariner is from his vessel—whether, as he is not necessarily involved in its wreck, so it may survive the death of the body. But the question evidently pertains to psychology, and can scarcely be entertained amid inquiries into corporeal functions and sympathies; and the chief object of this treatise, is to ascertain what that principle is which, for a stated time, animates and presides over the functions of reproduction, nutrition, growth and decay. It is evident, besides, that Aristotle has annexed, so to say, this high privilege to the mind, as the seat and source of all moral and intellectual qualities and faculties.