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Rafael Pascual 1

“Vivere viventibus est esse”: Towards a Metaphysics of Life

«Soul is cause and principle of the living body. Now the words cause and principle have many different meanings and according to this soul is [10] cause in the three manners that we have discriminated. Indeed, soul is cause as the principle of motion, purpose and essence of animated bodies. It is evident that soul is cause as essence. In fact, essence is, for all beings, the cause of their being, and being for living beings is to live, and cause and principle of living is soul» (Aristotle, De Anima II, 415 b 8-14).

Both according to Aristotle and for Thomas Aquinas, life is, first of all, a way of being, indeed, the most excellent way of being, as it can be attributed to the most perfect being, God. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, book 12 th this concept is explicitly stated (cfr. Metaph., XII 7, 1072b 13- 30). Life [specifically, zoé] belongs to God; it is one of His attributes and it belongs to Him in an optimal, eminent way. God is, by excellence, the Living Being [zoon]. From the metaphysical point of view, a fundamental difference between the living and the non-living can be established: The living is more perfect than the non-living, i.e. it is more an act. The being of the non living is narrow and closed in itself; its activity, on the contrary, it is purely transitive. On the other hand, the being of the living is in the opposite way: it is open, i.e. it is capable of interacting with the surrounding environment and with the other living beings, whereas its activity is immanent, auto-perfecting; as some authors state today, it is an activity of “auto-poiesis” 2 . Thomas Aquinas discusses this topic in several texts, and in all of them there is the fundamental discrimination between the order of being, for which we say that a thing is “living”, and the order of act, for which the living being acts as such, and it can therefore be recognized as living, in the vital operations 3 . Indeed, here one can apply the metaphysical

1 Pontifical University ‘Regina Apostolorum’, via degli Aldobrandeschi, 190 -

00163 Rome (Italy). E-mail:

2 Cf. H. R. Maturana – F. J. Varela. Autopoiesis and Cognition. Dordrecht, Reidel,


3 For instance: «Vita dicitur dupliciter. Uno enim modo vita idem est quod esse viventis; ut in 2 De anima dicitur, quod vivere viventibus est esse; et hoc modo


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principle agere sequitur esse, to act follows to be, and through the act being is manifested. The living being acts as a living being, and it is manifested as such through its own act. This would be the metaphysical side of life. However, from a point of view which is almost symmetrical to the previous one, there comes the question of the knowledge of life: how do we know whether something is alive or not, and how do we know what the very life is? The order is now reversed: First we get the act of the living being, its manifestations which reveal its life, its signs of vitality, and then we understand it as a living being, and what is life as well. 4 . In this work, we will not be as much interested in the epistemological side of the topic, albeit important and necessary, as we will get involved in the metaphysical point of view. We will try to understand what life itself is, what its way of being is.

vita hominis relinquitur ex conjunctione animae ad corpus […] Alio modo dicitur vita operatio rei viventis (In II Sent., d.38 q.1 a.2 ad 3); «Vita dicitur dupliciter. Uno modo ipsum esse viventis; quia, ut in 2 De anima dicitur, vivere viventibus est esse. Ex hoc autem dicitur aliquid vivens quod potest seipsum movere secundum aliquam actionem: unde et plantae dicuntur vivere ex hoc quod movent se secundum augmentum; et animalia ulterius, inquantum movent se secundum locum, et inquantum movent se ad sentiendum; in homine autem ulterius, inquantum potest se movere ad volendum et intelligendum. Cujuslibet autem potentiae perfectio est suus actus: unde secundo translatum est nomen vitae ad significandum operationem ad quam aliquis seipsum movet, sicut sentire dicitur vita animalis, et intelligere vita hominis» (In IV Sent., d.49 q.1 a.2c co.); vitae nomen sumitur ex quodam exterius apparenti circa rem, quod est movere seipsum, non tamen est impositum hoc nomen ad hoc significandum, sed ad significandam substantiam cui convenit secundum suam naturam movere seipsam, vel agere se quocumque modo ad operationem. Et secundum hoc, vivere nihil aliud est quam esse in tali natura, et vita significat hoc ipsum, sed in abstracto; sicut hoc nomen cursus significat ipsum currere in abstracto. Unde vivum non est praedicatum accidentale, sed substantiale. Quandoque tamen vita sumitur minus proprie pro operationibus vitae, a quibus nomen vitae assumitur; sicut dicit Philosophus, IX Ethic., quod vivere principaliter est sentire vel intelligere. (I, q.18 a.2 co). 4 «Respondeo dicendum quod illa proprie dicuntur viventia quae ex seipsis moventur seu operantur. Illud autem maxime convenit alicui secundum seipsum, quod est proprium ei, et ad quod maxime inclinatur. Et ideo unumquodque vivens ostenditur vivere ex operatione sibi maxime propria, ad quam maxime inclinatur, sicut plantarum vita dicitur in hoc consistere quod nutriuntur et generant; animalium vero in hoc quod sentiunt et moventur; hominum vero in hoc quod intelligunt et secundum rationem agunt. […] Ad primum ergo dicendum quod propria forma uniuscuiusque faciens ipsum esse in actu, est principium propriae operationis ipsius. Et ideo vivere dicitur esse viventium ex eo quod viventia per hoc quod habent esse per suam formam, tali modo operantur» (II-II, q.179 a.1 co.; ad 1).

Vivere viventibus est esse


It is interesting to consider the opinion of a famous investigator of Aristotle, Prof. Enrico Berti. He states – and he is right – that Aristotle’s doctrine can be characterized as an ontology of life; in fact, Aristotle sees life as the way of being of living entities, and so life is one of the meanings of being, indeed the most perfect insofar as it is the most perfect act; therefore, life would be the very fundamental meaning of being 5 so that Aristotle’s ontology ends up being fundamentally an ontology of life 6 . One of the first things that we can show in the study of life, is that life is given in different ways, i.e. it is analogue. There are different forms of life, different orders of living beings. On the one hand, these living beings can be distinguished from the non living beings and, on the other hand, can be distinguished from one another according to different types. Now, we are not interested to get involved in detailed problems of taxonomy or classification of living beings. Rather, we acknowledge, on a general level, that there is the possibility of defining a general division among different forms of life. Then it seems to be evident that there are different forms of life, and that among them one can establish a hierarchical order, according to different levels of perfection. In antiquity we could already find a classical division in plants (which have the so called vegetative soul, capable of some fundamental vital activities which we also find in other superior living beings, i.e. nutrition, growth and reproduction), animals (which have sensitive soul, the root of sensitivity and the corresponding tendentiality, both things being typical of this kind of living beings) and men (who have the specific feature of an intellective soul, by which they are intelligent and free beings). Another feature of the Aristotelian doctrine about life is the question about soul, which is the principle of life for the living being, i.e. the cause of its being alive. A living being without soul could not live any longer. From this here comes the central position that soul has in Aristotle’s philosophy of nature. He dedicates to soul a fundamental work of his:

the De anima (Per í yuxh=j). So, there is a close relationship between life and soul. The living being, in the natural or physical order, has soul and soul is its vital principle (the reason for which it is really alive), just as it is principle of the operations which are appropriate to life. We therefore find, in the living beings, a duplex characterizing plexus: the soul-body one, and the being-acting

5 Cf. E. BERTI, «Per i viventi l’essere è il vivere», in M. SÁNCHEZ SORONDO (ed.), La vita. Storia e teoresi, Pontificia Università Lateranense - Mursia, Roma - Milano 1998, pp. 24-25.

6 Ivi, p. 30.


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one. The soul, as we know, in Aristotle’s classic definition, used by Thomas Aquinas as well, is the first act of the organic, physical body which has life in potency 7 . The principle of life is also principle of diversity in the forms of life, which are heterogeneous among themselves, since life is not properly a genus (neither is the being). The relationship between these diverse forms of life is similar to that existing among the different geometrical shapes, as Aristotle makes clear in a famous text (cf. De anima II, 2). Consequently, life is analogue, as it is the being. And among the different types of life there is an order, a relationship of priority and posteriority. On the other hand, just as the superior shapes contain the inferior ones, the more perfect soul contains the less perfect, so that every living being has a unique soul. Plants have a vegetative soul, featured with the operations which are appropriate to it (nutrition, growth, reproduction); animals have the sensitive soul, which contain, in potency, the vegetative soul with its own functions and, beyond this, something superior and more appropriate to it (sensitivity and motion). Finally, man has the intellective soul, which contains the other two and is therefore capable of their own operations, whereas it has, on its own, something superior (thought). Consequently, since thought is the eminent way of living, it will be also the eminent way of being, and therefore God’s way of being, pure act and unmoved mover. As Berti maintains, we can conclude by saying that, just as living is the most perfect way of being, thinking is the most perfect way of living: so that ontology of life becomes ontology of thought as eminent way of life. This is not just to privilege the theoretical dimension in human act, dimension in which Aristotle puts human plenitude and felicity since it corresponds most properly to his own nature; but also to characterize God’s way of being, which is pure act, the living being by excellence, and so He has the most perfect way of living, i.e. thought. So we find it expressed in the famous passage of Book Lambda of Metaphysics:

“Heaven and nature depend upon such a principle. And its way of living is the most excellent: it is that way of living which is given to us only for a brief period of time. And in that state He is always. For us that is impossible, but not for Him, since the act of His living is pleasure. And for us as well, being awake, having sensitive perceptions and knowledge is pleasant in the highest level, for the very fact that they are act and, by virtue of this, hopes and memories as well.

7 «Aristoteles in II De anima, definit animam dicens quod est actus primus physici corporis organici potentia vitam habentis: et postea subiungit quod haec est definitio universaliter dicta de omni anima» (CG II, c.61; cf. also I, q.76 a.4 ad 1; q. 76 a.5 sc.; In VI Metaph., lc.1).

Vivere viventibus est esse


[…] So, if in this happy condition in which we sometimes find ourselves, God is always, that’s marvellous; if He is in an even superior condition, that is even more marvellous. And in this condition He really is. And He is Life as well, because the activity of intelligence is life, and He is that very activity. And His activity, which subsists per se, is optimal and eternal life. We say, indeed, that God is living, eternal and optimum; so that to God belongs a perennial and eternal life; this is therefore what God is”. (Metaph., XII 7, 1072b 13-30).

Let us go back to the question of soul. This is defined, as we have seen, as the act of physical body which has life in potency:

a)nagkaiÍon aÃra th\n yuxh\n ou)si¿an eiånai w¨j eiådoj sw¯matoj fusikou= duna/mei zwh\n eÃxontoj. h( d' ou)si¿a e)ntele/xeia: toiou/tou aÃra sw¯matoj

e)ntele/xeia. (De anima II, 1; 412a 19-22).

There is therefore a close relationship, substantial, between body and the soul which belongs to it. Body and soul are not two things, two substances in the proper sense, but rather two principles of the substance that is living being, which is composed of both. The union between soul and body is essential and not accidental; we are talking about a substantial unity. The doctrine of hilomorphism is involved in this all; such a doctrine is often misunderstood, and it is the fulcrum of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, which is connected to the distinction between act and potency. All the dualistic theories of Cartesian fashion are right the opposite of the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of the soul-body relationship. If one speaks sometimes about soul or body as substances, this is done considering them as incomplete substances, as matter and form in general are or as, in another order, are a hand or the heart. It is therefore wrong and misleading to qualify the doctrine we are studying as dualistic. It is no way. It is not, but nor it is monistic. We can call it, if we wish, compositional or synolical (we propose this neologism from the Greek word synolon, which means “composite” or, literally, all-together). Soul is nothing but forma corporis, just as body is matter and subject of the soul; it is animate and therefore alive. This has nothing to do with the Cartesian- fashioned sketch of the ghost in the machine. In the De Natura Generis there is an interesting parallelism among the words alive, to live, life, and being, to be, essence 8 ; other parallelisms are done among the words currens, currere, cursu.

8 «Ens igitur est cuius actus est esse, sicut viventis vivere. Sic enim se habent haec tria ad invicem, ens, esse et essentia, sicut vivens, vita et vivere. Vita enim est principium quo vivens vivit, et essentia est principium quo ens est; nisi quod


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In conclusion, it is interesting to consider the Greek words used to express concepts of life, i.e. “zoé” and “bios”. Today, when we speak about life, the word ‘bios’ is privileged; however, Aristotle uses the first one more frequently. Furthermore, the Bible – in the Greek version of the LXX - seems to prefer the first term both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Let us see some meaningful example:

kai. evka,lesen Adam to. o;noma th/j gunaiko.j auvtou/ Zwh, o[ti au[th mh,thr pa,ntwn tw/n zw,ntwn (Gn 3, 20) [Man gave his wife the name “Eve” (Zoé), for she has been mother to all men]

evn auvtw/| zwh. h=n( kai. h` zwh. h=n to. fw/j tw/n avnqrw,pwn\ (Gv 1, 4) [In him there was life and life was the light for men]

ei=pen auvth/| o` VIhsou/j\ evgw, eivmi h` avna,stasij kai. h` zwh,\ (Gv 11, 25) [Jesus told her: «I am resurrection and life»]

evgw, eivmi h` o`do.j kai. h` avlh,qeia kai. h` zwh,\ (Gv 14, 6) [Jesus says to him: «I am the way, the truth and life»].