Chapter 7


Having, then, touched upon the various differences between living and inanimate bodies, and having drawn some conclusions from each of them, we are now, I think, in a position to define what life itself is. Life is obviously what it is about living bodies that is distinctive; and what is distinctive about them is the way they exist, both as bodies and in their activities (existence in that strange sense of the acts that I have called properties). But since existence means "activity," then we can say this:

Life is the activity of a living body as living.

This is not really a terribly helpful definition. All it does, really, is point out that "life," like "energy," is one of those terms that doesn't mean some kind of limitation, but which refers to existence--but also like energy, it applies only to certain existences and not to others. Further, like energy, it can refer either to the unifying energy of the body or to its properties.

I think we can say this about life, however: life refers primarily to the unifying activity of the body and only secondarily to the properties it performs because it is alive. That is, nourishing oneself or growing or engaging in sex are only "living" in a secondary sense; these are the acts one does (among others) because one is alive, and which reveal that one is alive; but the life itself, in the really meaningful sense is the existence of the body in the condition by which it has the power to perform (or not perform, as we saw) these acts. Their presence indicates life; their absence does not indicate the absence of life. Hence, life in the truest sense is the act of the unifying energy of a living body.

This definition does show us that Aristotle's statement, "For a living being, 'to be' is 'to live'" is true.(1) But the definition obviously needs to be spelled out. What is it about the unifying energy of a living body that enables us to call that act "life" and not just "energy"?

Well, we saw that nutrition implies biological equilibrium, which is an energy level too high to be explained by the quantity of the system; growth is a process that leads upwards beyond the quantity that the body has; and reproduction implies a kind of independence of the form of--we can now say "of life"--from either its quantity or the body it happens to be organizing.

So there is this kind of independence from quantity which is distinctive about life as opposed to inanimate energy. But I think that though this is what at first is striking about life vs. inanimate energy, it is what is behind this that is what life really is: this independence from being dominated by quantity gives the unifying energy control over what it is doing. So let us make this the definition of life:

Life is existence insofar as it is in control of itself.

Let us state the more obvious "definition" of life (that of independence to some extent from its quantity) as a conclusion--a kind of corollary, if you will, to this definition:

Conclusion 20: In order for existence to be in control of itself, it must not be dominated by (or under the control of) its quantity.

What this conclusion implies is that to the extent that a being's activity deserves the name "life" rather than mere existence, then it will be more and more independent of its quantity, or tend more and more toward the spiritual--which, of course, would mean that all spiritual beings are alive.

I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter that we had to be careful to come up with a definition of "life" that didn't just apply to living bodies, since we had a hint from revelation that "life" describes God also--not that revelation should ever determine what we do as philosophers (because as philosophers our evidence is the observable data in front of us, not what is written in some book or in some tradition), but it should not be ignored, since it is a fact.

In any case, let us look at the inanimate and living things, to see how the definition (and the corollary above) work. It should be the case that the higher you go in life, the more control the being has over itself, and the more independent it is from quantity.

At the lowest level of existence, then, we have inanimate bodies, which, as I said, are dominated by their quantity and are at the mercy of forces acting on them. At the next highest level, we have the form of the unifying energy determining what quantity the biological equilibrium is to have, which clearly implies that the form of the unifying energy is independent of the quantity it happens to have at the moment. As we will see in subsequent chapters, when we move up to sentient life, we have an act which, because it "reduplicates" itself in one act (is conscious), "possesses itself within itself" in some sense, and directs not only the basic biological equilibrium energy level of the animal, but its activity in responding to its environment; and since the act contains itself within itself, it is basically a spiritual act, not energy; but at the sentient level, it must also "reduplicate" itself with a quantity, and so, while it is in itself infinitely beyond any quantity, it necessarily has a quantity. At the human level, we have understanding and choice, in which the being not only "possesses" itself, but recognizes itself for what it is, and actively makes itself be what it wants to be--within the limits of the range of possible selves given in the genetic structure; and the acts of understanding and choosing do not have a quantitative "reduplication" of themselves as sense acts do; but since they use as the range in which they can determine themselves the spiritual "dimension" of sense acts (which, as I said, have a quantitative "reduplication"), these spiritual acts are indirectly connected with quantity, and the human spirit also organizes a body, though it could exist without doing so. Beyond this, one may speculate that there are spiritual forms of activity who decide for themselves what form of activity they want to be (unlike us, who can decide what level of human existence we want to live at), but who must choose to be some form of existence; and of course, this "choosing a form of existence" for oneself could only be done by a pure spirit, because the act, while spiritual, has to be in principle beyond the spiritual act chosen. Finally, there is the act which has no restrictions on it whatever: which knows itself absolutely and chooses absolutely to be itself. And this is God, who from this point of view is absolute self-control. And of course God is also absolute lack of limitation.

Hence, the definition and its corollary seem to work. Life, then, is freedom from quantity. To the extent that a being is that much more free from domination by its quantity, to that extent it is living with a higher sense of "life," and to that extent it has more control over what it itself is doing.

It is this notion of control over itself that is the basis of Aristotle's and the Scholastics' definition of life as "self-movement" or "self-initiated process." That is what the control boils down to in practice (at least very often) in the case of living bodies. But it isn't because they are moving or in process that they are alive; it is that they are controlling their activity that makes them living as opposed to inanimate.

And this distinction of activity in control of itself from process, whether self-initiated or not, allows us to bring back what we said about equilibrium throughout the preceding investigation, and put it now into a formal conclusion:

Conclusion 21: Life is essentially activity in equilibrium, not the activity which is process.

This means that life as such is not "headed anywhere," except in the first stages of life of a living body, when it is growing up to its biological equilibrium. Once biological equilibrium is reached, however, the processes within life always bring it back to that energy level insofar as they can; and so it stays the same. So the tendency of life as such is to stay the same. And of course, this is supremely true of the very highest life there is, God; and it is also true of pure spirits, if there are any. It is true also of human beings, because after death (whether there is a reembodiment or not) they will reach an absolute equilibrium from which there will be no changing at all.

But if this is the case, then we can say the following:

Conclusion 22: Life has no purpose as such; it simply is. The "purpose" of any given life is the biological equilibrium which its self-control determines.

In the lowest forms of life, this biological equilibrium is set by the pattern in the genetic structure, but the unifying energy actively produces it; and the purpose of growth is this biological equilibrium. But the purpose of life is not that, because life is, essentially, the biological equilibrium. Life just is what it is. In higher forms of life, such as human life, the biological equilibrium is consciously chosen, and the body works toward it and then maintains it by the same act which chose it in the first place, as we will see. Hence, your life has as its purpose the definition of what your life "means" that you give it, and it has no further purpose. The purpose you give to your life is a purpose within life, but it is not the purpose of life itself; and this purpose within life is the only purpose your life has.

I spoke earlier of God's "purpose" in creating, and said that this does not imply some "plan" that we have to discover and live up to. God's purpose in creating me is that I be what I am; and what I am means that I decide for myself (within limits) to be what I want. It would contradict my freedom, my essence, and my life if God had some purpose for me beyond this.(2)

To the extent that something is alive, then, it has that much less "purpose" built into it, and gives itself whatever "purpose in life" it possesses.



1. There are also some rather rich Theological implications of this. If what Christianity does for us is enable us to "share" the life of God (this is what "sanctifying grace" is, in fact: God's life bestowed upon us in addition to our human life), then this means that in some real but mysterious sense, the Christian is living God's life. What St. Paul said in Galatians, "And I am not the one who is alive any more; the Prince [Christ] is living in me," is true in the positive sense, though not in the negative way he stated it. The new life of God does not remove our natural life as human, but adds to it an additional life; we are "born again" as John's Report says, adding something instructive: "What is born from a body is a body; what is born from spirit is spirit."

But of course, if life is existence, and we are living God's life, then each of us is God. Not a "part" of God, but something analogous to what Christians believe happened with Jesus, and which I spoke of in the first part: God''s "emptying himself" to act in a human way while still being God. In the case of our lives, however, what this must mean is that our life is "expanded" somehow beyond itself to the Infinite existence, which is one act, and is God. We are still limited in one "dimension" or "reduplication" of ourselves; but in another one, our existence is without any limitation at all. So we remain ourselves naturally; but supernaturally, we are God himself--but by his free gift of himself, bestowed upon us. In this sense, we are (a) "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus, since we are God's "offspring" by adoption as he is by nature; and in another sense (since we are humans existing with God's existence) we are Jesus himself; as St. Paul said, "we are organs of his body," living, as an organ does, with the unifying energy of the whole. So each of us is an individual, living his natural life, but also living with the life of God, which unites all of us into a single super-organism: the human who lives with God's life, or Jesus. Thus, the "mystical body" is not a metaphor at all, but a fact; it is supernatural in that it is of course not something possible by our nature; but it is not a contradiction. I will say more of this when I discuss human understanding, and how our act of understanding "empties itself" into knowing just one fact at a time, and how, though its limitation is that it must limit itself in order to act, in itself it is beyond all limitation. God removes this restriction. But, as I say, I will expand a bit on this later.

2. 2If I choose to be something inhuman or something that contradicts the basic human form of existence (such as a human being who has rights, but who is alone in having them, as when I choose to murder someone), then my actions cannot achieve this goal, because in fact I can't be inhuman. Hence, I can choose to be something like this, but what I actually choose in so choosing is to be frustrated in achieving the goal implied in the choice. Since this choice can never be erased by me once it is made (no choice can be), and since I do not cease to exist at death, this damns me to eternal frustration. This also is what God "wants" of me if I choose it, because he created me in such a way that it is within my nature to be able to make such self-frustrating choices if I want.

The Redemption, by the way, does not remove this. All it does is make it possible (by a miracle) to erase the self-frustrating choice as an operative act in my life. But it does not automatically do so, and does not do so at all unless I change my way of thinking and, out of love of my Master, choose to become a different person (the one without such a choice as part of his life). The point here is that if I do not choose to take advantage of this, and would be damned rather than repent, God is perfectly happy with this, and I have achieved his purpose in creating me: I have made myself into what I want to be (in this case, frustrated).