Lecture 2: On Being Alive

Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we saw, reading Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, how Socrates, in prison and awaiting execution,  developed the concept of teleological explanation, explaining by reference to purposes rather than by reference to causes. The true explanation of the fact that he was sitting on a bench in prison was not his bones and muscles but his will, his decision not to escape, and his reason for that decision, which was the moral goodness of obeying the law.  On that basis Socrates proposed a new conception of science.  It is a moral, or moralized, conception. Early Greek science, like modern science, aimed to explain the mysterious phenomena of nature by discovering the productive causes that necessarily give rise to them.  Anaxagoras would point to Socrates’s bones and muscles because they are empirical, and therefore we can be certain about them: we can see and feel them. But Socrates argued that a true and satisfactory explanation of any phenomenon is achieved only by showing the purpose it serves, its goodness.  He insisted that this kind of explanation should be aimed at, not only for human actions, where we always use it anyway, but also for the inanimate universe as well, for the sun, the moon and the stars and planets.  All facts were to be explained through values.


We turn now to what his disciples, Plato and Aristotle, made of this proposal.  What we find is that they made very different things of it. The key question turns out to be: what is life? What does it mean, to be alive?


The first answer to this question was given by Plato. Everybody recognizes that his answer is correct.  Yet it was immediately rejected, and it has continued to be rejected from his day to ours.  I will first describe how he comes to give this answer, and in the second place I will comment on its significance.

 Plato gives his answer in the course of his last and longest dialogue, the Laws, written towards the end of his life. In this dialogue he makes the first philosophical argument known to history for the existence of God. It is in the course of developing this argument about God that he expounds also his conception of what it means to be alive, for this plays a central role in his argument about God.

The scene of the dialogue is set on the island of Crete. Two men are meeting in the city of Cnossus for the purpose of walking on pilgrimage to the cave and temple of Zeus, said to be at a considerable distance. One of them, Megillus, comes from Sparta. The other, Cleinias, is himself a Cretan. The Cretan authorities, he mentions, plan to send some of their citizens out to found a new colony on a remote part of the island and have charged a group including Cleinias with the task of drawing up the laws for it. Megillus and Cleinias are joined by a stranger from Athens, whose name is never given but who shares their desire to make the pilgrimage. He quickly takes charge of the conversation.

One of the many questions provoked by Plato’s dialogues concerns his own philosophy. His dialogues are descriptions of fictional conversations. In these conversations he himself never appears as a character under his own name. Consequently he never tells us explicitly what he himself thinks about any of the many questions he discusses. The reader is left to deduce, as far as he can, how much of what Plato puts on the lips of other speakers is what he himself thinks. But this dialogue is different: although Plato’s name does not appear in it, it is generally felt that the unnamed Athenian Stranger does indeed represent, for perhaps the first and certainly for the last time, the authentic voice of the father of philosophy.

The Athenian Stranger is led to the question of God through the question of justice. This seems to be a natural transition. Other philosophers, notably Locke and Kant, have followed a similar path. The Athenian remarks that the best guarantee of justice is belief in the Gods.  “No one who, in obedience to the laws,  believed that there were Gods, ever intentionally did any unholy act, or uttered any unholy word.”  He begins by laying out the worldview that leads skeptics to deny the existence of God or the Gods.  It is a view familiar to us today. It assumes that the basic material elements of the cosmos—earth and fire and air and water—came first, and that life and mind and intelligence developed only later and out of them, and by chance.  This is the view, Plato says, of the “physical investigators,” the early scientists such as Axenagoras. (Plato’s terminology makes a distinction between nature and “art” (τεχνη), meaning, not what is artistic, but the distinctive operation of mind as opposed to nature, as in “artifact.”)

“They say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance… that fire and water, and earth and air, all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order—earth, and sun, and moon, and stars—they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them  —  of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only.”

The atheists say the Gods are just creatures of men’s imagination and have been created “by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them.”   Consequently they reject the idea that there is a natural moral law; they hold “that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.”  ..”that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions, these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others, and not in legal subjection to them.”

Plato now introduces a new term into the discussion, “soul” (ψυχη).  By this word he means the source or principle of life within any living thing.  The soul of a plant or animal or man is what makes the plant or animal or man alive.  The realm of mind is therefore also the realm of soul, since to have a mind means one is alive.  “Does not he who talks in this way conceive fire and water and earth and air to be the first elements of all things? These he calls nature, and out of these he supposes soul to be formed afterwards.”   We will return to this concept shortly: it will play a central role. For the moment it will be helpful to understand that in speaking of soul he intends initially to speak not so much of some particular being, the soul, but of a unique kind of being, soul, without the definite article.

Plato’s immediate aim is to explain the existence of motion. This word has a broader meaning for him than for us. When we think of motion, we tend to think of motion in place, or from one place to another, locomotion.  But for Plato, as later for Aristotle, “motion” can stand not only for locomotion, but for all kinds of motion, and by extension all kinds of change.  This includes coming into being and passing away, generation and corruption, composition and decomposition, both what Aristotle would later call substantial change and accidental change. That is, “motion” for Plato includes what we would call the act of creation.  If we can explain the origin of motion, we will have explained the origin of the universe.

Beginning then with the question of motion:  “Some one says to me, ‘O Stranger, are all things at rest and nothing in motion, or is the exact opposite of this true, or are some things in motion and others at rest?’   To this I shall reply that some things are in motion and others at rest.”  This might seem to us a strange question, but there were earlier thinkers in Greece, such as Parmenides and Zeno,  who denied that there really was motion: it was a logical contradiction, they maintained, and must be an illusion. For they believed that fundamentally all reality was one, a single entity, and that the apparent existence of numerous beings must be mistaken. That was the point of Zeno’s parable of Achilles and the tortoise: logically, he argued, Achilles could never catch the tortoise.

It is helpful in understanding what Plato and Aristotle and indeed all writers on motion say about it before Galileo, to know that they do not have the concept of inertia, which he was the first properly to develop. They assume that for an inanimate thing to keep moving, some external force must keep being applied to it. It was long a great puzzle therefore why a thrown stone should keep going once it has left the hand, or cannonballs should keep flying once they have left the area of the explosion, for it is not evident where this necessary external force might be. Aristotle proffered the theory that, once the ball is moving,  the air must rush around from the front to the back of it and push it from behind. Galileo’s historic achievement was to realise definitively that no such continuous external force is necessary: it is a law of nature that bodies that are once moving will keep moving, without any such external force, just as bodies that are at rest will stay at rest, so long as no external force is applied to them.  This is the meaning of inertia.  It was because the ancients did not have the idea of inertia, which applies only to locomotion, that they could lump all change together under the heading of “motion.” Einstein, of course, was to explain that all motion and rest of bodies is relative to other bodies.  Although, as I say, it is helpful to understand this, it makes no difference to the validity of Plato’s argument about God.

After these preliminaries Plato now takes the first step of his argument proper. The Athenian Stranger makes a distinction between two very different kinds of motion. There is one kind of motion that can move other things but cannot move itself. And there is another kind that in addition to being able to move other things can also move itself. 

Cleinias accepts this distinction. The first kind can move other things only when it is itself moved by something else. The Athenian now asks him: “And which of these…motions ought we to prefer as being the mightiest and most efficient? Cleinias replies, “I must say that the motion which is able to move itself is ten thousand times superior to all the others.”

The Athenian now takes the second step in his argument by asking:  If at some time all things were at rest, which of these two principles of motion would first spring up among them?  Cleinias answers, “Clearly the self-moving; for there could be no change in them arising out of any external cause; the change must first take place in themselves. The Stranger now clinches his argument. “Then we must say that self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.”  The first motion in the universe must be self-motion. It is impossible that it should be the other kind.

One more step is required to complete the argument.  The distinction between what can move only because it has been moved by something else and what has the power to move itself is precisely the distinction between non-life and life, the inanimate and the animate.  Living beings, asserts Plato, have the power to move themselves, non-living beings do not.  “[A]ll things which have a soul change, and possess in themselves a principle of change.[1]  In the history of the universe or in the overall scheme of things, life must come before non-life.  It makes no sense to think that life could evolve out of what is lifeless. The self-moving must necessarily come first. That is, soul.  Soul, therefore, must be the origin of all things.

If this is true, says Plato, then it follows that the whole realm of mind will be prior to the realm of body, not only in time but also in dignity and importance.  “Then thought and attention and mind and art and law will be prior to that which is hard and soft and heavy and light; and the great and primitive works and actions will be works of art; they will be the first, and after them will come nature and works of nature…”  “these…will be under the government of art and mind.”  “Then characters and manners, and wishes and reasonings, and true opinions, and reflections, and recollections are prior to length and breadth and depth and strength of bodies, if the soul is prior to the body.” Our view of the universe should give priority to the things of mind and the spirit.

We must be careful, then, says Plato, how we speak of nature. Many people who speak of nature assume that nature is the first creative power. But if soul exists first, that is not true. If soul comes first, “then in the truest sense and beyond other things soul may be said to exist by nature.”

Summing his argument up, he states that there are two things which lead men to believe in the Gods:

One is the argument about the soul, which has been already mentioned—that it is the eldest and most divine of all things, to which motion attaining generation gives perpetual existence; the other was anargument from the order of the motion of the stars, and of all things under the dominion of the mind which ordered the universe. If a man look upon the world not lightly or ignorantly, there was never any one so godless who did not experience an effect opposite to that which the many imagine. For they think that those who handle these matters by the help of astronomy, and the accompanying arts of demonstration, may become godless, because they see, as far as they can see, things happening bynecessity, and not by an intelligent will accomplishing good… No man can be a true worshipper of the Gods who does not know these two principles–that the soul is the eldest of all things which are born, and is immortal and rules over all bodies.

Living things move themselvesthey possess in themselves a principle of change.”  Precisely for us today this statement of Plato’s is of central importance.  I will go so far as to say it is the key insight for our time into the nature of the world, an insight we should honor and treasure. Of course it is mysterious. We do not understand how anything can move or change itself. Furthermore it does not enable us to make measurable or empirical predictions, which we could use to expand our factual knowledge of the material world, as science does. Yet our consciousness of ourselves attests to the truth of Plato’s statement in every waking moment of our lives. We know directly that we ourselves constantly initiate movement and change.  From the point of view of our experience it is nothing more than common sense. We witness examples of it in nature every day. The seed sprouts into a bush of its own accord, the bird flies and the cat prowls. At the present time astronomers are hunting for planets that show evidence of life, a hunt which has aroused a great degree of public interest, which highlights how precious we consider it to be. Yet this simple expression of obvious fact is banned by science. In its place science sets up the universal reign of mechanicism. The philosophy of mechanicism recognizes in the universe only one kind of causation: mechanical causation, the iron law of cause and effect. It is true that the law of cause and effect holds good in the realm of the non-living.  This is why in its understanding of the inanimate world science can be so successful. In that world predictions can be made and theories can be tested.  But the world of the living is different. They are two different realms, and we need two different principles to deal with them. For the realm of the inanimate we need the principle of causation; for the realm of the living, the principle of self-movement.  Everybody knows that life is something unique and precious, something of an altogether different order from the nonliving and the dead.  If a living thing were nothing more than a complicated machine, why would we conceivably be so excited about the possibility of discovering it on another planet?  Inevitably of course there will be questions about the relationship between the two orders. But we should resist all attempts to confuse the two or to reduce the living to the non-living. If Plato is right and life came before nonlife, if there is to be any reduction it should be the other way round.

When Plato states that living things move themselves and have in themselves a principle of change, it is important to be clear that he is not speaking of mechanistic movement or change, or the change brought about by what Aristotle later would call an efficient or productive cause. Plato is speaking of teleological change, change self-guided towards a goal or purpose.   To repeat what I said earlier, teleological change is reciprocal: the roots of the tree create the leaves, and the leaves create the roots. The seed knows it has a destiny, to become a tree, which will be its fulfillment, and it judges those things good that help it to do that, and those things bad that hinder it.

Ever since the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 the intellectuals of the Western world have viewed the universe as a gigantic machine. At the time that was a great advance. A machine is predictable, and that enables us to make theories about it which can be tested. But a machine has no place for life. Consequently it has no place for freedom. Free will is a form of self-movement. Without free will there is no genuine morality. Morality is replaced by utility. Without free will there is no genuine responsibility. Without free will there is no genuine self.  A self is living, and living things move themselves.

At the present time in the view of many commentators Western civilization is in serious danger of losing its morale. Morale comes, among other things, from confidence in one’s powers. But only a self has powers, and only a living being can have a self. If the West is to regain the high morale it once had, it must first regain its sense of self.  To do that it must regain Plato’s insight into the dynamic uniqueness of life.

[1] 904.