Vegetal Life: Jonathan Dolhenty

The Philosophy of Man
A brief introduction to rational psychology
Adapted from various sources and edited
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Part Three: Vegetal Life

Vegetal life is the life of plants. For a plant is truly a living body. It is not only a body with physical, mechanical, and chemical activities; its has these, but they are under a precise direction and application which is the plant’s, and not their own. A plant is a body that exists and lives by reason of its substantial form or vegetal soul.

A plant is alive, but it lacks any form of knowing. The fundamental form of knowing in bodies is that which is exercised by a sense or by senses; a living body with one or more senses is called a sentient body or is said to have sentiency. A plant is a body that truly alive but lacks sentiency.

The vegetal operations (that is, vital operations) are three: nutrition, growth, and vital generation or tendency to reproduce.

  • Nutrition: Nutrition is the operation by which a living body feeds itself or nourishes itself. It does this by the marvelous power it has to take in alien substances and turn these into its own substance. Nutrition is a most complex process, involving a multitude of subsidiary operations; it is a mode of action essentially different from anything observable in nonliving bodies.
  • Growth: A living body, by means of nutrition, tends to build itself up into a rounded and mature organism. This is accomplished by the wonderful multiplication of cells and the building of these cells into utterly diverse parts, all of which fit perfectly into a unified plan.
  • Vital Generation: A living body tends, by nutrition, to build itself into a mature being, and to be fruitful of other beings of the same essential type. Whether this tendency reaches its normal goal, whether it actually results in reproduction, is not here under discussion. The fitness of the living body to be a parent-body is the point we make, and towards this fitness a living body by its nature strives or tends.

These three vital operations are found in every living body. They are therefore found in plants. And since plants are the lowest in the scale of living things, these three vital operations are all the life functions possessed by plants.

Vital operations are produced by the respective powers or faculties of the soul or life-principle in a living body. For no created substance acts immediately, but through the mediation of its powers to act. These powers in a living body are, in themselves, qualities of the substance called the soul or life-principle. Hence, while we say truly that the plant itself exercises its vital operations, we speak more precisely when we say that the plant exercises these operations by means of the powers for such function which inhere, in the plant-soul or principle of life. A plant, therefore, is a living body which normally possesses three vital powers or faculties, the nutritive power, the growing or augmentative power, and the generative or reproducing power.

The life-principle or soul in plants is called a material principle. Now, a thing is material for one of two reasons: either it is made of bodily matter, or it depends upon what is made of bodily matter. The plant-soul or life-principle is not made of matter. It cannot be severed from the plant and looked at separately. It is the substantial form of the plant, and a substantial form is simple and not made of parts. But the plant-soul depends for existence and function upon the organism (the arranged and articulated body) which it constitutes as an existing living body; which it builds up and activates. Without the organism, the functions of nutrition, growth, and vital generation cannot be exercised; and where the plant-soul can exist it can function. Therefore, without the organism the plant-soul cannot exist or function. It is, in consequence, called a material life-principle, not a spiritual life-principle as the human soul is.

The plant-soul is essentially simple, that is, not composed of parts. Hence, in itself, it is indivisible. Yet since the plant-organism is divisible, and since a suitable division of the plant-organism is ordinarily capable of retaining life as a new and separate plant, the life-principle of a plant is said to be accidentally divisible according to the divisibility of the plant-organism into such parts as will be able to retain and exercise plant-life. Thus the plant-soul is actually one but potentially multiple.

The plant-soul is generated as the plant itself is generated. It comes along, so to speak, as an essential constituent, determinant, or form. Similarly, the plant-soul perishes as the plant perishes. It is not a substance capable of independent existence, as a spirit is, but ceases to be with the cessation of the plant from being. This sort of generation and corruption is called accidental.

A plant-soul, accidentally generated, is said to be educed from the potentiality of matter, and, accidentally corrupted, it is said to be reduced to the potentiality of matter. In other words, the plant-soul is not created anew for each plant; not is the plant-soul annihilated when the plant dies. It is drawn out of the capability of matter to be substantially constituted as a plant; it falls back into such unactualized capability when the plant dies.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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