The Great Conversation: Life and Death
By Gabriel Blanchard
Life is short, art is long. But what exactly does that saying mean?
The subject of life and death is often at the back of our minds: at a distressing time like this present, far more so. It may seem frivolous to put forward such material for household discussion, or even private speculative reflection, at such a juncture—but, truly, it is at times like these that we realize what teeth these ideas can really have.
The differing kinds of physical life have formed a longstanding topic of the Great Conversation, from Genesis’ “every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth after his kind” to more abstract “information vegetable animal and mineral.” Much early science, and naturally all agriculture and herding, relied on knowledge of this kind. Originally a mainly practical matter, the classification of plants and animals (and things that are neither) has since been complicated for biologists by viruses. They behave in many respect like parasites, possessing genes and reproducing themselves, but (unlike all other living things, parasites included) viruses are not made of cells and cannot reproduce except by “reprogramming” the cells of other beings. Whether they should count as living things is accordingly a disputed question.
The nature of the differences among plant, animal, and human life—or in Aristotle’s terms, vegetable, animal, and rational soul—are another perennial subject. The line between plant and animal has been less debated than that between animals and man: what makes human life specifically human? This latter distinction has been the field of a great variety of fierce debates, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to to discussions of abortion to the activism of animal-rights organizations.
This specifically human kind of life is generally called a soul, and contrasted with the body. In some contexts the contrast is mere distinction, while in others, a definite “side” is chosen as to which one is the primary. In Homer, the souls of men slain in battle are spoken of as departing while “the men themselves” are left behind. Conversely, in the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue describing the last conversation and ultimate death of Socrates, the hero puns on the similar-sounding Greek words for “body” and “tomb,” averring that the soul is the real self. In a quite different tack, the Abrahamic religions developed a fundamentally integrative idea of the human person that (typically) affirms an afterlife, but also asserts that God will eventually resurrect all souls to bodily life.
Discussions like these raise in turn the question of the immortality of the soul. Many (not only atheists and materialists) have presumed death to be an absolute end of individual life, yet traditions about ghosts and spirits seem to be as old as humanity. What happens to a soul after death is naturally fruitful soil for discussion, as few if any of us have died and seen for ourselves: even for those of us with complete confidence in our convictions about the afterlife or the lack of it, our fear and our curiosity are not entirely slaked.
The Bhagavad Gītā
Hippocrates (attributed), On the Nature of Man
John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Luis Villareal, “Are Viruses Alive?”