Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life/Preface
The accompanying pages contain the unfinished Sketch of a Theory of Life by S. T. Coleridge. Everything that fell from the pen of that extraordinary man bore latent, as well as more obvious indications of genius, and of its inseparable concomitant—originality. To this general remark the present Essay is far from forming an exception. No one can peruse it, without admiring the author’s comprehensive research and profound meditation; but at the same time, partly from the exuberance of his imagination, and partly from an apparent want of method (though, in truth, he had a method of his own, by which he marshalled his thoughts in an order perfectly intelligible to himself), a first perusal will, to many readers, prove unsatisfactory, unless they are prepared for it by an introduction of a more popular character. This purpose, therefore, I shall endeavour to accomplish; it being to be understood that I by no means make myself responsible either for Mr. Coleridge’s speculations, or for the manner in which they are enunciated; and that, on the contrary, I shall occasionally indicate views from which I dissent, and expressions which perhaps the author himself, on revision, would have seen reason to correct.
It is clear that Mr. Coleridge considers the unity of human nature to result from two combined elements, Body and Soul; that he regards the latter as the principle of Reason and of Conscience (both which he has largely treated in his published works), and that the “Life,” which he here investigates, concerns, in relation to mankind, only the Body. He is far, however, from confining the term “Life” to its action on the human body; on the contrary, he disclaims the division of all that surrounds us into things with life, and things without life; and contends, that the term Life is no less applicable to the irreducible bases of chemistry, such as sodium, potassium, &c., or to the various forms of crystals, or the geological strata which compose the crust of our globe, than it is to the human body itself, the acme and perfection of animal organization. I admit that there are certain great powers, such as magnetism, electricity, and chemistry, whose action may be traced, even by the limited means which science at present possesses, in admirable gradation, from purely unorganized to the most highly organized matter: and, I think, that Mr. Coleridge has done this with great ingenuity and striking effect; but what I object to is, that he applies to the combined operation of these powers, in all cases, the term Life. If we look back to the early history of language, we shall probably find that this word, and its synonymes in other tongues, were first employed to denote human life, that is, the duration of a human being’s existence from birth to the grave. As this existence was marked by actions, many of which were common to man with other animals, those animals also were said to “live;” but the extension of the notion of Life to the vegetable creation is comparatively a recent usage,—and hitherto (in this country at least) no writer before Mr. Coleridge, so far as I know, has maintained that rocks and mountains, nay, “the great globe itself,” share with mankind the gift of Life. On the other hand, there are well known and energetic uses of the word “Life,” to which Mr. Coleridge’s speculations, as contained in the accompanying pages, are wholly inapplicable. Almost all nations, even the most savage, agree in the belief that individuals of the human race, after they have ceased to exist in this mortal life, will exist in another state, to which also the word Life is universally applied; but to this latter Mr. Coleridge’s views of magnetism, electricity, &c., can hardly be thought applicable. Still less can they apply to “Life” in its spiritual sense; as, when Moses says to the Jews, “the words of the law are your life,” (Deut. xxxii, 47,) and when our Saviour says, “the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life;” (John, vi, 63;) and again, “I am the resurrection and the life,” (John, xi, 25.) Upon the whole, therefore, I think it would have been advisable in Mr. Coleridge to have adopted a different phraseology, in tracing the operation of certain natural agencies first on unorganized, and then on organized bodies.
Another word, of which I consider an improper use to be made in this Essay, is “Nature.” I find this imaginary being introduced on all occasions, and invested with attributes of personality, which may be extremely apt to make a false impression on young or thoughtless minds. At one time, “the life of Nature” is spoken of; then we are informed that “Nature has succeeded. She has created the intermediate link between the vegetable world and the animal.” Again, it is said that “Nature seems to fall back, and to reexert herself on the lower ground, which she had before occupied;”—and elsewhere we are told that “Nature never loses what she has once learnt; though in the acquirement of each new power she intermits or performs less energetically the act immediately preceding. She often drops a faculty, but never fails to pick it up again. She may seem forgetful and absent; but it is only to recollect herself with additional as well as recruited vigour in some after and higher state.” Now the word “Nature,” in any intelligible sense, means nothing but that method and order by which the Almighty regulates the common course of things. Nature is not a person; it is not active; it neither creates nor performs actions more or less energetically, nor learns, nor forgets, nor reexerts itself, nor recruits its vigour. Perhaps it will be said that all this is merely figurative language. Figurative language is very much misplaced in strict philosophical investigations; and these particular figures, which might be quite consistent with the atheistical philosophy of Lucretius, sound ill in the mouth of a pious Christian, which Mr. Coleridge undoubtedly was. He probably adopted them unconsciously from Bacon; but Bacon’s use of the word Nature ought rather to have served as a warning than an example; for it has contributed, in no small degree, to the atheistical philosophy of recent times.
The prevalent natural philosophy of the present day is that which is called corpuscular, because it assumes the existence of a first matter, consisting of corpuscula or atoms, which are supposed to be definite, though extremely small, quantities, invested with the qualities of extension, impenetrability, and the like; and from certain combinations of these qualities, Life is considered, by some persons, to be a necessary result. This philosophy Mr. Coleridge combats. The supposed atoms, he says, are mere abstractions of the mind; and Life is not a thing, the result of atomic arrangement or action, but is itself an act, or process. He refutes various definitions of Life, such as, that it is the sum of all the functions by which death is resisted; or, that it depends on the faculty of nutrition, or of anti-putrescence. His own definition he proposes merely as an hypothesis. Life, he says, is “the principle of Individuation,” that is to say, it is a power which discloses itself from within, combining many qualities into one individual thing. This individualising principle unites, as he conceives, with the cooperating action of magnetism, electricity, and chemistry. At least, such is the inference to be drawn from the present state of science; though it is easily conceivable that future discoveries may bring us acquainted with powers more directly connected with Life. The most general law governing the action of Life, as a tendency to individuation, is here designated polarity; for instance, the power termed magnetism (not meaning that there is necessarily an actual tangible magnet in the case) has two poles, the negative, answering to attraction, rest, carbon, &c., and the positive, answering to repulsion, mobility, azote, &c.; and as the magnetic needle which points to the north necessarily indicates thereby the south, so the power disposing to rest has necessarily a counteracting influence disposing to mobility, between which lies the point of indifference. Now this quality, to which Mr. Coleridge gives the name of polarity, is in truth nothing more than an exemplification of the doctrine of opposites, the πρός ἂλληλα ἀντικειμένω ἀντίθεσις, which the Eleatic Philosopher, in Plato’s “Sophist,” applies to the idea of existence and non-existence, and which accompanies every other idea as its shadow, whether in physics, in intellect, or in morals; for the finite is opposed to the infinite, the false to the true, the evil to the good, and so forth; which we say, not to derogate from the value of Mr. Coleridge’s application of the doctrine, of which he has very ably availed himself; but merely to explain the term polarity, by referring it, as a species, to a higher genus of intellectual conceptions.
Reverting to the three powers before mentioned, it is not to be understood, that on Mr. Coleridge’s hypothesis of Life, they ever act separately; but in the different modifications of Life, at one time the power of magnetism predominates, at another that of electricity, and at another that of chemistry. Magnetism is stated to act as a line, electricity as a surface, and chemistry as a solid; for all which Mr. Coleridge refers to certain physical experiments. The predominance of magnetism is characterised by reproduction, that of electricity by irritability; and irritability, which first appears as muscle, gradually rises into sensibility as nerve. The limits of a mere introduction will not permit me to examine Mr. Coleridge’s first principles more in detail; and I can but briefly notice their application to the successive stages of ascent, from the first rudiments of individualised Life, in the lowest classes of the mineral, vegetable, and animal creation, to its crown and consummation in the human body. Beginning with magnetism, by which, in its widest sense, he means what he improperly calls the first and simplest differential act of Nature (he should rather have said the first and simplest conception that we can form of a differential act of God, in the work of creation), he supposes the pre-existence of chaos, not, indeed, in the Miltonic sense—
“For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four champions fierce, Strive there for mast’ry, and to battle bring Their embryon atoms,—”
but rather as one vast homogeneous fluid, and even that he suggests not as a historical fact, but as the appropriate symbol of a great fundamental truth. The first effort of magnetic power, the first step from indifference to difference, from formless homogeneity to independent existence, is seen in the tranquil deposition of crystals; and an increasing tendency to difference is observable in the increasing multitude of strata, till we come to organic life; of which the vegetable and animal worlds may be regarded as opposite poles; carbon prevailing in the former and azote in the latter; and vegetation being characterised by the predominance of magnetism in its highest power, as reproduction; whilst the animal tribes evince the power of electricity, as shown in irritability and sensibility. Passing over the forms of vegetation, we come to the polypi, corallines, &c., in which individuality appears in its first dawn; for a multitude of animals form, as it were, a common animal, and different genera pass into each other, almost indistinguishably. The tubipora of the corals connects with the serpula of the conchylia. In the mollusca the separation of organs becomes more observable; in the higher species there are rudiments of nerves, and an exponent, though scarcely distinguishable, of sensibility. In the snail, and muscle, the separation of the fluid from the solid is more marked, yet the prevalence of the carbonic principle connects these and the preceding classes, in a certain degree, with the vegetable creation. “But the insect world, taken at large (says Mr. Coleridge) appears as an intense Life, that has struggled itself loose, and become emancipated from vegetation—Floræ liberti, et libertini!” In insects we first find the distinct commencement of a separation between the muscular system, that is, organs of irritability, and the nervous system, that is, organs of sensibility; the former, however, maintaining a pre-eminence throughout, and the nerves themselves being probably subservient to the motory power. With the fishes begins an internal system of bones, but these are the results of a comparatively imperfect formation, being in general little more than mere gristle. In birds we find a sort of synthesis of the powers of fish and insects. In all three, the powers are under the predominance of irritability; but sensibility, which is dormant in the insect, begins to awaken in the fish, and, though still subordinate, is quite awake in the bird, of which no better proof can be given than its power of sound, with the rudiments of modulation, in the large class of singing birds, and in some others a tendency to acquire and to imitate articulate speech. The next step of ascent brings us to the mammalia; and in these, including beasts and men, the complete and universal presence of a nervous system raises sensibility to its due place and rank among the animal powers. Finally, in Man the whole force of organic power attains an inward and centripetal direction, and the “apex of the living pyramid”becomes a fit receptacle for Reason and Conscience.
It is much to be regretted, that the estimable Author did not live to put a finishing hand to this Essay; but the part completed involves speculations of so interesting a nature, and presents such striking marks of deep and original thought, that the Editor, to whose hands it was committed, did not feel himself justified in withholding it from the judgment of the public.