Life as a cause

Cut the tip of of a blade of grass, and it will grow itself a new one. Even if one says that there is nothing but elements, what the grass just did exceeds the power of the elements as such. It did something for its own sake, for itself. No diamond ever did such a thing, no star, and certainly no blade of grass that has died.

But we don’t say that life exceeds the power of the elements because it has a property that goes beyond the power of any element; this would be the fallacy of composition- like saying because no one human being could reproduce, then no two of them together could either. And it’s simply true that life is in one sense nothing more than a composition or harmony of elements, if we mean that if we take all the elements away the living thing disappears too; and if we could reassemble all the parts perfectly there might well be a living thing in front of us.

And yet it is impossible for life to be a mere composition or harmony of elements, because composition and harmony are effects of some operation, but the very first thing that we know about life is that it is a certain cause of operation. The very reason we call the thing alive is because it acts for itself and causes things. This is the general form of the argument that Socrates gives to Simmias in the Phaedo.

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