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THE NATURE OF LIFE.
The difficulty in arriving at a correct idea of Life-Our ignorance of the
essence of matter—'The reason of our belief in its reality-False use made of this mode of reasoning-General classification of substances Different opinions of the general nature of life-Not the play of chemi. cal affinities–Nor the mere properties of sensibility and contractibility Definition of Life-Difference between mineral and vital organizationBetween mere motion and vital action-Life does not consist in the mutual action of bodies on each other—The meaning of organization-Life not organization--Not a property--Not a state-Not a principle-Gen. ix. 4–Lev. xvii. 11-But a series of relative actions appropriate to the design of the Creator in the individual being.
If life, as has been shewn in the former chapter, is the result of the Spirit's agency, we may expect some difficulty in attempting to arrive at a correct idea of it; for there is mystery in all His operations. Some things pertaining to it, will, doubtless, remain forever inaccessible to human research; but we may, nevertheless, approximate it in some general idea of its nature. This is perhaps all we should attempt. But in order to this, it will be necessary for us to institute a careful examination into the whole sub. ject of Life. Like all other terms used in spiritual matters, it is originally taken from material objects, and by virtue of some assumed analogy between them, becomes a fit representative of what we cannot subject to the scrutiny of our senses. And, doubtless, much of the confusion and perplexity in which this subject is involved, arise from a disposition to transfer our philosophy in matters of sense, and the sciences dependent on material things, to those of morals and the mind.
We are ignorant of the essence of matter in all its com. binations. It is only by inference that we can prove its real existence: for, those things, which strike our senses, and which contribute, so essentially, to our idea of any body, such as shape, color, texture, weight, solidity, and the like, are mere properties, not the body itself. We feel, that we may legitimately infer the existence of some substratum, in which these, or other properties are combined. To this we give the name of matter, and talk of it with the utmost confidence, as a thing really existent; for we cannot easily persuade ourselves, that the great Creator would have communicated to us such organs of sense --been at such pains to prepare their complicated machinery, and adapt them to the mere purpose of reporting falsehood. The common-sense of mankind will not tolerate a doubt on this subject.
He that denies the existence of matter, is thought to be bordering on derangement. Yet some have doubted, and, with no little acuteness of reasoning, denied that there is a material world. The apostle says, "by faith we understand (but not by reason, the worlds were framed by the word of God; so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” With such proof of the reality of matter, we can rest satisfied and allow ourselves to think and speak of it, though our knowledge of it extends no further than to its properties. This mode of reasoning has been applied to the subject of life, and it has been thought perfectly conclusive as to the reality of its essence.
That there is a subtle material principle which is the cause of those phenomena to which we give the name of life, has been inferred from the existence of what have been called vital properties. Whether this is a correct mode of speaking, in reference to the vital phenomena, will appear in the course of this chapter.
All material substances may be divided into two general
1 Heb. xi. 3.
classes. They are either animate or inanimate-living or dead. The latter exhibit certain physical properties, and are subject to certain physical laws: which things are true of the former also, to a certain extent. Living bodies, however, exhibit what are sometimes called properties too, but of a different kind, and which often seem to be in contrast with those of dead matter. These supposed properties are sometimes termed life, at others the vital force, or the vital properties and powers. By some it has been described as an effect, produced by the action of certain impelling causes, and to be nothing but a forced state of existence--the result of organization. By others it has been called a cause, itself controuling organization. The reader will at once perceive how perplexed and intricate is the theme of this chapter. It is requisite, however, that we attempt to unravel it.
We perceive a series of phenomena having a constant relation to each other, and succeeding each other in a constant and uniform order: as, for example, in the animal frame, we discover the various processes of respiration, circulation, nutrition, secretion, digestion, growth, &c. We give the name of life to these phenomena, and freely admit that there is an agency of the Spirit of God, the great author of life, in their production, which we never can comprehend. It “is in God we live and move and have our being.”
Some, indeed, have endeavored to solve the phenomena of life, and the theory of elective affinities among the molecules or elementary parts of living bodies, has been supposed satisfactory. But the fact is, that the vital phenomena, and the chemical affinities, are direct antagonists. We perceive the fair and beauteous form of lovely woman. What graceful movements! What generous warmth! What delicate organization! What exquisite sensibilities! All combine to constitute a most fascinating form. The cheeks are crimsoned with a ruby blush. The eyes are brilliant with the fires of genius, or sparkle with the animation of delight, or dazzle with the lustre of thought, or shed the mid rays of love. The countenance beams with intelligence, or glows with passion, and the soft tones of sympathizing tenderness drop in mellifluous accents from the rosy lips;—can these be the mere play of chemical affinities? They spring from some vastly superior cause. For let but death intervene;—in an instant sense and motion cease. A clam my coldness takes the place of generous warmthbeauty gives way to hideousness—the eyes lose all their lustre, and, with a frightful glare, shrink into their sockets--the mouth stands horribly gaping, and emits a fætid odor-a livid hue creeps upon the crimson cheeks, and ruby lips--the flesh becomes blue, then green, then black, and the once elegant and voluptuous form evaporates in infectious exhalations, or dissolves into a putrid sanies, and leaves but a handful of earth and dust. It is death which a wakens the elective affinities, and they rapidly accomplish the disorganization, dismemberment, and dissipation of the whole frame.
“The human body,” says a medical writer, 1 "maintains a successful warfare with, and effectually resists the incessant and combined attack of all the forces of the elements, often, for more than an hundred years, and then, when the divine principle does at length retire and yield up its fortress, it is in consequence of subjection to a cause widely different from that of being expelled by the triumphant power of its assailants. But when the soul has once fled, then, indeed, the chemical allinities come into play, and the rapidity of their devastation is terrible. In a few days all traces of organization are destroyed, and in a few years two or three gaseous substances distributed through the at
1 Dr. Ward's Introductory Lecture.
mosphere, some saline solutions as widely diffused among the waters of the earth, and a few particles of earthy. mat. ter, are all that remain of the proud fabric of man,
The theory of sensibility and contractility, as constituting vital properties, though apparently solving many more of the phenomena of life, and much more satisfactorily than that of the chemical affinities, will be found also to fail in some important respects. What are called vital properties may be distinguished into voluntary and involuntary. The involuntary may be admitted as properties of matter, but what are the voluntary? What is the will that creates the difference? It is surely something different from the properties themselves: so that more is necessary to the solution of the phenomena of life, than merely to predicate sensibility and contractility of particular modifications of matter, and to make life consist in them.
It is unnecessary to notice all the different theories of life. Each one has had its admirers and its day, but has given place in due season to some more imposing and successful rival; so that, at this hour, notwithstanding all the discoveries that have been made with regard to the more hidden operations of nature, the subject of life remains exceedingly perplexed. And we venture to assert it will never be entirely extricated from this perplexity. In general, theories on the subject have been partial, comprehending but a small portion of the innumerable varieties of life. In treating of such a general subject, it will not do to refer its origin to particular causes which apply only to one, or at most, to few species.
We have already traced the origination of life to God the Holy Spirit, the common fountain of all animated being—the unit of this interminable series. Not presuming to search the mind of the Spirit, nor to know how He exerts His energies, we are content to remain ignorant of life in