- Philosophies of plant feeling and intelligence
- Plato's vision of the plant soul
- The neo-Plantonic plant powers
Philosophies of plant feeling and intelligence
Empedocles (ca.490-430BC) and, apparently, Pythagoras (ca.570-495BC) thought that plants had souls and that human souls, for instance, can come to animate plants. He claimed indeed to have been a bush in a previous incarnation and urged others to follow a vegetarian lifestyle, since the bodies of animals are the dwelling places of punished souls.
Such beliefs persisted to later times. This would add sense to why a noble, such as Henry II's father Geffrey Plante Genest, might have been associated by ca.1170 with the untainted origins of a plant shoot. The meaning of Plante Genest could date back to earlier times. The Plantapilosa name of Bernard Plantapilosa of Aquitaine (ca.870AD) means hairy shoot and this motif is readily portrayed as a sprig of broom (i.e., planta genista), which itself is a hairy shoot.
This simple motif of untainted, emerging plant growth predates the Toledo influx of Greek teachings into Western Europe. These 12th and 13th century Toledo translations concerned mainly Aristotelian works that had been preserved in Arabic. These tranlations created a substantial new dawn in Western European philosophy.
The nickname Lionheart for Henry II's son Richard I can be ascribed to a much later date than the ninth-century, untainted shoot nickname of Henry's father, Geffrey Plante Genest. Gerald of Wales (d ca.1223) compared Richard to a Lion; and, the Lionheart nickname can already be found circulating in a thirteehth-century romance of Richard's life.[Richard K Emmerson, Key Figures in Medieval Europe (Routledge, 2013)]
Another Greek philosopher dismissed by the Aristotelian work De Plantis was Anaxagoras (ca.500-428), who remarked that there is nous (mind/intelligence) in many things and that it is alike in all things that it is in, both large and small (i.e., there is mind and soul in all living things). For him, nous is the mover (e.g. of the cosmos), yet also a controller of all things that have soul (including plants).
Democritus (ca.460-370) was also dismissed in the Toledo translation of De Plantis. Most of his teachings have been gleaned from subsequent texts, some of which may have represented his works better than others.[Shirley Muriel Louise Darcus, thesis, 1968] It is accordingly conjectured that Democritus taught that it was the presence and nature of soul that imparted movement to the body and, moreover, soul was also the cause of thought and sensation; also, soul was distributed throughout the whole body (as for Anaxagoras), with the atoms of soul alternating those of the body. According to Philoponos, the mind and the soul are the same thing. According to Sextus Empiricus, we have that the mind is spread through the body, just like the soul, the two being in fact the same thing. However, we then need to consider as erroneous a statement from Aetius, which appears to confuse Democritus with the teachings of Epicurus and Plato, thereby ascribing the mind to the brain. Disregarding this possible confusion, De Plantis could well have been correct in its assertion that Democritus, as well as Anaxagoras and Empedicles, taught that plants had intelligence.
Either way, it is the pseudo-Aristotelian work De Plantis that makes a point of sweeping away earlier neo-Platonic beliefs. It clearly records beliefs, albeit without accepting them, that plants had both feeling and intelligence. The dismissal of this appears, as if necessary, in the context of Julius Planta as well as in the context of the subsequent Plant surname in Staffordshire.
Plato's vision of the plant soul
Like Anaxagoras, Plato (ca.425-348) asserts the predominance of the mind, though admitting an element of necessity which reason is incapable of subduing. As Benjamin Jowell [translator of Timaeus] puts it, [Plato] soars to the heavens, and then, as if his wings were suddenly clipped, he walks ungraciously and with difficulty upon the earth. There is a parallel of this, even in the very different world of modern Physics, whereby elegant hypotheses can acquire awkward anomalies when observations of reality are brought more fully to bear. Though Plato's works predate the full rigours of the scientific method, in a rather similar way he evidently felt the need to limit the powers of a plant's soul to less than those of the above three philosophers, stating (Timaeus 77a,b):Blending it with other shapes and senses, they [the Gods] engendered a substance akin to that of man, so as to form another living creature: such are the cultivated trees and plants and seedsIt is perhaps a little unexpected that Plato here identifies specifically the cultivated plant life, continuing..,cultivated tree and plants and seeds which have been trained by husbandry and are now domesticated amongst us; but formerly the wild kinds only existed, these being older that the cultivated kinds.This has parallels later, in Stafordshire, where the vegetal is identified particularly as not only a basic soul but also a cultivated one. Plato continues...For everything, in fact, which partakes of life may justly and with perfect truth be termed a living creature. Certainly that creature which we are now describing [i.e., the vegetal] partakes of the third kind of soul [i.e., the appetitive soul] ... which shares not at all in opinion and reasoning and mind but in sensation, pleasant and painful, together with desires.Plato also teaches that there are three parts to the human soul, just as there are three aspects to human society, and that we commonly feel the tug of contrary impulses drawing us in different directions at once.[Republic, 436b] Plato adds [Republic 443d] that justice comes from a balance of three types to the soul...
In particular, Plato associates the vegetal with the appetitive whereby each of us wants or feels many things, most of which must be deferred in the face of rational pursuits if we are to achieve a salutary degree of self control. Hence, cultivated plants desire such things as drink, food, sex and even money in the sense of a basic soul with the training of moderation.
- Rational soul - thinking, wisdom;
- Spirited soul - willing, courage; and,
- Appetitive soul - feeling, moderation.
Quite unlike the more mechanistic nature of Aristotle's vegetative soul, we can see plants in Plato's vision, as having disciplined appetites partaking in a balanced whole. As we shall see, this vision still holds much later, in a feudal context in Staffordshire, with late medieval Plants partaking in a regime of their Plantagenet-line feudal masters.
The neo-Plantonic plant powers
Vestiges of feeling in the appetitive soul, beyond that of the vegetative, persisted beyond the classical times of Julius Planta. Western European philosophy in medieval times was dominated largely by neo-Platonism.
Plotinus (ca.204-270AD), though placing the plant soul below the intellective, asserted that the One (or World-soul) passed its vegetal function into material flesh to produce desire, though an outburst of passion was through animal spirits.Soul ... in the All is ... unbroken ... it exists in every single part of everything having even vegetal life [Enneads 4:3:8]
The All ... must be an expression of the Supreme. ... All that is Divine Intellect will rest eternally above ... will communicate here through the channel of Soul ... one phase [the World-soul] maintaining the unvarying march [of the kosmic circuit] the other [the soul of the individual] adopting itself to times and season. [Enneads 4:3:12]
Even the Intellectual-Principal, which is before all in the kosmos, has ... its destiny ... of abiding intact above, and giving downwards [Enneads 4:3:13]
The souls peering forth from the Intellectual Realm descend first to the heavens and there put on a body ... they proceed to bodies progressively more earthy. [Enneads 4:3:15]
Similarly the vegetal function in the soul .. admiting such locations as that of desire at the liver and emotional activity at the heart .. [Enneads 4:3:19]
the veins and blood have their origin the liver: ... the phase of the soul which has to do with desire was allocated to the liver. ... Blood .. is the vehicle most apt to animal spirit: the heart, then, its well-spring ... the fixed centre of the ebullition of the passionate nature. [Enneads 4:9:23]
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) was much influenced by Plotinus though he later turned more to the Christian Gospel, such as while confessing his ignorance of whether individual souls were created directly by God as opposed to by nature's propagation.because the Lord says, [Matthew 6:30] If God so clothes the grass of the field .. [in the present tense suggesting continuously] shall we on that account say, that the lillies are not produced from the original source of their own kind.[On the Soul and its Origin (Book I) 26.XVI.5]Pliny wrote that a lilly was the tallest of flowers and yet hangs its head downwards, which is not inappropriate to the humility of Christ. Lillies are mentioned fifteen times in the Bible such as in Hosea 14:5 which speaks of God's blessing of Israel, stating that he shall grow as a lily which suggests the augmentative power of the vegetal, as the lilly grows rapidly and commonly in many places.
Still later, in northern Italy, grass turves are being worshipped as embodying generative powers [perhaps the soil of the turves being seen rather like the liver, in this case as a source through roots to the grass]. Atto of Vercelli (924-61AD) complained in a sermon of the custom practised by `little trollops' (meretriculae) in his diocese of baptising branches and turves, calling them co-parents and hanging them in their houses, afterwards guarding them assiduously quasi religionis causa. This hence continues to ascribe human characteristics to vegetable matter - in this case, it ascribes the generative (parenting) power of the appetitive soul to branches and turves. The generative power of the vegetative soul, along with its nutritive and augmentative powers, became orthodox through the scholasticism of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and others. Nonetheless, the idea that this soul was more actively appetitve evidently remained with those such as Wycliffe, who preferred Plato to Aristotle, at least into the late fourteenth century.
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