Life is like a flame that burns on a wick. If it burns too strongly, it could destroy itself in a flash, but if it doesn’t burn strongly enough, only the faintest puff of breath is needed to blow it out completely.
Life is a complicated word. It refers not only to an event, but supposedly also a thing that specifically characterizes the event. It is an abstract idea that involves “animation” or self-directed movement, the exchanging of energy through various chemical and physical processes of matter, and most importantly the antithesis condition of death, which is also represented in our conceptualizations as both an event and a thing which characterizes the event. In the simplest explanation, life and death are opposites which mutually define one another. For instance, we do not consider rocks to be alive because they do not show signs of life, though life in the form of living things can very frequently be found around or even using rocks to stabilize and support themselves, and so rocks are included in the lives of these things. I doubt we will ever discover a “life substance”, but I want to bring attention to a certain conceptualization of life as something metaphysical, meaning something that is not directly physical but is nonetheless tied and known in terms of the physical, be it substance or phenomenon.
When I say “life in the form of living things”, I mean that quite literally. Imagine understanding life not as some sort of energy which mobilizes the otherwise lifeless by giving them impetus, but consider instead the idea that life is a phenomenon, and death is its cessation rather than absence. With this understanding, life can be seen as entirely detached from physical substance, and more precisely characterized by the nature of the events surrounding the physical matter and the directions of its change. However, it is vital to note that we do not experience life in terms of our conceptualizations of it, but rather our subjectively felt interpretations.
Just as life is contrasted with death, living is contrasted with dying. A thing cultivating life is a thing that lives strongly, whereas a thing that fails to cultivate life and its impetus is “dying” if not fully dead. Though we have great cognitive capacities, first and foremost, we experience existence in an abstractly indefinable manner (hence the theme of this essay). To establish a reasonable and sensible conception for what life is, we must also turn to our own experiences, rather than solely relying on networks or systems of conceptual definitions. Concepts are of course practical instruments for further developing our non-conceptual understanding or knowledge.
Our experience of life is necessarily complicated because we have a rather uncomfortable relationship with experiencing death. Understandably, we are afraid to die for fear of never again living, and it is not guaranteed that even if conscious experience continues after death, we would still retain our personal identity. Our conscious mind resists destabilization and reformation even in life, and rightly so, because a change in the form of our egoic consciousness can be interpreted as a death for the previous formation. This is what is referred to in spiritual descriptions of psychological transformation in which a person sheds their old form in order to grow or develop new systems like a snake that sheds its skin, a phoenix that burns and is reborn, or a government that reform its laws and institutions.
Life as a metaphysical phenomenon is understood in association and contrast with death and dying. To refer to an example of the abstract ways in which a person can die metaphysically, consider Socrates’s conversation with Crito as Socrates sits in prison, awaiting his execution. Crito, a friend of Socrates who does not wish for him to die, offers to take Socrates away from Athens where he can continue to live his life in exile. Though he could accept and escape execution, Socrates declines, preferring instead to accept his execution and whatever lies afterwards. His main reason for doing so is that Socrates only has one desire, to philosophize, and he would not be able to philosophize in any way he saw meaningful if he were to be exiled from the society and culture he wished to share his philosophy with. To Socrates, being exiled from Athens was a worse fate than death, because there was a chance that after death he could indulge in direct knowledge of metaphysical truth (which Plato called the realm of forms), in exile he would be alienated from the philosophy and pupils he valued so highly, and, most importantly, as a wise man and not one of the many, Socrates lived by his principles and was willing to die rather than compromise himself or his ideals. To Socrates, leaving Athens to escape his execution would be the death of his principles, the death of his philosophy, and the death of who he knew himself to be; so, he told Crito not to worry, because the point of his philosophy was not just to attempt to discover human excellence and the essence of moral virtue, but to prepare for death and dying.
Socrates saw philosophy as that which readies a person to accept the inevitability of death, just as enlightenment aids a person in detaching from his/her tendencies to cling to things that cause them suffering. However, the acceptance of death is precisely what allowed him to be so full of the power of life, defining his own existence just as any other animal risks death to grow and progress as the living thing they are. It is also here that we see how metaphysical death corrupts the individual person until they eventually succumb to mortality.
Going back to interpreting life through our experiences rather than our conceptions, suffering is as much a sign of death and dying as joy is a sign of life and its fulfillment. Though we can evolve through suffering and develop new understandings and cultivate competence by learning from it, inescapable, oppressive suffering is just as likely to lead to our death as any illness or harm that we can possibly endure. What we must understand about life is that the fact that our bodies are moving and our hearts are beating is not enough. In order to really be alive and not just feel like some thing that exists, we must have something for which we live, otherwise we are just alive to not be dead. Whether they are our principles, a vocational mission, or simply the excitement of existence only matters to the individual, but we must each question what really gives us life and fulfills our sense of existence. The answer to that question is all you’ll ever need to be sure of how to understand your life.
The featured photo is a segment of the School of Athens by Renaissance artist Raphael, and is located in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican.