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On Youth and Old Age, On Life and Death, On Breathing

By Aristotle
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On Youth and Old Age, On Life and Death, On Breathing

By Aristotle

Written 350 B.C.E

Translated by G. R. T. Ross

    Table of Contents

Section 1
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Part 1

We must now treat of youth and old age and life and death. We must probably also at the same time state the causes of respiration as well, since in some cases living and the reverse depend on this.

We have elsewhere given a precise account of the soul, and while it is clear that its essential reality cannot be corporeal, yet manifestly it must exist in some bodily part which must be one of those possessing control over the members. Let us for the present set aside the other divisions or faculties of the soul (whichever of the two be the correct name). But as to being what is called an animal and a living thing, we find that in all beings endowed with both characteristics (viz. being an animal and being alive) there must be a single identical part in virtue of which they live and are called animals; for an animal qua animal cannot avoid being alive. But a thing need not, though alive, be animal, for plants live without having sensation, and it is by sensation that we distinguish animal from what is not animal.

This organ, then, must be numerically one and the same and yet possess multiple and disparate aspects, for being animal and living are not identical. Since then the organs of special sensation have one common organ in which the senses when functioning must meet, and this must be situated midway between what is called before and behind (we call 'before' the direction from which sensation comes, 'behind' the opposite), further, since in all living things the body is divided into upper and lower (they all have upper and lower parts, so that this is true of plants as well), clearly the nutritive principle must be situated midway between these regions. That part where food enters we call upper, considering it by itself and not relatively to the surrounding universe, while downward is that part by which the primary excrement is discharged.

Plants are the reverse of animals in this respect. To man in particular among the animals, on account of his erect stature, belongs the characteristic of having his upper parts pointing upwards in the sense in which that applies to the universe, while in the others these are in an intermediate position. But in plants, owing to their being stationary and drawing their sustenance from the ground, the upper part must always be down; for there is a correspondence between the roots in a plant and what is called the mouth in animals, by means of which they take in their food, whether the source of supply be the earth or each other's bodies.

Part 2

All perfectly formed animals are to be divided into three parts, one that by which food is taken in, one that by which excrement is discharged, and the third the region intermediate between them. In the largest animals this latter is called the chest and in the others something corresponding; in some also it is more distinctly marked off than in others. All those also that are capable of progression have additional members subservient to this purpose, by means of which they bear the whole trunk, to wit legs and feet and whatever parts are possessed of the same powers. Now it is evident both by observation and by inference that the source of the nutritive soul is in the midst of the three parts. For many animals, when either part-the head or the receptacle of the food-is cut off, retain life in that member to which the middle remains attached. This can be seen to occur in many insects, e.g. wasps and bees, and many animals also besides insects can, though divided, continue to live by means of the part connected with nutrition.

While this member is indeed in actuality single, yet potentially it is multiple, for these animals have a constitution similar to that of Plants; plants when cut into sections continue to live, and a number of trees can be derived from one single source. A separate account will be given of the reason why some plants cannot live when divided, while others can be propagated by the taking of slips. In this respect, however, plants and insects are alike.

It is true that the nutritive soul, in beings possessing it, while actually single must be potentially plural. And it is too with the principle of sensation, for evidently the divided segments of these animals have sensation. They are unable, however, to preserve their constitution, as plants can, not possessing the organs on which the continuance of life depends, for some lack the means for seizing, others for receiving their food; or again they may be destitute of other organs as well.

Divisible animals are like a number of animals grown together, but animals of superior construction behave differently because their constitution is a unity of the highest possible kind. Hence some of the organs on division display slight sensitiveness because they retain some psychical susceptibility; the animals continue to move after the vitals have been abstracted: tortoises, for example, do so even after the heart has been removed.

Part 3

The same phenomenon is evident both in plants and in animals, and in plants we note it both in their propagation by seed and in grafts and cuttings. Genesis from seeds always starts from the middle. All seeds are bivalvular, and the place of junction is situated at the point of attachment (to the plant), an intermediate part belonging to both halves. It is from this part that both root and stem of growing things emerge; the starting-point is in a central position between them. In the case of grafts and cuttings this is particularly true of the buds; for the bud is in a way the starting-point of the branch, but at the same time it is in a central position. Hence it is either this that is cut off, or into this that the new shoot is inserted, when we wish either a new branch or a new root to spring from it; which proves that the point of origin in growth is intermediate between stem and root.

Likewise in sanguineous animals the heart is the first organ developed; this is evident from what has been observed in those cases where observation of their growth is possible. Hence in bloodless animals also what corresponds to the heart must develop first. We have already asserted in our treatise on The Parts of Animals that it is from the heart that the veins issue, and that in sanguineous animals the blood is the final nutriment from which the members are formed. Hence it is clear that there is one function in nutrition which the mouth has the faculty of performing, and a different one appertaining to the stomach. But it is the heart that has supreme control, exercising an additional and completing function. Hence in sanguineous animals the source both of the sensitive and of the nutritive soul must be in the heart, for the functions relative to nutrition exercised by the other parts are ancillary to the activity of the heart. It is the part of the dominating organ to achieve the final result, as of the physician's efforts to be directed towards health, and not to be occupied with subordinate offices.

Certainly, however, all saguineous animals have the supreme organ of the sensefaculties in the heart, for it is here that we must look for the common sensorium belonging to all the sense-organs. These in two cases, taste and touch, can be clearly seen to extend to the heart, and hence the others also must lead to it, for in it the other organs may possibly initiate changes, whereas with the upper region of the body taste and touch have no connexion. Apart from these considerations, if the life is always located in this part, evidently the principle of sensation must be situated there too, for it is qua animal that an animal is said to be a living thing, and it is called animal because endowed with sensation. Elsewhere in other works we have stated the reasons why some of the sense-organs are, as is evident, connected with the heart, while others are situated in the head. (It is this fact that causes some people to think that it is in virtue of the brain that the function of perception belongs to animals.)

Part 4

Thus if, on the one hand, we look to the observed facts, what we have said makes it clear that the source of the sensitive soul, together with that connected with growth and nutrition, is situated in this organ and in the central one of the three divisions of the body. But it follows by deduction also; for we see that in every case, when several results are open to her, Nature always brings to pass the best. Now if both principles are located in the midst of the substance, the two parts of the body, viz. that which elaborates and that which receives the nutriment in its final form will best perform their appropriate function; for the soul will then be close to each, and the central situation which it will, as such, occupy is the position of a dominating power.

Further, that which employs an instrument and the instrument it employs must be distinct (and must be spatially diverse too, if possible, as in capacity), just as the flute and that which plays it-the hand-are diverse. Thus if animal is defined by the possession of sensitive soul, this soul must in the sanguineous animals be in the heart, and, in the bloodless ones, in the corresponding part of their body. But in animals all the members and the whole body possess some connate warmth of constitution, and hence when alive they are observed to be warm, but when dead and deprived of life they are the opposite. Indeed, the source of this warmth must be in the heart in sanguineous animals, and in the case of bloodless animals in the corresponding organ, for, though all parts of the body by means of their natural heat elaborate and concoct the nutriment, the governing organ takes the chief share in this process. Hence, though the other members become cold, life remains; but when the warmth here is quenched, death always ensues, because the source of heat in all the other members depends on this, and the soul is, as it were, set aglow with fire in this part, which in sanguineous animals is the heart and in the bloodless order the analogous member. Hence, of necessity, life must be coincident with the maintenance of heat, and what we call death is its destruction.

Part 5

However, it is to be noticed that there are two ways in which fire ceases to exist; it may go out either by exhaustion or by extinction. That which is self-caused we call exhaustion, that due to its opposites extinction. [The former is that due to old age, the latter to violence.] But either of these ways in which fire ceases to be may be brought about by the same cause, for, when there is a deficiency of nutriment and the warmth can obtain no maintenance, the fire fails; and the reason is that the opposite, checking digestion, prevents the fire from being fed. But in other cases the result is exhaustion,-when the heat accumulates excessively owing to lack of respiration and of refrigeration. For in this case what happens is that the heat, accumulating in great quantity, quickly uses up its nutriment and consumes it all before more is sent up by evaporation. Hence not only is a smaller fire readily put out by a large one, but of itself the candle flame is consumed when inserted in a large blaze just as is the case with any other combustible. The reason is that the nutriment in the flame is seized by the larger one before fresh fuel can be added, for fire is ever coming into being and rushing just like a river, but so speedily as to elude observation.

Clearly therefore, if the bodily heat must be conserved (as is necessary if life is to continue), there must be some way of cooling the heat resident in the source of warmth. Take as an illustration what occurs when coals are confined in a brazier. If they are kept covered up continuously by the so-called 'choker', they are quickly extinguished, but, if the lid is in rapid alternation lifted up and put on again they remain glowing for a long time. Banking up a fire also keeps it in, for the ashes, being porous, do not prevent the passage of air, and again they enable it to resist extinction by the surrounding air by means of the supply of heat which it possesses. However, we have stated in The Problems the reasons why these operations, namely banking up and covering up a fire, have the opposite effects (in the one case the fire goes out, in the other it continues alive for a considerable time).

Part 6

Everything living has soul, and it, as we have said, cannot exist without the presence of heat in the constitution. In plants the natural heat is sufficiently well kept alive by the aid which their nutriment and the surrounding air supply. For the food has a cooling effect [as it enters, just as it has in man] when first it is taken in, whereas abstinence from food produces heat and thirst. The air, if it be motionless, becomes hot, but by the entry of food a motion is set up which lasts until digestion is completed and so cools it. If the surrounding air is excessively cold owing to the time of year, there being severe frost, plants shrivel, or if, in the extreme heats of summer the moisture drawn from the ground cannot produce its cooling effect, the heat comes to an end by exhaustion. Trees suffering at such seasons are said to be blighted or star-stricken. Hence the practice of laying beneath the roots stones of certain species or water in pots, for the purpose of cooling the roots of the plants.

Some animals pass their life in the water, others in the air, and therefore these media furnish the source and means of refrigeration, water in the one case, air in the other. We must proceed-and it will require further application on our part-to give an account of the way and manner in which this refrigeration occurs.

Part 7

A few of the previous physical philosophers have spoken of respiration. The reason, however, why it exists in animals they have either not declared or, when they have, their statements are not correct and show a comparative lack of acquaintance with the facts. Moreover they assert that all animals respire-which is untrue. Hence these points must first claim our attention, in order that we may not be thought to make unsubstantiated charges against authors no longer alive.

First then, it is evident that all animals with lungs breathe, but in some cases breathing animals have a bloodless and spongy lung, and then there is less need for respiration. These animals can remain under water for a time, which relatively to their bodily strength, is considerable. All oviparous animals, e.g. the frog-tribe, have a spongy lung. Also hemydes and tortoises can remain for a long time immersed in water; for their lung, containing little blood, has not much heat. Hence, when once it is inflated, it itself, by means of its motion, produces a cooling effect and enables the animal to remain immersed for a long time. Suffocation, however, always ensues if the animal is forced to hold its breath for too long a time, for none of this class take in water in the way fishes do. On the other hand, animals which have the lung charged with blood have greater need of respiration on account of the amount of their heat, while none at all of the others which do not possess lungs breathe.

Part 8

Democritus of Abdera and certain others who have treated of respiration, while saying nothing definite about the lungless animals, nevertheless seem to speak as if all breathed. But Anaxagoras and Diogenes both maintain that all breathe, and state the manner in which fishes and oysters respire. Anaxagoras says that when fishes discharge water through their gills, air is formed in the mouth, for there can be no vacuum, and that it is by drawing in this that they respire. Diogenes' statement is that, when they discharge water through their gills, they suck the air out of the water surrounding the mouth by means of the vacuum formed in the mouth, for he believes there is air in the water.

But these theories are untenable. Firstly, they state only what is the common element in both operations and so leave out the half of the matter. For what goes by the name of respiration consists, on the one hand, of inhalation, and, on the other, of the exhalation of breath; but, about the latter they say nothing, nor do they describe how such animals emit their breath. Indeed, explanation is for them impossible for, when the creatures respire, they must discharge their breath by the same passage as that by which they draw it in, and this must happen in alternation. Hence, as a result, they must take the water into their mouth at the same time as they breathe out. But the air and the water must meet and obstruct each other. Further, when they discharge the water they must emit their breath by the mouth or the gills, and the result will be that they will breathe in and breathe out at the same time, for it is at that moment that respiration is said to occur. But it is impossible that they should do both at the same time. Hence, if respiring creatures must both exhale and inhale the air, and if none of these animals can breathe out, evidently none can respire at all.

Part 9

Further, the assertion that they draw in air out of the mouth or out of the water by means of the mouth is an impossibility, for, not having a lung, they have no windpipe; rather the stomach is closely juxtaposed to the mouth, so that they must do the sucking with the stomach. But in that case the other animals would do so also, which is not the truth; and the water-animals also would be seen to do it when out of the water, whereas quite evidently they do not. Further, in all animals that respire and draw breath there is to be observed a certain motion in the part of the body which draws in the air, but in the fishes this does not occur. Fishes do not appear to move any of the parts in the region of the stomach, except the gills alone, and these move both when they are in the water and when they are thrown on to dry land and gasp. Moreover, always when respiring animals are killed by being suffocated in water, bubbles are formed of the air which is forcibly discharged, as happens, e.g. when one forces a tortoise or a frog or any other animal of a similar class to stay beneath water. But with fishes this result never occurs, in whatsoever way we try to obtain it, since they do not contain air drawn from an external source. Again, the manner of respiration said to exist in them might occur in the case of men also when they are under water. For if fishes draw in air out of the surrounding water by means of their mouth why should not men too and other animals do so also; they should also, in the same way as fishes, draw in air out of the mouth. If in the former case it were possible, so also should it be in the latter. But, since in the one it is not so, neither does it occur in the other. Furthermore, why do fishes, if they respire, die in the air and gasp (as can be seen) as in suffocation? It is not want of food that produces this effect upon them, and the reason given by Diogenes is foolish, for he says that in air they take in too much air and hence die, but in the water they take in a moderate amount. But that should be a possible occurrence with land animals also; as facts are, however, no land animal seems to be suffocated by excessive respiration. Again, if all animals breathe, insects must do so also. many of them seem to live though divided not merely into two, but into several parts, e.g. the class called Scolopendra. But how can they, when thus divided, breathe, and what is the organ they employ? The main reason why these writers have not given a good account of these facts is that they have no acquaintance with the internal organs, and that they did not accept the doctrine that there is a final cause for whatever Nature does. If they had asked for what purpose respiration exists in animals, and had considered this with reference to the organs, e.g. the gills and the lungs, they would have discovered the reason more speedily.

Part 10

Democritus, however, does teach that in the breathing animals there is a certain result produced by respiration; he asserts that it prevents the soul from being extruded from the body. Nevertheless, he by no means asserts that it is for this purpose that Nature so contrives it, for he, like the other physical philosophers, altogether fails to attain to any such explanation. His statement is that the soul and the hot element are identical, being the primary forms among the spherical particles. Hence, when these are being crushed together by the surrounding atmosphere thrusting them out, respiration, according to his account, comes in to succour them. For in the air there are many of those particles which he calls mind and soul. Hence, when we breathe and the air enters, these enter along with it, and by their action cancel the pressure, thus preventing the expulsion of the soul which resides in the animal.

This explains why life and death are bound up with the taking in and letting out of the breath; for death occurs when the compression by the surrounding air gains the upper hand, and, the animal being unable to respire, the air from outside can no longer enter and counteract the compression. Death is the departure of those forms owing to the expulsive pressure exerted by the surrounding air. Death, however, occurs not by haphazard but, when natural, owing to old age, and, when unnatural, to violence.

But the reason for this and why all must die Democritus has by no means made clear. And yet, since evidently death occurs at one time of life and not at another, he should have said whether the cause is external or internal. Neither does he assign the cause of the beginning of respiration, nor say whether it is internal or external. Indeed, it is not the case that the external mind superintends the reinforcement; rather the origin of breathing and of the respiratory motion must be within: it is not due to pressure from around. It is absurd also that what surrounds should compress and at the same time by entering dilate. This then is practically his theory, and how he puts it.

But if we must consider that our previous account is true, and that respiration does not occur in every animal, we must deem that this explains death not universally, but only in respiring animals. Yet neither is it a good account of these even, as may clearly be seen from the facts and phenomena of which we all have experience. For in hot weather we grow warmer, and, having more need of respiration, we always breathe faster. But, when the air around is cold and contracts and solidifies the body, retardation of the breathing results. Yet this was just the time when the external air should enter and annul the expulsive movement, whereas it is the opposite that occurs. For when the breath is not let out and the heat accumulates too much then we need to respire, and to respire we must draw in the breath. When hot, people breathe rapidly, because they must do so in order to cool themselves, just when the theory of Democritus would make them add fire to fire.

Part 11

The theory found in the Timaeus, of the passing round of the breath by pushing, by no means determines how, in the case of the animals other than land-animals, their heat is preserved, and whether it is due to the same or a different cause. For if respiration occurs only in land-animals we should be told what is the reason of that. Likewise, if it is found in others also, but in a different form, this form of respiration, if they all can breathe, must also be described.

Further, the method of explaining involves a fiction. It is said that when the hot air issues from the mouth it pushes the surrounding air, which being carried on enters the very place whence the internal warmth issued, through the interstices of the porous flesh; and this reciprocal replacement is due to the fact that a vacuum cannot exist. But when it has become hot the air passes out again by the same route, and pushes back inwards through the mouth the air that had been discharged in a warm condition. It is said that it is this action which goes on continuously when the breath is taken in and let out.

But according to this way of thinking it will follow that we breathe out before we breathe in. But the opposite is the case, as evidence shows, for though these two functions go on in alternation, yet the last act when life comes to a close is the letting out of the breath, and hence its admission must have been the beginning of the process.

Once more, those who give this kind of explanation by no means state the final cause of the presence in animals of this function (to wit the admission and emission of the breath), but treat it as though it were a contingent accompaniment of life. Yet it evidently has control over life and death, for it results synchronously that when respiring animals are unable to breathe they perish. Again, it is absurd that the passage of the hot air out through the mouth and back again should be quite perceptible, while we were not able to detect the thoracic influx and the return outwards once more of the heated breath. It is also nonsense that respiration should consist in the entrance of heat, for the evidence is to the contrary effect; what is breathed out is hot, and what is breathed in is cold. When it is hot we pant in breathing, for, because what enters does not adequately perform its cooling function, we have as a consequence to draw the breath frequently.

Part 12

It is certain, however, that we must not entertain the notion that it is for purposes of nutrition that respiration is designed, and believe that the internal fire is fed by the breath; respiration, as it were, adding fuel to the fire, while the feeding of the flame results in the outward passage of the breath. To combat this doctrine I shall repeat what I said in opposition to the previous theories. This, or something analogous to it, should occur in the other animals also (on this theory), for all possess vital heat. Further, how are we to describe this fictitious process of the generation of heat from the breath? Observation shows rather that it is a product of the food. A consequence also of this theory is that the nutriment would enter and the refuse be discharged by the same channel, but this does not appear to occur in the other instances.

Part 13

Empedocles also gives an account of respiration without, however, making clear what its purpose is, or whether or not it is universal in animals. Also when dealing with respiration by means of the nostrils he imagines he is dealing with what is the primary kind of respiration. Even the breath which passes through the nostrils passes through the windpipe out of the chest as well, and without the latter the nostrils cannot act. Again, when animals are bereft of respiration through the nostrils, no detrimental result ensues, but, when prevented from breathing through the windpipe, they die. Nature employs respiration through the nostrils as a secondary function in certain animals in order to enable them to smell. But the reason why it exists in some only is that though almost all animals are endowed with the sense of smell, the sense-organ is not the same in all.

A more precise account has been given about this elsewhere. Empedocles, however, explains the passage inwards and outwards of the breath, by the theory that there are certain blood-vessels, which, while containing blood, are not filled by it, but have passages leading to the outer air, the calibre of which is fine in contrast to the size of the solid particles, but large relatively to those in the air. Hence, since it is the nature of the blood to move upwards and downwards, when it moves down the air rushes in and inspiration occurs; when the blood rises, the air is forced out and the outward motion of the breath results. He compares this process to what occurs in a clepsydra.

Thus all things outwards breathe and in;- their flesh has tubes
Bloodless, that stretch towards the body's outmost edge,
Which, at their mouths, full many frequent channels pierce,
Cleaving the extreme nostrils through; thus, while the gore Lies hid, for air is cut a thoroughfare most plain. And thence, whenever shrinks away the tender blood,
Enters the blustering wind with swelling billow wild.
But when the blood leaps up, backward it breathes. As when
With water-clock of polished bronze a maiden sporting, Sets on her comely hand the narrow of the tube
And dips it in the frail-formed water's silvery sheen; Not then the flood the vessel enters, but the air, Until she frees the crowded stream. But then indeed Upon the escape runs in the water meet. So also when within the vessel's deeps the water
Remains, the opening by the hand of flesh being closed,
The outer air that entrance craves restrains the flood At the gates of the sounding narrow, upon the surface pressing,
Until the maid withdraws her hand. But then in contrariwise
Once more the air comes in and water meet flows out.
Thus to the to the subtle blood, surging throughout the limbs, Whene'er it shrinks away into the far recesses Admits a stream of air rushing with swelling wave,
But, when it backward leaps, in like bulk air flows out.

This then is what he says of respiration. But, as we said, all animals that evidently respire do so by means of the windpipe, when they breathe either through the mouth or through the nostrils. Hence, if it is of this kind of respiration that he is talking, we must ask how it tallies with the explanation given. But the facts seem to be quite opposed. The chest is raised in the manner of a forge-bellows when the breath is drawn in-it is quite reasonable that it should be heat which raises up and that the blood should occupy the hot region-but it collapses and sinks down, like the bellows once more, when the breath is let out. The difference is that in a bellows it is not by the same channel that the air is taken in and let out, but in breathing it is.

But, if Empedocles is accounting only for respiration through the nostrils, he is much in error, for that does not involve the nostrils alone, but passes by the channel beside the uvula where the extremity of the roof of the mouth is, some of the air going this way through the apertures of the nostrils and some through the mouth, both when it enters and when it passes out. Such then is the nature and magnitude of the difficulties besetting the theories of other writers concerning respiration.

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