The Original Meaning of Life was in 1836 (Part 1)

Anyone in search of the original “meaning of life” need look no further than Sartor Resartus, an 1836 novel by Thomas Carlyle. In the story, a German philosopher named Teufelsdröckh (whose name literally means devil-dung) declares that “the meaning of Life itself” is “no other than Freedom.” He also explains the source of this meaning: God himself had mysteriously written the mandate “Work thou in Well-doing” and hid it in our hearts “till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom.”1 Of course, “Freedom” is only the “original” meaning of life in the sense that Carlyle happened to coin the phrase.2

Widely read and hugely influential, Sartor Resartus was acclaimed for its biting parody of prevailing trends in philosophy, history, and science. The novel’s commentary centers on the eccentric professor Teufelsdröckh, whose revolutionary yet bizarre “Clothes Philosophy” is examined by a highly skeptical narrator, the anonymous “Editor.”

Teufelsdrockh undertakes no less than to expound the moral, political, even religious Influences of Clothes; he undertakes to make manifest, in its thousand-fold bearings, this grand Proposition, that Man’s earthly interests “are all hooked and buttoned together, and held up, by Clothes.” He says in so many words, “Society is founded upon Cloth;” and again, “Society sails through the Infinitude on Cloth…”

the “Editor,” Sartor Resartus3

Hidden beneath several layers of irony, Sartor Resartus is a surprisingly honest exploration of the themes and contradictions of the “Spirit of the Clothes” (Esprit de Costumes) — and by the end of the book one gets the feeling that the “Editor,” to some degree a stand-in for Carlyle himself, was genuinely converted by Teufelsdröckh’s incomprehensible meanderings. 

In the “meaning of Life” passage, Teufelsdröckh claims that God imbued human life with “Freedom” as its guiding principle. Crucially, this essence of humanity is knowable by humans, whose task is to “decipher” the gospel hidden in themselves and their actions. There are two key observations I would like to point out about this understanding of life’s meaning. First, the meaning of life is knowable precisely because it is acted out in history, and can be discovered as man gradually progresses toward the divine ideal of “Freedom.” In fact, Teufelsdröckh’s own “Clothes Philosophy” is portrayed as deeply flawed but ultimately commendable for its contributions to human progress and understanding. Second, the fictional philosopher is saying that if we seek knowledge of all meaning, the answers are to be found in “Life.” And also clothes.

Fig. 1: “Herr Diogenes,” aka Teufelsdröckh, illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan for an 1898 edition of Sartor Resartus. Scanned image by George P. Landow.4

Today, the notion that some understanding of “life” is fundamental to any interpretation of human nature and society is almost completely uncontroversial, but in 1836 it represented the cutting edge of philosophy and science. As it turns out, prior to the 19th century the question of the “meaning of life” was never really posed, at least not in those terms. This is in contrast to the present day, where the phrase is thrown about so commonly that it has become the archetypal generic-yet-profound philosophical pondering. Often, the question is posed with a certain air of universality, as if it were a question that has always been asked and always will be asked — an eternal mystery for humans to “decipher,” just like Teufelsdröckh said. In a sense, that isn’t entirely wrong;  the phrase “the meaning of life” is largely a convenient short-hand for a bundle of different problems: the divine, suffering, fate, ethics, human nature, the universe, and the afterlife to name just a few.

But why would “life” specifically appear so central to all of these questions? In this multipart series I’m going to explore the emergence of this question of life — how it developed a life of its own between the 17th and 19th centuries, and how it came to occupy such a central position in philosophy. This is the origin story of the life sciences as we know it; and although it will likely not offer conclusive answers to the “meaning of life,” it can certainly help to clarify a question that most of us take for granted. By the conclusion, I will also have illustrated that Teufelsdröckh’s hidden gospel of freedom is more closely related to biology and contemporary conceptions of “life” than one might expect. 


To start, it should be said that nothing equivalent to modern “biology” existed before the 16th century at the earliest. There is no doubt that ancient societies were capable of producing quite sophisticated medical treatises and theories of life, but none of these resemble the empirical systems produced by the modern research institutions that first appeared in Western Europe. This isn’t to say that ancient science and philosophies aren’t important–to the contrary, classical Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurveda, and a number of other traditions remain highly relevant to today’s practice of medicine. But even though many premodern practices were extraordinary in their own right, it was specifically in Western Europe that biology was born; for this reason, any history of biology should begin in reference to its Greek forebears.

As Jacques Roger put it, at the start of the 16th century “no one had yet considered nature as a whole consisting of material, perceptible, and measurable phenomena,” nor had they attempted to describe the regular operation of nature or living things.5 There were therefore not yet any “biologists,” but rather physicians and doctors — and as such, the works of Greek scholars were distorted and adapted to fit contemporary sensibilities. Most importantly, elements of Greek theories were invoked haphazardly to accord with a doctor’s primary concerns: healing and ethics. In order to meet these demands, European doctors took advantage of every explanatory device they had access to, and as a result they conceived of a human body directed in irregular and imprecise ways by a number of unknowable “occult” forces including divine will, the soul, and various affinities or harmonies between things in nature.6 Under this paradigm, however, physicians were able to establish more effective treatment practices and medicines based on natural causes.

Fig. 2: Illustration of a mirror concentrating the sun’s rays on a flask, from the cover page of the German edition of Coelum philosophorum (1527), an alchemical treatise by Phillipp Ulstad. Ulstad pioneered modern distillation techniques and explained how to extract the “fifth essence” from a variety of plants, minerals, and metals, as well as their various medical applications.7 

Most of all, the premodern understanding of “life” centered around the “soul,” which was thought to be responsible for organizing and controlling the body. And when it came to the working conceptions of “life” and the “soul,” no Greek thinker was more influential than Aristotle. Again, his ancient works arrived in early modern Europe with considerable distortions, but the broad strokes of his theory of the soul persisted: that the soul was responsible for directing the living body, and without the soul there can be no life — for “it is the presence of the soul that enables matter to constitute the animal nature, much more than it is the presence of matter which so enables the soul…”8 This also meant that the soul alone can distinguish “life” from death or lifelessness:

…seeing at any rate that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer a living animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that in the fable are turned into stone. 

Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals9

We might now categorize Aristotle’s theory as a sort of spiritualism: the claim that a soul or spirit is responsible for controlling the body and for other phenomena relating to life and death. Even long after this theory fell out of fashion, it has continued to have notable proponents, even into the 20th century. One still-influential example is the “animism” of Georg Ernst Stahl.10 Writing in the early 18th century, Stahl hoped to defend the doctrine of the “spirit” against the rising influence of materialism in science. He described an immaterial principle of life, called the anima, which is responsible for setting living creatures in motion and preventing their decay.11


So the heart is the center of life, the sun of the Microcosm, as the sun itself might be called the heart of the world. The blood is moved, invigorated, and kept from decaying by the power and pulse of the heart. It is that intimate shrine whose function is the nourishing and warming of the whole body, the basis and source of all life.

William Harvey, De Motu Cordis (On the Motion of the Heart)12

William Harvey, who established the circulation of the blood in 1628, referred to the heart as the “sun” or “shrine” of the body in order to highlight its spiritual significance as the seat of the soul and the “source of all life.” He did not, however, explicitly claim to have located the soul.


To be fair, plenty of other explanatory principles were employed in early modern medicine, but the Aristotelian idea of a “soul” as the linchpin of “life” was widely accepted. Even outside medicine and philosophy, the working definition of life in English was bound to some notion of the soul. In Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, possibly the first truly authoritative dictionary, the entry for life is as follows:

 Union and co-operation of soul with body; vitality; animation, opposed to an inanimate state.13

This definition repeats the Aristotelian notion of “life” as requiring the union of the soul and body and also serves to distinguish “life” from the “inanimate state” (i.e. death or lifelessness). Note that nothing in this definition suggests a connection to the science of biology as we know it. However compelling, the definition of life centered on the soul (an entity that cannot be accurately measured or predicted) would not prove well-suited to scientific inquiry.

In contrast, the definition offered by Noah Webster in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) presents a startlingly different picture of life in its primary definition:

In a general sense, that state of animals and plants, or of an organized being, in which its natural functions and motions are performed, or in which its organs are capable of performing their functions. A tree is not destitute of life in winter, when the functions of its organs are suspended; nor man during a swoon or syncope; nor strictly birds, quadrupeds or serpents during their torpitude in winter. They are not strictly dead, till the functions of their organs are incapable of being renewed.14

Before making a few observations, I should mention that the soul does appear in the secondary definition, which repeats the idea that life is “that state of being in which the soul and body are united.” However, it is significant that Webster also understood “life” in terms of an organism’s constituent parts (its organs) and their functions, potentially independent of the governing power of a soul. Indeed, nothing about the above description of life requires a soul at all, although it doesn’t rule one out either. An organ or organism is only “dead” when its functions are unrenewable — death is no longer about the presence of a “soul” but rather whether the organized body itself is capable of survival, based on the successful functioning of the body’s various parts. 

Compared to Johnson, Webster no doubt had different priorities as a lexicographer, but this alone cannot account for this difference between the two dictionaries. Webster’s definition represented a scientific consensus that was still nascent in 1755, a discourse of life that was not quite available in time for Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. The 1828 dictionary presents a distinctly scientific outlook on life; its theory of an “organized body” depended on the performance of “natural functions and motions” that could be documented, cataloged, and analyzed. In this way, scientific inquiry would form the basis for emerging definitions of life.


I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.

Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language15

Prior to the 18th century, notions of “life” were ill-defined or wrapped up in other spheres of inquiry (especially the spiritual, the divine, and mathematics). But all of a sudden, life could be understood unto itself, in relation to the general principle or principles that specifically governed the organization, development, and renewal of living organisms. Scientists studying life no longer needed to reference anything beyond material and measurable phenomena, such as God or the soul, but their questions also couldn’t be fully answered by other established sciences.  Perhaps most importantly, these unique principles of “life” were knowable, at least in part. Scientists realized that one can empirically determine how human embryos are formed, how diseases are spread or cured, and how the material body relates to thought and “sensibility,” among other things. People have always had theories about life, but here was the start of an empirical science, distinct from physics, chemistry, or mathematics, that centered on life as its fundamental object of study. This science would come to be called biology: the study of bios, or life.  

In the remaining parts of this series, I will show how the development of this science allowed the question of the “meaning of life,” as seen in Sartor Resartus, to be a coherent one. Next time, I’ll begin my exploration of this story with the harbingers of a mechanical world, Descartes and Newton.


Notes
1 Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus. The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, ed. P.C. Parr (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1918), https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.272541/mode/2up, 131-132.
2 The claim that Sartor Resartus was the first instance of the phrase is made in Wendell O’Brien, “The Meaning of Life: Early Continental and Analytic Perspectives,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/mean-ear/. I also did not find any earlier example that fit the modern usage of the phrase. Also note that although the full novel was published in 1836, the chapter in question was originally published as part of a serial in 1834.
3 Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 35-36.
4 Edmund J. Sullivan, “Herr Diogenes,” in Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus. The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh (London: George Bell & Sons, 1898), 2, accessed 29 April 2020, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/sullivan/7.html. Scanned image by George P. Landow.
5 Jacques Roger, The Life Sciences in Eigtheenth-Century French Thought, ed. Keith R. Benson, trans. Robert Ellrich (Stanford University Press, 1997), 26.
6 Ibid., 17-33.
7 Phillippus Ulstadius, Celum philosophorum, (Strassburg: Johannes Grienynger, 1527), title page.
8 W. Ogle, Aristotle: On the Parts of Animals (K. Paul, French & Company, 1882), https://books.google.com/books?id=BgSaAAAAIAAJ, 7.
9 Ibid.
10 One can see the lasting influence of Stahl’s thinking in the various “vitalisms” that, while no longer scientifically tenable, remain culturally relevant. Vitalism also had the support of numerous 20th century scientists such as Hans Driesch (1867-1941).
11 Lester S. King, “Stahl and Hoffmann: A Study in Eighteenth Century Animism,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences Vol. 19, no. 2 (April 1964): 121–24.
12 William Harvey, Exercitatio Anatomica De Motu Cordis Et Sanguinis In Animalibus, trans. Chauncey D. Leake, Third Edition (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1949), https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.115852/page/n3/mode/2up, 71.
13 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 6th edition (London: J. F. And C. Rivington, 1785), vol. 2, https://archive.org/details/dictionaryofengl02johnuoft/page/n3/mode/2up.
14 Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, (New York: S. Converse, 1828), http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/life.
15 Johnson, A Dictionary, 1785, vol. 1, https://archive.org/details/dictionaryofengl01johnuoft/mode/2up.

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