Monday, April 27, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man - A Being's Meta-Physical Properties

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

We have identified man’s unique status of being created in the “image of God” as that which provides man with his elevated capabilities.  Let us now return to the four groups in creation, which were the subject of the opening chapter of our discussion.  In addition to physical properties, every creation also contains meta-physical properties that endow it with life and account for its capabilities.  The collection of meta-physical properties of a creature is called its “soul” (נפש).   The more elevated and sophisticated the creation, the more elevated and complex is its’ soul structure.

Just as there are four basic groups in creation, our sages also identify four basic meta-physical properties in the world.  The first and most elementary property is found in every creation, and it is that which provides a being with existence.  Without it, a being would simply cease to exist.  The “existence” property is not discussed often, for its presence is generally taken for granted.[1]

Information about the other three basic meta-properties is provided in R. Yehuda Ha-Levi’s (Spain, d. 1141) classic work, The Kuzari.  In an early section of the work, we read a dialogue between a Jewish sage and the curious Khazar king regarding the essence of mankind.  At one point in the discussion the sage references these meta-properties and mentions a few examples of their functions.

The first property discussed is what the sage calls a “natural property (ענין הטבעי).”  According to the sage, this property accounts for a natural drive to acquire food and nourishment, and subjects one to growth and development, to procreation, and to engage all other related activities.  The sage continues that this property is especially pronounced in plant life and the animal kingdom, but not found by inanimate creations, such as the ground, stones, minerals, and other such objects (Kuzari, Section 31).

After the Khazar king affirms the existence of this property, the sage goes on to describe the “animated property (ענין הנפשי).”  The sage states that this property, which is particularly pronounced in the animal kingdom, accounts for mobility, desires, and emotions (Kuzari, Section 33). 

Last, the sage describes the functioning of the “intellectual property (ענין השכלי).”  This property, according to the sage, is unique to the human species.  It endows man with the ability to improve his character traits and his society, and leads him to developing proper behavior and etiquette (Kuzari, Section 33).

It emerges then that there are four basic meta-physical property in the world.  Each of the four properties, and the capabilities they provide, are primarily associated with one of the four groups in creation.  Although the Kuzari uses his own terms for these properties, we will refer to them using slightly different terms.
  1. The existence-property, which is not directly addressed by the Kuzari, is called in Jewish literature: the “natural force (נפש הטבעית).  It provides basic existence and is the dominant property in inanimate objects.
  2. What the Kuzari calls a “natural-property,” is called in Jewish literature: the “vegetative force (נפש הצומחת).” It is the dominant property in plants, and accounts for their elevation over inanimate objects. 
  3. What the Kuzari calls an “animated-property,” is called in Jewish literature: the “animalistic force (נפש הבהמית or נפש החיונית).” It is the dominant property in animals, and accounts for their elevation over the plants. 
  4. The last property is called in Jewish literature the “intellectual force (נפש השכלית).” It is the dominant property in man, and accounts for his elevation over the rest of creation.
We have already noted that the more elevated groups in creation not only contain their own unique properties, but also those of the lower groups.  This means that the soul structure of the more elevated groups contain their own unique properties, but also the “lower” properties of those groups beneath them.  Hence, the soul of a plant contains the “vegetative force,” which provides its ability to grow and elevates it over the intimate objects, plus it contains the “natural force” that is also found in inanimate objects.  Similarly, an animal’s soul contains the “animalistic force” that accounts for an animal’s mobility, drives, and emotions and elevates it over the plant world, but also contains the “vegetative force” that is found in plants and the “natural force” that is found in inanimate objects. 

Rabbenu Bechaya b. Asher (Spain, d. 1255) summarizes as follows:

It is known that the lower creations are divided into four groups - one more elevated than the next…]The first group consists of[ inanimate objects, like the mountains and hills.  The members of this group have no force at all – no vegetative [force], no animalistic force, and certainly no intellectual force.[2]

Elevated above the inanimate objects are the plants.  These creations are elevated over the inanimate objects because they possess the vegetative force. 

Elevated above the plants are the animals, who possess both the animalistic force and the vegetative force. 

Above the animals is the human species, whose members’ possess all of the aforementioned properties, i.e. the vegetative force and the animalistic force.  Beyond this, the human species also contains the intellectual force… (Rabbenu Bechaya, Introduction to Vayakel)

Next Week: Man's Soul Structure

[1] Accordingly, even inanimate objects contain a soul, even though we perceive no “life” in these objects.  Without this single-property soul, inanimate objects could not exist.  For more on this see R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s Sha’ar HeYichud Ve-HaEmunah, Chapter 1, in the name of the Ari Z”l

[2] Note that the Hebrew terms he uses are different than those we have chosen.  Yet, the concepts are the same.  The reader will also note that he does not relate directly to the most basic existence-property.

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