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In his blog series The Philosopher’s Plant at Project Syndicate, Michael Marder looks back at the role of plants in the works of some of the most influential and well-known figures in the history of philosophy, beginning with Plato and working his way towards the present. In the first five installments of his series, Marder explains how Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, and Maimonides all used plant life to explain some of their most important philosophical concepts.
In his first post, “Plato’s Plane Tree,” Marder discusses Plato’s statement in the Timaeus describing humans as “heavenly plant[s]” whose roots reach toward heaven, in marked contrast to “earthly plants,” whose roots reach down into the soil. Significantly, these roots of the heavenly human plant tie us firmly to the Plato’s realm of Ideas.
The image of a heavenly plant teaches us an important lesson about the nature of Platonic Ideas. Contrary to the everyday usage of the term, these are not found in our heads, even though the rational soul housed there has sprouted from the substance of which Ideas are made. Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and so forth are not to be conflated with beautiful, good, and true things, themselves the hazy reflections of corresponding Ideas.
In the case of Aristotle, Marder uses The Master’s persistent reference to wheat as an entrance into one of the key concepts of his thought: how something can be a part contained within whole. Skirting through Metaphysics, Politics, Nichomechaen Ethics, and Rhetoric, Marder finds wheat to be an essential element in the Aristotelian philosophy, a tradition to which we owe our modern scientific conceptions.
The assertion that something is simultaneously the whole and not the whole, a part and not a part, grossly violates the principle of non-contradiction, so dear to Aristotle’s philosophical heart. Although he concedes that metaphors can promote learning, he would vehemently object to the mystifying rhetorical force of the synecdoche that erases the lines of demarcation between parts and wholes. A stalk of wheat turns out to be a stick in the wheel of the well-oiled philosophical machinery.
Marder believes there is “no better point of entry into Plotinian philosophy” than through Plotinus’ description of the nameless “Great Plant.” Plotinus uses this great anonymous plant as a metaphor for the unity of all existence. Marder delves into the various implications of this vegetal metaphor, explaining how the “Great Plant” informed Plotinus’ rejection of “being in the body” and his lifelong belief in the “virtues of the soul.”
And so it is with the gardener, who does not shape raw matter but cares for the pre-formed plant, the spontaneous, effortless, and noiseless growth of which should be, as much as possible, protected and redirected away from the deadly activity of the maggots, symbolizing the self-forgetting of the soul in the body. As far as Plotinus is concerned, then, all pure soul cares for the embodied soul, so as to reduce the dependence of the latter on corporeality and hence to defend the soul from evil, symbolized by its “fall” into matter.
In his fourth post, Marder looks into St. Augustine’s Confessions to study the symbolism of the pear the youthful Augustine steals. Marder finds a tradition of plant symbolism in Augustine, from the stolen pear to the tree he cries beneath, including, of course, the fateful apple in the Garden of Eden. Marder also discusses how Augustine craved the “forbidden fruit of committing a crime and the thrill of breaking a law” rather than the actual pear itself.
In reflecting on the shameful event of his youth, Augustine is reluctant to attribute physical seductiveness to the pears themselves. The beauty is not properly theirs; it is the stamp of God who created them: ‘The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, the good God, God the highest good and my true good.’
In his most recent post, Marder examines the use of the palm tree in the works of Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Marder argues that, the palm tree as discussed by Maimonides is exposed to unlimited violence in a way that parallels Agamben’s conception of people who are “reduced to the state of ‘bare life,’ exposed to unlimited violence,” homo sacer. For Maimonides, then, palm trees are a kind of arbor sacra, living in a permanent state of exception, and can thus serve as a symbol for the destructible nature of the material world (in contrast with the indestructible nature of the heavens).
A tree may be destroyed with impunity because it is thoroughly destructible — to do so is to bring out its finite nature and to foreground the contraries that it contains, rendering its existence logically impossible. The composite nature of plants and animals, represented by the palm and the horse, is radically distinct from the metaphysical simplicity of heavens…. [F]rom the ethical standpoint informed by the thought of Maimonides, there is nothing inherently wrong in terminating the existence of a given plant or an animal, seeing that this possibility is anticipated in their genesis, the mode of their generation. Harboring contraries, they contain the seeds of their own destruction. The palm tree and the horse, arbor sacra and animal sacer are thus the true figures of “bare life.”