Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

(Greek hyle , matter + zoe , life )

The doctrine according to which all matter possesses life.

There is a certain hylozoism which is only a childish, inexperienced way of looking on nature. We are naturally inclined to interpret other existences after what we know of ourselves, and so it is that children give life and soul to everything. The result of this personification of nature in primitive races has also been called animism. It is a poetical view of the world. We should therefore not be surprised that the first school of philosophers in Greece, the Ionians, conceived of the universe as animated throughout and full of gods: empsychon kai daimonon plere (Diog. Laer., I, 27). With the progress of thought a more scientific view of nature prevailed. First obscurely by Anaxagoras, then clearly by Plato and Aristotle, matter and mind were separated and their mutual relations delineated. Hylozoism in its primitive form disappeared. But, with the second successor of Aristotle, Strato of Lampsacus, another kind of hylozoism, clearly materialistic, came into existence. Strato, while repudiating the mechanicism of the Atomists, nevertheless, in common with them, held bodies to be the only reality and explained life as a property of matter. In the Stoic doctrine also bodies alone are a reality. Bodies are made up of two principles, a passive principle, matter, and an active principle, form; but form itself is corporeal. It is warm vapour ( pneuma ), or fire, yet fire distinct from the element of this name; it is primitive fashioning fire ( pyr technikon ), God. In order to form the world a part of it changed itself into the elements, fire, air, water, earth, and constituted the body of the world, while another part retained its original shape, and in that shape confronts the first as form or soul. This was pure materialism.

But a wave of religious mysticism and pantheism was preparing to sweep from the East over the Græco-Roman world and dislodge matter from the throne it had usurped. Under this influence the later Peripatetics, the Neo-Pythagoreans and especially the Neo-Platonic school of Alexandria, while accepting the Stoic concept of the world-soul , reversed the relative importance of its terms, considered the soul as a spiritual principle emanating from God, and gave matter the inferior rank, if not as altogether evil, at least as most imperfect. Indeed matter was hardly a reality at all; the activities and perfections of material beings proceeded from a distinct principle, the soul. The universe was an immense organism. Everything was animated; and, though life was in itself distinct from matter, it was in fact imparted to all material beings. This was Pantheistic hylozoism. It survived in the medieval Jewish and Arabian philosophy, and reappeared in Christian countries with the nature philosophers of the Renaissance, Paracelsus, Cardanus, Giordano Bruno, etc. But at the Renaissance it did not come alone. For, under the influence of the enthusiastic return to the study of nature, of the revival of classic literatures with their mythology full of gods and goddesses, and of the sensualism which then invaded morals, the two other forms of hylozoism, the naive and the materialistic, reappeared also, and the three were combined in different proportions by the several writers. In a less degree, even such thinkers as Richard Cudworth and Henry More, the Cambridge Platonists, yielded to it, when they devised their hypothesis of a "plastic nature ", or a sort of inferior soul, which caused the processes of life in organic beings and directed in a purpose-like manner the activity of physical nature.

After Descartes's bold attempt to resolve into motion the operations of physical life, which deprived the word life of much of its meaning and put matter in sharp contrast with the higher life of thought, the concept life was for a while set aside, and speculation for the most part dealt with matter as opposed to mind. Yet, in a different form, it was the same problem over again, viz, the determination of the limits of matter and of its relation to spirit. To this problem Spinoza offered a solution, which, combining materialistic with pantheistic hylozoism, held the balance even between matter and mind by reducing both to the rank of mere attributes of the one infinite substance. Leibniz, resolving matter into spirit, looked on bodies as aggregates of simple unextended substances or monads, endowed with elementary perception and will. On the contrary, a group of French writers in the eighteenth century, Diderot, Cabanis, Robinet, etc., adhered to a dynamico-materialistic view of the world which recalls that of Strato.

In the nineteenth century the progress of the biological sciences again called attention to physical life. Descartes's mechanicism was generally discarded. On the other hand, the craving of reason for unity, which has here characteristically embodied itself in the theory of evolution, tends to consider the world of life— the world of mind as well— a mere extension of the world of matter. But then life must be conceived as fundamentally contained in all matter, as one of its essential properties. Thus has hylozoism been revived by some thinkers as a postulate of science. Literally taken, it would be materialism, and in that sense is indefatigably advocated by E. Häckel, who identifies mind with organization and life, and life with energy, which he makes a property of the atoms. Matter is for him the only reality. He, moreover, imagines ether to be the primitive substance, a part of which, as was the case with the primitive fire of the Stoics, transformed itself through condensation into inert mass, while another part of it subsists as ether and constitutes the active principle, spirit. Very few thinkers, however, would commit themselves to such a doctrine. But many scientists use it as a postulate without ever inquiring into its meta-physical implications. Those who have inquired have commonly agreed that at least mental life can by no means be resolved into matter. Consequently they have modified the concept matter itself, and described matter and mind, after the view already set forth by Spinoza, as two manifestations, or two aspects, of one and the same reality. This reality may be declared different in itself from both matter and mind, and unknowable (H. Spencer); or it may be declared identical with both matter and mind, which are respectively its outer and inner sides (Fechner, Lotze, Wundt, etc.). In either case, hylozoism has passed into psycho-physical parallelism with tendencies towards either materialism or idealism.

From what has been said, then, it follows that it would be an error to see in hylozoism a mere doctrine of physical life; for instance, the affirmation of spontaneous generation. Physical life may, in the abstract, be separated from mental life and treated independently of it. But in reality the separation does not hold, and hylozoism has always extended its conclusions to mental life as well. Even naive hylozoism did not stop at granting life to nature, it also endowed nature with soul. Pantheistic hylozoism started with the very concept of mental life. These two forms no longer count in science. On the latter, since it is of pantheistic origin; see PANTHEISM, GOD, EMANATIONISM.

Scientific hylozoism is a protest against a mechanical view of the world. But, like mechanicism, it pretends to apply the same pattern to all beings alike, to make of them all one uniform series. Its outcome is monism, materialistic, idealistic, or parallelistic, according as the series is conceived after the pattern of matter, or of mind, or of some reality combining both. It therefore falls under the criticisms proper to these forms of monism. As a matter of fact, life is not found in all beings; some are destitute of it, and, among those in which it is found, plants possess merely vegetal life, while animals have also the powers of sense, and man the powers of sense and reason. In an age which boasts of trusting experience alone, it is surprising that this fact should be so readily overlooked. True, we crave for unity and continuity in our knowledge and its object; but unity should not be procured at the cost of evident diversity. Or rather, since this craving for unity is nothing else than the voice of reason, it ought indeed to be satisfied; but they err who seek in the world itself this perfect unity which is to be found only in its Cause, God. (See also MATTER, LIFE, SOUL, TELEOLOGY, MONISM, MATERIALISM.)

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:7-16
7 On each one of us God's favour has been bestowed in whatever way Christ ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
1 [Song of Ascents Of David] I rejoiced that they said to me, 'Let us go ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:1-9
1 It was just about this time that some people arrived and told him about ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 22nd, 2016 Image

St. Pope John Paul II
October 22: Karol J. Wojtyla, known as John Paul II since his ... Read More