When I studied medieval philosophy in college, I learned that a human being has a rational, animal, and vegetable soul. At the time, it was all a matter of definitions and categories and didn’t have much relevance to real life. But in the past few decades, I have spent considerable time trying to make fresh sense of those old ideas.
Now, I can appreciate that part of my soul shares something with that of plants and flowers and vegetables. Why else would I have a ficus in my living room, a garden of herbs and tomatoes just outside the house, and peonies and orchids blossoming around me? Are they just physically there like the furniture, or are we cousins of a sort? Am I more at home with this vegetative life? Could it be as important to cultivate my vegetable soul as it is to become intelligent and fit—the rational and animal side?
A well-known vegetable fairy tale has long interested me, and it may offer some help. The name Rapunzel refers to a root vegetable something like a carrot, turnip, or radish. When Rapunzel’s mother is pregnant, the father steals some rampion, a root vegetable, from a neighbor who happens to be a witch, and eventually the daughter is exiled in a tower. I wonder if this punishment is appropriate because the girl is then far removed from her earthy roots, and I wonder if one of the problems of us living in a high-tech world is to be cut off from those same roots ourselves. Are we now Rapunzel, lamenting her imprisonment high above the forest?
We’re talking about the soul aspect of the just-beneath-the-earth mysteries that may inspire celebrations of planting and harvest and markets teeming with fruits and vegetables. It’s obvious that these rich and colorful displays satisfy the soul. Among the trees and rivers and fields, we may discover the spiritual and soul depths of our world, understanding in some way that we are born from this earth, the ground of our being. We might also find meaning in our attachment to places that we cherish in part because of their vegetation. My own family keeps precious photos of the old farm where we started out in the new world, and we recognize it because of the grand horse chestnut and maple trees that stood over it. To us, these are sacred trees.
It’s a short step to an ethical position associated with the vegetative soul: a desire to protect and help flourish this green world of plants and the colorful realm of blossoming flowers. Ethics is always a part of any substantial spiritual feeling. We love the green aspect of the planet because it has a soul that corresponds to a portion of our own soul. We love it, and want to care for it.
Vegetables are everywhere in the founding stories of the spiritual traditions. In the famous story of the Buddha’s “flower sermon,” he holds up a lotus blossom and says nothing. One student, Mahakasyapa, smiles and the Buddha entrusts the dharma to him. I imagine that each time we look silently at a blossom and smile spontaneously, we, too, receive our mission in life.
In an outburst of the vegetable soul Jesus says, “Look at the lilies in the field. They don’t labor at the spinning wheel. But I’m sure that not even Solomon in all his glory was so beautifully dressed. If that’s how God clothes the field with grass that is here today but goes into the fire tomorrow, won’t he clothe you even more luxuriously?” Later, at a crucial moment in his career, people honor him with palm leaves and chant, “Hosanna,” a joyful shout of praise but also a word for the plants themselves.
Then there is the mysterious tale of Daphne, a young nature woman who turns into a tree rather than become entangled in the cultured realm of Apollo. What does it mean to become a tree, to resist the lure of modern life, and to be identified fully with the vegetable soul? Do you ever have the desire to stop thinking and just vegetate? Do you ever want to put on your hiking boots and get away from the modern world?
It’s important to walk in the forest, to enjoy plants and flowers in and around your home, to bring flowers to the sick, to funerals, and to scenes of tragedy. This is the vegetative soul in play. These plants are not just physical objects, as we tend to think in our objectifying habits of thought. No, they are spiritual presences, honored by the religions and spiritual traditions, having more depth of meaning and importance than we might ever know.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.