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The Metaphysics of Indo-European Tripartition, Part 3
Tripartition in Animals & Nature in General

Detail from Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, 1503-1508

Detail from Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, 1503-1508

2,224 words

Part 3 of 6

Tripartition in Animals

1. Schad’s Three Systems 

So far I have been applying Indo-European tripartition to the human realm, to political and societal order, to individual and group psychology, to physiognomy, to anatomy, and to sexuality. I am now going to move to a higher level of abstraction, to the nature of the mammalian organism in general. In the remarks which follow, I shall be drawing chiefly on the work of the scientists and followers of anthroposophy Wolfgang Schad and Henri Bortoft.

Schad identifies three fundamental functional processes in the mammalian organism: the nerve-sense system, the respiratory-circulatory system, and the metabolic-limb system. In terms of Indo-European tripartition, the correspondences are fairly obvious. The nerve-sense system functions to guide the body. It thus corresponds to the first function. (Recall that the ecotomorph, who I identified with the first function, was described in terms of temperament as cerebretonic, or nervous system dominant.) The respiratory-circulatory system corresponds to the second function. It is a helpful coincidence that in translations of Plato, we use the term “spirited” to describe the guardians or warriors, who are said to possess “spirit.” The ancient Indo-Europeans believed that their warriors were literally inspired. Warrior types are also notorious for inhaling and puffing up their chests as a form of display designed to intimidate other males. Thus, there is a natural association between the second function, the warrior, and the respiratory-circulatory system. But much more significant is the fact that the circulatory system is where we find the body’s chief guardians: the white blood cells which serve to attack invaders.

This leaves us with the metabolic-limb system. There is, again, a natural association between metabolism and the Indo-European third function. The third function in Indo-European society is the provider function; it includes all that is concerned with the making or growing of food. The two organs of the body that most closely represent the different aspects of the third function (which are complex) are the stomach and the genitals. (Recall that the endomorph, who I identified with the third function, is frequently characterized by a protuberant stomach, and a tendency toward gluttony.) The “negative character” of the third function (which I shall discuss in detail later on) is exemplified in the action of the digestive organs, which cancel the identity of foreign matter and convert it into the body’s own substance.

2. Rodents, Ungulates, and Carnivores 

In the human being, Schad’s three systems exist in a state of equilibrium. In other mammals, however, these systems exist in such a way that one dominates over the others. Schad claims that the rodents (beavers, gophers, lemmings, mice, moles, rats, squirrels, etc.) emphasize the nerve-sense system. One can see this not only in their frenetic, nervous activity (similar to that of the human ectomorph-cerebretonic), but also in the fact that their heads are much larger and more developed than are their limbs. The ungulates (buffalo, camels, cows, deer, goats, horses, pigs, etc.) emphasize the metabolic-limb system. This is reflected in their large size. In particular, their stomachs are usually very large, and their limbs are also elongated and massive. Like the human endomorph-viscerotonic, they tend to be passive, slow-moving, and love to eat.

The carnivores (cats, wolfs, dolphins, badgers, weasels, etc.) emphasize the respiratory-circulatory system, which Bortoft describes, significantly, as “intermediate between the other two [systems].”[1] He writes, “In their well-proportioned form, in which no one part of the body is accentuated over any other, as well as in their intermediate size, they represent an active balance between the two extremes of the rodent and the ungulate.”[2] This description corresponds exactly to my treatment of the human mesomorph-somatotonic. The carnivores, like the warriors of the second function, are, of course, characterized by a predatory nature. And who are the de facto rulers of the animal kingdom? The carnivores, of course.

Schad has some fascinating things to say about the lives these three types of mammal lead, and about their special relationship to death. The rodent, he says, “lives unwillingly” and “dies gladly.” Its hyperkinetic, nervous life seems to make it weary of existence, and it usually dies easily and without a struggle. The extreme case of this would be that of the lemming. The ungulate, by contrast, “lives gladly” and “dies unwillingly.” The ungulate dies hard. It is often difficult to finish off, and thrashes and protests loudly. When faced with an actual or potential threat, the rodent’s usual reaction is flight; the ungulate’s is “quiet avoidance.” On the other hand, the carnivore attacks. “It exposes itself equally to life or death. With death as well as life it has an active relationship.” Later, he tells us that the carnivore, “Accepts equally the possibility of life or death.”[3] In human terms, this strange combination of heroism and resignation is typical, of course, of the warrior as classically conceived.

3. Anatomical Examples: Teeth and Bone

We can find tripartition even on a much more concrete level, reflected in the design of individual body parts. Take the teeth, for example: the incisors, canines, and molars. Schad shows us that the rodents accentuate the incisors, the carnivores the canines, and the ungulates the molars. Each accentuates the type of teeth it needs for its form of life. But in the human being, these three types are developed equally, because we can eat, and subsist on, all of the foods eaten by rodents, carnivores, and ungulates.

This simple fact points us to matters of great significance concerning the place of man in the universe; his cosmic role, if you will. Not only do human beings possess all three types of tooth, equally developed, but, as I also mentioned, in the human being all three bodily systems (nerve-sense, respiratory-circulatory, and metabolic-limb) are balanced, with no one dominating over the others. What does this signify? In the traditional, Indo-European concept of kingship, the king, although he comes from one caste, was actually said to embody all three of the functions. Now, what I would argue is that man is to nature as the king is to his realm. Like the king, who embodies all aspects of his realm within his person, man embodies all aspects of nature. Man is rodent, carnivore, and ungulate all in one. Man is the microcosm. If he can be said to be “king of nature,” his kingship is a stewardship. His role is not to be a tyrant, not to pillage his realm, but to work within it almost as a gardener works within a garden: making sure the soil is capable of supporting growth, planting the seeds in a sensible way, guiding the growth of his plants, and, of course, uprooting weeds and killing pests.

As a further anatomical example of tripartition, consider the three types of bone cell. The osteoblasts synthesize new bone, and repair existing bone by taking calcium from the blood and creating bone matrices. The osteocytes maintain the bone strength. Finally, the osteoclasts dissolve bone into the blood in order to break down and reassimilate old bone structures. What we have here is a positive, organizing mechanism, a preserving mechanism, and a negative, destroying mechanism. As one author points out, these correspond closely to the trinity of Hindu gods, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva.[4] As we shall see later on, these three gods are conceived as the embodiment of forces which correspond exactly to the three Indo-European functions.

4. Microscopic Life 

Now, as yet I do not have anything to say about groups of animals other than the mammals. Nor do I have anything to say about plants. These are areas for further reflection. I will, however, say something about the most primal form of life, the single cell and micro-organism.

There are various kinds of cells, with different structures, but in the basic structure of every cell we can see tripartition. The nucleus, from which the rest of the cell takes its marching orders, would seem to correspond to the first function. The cell membrane, which surrounds the cell, protecting it, would be the second function. Finally, the mitochondria, and other structures, which break down and assimilate food molecules to provide energy for the cell, would seem to represent the third function.

Again using human beings as an example, our bodies begin as microscopic, tripartitite organisms. After roughly three weeks, the human embryo develops into a sphere consisting of sixty cells called a blastula. The blastula folds in on itself and develops three basic structures, the ectoderm, the mesoderm, and the endoderm. Out of the ectoderm will develop the body’s outer covering, the epidermis, as well as the brain and nervous system. The ectomorph is simply someone in whom this component predominates. The mesoderm develops into the muscles, bones, respiratory, and circulatory system, and is the salient feature of the mesomorph. Finally, the endoderm, which predominates in the endomorph, develops into the digestive system, as well as the lining of the respiratory system and alimentary canal.

If one looks at the structure of the original blastula, one finds that the incipient ectoderm and endoderm are run together, to form the outer layer of the blastula. The mesoderm is the inner core. This suggests the tie between the polar opposites of the first function and third function. In some sense, these exist on a continuum. The ancients recognized this, which is why Plato spoke of his Indefinite Dyad as the Great and the Small. Similarly, the two extremes which oppose the mean in Aristotle’s doctrine of the virtues are conceived of as on a continuum. Even later, when the ectoderm and endoderm are more fully differentiated, these two are still visibly present on a continuum. And the mesoderm still dwells at the core of the organism, within the outer shell formed by the ectoderm and endoderm.

That the mesoderm is to be found within the other two, rather than on the continuum along with them, is highly significant. It reflects the special character of the second function: its apartness, its status as mediating between the other functions. Furthermore, because in the second function the other two are harmonized and actualized (a point which I shall return to later on), the second function is, in a certain way, the “inner truth” of the others. The position of the mesoderm as inner core is this inner truth expressed physically.

Tripartition in the Physical World in General

1. The Macrocosm

The most abstract level we will consider will be existence as such. But before we reach that level, let us look first simply at our physical world, and then at the physical constituents of that world. Again, this is an area in which much speculation is possible, and here I can only offer a few suggestions.

A commensensical threefold division our world would be that of the earth, the sky and atmosphere, and the heavens beyond. On the earth we find liquid and solid, oceans and continents. The earth is the source of plenty, of sustenance. On this level of reality, it is therefore the third function. The co-presence of liquid and solid represents the co-presence in the third function of chaos (“the waters” are a perennial symbol of the force of chaos), and abundance; indefiniteness, and definite fecundity. The sky hovers over the earth. The atmosphere surrounds and protects it. The sky has often represented a male force, and the earth the feminine. In the Germanic system, the sky corresponds to Tyr, the earth to Ing. Both are male gods, but Tyr is of the Aesir, Ing of the Vanir. Accordingly, I would say that the sky and atmosphere represent the second function. It is also helpful that, as I have shown, the second function is associated with inspiration, in the literal sense; with air and respiration. The first function is represented by the heavenly bodies, especially the sun, which exercise an influence on the earth from above, an influence scientists are only just beginning to understand. The sun is also a perennial symbol of the first function. It appears in Plato’s Republic as a symbol of the ideal. As I shall discuss shortly, the sun also plays this role in Indian thought.

2. Physics 

Einstein’s equation E=mc2 describes the physical universe in terms of energy, mass, and light. As we shall see, in Indian philosophy the Indo-European first function is identified with light, the third function with mass, and the second, mediating function with energy. Mass or matter in contemporary physics is depicted as an “atomic whirpool,” just as, in metaphysical terms, the third function is often identified with chaos, or with the Heraclitean “flux.” We may also note that all atoms after hydrogen are tripartite, composed of positive protons, negative electrons, and neutrally-charged neutrons. The negative electron exhibits the indeterminacy and “flux” aspect normally associated with the third function. Electrons are thought to always be moving (in the classical model, orbiting the nucleus), so that it is impossible to exactly pinpoint their position.


[1] Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1996), 94.

[2] Ibid., 94-95. Emphasis added.

[3] Schad, 228-229; 216.

[4] Michael S. Schneider, A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 55. Schneider actually identifies the osteoblasts with Brahma, the osteocytes with Vishnu, and the Osteoclasts with Shiva. For reasons which will become obvious, I have changed this ordering.


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  1. Proofreader
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure if this is relevant to the above article, but I recently found a pdf file of a book by J. Philip Grime and Simon Pierce, The Evolutionary Strategies that Shape Ecosystems (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), which outlines what it calls universal adaptive strategy theory. This is a tripartite theory in the sense that it identifies three basic evolutionary strategies and trade-offs (relating to resource acquisition, maintenance, and regeneration) applicable to virtually all organisms and ecosystems. The authors write in the Preface:

    “In established sciences, including physics and chemistry, the revelations that eventually led to general theories were surprisingly discrete and testable. We believe that ecology, despite its reputation as an ‘ambitious but ramshackle science’ (Calder, 2003), is no exception to this pattern, and that it is now opportune to attempt integration of the disparate fields of animal, plant and microbial ecology within a single theoretical framework that keeps natural selection at the fore.

    “To address this need, this short book endeavours to understand how evolutionary adaptations govern the manner in which organisms assemble into communities and process matter and energy within ecosystems. We first chart the tentative steps by which some ecologists over the course of more than a century have attempted to establish a path from evolutionary theory to an understanding of variation in the structure, functioning and vulnerabilities of ecosystems. In marked contrast to the technical difficulties of microbial ecology and the limited insights into general principles gained by animal ecology, the accessibility of plants and their dominance of terrestrial ecosystems have revealed generalities in the constraints to evolution. These, in light of recent research, are now apparent for all organisms, from the largest whale to the smallest virus. We have distilled the essence of these constraints to evolution and ecology into a novel universal adaptive strategy theory, in which only a restricted set of viable approaches to survival, or adaptive strategies, are possible and in turn set limits to the performance of ecosystem functions.”

    I’m not sure what to make of this theory, but it’s certainly ambitious.

  2. Theodore
    Posted April 8, 2015 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    “The rodent, he says, “lives unwillingly” and “dies gladly.” Its hyperkinetic, nervous life seems to make it weary of existence, and it usually dies easily and without a struggle. ”

    Have you ever seen a mouse trapped in a glue trap? A chipmunk frantically evading a cat? This is ludicrous.

    “Electrons are thought to always be moving (in the classical model, orbiting the nucleus), so that it is impossible to exactly pinpoint their position.’

    False. Because of the “uncertainty principle” one cannot ascertain location and momentum at the same time. Measuring one of these is possible. Measurement of location only will “collapse the wavefunction of the electron” (Copenhagen interpretation) and its location is possible to identify.

    Further, the “classical model” is as accepted today as a Earth-centered solar system.

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