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A somewhat similar vein of reflection is worked out in the209 Cratylus, a Dialogue presenting some important points of contact with the Theaetêtus, and probably belonging to the same period. There is the same constant reference to Heracleitus, whose philosophy is here also treated as in great measure, but not entirely, true; and the opposing system of Parmenides is again mentioned, though much more briefly, as a valuable set-off against its extravagances. The Cratylus deals exclusively with language, just as the Theaetêtus had dealt with sensation and mental imagery, but in such a playful and ironical tone that its speculative importance is likely to be overlooked. Some of the Greek philosophers seem to have thought that the study of things might advantageously be replaced by the study of words, which were supposed to have a natural and necessary connexion with their accepted meanings. This view was particularly favoured by the Heracleiteans, who found, or fancied that they found, a confirmation of their master’s teaching in etymology. Plato professes to adopt the theory in question, and supports it with a number of derivations which to us seem ludicrously absurd, but which may possibly have been transcribed from the pages of contemporary philologists. At last, however, he turns round and shows that other verbal arguments, equally good, might be adduced on behalf of Parmenides. But the most valuable part of the discussion is a protest against the whole theory that things can be studied through their names. Plato justly observes that an image, to be perfect, should not reproduce its original, but only certain aspects of it; that the framers of language were not infallible; and that we are just as competent to discover the nature of things as they could be. One can imagine the delight with which he would have welcomed the modern discovery that sensations, too, are a language; and that the associated groups into which they most readily gather are determined less by the necessary connexions of things in themselves than by the exigencies of self-preservation and reproduction in sentient beings.The lesser is the greater’s enemy,
Aristotle’s treatise on the soul is mainly devoted to a description of the theoretical faculties—sense, and thought or reason. By sense we become acquainted with the material qualities of things; by thought with their forms or ideas. It has been already mentioned that, according to our philosopher, the organism is a system of contrary forces held in equilibrium by the soul, whose seat he supposes to be in the heart. We now learn that every sensation is a disturbance of this equilibrium. In other words, the sensorium being virtually any and every mode of matter, is raised from possibility to actuality by the presence of some one force, such as heat or cold, in sufficient strength to incline the balance that way. Here we have, quite in Aristotle’s usual style, a description instead of an explanation. The atomic notion of thin films thrown off from the object of sense, and falling on the organs of sight or touch, was but a crude guess; still it has more affinity with the discoveries of a Young or a Helmholtz than scholastic phrases about potentiality and actuality. That sensation implies a disturbance of equilibrium is, indeed, an important truth; only, the equilibrium must be conceived as a balance, not of possible sensations, but of molecular states; that is to say, it must be interpreted according to the atomic theory.
On passing from the ultimate elements of matter to those immense aggregates which surpass man in size and complexity as much as the atoms fall below him, but on whose energies his dependence is no less helpless and complete—the infinite worlds typified for us by this one system wherein we dwell, with its solid earthly nucleus surrounded by rolling orbs of light—Lucretius still carries with him the analogies of life; but in proportion to the magnitude and remoteness of the objects examined, his grasp seems to grow less firm and his touch less sure. In marked contrast to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, he argues passionately against the ascription of a beneficent purpose to the constitution of the world; but his reasonings are based solely on its imperfect adaptation to the necessities of human existence. With equal vigour he maintains, apparently against Aristotle, that the present system has had a beginning; against both Aristotle and Plato that, in common with all systems, it will have an end—a perfectly true con111clusion, but evidently based on nothing stronger than the analogies of vital phenomena. And everywhere the subjective standpoint, making man the universal measure, is equally marked. Because our knowledge of history does not go far back, we cannot be far removed from its absolute beginning; and the history of the human race must measure the duration of the visible world. The earth is conceived as a mother bringing forth every species of living creature from her teeming bosom; and not only that, but a nursing mother feeding her young offspring with abundant streams of milk—an unexpected adaptation from the myth of a golden age. If we no longer witness such wonderful displays of fertility, the same elastic method is invoked to explain their cessation. The world, like other animals, is growing old and effete. The exhaustion of Italian agriculture is adduced as a sign of the world’s decrepitude with no less confidence than the freshness of Italian poetry as a sign of its youth. The vast process of cosmic change, with its infinite cycles of aggregation and dissolution, does but repeat on an overwhelming scale the familiar sequences of birth and death in animal species. Even the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies and the phases of the moon may, it is argued, result from a similar succession of perishing individuals, although we take them for different appearances of a single unalterable sphere.207All virtue, with Plotinus, rests on the superiority of the soul to the body. So far, he follows the common doctrine of Plato and Aristotle. But in working out the distinction, he is influenced by the individualising and theoretic philosophy of the latter rather than by the social and practical philosophy of the former. Or, again, we may say that with him the intellectualism of Aristotle is heightened and warmed by the religious aspirations of Plato, strengthened and purified by the Stoic passionlessness, the Stoic independence of external goods. In his ethical system, the virtues are arranged in an ascending scale. Each grade reproduces the old quadripartite division into Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice, but in each their respective significance receives a new interpretation. As civic virtues, they continue to bear the meaning assigned to them in Plato’s Republic. Wisdom belongs to reason, Courage to passionate spirit, Temperance to desire, while Justice implies the fulfilment of its appropriate function by each.493 But all this only amounts to the restriction of what would otherwise be unregulated impulse, the imposition of Form on Matter, the supremacy of the soul over the body; whereas what we want is to get rid of matter altogether. Here also, Plato sets us on the right track when he calls the virtues purifications. From this point of view, for the soul to energise alone without any interference, is Wisdom; not to be moved by the passions of the body is Temperance; not to dread separation from the body is Courage; and to obey the guidance of reason is Justice.494 Such a disposition of the soul is what Plato means by flying from the world and becoming like God. Is this enough? No, it is not. We have, so far, been dealing only with the negative conditions of good, not with good itself. The essential thing is not purification, but what remains behind when the work of purification is332 accomplished. So we come to the third and highest grade of virtue, the truly divine life, which is a complete conversion to reason. Our philosopher endeavours to fit this also into the framework of the cardinal virtues, but not without imposing a serious strain on the ordinary meaning of words. Of Wisdom nothing need be said, for it is the same as rationality. Justice is the self-possession of mind, Temperance the inward direction towards reason, Courage the impassivity arising from resemblance to that which is by nature impassive.495
‘What then,’ asks Plotinus, ‘is the One? No easy question to answer for us whose knowledge is based on ideas, and who can hardly tell what ideas are, or what is existence itself. The farther the soul advances in this formless region, where there is nothing for her to grasp, nothing whose impress she can receive, the more does her footing fail her, the more helpless and desolate does she feel. Oftentimes she wearies of such searching and is glad to leave it all and to descend into the world of sense until she finds rest on the solid earth, as the eyes are relieved in turning from small objects to large. For she does not know that to be one herself is to have gained the object of her search, for then she is no other than that which she knows. Nevertheless it is only by this method that we can master the philosophy of the One. Since, then, what we seek is one, and since we are considering the first principle of all things and the Good, he who enters on this quest must not place himself afar from the things that are first by descending to the things that are last, but he must leave the objects of sense, and, freed from all evil, ascend to the first principle of his own nature, that by becoming one, instead of many, he may behold the beginning and the One. Therefore he must become Reason, trusting his soul to Reason for guidance and support, that she may wakefully receive what it sees, and with this he must behold the One, not admitting any element of sense, but gazing on the purest with pure Reason and with that which in Reason is first. Should he who addresses himself to this enterprise imagine that the object of his vision possesses magnitude or form or bulk, then Reason is not his guide, for such perceptions do not belong to its nature but to sense and to the opinion which follows on sense. No; we must only pledge Reason to perform what it can do. Reason sees what precedes, or what contains, or what is derived from itself. Pure are the things in it, purer still those which precede, or rather, that which precedes it. This is neither reason nor anything that is; for whatever is has the form of existence, whereas this has none, not even an ideal form. For the One, whose nature is to generate all things, cannot be any of those things itself. Therefore it is neither substance, nor quality, nor reason, nor soul; neither moving nor at rest, not in place, not in time, but unique of its kind, or rather kindless, being before all kind, before motion and before rest, for these belong to being, and are that to which its multiplicity is due. Why, then, if it does not move, is it not at rest? Because while one or both of these must be attributed to being, the very act of attribution involves a distinction between subject and predicate, which is impossible in the case of what is absolutely simple.’463After disposing of the Stoic materialism, according to which the soul, though distinct from the body, is, equally with it, an extended and resisting substance, our philosopher proceeds to discuss the theories which make it a property or function of the body. The Pythagorean notion of the soul as a harmony of the body is met by a reproduction of the well-known arguments used against it in Plato’s Phaedo. Then comes the Aristotelian doctrine that the soul is the entelechy—that is to say, the realised purpose and perfection—of the physical organism to which it belongs. This is an idea which Aristotle himself had failed to make very clear, and the inadequacy of which he had virtually acknowledged by ascribing a different origin to reason, although this is counted as one of the psychic faculties. Plotinus, at any rate, could not appreciate an explanation which, whatever else it implied, certainly involved a considerable departure from his own dualistic interpretation of the difference between spirit and matter. He could not enter into Aristotle’s view of the one as a lower and less concentrated form of the other. The same arguments which had already been employed against Stoicism are now turned against the Peripatetic psychology. The soul as a principle, not only of memory and desire, but even of nutrition, is declared to be independent of and separable from the body. And, finally, as a result of the whole controversy, its immortality is affirmed. But how far this immortality involves the belief in a prolongation of personal existence after death, is a point297 which still remains uncertain. We shall return to the question in dealing with the religious opinions of Plotinus.In their theory of cognition the Stoics chiefly followed Aristotle; only with them the doctrine of empiricism is enunciated so distinctly as to be placed beyond the reach of misinterpretation. The mind is at first a tabula rasa, and all our ideas are derived exclusively from the senses.37 But while knowledge as a whole rests on sense, the validity of each particular sense-perception must be determined by an appeal to reason, in other words, to the totality of our acquired experience.38 So also the first principles of reasoning are not to be postulated, with Aristotle, as immediately and unconditionally certain; they are to be assumed as hypothetically true and gradually tested by the consequences deducible from them.39 Both principles well illustrate the synthetic method of the Stoics—their habit of bringing into close16 connexion whatever Aristotle had studiously held apart. And we must maintain, in opposition to the German critics, that their method marks a real advance on his. It ought at any rate to find more favour with the experiential school of modern science, with those who hold that the highest mathematical and physical laws are proved, not by the impossibility of conceiving their contradictories, but by their close agreement with all the facts accessible to our observation.
CHAPTER V. PLATO AS A REFORMER.From utter confusion to extreme nihilism there was but a single step. This step was taken by Gorgias, the Sicilian rhetorician, who held the same relation towards western Hellas and the Eleatic school as that which Protagoras held towards eastern Hellas and the philosophy of Heracleitus. He, like his eminent contemporary, was opposed to the thinkers whom, borrowing a useful term from the nomenclature of the last century, we may call the Greek physiocrats. To confute them, he wrote a book with the significant title, On Nature or Nothing: maintaining, first, that nothing exists; secondly, that if anything exists, we cannot know it; thirdly, that if we know it, there is no possibility of communicating our knowledge to others. The first thesis was established by pushing the Eleatic arguments against movement and change a little further; the second by showing that thought and existence are different, or else everything that is thought of would exist; the third by establishing a similar incommensurability between words and sensations. Grote96 has attempted to show that Gorgias was only arguing against the existence of a noumenon underlying phenomena, such as all idealists deny. Zeller has, however, convincingly proved that Gorgias, in common with every other thinker before Plato, was ignorant of this distinction;72 and we may add that it would leave the second and third theses absolutely unimpaired. We must take the whole together as constituting a declaration of war against science, an assertion, in still stronger language, of the agnosticism taught by Protagoras. The truth is, that a Greek controversialist generally overproved his case, and in order to overwhelm an adversary pulled down the whole house, even at the risk of being buried among the ruins himself. A modern reasoner, taking his cue from Gorgias, without pushing the matter to such an extreme, might carry on his attack on lines running parallel with those laid down by the Sicilian Sophist. He would begin by denying the existence of a ‘state of Nature’; for such a state must be either variable or constant. If it is constant, how could civilisation ever have arisen? If it is variable, what becomes of the fixed standard appealed to? Then, again, supposing such a state ever to have existed, how could authentic information about it have come down to us through the ages of corruption which are supposed to have intervened? And, lastly, granting that a state of Nature accessible to enquiry has ever existed, how can we reorganise society on the basis of such discordant data as are presented to us by the physiocrats, no two of whom agree with regard to the first principles of natural order; one saying that it is equality, another aristocracy, and a third despotism? We do not say that these arguments are conclusive, we only mean that in relation to modern thought they very fairly represent the dialectic artillery brought to bear by Greek humanism against its naturalistic opponents.As a universal philosophy, the theory of Development,428 like every other modern idea, has only been permitted to manifest itself in combination with different forms of the old scholasticism. The whole speculative movement of our century is made up of such hybrid systems; and three, in particular, still divide the suffrages of many thinking men who have not been able entirely to shake off the influence of reactionary ideas. These are the systems of Hegel, of Comte, and of Mr. Herbert Spencer. In each, the logic and metaphysics inherited from Greek thought are variously compounded with the new science. And each, for that very reason, serves to facilitate the transition from one to the other; a part analogous to that played among the Greeks themselves by the vast constructions of Plato and Aristotle, or, in an age of less productivity, by the Stoic and Alexandrian philosophies.
II.The last-named thinker would, no doubt, repudiate the title of pantheist; and it is certain that, under his treatment, pantheism has reverted, by a curious sort of atavism, to something much more nearly resembling the original doctrine of the Neo-Platonic school. Mr. Spencer tells us that the world is the manifestation of an unknowable Power. Plotinus said nearly the same, although not in such absolutely self-contradictory terms.524 Mr. Spencer constantly assumes, by speaking of354 it in the singular number, that the creative Power of which we know nothing is one; having, apparently, convinced himself of its unity by two methods of reasoning. First, he identifies the transcendent cause of phenomena with the absolute, which is involved in our consciousness of relation; leaving it to be inferred that as relativity implies plurality, absoluteness must imply unity. And, secondly, from the mutual convertibility of the physical forces, he infers the unity of that which underlies force. Plotinus also arrives at the same result by two lines of argument, one à posteriori, and derived from the unity pervading all Nature; the other à priori, and derived from the fancied dependence of the Many on the One. Even in his use of the predicate Unknowable without a subject, Mr. Spencer has been anticipated by Damascius, one of the last Neo-Platonists, who speaks of the supreme principle as τ? ?γνωστον.525 And the same philosopher anticipates the late Father Dalgairns in suggesting the very pertinent question, how, if we know nothing about the Unknowable, we know that it is unknowable.
The alliance between Neo-Pythagoreanism and Stoicism did not last long. Their fundamental principles were too radically opposed to admit of any reconciliation, except what could be effected by the absorption of both into a more comprehensive system. And Roman Stoicism, at least, was too practical, too scientific, too sane, to assimilate what must have seemed a curious amalgam of mathematical jugglery and dreamy asceticism; while the reputation of belonging to248 what passed for a secret society would be regarded with particular dread in the vicinity of the imperial court,—it was, in fact, for this particular reason that the elder Seneca persuaded his son to renounce the vegetarian diet which Sotion had induced him to adopt,—and the suspicious hostility of the public authorities may have had something to do with the speedy disappearance of Neo-Pythagoreanism from Rome.388 On the other hand, so coarsely materialistic and utilitarian a doctrine as that of the Porch, must have been equally repulsive to the spiritualism which, while it discerned a deep kinship permeating all forms of animal existence, saw in the outward conditions of that existence only the prison or the tomb where a heaven-born exile lay immured in expiation of the guilt that had driven him from his former and well-nigh forgotten abode. Hence, after Seneca, we find the two schools pursuing divergent directions, the naturalism of the one becoming more and more contrasted with the spiritualism of the other. It has been mentioned how emphatically Marcus Aurelius rejected the doctrine of a future life, which, perhaps, had been brought under his notice as a tenet of the Neo-Pythagoreans. The latter, on their side, abandoned the Stoic cosmology for the more congenial metaphysics of Plato, which they enriched with some elements from Aristotle’s system, but without in the least acknowledging their obligations to those two illustrious masters. On the contrary, they professed to derive their hidden wisdom from certain alleged writings of Pythagoras and his earlier disciples, which, with the disregard for veracity not uncommon among mystics, they did not scruple to forge wholesale. As a consequence of their unfortunate activity, literature was encumbered with a mass of worthless productions, of which many fragments still survive, mixed, perhaps, with some genuine relics of old Italiote speculation, the extrication of which is, however, a task of almost insuperable difficulty.Let us now see how he carries this passionate enthusiasm for knowledge into the humblest researches of zoology:—On passing from Seneca to Epictêtus, we find that the religious element has received a considerable accession of strength, so considerable, indeed, that the simple progress of time will not altogether account for it. Something is due to the superior devoutness of the Eastern mind—Epictêtus was a Phrygian,—and still more to the difference in station between the two philosophers. As a noble, Seneca belonged to the class which was naturally most inclined to adopt an independent attitude towards the popular beliefs; as a slave, Epictêtus belonged to the class which was naturally most amenable to their authority. It was, however, no accident that philosophy should, at a distance of only a generation, be represented by two such widely contrasted individuals; for the whole tendency of Roman civilisation was, as we have seen, to bring the Oriental element and the servile element of society into ever-increasing prominence. Nothing proves the ascendency of religious considerations in the mind of Epictêtus more strongly than his aversion from the physical enquiries which were eagerly prosecuted by Seneca. Nature interests him solely as a manifestation of divine wisdom and goodness. As a consequence of this intensified religious feeling, the Stoic theory of natural law is transformed, with Epictêtus, into an expression of filial submission to the divine will, while the Stoic teleology becomes an enumeration of the blessings showered by providence on man. In the latter respect, his standpoint approaches very near to that of Socrates, who, although a free-born Athenian citizen, belonged, like him, to the poorer classes, and sympathised deeply with their feeling of dependence on supernatural protection,—a remark which also applies to the humble day-labourer244 Cleanthes. Epictêtus also shares the idea, characteristic of the Platonic rather than of the Xenophontic Socrates, that the philosopher is entrusted with a mission from God, without which it would be perilous for him to undertake the office of a teacher, and which, in the discharge of that office, he should keep constantly before his eyes. But the dialectical element which with Socrates had furnished so strong a counterpoise to the authoritative and traditional side of his philosophy, is almost entirely wanting in the discourses of his imitator, and the little of it which he admits is valued only as a means of silencing the Sceptics. On the other hand, the weakness and insignificance of human nature, considered on the individual side, are abundantly illustrated, and contemptuous diminutives are habitually used in speaking of its component parts.378 It would seem that the attitude of prostration before an overwhelming external authority prevented Epictêtus from looking very favourably on the doctrine of individual immortality; and even if he accepted that doctrine, which seems in the highest degree improbable, it held a much less important place in his thoughts than in those of Cicero and Seneca. It would seem, also, that the Stoic materialism was betraying its fundamental incompatibility with a hope originally borrowed from the idealism of Plato. Nor was this renunciation inconsistent with the ethical dualism which drew a sharp line of distinction between flesh and spirit in the constitution of man, for the superiority of the spirit arose from its identity with the divine substance into which it was destined to be reabsorbed after death.379
We have here, indeed, something comparable not only to the scepticism of the New Academy, but also to the Aristotelian criticism of Plato’s metaphysics; and, at first sight, it might seem as if the Peripatetic philosophy was destined once more to regain the position taken from it by the resuscitation of its ancient foe. But Locke was not inclined to substitute one form of scholasticism for another. By applying the analytical method of Atomism to knowledge itself, he created a weapon equally fatal to the two competing systems. Under his dissection, the concrete individual substance of the one vanished no less completely than the universal ideas of the other. Nothing remained but a bundle of qualities held together by a subjective bond.Returning to Epicurus, we have next to consider how he obtained the various motions required to bring his atoms into those infinite combinations of which our world is only the most recent. The conception of matter naturally endowed with capacities for moving in all directions indifferently was unknown to ancient physics, as was also that of mutual attraction and85 repulsion. Democritus supposed that the atoms all gravitated downward through infinite space, but with different velocities, so that the lighter were perpetually overtaken and driven upwards by the heavier, the result of these collisions and pressures being a vortex whence the world as we see it has proceeded.163 While the atomism of Democritus was, as a theory of matter, the greatest contribution ever made to physical science by pure speculation, as a theory of motion it was open to at least three insuperable objections. Passing over the difficulty of a perpetual movement through space in one direction only, there remained the self-contradictory assumption that an infinite number of atoms all moving together in that one direction could find any unoccupied space to fall into.164 Secondly, astronomical discoveries, establishing as they did the sphericity of the earth, had for ever disproved the crude theory that unsupported bodies fall downward in parallel straight lines. Even granting that the astronomers, in the absence of complete empirical verification, could not prove their whole contention, they could at any rate prove enough of it to destroy the notion of parallel descent; for the varying elevation of the pole-star demonstrated the curvature of the earth’s surface so far as it was accessible to observation, thus showing that, within the limits of experience, gravitation acted along convergent lines. Finally, Aristotle had pointed out that the observed differences in the velocity of falling bodies were due to the atmospheric resistance, and that, consequently, they would all move at the same rate in such an absolute vacuum as atomism assumed.165 Of these objections Epicurus ignored the first two, except, apparently, to the extent of refusing to believe in the antipodes. The third he acknowledged, and set himself to evade it by a hypothesis striking at the root of all scientific86 reasoning. The atoms, he tells us, suffer a slight deflection from the line of perpendicular descent, sufficient to bring them into collision with one another; and from this collision proceeds the variety of movement necessary to throw them into all sorts of accidental combinations. Our own free will, says Lucretius, furnishes an example of such a deflection whenever we swerve aside from the direction in which an original impulse is carrying us.166 That the irregularity thus introduced into Nature interfered with the law of universal causation was an additional recommendation of it in the eyes of Epicurus, who, as we have already mentioned, hated the physical necessity of the philosophers even more than he hated the watchful interfering providence of the theologians. But, apparently, neither he nor his disciples saw that in discarding the invariable sequence of phenomena, they annulled, to the same extent, the possibility of human foresight and adaptation of means to ends. There was no reason why the deflection, having once occurred, should not be repeated infinitely often, each time producing effects of incalculable extent. And a further inconsequence of the system is that it afterwards accounts for human choice by a mechanism which has nothing to do with free-will.167
But Epicurus could only borrow the leading principle of his opponents at the expense of an enormous inconsistency. It was long ago pointed out by the Academicians—and the objection has never been answered—that pleasure and mere painlessness cannot both be the highest good, although the one may be an indispensable condition of the other. To confound the means with the end was, indeed, a common fault of Greek philosophy; and the Stoics also were guilty of it when they defined self-preservation to be the natural object of every creature, and yet attached a higher value to the instruments than to the aims of that activity. In Epicureanism, however, the change of front was more open, and was attempted under the eyes of acute and vigilant enemies. If the total absence of pain involves a pleasurable state of consciousness, we have a right to ask for a definition or description of it, and this, so far as can be made out, our philosopher never pretended to supply. Of course, a modern psychologist can point out that the functions of respiration, circulation, secretion, and absorption are constantly going on, and that, in their normal activity, they give rise to a vast sum of pleasurable consciousness, which far more than makes up in volume for what it wants in acuteness. But, whatever his recent interpreters may say,133 Epicurus nowhere alludes to this diffused feeling of vitality; had he recognised it, his enumeration of the positive sensations, apart from which the good is inconceivable, would have seemed as incomplete to him as it does to us. If, on the other hand, the complete removal of pain introduces us to a state of consciousness, which, without being positively pleasurable, has a positive value of some kind, we ought to be told wherein it differs from the ideals of the spiritualist school;66 while, if it has no positive value at all, we ought equally to be told wherein it differs from the unconsciousness of sleep or of death.