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399Or strong Necessity, or Nature’s teaching
Some may think that we have pushed this point at unnecessary length. But the Neo-Platonic method is not quite so obsolete as they, perhaps, suppose. Whenever we repeat the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, we are expressing our religious belief in the language of the Alexandrian schools, thus pledging ourselves to metaphysical dogmas which we can neither explain nor defend. Such terms as sonship and procession have no meaning except when applied to relations conceived under the form of time; and to predicate eternity of them is to reduce them to so much unintelligible jargon.Whether there exist any realities beyond what are revealed to us by this evidence, and what sensible evidence itself may be worth, were problems already actively canvassed in Aristotle’s time. His Metaphysics at once takes us into the thick of the debate. The first question of that age was, What are the causes and principles of things? On one side stood the materialists—the old Ionian physicists and their living representatives. They said that all things came from water or air or fire, or from a mixture of the four elements, or from the interaction of opposites, such as wet and dry, hot and cold.332 Aristotle, following in the track of his master, Plato, blames them for ignoring the incorporeal substances, by which he does not mean what would now be understood—feelings or states of consciousness, or even the spiritual substratum of consciousness—but rather the general qualities or assemblages of qualities which remain constant amid the fluctuations of sensible phenomena; considered, let us observe, not as subjective thoughts, but as objective realities. Another deficiency in the older physical theories is that they either ignore the efficient cause of motion altogether (like Thales), or assign causes not adequate to the purpose (like Empedocles); or when they hit on the true cause do not make the right use of it (like Anaxagoras). Lastly, they have omitted to study the final cause of a thing—the good for which it exists.
If happiness consists in the appropriate exercise of our vital functions, then the highest happiness must result from the highest activity, whether we choose to call that reason or anything else which is the ruling and guiding principle within us, and through which we form our conceptions of what is noble and divine; and whether this be intrinsically divine, or only the divinest thing in us, its appropriate activity must be perfect happiness. Now this, which we call the theoretic activity, must be the mightiest; for reason is supreme in our souls and supreme over the objects which it cognises; and it is also the most continuous, for of all activities theorising is that which can be most uninterruptedly carried on. Again, we think that some pleasure ought to be mingled with happiness; if so, of all our proper activities philosophy is confessedly the most pleasurable, the enjoyments afforded by it being wonderfully pure and steady; for the existence of those who are in possession of knowledge is naturally more delightful than the existence of those who merely seek it. Of all virtues this is the most self-sufficing; for while in common with every other virtue it presupposes the indispensable conditions of life, wisdom does not, like justice and temperance and courage, need human objects for its exercise; theorising may go on in perfect solitude; for the co-operation of other men, though helpful, is not absolutely necessary to its activity. All other pursuits are exercised for some end lying outside themselves; war entirely for the sake of310 peace, and statesmanship in great part for the sake of honour and power; but theorising yields no extraneous profit great or small, and is loved for itself alone. If, then, the energising of pure reason rises above such noble careers as war and statesmanship by its independence, by its inherent delightfulness, and, so far as human frailty will permit, by its untiring vigour, this must constitute perfect human happiness; or rather such a life is more than human, and man can only partake of it through the divine principle within him; wherefore let us not listen to those who tell us that we should have no interests except what are human and mortal like ourselves; but so far as may be put on immortality, and bend all our efforts towards living up to that element of our nature which, though small in compass, is in power and preciousness supreme.192
In addition to its other great lessons, the Symposium has afforded Plato an opportunity for contrasting his own method of philosophising with pre-Socratic modes of thought. For it consists of a series of discourses in praise of love, so arranged as to typify the manner in which Greek speculation, after beginning with mythology, subsequently advanced to physical theories of phenomena, then passed from the historical to the contemporary method, asking, not whence did things come, but what are they in themselves; and finally arrived at the logical standpoint of analysis, classification, and induction.
We have seen how Greek thought had arrived at a perfectly just conception of the process by which all physical transformations are effected. The whole extended universe is an aggregate of bodies, while each single body is formed by a combination of everlasting elements, and is destroyed by their separation. But if Empedocles was right, if these primary substances were no other than the fire, air, water, and earth of everyday experience, what became of the Heracleitean law, confirmed by common observation, that, so far from remaining unaltered, they were continually passing into one another? To this question the atomic theory gave an answer so conclusive, that, although ignored or contemned by later schools, it was revived with the great revival of science in the sixteenth century, was successfully employed in the explanation of every order of phenomena, and still remains the basis of all physical enquiry. The undulatory theory of light, the law of universal gravitation, and the laws of chemical combination can only be expressed in terms implying the existence of atoms; the laws of gaseous diffusion, and of thermodynamics generally, can only be understood with their help; and the latest develop34ments of chemistry have tended still further to establish their reality, as well as to elucidate their remarkable properties. In the absence of sufficient information, it is difficult to determine by what steps this admirable hypothesis was evolved. Yet, even without external evidence, we may fairly conjecture that, sooner or later, some philosopher, possessed of a high generalising faculty, would infer that if bodies are continually throwing off a flux of infinitesimal particles from their surfaces, they must be similarly subdivided all through; and that if the organs of sense are honeycombed with imperceptible pores, such may also be the universal constitution of matter.26 Now, according to Aristotle, Leucippus, the founder of atomism, did actually use the second of these arguments, and employed it in particular to prove the existence of indivisible solids.27 Other considerations equally obvious suggested themselves from another quarter. If all change was expressible in terms of matter and motion, then gradual change implied interstitial motion, which again involved the necessity of fine pores to serve as channels for the incoming and outgoing molecular streams. Nor, as was supposed, could motion of any kind be conceived without a vacuum, the second great postulate of the atomic theory. Here its advocates directly joined issue with Parmenides. The chief of the Eleatic school had, as we have seen, presented being under the form of a homogeneous sphere, absolutely continuous but limited in extent. Space dissociated from matter was to him, as afterwards to Aristotle, non-existent and impossible. It was, he exclaimed, inconceivable, nonsensical. Unhappily inconceivability is about the worst negative criterion of truth ever yet invented. His challenge was now35 taken up by the Atomists, who boldly affirmed that if non-being meant empty space, it was just as conceivable and just as necessary as being. A further stimulus may have been received from the Pythagorean school, whose doctrines had, just at this time, been systematised and committed to writing by Philolaus, its most eminent disciple. The hard saying that all things were made out of number might be explained and confirmed if the integers were interpreted as material atoms.VII.
For neither house nor city flanked with towersIX.We have seen how Prodicus and Hippias professed to97 teach all science, all literature, and all virtuous accomplishments. We have seen how Protagoras rejected every kind of knowledge unconnected with social culture. We now find Gorgias going a step further. In his later years, at least, he professes to teach nothing but rhetoric or the art of persuasion. We say in his later years, for at one time he seems to have taught ethics and psychology as well.73 But the Gorgias of Plato’s famous dialogue limits himself to the power of producing persuasion by words on all possible subjects, even those of whose details he is ignorant. Wherever the rhetorician comes into competition with the professional he will beat him on his own ground, and will be preferred to him for every public office. The type is by no means extinct, and flourishes like a green bay-tree among ourselves. Like Pendennis, a writer of this kind will review any book from the height of superior knowledge acquired by two hours’ reading in the British Museum; or, if he is adroit enough, will dispense with even that slender amount of preparation. He need not even trouble himself to read the book which he criticises. A superficial acquaintance with magazine articles will qualify him to pass judgment on all life, all religion, and all philosophy. But it is in politics that the finest career lies before him. He rises to power by attacking the measures of real statesmen, and remains there by adopting them. He becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer by gross economical blundering, and Prime Minister by a happy mixture of epigram and adulation.
The position assigned to women by Plato may perhaps have seemed to his contemporaries the most paradoxical of all his projects, and it has been observed that here he is in advance even of our own age. But a true conclusion may be deduced from false premises; and Plato’s conclusion is not even identical with that reached on other grounds by the modern advocates of women’s rights, or rather of their equitable claims. The author of the Republic detested democracy; and the enfranchisement of women is now demanded as a part of257 the general democratic programme. It is an axiom, at least with liberals, that no class will have its interests properly attended to which is left without a voice in the election of parliamentary representatives; and the interests of the sexes are not more obviously identical than those of producers and consumers, or of capitalists and labourers. Another democratic principle is that individuals are, as a rule, the best judges of what occupation they are fit for; and as a consequence of this it is further demanded that women should be admitted to every employment on equal terms with men; leaving competition to decide in each instance whether they are suited for it or not. Their continued exclusion from the military profession would be an exception more apparent than real; because, like the majority of the male sex, they are physically disqualified for it. Now, the profession of arms is the very one for which Plato proposes to destine the daughters of his aristocratic caste, without the least intention of consulting their wishes on the subject. He is perfectly aware that his own principle of differentiation will be quoted against him, but he turns the difficulty in a very dexterous manner. He contends that the difference of the sexes, so far as strength and intelligence are concerned, is one not of kind but of degree; for women are not distinguished from men by the possession of any special aptitude, none of them being able to do anything that some men cannot do better. Granting the truth of this rather unflattering assumption, the inference drawn from it will still remain economically unsound. The division of labour requires that each task should be performed, not by those who are absolutely, but by those who are relatively, best fitted for it. In many cases we must be content with work falling short of the highest attainable standard, that the time and abilities of the best workmen may be exclusively devoted to functions for which they alone are competent. Even if women could be trained to fight, it does not follow that their energies might not be more advantageously258 expended in another direction. Here, again, Plato improperly reasons from low to high forms of association. He appeals to the doubtful example of nomadic tribes, whose women took part in the defence of the camps, and to the fighting power possessed by the females of predatory animals. In truth, the elimination of home life left his women without any employment peculiar to themselves; and so, not to leave them completely idle, they were drafted into the army, more with the hope of imposing on the enemy by an increase of its apparent strength than for the sake of any real service which they were expected to perform.151 When Plato proposes that women of proved ability should be admitted to the highest political offices, he is far more in sympathy with modern reformers; and his freedom from prejudice is all the more remarkable when we consider that no Greek lady (except, perhaps, Artemisia) is known to have ever displayed a talent for government, although feminine interference in politics was common enough at Sparta; and that personally his feeling towards women was unsympathetic if not contemptuous.152 Still we must not exaggerate the importance of his concession. The Platonic polity was, after all, a family rather than a true State; and that women should be allowed a share in the regulation of marriage and in the nurture of children, was only giving them back with one hand what had been taken away with the other. Already, among ourselves, women have a voice in educational matters; and were marriage brought under State control, few would doubt the propriety of making them eligible to the new Boards which would be charged with its supervision.Still Plotinus gives no clear answer to the question whence comes this last and lowest Matter. He will not say that it is an emanation from the Soul, nor yet will he say that it is a formless residue of the element out of which she was shaped by a return to the Nous. In truth, he could not make up his mind as to whether the Matter of sensible objects was created at all. He oscillates between unwillingness to admit that absolute evil can come from good, and unwillingness to admit that the two are co-ordinate principles of existence. And, as usual, where ideas fail him, he helps himself out of the difficulty with metaphors. The Soul must advance, and in order to advance she must make a place for herself, and that there may be a place there must be body. Or, again, while remaining fixed in herself, she sends out a great light, and by the light she sees that there is darkness beyond its extreme verge, and moulds its formless substance into shape.489
When I speak of the division of the intellectual, you will also understand me to speak of that knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses—that is to say as steps and points of departure into a region which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole; and clinging to this and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she descends again without the aid of any sensible object, beginning and ending in ideas.560Fallings from us, vanishings,