Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord
Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics
Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
Intellectual superiority of the Greeks
Early progress of philosophy
The Greek philosophy
The Ionian Sophoi
Thales and his principles
Diogenes of Apollonia
Heraclitus of Ephesus
Pythagoras and his school
Zeno of Elea
Empedocles and the Eleatics
Loftiness of the Greek philosopher
Progress of scepticism
His exposure of error
Socrates as moralist
The method of Socrates
His services to philosophy
Ideas of Plato
Archer Butler on Plato
Sir James Mackintosh on Epicurus
Principles of the Stoical philosophy
Philosophy among the Romans
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Whatever may be said of the inferiority of the ancients to the moderns in natural and mechanical science, which no one is disposed to question, or even in the realm of literature, which may be questioned, there was one department of knowledge to which we have added nothing of consequence. In the realm of art they were our equals, and probably our superiors; in philosophy, they carried logical deduction to its utmost limit. They advanced from a few crude speculations on material phenomena to an analysis of all the powers of the mind, and finally to the establishment of ethical principles which even Christianity did not supersede.
The progress of philosophy from Thales to Plato is the most stupendous triumph of the human intellect. The reason of man soared to the loftiest flights that it has ever attained. It cast its searching eye into the most abstruse inquiries which ever tasked the famous minds of the world. It exhausted all the subjects which dialectical subtlety ever raised. It originated and carried out the boldest speculations respecting the nature of the soul and its future existence. It established important psychological truths and created a method for the solution of abstruse questions. It went on from point to point, until all the faculties of the mind were severely analyzed, and all its operations were subjected to a rigid method. The Romans never added a single principle to the philosophy which the Greeks elaborated; the ingenious scholastics of the Middle Ages merely reproduced Greek ideas; and even the profound and patient Germans have gone round in the same circles that Plato and Aristotle marked out more than two thousand years ago. Only the Brahmans of India have equalled them in intellectual subtilty and acumen. It was Greek philosophy in which noble Roman youths were educated; and hence, as it was expounded by a Cicero, a Marcus Aurelius, and an Epictetus, it was as much the inheritance of the Romans as it was of the Greeks themselves, after Grecian liberties were swept away and Greek cities became a part of the Roman empire. The Romans learned what the Greeks created and taught; and philosophy, as well as art, became identified with the civilization which extended from the Rhine and the Po to the Nile and the Tigris.
Greek philosophy was one of the distinctive features of ancient civilization long after the Greeks had ceased to speculate on the laws of mind or the nature of the soul, on the existence of God or future rewards and punishments. Although it was purely Grecian in its origin and development, it became one of the grand ornaments of the Roman schools. The Romans did not originate medicine, but Galen was one of its greatest lights; they did not invent the hexameter verse, but Virgil sang to its measure; they did not create Ionic capitals, but their cities were ornamented with marble temples on the same principles as those which called out the admiration of Pericles. So, if they did not originate philosophy, and generally had but little taste for it, still its truths were systematized and explained by Cicero, and formed no small accession to the treasures with which cultivated intellects sought everywhere to be enriched. It formed an essential part of the intellectual wealth of the civilized world, when civilization could not prevent the world from falling into decay and ruin. And as it was the noblest triumph which the human mind, under Pagan influences, ever achieved, so it was followed by the most degrading imbecility into which man, in civilized countries, was ever allowed to fall. Philosophy, like art, like literature, like science, arose, shone, grew dim, and passed away, leaving the world in night. Why was so bright a glory followed by so dismal a shame? What a comment is this on the greatness and littleness of man!
In all probability the development of Greek philosophy originated with the Ionian Sophoi, though many suppose it was derived from the East. It is questionable whether the Oriental nations had any philosophy distinct from religion. The Germans are fond of tracing resemblances in the early speculations of the Greeks to the systems which prevailed in Asia from a very remote antiquity. Gladish sees in the Pythagorean system an adoption of Chinese doctrines; in the Heraclitic system, the influence of Persia; in the Empedoclean, Egyptian speculations; and in the Anaxagorean, the Jewish creeds. But the Orientals had theogonies, not philosophies. The Indian speculations aim at an exposition of ancient revelation. They profess to liberate the soul from the evils of mortal life,–to arrive at eternal beatitudes. But the state of perfectibility could be reached only by religious ceremonial observances and devout contemplation. The Indian systems do not disdain logical discussions, or a search after the principles of which the universe is composed; and hence we find great refinements in sophistry, and a wonderful subtilty of logical discussion, though these are directed to unattainable ends,–to the connection of good with evil, and the union of the Supreme with Nature. Nothing seemed to come out of these speculations but an occasional elevation of mind among the learned, and a profound conviction of the misery of man and the obstacles to his perfection. The Greeks, starting from physical phenomena, went on in successive series of inquiries, elevating themselves above matter, above experience, even to the loftiest abstractions, until they classified the laws of thought. It is curious how speculation led to demonstration, and how inquiries into the world of matter prepared the way for the solution of intellectual phenomena. Philosophy kept pace with geometry, and those who observed Nature also gloried in abstruse calculations. Philosophy and mathematics seem to have been allied with the worship of art among the same men, and it is difficult to say which more distinguished them,–aesthetic culture or power of abstruse reasoning.
We do not read of any remarkable philosophical inquirer until Thales arose, the first of the Ionian school. He was born at Miletus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor, about the year 636 B.C., when Ancus Martius was king of Rome, and Josiah reigned at Jerusalem. He has left no writings behind him, but was numbered as one of the seven wise men of Greece on account of his political sagacity and wisdom in public affairs. I do not here speak of his astronomical and geometrical labors, which were great, and which have left their mark even upon our own daily life,–as, for instance, in the fact that he was the first to have divided the year into three hundred and sixty-five days.
“And he, ’tis said, did first compute the stars
Which beam in Charles’s wain, and guide the bark
Of the Phoenecian sailor o’er the sea.”
He is celebrated also for practical wisdom. “Know thyself,” is one of his remarkable sayings. The chief claim of Thales to a lofty rank among sages, however, is that he was the first who attempted a logical solution of material phenomena, without resorting to mythical representations. Thales felt that there was a grand question to be answered relative to the beginning of things. “Philosophy,” it has been well said, “maybe a history of errors^ but not of follies“. It was not a folly, in a rude age, to speculate on the first or fundamental principle of things. Thales looked around him upon Nature, upon the sea and earth and sky, and concluded that water or moisture was the vital principle. He felt it in the air, he saw it in the clouds above and in the ground beneath his feet. He saw that plants were sustained by rain and by the dew, that neither animal nor man could live without water, and that to fishes it was the native element. What more important or vital than water? It was the prima materia, the [Greek: archae] the beginning of all things,–the origin of the world. How so crude a speculation could have been maintained by so wise a man it is difficult to conjecture. It is not, however, the cause which he assigns for the beginning of things which is noteworthy, so much as the fact that his mind was directed to any solution of questions pertaining to the origin of the universe. It was these questions, and the solution of them, which marked the Ionian philosophers, and which showed the inquiring nature of their minds. What is the great first cause of all things? Thales saw it in one of the four elements of Nature as the ancients divided them; and this is the earliest recorded theory among the Greeks of the origin of the world. It is an induction from one of the phenomena of animated Nature,–the nutrition and production of a seed. He regarded the entire world in the light of a living being gradually maturing and forming itself from an imperfect seed-state, which was of a moist nature. This moisture endues the universe with vitality. The world, he thought, was full of gods, but they had their origin in water. He had no conception of God as intelligence, or as a creative power. He had a great and inquiring mind, but it gave him no knowledge of a spiritual, controlling, and personal deity.
Anaximenes, the disciple of Thales, pursued his master’s inquiries and adopted his method. He also was born in Miletus, but at what time is unknown,–probably 500 B.C. Like Thales, he held to the eternity of matter. Like him, he disbelieved in the existence of anything immaterial, for even a human soul is formed out of matter. He, too, speculated on the origin of the universe, but thought that air, not water, was the primal cause. This element seems to be universal. We breathe it; all things are sustained by it. It is Life,–that is, pregnant with vital energy, and capable of infinite transmutations. All things are produced by it; all is again resolved into it; it supports all things; it surrounds the world; it has infinitude; it has eternal motion. Thus did this philosopher reason, comparing the world with our own living existence,–which he took to be air,–an imperishable principle of life. He thus advanced a step beyond Thales, since he regarded the world not after the analogy of an imperfect seed-state, but after that of the highest condition of life,–the human soul. And he attempted to refer to one general law all the transformations of the first simple substance into its successive states, in that the cause of change is the eternal motion of the air.
Diogenes of Apollonia, in Crete, one of the disciples of Anaximenes, born 500 B.C., also believed that air was the principle of the universe, but he imputed to it an intellectual energy, yet without recognizing any distinction between mind and matter. He made air and the soul identical. “For,” says he, “man and all other animals breathe and live by means of the air, and therein consists their soul.” And as it is the primary being from which all is derived, it is necessarily an eternal and imperishable body; but as soul it is also endued with consciousness. Diogenes thus refers the origin of the world to an intelligent being,–to a soul which knows and vivifies. Anaximenes regarded air as having life; Diogenes saw in it also intelligence. Thus philosophy advanced step by step, though still groping in the dark; for the origin of all things, according to Diogenes, must exist in intelligence. According to Diogenes Laertius, he said: “It appears to me that he who begins any treatise ought to lay down principles about which there can be no dispute.”
Heraclitus of Ephesus, classed by Ritter among the Ionian philosophers, was born 503 B.C. Like others of his school, he sought a physical ground for all phenomena. The elemental principle he regarded as fire, since all things are convertible into it. In one of its modifications this fire, or fluid, self-kindled, permeating everything as the soul or principle of life, is endowed with intelligence and powers of ceaseless activity. “If Anaximenes,” says Maurice, not very clearly, “discovered that he had within him a power and principle which ruled over all the acts and functions of his bodily frame, Heraclitus found that there was life within him which he could not call his own, and yet it was, in the very highest sense, himself, so that without it he would have been a poor, helpless, isolated creature,–a universal life which connected him with his fellow-men, with the absolute source and original fountain of life…. He proclaimed the absolute vitality of Nature, the endless change of matter, the mutability and perishability of all individual things in contrast with the eternal Being,–the supreme harmony which rules over all.” To trace the divine energy of life in all things was the general problem of the philosophy of Heraclitus, and this spirit was akin to the pantheism of the East. But he was one of the greatest speculative intellects that preceded Plato, and of all the physical theorists arrived nearest to spiritual truth. He taught the germs of what was afterward more completely developed. “From his theory of perpetual fluxion,” says Archer Butler, “Plato derived the necessity of seeking a stable basis for the universal system in his world of ideas.” Heraclitus was, however, an obscure writer, and moreover cynical and arrogant.
Anaxagoras, the most famous of the Ionian philosophers, was born 500 B.C., and belonged to a rich and noble family. Regarding philosophy as the noblest pursuit of earth, he abandoned his inheritance for the study of Nature. He went to Athens in the most brilliant period of her history, and had Pericles, Euripides, and Socrates for pupils. He taught that the great moving force of Nature was intellect ([Greek: nous]). Intelligence was the cause of the world and of order, and mind was the principle of motion; yet this intelligence was not a moral intelligence, but simply the primum mobile,–the all-knowing motive force by which the order of Nature is effected. He thus laid the foundation of a new system, under which the Attic philosophers sought to explain Nature, by regarding as the cause of all things, not matter in its different elements, but rather mind, thought, intelligence, which both knows and acts,–a grand conception, unrivalled in ancient speculation. This explanation of material phenomena by intellectual causes was the peculiar merit of Anaxagoras, and places him in a very high rank among the thinkers of the world. Moreover, he recognized the reason as the only faculty by which we become cognizant of truth, the senses being too weak to discover the real component particles of things. Like all the great inquirers, he was impressed with the limited degree of positive knowledge compared with what there is to be learned. “Nothing,” says he, “can be known; nothing is certain; sense is limited, intellect is weak, life is short,”–the complaint, not of a sceptic, but of a man overwhelmed with the sense of his incapacity to solve the problems which arose before his active mind. Anaxagoras thought that this spirit ([Greek: nous]) gave to all those material atoms which in the beginning of the world lay in disorder the impulse by which they took the forms of individual things, and that this impulse was given in a circular direction. Hence that the sun, moon, and stars, and even the air, are constantly moving in a circle.
In the mean time another sect of philosophers had arisen, who, like the Ionians, sought to explain Nature, but by a different method. Anaximander, born 610 B.C., was one of the original mathematicians of Greece, yet, like Pythagoras and Thales, speculated on the beginning of things. His principle was that The Infinite is the origin of all things. He used the word [Greek: archae] (beginning) to denote the material out of which all things were formed, as the Everlasting, the Divine. The idea of elevating an abstraction into a great first cause was certainly a long stride in philosophic generalization to be taken at that age of the world, following as it did so immediately upon such partial and childish ideas as that any single one of the familiar “elements” could be the primal cause of all things. It seems almost like the speculations of our own time, when philosophers seek to find the first cause in impersonal Force, or infinite Energy. Yet it is not really easy to understand Anaximander’s meaning, other than that the abstract has a higher significance than the concrete. The speculations of Thales had tended toward discovering the material constitution of the universe upon an induction from observed facts, and thus made water to be the origin of all things. Anaximander, accustomed to view things in the abstract, could not accept so concrete a thing as water; his speculations tended toward mathematics, to the science of pure deduction. The primary Being is a unity, one in all, comprising within itself the multiplicity of elements from which all mundane things are composed. It is only in infinity that the perpetual changes of things can take place. Thus Anaximander, an original but vague thinker, prepared the way for Pythagoras.
This later philosopher and mathematician, born about the year 600 B.C., stands as one of the great names of antiquity; but his life is shrouded in dim magnificence. The old historians paint him as “clothed in robes of white, his head covered with gold, his aspect grave and majestic, rapt in the contemplation of the mysteries of existence, listening to the music of Homer and Hesiod, or to the harmony of the spheres.”
Pythagoras was supposed to be a native of Samos. When quite young, being devoted to learning, he quitted his country and went to Egypt, where he learned its language and all the secret mysteries of the priests. He then returned to Samos, but finding the island under the dominion of a tyrant he fled to Crotona, in Italy, where he gained great reputation for wisdom, and made laws for the Italians. His pupils were about three hundred in number. He wrote three books, which were extant in the time of Diogenes Laertius,–one on Education, one on Politics, and one on Natural Philosophy. He also wrote an epic poem on the universe, to which he gave the name of Kosmos.
Among the ethical principles which Pythagoras taught was that men ought not to pray for anything in particular, since they do not know what is good for them; that drunkenness was identical with ruin; that no one should exceed the proper quantity of meat and drink; that the property of friends is common; that men should never say or do anything in anger. He forbade his disciples to offer victims to the gods, ordering them to worship only at those altars which were unstained with blood.
Pythagoras was the first person who introduced measures and weights among the Greeks. But it is his philosophy which chiefly claims our attention. His main principle was that number is the essence of things,–probably meaning by number order and harmony and conformity to law. The order of the universe, he taught, is only a harmonical development of the first principle of all things to virtue and wisdom. He attached much value to music, as an art which has great influence on the affections; hence his doctrine of the music of the spheres. Assuming that number is the essence of the world, he deduced the idea that the world is regulated by numerical proportions, or by a system of laws which are regular and harmonious in their operations. Hence the necessity for an intelligent creator of the universe. The Infinite of Anaximander became the One of Pythagoras. He believed that the soul is incorporeal, and is put into the body subject to numerical and harmonical relation, and thus to divine regulation. Hence the tendency of his speculations was to raise the soul to the contemplation of law and order,–of a supreme Intelligence reigning in justice and truth. Justice and truth became thus paramount virtues, to be practised and sought as the end of life. “It is impossible not to see in these lofty speculations the effect of the Greek mind, according to its own genius, seeking after God, if haply it might find Him.”
We now approach the second stage of Greek philosophy. The Ionic philosophers had sought to find the first principle of all things in the elements, and the Pythagoreans in number, or harmony and law, implying an intelligent creator. The Eleatics, who now arose, went beyond the realm of physics to pure metaphysical inquiries, to an idealistic pantheism, which disregarded the sensible, maintaining that the source of truth is independent of the senses. Here they were forestalled by the Hindu sages.
The founder of this school was Xenophanes, born in Colophon, an Ionian city of Asia Minor, from which being expelled he wandered over Sicily as a rhapsodist, or minstrel, reciting his elegiac poetry on the loftiest truths, and at last, about the year 536 B.C., came to Elea, where he settled. The principal subject of his inquiries was deity itself,–the great First Cause, the supreme Intelligence of the universe. From the principle ex nihilo nihil fit he concluded that nothing could pass from non-existence to existence. All things that exist are created by supreme Intelligence, who is eternal and immutable. From this truth that God must be from all eternity, he advances to deny all multiplicity. A plurality of gods is impossible. With these sublime views,–the unity and eternity and omnipotence of God,–Xenophanes boldly attacked the popular errors of his day. He denounced the transference to the deity of the human form; he inveighed against Homer and Hesiod; he ridiculed the doctrine of migration of souls. Thus he sings,–
“Such things of the gods are related by Homer and Hesiod
As would be shame and abiding disgrace to mankind,–
Promises broken, and thefts, and the one deceiving the other.”
And again, respecting anthropomorphic representations of the deity,–
“But men foolishly think that gods are born like as men are,
And have too a dress like their own, and their voice and their figure;
But there’s but one God alone, the greatest of gods and of mortals,
Neither in body to mankind resembling, neither in ideas.”
Such were the sublime meditations of Xenophanes. He believed in the One, which is God; but this all-pervading, unmoved, undivided being was not a personal God, nor a moral governor, but deity pervading all space. He could not separate God from the world, nor could he admit the existence of world which is not God. He was a monotheist, but his monotheism was pantheism. He saw God in all the manifestations of Nature. This did not satisfy him nor resolve his doubts, and he therefore confessed that reason could not compass the exalted aims of philosophy. But there was no cynicism in his doubt. It was the soul-sickening consciousness that reason was incapable of solving the mighty questions that he burned to know. There was no way to arrive at the truth, “for,” said he, “error is spread over all things.” It was not disdain of knowledge, it was the combat of contradictory opinions that oppressed him. He could not solve the questions pertaining to God. What uninstructed reason can? “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou know the Almighty unto perfection?” What was impossible to Job was not possible to Xenophanes. But he had attained a recognition of the unity and perfections of God; and this conviction he would spread abroad, and tear down the superstitions which hid the face of truth. I have great admiration for this philosopher, so sad, so earnest, so enthusiastic, wandering from city to city, indifferent to money, comfort, friends, fame, that he might kindle the knowledge of God. This was a lofty aim indeed for philosophy in that age. It was a higher mission than that of Homer, great as his was, though not so successful.
Parmenides of Elea, born about the year 530 B.C., followed out the system of Xenophanes, the central idea of which was the existence of God. With Parmenides the main thought was the notion of being. Being is uncreated and unchangeable; the fulness of all being is thought; the All is thought and intelligence. He maintained the uncertainty of knowledge, meaning the knowledge derived through the senses. He did not deny the certainty of reason. He was the first who drew a distinction between knowledge obtained by the senses and that obtained through the reason; and thus he anticipated the doctrine of innate ideas. From the uncertainty of knowledge derived through the senses, he deduced the twofold system of true and apparent knowledge.
Zeno of Elea, the friend and pupil of Parmenides, born 500 B.C., brought nothing new to the system, but invented Dialectics, the art of disputation,–that department of logic which afterward became so powerful in the hands of Plato and Aristotle, and so generally admired among the schoolmen. It seeks to establish truth by refuting error through the reductio ad absurdum. While Parmenides sought to establish the doctrine of the One, Zeno proved the non-existence of the Many. He did not deny existences, but denied that appearances were real existences. It was the mission of Zeno to establish the doctrines of his master. But in order to convince his listeners, he was obliged to use a new method of argument. So he carried on his argumentation by question and answer, and was therefore the first who used dialogue, which he called dialectics, as a medium of philosophical communication.
Empedocles, born 444 B.C., like others of the Eleatics, complained of the imperfection of the senses, and looked for truth only in reason. He regarded truth as a perfect unity, ruled by love,–the only true force, the one moving cause of all things,–the first creative power by which or whom the world was formed. Thus “God is love” is a sublime doctrine which philosophy revealed to the Greeks, and the emphatic and continuous and assured declaration of which was the central theme of the revelation made by Jesus, the Christ, who resolved all the Law and the Gospel into the element of Love,–fatherly on the part of God, filial and fraternal on the part of men.
Thus did the Eleatic philosophers speculate almost contemporaneously with the Ionians on the beginning of things and the origin of knowledge, taking different grounds, and attempting to correct the representations of sense by the notions of reason. But both schools, although they did not establish many truths, raised an inquisitive spirit, and awakened freedom of thought and inquiry. They raised up workmen for more enlightened times, even as scholastic inquirers in the Middle Ages prepared the way for the revival of philosophy on sounder principles. They were all men of remarkable elevation of character as well as genius. They hated superstitions, and attacked the anthropomorphism of their day. They handled gods and goddesses with allegorizing boldness, and hence were often persecuted by the people. They did not establish moral truths by scientific processes, but they set examples of lofty disdain of wealth and factitious advantages, and devoted themselves with holy enthusiasm to the solution of the great questions which pertain to God and Nature. Thales won the respect of his countrymen by devotion to studies. Pythagoras spent twenty-two years in Egypt to learn its science. Xenophanes wandered over Sicily as a rhapsodist of truth. Parmenides, born to wealth and splendor, forsook the feverish pursuit of sensual enjoyments that he might “behold the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” Zeno declined all worldly honors in order that he might diffuse the doctrines of his master. Heraclitus refused the chief magistracy of Ephesus that he might have leisure to explore the depths of his own nature. Anaxagoras allowed his patrimony to run to waste in order to solve problems. “To philosophy,” said he, “I owe my worldly ruin, and my soul’s prosperity.” All these men were, without exception, the greatest and best men of their times. They laid the foundation of the beautiful temple which was constructed after they were dead, in which both physics and psychology reached the dignity of science. They too were prophets, although unconscious of their divine mission,–prophets of that day when the science which explores and illustrates the works of God shall enlarge, enrich, and beautify man’s conceptions of the great creative Father.
Nevertheless, these great men, lofty as were their inquiries and blameless their lives, had not established any system, nor any theories which were incontrovertible. They had simply speculated, and the world ridiculed their speculations. Their ideas were one-sided, and when pushed out to their extreme logical sequence were antagonistic to one another; which had a tendency to produce doubt and scepticism. Men denied the existence of the gods, and the grounds of certainty fell away from the human mind.
This spirit of scepticism was favored by the tide of worldliness and prosperity which followed the Persian War. Athens became a great centre of art, of taste, of elegance, and of wealth. Politics absorbed the minds of the people. Glory and splendor were followed by corruption of morals and the pursuit of material pleasures. Philosophy went out of fashion, since it brought no outward and tangible good. More scientific studies were pursued,–those which could be applied to purposes of utility and material gains; even as in our day geology, chemistry, mechanics, engineering, having reference to the practical wants of men, command talent, and lead to certain reward. In Athens, rhetoric, mathematics, and natural history supplanted rhapsodies and speculations on God and Providence. Renown and wealth could be secured only by readiness and felicity of speech, and that was most valued which brought immediate recompense, like eloquence. Men began to practise eloquence as an art, and to employ it in furthering their interests. They made special pleadings, since it was their object to gain their point at any expense of law and justice. Hence they taught that nothing was immutably right, but only so by convention. They undermined all confidence in truth and religion by teaching its uncertainty. They denied to men even the capability of arriving at truth. They practically affirmed the cold and cynical doctrine that there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink. Cui bono? this, the cry of most men in periods of great outward prosperity, was the popular inquiry. Who will show us any good?–how can we become rich, strong, honorable?–this was the spirit of that class of public teachers who arose in Athens when art and eloquence and wealth and splendor were at their height in the fifth century before Christ, and when the elegant Pericles was the leader of fashion and of political power.
These men were the Sophists,–rhetorical men, who taught the children of the rich; worldly men, who sought honor and power; frivolous men, trifling with philosophical ideas; sceptical men, denying all certainty in truth; men who as teachers added nothing to the realm of science, but who yet established certain dialectical rules useful to later philosophers. They were a wealthy, powerful, honored class, not much esteemed by men of thought, but sought out as very successful teachers of rhetoric, and also generally selected as ambassadors on difficult missions. They were full of logical tricks, and contrived to throw ridicule upon profound inquiries. They taught also mathematics, astronomy, philology, and natural history with success. They were polished men of society; not profound nor religious, but very brilliant as talkers, and very ready in wit and sophistry. And some of them were men of great learning and talent, like Democritus, Leucippus, and Gorgias. They were not pretenders and quacks; they were sceptics who denied subjective truths, and labored for outward advantage. They taught the art of disputation, and sought systematic methods of proof. They thus prepared the way for a more perfect philosophy than that taught by the Ionians, the Pythagoreans, or the Eleatics, since they showed the vagueness of such inquiries, conjectural rather than scientific. They had no doctrines in common. They were the barristers of their age, paid to make the “worse appear the better reason;” yet not teachers of immorality any more than the lawyers of our day,–men of talents, the intellectual leaders of society. If they did not advance positive truths, they were useful in the method they created. They had no hostility to truth, as such; they only doubted whether it could be reached in the realm of psychological inquiries, and sought to apply knowledge to their own purposes, or rather to distort it in order to gain a case. They are not a class of men whom I admire, as I do the old sages they ridiculed, but they were not without their use in the development of philosophy. The Sophists also rendered a service to literature by giving definiteness to language, and creating style in prose writing. Protagoras investigated the principles of accurate composition; Prodicus busied himself with inquiries into the significance of words; Gorgias, like Voltaire, gloried in a captivating style, and gave symmetry to the structure of sentences.
The ridicule and scepticism of the Sophists brought out the great powers of Socrates, to whom philosophy is probably more indebted than to any man who ever lived, not so much for a perfect system as for the impulse he gave to philosophical inquiries, and for his successful exposure of error. He inaugurated a new era. Born in Athens in the year 470 B.C., the son of a poor sculptor, he devoted his life to the search after truth for its own sake, and sought to base it on immutable foundations. He was the mortal enemy of the Sophists, whom he encountered, as Pascal did the Jesuits, with wit, irony, puzzling questions, and remorseless logic. It is true that Socrates and his great successors Plato and Aristotle were called “Sophists,” but only as all philosophers or wise men were so called. The Sophists as a class had incurred the odium of being the first teachers who received pay for the instruction they imparted. The philosophers generally taught for the love of truth. The Sophists were a natural and necessary and very useful development of their time, but they were distinctly on a lower level than the Philosophers, or lovers of wisdom.
Like the earlier philosophers, Socrates disdained wealth, ease, and comfort,–but with greater devotion than they, since he lived in a more corrupt age, when poverty was a disgrace and misfortune a crime, when success was the standard of merit, and every man was supposed to be the arbiter of his own fortune, ignoring that Providence who so often refuses the race to the swift, and the battle to the strong. He was what in our time would be called eccentric. He walked barefooted, meanly clad, and withal not over cleanly, seeking public places, disputing with everybody willing to talk with him, making everybody ridiculous, especially if one assumed airs of wisdom or knowledge,–an exasperating opponent, since he wove a web around a man from which he could not be extricated, and then exposed him to ridicule in the wittiest city of the world. He attacked everybody, and yet was generally respected, since it was errors rather than persons, opinions rather than vices, that he attacked; and this he did with bewitching eloquence and irresistible fascination, so that though he was poor and barefooted, a Silenus in appearance, with thick lips, upturned nose, projecting eyes, unwieldy belly, he was sought by Alcibiades and admired by Aspasia. Even Xanthippe, a beautiful young woman, very much younger than he, a woman fond of the comforts and pleasures of life, was willing to marry him, although it is said that she turned out a “scolding wife” after the res angusta domi had disenchanted her from the music of his voice and the divinity of his nature. “I have heard Pericles,” said the most dissipated and voluptuous man in Athens, “and other excellent orators, but was not moved by them; while this Marsyas–this Satyr–so affects me that the life I lead is hardly worth living, and I stop my ears as from the Sirens, and flee as fast as possible, that I may not sit down and grow old in listening to his talk.”
Socrates learned his philosophy from no one, and struck out an entirely new path. He declared his own ignorance, and sought to convince other people of theirs. He did not seek to reveal truth so much as to expose error. And yet it was his object to attain correct ideas as to moral obligations. He proclaimed the sovereignty of virtue and the immutability of justice. He sought to delineate and enforce the practical duties of life. His great object was the elucidation of morals; and he was the first to teach ethics systematically from the immutable principles of moral obligation. Moral certitude was the lofty platform from which he surveyed the world, and upon which, as a rock, he rested in the storms of life. Thus he was a reformer and a moralist. It was his ethical doctrines which were most antagonistic to the age and the least appreciated. He was a profoundly religious man, recognized Providence, and believed in the immortality of the soul. He did not presume to inquire into the Divine essence, yet he believed that the gods were omniscient and omnipresent, that they ruled by the law of goodness, and that in spite of their multiplicity there was unity,–a supreme Intelligence that governed the world. Hence he was hated by the Sophists, who denied the certainty of arriving at any knowledge of God. From the comparative worthlessness of the body he deduced the immortality of the soul. With him the end of life was reason and intelligence. He deduced the existence of God from the order and harmony of Nature, belief in which was irresistible. He endeavored to connect the moral with the religious consciousness, and thus to promote the practical welfare of society. In this light Socrates stands out the grandest personage of Pagan antiquity,–as a moralist, as a teacher of ethics, as a man who recognized the Divine.
So far as he was concerned in the development of Greek philosophy proper, he was inferior to some of his disciples, Yet he gave a turning-point to a new period when he awakened the idea of knowledge, and was the founder of the method of scientific inquiry, since he pointed out the legitimate bounds of inquiry, and was thus the precursor of Bacon and Pascal. He did not attempt to make physics explain metaphysics, nor metaphysics the phenomena of the natural world; and he reasoned only from what was generally assumed to be true and invariable. He was a great pioneer of philosophy, since he resorted to inductive methods of proof, and gave general definiteness to ideas. Although he employed induction, it was his aim to withdraw the mind from the contemplation of Nature, and to fix it on its own phenomena,–to look inward rather than outward; a method carried out admirably by his pupil Plato. The previous philosophers had given their attention to external nature; Socrates gave up speculations about material phenomena, and directed his inquiries solely to the nature of knowledge. And as he considered knowledge to be identical with virtue, he speculated on ethical questions mainly, and the method which he taught was that by which alone man could become better and wiser. To know one’s self,–in other words, that “the proper study of mankind is man,”–he proclaimed with Thales. Cicero said of him, “Socrates brought down philosophy from the heavens to the earth.” He did not disdain the subjects which chiefly interested the Sophists,–astronomy, rhetoric, physics,–but he chiefly discussed moral questions, such as, What is piety? What is the just and the unjust? What is temperance? What is courage? What is the character fit for a citizen?–and other ethical points, involving practical human relationships.
These questions were discussed by Socrates in a striking manner, and by a method peculiarly his own. “Professing ignorance, he put perhaps this question: What is law? It was familiar, and was answered offhand. Socrates, having got the answer, then put fresh questions applicable to specific cases, to which the respondent was compelled to give an answer inconsistent with the first, thus showing that the definition was too narrow or too wide, or defective in some essential condition. The respondent then amended his answer; but this was a prelude to other questions, which could only be answered in ways inconsistent with the amendment; and the respondent, after many attempts to disentangle himself, was obliged to plead guilty to his inconsistencies, with an admission that he could make no satisfactory answer to the original inquiry which had at first appeared so easy.” Thus, by this system of cross-examination, he showed the intimate connection between the dialectic method and the logical distribution of particulars into species and genera. The discussion first turns upon the meaning of some generic term; the queries bring the answers into collision with various particulars which it ought not to comprehend, or which it ought to comprehend, but does not. Socrates broke up the one into many by his analytical string of questions, which was a mode of argument by which he separated real knowledge from the conceit of knowledge, and led to precision in the use of definitions. It was thus that he exposed the false, without aiming even to teach the true; for he generally professed ignorance on his part, and put himself in the attitude of a learner, while by his cross-examinations he made the man from whom he apparently sought knowledge to appear as ignorant as himself, or, still worse, absolutely ridiculous.
Thus Socrates pulled away all the foundations on which a false science had been erected, and indicated the mode by which alone the true could be established. Here he was not unlike Bacon, who pointed out the way whereby science could be advanced, without founding any school or advocating any system; but the Athenian was unlike Bacon in the object of his inquiries. Bacon was disgusted with ineffective logical speculations, and Socrates with ineffective physical researches. He never suffered a general term to remain undetermined, but applied it at once to particulars, and by questions the purport of which was not comprehended. It was not by positive teaching, but by exciting scientific impulse in the minds of others, or stirring up the analytical faculties, that Socrates manifested originality. It was his aim to force the seekers after truth into the path of inductive generalization, whereby alone trustworthy conclusions could be formed. He thus struck out from his own and other minds that fire which sets light to original thought and stimulates analytical inquiry. He was a religious and intellectual missionary, preparing the way for the Platos and Aristotles of the succeeding age by his severe dialectics. This was his mission, and he declared it by talking. He did not lecture; he conversed. For more than thirty years he discoursed on the principles of morality, until he arrayed against himself enemies who caused him to be put to death, for his teachings had undermined the popular system which the Sophists accepted and practised. He probably might have been acquitted if he had chosen to be, but he did not wish to live after his powers of usefulness had passed away.
The services which Socrates rendered to philosophy, as enumerated by Tennemann, “are twofold,–negative and positive. Negative, inasmuch as he avoided all vain discussions; combated mere speculative reasoning on substantial grounds; and had the wisdom to acknowledge ignorance when necessary, but without attempting to determine accurately what is capable and what is not of being accurately known. Positive, inasmuch as he examined with great ability the ground directly submitted to our understanding, and of which man is the centre.”
Socrates cannot be said to have founded a school, like Xenophanes. He did not bequeath a system of doctrines. He had however his disciples, who followed in the path which he suggested. Among these were Aristippus, Antisthenes, Euclid of Megara, Phaedo of Elis, and Plato, all of whom were pupils of Socrates and founders of schools. Some only partially adopted his method, and each differed from the other. Nor can it be said that all of them advanced science. Aristippus, the founder of the Cyreniac school, was a sort of philosophic voluptuary, teaching that pleasure is the end of life. Antisthenes, the founder of the Cynics, was both virtuous and arrogant, placing the supreme good in virtue, but despising speculative science, and maintaining that no man can refute the opinions of another. He made it a virtue to be ragged, hungry, and cold, like the ancient monks; an austere, stern, bitter, reproachful man, who affected to despise all pleasures,–like his own disciple Diogenes, who lived in a tub, and carried on a war between the mind and body, brutal, scornful, proud. To men who maintained that science was impossible, philosophy is not much indebted, although they were disciples of Socrates. Euclid–not the mathematician, who was about a century later–merely gave a new edition of the Eleatic doctrines, and Phaedo speculated on the oneness of “the good.”
It was not till Plato arose that a more complete system of philosophy was founded. He was born of noble Athenian parents, 429 B.C., the year that Pericles died, and the second year of the Peloponnesian War,–the most active period of Grecian thought. He had a severe education, studying mathematics, poetry, music, rhetoric, and blending these with philosophy. He was only twenty when he found out Socrates, with whom he remained ten years, and from whom he was separated only by death. He then went on his travels, visiting everything worth seeing in his day, especially in Egypt. When he returned he began to teach the doctrines of his master, which he did, like him, gratuitously, in a garden near Athens, planted with lofty plane-trees and adorned with temples and statues. This was called the Academy, and gave a name to his system of philosophy. It is this only with which we have to do. It is not the calm, serious, meditative, isolated man that I would present, but his contribution to the developments of philosophy on the principles of his master. Surely no man ever made a richer contribution to this department of human inquiry than Plato. He may not have had the originality or keenness of Socrates, but he was more profound. He was pre-eminently a great thinker, a great logician, skilled in dialectics; and his “Dialogues” are such perfect exercises of dialectical method that the ancients were divided as to whether he was a sceptic or a dogmatist. He adopted the Socratic method and enlarged it. Says Lewes:–
“Analysis, as insisted on by Plato, is the decomposition of the whole into its separate parts,–is seeing the one in many…. The individual thing was transitory; the abstract idea was eternal. Only concerning the latter could philosophy occupy itself. Socrates, insisting on proper definitions, had no conception of the classification of those definitions which must constitute philosophy. Plato, by the introduction of this process, shifted philosophy from the ground of inquiries into man and society, which exclusively occupied Socrates, to that of dialectics.”
Plato was also distinguished for skill in composition. Dionysius of Halicarnassus classes him with Herodotus and Demosthenes in the perfection of his style, which is characterized by great harmony and rhythm, as well as by a rich variety of elegant metaphors.
Plato made philosophy to consist in the discussion of general terms, or abstract ideas. General terms were synonymous with real existences, and these were the only objects of philosophy. These were called Ideas; and ideas are the basis of his system, or rather the subject-matter of dialectics. He maintained that every general term, or abstract idea, has a real and independent existence; nay, that the mental power of conceiving and combining ideas, as contrasted with the mere impressions received from matter and external phenomena, is the only real and permanent existence. Hence his writings became the great fountain-head of the Ideal philosophy. In his assertion of the real existence of so abstract and supersensuous a thing as an idea, he probably was indebted to Pythagoras, for Plato was a master of the whole realm of philosophical speculation; but his conception of ideas as the essence of being is a great advance on that philosopher’s conception of numbers. He was taught by Socrates that beyond this world of sense there is the world of eternal truth, and that there are certain principles concerning which there can be no dispute. The soul apprehends the idea of goodness, greatness, etc. It is in the celestial world that we are to find the realm of ideas. Now, God is the supreme idea. To know God, then, should be the great aim of life. We know him through the desire which like feels for like. The divinity within feels its affinity with the divinity revealed in beauty, or any other abstract idea. The longing of the soul for beauty is love. Love, then, is the bond which unites the human with the divine. Beauty is not revealed by harmonious outlines that appeal to the senses, but is truth; it is divinity. Beauty, truth, love, these are God, whom it is the supreme desire of the soul to comprehend, and by the contemplation of whom the mortal soul sustains itself. Knowledge of God is the great end of life; and this knowledge is effected by dialectics, for only out of dialectics can correct knowledge come. But man, immersed in the flux of sensualities, can never fully attain this knowledge of God, the object of all rational inquiry. Hence the imperfection of all human knowledge. The supreme good is attainable; it is not attained. God is the immutable good, and justice the rule of the universe. “The vital principle of Plato’s philosophy,” says Ritter, “is to show that true science is the knowledge of the good, is the eternal contemplation of truth, or ideas; and though man may not be able to apprehend it in its unity, because he is subject to the restraints of the body, he is nevertheless permitted to recognize it imperfectly by calling to mind the eternal measure of existence by which he is in his origin connected.” To quote from Ritter again:–
“When we review the doctrines of Plato, it is impossible to deny that they are pervaded with a grand view of life and the universe. This is the noble thought which inspired him to say that God is the constant and immutable good; the world is good in a state of becoming, and the human soul that in and through which the good in the world is to be consummated. In his sublimer conception he shows himself the worthy disciple of Socrates…. While he adopted many of the opinions of his predecessors, and gave due consideration to the results of the earlier philosophy, he did not allow himself to be disturbed by the mass of conflicting theories, but breathed into them the life-giving breath of unity. He may have erred in his attempts to determine the nature of good; still he pointed out to all who aspire to a knowledge of the divine nature an excellent road by which they may arrive at it.”
That Plato was one of the greatest lights of the ancient world there can be no reasonable doubt. Nor is it probable that as a dialectician he has ever been surpassed, while his purity of life and his lofty inquiries and his belief in God and immortality make him, in an ethical point of view, the most worthy of the disciples of Socrates. He was to the Greeks what Kant was to the Germans; and these two great thinkers resemble each other in the structure of their minds and their relations to society.
The ablest part of the lectures of Archer Butler, of Dublin, is devoted to the Platonic philosophy. It is at once a criticism and a eulogium. No modern writer has written more enthusiastically of what he considers the crowning excellence of the Greek philosophy. The dialectics of Plato, his ideal theory, his physics, his psychology, and his ethics are most ably discussed, and in the spirit of a loving and eloquent disciple. Butler represents the philosophy which he so much admires as a contemplation of, and a tendency to, the absolute and eternal good. As the admirers of Ralph Waldo Emerson claim that he, more than any other man of our times, entered into the spirit of the Platonic philosophy, I introduce some of his most striking paragraphs of subdued but earnest admiration of the greatest intellect of the ancient Pagan world, hoping that they may be clearer to others than they are to me:–
These sentences [of Plato] contain the culture of nations; these are the corner-stone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals, or practical wisdom. There never was such a range of speculation. Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought. Great havoc makes he among our originalities. We have reached the mountain from which all these drift-bowlders were detached…. Plato, in Egypt and in Eastern pilgrimages, imbibed the idea of one Deity, in which all things are absorbed. The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe, the infinitude of the Asiatic soul and the defining, result-loving, machine-making, surface-seeking, opera-going Europe Plato came to join, and by contact to enhance the energy of each. The excellence of Europe and Asia is in his brain. Metaphysics and natural philosophy expressed the genius of Europe; he substricts the religion of Asia as the base. In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two elements…. The physical philosophers had sketched each his theory of the world; the theory of atoms, of fire, of flux, of spirit,–theories mechanical and chemical in their genius. Plato, a master of mathematics, studious of all natural laws and causes, feels these, as second causes, to be no theories of the world, but bare inventories and lists. To the study of Nature he therefore prefixes the dogma,–‘Let us declare the cause which led the Supreme Ordainer to produce and compose the universe. He was good; … he wished that all things should be as much as possible like himself.’…
Plato … represents the privilege of the intellect,–the power, namely, of carrying up every fact to successive platforms, and so disclosing in every fact a germ of expansion…. These expansions, or extensions, consist in continuing the spiritual sight where the horizon falls on our natural vision, and by this second sight discovering the long lines of law which shoot in every direction…. His definition of ideas as what is simple, permanent, uniform, and self-existent, forever discriminating them from the notions of the understanding, marks an era in the world.
The great disciple of Plato was Aristotle, and he carried on the philosophical movement which Socrates had started to the highest limit that it ever reached in the ancient world. He was born at Stagira, 384 B.C., and early evinced an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When Plato returned from Sicily Aristotle joined his disciples at Athens, and was his pupil for seventeen years. On the death of Plato, he went on his travels and became the tutor of Alexander the Great, and in 335 B.C. returned to Athens after an absence of twelve years, and set up a school in the Lyceum. He taught while walking up and down the shady paths which surrounded it, from which habit he obtained the name of the Peripatetic, which has clung to his name and philosophy. His school had a great celebrity, and from it proceeded illustrious philosophers, statesmen, historians, and orators. Aristotle taught for thirteen years, during which time he composed most of his greater works. He not only wrote on dialectics and logic, but also on physics in its various departments. His work on “The History of Animals” was deemed so important that his royal pupil Alexander presented him with eight hundred talents–an enormous sum–for the collection of materials. He also wrote on ethics and politics, history and rhetoric,–pouring out letters, poems, and speeches, three-fourths of which are lost. He was one of the most voluminous writers of antiquity, and probably is the most learned man whose writings have come down to us. Nor has any one of the ancients exercised upon the thinking of succeeding ages so wide an influence. He was an oracle until the revival of learning. Hegel says:–
“Aristotle penetrated into the whole mass, into every department of the universe of things, and subjected to the comprehension its scattered wealth; and the greater number of the philosophical sciences owe to him their separation and commencement.”
He is also the father of the history of philosophy, since he gives an historical review of the way in which the subject has been hitherto treated by the earlier philosophers. Says Adolph Stahr:–
“Plato made the external world the region of the incomplete and bad, of the contradictory and the false, and recognized absolute truth only in the eternal immutable ideas. Aristotle laid down the proposition that the idea, which cannot of itself fashion itself into reality, is powerless, and has only a potential existence; and that it becomes a living reality only by realizing itself in a creative manner by means of its own energy.”
There can be no doubt as to Aristotle’s marvellous power of systematizing. Collecting together all the results of ancient speculation, he so combined them into a co-ordinate system that for a thousand years he reigned supreme in the schools. From a literary point of view, Plato was doubtless his superior; but Plato was a poet, making philosophy divine and musical, while Aristotle’s investigations spread over a far wider range. He differed from Plato chiefly in relation to the doctrine of ideas, without however resolving the difficulty which divided them. As he made matter to be the eternal ground of phenomena, he reduced the notion of it to a precision it never before enjoyed, and established thereby a necessary element in human science. But being bound to matter, he did not soar, as Plato did, into the higher regions of speculation; nor did he entertain as lofty views of God or of immortality. Neither did he have as high an ideal of human life; his definition of the highest good was a perfect practical activity in a perfect life.
With Aristotle closed the great Socratic movement in the history of speculation. When Socrates appeared there was a general prevalence of scepticism, arising from the unsatisfactory speculations respecting Nature. He removed this scepticism by inventing a new method of investigation, and by withdrawing the mind from the contemplation of Nature to the study of man himself. He bade men to look inward. Plato accepted his method, but applied it more universally. Like Socrates, however, ethics were the great subject of his inquiries, to which physics were only subordinate. The problem he sought to solve was the way to live like the Deity; he would contemplate truth as the great aim of life. With Aristotle, ethics formed only one branch of attention; his main inquiries were in reference to physics and metaphysics. He thus, by bringing these into the region of inquiry, paved the way for a new epoch of scepticism.
Both Plato and Aristotle taught that reason alone can form science; but, as we have said, Aristotle differed from his master respecting the theory of ideas. He did not deny to ideas a subjective existence, but he did deny that they have an objective existence. He maintained that individual things alone exist; and if individuals alone exist, they can be known only by sensation. Sensation thus becomes the basis of knowledge. Plato made reason the basis of knowledge, but Aristotle made experience that basis. Plato directed man to the contemplation of Ideas; Aristotle, to the observation of Nature. Instead of proceeding synthetically and dialectically like Plato, he pursues an analytic course. His method is hence inductive,–the derivation of certain principles from a sum of given facts and phenomena. It would seem that positive science began with Aristotle, since he maintained that experience furnishes the principles of every science; but while his conception was just, there was not at that time a sufficient amount of experience from which to generalize with effect. It is only a most extensive and exhaustive examination of the accuracy of a proposition which will warrant secure reasoning upon it. Aristotle reasoned without sufficient certainty of the major premise of his syllogisms.
Aristotle was the father of logic, and Hegel and Kant think there has been no improvement upon it since his day. This became to him the real organon of science. “He supposed it was not merely the instrument of thought, but the instrument of investigation.” Hence it was futile for purposes of discovery, although important to aid processes of thought. Induction and syllogism are the two great features of his system of logic. The one sets out from particulars already known to arrive at a conclusion; the other sets out from some general principle to arrive at particulars. The latter more particularly characterized his logic, which he presented in sixteen forms, the whole evincing much ingenuity and skill in construction, and presenting at the same time a useful dialectical exercise. This syllogistic process of reasoning would be incontrovertible, if the general were better known than the particular; but it is only by induction, which proceeds from the world of experience, that we reach the higher world of cognition. Thus Aristotle made speculation subordinate to logical distinctions, and his system, when carried out by the mediaeval Schoolmen, led to a spirit of useless quibbling. Instead of interrogating Nature they interrogated their own minds, and no great discoveries were made. From want of proper knowledge of the conditions of scientific inquiry, the method of Aristotle became fruitless for him; but it was the key by which future investigators were enabled to classify and utilize their vastly greater collection of facts and materials.
Though Aristotle wrote in a methodical manner, his writings exhibit great parsimony of language. There is no fascination in his style. It is without ornament, and very condensed. His merit consisted in great logical precision and scrupulous exactness in the employment of terms.
Philosophy, as a great system of dialectics, as an analysis of the power and faculties of the mind, as a method to pursue inquiries, culminated in Aristotle. He completed the great fabric of which Thales laid the foundation. The subsequent schools of philosophy directed attention to ethical and practical questions, rather than to intellectual phenomena. The Sceptics, like Pyrrho, had only negative doctrines, and held in disdain those inquiries which sought to penetrate the mysteries of existence. They did not believe that absolute truth was attainable by man; and they attacked the prevailing systems with great plausibility. They pointed out the uncertainty of things, and the folly of striving to comprehend them.
The Epicureans despised the investigations of philosophy, since in their view these did not contribute to happiness. The subject of their inquiries was happiness, not truth. What will promote this? was the subject of their speculation. Epicurus, born 342 B.C., contended that pleasure was happiness; that pleasure should be sought not for its own sake, but with a view to the happiness of life obtained by it. He taught that happiness was inseparable from virtue, and that its enjoyments should be limited. He was averse to costly pleasures, and regarded contentedness with a little to be a great good. He placed wealth not in great possessions, but in few wants. He sought to widen the domain of pleasure and narrow that of pain, and regarded a passionless state of life as the highest. Nor did he dread death, which was deliverance from misery, as the Buddhists think. Epicurus has been much misunderstood, and his doctrines were subsequently perverted, especially when the arts of life were brought into the service of luxury, and a gross materialism was the great feature of society. Epicurus had much of the spirit of a practical philosopher, although very little of the earnest cravings of a religious man. He himself led a virtuous life, because he thought it was wiser and better and more productive of happiness to be virtuous, not because it was his duty. His writings were very voluminous, and in his tranquil garden he led a peaceful life of study and enjoyment. His followers, and they were numerous, were led into luxury and effeminacy,–as was to be expected from a sceptical and irreligious philosophy, the great principle of which was that whatever is pleasant should be the object of existence. Sir James Mackintosh says:–
“To Epicurus we owe the general concurrence of reflecting men in succeeding times in the important truth that men cannot be happy without a virtuous frame of mind and course of life,–a truth of inestimable value, not peculiar to the Epicureans, but placed by their exaggerations in a stronger light; a truth, it must be added, of less importance as a motive to right conduct than to the completeness of moral theory, which, however, it is very far from solely constituting. With that truth the Epicureans blended another position,–that because virtue promotes happiness, every act of virtue must be done in order to promote the happiness of the agent. Although, therefore, he has the merit of having more strongly inculcated the connection of virtue with happiness, yet his doctrine is justly charged with indisposing the mind to those exalted and generous sentiments without which no pure, elevated, bold, or tender virtues can exist.”
The Stoics were a large and celebrated sect of philosophers; but they added nothing to the domain of thought,–they created no system, they invented no new method, they were led into no new psychological inquiries. Their inquiries were chiefly ethical; and since ethics are a great part of the system of Greek philosophy, the Stoics are well worthy of attention. Some of the greatest men of antiquity are numbered among them,–like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy they taught was morality, and this was eminently practical and also elevated.
The founder of this sect, Zeno, was born, it is supposed, on the island of Cyprus, about the year 350 B.C. He was the son of wealthy parents, but was reduced to poverty by misfortune. He was so good a man, and so profoundly revered by the Athenians, that they intrusted to him the keys of their citadel. He lived in a degenerate age, when scepticism and sensuality were eating out the life and vigor of Grecian society, when Greek civilization was rapidly passing away, when ancient creeds had lost their majesty, and general levity and folly overspread the land. Deeply impressed with the prevailing laxity of morals and the absence of religion, he lifted up his voice more as a reformer than as an inquirer after truth, and taught for more than fifty years in a place called the Stoa, “the Porch,” which had once been the resort of the poets. Hence the name of his school. He was chiefly absorbed with ethical questions, although he studied profoundly the systems of the old philosophers. “The Sceptics had attacked both perception and reason. They had shown that perception is after all based upon appearance, and appearance is not a certainty; and they showed that reason is unable to distinguish between appearance and certainty, since it had nothing but phenomena to build upon, and since there is no criterion to apply to reason itself.” Then they proclaimed philosophy a failure, and without foundation. But Zeno, taking a stand on common-sense, fought for morality, as did Buddha before him, and long after him Reid and Beattie, when they combated the scepticism of Hume.
Philosophy, according to Zeno and other Stoics, was intimately connected with the duties of practical life. The contemplation, meditation, and thought recommended by Plato and Aristotle seemed only a covert recommendation of selfish enjoyment. The wisdom which it should be the aim of life to attain is virtue; and virtue is to live harmoniously with Nature. To live harmoniously with Nature is to exclude all personal ends; hence pleasure is to be disregarded, and pain is to be despised. And as all moral action must be in harmony with Nature the law of destiny is supreme, and all things move according to immutable fate. With the predominant tendency to the universal which characterized their system, the Stoics taught that the sage ought to regard himself as a citizen of the world rather than of any particular city or state. They made four things to be indispensable to virtue,–a knowledge of good and evil, which is the province of the reason; temperance, a knowledge of the due regulation of the sensual passions; fortitude, a conviction that it is good to suffer what is necessary; and justice, or acquaintance with what ought to be to every individual. They made perfection necessary to virtue; hence the severity of their system. The perfect sage, according to them, is raised above all influence of external events; he submits to the law of destiny; he is exempt from desire and fear, joy or sorrow; he is not governed even by what he is exposed to necessarily, like sorrow and pain; he is free from the restraints of passion; he is like a god in his mental placidity. Nor must the sage live only for himself, but for others also; he is a member of the whole body of mankind. He ought to marry, and to take part in public affairs; but he is to attack error and vice with uncompromising sternness, and will never weakly give way to compassion or forgiveness. Yet with this ideal the Stoics were forced to admit that virtue, like true knowledge, although theoretically attainable is practically beyond the reach of man. They were discontented with themselves and with all around them, and looked upon all institutions as corrupt. They had a profound contempt for their age, and for what modern society calls “success in life;” but it cannot be denied that they practised a lofty and stern virtue in their degenerate times. Their God was made subject to Fate; and he was a material god, synonymous with Nature. Thus their system was pantheistic. But they maintained the dignity of reason, and sought to attain to virtues which it is not in the power of man fully to reach.
Zeno lived to the extreme old age of ninety-eight, although his constitution was not strong. He retained his powers by great abstemiousness, living chiefly on figs, honey, and bread. He was a modest and retiring man, seldom mingling with a crowd, or admitting the society of more than two or three friends at a time. He was as plain in his dress as he was frugal in his habits,–a man of great decorum and propriety of manners, resembling noticeably in his life and doctrines the Chinese sage Confucius. And yet this good man, a pattern to the loftiest characters of his age, strangled himself. Suicide was not deemed a crime by his followers, among whom were some of the most faultless men of antiquity, especially among the Romans. The doctrines of Zeno were never popular, and were confined to a small though influential party.
With the Stoics ended among the Greeks all inquiry of a philosophical nature worthy of especial mention, until centuries later, when philosophy was revived in the Christian schools of Alexandria, where the Hebrew element of faith was united with the Greek ideal of reason. The struggles of so many great thinkers, from Thales to Aristotle, all ended in doubt and in despair. It was discovered that all of them were wrong, or rather partial; and their error was without a remedy, until “the fulness of time” should reveal more clearly the plan of the great temple of Truth, in which they were laying foundation stones.
The bright and glorious period of Greek philosophy was from Socrates to Aristotle. Philosophical inquiries began about the origin of things, and ended with an elaborate systematization of the forms of thought, which was the most magnificent triumph that the unaided intellect of man ever achieved. Socrates does not found a school, nor elaborate a system. He reveals most precious truths, and stimulates the youth who listen to his instructions by the doctrine that it is the duty of man to pursue a knowledge of himself, which is to be sought in that divine reason which dwells within him, and which also rules the world. He believes in science; he loves truth for its own sake; he loves virtue, which consists in the knowledge of the good.
Plato seizes the weapons of his great master, and is imbued with his spirit. He is full of hope for science and humanity. With soaring boldness he directs his inquiries to futurity, dissatisfied with the present, and cherishing a fond hope of a better existence. He speculates on God and the soul. He is not much interested in physical phenomena; he does not, like Thales, strive to find out the beginning of all things, but the highest good, by which his immortal soul may be refreshed and prepared for the future life, in which he firmly believes. The sensible is an impenetrable empire; but ideas are certitudes, and upon these he dwells with rapt and mystical enthusiasm,–a great poetical rhapsodist, severe dialectician as he is, believing in truth and beauty and goodness.
Then Aristotle, following out the method of his teachers, attempts to exhaust experience, and directs his inquiries into the outward world of sense and observation, but all with the view of discovering from phenomena the unconditional truth, in which he too believes. But everything in this world is fleeting and transitory, and therefore it is not easy to arrive at truth. A cold doubt creeps into the experimental mind of Aristotle, with all his learning and his logic.
The Epicureans arise. Misreading or corrupting the purer teaching of their founder, they place their hopes in sensual enjoyment. They despair of truth.
But the world will not be abandoned to despair. The Stoics rebuke the impiety which is blended with sensualism, and place their hopes on virtue. Yet it is unattainable virtue, while their God is not a moral governor, but subject to necessity.
Thus did those old giants grope about, for they did not know the God who was revealed unto the more spiritual sense of Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah. And yet with all their errors they were the greatest benefactors of the ancient world. They gave dignity to intellectual inquiries, while by their lives they set examples of a pure morality.
The Romans added absolutely nothing to the philosophy of the Greeks. Nor were they much interested in any speculative inquiries. It was only the ethical views of the old sages which had attraction or force to them. They were too material to love pure subjective inquiries. They had conquered the land; they disdained the empire of the air.
There were doubtless students of the Greek philosophy among the Romans, perhaps as early as Cato the Censor. But there were only two persons of note in Rome who wrote philosophy, till the time of Cicero,–Aurafanius and Rubinus,–and these were Epicureans.
Cicero was the first to systematize the philosophy which contributed so greatly to his intellectual culture, But even he added nothing; he was only a commentator and expositor. Nor did he seek to found a system or a school, but merely to influence and instruct men of his own rank. Those subjects which had the greatest attraction for the Grecian schools Cicero regarded as beyond the power of human cognition, and therefore looked upon the practical as the proper domain of human inquiry. Yet he held logic in great esteem, as furnishing rules for methodical investigation. He adopted the doctrine of Socrates as to the pursuit of moral good, and regarded the duties which grow out of the relations of human society as preferable to those of pursuing scientific researches. He had a great contempt for knowledge which could lead neither to the clear apprehension of certitude nor to practical applications. He thought it impossible to arrive at a knowledge of God, or the nature of the soul, or the origin of the world; and thus he was led to look upon the sensible and the present as of more importance than inconclusive inductions, or deductions from a truth not satisfactorily established.
Cicero was an eclectic, seizing on what was true and clear in the ancient systems, and disregarding what was simply a matter of speculation. This is especially seen in his treatise “De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum,” in which the opinions of all the Grecian schools concerning the supreme good are expounded and compared. Nor does he hesitate to declare that the highest happiness consists in the knowledge of Nature and science, which is the true source of pleasure both to gods and men. Yet these are but hopes, in which it does not become us to indulge. It is the actual, the real, the practical, which pre-eminently claims attention,–in other words, the knowledge which will furnish man with a guide and rule of life. Even in the consideration of moral questions Cicero is pursued by the conflict of opinions, although in this department he is most at home. The points he is most anxious to establish are the doctrines of God and the soul. These are most fully treated in his essay “De Natura Deorum,” in which he submits the doctrines of the Epicureans and the Stoics to the objections of the Academy. He admits that man is unable to form true conceptions of God, but acknowledges the necessity of assuming one supreme God as the creator and ruler of all things, moving all things, remote from all mortal mixture, and endued with eternal motion in himself. He seems to believe in a divine providence ordering good to man, in the soul’s immortality, in free-will, in the dignity of human nature, in the dominion of reason, in the restraint of the passions as necessary to virtue, in a life of public utility, in an immutable morality, in the imitation of the divine.
Thus there is little of original thought in the moral theories of Cicero, which are the result of observation rather than of any philosophical principle. We might enumerate his various opinions, and show what an enlightened mind he possessed; but this would not be the development of philosophy. His views, interesting as they are, and generally wise and lofty, do not indicate any progress of the science. He merely repeats earlier doctrines. These were not without their utility, since they had great influence on the Latin fathers of the Christian Church. He was esteemed for his general enlightenment. He softened down the extreme views of the great thinkers before his day, and clearly unfolded what had become obscured. He was a critic of philosophy, an expositor whom we can scarcely spare.
If anybody advanced philosophy among the Romans it was Epictetus, and even he only in the realm of ethics. Quintius Sextius, in the time of Augustus, had revived the Pythagorean doctrines. Seneca had recommended the severe morality of the Stoics, but added nothing that was not previously known.
The greatest light among the Romans was the Phrygian slave Epictetus, who was born about fifty years after the birth of Jesus Christ, and taught in the time of the Emperor Domitian. Though he did not leave any written treatises, his doctrines were preserved and handed down by his disciple Arrian, who had for him the reverence that Plato had for Socrates. The loftiness of his recorded views has made some to think that he must have been indebted to Christianity, for no one before him revealed precepts so much in accordance with its spirit. He was a Stoic, but he held in the highest estimation Socrates and Plato. It is not for the solution of metaphysical questions that he was remarkable. He was not a dialectician, but a moralist, and as such takes the highest ground of all the old inquirers after truth. With him, as to Cicero and Seneca, philosophy is the wisdom of life. He sets no value on logic, nor much on physics; but he reveals sentiments of great simplicity and grandeur. His great idea is the purification of the soul. He believes in the severest self-denial; he would guard against the siren spells of pleasure; he would make men feel that in order to be good they must first feel that they are evil. He condemns suicide, although it had been defended by the Stoics. He would complain of no one, not even as to injustice; he would not injure his enemies; he would pardon all offences; he would feel universal compassion, since men sin from ignorance; he would not easily blame, since we have none to condemn but ourselves. He would not strive after honor or office, since we put ourselves in subjection to that we seek or prize; he would constantly bear in mind that all things are transitory, and that they are not our own. He would bear evils with patience, even as he would practise self-denial of pleasure. He would, in short, be calm, free, keep in subjection his passions, avoid self-indulgence, and practise a broad charity and benevolence. He felt that he owed all to God,–that all was his gift, and that we should thus live in accordance with his will; that we should be grateful not only for our bodies, but for our souls and reason, by which we attain to greatness. And if God has given us such a priceless gift, we should be contented, and not even seek to alter our external relations, which are doubtless for the best. We should wish, indeed, for only what God wills and sends, and we should avoid pride and haughtiness as well as discontent, and seek to fulfil our allotted part.
Such were the moral precepts of Epictetus, in which we see the nearest approach to Christianity that had been made in the ancient world, although there is no proof or probability that he knew anything of Christ or the Christians. And these sublime truths had a great influence, especially on the mind of the most lofty and pure of all the Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, who lived the principles he had learned from the slave, and whose “Thoughts” are still held in admiration.
Thus did the philosophic speculations about the beginning of things lead to elaborate systems of thought, and end in practical rules of life, until in spirit they had, with Epictetus, harmonized with many of the revealed truths which Christ and his Apostles laid down for the regeneration of the world. Who cannot see in the inquiries of the old Philosopher,–whether into Nature, or the operations of mind, or the existence of God, or the immortality of the soul, or the way to happiness and virtue,–a magnificent triumph of human genius, such as has been exhibited in no other department of human science? Nay, who does not rejoice to see in this slow but ever-advancing development of man’s comprehension of the truth the inspiration of that Divine Teacher, that Holy Spirit, which shall at last lead man into all truth?
We regret that our limits preclude a more extended view of the various systems which the old sages propounded,–systems full of errors yet also marked by important gains, but, whether false or true, showing a marvellous reach of the human understanding. Modern researches have discarded many opinions that were highly valued in their day, yet philosophy in its methods of reasoning is scarcely advanced since the time of Aristotle, while the subjects which agitated the Grecian schools have been from time to time revived and rediscussed, and are still unsettled. If any intellectual pursuit has gone round in perpetual circles, incapable apparently of progression or rest, it is that glorious study of philosophy which has tasked more than any other the mightiest intellects of this world, and which, progressive or not, will never be relinquished without the loss of what is most valuable in human culture.
For original authorities in reference to the matter of this chapter, read Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers; the Writings of Plato and Aristotle; Cicero, De Natura Deorum, De Oratore, De Officiis, De Divinatione, De Finibus, Tusculanae Disputationes; Xenophon, Memorabilia; Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae; Lucretius.
The great modern authorities are the Germans, and these are very numerous. Among the most famous writers on the history of philosophy are Brucker, Hegel, Brandis, I.G. Buhle, Tennemann, Hitter, Plessing, Schwegler, Hermann, Meiners, Stallbaum, and Spiegel. The History of Ritter is well translated, and is always learned and suggestive. Tennemann, translated by Morell, is a good manual, brief but clear. In connection with the writings of the Germans, the great work of the French Cousin should be consulted.
The English historians of ancient philosophy are not so numerous as the Germans. The work of Enfield is based on Brucker, or is rather an abridgment. Archer Butler’s Lectures are suggestive and able, but discursive and vague. Grote has written learnedly on Socrates and the other great lights. Lewes’s Biographical History of Philosophy has the merit of clearness, and is very interesting, but rather superficial. See also Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, and the articles in Smith’s Dictionary on the leading ancient philosophers. J. W. Donaldson’s continuation of K. O. Müller’s History of the Literature of Ancient Greece is learned, and should be consulted with Thompson’s Notes on Archer Butler. Schleiermacher, on Socrates, translated by Bishop Thirlwall, is well worth attention. There are also fine articles in the Encyclopaedias Britannica and Metropolitana.