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V.In his very first essay, Plotinus had hinted at a principle higher and more primordial than the absolute Nous, something with which the soul is connected by the mediation of Nous, just as she herself mediates between Nous and the material world. The notion of such a supreme principle was derived from Plato. In the sixth and seventh books of the Republic, we are told that at the summit of the dialectic series stands an idea to grasp which is the ultimate object of308 all reasoning. Plato calls this the Idea of Good, and describes it as holding a place in the intellectual world analogous to that held by the sun in the physical world. For, just as the sun brings all visible things into being, and also gives the light by which they are seen, so also the Good is not only that by which the objects of knowledge are known, but also that whence their existence is derived, while at the same time itself transcending existence in dignity and power.454
On the other hand, Aristotle’s own theistic arguments cannot stand for a moment in the face of modern science. We know by the law of inertia that it is not the continuance, but the arrest or the beginning of motion which requires to be accounted for. We know by the Copernican system that there is no solid sidereal sphere governing the revolutions of all Nature. And we know by the Newtonian physics that354 gravitation is not dependent on fixed points in space for its operation. The Philosophy of the Philosopher Aristotle is as inconsistent with the demonstrations of modern astronomy as it is with the faith of mediaeval Catholicism.Perhaps the processes of logic and mathematics may be adduced as an exception. It may be contended that the genus is prior to the species, the premise to the conclusion,321 the unit to the multiple, the line to the figure, in reason though not in time. And Plotinus avails himself to the fullest extent of mathematical and logical analogies in his transcendental constructions. His One is the starting-point of numeration, the centre of a circle, the identity involved in difference; and under each relation it claims an absolute priority, of which causal power is only the most general expression. We have already seen how a multitude of archetypal Ideas spring from the supreme Nous as from their fountain-head. Their production is explained, on the lines of Plato’s Sophist, as a process of dialectical derivation. By logically analysing the conception of self-consciousness, we obtain, first of all, Nous itself, or Reason, as the subject, and Existence as the object of thought. Subject and object, considered as the same with one another, give us Identity; considered as distinct, they give us Difference. The passage from one to the other gives Motion; the limitation of thought to itself gives Rest. The plurality of determinations so obtained gives number and quantity, their specific difference gives quality, and from these principles everything else is derived.473 It might seem as if, here at least, we had something which could be called a process of eternal generation—a causal order independent of time. But, in reality, the assumed sequence exists only in our minds, and there it takes place under the form of time, not less inevitably than do the external re-arrangements of matter and motion. Thus in logic and mathematics, such terms as priority, antecedence, and evolution can only be used to signify the order in which our knowledge is acquired; they do not answer to causal relations existing among things in themselves. And apart from these two orders—the objective order of dynamical production in space and time, and the subjective order of intelligibility in thought—there is no kind of succession that we can conceive. Eternal relations, if they exist at all, must322 be relations of co-existence, of resemblance, or of difference, continued through infinite time. Wherever there is antecedence, the consequent can only have existed for a finite time.After considering by what agencies the seeds of religious belief were carried from place to place, we have to examine, what was even more important, the quality of the soil on which they fell. And here, to continue the metaphor, we shall find that the Roman plough had not only broken through the crust of particularist prejudice, but had turned up new social strata eminently fitted to receive and nourish the germs scattered over their surface by every breeze and every bird of passage, or planted and watered by a spiritual sower’s hand. Along with the positive check of an established worship, the negative check of dissolving criticism had, to a great extent, disappeared with the destruction of the régime which had been most favourable to its exercise during the early stages of progress. The old city aristocracies were not merely opposed on patriotic grounds to free-trade in religion, but, as the most educated and independent class in the community, they were the first to shake off supernatural beliefs of every kind. We have grown so accustomed to seeing those beliefs upheld by the partisans of political privilege and attacked in the name of democratic principles, that we are apt to forget how very modern is the association of free-thought with the supremacy of numbers. It only dates from the French Revolution, and even now it is far from obtaining everywhere. Athens was the most perfectly organised democracy of antiquity, and in the course of this work we have repeatedly had occasion to observe how strong was the spirit of religious bigotry among the Athenian people. If we want rationalistic opinions we must go to the great nobles and their friends, to a Pericles, a Critias, or a Protagoras. There must also have been perfect intellectual liberty among205 the Roman nobles who took up Hellenic culture with such eagerness towards the middle of the second century B.C., and among those who, at a later period, listened with equanimity or approval to Caesar’s profession of Epicureanism in a crowded senatorial debate. It was as much in order that the De Rerum Natura should have been written by a member of this class as that the Aeneid should proceed from the pen of a modest provincial farmer. In positive knowledge, Virgil greatly excelled Lucretius, but his beliefs were inevitably determined by the traditions of his ignorant neighbours. When civil war, proscription, delation, and, perhaps more than any other cause, their own delirious extravagance, had wrought the ruin of the Roman aristocracy, their places were taken by respectable provincials who brought with them the convictions without the genius of the Mantuan poet; and thenceforward the tide of religious reaction never ceased rising until the Crusades, which were its supreme expression, unexpectedly brought about a first revival of Hellenic culture. On that occasion, also, the first symptoms of revolt manifested themselves among the nobles; taking the form of Gnosticism in the brilliant courts of Languedoc, and, at a later period, of Epicureanism in the Ghibelline circles of Florentine society; while, conversely, when the Ciompi or poorer artisans of Florence rose in revolt against the rich traders, one of the first demands made by the successful insurgents was, that a preaching friar should be sent to give them religious instruction. At a still later period, the same opposition of intellectual interests continues to be defined by the same social divisions. Two distinct currents of thought co-operated to bring about the Protestant Reformation. One, which was religious and reactionary, proceeded from the people. The other, which was secularising, scholarly, and scientific, represented the tendencies of the upper classes and of those who looked to them for encouragement and support. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many noble names are to be found206 among the champions of reason; and while speculative liberty is associated with the ascendency of the aristocratic party, superstition and intolerance are associated with the triumph of the people, whether under the form of a democracy or of a levelling despotism. So, also, the great emancipating movement of the eighteenth century was fostered by the descendants of the Crusaders, and, until after the Revolution, met with no response among the bourgeoisie or the people; indeed the reaction in favour of supernaturalism was begun by a child of the people, Rousseau. All this, as we have already observed, has been reversed in more recent times; but the facts quoted are enough to prove how natural it was that in the ancient world decay of class privileges should be equivalent to a strengthening of the influences which made for supernaturalism and against enlightened criticism.
Descartes’ theory of the universe included, however, something more than extension (or matter) and motion. This was Thought. If we ask whence came the notion of Thought, our philosopher will answer that it was obtained by looking into himself. It was, in reality, obtained by looking into Aristotle, or into some text-book reproducing his metaphysics. But the Platonic element in his system enabled Descartes to isolate Thought much more completely than it had been isolated by Aristotle. To understand this, we must turn once more to the Timaeus. Plato made up his universe from space and Ideas. But the Ideas were too vague or too unintelligible for scientific purposes. Even mediaeval Realists were content to replace them by Aristotle’s much clearer doctrine of Forms. On the other hand, Aristotle’s First Matter was anything but a satisfactory conception. It was a mere abstraction; the390 unknowable residuum left behind when bodies were stripped, in imagination, of all their sensible and cogitable qualities. In other words, there was no Matter actually existing without Form; whereas Form was never so truly itself, never so absolutely existent, as when completely separated from Matter: it then became simple self-consciousness, as in God, or in the reasonable part of the human soul. The revolution wrought by substituting space for Aristotle’s First Matter will now become apparent. Corporeal substance could at once be conceived as existing without the co-operation of Form; and at the same stroke, Form, liberated from its material bonds, sprang back into the subjective sphere, to live henceforward only as pure self-conscious thought.‘On earth there is nothing great but man,All these, however, are mere questions of detail. It is on a subject of the profoundest philosophical importance that Aristotle differs most consciously, most radically, and most fatally from his predecessors. They were evolutionists, and he was a stationarist. They were mechanicists, and he was a teleologist. They were uniformitarians, and he was a dualist. It is true that, as we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Mr. Edwin Wallace makes him ‘recognise the genesis of things by evolution and development,’ but the meaning of this phrase requires to be cleared up. In one sense it is, of course, almost an identical proposition. The genesis of things must be by genesis of some kind or other. The great question is, what things have been evolved, and how have they been evolved? Modern science tells us, that not only have all particular aggregates of matter and motion now existing come into being within a finite period of time, but also that the specific types under which we arrange those aggregates have equally been generated; and that their characteristics, whether structural or functional, can only be understood by tracing out their origin and history. And it further teaches us that the properties of every aggregate result from the properties of its ultimate elements, which, within the limits of our experience, remain absolutely unchanged. Now, Aristotle taught very nearly the contrary of all this. He believed that the cosmos, as we now know it, had existed, and would continue to exist, unchanged through all eternity. The sun, moon, planets, and stars, together with the orbs containing them, are composed of an absolutely ungenerable, incorruptible substance. The earth, a cold, heavy, solid sphere, though liable to superficial changes, has always occupied its present position in the centre of the universe.317 The specific forms of animal life—except a few which are produced spontaneously—have, in like manner, been preserved unaltered through an infinite series of generations. Man shares the common lot. There is no continuous progress of civilisation. Every invention and discovery has been made and lost an infinite number of times. Our philosopher could not, of course, deny that individual living things come into existence and gradually grow to maturity; but he insists that their formation is teleologically determined by the parental type which they are striving to realise. He asks whether we should study a thing by examining how it grows, or by examining its completed form: and Mr. Wallace quotes the question without quoting the answer.203 Aristotle tells us that the genetic method was followed by his predecessors, but that the other method is his. And he goes on to censure Empedocles for saying that many things in the animal body are due simply to mechanical causation; for example, the segmented structure of the backbone, which that philosopher attributes to continued doubling and twisting—the very same explanation, we believe, that would be given of it by a modern evolutionist.204 Finally, Aristotle assumes the only sort of transformation which we deny, and which Democritus equally denied—that is to say, the transformation of the ultimate elements into one another by the oscillation of an indeterminate matter between opposite qualities.
Meanwhile, hedonism had been temporarily taken up by Plato, and developed into the earliest known form of utilitarianism. In his Protagoras, he endeavours to show that every virtue has for its object either to secure a greater pleasure by the sacrifice of a lesser pleasure, or to avoid a greater pain by the endurance of a lesser pain; nothing being taken into account but the interests of the individual agent concerned. Plato afterwards discarded the theory sketched in the Protagoras for a higher and more generous, if less distinctly formulated morality; but while ceasing to be a hedonist he remained a utilitarian; that is to say, he insisted on judging actions by their tendency to promote the general welfare, not by the sentiments which they excite in the mind of a conventional spectator.
Raising to all thy works a hymn
Arcesilaus left no writings, and his criticisms on the Stoic theory, as reported by Cicero and Sextus Empiricus, have a somewhat unsatisfactory appearance. By what we can make out, he seems to have insisted on the infallibility of the wise man to a much greater extent than the Stoics themselves, not allowing that there was any class of judgments in which he was liable to be mistaken. But just as the Stoics were obliged to accept suicide as an indispensable safeguard for the inviolability of their personal dignity and happiness, so also Arcesilaus had recourse to a kind of intellectual suicide for the purpose of securing immunity from error. The only way, according to him, in which the sage can make sure of never being mistaken is never to be certain about anything. For, granting that every mental representation is produced by a corresponding object in the external world, still different objects are connected by such a number of insensible gradations that the impressions produced by them are virtually indistinguishable from one another; while a fertile source of illusions also exists in the diversity of impressions produced by the same object acting on different senses and at different times. Moreover, the Stoics themselves admitted that the148 sage might form a mistaken opinion; it was only for his convictions that they claimed unerring accuracy, each of the two—opinion and conviction—being the product of a distinct intellectual energy. Here again, Arcesilaus employed his method of infinitesimal transitions, refusing to admit that the various cognitive faculties could be separated by any hard and fast line; especially as, according to the theory then held by all parties, and by none more strongly than the Stoics, intellectual conceptions are derived exclusively from the data of sense and imagination. We can see that the logic of Scepticism is, equally with that of the other Greek systems, determined by the three fundamental moments of Greek thought. There is first the careful circumscription of certainty; then there is the mediating process by which it is insensibly connected with error; and, lastly, as a result of this process, there is the antithetical opposition of a negative to an affirmative proposition on every possible subject of mental representation.231
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.Before entering on our task, one more difficulty remains to be noticed. Plato, although the greatest master of prose composition that ever lived, and for his time a remarkably voluminous author, cherished a strong dislike for books, and even affected to regret that the art of writing had ever been invented. A man, he said, might amuse himself by putting down his ideas on paper, and might even find written178 memoranda useful for private reference, but the only instruction worth speaking of was conveyed by oral communication, which made it possible for objections unforeseen by the teacher to be freely urged and answered.117 Such had been the method of Socrates, and such was doubtless the practice of Plato himself whenever it was possible for him to set forth his philosophy by word of mouth. It has been supposed, for this reason, that the great writer did not take his own books in earnest, and wished them to be regarded as no more than the elegant recreations of a leisure hour, while his deeper and more serious thoughts were reserved for lectures and conversations, of which, beyond a few allusions in Aristotle, every record has perished. That such, however, was not the case, may be easily shown. In the first place it is evident, from the extreme pains taken by Plato to throw his philosophical expositions into conversational form, that he did not despair of providing a literary substitute for spoken dialogue. Secondly, it is a strong confirmation of this theory that Aristotle, a personal friend and pupil of Plato during many years, should so frequently refer to the Dialogues as authoritative evidences of his master’s opinions on the most important topics. And, lastly, if it can be shown that the documents in question do actually embody a comprehensive and connected view of life and of the world, we shall feel satisfied that the oral teaching of Plato, had it been preserved, would not modify in any material degree the impression conveyed by his written compositions.