(This is the continuation, and the bulk, of the review of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, 1926, posted on the main blog page November 10, 2011.)
Socrates (469-399 bce)
The lives and philosophies of Socrates and Jesus bear striking resemblance. Like Jesus, Socrates never wrote anything down. All we know of him is through others; reverently through Plato, his greatest student; perhaps less reverently, or at least less competently, through Xenophon, and sparingly through others. Of course, the Gospels, written by several of Jesus’ disciples, provide the bulk of our first-hand knowledge about Jesus. Both men made the human heart the subject of their examinations and explications; Socrates through the prism that was ancient Athens; Jesus through that of ancient Judaism. Both men were ascetic in comport and temperament throughout their lives, drawing heavily upon stoic philosophy in their conduct and teachings. Each in turn spawned an ascetic/stoic fervor in more than a few of their followers. Each came not from wealth, but from the inchoate working classes beginning to populate cities and towns. Socrates was considered the wisest man that ever lived; Jesus, the most perfect.
Yet the resemblance breaks down when comparing their teachings. Jesus was not concerned with discovering a way to make Roman, or even Jewish, society more just. He was concerned with the path to individual salvation that lay beyond the Old Testament collective salvation that had collapsed with the Babylonian exile. Ancient Jewish society was far further developed even before the time of Jesus than was Athenian society at the time of Socrates. Jesus represented a turn away from societal concerns, towards an individual morality founded on relationship with God (through him) that promised as its reward heavenly bliss.
Jesus used parables to illumine points he wished to make. Socrates neither preached nor told parables. He spent days in dialogue and discussion with his wandering band of students, attempting to tease from them the individual values that would yield a life worthy of living, both within society and within the heart of the individual. His probing inquiries yielded the famous compulsion to philosophy: The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates guided his disciples in discovery, demanding they understand the ramifications of the assumptions upon which their opinions were formulated. He perhaps believed in an after-life, praying to the gods to carry him there before he drank the cup of hemlock, but his philosophy was materialistic. It promised no benefit other than better living through gaining understanding in the here and now, but was not materialistic in an Epicurean way. There was more to living the good life than simply enjoying sensual pleasures.
Durant capably explains a part of the imperatives of Socrates’ philosophy:
Perhaps all sin is error, partial vision, foolishness? The intelligent man may have the same violent and unsocial impulses as the ignorant man, but surely he will control them better, and slip less often into imitation of the beast….Surely the management of a state is a matter for which men cannot be too intelligent, a matter that needs the unhindered thought of the finest minds. How can a society be saved, or be strong, except it be led by its wisest men?
Socrates was concerned with how to make this world better. Jesus rejected this world for the next.
Both men subtly and sublimely attacked the reigning theologies of their day. Both were executed for their trouble by the maddening crowds, each of which had been whipped into frenzy by those that had a vested interest in the continuation of the existing regime of beliefs.
From my vantage point, Socrates and Jesus are more alike than different. I love and respect them both—for the manner in which they lived their lives, and the truths they capably thereby revealed.
The divinity of Jesus was not fully embraced until after his preaching and theologizing were complete. Socrates was recognized in his day by the Oracle at Delphi as the wisest man that ever lived because, paradoxically, he alone understood how little he, or anyone, could truly understand, and that understanding required critical examination of meanings and deeply-held biases, setting the stage for all that was to follow. Every philosopher from Hume to Spinoza to Kant to Russell, etc. (and of course, Plato and Aristotle) owes a great debt to Socrates for having first revealed the critical thought processes required for true understanding.
Plato (428-347 bce)
Plato was not a product of working class parents. He came from aristocratic Athenian stock, but fell under Socrates’ spell as a teenager, soaking in the much older man’s wisdom and dialectic teachings (Socrates was roughly seventy when he died; Plato was twenty-eight at the time). It is through Plato’s almost-poetic prose that we learn most of what we know about Socrates.
Plato is undeniably the most famous of philosophers. Unlike Socrates, he did not limit his philosophical inquiries to the nature of the human heart, spending a fair amount of time exploring metaphysics and epistemology. We owe to Plato, amongst other insights, the allegory of the cave, where shadows on the wall are all an imprisoned group in a cave can see, and so they come to believe that the shadows are real, not just light outlining the “forms” of the real things that are casting shadows. The shadows represent the limitations of our sensory perceptions—what we see and are able to perceive are only shadows relative to an abstract “idea” or perfect and immutable “form” that is actually at the base of what drives our perceptions. The forms passing through the light to cast the shadows are ultimately all that is real, and yet for the prisoners in the cave, they are the abstractions—perfections in the mind of the hazy images they see cast upon the cave wall. For Plato (although the allegory of the cave is revealed through Socrates), the practice of philosophy, i.e., critical and objective examination of the information we have at hand and how we perceive and interpret it, holds the possibility that the true nature of reality, the true “form” casting the shadow, might be revealed.
But Plato’s greatest concern was how to engineer society such that it could enjoy the peace and prosperity that results from wise rule, an exegesis comprising the bulk of his magnum opus, The Republic.
Plato does not believe in democracy. Athenian democracy killed his beloved Socrates. For Plato, there is no greater tyranny than that of the irrational crowd. Given the modern excesses attributable to democratic movements and movements within democracies—from Robespierre to Hitler and hundreds less poignant but still-valid examples of democratic excess, Plato seemed well ahead of his time. Athens was civilization’s first attempt at allowing everyone a voice (except slaves, of course) in the conduct of state affairs. Plato quickly surmised the latent evils afflicting democracy, the primary of which is that men will do in mass concert that which they would never imagine doing alone.
Plato believes that society should be governed by an aristocracy of those fittest to govern, the Guardians. These Guardians will have been culled from passing a lifetime of tests, acceding to governance no earlier than their fifth decade. The will live a cloistered, ascetic life, never profiting from the power afforded them. Neither capricious crowds nor scheming oligarchs will lead the republic, only those whose abilities and demeanor–and most of all–wisdom, are proved sufficient to the task.
Of course, there are great practical difficulties in devising a state so governed, not least of which is who governs the Guardians? And if there can be identified a group that will govern the Guardians, who, in turn will govern them? The problem very closely resembles that of first causes in metaphysics. There is no escape from the reality that self-governing groups, i.e., independent nations or states not subject to some imperial or otherwise external control, can’t rise above themselves. All they have to work with is their own native populations, some of which will be good, some evil, and the vast majority somewhere in-between. The average, i.e., the democratic mean of ability, temperament, morality, etc., will ultimately prevail.
The society described in Plato’s Republicappropriately came to be called Utopia which, being an imaginary place in the mind; a form casting a shadow on a cave wall, it surely is. The idea that society can rise above itself through some clever arrangement of its parts should be thoroughly discredited by now. Society will never be any worse, or any better, than the sum of the individuals comprising it. Yet the idea persists. It can be seen in every experiment in governance in the twentieth century—from Fascist Germany to the Communist Soviet, even to the Socialist West after the Second World War. But through all the attempts at social engineering, Utopia has yet to appear.
A true Utopia would depend on the perfection of the individuals comprising it. Man is stubbornly imperfect, but If Utopia is the goal, the better means of attaining some shadow of it would be to focus on devising a society where man has the greatest opportunity to perfect himself. Given the means and opportunity, men naturally strive to achieve perfection—to achieve in actuality the idea of man that casts the shadow on the Plato’s cave wall. The task of social engineering, if there is to be any social engineering at all, should be focused on providing individuals within the society the opportunity to become as perfect as they are able.
Interestingly, Plato recommended that society needed belief in God. He felt it would foster societal cohesion by providing and animating a common purpose to which the society could strive. Plato’s basis for belief is therefore very much similar to the God worshiped by the ancient Hebrews as described in the Torah. Moses, et al, kept the Hebrews bound to a common purpose greater than any individual (and relatively selfish) purposes they might contrive, through equating fealty to God with loyalty to the Hebrew nation, and making the attitudes and actions necessary for their successful escape from Egypt and their subsequent conquering of Canaan attributes of devotion to God.
Although the Utopia described in The Republic never came to fruition, it’s still remarkable almost two and half millennia later how closely structured are many modern-day societies to Plato’s vision. The US doesn’t have Guardians cloistered in a Washington monastery for its rulers, but it does have something of an aristocratic meritocracy that admits only those proved capable of governing through years of training and testing. Capitalist democracies in America and other developed economies perform in much the same manner as The Republic provides, parceling out tasks according to abilities, only they generally do so without proactive government intervention, allowing processes that closely resemble natural selection in biology to efficiently match abilities to tasks.
Plato, the father of philosophy if it can be considered there is one, is still read today because he brilliantly and evocatively revealed truths about man and his relationship to himself, to other men and to the universe. Plato still resonates.
Aristotle (384-322 bce)
Aristotle, another aristocrat, was a student of Plato (and thereby Socrates) that ultimately became the most influential of the ancient philosophers in the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. It was against the strong currents of Aristotelian Scholasticism that the Renaissance and Enlightenment had to row. Every change in metaphysical understanding arising from scientific investigations had to attack the bulwark of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Aristotle was influential in Medieval Europe because the Catholic Church, by about the 13th century, had more or less adopted Aristotle’s metaphysics as its own in explaining the natural world to its parishioners. The Church filled in the blanks with Aristotle where the Bible was silent, and as anyone with even a bit of biblical background knows, the Bible is mostly silent on the nature of nature.
Ironically though, the Bible is not silent on the nature of the supernatural–both its Hebrew and Christian versions reject the gods of the pagans for their one God of Abraham– Aristotle’s metaphysics claimed a great many gods. His theological metaphysics resolved to forty-seven or fifty-five gods, depending on how one counts them, each of which served as an “unmoved mover”, partly responsible for beginning the cascade of cause and effect that ultimately results in the universe as we see and experience it in our day to day lives.
The Church apparently had little concern for consistency, which is not surprising. Considering its status as the most powerful of human institutions during the Dark and Middle Ages, it answered to no one, and could pick and choose which bits of Aristotelian philosophy it wished to embrace. Accordingly, the Church adopted only that portion of Aristotle’s metaphysics, theology and philosophy as suited its needs.
It was against the ghost of Aristotle that Galileo allegedly whispered, “But it moves”, in covert defiance of the Pope’s admonition to cease and desist from alleging that the earth moves around the sun. The Church got its idea that the earth is the center of the universe straight from Aristotle—the Bible is mostly silent on the matter, though theologians at the time said a couple of verses (e.g., in Joshua, Chapter Ten, when God caused the sun to stand still so that the battle could be won) only made sense if the earth was assumed to be stationary, which is not necessarily true. The sun could have been made to stand still in the sky from the perspective of an earth-bound observer through a number of mechanisms, not least by simply halting the earth’s rotation on its axis, but Aristotle taught that the earth didn’t move, so the Scholastics couldn’t have imagined that the earth rotated.
Aristotle was an empiricist. He dismissed Plato’s mystical Theory of Forms and Ideas, believing that no such ideal abstraction existed. He tirelessly catalogued, categorized and recorded his empirical observations, marking the first attempt in the West at something approximating scientific inquiry. But, limited as he was by the lack of today’s sensory-extending instruments and by the undisciplined character of the Greek mind, with its propensity to make sweeping conclusions on the thinnest reeds of evidence (a trait which Socrates ‘ influence should, but apparently failed, to help ameliorate) , most of what Aristotle concluded about his observations was wrong. The confluence of Aristotle’s errors with his influence shackled the European mind to Aristotelian myths about the natural world that Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers paid dearly to liberate.
Aristotle was the teenage Alexander’s tutor. The West and Middle East were fated to become Hellenized as Alexander (though both he and Aristotle were actually Macedonian) became “the Great” through his conquering madness. A goodly portion of Hellenic culture and understandings with which Alexander seeded the world we can assume was first instilled in him by Aristotle.
Aristotle was not only the first scientist; he began the mental processes that ultimately yielded the scientific method. He founded the science of logic, bringing syllogism to the world, i.e., the principle whereby the addition of two premises yields a concluding third: Man is a rational animal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a rational animal. So long as the two premises are true, the conclusion must be also. Of course, Socrates and perhaps Plato, would argue that the real job of a philosopher is to examine the premises. Logic is easy. Defending assumptions and premises is hard, as Socrates so ably demonstrated time and again.
Aristotle substantially differed from Plato in what his ideal republic would look like. It would not be ruled by a commissariat of guardians. The ruler would be something of the Superman later envisioned by Nietzsche. He would be a philosopher-king that achieved power by dint of ability and drive. Similar to Plato, Aristotle disdained democracy, considering it to be rule by least-common-denominator, which is never appealing in the eyes of an aristocrat. Yet if rule by an aristocracy of philosopher-kings is impractical, as Aristotle acknowledged, the next best thing is a constitutional republic, which means Aristotle at least begrudgingly accepted that some measure of democracy was probably inevitable. In the ideas of how political society should be organized, Aristotle is to Plato what Hitler was to Mao. Hitler had Nietzsche’s Superman as his model of the ideal ruler; for Aristotle it was the magnanimous man ruling as the philosopher-king. Mao had the communist party for his ruling class, membership in which was intended to be more a position of service and humility than a vehicle for expressing superior attributes. Plato had his ascetic guardians, proved by experience, testing and time to be the most fit in society to govern, yet prohibited from enjoying the spoils that leadership provides.
Women to Aristotle, to mildly put it, are second class citizens. There will be nothing of Plato’s (or Mao’s) gender equality in Aristotle’s republic. As Durant puts it, in describing Aristotle’s views:
Woman is to man as the slave to the master, the manual to the mental worker, the barbarian to the Greek…The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled.
Yet Aristotle recommends men defer marriage to their late thirties, and then that they marry a woman in her early twenties, to ensure full dominance over her, weakening his argument that women are the inferior sex. Marriage, procreation and education were for Aristotle, just as they were for Plato, matters in which the state was keenly interested, their importance so great that outcomes could not be left to the whims of the people.
In ethics, Aristotle gave the Western world the idea of the Golden Mean. (Buddha’s “Middle Way” is roughly analogous in the East). Too little or too much of a virtuous attribute makes it a vice, e.g., a father’s love for the family must be sufficient to motivate him to protect and provide for it, but not so much that it becomes possessive and stifling. The same is true for what are normally considered vices. A bit of pugnaciousness is advantageous when facing real threats to body or mind, but too much yields an unhealthy desire to always resolve differences with fighting.
The Golden Mean, or perhaps the Middle Way, is something I discovered on my own in relation to many passions–drinking, exercise, food, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’roll, etc. Long before reading any philosophy, I discovered that practically anything is safe to consume in limited amounts. The poison is in the dosage. Nothing should routinely be indulged to excess. But moderation according the mean can be taken too far as well. There is such a thing as excessive moderation. Sometimes the passions need to be allowed to run riot, especially the sexual passions. It cleanses the soul and clarifies the motivations for living.
One of the more interesting aspects of Plato and Aristotle, taken as a whole, is their apparent belief in social engineering. Each devised ideal societies that were organized from the top down, implicitly putting great faith and relative importance in the hierarchy of societal leadership, and less so in the ones being led. Neither man seemed to grasp, as Locke and Hobbes later would, that the glue holding society together is the perception held by its rank and file members that the cost of entering the social contract is exceeded by its benefits. They didn’t quite get that societies such as ancient Greece developed (evolved is perhaps a better term) from loose coalitions of hunting/gathering clans that realized cooperation in society yielded greater benefit—in the main, a steady supply of food and more efficient and effective protection—than did competition in the wild. Or, as Durant puts it, writing not on Aristotle or Plato, but on Socrates’ view of society:
…in an intelligently administered society—one that returned to the individual, in widened powers, more than it took from him in restricted liberty—the advantage of every man would lie in social and loyal conduct, and only clear sight would be needed to ensure peace and order and good will.
This is somewhat remarkable in Aristotle’s case. He believed that innate purposes drove nature “by a continuous movement originat[ing] from an internal principle, arriv[ing] at some completion”, allowing us the first glimpse of what would much later become the theory of evolution. Yet neither he nor Plato recognized that society was essentially just a large, multi-celled organism. What more natural way to organize society could there have been than allowing it to proceed according to internal principles, i.e., by allowing it to continue the processes by which it formed, compelling the allegiance of its members by the benefits thereby gained? Neither philosopher quite understood that the necessity of imposing cohesion from above in their top-down societies (where the rank and file may be ambivalent on whether the benefits of membership exceed their costs) will often yield an unstable society that must expend vast resources to suppress (i.e., make more costly) the natural urge of its members to pursue their own selfish ends.
The discussion of the Greek masters must now conclude, else the review will ultimately turn into a book. To succinctly summarize: Socrates taught us how to think. Plato taught us how to feel about what we were thinking. Aristotle taught us that thinking and feeling are no substitute for evidence. It would be nearly two thousand years until any significant advances in Western thought would occur. Hardly anything worthy of philosophical consideration came out of a thousand years of Roman rule. Growing and maintaining an empire rarely allows time to pause and reflect, a reality which at least partially afflicts today’s American empire.
History abounds with ironies. Not least of which is that the West owes its Greek heritage to the Muslims. When Western man again began expanding the boundaries of his mind, he would not have known of his Greek heritage were it not for Mohammed’s philosophical acolytes preserving, protecting and ultimately transmitting the ancient Greek texts for posterity. The wisdom of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would have been lost to the mists of time had it not been for the reviled Muslims. The shadows on the West’s cave walls during the Dark ages would have flickered ever more dimly.
THE RENAISSANCE AND EARLY MODERN ERA (WITH A NOTE ON ST. AUGUSTINE)
St. Augustine (354-430 ad)
Durant did not include Augustine as one of his greater philosophers, which is understandable, because Augustine mainly wrote on theology. But when he wrote philosophy, he was brilliant. Book XI of his autobiographical, Confessions, is perhaps the best exegesis of the philosophical problems posed by the notion of time that has ever been written. Even theoretical physicists today would have difficulty explaining the conundrums he presents, even as Augustine provides therein a foreshadowing of the relativistic notion of time developed in the twentieth century. Russell includes a synopsis of Augustine in which he exhibits great deference and respect for the man, the philosopher and the theologian, which itself says a great deal about the admirable nature of Augustine’s character.
When Augustine wrote as a Christian theologian, he was less brilliant and consistent philosophically, but time and again proved to be Christianity’s best early apologist. Augustine was all the citation necessary (for either side) in resolving theological disputes that raged within the Reformation. His theology was heavily influenced by Plato, applying as much of Plato’s philosophy to Christianity as Christian strictures would logically allow. Augustine did for Plato and the Protestant Reformation what Thomas Aquinas did for Aristotle and the Catholic Scholastics.
Augustine adopted Christianity after going through Skeptic and Manichaean phases in his theological/philosophical development. Manichaeism had seemed to him the best answer for explaining the logical conundrum so bedeviling the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of a world filled with evil. Manichaean philosophy proposes that evil exists because an evil force nearly equal in strength to God’s will opposes God at every turn. Yet the Manichaean solution hardly disposes of the internal contradiction presented by an evil-besotted world in which God is simultaneously all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present. God can’t be omnipotent, yet powerless to destroy evil. Augustine traded the Manichaean contradiction for a Platonic one—that evil exists in the absence of God. Yet, this was no improvement. It is logically impossible for anyplace to be absent of God in a world inhabited by a God that is all-present. Augustine was hardly the first nor the last to wrestle with the Judeo-Christian conundrum of evil. The history of Christian (and Jewish) theology could be reduced to listing, without missing anything significant, nothing else except all the inept attempts to answer the question of how evil exists in a world where God, good in all times and circumstances, is also omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Yet Augustine had an answer for those skeptics unable to get past the logical conundrum. He admonished that they should believe first and then they would understand, i.e., they should come to faith through revelation, and reason would follow, providing an excellent example that reason is the hand-maiden of emotion and instinct, not the other way around.
Augustine should be forgiven for his philosophical indiscretions in attempting to explain evil in a theologically coherent way. Understanding why evil exists has little to do with living a good life, and Augustine more than made up in his ethics what he lacked in his theology. Augustine applied Plato’s allegory of the cave in explaining the timeless and eternal virtues to which believers should aspire. Plato’s timeless Form or Ideal, is, for Augustine, the eternal good—the virtue not bounded by space and time– that God compels men to strive after. Worshiping or loving things that could not be possessed without fear of losing, i.e., worshipping or loving temporal things that exist in space and time, i.e., believing that the shadows on the cave wall were anything more than just “a poor reflection, as in a mirror” (from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13), was the source of all evil, or, as Augustine puts it, from On The Free Choice of the Will, Book One:
All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would better be called death.
Observations like these pepper Augustine’s writings. I first read this passage a few months before my son was diagnosed with relapsed leukemia. I came back to the idea time and again throughout the ordeal—since the earthly body is a thing that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing, I would not love or worship my son’s. I turned my love away from his body and towards his eternal soul. St. Augustine’s brilliance, still shining sixteen hundred years after his death, lit the corners of that dim, depressing hospital room. Rejecting temporal things for loving the eternal good, as St. Augustine lived and preached, is indeed a powerful thing.
Augustine’s exegesis on time similarly provided aid and comfort along the way in struggle against disease. The only time that is real is the present, which contains all of time: The past is a memory we carry in the present; the present is the immediate, encompassing reality, and the future is the present vision we imagine for tomorrow. In other words, the only thing real is the now. Take each moment as it comes. Don’t worry about the future nor obsess over the past. God Bless you St. Augustine.
Augustine even helped me in nursing my son’s mind back to health as his body healed. As my son was being weaned off morphine, he reawakened to the world and what had just happened. He was still very sick and weak, but the realization of his predicament caused him to become profoundly upset late one night in the hospital. He said he wasn’t worried about dying, but was worried that he’d go to hell if he did. This is a kid that never did wrong. He was so innately good that I found it difficult sometimes to believe that he really belonged to me. So, I asked, “Why”? He said because of the sexual lust he’d carried in his heart before he’d gotten sick (he was fifteen at the time). I had been reading Augustine’s Confessions during the long, boring hospital days and nights, and had recently stumbled across Augustine’s plea to the Lord regarding his own lust-filled heart, “Make me chaste Lord, but just not yet.” Even theologian philosophers can have a sense of humor. I used Augustine’s example to show him that even one of the greatest saints in Christianity admitted to and struggled with his lustful urges. Augustine didn’t go to hell for them; neither would he. It seemed to work. They didn’t saint Augustine for nothing.
During Augustine’s lifetime, the Roman fire that had engulfed the Western world for nearly a thousand years reduced to embers. Rome fell to the Gauls, and Augustine’s Hippo, on the northern coast of Africa in present-day Algeria, fell to the Vandals shortly after his death. Yet Augustine’s legacy endures. He set his stake in eternity by his devotion to devising a workable Christian theology and philosophy, in the process, displaying a beautiful and humble, yet pious, soul. The Roman era was not completely devoid of substantive thought or character.
From Aristotle to the Renaissance
Durant offers a summary of the dismal history of philosophy between the rise and fall of Rome and the Renaissance, or “awakening” as he calls it. The Greeks adopted Oriental defeatism in the face of decline, taking to Stoicism and Epicureanism, which Durant described as “the apathetic acceptance of defeat, [or] the effort to forget defeat in the arms of pleasure”. In a remarkable foreshadowing of both the materialistic determinism that suffuses the modern age, and of the theory of evolution that helped animate it, Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus that lived during the time of Caesar, rejected religion, claiming that there are no gods intruding into the affairs of man; that there is no hell, except in the here and now, and that nothing exists except atoms, space and law; the law of laws is evolution and dissolution, Durant quoting Epicurus:
No single thing abides, but all things flow
Fragment to fragment cling; the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know…
…many races of living things must then have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed. For in the case of all things which you see breathing the breath of life, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved each particular race…Those to whom nature has granted none of these qualities would lie exposed as a prey and booty to others, until nature brought their kind to extinction.
Thus the framework for the theory of evolution by natural selection preceded Darwin and Wallace by nearly two millennia, providing a marvelous example of the profit to be gained in studying philosophy. It should be at once humbling and comforting for students of philosophy and history when it is realized that there are rarely any new ideas; that most ideas have been considered before, and accepted or rejected before; and that most of what contemporary thinkers do is synthesize old ideas into new templates. Memes, like genes, often have ancestral origins. The past is indelibly connected to the present through the immortality not only of its genes, but also of its ideas.
Lucretius’ observations about evolution might have survived to provide the foundation for Darwin and Wallace had the Roman Empire not given way to the Catholic Church. The Church replaced thinking with believing; empiricism with dogma. What was seen became less important than what was believed. Though the Church had adopted much of Aristotle’s metaphysics by the Middle Ages, it had ignored his exegesis on the development of life that foreshadowed evolutionary theory, adopting instead the somewhat Platonic idea described in Genesis that God breathed life into the various plants and animals, “according to their kinds”.
Lucretius wasn’t constricted by religious dogma to interpret nature according to a static belief system such as restrained all of Europe when it awakened from its intellectual slumber. He had only the evidence to limit him. Without great difficulty, he therefore laid down the basics of evolution by natural selection which was summarily ignored until Darwin and Wallace rediscovered, with great fanfare, what anyone observing nature without theological blinders could easily have seen—life must adapt to survive; those that aren’t well-adapted die without progeny; the fittest reproduce; like begats like, thereby the progeny of the fittest are the best-suited to survival. It took profound theological-induced myopia to be blind to what was happening all around, especially considering that civilization owes its existence to application of the basic principles of evolution by natural selection to the domestication of plants and animals.
It is not only in evolution theory that the ancients preceded the modern age in discovery and understanding. Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 bc) propounded the view that the earth and planets revolved around the sun, and that the earth rotated on its axis. It is not clear that Copernicus knew of Aristarchus, but enough evidence of him and his views exist today until the case is quite conclusive that his heliocentric cosmology preceded Copernicus and Galileo by roughly eighteen hundred years.
Democritus (circa 420 bce) and perhaps his contemporary, Leucippus, proposed the idea that all of reality is composed of atoms or of empty space. Democritus’ atoms were indivisible and energetic. Their movement was deterministic, i.e., every effect had a discernible natural cause. He wasn’t correct in the particulars, as the Quantum Theory of matter later revealed, but his basic idea proved true nearly twenty-five centuries after he first proposed it. Democritus, unlike Aristarchus, was well-known among the ancient philosophers. The mists of time didn’t hide his ideas from the modern age. The modern age, at least until Dalton in the early 1800’s, simply chose to ignore them. Even after Dalton, it was until the early twentieth century that the inner workings of atoms were finally teased out. At least the subsequent theorists and investigators were humble enough to acknowledge the debt owed Democritus and gave their particles of matter the name, atom, with which he had originally christened them. Like Lucretius proclaims, no single thing abides, but all things flow, including ideas.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Durant believes that Bacon is the philosopher that bridged the dark gap between ancient Greece and the Renaissance. For Durant, Bacon is the first of the greater philosophers of what is considered the modern era. Which is somewhat disputable. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the first of the era to attempt to apply mathematical precision to the consideration of philosophical questions, after which time mathematics and philosophy became forever inextricably intertwined. Bacon was the first philosopher to apply the scientific method to the understanding of nature, so he may reasonably be considered the father of modern physics and all its corollary sciences.
Applying his scientific methods to the acquisition of knowledge required a mind free of bias and superstition, so though Bacon professed Christianity, he would never allow a simple reversion to the supernatural when empirical science failed. He enumerated several human biases leading to errors in understanding, calling them “idols”. “Idols of the tribe” is the error that humans often make in assuming nature has more order than is actually found; it is the perceptual bias of order that humans project onto nature. “Idols of the cave” are personal prejudices unique to each individual. “Idols of the marketplace” are rooted in the influence language and societal interaction has over our thought processes. “Idols of the theatre” are misperceptions arising from received systems of thought. Lastly, “idols of the schools” consist in thinking that a blind rule may overcome empirical investigation and judgment. The last two idols were covert swipes at Aristotle and the scholastics, and the rigidity with which beliefs about nature had ossified so as to prevent any real investigations of nature. The early, middle and even late modern era spent a great store of its energy overthrowing the tyranny of Aristotelian scholastics before it was able to progress in understanding.
Durant points out that Bacon was Epicurean in his lifestyle, meaning that he didn’t try, like the Stoics to deny his natural impulses, but to indulge them just enough to retain control over them. He believed like so many philosophers (Epicurus, Voltaire, etc) that the road to good health lay in cultivating a garden.
Bacon believes that philosophy must be useful to be good. Acquiring knowledge that has no practical application is a waste of time. Bacon was a philosopher, yes, but also a politically-avaricious man, striving mightily to attain and retain importance in the King’s court, an endeavor in which he mostly succeeded, at least for a time. He was a bit Machiavellian in his strategies for gaining political power; always distrustful; always seeking information about his rivals while withholding information about himself. His strategies for gaining prestige and power were antithetical to his philosophy of science proclaiming that scientific investigations should humbly proceed in whichever direction the evidence led.
Which is why Bacon seems less interesting than others. Durant doesn’t seem to find fault in a philosopher that proclaims “men ought to know that in the theatre of human life it is only for Gods and angels to be spectators”, a curious sentiment for the founder of the scientific theory to profess. All good scientists (and philosophers) are spectators, objectively observing, in the same manner as might a god or angel, the world around them such that they can become more like a god or angel in their understanding. Being overly engaged in the theatre of human life is precisely the source of bias that yields the misperceptions of the idols. Bacon, like so many thinkers seeking honor and riches for their thinking, fails to perceive the inherently contradictory basis for his ideas, perhaps because of misperceptions attendant to his idolization of political power.
Bacon was a bit of a radical empiricist, believing that by simply making enough observations; by collecting enough data about a phenomenon, morsels of truth would fall out the data like ripe fruit from a shaken tree. He disdained hypothesis that would focus data collection in one direction or another, and was skeptical of the ability for observers to view data objectively when pursuing it according to a preconceived hypothesis. He has a point. Good science requires radical objectivity. Bacon’s strategy for achieving radical objectivity was data collection without an end in view, believing the data would point the way next to proceed. The strategy may have worked in pre-Enlightenment times, before sensory-extending instruments like the telescope and microscope were available for immensely expanding the amount of data capably brought under observation. It would be extremely wasteful and inefficient today to simply examine data without at least a hypothetical question in mind, never mind that hypothetical questions necessarily point to possible answers. The trick today, and the problem which Bacon was trying to overcome in his radical empiricism, is to gather data purposefully relevant to proving or disproving a hypothesis, yet to examine the data so gathered with a mind that previously-unconsidered relationships might be revealed. Cause and effect relationships may run in the direction a hypothesis proposes, or might arise differently. Scientific objectivity requires radical empiricism in evaluating data, no matter that it was purposefully collected to prove a point. It is the self-aggrandizing, self-promoting scientist whose honor and wealth depends on data fitting a hypothesis that is, in the present age as well as in Bacon’s, most susceptible to seeing in the data what is hoped for, regardless of what it objectively reveals.
Bacon, like all other Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers, particularly those most concerned with science, had to tear down the edifices of Aristotle’s metaphysics before intellectual advancement could proceed, a situation that is not unique in the annals of human history. The present has always to wrestle with angels and demons from the past as it grasps for the future. It is very likely the case that Einstein, for example, will one day be considered by some future age as Aristotle was considered during the Enlightenment—someone whose contributions to understanding were so great in his time that his every utterance was dogmatically accepted as truth by succeeding generations. The penetrating darkness cast on the forest floor of ideas by old-growth intellectual giants has always inhibited new growth. Bacon and his successors in the early modern age had to hack out a clearing in Aristotle’s legacy in which new ideas could flourish and grow.
Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677)
Of all the philosophers of the modern age, Spinoza is for me, far and away the most admirable. His philosophy is rigorously consistent and logical, and he joins Socrates and Jesus as one of the rare few philosophers and theologians that lived as he taught. Additionally, of all the philosophers of the modern era (from the Renaissance forward) he has perhaps had the greatest practical impact today. When asked whether he believed in God, Einstein remarked that indeed he did: “Spinoza’s God”.
Spinoza introduced me again to philosophy several years ago shortly after embarking on the intellectual journey to resolve the questions my son’s leukemia had revivified. I had stumbled across him while reading a book on the history of the Jews (Jews, God and History by Max I. Dimont, 1988). The author had so effusively praised him (and had done such a fine job of writing a concise history of 4,000 years of Judaism, though a bit jingoistic at times) that I had to find out more. Spinoza’s Ethics is the first philosophical treatise I ever read through and through, and Spinoza is the only philosopher for whom I have read the complete writings.
Thus it was no surprise to me that Durant thinks very highly of him, too. He recommends reading Ethics at least twice—once to get the feel of the book, again to understand it. Which is not a bad idea. I’ve done that and much more. I keep a dog-eared, margin-scribbled and tagged copy of the paperback edition sitting on the desk behind me all the time.
What is so wonderful about Spinoza? It is his radically objective mind. Spinoza simply refuses to allow the justification of beliefs and dogmas by simplistic rationalizations. No effect is without a cause, and the first cause is God, or Substance, as he interchangeably referred to his one and only truly infinite entity. Spinoza was variously described as atheist (if God is everything, then God is nothing) and as “that God-intoxicated philosopher”. Spinoza was what we call today pantheistic, one of the first Western followers of the Eastern tradition found in Buddhism, et al.
For Spinoza, God is necessarily in and of everything, and is the immanent cause of everything in the universe. In other words, Spinoza’s God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent being the Hebrews described in Genesis, but then turned into an anthropomorphic Superman by Exodus. Humans (and all other creatures; indeed every identifiable speck of matter in the universe) are special modes of God, or Substance, which is exactly what must obtain if God is to be as the Hebrews initially claimed. For Spinoza, the whole point of life is to develop and nurture an intellectual love of God. Developing an intellectual love for God meant learning to control the emotions by understanding them, which in turn allowed reason, or the intellect, to be the abiding guide for investigating and understanding God. God and nature, if nature is deemed to be a corporeal mass, are not the same, but God is the corporeal mass of nature plus every force within and acting upon it.
Spinoza was Jewish, of Portuguese descent, whose family had immigrated to Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century when the Portuguese copied the Spaniards in offering their native Jews the option of converting to Christianity or being burned at the stake for heresy. Spinoza was educated in the madrasas of the exilic community, and by a very young age was well-versed and fluent in Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible. By all accounts he was a brilliant student. Unfortunately his logical mind could not countenance the superstitious and emotional theology of the Hebrews, and he rebelled. The particular cause of excommunication at age twenty-seven by his community of Spanish and Portuguese exiles in Amsterdam is lost to history (the excommunication letter only mentions that it was for his abominable views), but it was complete. He and his community were barred from ever having any contact again. It’s speculated that he may have been excommunicated for his opinion, generally agreed upon by theologians today, that Moses could not have written the Torah, as doing so would have required him to write of his own death, and in the third person. It might have been Spinoza’s assertion in his Theological-Political Treatise, that the laws in the Torah were written to the Hebrew nation whilst it existed as a nation, and they only had applicability for so long as the Hebrew nation continued to exist. It could have been his views of what exactly it meant to describe God as omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, but his understanding of God wasn’t fully developed and revealed until Ethics, ten years in the making, was published shortly after his death at age forty-four. Whatever it was that forced him out of that cloistered little community of Amsterdam Jews, it must somehow have struck at the very foundations of their existence, because it is a rare and unusual circumstance that renders an excommunication so complete and final as was Spinoza’s.
Shortly after excommunication, Spinoza published one treatise, the Theological-Political Treatise, mentioned above, under a false name. It caused such an uproar that he wisely refrained from further publishing his works except the largely uncontroversial exegesis of Descartes, Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, in 1663. Principles provided the first glimpse of the style and philosophy the world would only fully grasp with the publication of Ethics after his death. Spinoza lays out Descartes’ philosophy in geometrical order, with propositions founded on axioms supported by proofs and scholium. The style is apparently difficult for many readers, and probably contributes to the general obscurity Spinoza and his contributions to philosophy have among the general public.
I will admit to some personal bias for his straightforward, radically-objective approach. It fits my intellectual temperament marvelously, but I won’t admit to bias in objectively evaluating his philosophy. To fail at objectivity would be to fail at the very ideal Spinoza held most dear, and like Spinoza lived according to his philosophy, I seek to do the same.
Like most great philosophers, Spinoza never married. Marriage and immersion in the everyday banalities of struggling to survive that it commonly entails, particularly in a marriage that produces children, makes hard the objective, somewhat-disinterested perspective that great philosophy requires. As I told my wife several times after this journey of intellectual discovery got under way, with the kids around it is sometimes a struggle to string two coherent thoughts together on anything more substantial than what, when and where the next meal for the family will be. If there was anything fruitful to come out of the hours on end spent at the hospital with my son, it’s that I finally had the time to sort things out, along with the impetus to do so. When a life you hold as dear as your own teeters on the edge of life and death for so long, it becomes imperative to know what it means to live and die, and thankfully, the quiet interludes between doctor and nurse visits provided the opportunity for reflection. Spinoza, through it all, was my guide. He taught me how to think.
Spinoza had no such distractions. He made a modest living by grinding lenses for eyeglasses and telescopes, an occupation perfectly suited to his philosophical creed to live modestly but in a manner to meet your bodily needs; to behave lovingly and respectfully toward others; yet to seek truth, i.e., the intellectual love of God in every endeavor. Spinoza ground lenses for people to see the heavens and wrote Ethics that they might understand them.
One imagines him a lonely figure, cast out by his own people, grinding lenses by day and writing out his philosophy by candlelight at night, neither seeing nor being seen by much of anyone. Spinoza was so faithful to his inner light, never yielding to the temptations around him to fit his philosophy to the superstitions and beliefs of the age; so remarkably timeless in his observations, that it was supposed he must have lived a lonely life to be so untouched by the world. But that was not the case. Spinoza carried on energetic communications with the intellectual leaders of his day, even as he learned quite early in life that his views were heretical to people in powerful theological and political positions, and so was circumspect with whom he would openly engage. Not only was he not lonely in the sense of loneliness that arises from lack of human contact, living his life according to the tenets of his philosophy meant that he wasn’t lonely even when alone. Life according to Spinoza’s philosophy consists in seeking blessedness, and blessedness is a virtue with its own reward, coming as it does from the intellectual love of God. The connectedness of all things through God means that nothing in the universe and no one in the world is ever truly alone. Loneliness, like so many of the emotions, is passive, and easily dispatched once it is truly understood.
Spinoza’s work grinding lenses was respected as first-rate amongst the budding astronomers of the new age. After excommunication and returning to Amsterdam after a few years at the Hague, he rented space in the house of a Christian physician, becoming a valued member of his household, even attending church with the family on occasion. When he became ill and knew the end might come at any moment, he felt secure in instructing his landlord on where to find his recently-completed magnum opus, Ethics, and to whom he should entrust it for publication.
Of all the philosophers of the modern age, Spinoza’s legacy endures, and perhaps once this age passes into the next, some future generation will discover Spinoza as Christianity once discovered Plato and Aristotle fifteen hundred years after their deaths. Spinoza may then become the foundation for another advance in the human condition rivaling that seen in this age that was founded on the wisdoms of the ancient Greeks.
Voltaire , pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)
Neither do I nor Russell share Durant’s admiration of Voltaire, who places him amongst the greats of Western philosophy.
In my estimation, a great philosopher is one that either radically and permanently changes thought until his philosophy becomes a demarcation line separating old ways of thinking from new, with any further advance in thought coming through an extension or destruction of the master’s; or is one that stands abreast of time, so eternally profound that his musings are relevant to any age. For me, Aristotle, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Einstein and perhaps a few others occupy the first category. The second has only a few lonely souls: Socrates, Plato, Christ, Augustine and Spinoza. The mathematical philosophers, Pythagoras, Galileo, to some extent Descartes, Bacon, Newton and Einstein, et al, generally have had a narrow impact on thought, it being confined to only their area of mathematical inquiry, but are more lasting in their effects than those just in the first category. While most would disagree that Galileo, Newton and Einstein were philosophers because of their methods, I would take the exact opposite tack and say their method of inquiries—the telescope for Galileo; abstract mathematics for Einstein, and both for Newton, prove that each were attempting explain reality like all philosophers, but were simply employing advanced methodology relative to the ancients.
I can’t find a place for Voltaire in any of the categories. His philosophy did little to radically and permanently change thought in his day. Most of it, particularly so far as it concerned political philosophy, was derived from principles enunciated by John Locke (1632-1704) a hundred years earlier that were slowly gaining traction on the continent. Voltaire helped lay the intellectual foundation for the French Revolution, but used Locke as his cornerstone. Practically all of his philosophy was eventually accepted and considered commonplace, which perhaps reveals a bit of its value as truth, but also a bit about its originality, which it mostly wasn’t.
A great many mediocre men of the ages that were great men of their times believed that the age in which they lived represented a unique passage in the annals of human progress. Their brilliance is reflected in their ability to grasp and give shape and form to the intellectual clay of their times, making them giants of their day, but their limitations are revealed in their inability to deduce general and eternal truths out of the answers to the issues with which they wrestle. This seems an apt description of Voltaire.
But Voltaire was not without redeeming qualities. He was ingeniously talented at communicating deeply resonant ideas in a lyrically pleasing and understandable way. Where Spinoza was a geometrician, Voltaire was a poet and playwright, and communicated his ideas through poetry and dialogue until he was far more popular in his day than perhaps any philosopher of the modern era.
Voltaire, like so many philosophers, was a pacifist, appalled by the carnage of war, looking upon the Seven Year’s War as madness and suicide to settle whether of England or France should win a few acres of snow in Canada. He was scathingly sarcastic and impious, both towards the Catholic Church and the French crown, drawing much of his insights on theology and politics not only from Locke, but also Spinoza. Poking fun at the belief in prayer as capable of yielding supernatural outcomes, he responded to a nun that proclaimed her prayers had saved the life of a sparrow by saying, “I believe in a general Providence, dear Sister, which has laid down from all eternity the law which governs all things, like light from the sun; but I believe not that a particular Providence changes the economy of the world for your sparrow.” This was straight Spinoza, yet he never quite accepted, as Spinoza proclaimed, that good and evil are only human characterizations of natural phenomena, carrying no relevance from God’s perspective. For Spinoza, God is, as my Baptist preacher proclaims without perhaps quite understanding it, good in all times and all circumstances, so a dead sparrow is as good in God’s eyes as a living one. But of course, God hasn’t anything resembling eyes, i.e., God does not have human affections like eyes with which to see, yet he sees everything, both in the manner with which humans see things and in ways we can only imagine.
Voltaire mocked man’s vanity at believing it alone amongst the beasts was singled out to possess an immortal soul stating that “I am persuaded that if a peacock could speak he would boast of his soul, and would affirm that it inhabited his magnificent tail.”
Voltaire also believed, like Epicurus and Bacon and probably would have Spinoza–had Spinoza been physically inclined to tillage–that keeping a garden was “the best thing we can do on Earth.”
Voltaire despised Leibnitz and Rousseau: His hugely popular short story, Candide, was nothing less than an extended mockery of Leibnitz’s idea that the world of our sensory perceptions is always the best of all possible worlds:
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:
“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle; …if you had not been put into the Inquisition; if you had not walked over America; …if you had not lost all your gold;…you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”
“All that is very well,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
It would perhaps be harsh to criticize Voltaire because he rarely had original ideas, instead being simply content to adopt the ideas of some others as his own, and mock the absurdities of ones with which he disagreed, because he was so incredibly good at adopting or mocking, as the case required. He understood Spinoza and Leibnitz perhaps as good as either of them understood themselves, adopting most of Spinoza’s philosophy while mocking Leibnitz’s. He understands Locke’s political theory of the foundations of freedom, and predicted the seed of his ideas would eventually flower into revolution after he was gone.
Voltaire was cynical, funny, acerbic and brilliant. He was the Jon Stewart of his day. He fought the good fight intellectually against the gathering cloud of Romanticism represented by Rousseau’s assault against civilization and freedom. Voltaire was admirable and is a great joy to read. But he was more of a communicator and catalyst than an original thinker, which is why I would not have included him in my list of greatest philosophers.
Jean Jacque’s Rousseau (1712-1778)
Durant does not include Rousseau as one of the greater philosophers in the story of philosophy, but I feel it imperative that some mention be made of him, particularly since his greatest antagonist, Voltaire, was included.
Rousseau represents what both Durant (perceived through his praise of Voltaire) and Russell (explicitly) find most distasteful about Romanticism. The Romantic Movement rejected thought for feeling; it was a revolt against the gathering technological advancements of the late eighteen century that continues until today. Rousseau was its first philosopher, though he, like Voltaire, mostly just reflected the sentiments of a growing number of people in eighteenth century France and elsewhere that the Enlightenment movement towards rationalism and empiricism was too quickly wiping out the old essence of what it meant to be human. Which is to say, emotions drive human beings, yet advancements in empirical understanding were proving how utterly foolish and inefficient so many of them were. While the age of reason loosened the bonds of superstition and dogma, it seemed at the time incapable of providing anything better with which to comfort the passions that drive men’s souls.
Rousseau proposed that man’s unhappiness was due to his having to conform to the strictures of civilization founded upon agriculture. He believed that man was happiest in nature, before having had given up his freedom in order to control the natural instincts that living in civilization required. Rousseau championed the idea of the “noble savage”, a creature who acted instinctively, which was always good, because obeying emotional impulses is how nature designed man to behave, and doing what is natural is beautiful, and beauty for the romantics, is of the highest order of good.
Russell uses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in the early nineteenth century, as emblematic of the thought processes pervading the early Romantics. Technological innovations enabled Dr. Frankenstein to create a human-like monster, so human in fact, that all it wishes for is to be loved. When the monster is denied love, both in society and by Dr. Frankenstein’s refusal to create for him a mate, he goes on a killing spree, exacting his revenge on Frankenstein by murdering everyone that his creator loved, before ultimately also murdering his creator. For the romantic idealists of the age, the expression of such passion was admirable. Frankenstein’s monster was justified in his murderous rampage because his heart was broken. The tale is obvious allegory. The monster represents the man that the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution had created. The monster’s killing spree against his creator is rebellion against society and its creators that romantics believe is justified by the horrors of the new age. For the romantic moralist, the lesson of Frankenstein is that technological innovations meant to improve the lot of man are instead turning men into crude and monstrous approximations of man that may one day justifiably strike back and destroy their creators.
Were Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy more widely known and followed at the time, Romanticism could be considered a direct backlash against him. Spinoza counseled that it was our emotions keeping us in bondage, and that true blessedness and freedom require employing the intellect to understand one’s emotional impulses in order to control them. For Spinoza, reason could turn a passive emotion, i.e., an emotion that happened to someone as a result of external events, into an adequate idea, i.e., an emotion that was understood and controlled by the intellect. Spinoza tried to explain that man’s flowering intellect or reason could, instead of being used solely in the service of emotional impulse as nature seemed to have originally designed, be used to gain understanding and thereby control of the passions.
Romanticism counseled exactly the opposite. Man was most free when he allowed his emotional impulses to run riot, controlling his behavior and his mind. The only metric through which a Romantic calculated value was the depth of feeling attached to an emotion. The more deeply one felt an emotion, the more ethically and morally valuable was the impulse. Thus the rage that Frankenstein’s monster felt at being created but not loved justified his killing rampage.
The Romantic Movement offered less of an original insight into human nature than it offered refuge from the Enlightenment age of reason that seemed ready to turn men into automatons. If the movement could be characterized as an all-encompassing passion to abide according to the heart’s whimsy; to reject thinking for feeling, it would perhaps qualify as a passive emotion or idea according to Spinoza’s metaphysics. It was reactive, not creative. In a sense, it was an extended lamentation against the scientific currents sweeping humanity swiftly away from its past, rushing towards an increasingly fearful and uncertain future.
But the idea that man is either a creature of his passions (and thereby happiest, according to the Romantic Movement and Rousseau) or is a slave to reason is a false dichotomy. The complete man has both thought and feelings. Spinoza understood well the primacy emotion plays in directing our actions; it is why he designed Ethics around attaining control over them. The Romantics would rather pretend that man is only instinct; that he is only happy when indulging his emotions, be they base or noble or somewhere in between; that the intellect is the servant of the emotions, but is often incapable of doing its job properly, so is not to be trusted. The only part of man they properly understood is that the intellect is the servant of the emotions. Intellect without emotion is useless. Emotionless intellect operates like Bacon’s inductive reasoning, gathering mountains of data for purposes it can never quite understand or contrive. Emotion tells the intellect to which purposes it should direct its efforts; in terms of Bacon’s science, emotion provides the hypothesis and sends the intellect scurrying for data to support or destroy it.
Though Romanticism was anti-intellectual and refused to admit the power of reason to achieve the ends of the instinct-based emotions, it still got things more or less correct in its questioning of where this age of reason might lead. Instinct may be prior to intellect, but it is not stupid. The passions that arise instinctively do so to accomplish the singular end of all living creatures—survival. The intellect can be considered an emotional hand-maiden; a magnificent edifice created to serve the ends of survival, i.e., human instincts, expressed through emotions, operate not unlike a lion’s teeth and claws, serving to keep the organism alive. Likewise, the instinct senses and understands danger, oft-times well before the intellect even has the chance to get involved. The Romantic Movement represents the collective instinct of Enlightenment Europe sensing the danger inherent with the usurpation of feeling for thinking long before it became clear that the limitations of reason could be as dangerous as the excesses of emotion.
The French Revolution, and Robespierre’s Terror following it, represented the full flowering of the Romantic notion that the value of an emotion is determined by the ferocity with which it is felt. It’s doubtful either Rousseau, or even his antagonist, Voltaire, both shortly dead by the time of the Revolution, could have imagined the horrors unbridled passion wrought.
But unbridled passion would prove nothing next to valueless reason in its ability to inflict suffering, pain and death on humanity. Scientific enlightenment of the sort favored by Spinoza revealed more and more of the inner workings of nature to man, until by the end of the nineteenth century, European societies were so efficiently able to provide for the necessities of life that humans became extravagantly cheap, both to create and nurture, and to destroy. Soulless reason, directed at self-destructive ends characteristic of no instinctively-grounded emotion, found its first and clearest expression in the carnage of the First World War. The Romantics seem to have been justified in their skepticism about the age of reason, even if perhaps they did not know why.
It could be argued that Spinoza’s ideal, implicitly embraced during the Enlightenment, of worshiping God by exercising the intellectual gifts of reason and rationality, lay ruined in the smoldering carnage of the war. But the argument would be wrong. While Spinoza believed the intellect provided the surest path to understanding and should therefore guide the emotions in seeking their ends, the motive for employing the intellect in the service of understanding is to live in harmony with each other; with nature, and with ourselves. Spinoza’s intellect was a tool of the instinctive compulsion to survive, but Spinoza understood that the intellect can generally see farther than can instinct, and so should guide instinctive impulses in the direction that would be most advantageous to survival; survival being the defining purpose, or conatus as he called it, for all of life. The instinctive survival impulse, the conatus, of many millions had to be overcome in order for the carnage of the First World War to obtain. How was it possible that men willingly rushed over the tops of trenches to their near-certain death without having denied every instinct in their soul, the rat-tat-tat of machine guns ticking away their final moments on earth?
There is virtually a straight philosophical line from Rousseau to Nietzsche (though stumbling through Schopenhauer along the way) and Nietzsche’s Superman ethos that arose after the rubble of the Great War dashed soulless reason to bits. The German soul very deeply felt great outrage for having suffered defeat and its corresponding humiliations in the war, and since the value of emotion, according to the Romantic ideal, is directly and positively correlated to the magnitude with which it is felt, Germany felt justified in whatever measures were necessary express their anguish. They found expression through the vehicle of a failed Austrian painter that eventually became the practical embodiment of the Nietzschian Superman. The rise of a monster like Hitler is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Romantic ideal that feeling holds priority over thinking. Soulless reason would similarly reach its apogee a few years later, when the secrets of the atom were successfully teased out to unleash the terrible destructive power at its core.
Though it may not seem clear, the point of this explication is simply thus: The human animal has both reason and emotion guiding his actions. They are each designed to accomplish the same end as all the rest of the several trillion cells of his being—his continued existence and self-propagation. Philosophical attempts to dichotomize these two aspects of humanity always yield a confused mess. Although each may, at turns, play a decisive role in animating behavior, they are not, in normal humans, mutually exclusive.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Europe might have found wisdom and a way forward before the advance of soulless reason combined with excessive passion to very nearly destroy the continent in the twentieth century. It is with quaint irony that the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was necessarily and deliberately ignored by his very own countrymen in order for the havoc of the dual wars to unfold. Immanuel Kant’s idealism provided a way around the excesses of the human heart and head, had his countrymen sought the counsel of his wisdom. Nearly a sesquicentennial prior to the conflicts, he had rescued faith and emotion from its destruction at the hands of Bacon, Locke and Hume’s materialistic reasoning and Spinoza’s rationalism, but without necessitating the near-complete disregard of objective reality, as Rousseau’s Romanticism required. Alas, Kant stands for the impotence of ethical philosophy, if nothing else. He explained, and the world, outside of the philosophers, mostly ignored.
Durant’s explication of Kant is excellent—better even than reading Kant. As Durant acknowledges, Kant is difficult and obtuse and writes in German, which is a language better suited to verbal, rather than written, communication, and is anyway not easily translatable into English, which at least partly explains Kant’s proclivity towards using obscure terms. The English translation seems erudite and obscure because there really is no good commonly-used counterpart in English to the German terms he employs. Russell acknowledges this difficulty with Kant.
Russell does not think as highly of Kant as does Durant. He considers his metaphysics questionable at best, but Durant understands that Kant’s aim was to dispel Hume’s idea that nothing is certain, which is an extension of Locke’s thesis that the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank page upon which the experiences of life are written.
Hume’s idea seems so outlandish until, from today’s perspective, it seems any reasonably sensible fifth grader ought to be easily capable of dispelling it. And it was easy for Kant. The problem is that though the mind may be a tabula rasa at birth, it is a very specifically-constructed blank page, actively participating in categorizing, tabulating, recording and ordering the inputs of the senses. The mind creates its own perceptions out of the raw material provided by the senses. Therefore, for Kant, space and time are constructs of the mind. They exist a priori as the mechanism through which the mind perceives matter. Kant, along with St. Augustine, inherently understood the subjective nature of space and time, foreshadowing relativity theory.
For Kant, there are other a priori notions, mostly mathematical truths. The idea that 2×2=4 is an immutable truth that requires no sensory experience to understand; the mind was created with this knowledge. Kant believes that the mind structures its understanding of matter in terms of Euclidian space, where, e.g., two parallel lines never intersect, etc. The mind has an a priori notion that this is how the universe is structured, which is mostly confirmed by sensory experiences, not the other way ‘round, where sensory experience writes upon the mind’s blank tableau its structure and order.
This all makes perfect sense, for the philosopher to ignore the composition of the blank page of the mind is to misunderstand how actual writing takes place. A blank blackboard in a school is a tabula rasa that will remain so unless it is composed of the proper materials for accepting writing and the proper instruments are employed for doing so. A child that is sent to the blackboard with only his pen will leave the board as he found it, no matter how much he tries to complete his assignment. To ignore that the composition and nature of the board plays a significant role in communicating information is folly. The mind actively participates in the etchings made upon it by the senses, so much so that it could be imagined that the mind holds the hand of the senses as they write, tracing out what it wishes to have imprinted upon it.
The impact of the mind on reality is implicated by a popular television series that examines what the world will be like when humans cease to exist. The answer, as I tell my children, is that when humans cease to exist, so too will the world, so far as humans know it, because no other being (except perhaps God, but that’s a different matter) sees and experiences the world quite in the same way that we do. To a human, a tree is large. To an ant, it is a universe. To a human, the oceans are vast and mostly empty. To a krill, they are filled to the brim with tasty microscopic creatures. Perspective creates reality. Is there, objectively, a collection of matter in the universe that is the third such collection orbiting a common star upon which we live? Of course, but after we’re gone it will no longer exist, because there will no longer be any creature equipped just so to see it in the manner that we do. The earth and the sun are there to be sure, but they are only the “earth” or the “sun” because our imaginations have thus nominated and ordered them so.
Kant rescues religion by first pointing out the inability of science to prove or disprove the existence of God. He dispels the three bases for belief founded in reason–ontological, cosmological and physic-theological proofs—by explaining, first, that the ontological idea of a necessary being existing necessarily is not proof of anything, dispelling the first two proofs, and that the ordered nature of the universe hardly requires that there is a God, and not simply an architect, dispelling the last. He rescues God by pointing out that our innate morality, our sense of the categorical imperative, must arise from somewhere and have some purpose outside of utilitarian benefits; that in fact, utilitarian morality is not morality at all, yet we still have a sense of right and wrong. Since there must be some motivation for compelling us to follow this non-utilitarian, non-personally -beneficial moral sense, there is no better thing than attributing it to God.
Kant’s categorical imperative is simple, and cuts very close to simply restating the golden rule, yet in a more awkward manner. The categorical imperative is basically a moral question we ask (or should ask) whenever deciding upon a course of action: Would it be beneficial if everyone were to adopt our behavior in resolving a similar problem in similar circumstances? In other words, could behaviors specific to the individual in the circumstance be used to formulate a general rule of behavior applicable to all? If so, then we have dutifully done that which is morally sound. Kant believes this categorical imperative to action arises from deep within our souls, i.e., that it is a priori, written on the not-quite blank slate of our souls. It does not compel us to action, but is instead, only a guide. It sounds as if Kant is proposing to philosophically describe what in common vernacular we call the conscience. The categorical imperative is the good angel on our shoulder, telling us how we should behave, that wrestles with bad angel, who tells us how we should misbehave.
What Kant is really saying so far as God and morality is concerned is two-fold. First, Kant presumes in his imperative that there is such a thing as human will, i.e., we are not instinctive automatons that simply respond to stimuli in “deciding” on what course of action is best. Of course the debate over whether man, or any animal, is possessed of free will has simmered through the ages and does so yet today. The single most compelling argument to be made that man possesses free will is his ability to decide upon doing self-destructive things, including of course, the most self-destructive act imaginable, suicide. If scientists aim to reckon what separates man from all other animals, they won’t find it in the DNA, or the use of tools, or language. They will find it in the capacity for humans to completely subvert the instinctive compulsion to survive. The capacity for suicide makes man different from all the rest.
Second, Kant implies that evidence for God arises from the nature of the human soul, by its possession at birth of an imperative to do what is right solely because it is right. Yet there is little evidence that man possesses at birth any such imperative to do what is right solely because it is right. Infants are born almost perfectly selfish, without any regard or understanding of right or wrong. It is only later in life that people develop the concept of morality, and it arises from the development of reason, not from the innate impulses of instinct.
Kant gets morality wrong in my view. “Right” and “wrong” are relative terms. There is no such thing as an inherently right action, devoid of subjective circumstance. “Right” or “good” means those things that enhance our ability to survive. “Wrong” or “bad” are those things that impair it. God comes into play when we must use our reason to ascertain which of several choices would be most likely to enhance our survival ability. It is not an accident that God and good are so etymologically similar. Reason allows humans to see past the immediate sensory perceptions that drive the instincts of life, and reckon far into the future at how a decision today might impact some distant tomorrow. Humans need an intermediary between their instinctive impulses and their reasoned evaluation of actions taken in response to them. God discounts the future, providing a probability matrix of survival advantages afforded each possible decision. In this regard, Kant is correct that God arises from the nature of the human soul, but gets God’s purpose wrong. The God that intermediates between the intellect and emotions cares very deeply that the best decision is made for strictly utilitarian purposes. Good, or godly, decisions enhance survival prospects. Bad ones impair them. There is no such thing as an inherent good.
Reason also allows humans to understand that their existence in space and time is quite temporal. The heavy burden of understanding that comes with sentience practically demands there be a God. It’s not an accident that blissfulness ended for Adam and Eve once they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Neither is it an accident that they immediately felt embarrassed and ashamed to expose their reproductive organs after that first bite. Reproduction is the only hope for eternity that man has. Casually viewing the reproductive organs of potential mates is like staring into the abyss of the cessation of existence that comes with death. Death is the knowledge humans gained from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Neither dogs nor monkeys nor trees nor bees know that they are alive, and must therefore one day die. But humans do. And this awful, wonderful understanding is how humans, alone among all the creatures, can do things to impair their ability to survive. God tells us what is best for continued survival. In that regard, Kant is correct that a sense of God resides within us all. But God does not compel us to do for the sake of doing, as if there is some abstract ideal upon which God operates within our souls. God tells us to choose which course will help us survive. It is for us to make the decision. Sin is always crouching at the door, timshel (Hebrew for “thou mayest”), overcome it.
Most philosophers and theologians probably wouldn’t agree, but I believe Kant’s view of God is closer to Spinoza’s than it is to the theologians and philosophers of his time. Kant’s God is an innate force compelling humans to aspire to achieve in their behavior the categorically moral imperative. So too, is Spinoza’s intellectual love of God. But Spinoza would say that this comprises only a small portion of God’s nature. He said that humans are affectations of God; that God is in and of everything, so it is in and of every human being. For both Spinoza and Kant, God reveals its nature to humans through the innate compulsions guiding behavior. Spinoza inherently recognizes that God in humans is not different than these innate desires, but that fully understanding and acting on them means fully utilizing all the various faculties, including reason, that God provides for negotiating the vicissitudes of nature such that the conatus can have its best chance at expression.
(Most of what follows is derived from Russell’s commentary. His analysis is much more detailed than that of Durant, and he seems to better understand the full implications of Hegel’s philosophy).
Hegel followed Kant, and like all philosophers after Kant, had to explain his ideas in the context of Kantian philosophy. Like Kant, he was a native of Germany, living his adult life variously in Jena, Heidelberg, and finally, Berlin. He became something of German celebrity after the publication of his immense Encyclopedia on the Philosophical Sciences in 1817, never a good thing for a philosopher.
Hegel spent quite a bit of effort trying to explain that Kant’s epistemology was correct, but that it didn’t go quite far enough at explaining how the world is perceived. Kant’s epistemology was obscure and difficult. Hegel’s was even more so. He routinely invented new terms or created new meanings for old terms. Perhaps Hegel is really the first of the modern philosophers, seeking to obfuscate rather than clarify in order to gain appreciation for his towering intellect. Obscurantism is an old trick for those that wish to appear intelligent.
Kant had argued that reality is not just out there, but is something we perceive through active interactions between it and our sensory perceptions. For Kant, this means that true reality (sort of like Plato’s forms) can never be fully perceived. Hegel disagrees, saying that the mind’s reality is itself a form of true reality. Hegel also disagrees with Kant’s idea that there are a priori ideas that exist in the abstract within the mind, requiring no sensory inputs to determine them. He did not believe, like Kant, that Newtonian science was a discovery of some abstract truth already written on the blank slate of our minds. He believed it was the path towards some greater truth that would be revealed by a dialectical process of defining truth by opposites or relationships. For Hegel, pure being is nothingness, as it hasn’t anything with which to contrast itself. Yet Hegel believed there was no reality except the Whole; that all statements about individual parts were in reality statements about the one, all-encompassing Whole that could only be understood in context.
Fair enough. In some respect, every individual thing exists only in relation to other individual things. An electron cloud about the nucleus of an atom cannot be described except in reference to the nucleus, and perhaps other nuclei, and their electron clouds. And all things necessarily are part of one Whole, all things, in fact, are simply different forms of the same thing, as we now have experimentally proved through atomic splitting and fusion, that matter and energy are the simply different forms of the same something, and matter and energy is all there is. But this is not exactly what Hegel meant. He claimed that individual parts of reality were dialectically opposed to other parts of reality as a process of becoming a synthesized whole—that all of existence comprises this dialectic process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, something of a metaphysical oddity that put him at odds with, inter alia, Spinoza and his concept of one harmonious Substance in which all of reality appeared to us through its various affectations, such as human beings.
Hegel really gets outlandish when he applies his metaphysics to political theory. He claims that human history is also a dialectic process, beginning in the Orient with the Chinese, moving to the continent with Greece and Rome, and finally enjoying its fullest expression (during Hegel’s time, of course) with Germany. Surprisingly, given Hegel’s nationalistic bent, he claims that the dialectic will eventually enjoy its greatest expression in the US. Because his metaphysics focused on the Whole, his social ethic found good only in the state. The individual citizen had a reality that subsisted through his membership in the body politic of a state, existing solely to serve the state, or the Whole, without which his existence could not be comprehended. The principle of historical development is that of national genius. Every age has one nation charged with the mission of carrying the world through its dialectic development, and every such nation has one or many great leaders—heroes—that justifiably behave outside any normal moral code in order to compel the dialectic development. Hitler was not just one of Nietzsche’s Supermen. He was one of Hegel’s heroes.
Hegel, though claiming Kant greatly influenced him, had nothing of a Kantian bent when making practical application of his philosophy. Kant would have been abhorred at the idea that citizens exist solely to serve the state. He would have been aghast had he known one of his acolytes believed that the state’s ultimate metaphysical wholeness justified all sorts of shenanigans on its part, from frequent and bloody wars, to suppression of every individual freedom, to complete and utter immorality in the service of the dialectic. Hegel, more even than Nietzsche, presaged and justified the bloody conflicts between these wholesome states that would accrue in the early twentieth century. Hegel was another of those philosophers, like Voltaire, Rousseau and Marx, that was remarkable mostly for having sensed in which direction the Zeitgeist (German for the Spirit of the Age), as he put it, was leading. It would take a century before the nationalistic fervor Hegel recognized and elaborately justified through a complicated metaphysic and ethic would reap the whirlwind it had sown. When it came, two of its main progenitors and rationalizers in academia, Hegel and Nietzsche, would lie safely in their graves, oblivious to the death and destruction their ideas had presaged and helped justify. Hegel and Nietzsche were correct in their assessment of where the political winds were blowing. They could not have imagined the horrors that would accompany them.
By my reckoning, Western philosophy began in ancient Greece with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It lay mostly dormant for the millennium after Rome fell, to be revived with Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke. Hume represented something of the end of the early modern era, where philosophy, supposedly about clarifying reality through synthesis, came completely around itself and proposed that we can know nothing for sure—no cause and effect relationships, nor even for sure that such a thing as things exist, thus bringing to a close the era of English dominance in the field. Next arose on the Continent philosophy of a decidedly political bent, with Rousseau’s Romanticism and Voltaire’s practicality. Kant saved philosophy from itself, ushering in the age of German Idealism that synthesized Hume’s skepticism and Rousseau’s Romanticism into an idealistic understanding of what we were actually capable of understanding. Then, in Germany, it all fell apart again.
Hegel took Kant’s idealism and contorted into a romantic idea that the state is the ultimate expression of mankind. Schopenhauer went further, proposing that world is nothing but will, but observed that happiness involves the intellectual ability to overcome it, even as he pessimistically doubted that it was possible. Nietzsche went even further, providing us with ultimate expression of will in the Superman ethic, ultimately laying the groundwork for the vilest expression of mankind to ever arise—national socialism under Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. The line of thought from Kant to Hegel to Schopenhauer to Nietzsche to Hitler, though not straight, lies unbroken. Understanding how it came to be that nationalistic fervor swept like wildfire across the European continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, justifying immense human and material carnage in two major wars and several lesser ones, is helped along immensely by understanding the thoughts of the major intellects of the day. The history of the world in philosophy operates magnificently to presage the history of the world as it actually unfolded. On to Schopenhauer.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
He hated women, starting with his mother. He was a pessimist in a sea of optimists. He was one of only a few European philosophers that would admit to some philosophical intelligence having arisen elsewhere than the Continent, claiming Buddhism as a major influence. He was acerbic and bitter. He never married nor had children. He could be credited as one of Darwin’s forebears, had people had the benefit of hindsight to see that his Will was nothing more or less than Darwin’s natural selection. And he was a breath of fresh air for a world weary of a German idealism that tried so hard to resolve all of life’s mysteries in a happy, optimist, confident-in-the-future, best-of-all-worlds Leibniz sort of way until very little of it made any sense.
Schopenhauer was Spinoza, had Spinoza been a pessimist. But Spinoza was not, and as both Russell and Durant ably point out, pessimism has no place in philosophy. Neither does optimism. Radical objectivity, as was Spinoza’s bent, is the proper frame of mind in attempting to understand the world.
So Schopenhauer fails on many scores. His The World as Will and Representation set out a dismal place, where everything we know and understand and see is directly determined solely by the yearnings of an all-encompassing Will. The only way out is to subdue the Will, to exercise the intellect, but unlike Spinoza, he believed that only a select few could ever succeed at doing so. He didn’t believe that understanding the source of our emotional impulses could, as Spinoza taught, allow us to overcome them.
Like the Buddhists and Spinoza, he believed that the world is One, and that we stumble along not realizing the connectivity of the individual with whole, which leaves us enslaved to our independent Will, which, in turn depends on the illusions of distinction projected upon it by that self-same Will.
Schopenhauer was pessimistic at a time when the world needed one. He stood in stark contrast to Kant’s Idealism in the individual and Hegel’s optimism for the collective. He stood athwart the world and screamed: Stop! Can’t you see that all these strivings end always the same? That the grave awaits us all, no matter how great is the expression of the individual Will? But he didn’t really offer any way out. To subdue the Will very nearly, or actually, meant suicide. Yet the Will was the source of all evil, so it must be subdued. The impulse to procreation must be denied, as procreation comprises the vast measure of the Will.
For me, Schopenhauer is as depressing as Spinoza is enlightening. It simply cannot be, and Spinoza never tried to claim, that the essence of human existence is evil. Certainly, Schopenhauer got the idea right—the Will, what Spinoza described as the conatus—drives human life; colors human perceptions; is in some respect the explanation for everything we know and do that is otherwise inexplicable. But that doesn’t make it evil. It just is. The way out, as Spinoza revealed, is to acknowledge reality for what it is, and try to see things as an all-encompassing God or oneness might see things, realizing that what we see as good and evil couldn’t hardly appear as such to a universe for which the human Will is meaningless in the particulars.
Give Schopenhauer credit. He came very close to the objective reality that made Spinoza so great, by throwing off the shackles of German Idealism like Spinoza threw off the dogmas of Hebrew theology. But pessimism destroyed him. The world, as we humans know it, is indeed Will or instinct or emotional impulse, but only to a point. Just because we Will a sunny day does not make it thus. Reason or intellect was not added to our repertoire of survival tools for nothing. Reason gives the Will an enlightened view of how to accomplish its ultimate aim, which is ever and always, for all of God’s creatures, not just humans, survival. As Spinoza explained, reason can gain control over emotion through understanding, yet it needn’t kill the Will as Schopenhauer claimed was the only way out of this misery of existence. Will does not have to enslave us. We can reason our way through its oft-times irrational impulses, and must; continued survival, which is the Will’s ultimate aim, depends upon it.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
Durant loved Spencer. Russell never mentioned him once. Neither does the Seventh Edition of Classics of Western Philosophy mention him. What to make of it?
Durant’s The Story of Philosophy admits that it is not intended to be comprehensive. It makes no pretense that it is an academic treatise, which probably at least partly explains why it is so eminently readable. What Durant doesn’t admit, but should, is that his observations are not always objective. That in fact, at times, he makes no real effort at objectivity, and lays out his opinions, such as they are. Durant should also admit that his volume is truthfully more the story of his favorite philosophers, not the story of philosophy, or even the story of the West’s greatest philosophers. It might have saved him from some of the criticism of the academics that all he did was attempt popularizing philosophy, and in the process, cheapened it. But it’s hard for me to see the danger in popularizing philosophy. Perhaps many, or even most, would not quite understand the intricacies of the various philosophies if all they got was Durant’s popularized version of them. So what? A great many might know nothing of Socrates’ or Plato’s or Aristotle’s philosophy had they not found engagement through Durant.
Even after reading Durant’s rather extensive exegesis of Spencer’s philosophy (if philosophy is the correct term), I’m still not sure if Spencer is worthy of inclusion. It seemed to me that Durant loved Spencer for the same reason he loved Voltaire—because they each tried to synthesize all of human knowledge (Spencer) or history (Voltaire) in several comprehensive volumes. It was a task to which Durant would also devote the last half of his life, but would include both knowledge and history. In The Story of Civilization, Durant tries to accomplish in thirteen volumes (ending after Napoleon—it was unfinished at his death) what it took Spencer and Voltaire over twenty five combined volumes. It makes sense, as a sort of foreshadowing for his life, that Spencer and Voltaire, two great Encyclopedists, would figure largely in his primer on the history of philosophy.
By my reckoning, the most significant of Spencer’s contributions to philosophy was not an original idea, but was original in its application. Spencer believed that all the universe is explained by evolution; animate or inanimate, it does not matter, evolution is the key. This strikes me as peculiar, but contains some truth. The animate universe, in all its various forms, from simple microbes to humans to empires, is susceptible to explication using the tenets of evolutionary theory. Nothing living survives that doesn’t adapt; nature relentlessly forces adaptation, else extinction, on its creatures. But the same is not true, except in the most expansive view of the notion of evolution, with the planets and stars and other collections of matter and energy that aren’t considered to be alive. Something is different about life; Bergson’s Elan vitale likewise has an acorn of truth in it. There is an apparent, inexplicable striving that animates all of life, making it different. Life appears to want to survive, whereas inanimate collections of matter and energy seem to be satisfied with just being. But perhaps the appearance of striving is just an illusion, a projection upon life that another living creature such as myself would wish to see. In its bare essence, evolution theory is a tautology: that which exists is necessarily that which has survived, whether a planet or a microbe. Spencer had a point, but it’s not clear whether his point offers much explicatory value.
Spencer applied his theory to sociology, the new science of human organizations that he helped create. It was an apparently fruitful exercise. His two volumes on sociology were well-received at the time and continue to hold some relevance even today. But overall, I think Spencer was not as much a philosopher as he was a compiler and historian, if one of the first in the modern, post-Darwinian age. It could be said that Spencer opened the flood gates for philosophies synthesized out of the new understandings that science was providing about the true nature of life and the manner with which it is organized, and that’s nothing insubstantial, but I still think it fits somewhere else than in the tale of Western philosophy.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Durant finds more to admire in Nietzsche than does Russell (or do I). Perhaps it is the result of the respective eras in which each of them wrote. Durant had witnessed the horror of the First World War, but wrote his Story of Philosophy during the relative golden years between the great wars, and Nietzsche’s ideas, particularly his Superman ethic, did not seem the cause of the carnage of the Great War. Russell’s History of Western Philosophy was written in the midst of the Second World War; a war whose main protagonist could be described as the ultimate embodiment of the Nietzschean Superman. Russell, no doubt escaping into a basement or tube during the blitzkrieg of London, wondered if Nietzsche would have been pleased to see the outcome of mankind having carried his ideas to their logical end. So, too, would I.
Nietzsche, aside from having perhaps the most difficult surname in the English language to spell, is famous for having asserted that “God is dead”. Exactly what it means for God to have died is rather complicated, and if God is dead as Nietzsche claims, it’s not clear why Nietzsche needs to spend a lifetime excoriating him. But, among other things, that’s what he does. He hates Christ and especially Buddha, as being progenitors of slave religions, the beginnings of a democratic movement that has served to weaken mankind instead of exalt him, through mass morality when the only morality that mattered was that of the leaders, the aristocrats, the Supermen of society for which everyone else existed.
Nietzsche is a disciple of Schopenhauer (maybe he had an affinity for other Germans with similarly difficult-to-spell names). He claims it transformed his life when he sat down to read Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. Since the world was Will, for Nietzsche, the only metric that mattered was the strength of one’s will. He ridiculed Schopenhauer’s pessimism that arose from his dismal view that all of life is a struggle, will against will. Nietzsche celebrated the struggle and fully embraced, at least for the Supermen, Darwinian survival of the fittest. And Nietzsche violently opposed sentimentality to the point of being himself sentimental about it. He thought with his emotions guiding him, which curiously enough, makes him also an heir to the muddle-headed thinking of Rousseau and the Romance movement. Except that in his emotional tirades, instead of denigrating the industrial age and its foundation in reason, he believed that it sanctified the great man ethic and gave the great man tools with which to properly oppress and subdue his lesser contemporaries.
Nietzsche’s ideas present an interesting conundrum for today’s theory of evolution. Nietzsche believed evolution occurred at the organizational level; that the whole of society existed to evolve and develop its great leaders; that the mass-men didn’t matter, except as instruments of the state. Darwin and his acolytes even until today believed that evolution is an individual phenomenon; that the selfish gene drives natural selection at the level of genetic propagation, such as the individual ant or individual human, even in the context of ant hills and human society. Nietzsche (and Hegel before him) believed (at least implicitly) that evolution was a macro phenomenon. So what is it?
Is there really any chance for a society of humans to cast off the weaker of them, prohibiting their reproduction? Nietzsche doesn’t quite grasp that the strong need the weak, because it is weakness that gives strength its relative value. Nietzsche loathed socialism, but celebrated a model of the state that was inherently socialistic, only with a purpose, not of benefiting the common man, but of benefiting the Superman. There is no practical difference. The Superman wouldn’t be super without his commoners supporting him. The weak must be allowed to survive, else there is nothing for the Superman to oppress and command.
In the context of an ant hill, the queen (and her mate, or mates, as the case may be) is the only member upon which natural selection can operate. The rest of the colony serves the queen. An ant hill is very much similar to Nietzsche’s idea of political organization, except that the Superman is actually a Superwoman queen. But how can nature “select” the best genes for propagation out of the entire colony? It has only the queen’s (and a few of the males’ genes) to operate on. Perhaps natural selection operates at the organismal level, but the evolutionary theorists have got the level of organism wrong. Perhaps it is the ant colony, or the human society, that is the organism. What are individual ants or humans but a collection of cells cooperating to survive? How is an individual ant that is comprised of millions of cooperative individual cells different than an ant colony comprised of millions of different ants, each with a specialized economy, each fastidiously devoted to ensuring the colony’s survival? Just as the survival of individual cells in an ant’s body is subordinate to the survival of the whole ant, an individual ant’s survival in a colony is subordinate to the survival of the colony. Human societies, however, necessarily operate differently than ant colonies because humans reproduce at the individual, not societal, level.
Maybe Lockean philosophical pronouncements about the innate rights of man that were embedded in the American Declaration of Independence were so much rubbish that grew out of the temporary dislocation of human organizations during the age of exploration and frontier. Maybe once exploration was complete and society was established and flourishing, the rights of man became simply the rights of the organization, and that man had no rights independent of the organization. The state of modest anarchy on the American frontier perhaps compelled the view that the human organization that mattered was the organization of the several trillion cells comprising an individual; a view and reality that waned in direct proportion with the growth of society.
Biologically speaking, there is no clear answer. Evolution happens at the individual level for microbes, for the obvious reason that a microbe reproduces asexually. There is no way to exactly tell whether natural selection happens at the individual or organizational level for complex social creatures. But it matters tremendously to know. If individual humans are the agents through which natural selection operates, then individual humans should be afforded as much freedom of action as is possible. If instead, natural selection only happens at the organismal level, i.e., at the level of the state, then it matters little what sort of freedom any individual within the state is afforded. My guess is that for humans, natural selection is carried out on individuals by the organization to which they belong, which in turn flourishes or fails according to the precepts of its selections. The survival of the individual human in a modern state, like that of an ant in a colony, is intricately intertwined with the survival of the state. A state that culled from its herd the best and brightest, shunting them aside for its free-riding mediocre and dull, would eventually fail against a state that allowed its most capable to prosper.
Natural selection depends on scarce resources to operate. If every life is equally able to secure the resources necessary to survive, there is no way for nature to select and favor only those with survival advantages, which explains something of the last two hundred years or so of human development, and partly seems to be the situation against which Nietzsche is agonizing. Since the confluence of democracy in social and government institutions, and technological revolutions in agriculture, there has been little in the way of resource scarcity to hold the populations in check, which predictably resulted in a population explosion. Malthus, whose theories greatly influenced Darwin’s, was wrong. The ability to secure food in order to survive has expanded more rapidly than has the population. There must be developing a latent and prodigious strain of human genes that could never have survived the environment just a couple of centuries ago, but that are facing no selection pressures now.
None of the foregoing analysis applying bits of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Hegel to the theory of evolution was proposed by either of Durant or Russell, except perhaps in Durant’s exegesis of Spencer’s philosophy. It was not something I encountered in any biology, sociology or economics texts. Since I have never read Spencer (whereas I have read some—not all—of the works of the three Germans), this is one of those ideas I formulated mainly on my own. It provides a nice segue for the last of Durant’s philosophers that I will cover, Henri Bergson, he of the infamous idea of elan vitale, or “creative evolution”.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941)
Henri Bergson was the last of the historical philosophers, and one of the first, along with Spencer, to take account of the impact Darwin’s theory of evolution would have on philosophy. After Bergson, it can be argued that science subsumed philosophy, particularly in the understanding of epistemology. Whereas Bergson could only believe that the intellect operated as the hand-maiden of the will, modern neuroscience more or less has proved that it does.
Bergson viewed the universe as a series of dualities, except that his dualities were not Cartesian, of mind and body, but of life and matter, of intuition and intellect, of space and duration. His thinking seems often very confused, or at least difficult to understand, but he was a great favorite of another leading philosopher of his time, William James, and became highly respected and beloved during his lifetime. One wonders if the admiration people expressed for Bergson were the result of their not understanding him, yet not wishing to therefore appear ignorant. Sort of like people at a cocktail party will praise most heartily the authors of fashionable books they haven’t read.
Bergson felt that life was a constant striving against matter, constantly doing battle against inertia. He saw the universe as something of a cone, where life was striving upwards, progressing towards the apex and perfection, against which it had to overcome matter, always falling down onto the floor of the cone.
Bergson is perhaps the last of the Romantics, in the sense he favored intuition over intellect as the more powerful of the two in revealing the nature of the universe and in motivating creatures to action. His view of intuition’s insights was closely tied to his unusual view that space does not exist, but is a construct of the intellect whose true foundations are only revealed through the application of intuition. Bergson’s ideas of space and time were so complicated (and to my mind, confused) that there is precious little to be gained by exploring them further here. In any event, Einstein’s insights on the subjectivity of space and time fairly well swept away Bergson’s in the breach.
William James thought Bergson’s philosophical insights would mark a new page in the history of the subject, as had Descartes’ or Kant’s, where everything that followed would necessarily have to answer to Bergson. That has not been the case.
Bergson was very nearly Lamarckian in his believe that life creatively struggled to overcome matter. He seemed to wish to rescue life from the deterministic precepts of Darwinism, especially as propounded by Spencer, by imbuing it with a yearning, striving nature that was not predetermined, providing life with free will, mainly it seems, because he wished it were thus. Though trusting that intuition, its ordinary expression being instinct, offers a better guide to understanding the environment and the organism within it, Bergson believed that the intuition lying at the root of instinct was far more artistic and insightful than crude instinct might reveal; that it was even more insightful and wise than contemplative reason. Bergson’s brain was a multilayered organ. At its base lay an intuition that perceptively understood a great deal more than it revealed to the mind. It was insightful and creative in formulating the strategies for survival that arose to comprise conscious thought. Instinct revealed the intuition’s basic desires and imperatives, and intellect operated as the hand-maiden of each.
As neuroscience later proved, Bergson had the intuition/intellect relationship basically correct. But he should have applied his own analysis of the brain and how it operates to form perceptive reality in the mind in evaluating his claims for creative evolution and for the differences he saw between life and matter. Bergson wanted life to have as its purpose a creative, impulsive striving, and so naturally, his intellect set about to prove it did.
But taking his claim that life has a creative, striving impulse as true does not mean that deterministic natural selection is not its cause. Evolution theory in its broadest sense postulates that things exist (not necessarily only life), because in the premises, in the miasma of creation and the inherent forces of nature, they are capable of existing. Perhaps life, as a special order of existence, was naturally selected to have the creative impulse to exist, and then to propagate its existence, else it would long ago have decayed to nothingness. It could be imagined that in life’s fits and starts at origination there were a great many nearly-alive collections of matter in space and time that had once existed but lacked the creative impulse to survive and propagate, so were quickly and naturally selected to cease existing. Only those collections of matter in space and time that were delicately tuned at the molecular level to accomplish the tasks necessary for survival and propagation continued to exist, and from there, each succeeding generation built upon and fine-tuned the molecular tuning for survival and propagation until tiny collections of matter became multi-cellular organisms where each of its cells cooperated in seeing to the organism’s continued existence. Nothing of this takes anything but dumb, deterministic natural selection working on variations in existence strategies the innately probabilistic and dynamic molecular fine-tuning at the base of life’s operational levels presented as possibilities for life’s continuation and propagation. Bergson’s elan vitale, if there is one, is also necessarily a product of natural selection.
Of the two main resources from which these explications were derived, The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Durant’s book is the more readable, and Russell’s the more comprehensive. Durant does not presuppose in the reader any previous exposure to philosophers or their philosophies, and does an excellent job making the difficult easy to understand. Russell’s book is somewhere between Durant’s more populist approach, and an exegesis written to impress academic colleagues, but cuts more closely to the populist than the academic. Russell’s history is also abidingly readable, but is simply far more comprehensive. For the beginner, I would recommend Durant first, and then Russell, which is the opposite of the order in which I read them.
Taken together, these two books offer a fine introduction to what human beings in the West have generally been thinking about the universe and their relation to it and each other from the beginnings of civilization until the modern era. After that, philosophy became fragmented into the various sciences, but particularly physics, biology and neuroscience. Since Einstein and Darwin, no philosopher can present a view of the universe that fails to account for them. And the same is true for the discoveries of neuroscience about the manner in which sensory perceptions reach consciousness and allow us to consider the nature of ourselves and the universe in which we exist. The understanding of “the thing as it is” requires profound insight into the perspective from which the “thing as it is” is viewed.