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Lecture Fifteenth: The General Character of the Post-Aristotelian Philosophy

IN my previous lectures I have endeavoured to give a connected view of the development of theological ideas in Greece up to the time of Aristotle. The great idealistic movement which culminated in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle was the first, and perhaps the greatest, effort ever made to reach a comprehensive view of the universe in which no element of reality should be suppressed or mutilated. And the enormous influence which these two thinkers have exerted over the whole subsequent course of speculation shows that they were able to determine at least the main issues of philosophical enquiry, and to mark out the main lines upon which philosophical discussion must proceed. But it was in the nature of the case impossible that at that early period, when human experience was so limited, any conclusive results should be attained. Difficulties as to the nature of man or of the world he inhabits must be searched to their deepest root ere they can be solved. Oppositions of thought and life must be worked out to their extreme issues ere they can be reconciled; the different aspects of things must be clearly defined and distinguished from each other ere their true relations can be seen. Hence it was impossible for Plato and Aristotle to realise all that is involved in the questions they raised—questions the difficulty and importance of which has since been brought to light by ages of conflict and controversy—still less to reach a satisfactory solution of them. They were constrained to ‘heal the hurt’ of philosophy ‘slightly’ because they could not probe its depth. Just because they did not realise fully the difference and antagonism of the elements which they seek to combine in their philosophies, they were often satisfied with an external subordination of one of them to another, and did not realise how far this falls short of a true reconciliation of them. Hence in spite of the great effort after system which is characteristic of Plato, in spite of the analytic genius of Aristotle, the ultimate result is of the nature of a compromise; and however necessary and useful compromise may be in practical matters, in the world of thought it cannot settle anything. Rather it is sure in the long run to lead to a revolt of the fettered intelligence, and even to a violent recoil or reaction, in which the elements artificially combined are again torn away from the connexion into which they have been brought and set in abstract opposition to each other.

This statement will become clearer, if we recall the nature of the philosophical presuppositions from which Plato and Aristotle started, and the consequent defectiveness of the results they reached. Both the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies were attempts to explain the world on the principle of Anaxagoras that “all things were in chaos till reason came to arrange them.” In other words, they started from a dualism of form and matter which they sought to overcome by subjecting the latter to the former. The ultimate tendency of such a mode of thought is shown in the Aristotelian conception of the relations of God and the universe. It is the conception, on the one hand, of a pure intelligence which is eternally one with itself, a νόησις νοήσεως, or divine self-consciousness, in which the difference of subject and object at once yields to their transparent unity, and their duality is at once expressed and transcended in one perfect act of intuition; and it is the conception, on the other hand, of a world of conflict and change, which is made up of parts that are indifferent and external to each other, and which in its endless revolution is ever seeking, yet ever failing, to attain to unity with itself and with the divine centre of its being. Thus the self-centred intelligence of God, whose self-consciousness is at the same time the consciousness of the ideal world, is sharply contrasted with the division and antagonism of the material world, which is never at one with itself but exhibits rather an endless vicissitude of things that can never be rounded into a complete whole. For in the finite world the ideal principles are manifested under conditions which prevent them from ever attaining to perfect realisation, and therefore, in place of one individual reality completely corresponding to its idea, we have an endless series of imperfect existences, each of which is, so to speak, an effort of nature to reach the archetype of which it inevitably falls short. In so speaking we are only using the half-metaphorical language of Aristotle, who tells us that nature, being unable to reach eternity in the individual, seeks immortality in the species:1 in other words, that the specific form survives, though the individuals in which it is manifested continually pass away and give place to other individuals. Thus all finite things are ever realising, yet never once for all realise the ideal principle which yet constitutes their inmost nature. Even man, as a finite subject, fails to attain to perfect unity with that active reason which yet makes him what he is, as a conscious and self-conscious being.

The outlines of this dualistic view of things were already drawn by Plato, but it is Aristotle who fills up the sketch and gives definiteness and precision to its details, and who thereby at the same time reveals the fatal flaw that runs through it. Aristotle, indeed, differs from Plato, in so far as he regards the ideal form not as a universalising but as an individualising principle; not as uniting the different elements in each existence into a whole, but rather as distinguishing each individual being from all the others. But this difference only enables them to find opposite ways of expression for the same error. With both the ideal form or principle is viewed as complete in itself and as having no necessary relation to its matter.2 And this, as we have seen, inevitably carries with it not only the division of God from the world, but also the division of the reason in man from the other elements of his nature. It even implies the division of the intuitive reason in him, which is regarded as eternal, from the discursive reason by which he takes account of the relations of finite things, as well as from all the feelings of desire and aversion, love and hate, which affect his finite life. Thus also the argument for immortality, which in Plato seems to refer to the individual soul, becomes in Aristotle confined to the universal reason, which is ever realising itself in the series of finite subjects, but is never finally realised in any one of them.

Now this dualistic severance of the higher from the lower, of the spiritual from the material, was in the future to he taken up and carried to still further consequences by the Neo-Platonists. But the immediate result was rather to throw discredit on the philosophy which had endeavoured to combine such inconsistent elements, and to provoke a strong reaction towards the simpler ways of earlier philosophy. The theories of Plato and Aristotle, as I have shown, were systematic efforts to comprehend all things as parts of one whole, to understand man as a member of society and a part of the universe, and all the elements of human nature in their due relation to each other. They did not set up one simple principle and try to deduce everything from it, but rather regarded the world as a complex unity in which every part is supported, and, in a sense, proved by all the other parts. This is manifest as regards Plato, for though he tells us that the Idea of Good is the principle upon which all things rest, he does not mean by this that there is one truth from which all other truths are derived. For the Idea of Good is simply the idea that all things are united with each other and with the mind that knows them, the idea that all being and all thought, all subjective and all objective reality, are to be regarded as elements in one whole, in which each part implies and is implied by all the others. The test of truth, therefore, lies for Plato not in the conformity of all things to some one standard, but in the systematic coherence in which each truth becomes the standard for all the rest. There is no tortoise supporting the elephant which supports the universe; for the universe is a rounded and self-contained whole, whose parts are reciprocally reasons and consequents of each other. This is Plato's way of looking at things, and, in spite of Aristotle's tendency to lay emphasis on difference rather than on unity, on distinction rather than on connexion, we may fairly say that it is his also; for he also bids us think of the world as an ordered drama in which there are no episodes. Still, in both philosophers, as we have just seen, there is a presupposition which tends continually to counteract their effort after organic connexion, and to reduce their philosophy to an external combination of irreconcileable elements. Beginning with an unexplained difference, they are never able to overcome it. Thus they fail to realise the conception of system after which they are striving; in other words, they fail to bring the particular elements of their philosophy into harmony with the general idea of it, and this failure in the long run tends to compromise the idea itself.

As, however, philosophy cannot but strive after systematic unity, the post-Aristotelian schools find themselves obliged to endeavour to realise it in another way, not by comprehension but by abstraction, not by binding all the different elements and aspects of the universe into one whole, but by isolating one of these elements, treating it alone as absolutely real, and explaining away everything that is different from or opposed to it. The effect of this method is twofold. On the one hand, it brings out into startling relief and prominence one of the sides or aspects of the truth, and logically follows it out apart from the others without shrinking from any of the inconvenient consequences of its isolation. On the other hand, this complete and consequent development of what, after all, is only an abstraction, a constituent of truth torn away from its place in the whole, necessarily brings with it a nemesis, in dwarfing or throwing into the shade, if not entirely obliterating, all the other elements of it, and ultimately in depriving even the favoured element itself of all its meaning. Moreover, such a method of abstraction tends to force all the questions of philosophy into the form of a choice between exclusive alternatives; and it is forgotten that there can be no opposition which does not imply relation, and that, if they were absolutely isolated from each other, the extremes would cease even to be exclusive. Hence Post-Aristotelian philosophy presents the spectacle of two opposite dogmatisms dividing the field of thought; though each of them really has its raison d'être in the other, and would lose all its meaning if it were successful in destroying its opponent. Lastly, when it dawns upon the mind that the choice between two such alternatives is arbitrary, and that equal reasons can be given both for and against both, nothing seems to be left for the philosopher but a scepticism, which acknowledges the equipoise and refuses to adopt either alternative. Thus we have the Stoics on the one side, and the Epicureans on the other, engaged in an endless polemic against each other, and the Sceptics coming to draw the conclusion that truth is unattainable, though in doing so they only add another dogmatism to those which they oppose.

From every formal point of view these philosophers show a great falling off from Plato and Aristotle. The crude theories of Epicurus and Zeno as to the criterion of truth, and as to the ultimate nature of reality, are in a distinctly lower key of speculation than the Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysic and dialectic. Still lower from a scientific, if not from a literary point of view, are the epigrammatic moralisings of Seneca, the aphoristic meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the practical sermons of Epictetus, in all of which the theoretic basis of ethics is rather pre-supposed than explained. But, notwithstanding this inferiority of speculative power, we cannot admit that this new movement of thought is to be regarded as a retrograde one, still less that it shows a failure of the human intelligence in the face of the problem of the universe. It is quite possible that a system of philosophy may be less rich and comprehensive, as well as less stringent in its method, and yet that it may indicate a relative advance in human thought. There may be a dialectical value in the absence of dialectic; and a narrowing outlook upon the whole sphere of knowledge may be the necessary condition of a growing clearness of perception in one direction. When a principle is isolated, it becomes possible to see its full meaning and all its consequences, apart from the confusion and uncertainty which is thrown upon it, when it is combined with other principles in any, even the best, system of compromise. For example, Aristotle's doctrine of virtue, as a mean state of passion which is determined by reason, no doubt combines into a kind of whole all the elements of the moral life; but it suggests rather the idea of a compromise, or of the external subjection of one element by another, than of any true unity of the two sides of man's nature. Aristotle does not show anything like an adequate comprehension of the violence and extent of the conflict between the flesh and the spirit; and therefore he is only able, so to speak, to patch up a kind of truce between them. He has no glimpse of such a fierce inward struggle between the law of the mind and the law of the members as is pictured to us by St. Paul, and, just because of this, he cannot see his way to a complete reconciliation of man with himself. Hence it was a great step in advance when the truce, which Aristotle had established between the different sides or elements of human nature, was broken, and when the effort was made by the Epicureans and the Stoics to treat each element as complete in itself and to follow out all the consequences of doing so. It was necessary that the fire of a conflict between the opposing dogmatisms should be kindled, ere it could be seen that their opposition was merely that of complementary factors of truth, and ere the true way of reconciling them in a more comprehensive theory could be discerned.

Each of the post-Aristotelian philosophies, then, is one-sided and abstract. It aims at unity by taking some one of the elements which Plato and Aristotle had tried to combine, and explaining away the other elements. With this tendency to abstraction there comes also a tendency of philosophy to concentrate all its efforts on the practical problem, and that in its narrowest form, as the problem of the guidance of the individual life. This was not, indeed, quite a new tendency in Greek philosophy; for, from the time of Pythagoras at least, philosophy had been regarded as involving a special kind of life as well as a system of doctrine. And Socrates, attempting as he did to base morality on a clear consciousness of the meaning and end of living, had seemed to make philosophy not only useful but indispensable for virtuous conduct. It was, however, only in the Minor Socratic schools that this tendency was followed out to its consequences, while both Plato and Aristotle recognise that the reflective consciousness of philosophy cannot be the sole nor even the primary guide of human life. Man, they maintain, must learn the first lessons of morality in the form of rules and habits of conduct which are supported by the social influences of the community in which he lives, and not in the form of ethical theory. And Aristotle even contends that he who would understand ethical teaching must, in the first instance, have had a good moral training and have acquired right habits. On this view ethical theory may improve practical morality by bringing to light the principles that underlie it, and so turning a morality of habit into a morality of principle, but it cannot, as Socrates had supposed, be the first teacher of it. At best, it can only be a guide to the philosophical statesman in framing or altering the constitution of the State, and so improving the ethical environment of the individual; but it cannot be the ground on which the morality of the ordinary citizen should be consciously based. The individual must first be disciplined and moulded by unconscious influences into conformity with the society of which he is a member; and the State institutions, the State service, the State religion, the habits and rules recognised in his particular community, must be the main influences under which he becomes moralised. Hence Plato and Aristotle sought to improve the individual by improving the State, and to improve the State by supplying the philosophical statesman with a better theory to guide him in the work of legislation. But they made no direct appeal to the private citizen, nor did they believe that his morality could be directly based on philosophical teaching. And the value of their speculations on ethics and politics was almost entirely theoretical—in that they analysed the social phenomena of Greek life and discovered the principles which underlay it.

On the other hand, it was, as I have said above,3 the Minor Socratic schools which from this point of view served themselves heirs to Socrates, setting the State aside and substituting the teaching of philosophy for its social training. It was their doctrine that moral life must be based on the conscious reason and reflexion of the individual, and that therefore each individual must determine for himself the end of his existence and how to seek it. Thus philosophy had with them to supply the very basis of social training. It had to become practical; and, indeed, it treated the practical guidance of life as its primary, if not its exclusive aim. We must, however, hasten to add that this attitude of the Minor Socratics was not of great practical importance; for in their days the idea of the State was still powerful, and Plato and Aristotle were following the main tendency of the time in making it the centre of their ethical theories. The Minor Socratics were rather in the position of Dissenters, who were in open protest against the general modes of belief accepted by their fellow-countrymen, but who bore in their breasts the promise of the future. They, and especially the Cynic school, were regarded as a peculiar class of men who withdrew from the common life, defied public opinion, and even broke away from the forms and restraints of what in their day was considered a respectable civic existence. Hence their views of morality could have no great influence upon their own time.

But it was entirely different in the post-Aristotelian era. Even in the time of Aristotle a great change was passing over the public life of Greece, by which all its ethical traditions were discredited, and a new importance was given to philosophical theories of morality. By the victories of Philip and Alexander the civic states of Greece were reduced to the rank of subordinate municipalities in a great military empire; and, under the dynasties founded by Alexander's generals, they became the plaything and the prize of a conflict between greater powers, which they could not substantially influence. Finally, all their feeble attempts to reassert their independence were crushed by the organised force of Rome. Now every step in this direction tended to take something away from the City-State, and to widen the gulf between its actual life and the ideal community which Plato and Aristotle still sought to find in it or to produce from it. The fundamental idea of their political writings as of the politics of their country—that the municipal State was the πέρας τῆς αὐταρκείας, the exact form of social union in which the powers of man can best be educated, and in which they can find the most suitable field of exercise—this narrowly Greek idea had become antiquated and meaningless by the diffusion of Greek culture over the civilised world, and by the concentration of political authority in the Roman Emperor. Hence that withdrawal into private life, which to the Minor Socratics was a voluntary act, had now become a necessity. Indeed, we may fairly say that it was at this period that the division between public and private life, which is so familiar to us but was so unfamiliar to the Greeks, was first decisively established as a fact. A private non-political life became now, not the exception, but the rule; not the abnormal choice of a few recalcitrant spirits, like Diogenes or Aristippus, but the inevitable lot of the great mass of mankind. The individual, no longer finding his happiness or misery closely associated with that of a community, whose law and custom was his supreme authority and whose service was his highest end, was thrown back upon his own resources, and had to ask himself how he could live and die for himself. Thus, on the one hand, all the traditions of Greek political ethics seemed to be rendered obsolete; and, on the other hand, the need for some new rule of individualistic morality was felt by ever growing classes of the community.

Nor could the ancient religions satisfy any such demand: for they were essentially national, and even political religions, bound up with the life of some society, and unable to contemplate the individual except as a member of it. Hence they lost a great part of their meaning, and tended to become an empty routine of ritual and observance, when they ceased to be the consecration of civic and national life. They could not meet the wants of the new time, or, in attempting to meet them, they became degraded into superstitions. Rome, in fact, when it conquered the nations, conquered their gods as well; but while it dissolved the religious bonds of national or municipal states, it was unable to substitute any new spiritual bond in their place. It was ready, indeed, with politic tolerance to open a Pantheon, into which it admitted all the gods of the conquered peoples, but a new religion could not be made out of a jumble of all the cults of the past. And the worship of the Emperor was too materialistic, too obviously a worship of force, to satisfy any spiritual want; it was a kind of earthly religion based upon a despair of heaven. What Rome did was practically to pulverise the old societies, reducing them to a collection of individuals, and then to hold them together by an external organisation, military and legal. It bestowed on its subjects a greater measure of outward security, justice and peace than any nation had previously enjoyed: but it did little to promote inward unity. The immensa pacis Romanae majestas covered with its protection the greater part of the civilised world, but its effect was rather to level and disintegrate than to draw men together.

Now in modern times such a state of things would not have left men without spiritual guidance; or rather, we should say, it did not so leave them. For the modern world also has passed through a period in which the main tendency of thought was subjective and individualistic, in which the rights of the individual, the intellectual independence and moral self-sufficiency of the individual, were strongly asserted against all religious as well as against all social authority. Yet the effect was not to produce that estrangement of all educated men from religion which was associated with the individualism of the ancient world. A similar scepticism did, indeed, find very powerful representatives, but though it greatly weakened the authority of churches and of the fixed dogmatic creeds which they taught, it did not destroy the power of Christianity over the minds of men. And the reason was that the Christian religion, in one aspect of it, is itself profoundly individualistic: in other words, it treats the individual as having an infinite worth in himself, and appeals strongly to the spiritual hopes and fears, to the inner experiences and aspirations of the individual soul. Hence it was able to clothe itself in new forms adapted to the consciousness of the time. In many of the Protestant sects it developed itself in a distinctly subjective form; in some it even severed the connexion between the inner and the outer life. This over-emphasis laid upon the subjective aspect of Christianity, no doubt, produced as one-sided and inadequate a view of that religion as the over-emphasis of the Latin Church upon its objective aspect. Still it showed that Christianity could speak to the time in its own language and could give it just the kind of spiritual support it required. But in the ancient religions there was hardly anything which could supply such a want. They were essentially objective, and even externally objective; they were essentially social, national, and even political religions, and they decayed and died with the destruction of the independence of the communities into which they had breathed a spiritual energy. Hence philosophy had to step into the vacant place and to supply, at least for the educated classes, the kind of spiritual nutriment which they required. There is thus a measure of truth in Bacon's saying that for the ancients moral philosophy supplied the place of theology—at least if we read religion for theology, and confine the assertion to the Post-Aristotelian period of ancient history. The Stoic or Epicurean philosopher might without much exaggeration be said to have taken upon himself the office, which was afterwards filled by the Christian priest. The hortatory discourses of Epictetus are an anticipation of the sermon, and in his letters to many correspondents, consoling, encouraging, reproving and advising, Seneca seems almost to stand in the relation of a Christian pastor to his flock.

The Post-Aristotelian period, then, was one which had special need of some philosophical theory that could fortify the individual man in his isolation against the world, and could give unity, strength and direction to his life. It was, in a spiritual sense, a period of retrenchment, when the great moral and intellectual movement which had attended the development of the Greek municipal state had come to an end in the collapse of all such states before the overpowering military force of Macedon and Rome. The individual, living under a political system over which he had no control, had to abandon the main interests of his former life for the privilege of living in peace and security, and to bring his aims within the compass of a merely private existence. It was an age when, if we may so express it, men were forced to save the ship by throwing overboard the greater part of the cargo, and the saying of Perseus had become the motto of life: Tecum habita et nôris quam sit tibi curta supellex. The great venture of speculative thought in its effort to understand the universe, of which the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were the principal products, seemed to have shared the same fate as the effort of Greece to realise political liberty, and to have ended in disappointment. In seeking to gain the world man appeared only to have been losing his own life. There was, therefore, a drawing back, a concentration, a gathering in of the forces of the human soul from their dispersion in objective interests, such as naturally follows on the failure or exhaustion of a great movement of expansion. Happiness, if it lay, as Aristotle thought, in a successful manifestation of all man's intellectual and moral energies, which should turn both nature and society into organs for his self-realisation—such happiness seemed no longer attainable. It remained to be seen whether another kind of satisfaction could be secured which did not involve so great outward efforts and risks, in the ἀταραξία—the peace of one who retires into the secret chamber of the inner life and shuts to the door upon all that can disturb or harass him. It is this kind of happiness which is the common aim of the Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic schools of philosophy.

Now the subjective and individualistic character of these schools might seem to preclude their having anything important to contribute to theology, even if it did not set them against religion in all its forms. But this is not entirely the case, and least of all with Stoicism. For though the Stoic draws back upon the inner life, what he finds there, as I shall have to show, is a perfectly universal principle—a principle which lifts the individual above all that is limited and particular in his own being, and subjects him to the divine reason, or even, in a sense, identifies him with it. Hence for the individual so conceived, the idea of liberty at once turns into that of determination by a universal reason, and individualism at a stroke converts itself into a kind of pantheism. We shall find that this dialectical movement breathes a religious spirit into even the earliest, but still more into the latest records of Stoicism, making it one of the philosophies which has most profoundly influenced the course of religious thought, especially in the early development of Christian doctrine. With Epicureanism, though it too has a kind of theological bearing, thought begins to turn away from religion, and with the Sceptics philosophy is distinctly anti-theological. For our present enquiry, therefore, the main interest lies in Stoicism. The two other philosophies may be regarded as having hardly any bearing upon the progress of theology except so far as the sceptical collapse of their individualism helped by way of recoil the development of Neo-Platonism—a philosophy which might be described as essentially and entirely a theology or philosophy of religion.

There is one accidental advantage of the stage of philosophical development which we have now to examine, as compared with that which we have had to consider in previous lectures. This advantage lies in the more modern character of the problems we have to deal with. In studying Plato and Aristotle we are, so to speak, travelling in a foreign land, and learning to speak a philosophical language which is not our own. The problems with which they deal do not seem to be our problems, and we require much study and interpretation ere we can bring them into relation with our own modes of thought. In particular, we are embarrassed in the study of these philosophies by the contrast between the naïve assumption of the unity of the individual with society which seems to pervade them, and the equally naïve assumption of the opposition between the soul and the world, the inner and the outer life, which is characteristic of many phases of modern thought. It might be said, with as much truth as can belong to any epigrammatic statement, that the modern mind begins where the ancients ended, and ends where they began. Our fathers have eaten the sour grapes of individualism and our teeth are set on edge. We may, indeed, get beyond the merely subjective tendencies of the modern consciousness, and perhaps the greatest achievement of modern philosophers lies in the way in which they have corrected and transcended these tendencies: but we find it difficult to go back to the position of those who were hardly conscious of such tendencies at all, or who regarded the opposition of subject and object as quite subordinate to the opposition of universal and particular.

But with the Stoics and Epicureans we have a feeling of kindred. Their individualism is so clearly akin to the familiar individualism of the eighteenth century that we have little difficulty in understanding its problems or criticising its attempts to solve them. And even when we come to Neo-Platonism, though there is much which repels us in the abstract theological spirit which it breathes, yet it, like the philosophy of the nineteenth century, is born out of the struggle with individualism. It might, indeed, be described as an attempt to limit individualism so that it may be consistent with the belief in a unity which transcends all the differences of individuals; and, in this point of view, its merits and defects are equally instructive to us. For the highest aim of modern thought is just to combine a deep religious sense of the unity and universality of the divine principle, which reveals itself in the whole system of things, with that firm grasp of particular experience and that developed consciousness of the manifold secular relations of life, which have been given to the modern world.

  • 1. See Vol. I, p. 289.
  • 2. This, however, must be modified in the case of Aristotle by what is said in Vol. I, p. 277 seq.
  • 3. Vol. I, p. 77.