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Lecture Twentieth: The Transition from Stoicism to Neo-Platonism

IN the preceding lectures I have tried to indicate the general scope of the ideas of the Stoics—ideas which are very important for the history of theology both in themselves and because of their influence upon Christian thought. Let me gather up the main points in a few words.

In the first place, the Stoic philosophy did a great work negatively, in so far as it lifted moral and religious ideas out of the national or racial setting to which they had hitherto been confined. It completed the work of Socrates in emancipating the individual from tradition and throwing him back upon himself—teaching him at the same time to regard this emancipation as one in which every human being has an equal share. The fact that the two greatest of the later Stoics were a slave and an emperor is itself a kind of illustration of the levelling tendency of their doctrine. Everyone from the highest to the lowest was taught by them to regard himself as a law and an end to himself, and to recognise the same universal right and the same universal duty as belonging to all men in virtue of their common humanity. It was this idea, under the name of the ‘law of nature,’ which inspired and guided generations of Roman lawyers, and which gradually transformed the narrow legal system of a Latin town into the great code of Justinian, that body of legislation upon which the jurisprudence of all civilised peoples is based. At the same time, the levelling and universalising influence of Stoic ideas was felt in all the literature of the later Empire, and did much to complete the humanising work which was begun by the spread of Greek culture, and to prepare a universal language of thought in which East and West could freely communicate to each other their philosophical and religious conceptions. The idea of God as a λόγος σπερματικός—a germinative principle of reason which manifests itself in the universe, and, above all, in the spirits of men as the actual or possible members of a world community—was in itself somewhat vague and abstract; but it needed only to be vitalised by some more direct and concrete vision of truth to produce a reorganisation of the whole spiritual life of man. It could not supply the place of a universal religion, but it prepared the soil upon which a universal religion could grow. Above all, it is to be noted that by the Stoic philosophy the individual was brought into direct and immediate relation with the divine, in a way that could only find its parallel in the later prophetic teaching of Israel.

This last statement suggests an interesting comparison. The religion of Israel, after the captivity, had ceased to be a national religion in any exclusive sense. At least the special claim put forward by the later prophets was only that the Jews were to be the divinely commissioned interpreters of Monotheism to all other nations, that “through them all the families of the earth should be blessed.” And though the Jewish people generally never gave up their exclusive national aspirations, yet actually they were dispersed through the Empire, and even in their own land they did not constitute an independent State. Their unity was rather like the unity of a Church. The highest utterances of their devotional spirit were individualistic in character, expressing the sorrows and joys, the aspirations and experiences, of the individual soul in its relation to God: and as the sacrificial ritual was confined to Jerusalem, the worship of the synagogue was almost completely dissociated from it, and had become a purely spiritual service—a service of teaching, prayer, and praise, and not of ceremonial observance. In this way the religious ideas of the Jews, like those of the Greeks, had become universalised and liberated from that which was national and peculiar; and the time had come when it was possible for them to be amalgamated, if not yet organically united, with each other.

Of this amalgamation I shall speak presently. But in the first instance I should like to refer to the way in which the two systems came to approximate so closely to one another. You will remember how the Stoics repudiated the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle because of its dualism, and asserted in the most emphatic way that there is no division of principles in the universe. Their so-called materialism sprang out of a deep conviction of the unity of the world, expressing itself in a denial of the distinction between matter and mind, which they treated as different aspects of the same thing. Yet they were quite unable to work out the consequences of such a unity, or to show how the one principle could manifest itself under such different forms. The result was, therefore, either a confusion of the two aspects or an alternation between them. The Stoics could not show how matter involves mind or mind matter. Hence in their theory of knowledge they were driven to explain the relation of mind to its object by the metaphor involved in the word ‘impression’; and they were quite unable to meet the sceptic objection that, if this analogy be taken strictly, the mind can know nothing but its own states. Again, on the same hypothesis, the individual must be conceived as confined to his own inner life, and incapable of direct communion with any one else. It was, therefore, only as each individual was identified with the universal principle of all intelligence, that he could be conceived as entering into any but external relations with other individuals. And this meant that each of them was alone in his inner life, and could escape from himself only as he found God within him. The result was that despair of the world without, and that certitude of meeting the absolute Being in their own souls, which is so characteristic especially of the later Stoics. Thus the deep principle of subjective religion, which was to find its highest expression in the Confessions of St. Augustine, is already present in the Meditations of the Stoic Emperor, who in almost every page declares his hopelessness in regard to everything that presents itself in outward experience, and then turns away to find everything restored in those convictions that are for him bound up with his inmost consciousness of self. Yet this restoration remains, like Plato's city in heaven, purely ideal. That in which Marcus Aurelius finds support and consolation, is just the idea of a rational order realised in that world in which empirically he finds nothing but disorder, and the idea of a perfect communion of those very human spirits who, except in very rare instances, seem to be hopelessly divided from each other.

Now the later Judaism passes through a process of thought which is the same in essence, though the outward form of it shows all the difference between the intuitive and unspeculative mind of the Jew and the discursive and philosophical genius of the Greek. In Judaea as in Greece, the ethical and religious consciousness was at first closely united with the idea of nationality; and in Judaea as in Greece, the time came when the extinction of the political life of the nation made it necessary for that consciousness, if it were to survive at all, to attach itself to something more general. As the ruin of the City-State was the beginning of a cosmopolitan philosophy, so the subjection of the Jewish nation made it necessary for the prophets to seek for the realisation of the hopes of Israel in something wider than the Davidic kingdom—in a Messianic empire of a higher kind, which should embrace not only the Jews but all the races of mankind. But, as no such empire was in the way of being realised around them, the consciousness of it had to remain, like the Stoic ideal of a ‘world-city’ a faith which found no support in experience, but maintained itself simply by its agreement with the higher self-consciousness of the time. What, however, the Greek sought in an ideal, which he believed to be one with the ultimate reality of things, the Jew sought in the picture of a future, in which the whole state of the world would be changed. The insight of the Jews expressed itself as foresight; their intuitive apprehension of truth took the form of a prophecy of a reign of the Messiah, in which all evils should be redressed and all sorrows healed. But the result was very similar in both cases. The difference was only that the practical Jewish mind could not reconcile itself to a world in which the ideal was not realised, but dwelt persistently on the hope of better things in the future. If the world were for the present given over to the control of the power of evil—and it was the general belief that it was so—yet this could be only for a time, and only to try the spirits of men. Nevertheless, as the blessing was still in prospect, and not in fruition, religion had to take the form of an inner spirit of devotion which had no outward manifestation, or which was manifested, not in the setting up of the kingdom of God on earth, but only in the private union of a number of individuals who sympathised with each other in longing for it and “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” The whole life of religion was thus driven inward, and became, not a worship of God as the bond of union in an actual society, but the immediate relation of the isolated soul to him. Thus the era of ritual and sacrifice, of symbol and ceremony, by which, not as separate individuals but as members of a community, men were lifted above themselves to a sense of the principle of their common life, had come to an end; and the era of subjective religion, of the lonely struggles of the soul as it seeks for its good, and of its lonely joys as it finds that good, had begun. “What do you wish to know?” says St. Augustine to himself in his Soliloquies, and the answer is: “God and the soul.” “Nothing more than this?” “This and this only.” But this kind of subjective religion was initiated long before St. Augustine's time, and even before the advent of Christianity. It was independently originated both among the Jews and among the Greeks, and it was its existence which made the rapid success of Christianity possible. It ‘came to its own’ and ‘its own received it.’ It came to men who had turned in disappointment from the world and had fallen back upon themselves and upon God; and it quickened to life their vague certitude that in spite of all, the ideal must somehow and somewhere be realised.

We have thus, as the general result in both cases, a religious consciousness which is subjective, but which, as it is universal, cannot be content to remain subjective. We have a religion which brings the individual into direct relations with God, and withdraws him from all special connexion with the world and with his fellow-men. The keen interest in knowledge for its own sake which was characteristic of the age of Plato and Aristotle is lost, and even the practical interest of realising a society corresponding to man's moral requirements has all but disappeared. The old conception of the political life has been forgotten, and the State is now regarded, not as the highest organ of man's ethical life, but rather as a purely legal and administrative institution for the preservation of the rights of person and property. And though the Jew still looks forward with obstinate hopefulness to a Messianic kingdom, and the Stoic strives to believe that the world, though it seems in the concrete to be full of folly and wickedness, is yet in some ideal way capable of being regarded as an ordered system in which reason is the only ruler; yet in both cases this ideal remains an aspiration, a faith or hope which derives no support from experience. The Jew did not believe that the Messianic kingdom could come by any natural development out of the actual state of things, but only by a sudden and miraculous interference from above; and the Stoic could scarcely be said to hope for anything, but rather to be content, as Plato in the Republic tried to make himself content, to treat the bare idea in the soul as if it were its own realisation. The wise man lives by the laws of a city in the heavens which is not and cannot be realised anywhere on earth—a city which, in Tennyson's language,

“is built

To music, therefore never built at all,

And therefore built for ever.”

We have now to trace the connexion between the attitude of thought we have been describing, and that to which it gave place in the last age of Greek philosophy. Stoicism contained a principle of dissolution in itself. It rested on the immediate identification of the individual subject with universal reason. The individual, in other words, was conceived to be strong in himself, just because, as rational, he was lifted above his own existence as this individual. He had a proud consciousness of his own liberty, just because he refused to identify himself with anything finite or transitory in himself or in the world. This, in the main, is the point of view of the earlier Stoics, and it is that which must be most prominent in our minds when we try to characterise the moral attitude of Stoicism. But there is another aspect of the Stoic doctrine which, if it were emphasised, would turn the strength of the Stoic into weakness and his pride into humility. The individual subject cannot be identified with divine reason, except by a process in which he is stript of all that belongs to him as this particular individual. He can only live to God as he dies to himself. This point of view could never completely prevail in the Stoic school, but we find traces of it in the later Stoics, especially in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. In these writers we find the beginnings of a tendency which was to find expression in subsequent philosophy and, in particular, in the philosophy of the Neo-Platonists—a tendency to substitute self-despair for self-confidence, and through self-despair to rise to the religious spirit that loses to find itself in God. This change, which seemed to lead to an attitude of spirit the very reverse of that of the Stoics, was yet, as I have said, the natural development of Stoicism. But the transition was mediated by the attack upon the doctrines of the Stoics, and indeed upon all positive philosophical doctrines, which was made by that school of philosophers called, par excellence, the Sceptics.

To understand this, we need to remember that not only the Stoics but the Epicureans and, indeed, all the philosophers of the time were individualistic. Their main effort was to make the individual strong in himself and independent of the world; but they all committed the inconsistency—as it seemed to the Sceptics—of basing this strength upon some belief as to the nature of that world as it is in itself apart from our thoughts about it. The Sceptic, on the other hand, maintained that no such external support is necessary. We cannot know anything about the real nature of things, for, as is admitted by all these schools of philosophy, we know them only through our own sensations and ideas, and these sensations and ideas are only states of our own subjectivity. We thus know nothing but ourselves. But neither is it necessary to our peace that we should know anything else; on the contrary, he who rests on anything external to himself is resting on something of the truth or reality of which he can never be sure. We cannot know things in themselves, but only how they appear to us. The only secure course is, therefore, to refrain from all judgment as to the objective reality of things, and content ourselves with what is within our own consciousness. And it is just in doing so, the Sceptic maintains, that the individual can find the peace he seeks. For, if we rest in ourselves without committing ourselves to any affirmation as to objective reality, we hold an impregnable position, a position which cannot be invaded by any doubt or fear; and in the negation of all theory we find that very security and unity with ourselves which the dogmatic philosophies sought in vain. The man who has thus, as it were, retired into himself, is beyond the reach of disturbance. The whole Sceptic philosophy is just an attempt to prove the exclusive rationality of this attitude of mind by a systematic attack on all forms of dogmatism. The Sceptic endeavours to show that every positive doctrine as to the nature of things is embarrassed by the ἰσοσθένεια τῶν λόγων, by the fact that there is an equal weight of reason for and against it. Reason, to put the matter in a more modern way, is essentially antinomical, and its exercise on any question invariably leads to the rise of two opposite dogmatisms, each of which is strong in its attack upon the other, but weak to defend itself. The only safe course, therefore, is to renounce all dogmas whatsoever, and to fall back upon the bare subjective consciousness as all-sufficient for itself.

At first the position of the Sceptic might seem to be a very strong one, and, indeed, some have thought it to be impregnable. But it really shows itself to be the weakest of all dogmatisms whenever it turns from the task of attacking others to that of defending itself. This may be seen whether we look at its positive result, or at the basis of certitude on which it is supposed to rest. From the former point of view, it is obvious that the Sceptic does not get rid of the objective consciousness by asserting that it is only a consciousness of shows or appearances. These shows or appearances, on the contrary, supply for him as for others the whole content and interest of life. The Sceptic, indeed, makes that content almost worthless, and weakens the interest in it by treating it as a mere appearance; but he has nothing else to put in its place. He has to play the game of life like others, though he is convinced that it is an illusory game, and, that the prizes in it are worth nothing; and therefore he is not in earnest in playing it. But a life that is occupied with nothing but vanity must itself be vain. We cannot say that such a consciousness is at rest in itself. We must rather say that it is given over to endless unrest, in so far as it is continually denying the reality and value of the objects, with which nevertheless it has continually to occupy itself.

But it will be contended that the soul of the Sceptic finds its rest just in the assertion of itself which accompanies its negation of the reality of everything else; and that in this point of view the Sceptics anticipate Descartes, who sought for the basis of all truth in the Cogito ergo sum of an immediate self-consciousness—a consciousness which, as he contends, is untouched by any of the doubts which may be cast on other things. We have, however, to consider, what Descartes and the Sceptics equally forget, that this consciousness of self is realised only with, and in relation to, the consciousness of the not-self to which it is opposed, and that, if we could altogether cancel the latter, the former would disappear with it. Hence it is impossible without contradiction to fall back on the consciousness of self to the exclusion of everything else. This objection was brought home to the Sceptics by an argument based upon their own doctrine, which they vainly endeavoured to repel. It was pointed out that, in asserting the incomprehensibility of things and the impossibility of knowledge, they were setting up a dogma which could be turned against itself as easily as against other dogmas. They were, as Bacon said, making a dogma of the unknowableness of things; and this dogma was, indeed, essential to that which they conceived as the practical end of philosophy, the attainment of peace in themselves. If, therefore, their doctrine were true, the practical end was impossible of attainment. This attack the Sceptics could meet only by the strange assertion that the doctrine of the impossibility of attaining truth included itself, and that, as they express it, it was like a medicine which purged itself out as well as the disease. But this is an obvious subterfuge; for a negation that includes itself contradicts itself; and, indeed, it is impossible to realise it at all, except by a progressus in infinitum in which each step is the negation of the previous step. We deny, and deny our denial, and deny that again, because we cannot separate any denial from a positive assertion which, ex hypothesi, must in its turn be got rid of. This process of thought, therefore, is a continual attempt to leap off one's own shadow, or, in other words, to deny without any affirmative basis for our denial.

The philosophy of the Sceptics, then, may be said, in a sense which they did not intend, to purge itself out along with the disease; it is the reductio ad absurdum of itself. It is the attempt to get beyond the intelligible world by an act of the intelligence itself. But, as I have said elsewhere,1 any attack upon the possibility of knowledge is foiled by the impossibility of finding a ground on which to fix its batteries: for if we try to fix them on anything within the intelligible world, we assert the knowableness of that world in the very act of denying it, and there is no place without the intelligible world where they can be fixed. We can direct our doubts or our denials against any particular assertion or doctrine, only in so far as we can fall back upon some more general consciousness of the real, which we assume as true, and with which we show it to be inconsistent; but an attempt to attack the very idea of truth and reality only leads to a reassertion of it in another form. On the other hand, to assert that the subject of knowledge is complete in itself without the object, is to rend the seamless garment of truth by setting up one element of consciousness against the whole to which it essentially belongs. But the only result that can come of such an attempt, is to show that, apart from the whole, every such element becomes meaningless and self-contradictory.

Now, in this result we see at once what is the mistake of a purely subjective philosophy and how it can be corrected. For what it forces us to realise is that the consciousness of the subject, like that of the object, presupposes a unity in which both are contained as elements. Or, to put the same thought in a more direct way, the consciousness of God, as the unity in all things and beyond all things, is the presupposition of both, and neither has any reality apart from it. Thus the logical result of Scepticism is to reveal the ultimate basis of all truth. This is not, of course, seen by the Sceptics themselves; but it underlies the general movement of thought by which the era of subjective and individualistic philosophy was brought to an end and the era of religious philosophy initiated. In this we have a remarkable illustration of the natural course of the development of thought. Philosophy in Greece, as elsewhere, begins with the objective, the not-self; then it turns from the outward world to the self; finally, it ends with the effort to grasp the principle of unity which is beyond this and all other oppositions. Unfortunately in Greece the movement from one idea to the other was mainly by a process of abstraction, in which thought as it advanced altogether set aside its previous points of view. The result, therefore, was a theology which vindicates the reality of the Divine Being at the expense of all his creatures, and represents the Absolute and Infinite as excluding rather than as including all that is relative and finite. The failure of Stoicism to work out successfully its idea that there is an immanent principle of unity under all the differences of things and of our knowledge of them, leads subsequent philosophy to conceive God as essentially transcendent. But in this way it becomes impossible to suppose that there is any rational connexion between him and the world, or any rational apprehension of him by the human mind. If under such a view there is to be any relation established between God and man, the activity that produces it must be entirely on God's side, and on man's side there can be only passivity. And if any human consciousness of God remains possible, it must be in an ecstatic condition in which man is rapt beyond himself so that all self-consciousness is absorbed and lost. Hence we have an apparently paradoxical result, the rise of a philosophy which might from one point of view be called Agnosticism, and which yet does not mean disbelief or doubt, but rather the profoundest certitude of the reality of the Absolute Being, whom man's thought cannot measure nor his words express.

Now in this aspect of it also there is a parallel movement of Jewish with Greek thought. Even within the books of the Old Testament, we can trace how the universalising process to which the religion of Israel was subjected, produced an increasing unwillingness to attribute the definite characteristics of human individuality to God, or even to admit his direct agency in relation to men. Such agency is rather referred to some special power or attribute of God, to his Wisdom or his Word, or to some angel who has a mission from him to man. Moreover, though there is no thought of denying God's omnipotence, yet anything that seems to have the nature of evil is rather attributed, directly at least, to some evil spirit. And we know that before the Christian era this tendency had hardened into a doctrine of demoniac influence, and this world was even supposed to be subjected to the rule of Satan, up to the time when the Messiah should come to dethrone him. The loyal allegiance of the race of Israel to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose worship was bound up with the national life, was changed into an awful reverence for a Being who, just because he was conceived as the God of the whole universe, seemed to be too high to be comprehended or even approached by the reason of man. The idea that “no one could see God and live,” the idea that man cannot measure or understand God, the idea of the absolute passivity and powerlessness of man in relation to God,—these ideas take complete possession of the religious mind. God is so far from his worshippers that he cannot be apprehended by them, yet so near that no room is left for any consciousness of freedom, or for the special interests of politics or science, of literature or art. A form of piety has arisen which begins and ends in religion, and which can hardly be said to supply any principle to idealise and elevate the secular life of man.

But along with this tendency to reduce the idea of God to an abstraction, till it becomes hardly possible to say anything of him except negatively, we have the appearance, both in Jewish and in Gentile literature, of another idea to which I have already alluded—the idea of mediation. The extremes which cannot be brought together directly, have to be linked with each other by means of intermediate terms. This tendency shows itself in Greek philosophy mainly in the adoption of the Stoic idea of the Logos, which, however, is now treated not as a name or attribute of the Supreme Being, but as the equivalent of the world-soul of Plato, that is, as the organ of the manifestation of the Supreme Being in the finite universe. Among the Jews, again, it shows itself in the tendency which I have already mentioned, to personify some attribute of God, especially his wisdom, or to bring in the ministry of angels between him and his creatures. If God be secluded in his heaven where no one can see him, yet a ladder is let down to the earth, by which divine influences may descend upon the worshipper, and by which he may be drawn up towards the source of his, and of all existence. Yet, after all, the final contact of human and divine is regarded as inexplicable, except as a trance or ecstasy in which the finite drops away from man and, in some incomprehensible way, he loses and finds himself again in God.

We have now seen what were the general features of the movement of thought towards the end of the pre-Christian era. We should need, of course, to introduce many special qualifications, if we attempted to apply the description to any particular writer. Still, enough has been done to show that, at this epoch, Jew and Gentile were tending in the same direction. Even apart from any direct influence upon each other, their thoughts were prepared to blend; and, when they did blend, it was natural that the common tendencies should be strengthened. Yet I think it essential to a comprehension of the facts that we should clearly realise that it was not the case, as is sometimes represented, that Western was overpowered by Eastern thought. Each found something in the other to help its progress in the direction in which it was naturally developing, but we cannot say that either was warped from its natural tendencies by a foreign influence. Hence each may be explained from its own history. Thus the tendency to separate God from man, and to thrust in mediators between them, and the tendency to take an almost pessimistic view of the world in its actual state, were the natural consequences of the universalising process which had begun to transform religion as early as the first prophets. And, on the other hand, when we come to Plotinus, who is the highest product of Neo-Platonism, we shall find him referring hack all his doctrines to the previous philosophy of Greece; and, what is more, we shall find that he can point to sources in Plato and Aristotle, or even earlier philosophers, from which every element in it could be derived. And, though we cannot say that he simply reproduces his authorities, we are obliged to recognise that his doctrines are legitimate and even necessary developments of theirs.

Before, however, we can deal with Plotinus, it seems necessary to say something of a remarkable writer in whom the two lines of development of Jewish and Greek thought meet together, illustrating and explaining each other—a writer, who did not, indeed, succeed in reconciling these different elements, but who by his syncretism did much to bring to light their essential identity. For it was Philo who, more than any other single writer, prepared the way for that marriage of Greek thought with Christianity which was the main agency in the development of theology in the early church.

  • 1. The Critical Philosophy of Kant, I. 5; II. 42.