Lecture 13: The New Intellectual Order:
It can be said that philosophy is a mirror of the age in which it was conceived and expressed. Philosophers speculate on the character of the universe, nature, God, man, morals, happiness, knowledge, and a hundred other things. The manner in which philosophers answers these questions is colored by their method of approaching problems, by their premises, by their world view, in a word, by their history.
In the Middle Ages, Ptolemaic geocentrism, modified as it was by centuries of Jewish and Christian thought, prevailed as a world view. We can identify this world view with the convenient label, Christian matrix. God was the personal anthropomorphic deity of the Old and New Testament. Theology took its seat as "the queen of the sciences," and the chief interest of philosophers was the way of salvation in the world to come. Nature was conceived as the handiwork of God, created and ordered according to the account in the Holy Scriptures. Man's physical characteristics were not seriously considered except as they related to the soul and salvation.
The moral problem was evaluated in terms of righteous and sinful conduct, the former being obedience to God's will, the latter its violation. Happiness was projected into the world to come. The earth was a prison from which man would eventually escape and find salvation. The outlook, the world view, was clearly other-worldly. Even learned men knew little of the world outside of the Mediterranean. Knowledge of world was local and became a dominant trait of social life.
However, intellectual developments between the 12th and 17th centuries shattered this Medieval matrix. As science revealed more of the extent and workings of the physical universe, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition became less compatible with the emergent picture of the cosmos and the laws of nature. Inductive science slowed overcame deductive logic. The kingdom of man challenged the kingdom of God. Nature came to be regarded as a complicated and impressive affair. Simple biblical explanations of the cosmos and Nature were no longer satisfied the best minds of Europe. God was portrayed as a law-giving and law-abiding being but natural causes were sought to explain the workings of the natural world.
Man was still believed to possess an immortal soul. But the natural philosophers were no longer willing to let man pass merely as the image of God. Among advanced thinkers, morality was gradually divorced from the supernatural conception of sin and related to behavior on this earth and its effects upon the individual and society. Some of the more secular trends in humanism dared to defend happiness in the here and now.
A new optimism regarding the future of man came into being and helped to produce the notion that man was indeed a progressive being and that perfectibility was perhaps possible in the City of Man. The exploration of lands outside Europe brought new information, revealed new and diverse ways of life, stimulated curiosity and developed the comparative approach towards customs and institutions. A new world view was the result.
This lecture highlights the diverse thoughts of this new world view as it found itself mirrored in the thoughts of a variety of philosophers. As such, this lecture provides several "windows" into the past. (For a more detailed appreciation of the medieval world-view as Christian matrix, please see my Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History and Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History.)
Giordano Bruno, 1548-1600
Bruno was born at Nola, near Naples, in southern Italy. At an early age he entered the Dominican order in Naples. Charged with heresy in 1576, Bruno fled the convent and the Dominicans and traveled widely across Europe. His spirit was in rebellion against the more reactionary aspects of Catholicism, while his Catholic antecedents made many Protestants suspicious of him. Therefore, Bruno was not entirely welcome in either camp. This is especially important to recognize since his short life spans the period in which Catholics and Protestants were engaged in heated battle (see Lecture 6).
However, Bruno was honored by scholars and he taught at many important centers of learning, among them Toulouse, Paris, Oxford and Wittenberg. He made the mistake of returning to Italy (1591), was betrayed by one of his pupils in Venice, and turned over to the Inquisition. At the end of the Venetian trial he recanted his heresies, but was sent to Rome for another trial. Here he remained in prison for eight years, at the end of which he was sentenced as a heretic and, in February 1600, was burned alive on the Campo de' Fiori, the first conspicuous martyr to the new world view.
Bruno mastered the existing body of mathematics and understood the Copernican system. Although he had at his disposal the necessary preparation for carrying out his an astrophysical revolution, it was conceived within a devout and pious mental climate. In the old astronomy, the earth was regarded as the center of the universe. Copernicus had replaced the earth with the sun as the center of the system. Bruno argued that there can be no such limitation of the physical universe as was implied in the system of crystalline spheres. There is neither limit nor center to the universe. Everything depends on the place of observation. Each observer on the earth may regard his point of observation as the center, but it would not so appear to an observer on the sun or on one of the other planets or the fixed stars. Everything, then, is relative to the point of observation. Position is relative. Up and down are terms that have precise meaning only when used in regard to a particular spot in the universe. The same applies to motion -- it is likewise relative. There is no absolute direction. Time is also relative.
Bruno's notion of relativity not only upset the old astronomical conceptions, it also challenged a basic notion in Aristotle's physics which suggested that light and heavy are absolute phenomena. Heavy matter seeks the center of the universe. This is the earth, and the earth is the heaviest element. Bruno insisted that this is an error as it assigns false importance to the earth.
Even more revolutionary was Bruno's hypothesis of a plurality of worlds and universes. Not only may there be other earths like ours -- other universes may exist as well. Further, Bruno repudiated the notion that the materials in the heavens are of a higher order than earth, air, fire and water. And it had been assumed that the heavenly bodies are composed of a mysterious fifth element, the "aether." Bruno believed that other heavenly bodies are presumably made up of the same materials as the earth, a guess which required the spectroscope of the 19th century to prove scientifically valid.
Finally, Bruno broke away from the notion of fixed starry spheres and epicycles. The heavenly bodies move freely in space, he declared, although it required the work of Galileo (1564-1642), Kepler (1571-1630), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727)) to elucidate the problems associated with their movements and orbits. These ideas Bruno illustrated in three works: On Cause, Principle and Unity; On the Infinite Universe and the Worlds; and On the Immeasurable and Countless Worlds.
Since the medieval world view had revolved about the Christianized Ptolemaic system, embodied in Dante's Divine Comedy, it is not difficult to see why the faithful might have looked upon Bruno with horror. He challenged geocentrism, refuted the dogma of the perfection of the heavens, and suggested that there might be a vast number of other worlds as well as universes. This last idea was particularly disconcerting. Although Bruno had no such purpose in mind, it directly opposed the story of creation specified in Genesis and constituted a grave challenge to the divinity of Jesus. Bruno's heresy in the eyes of the Church is perhaps understandable, particularly when he put it in clear and popular language. There was a very real danger that Bruno would stir up widespread skepticism of the Christian world view. Yet Bruno himself was not an agnostic nor did he embrace a mechanistic outlook. He regarded God as at work in a creative and directive capacity in every part of the vast universe of universes which he imagined. In his theology and in his views of God and Nature, Bruno was a pious mystic and ardent Christian.
Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592
The education and training of MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE partly explains his divergence from orthodox patterns of thought. His religious background was diverse, his father being a devout Catholic and his mother a Jew converted to Protestantism. I imagine that this would have made it rather difficult for him to take seriously the presumptions of any one sect. In his studies and his reading, he was skillfully prepared for intellectual detachment and moderation. Montaigne was given a thorough classical education. He was well-read in Greek and Latin literature and found his favorite authors among the great pagans expositors of tolerance and secularism -- Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, the Skeptics and Epicureans. The pagan slogan that those who seek the truth must both refute without prejudice and accept criticism without resentment was reincarnated in Montaigne. The old world view -- the Medieval matrix -- was dissolved in Montaigne's day as the world of the Attic peninsula did in the time of Aristotle. Philosophical calm had to be created from within rather than secured by external institutions.
Montaigne was born in the early stages of the era of overseas discoveries and was greatly impressed by them (see Lecture 2). He was interested in the diversity of customs and beliefs entertained by mankind in various parts of the earth. This made it difficult for him to take seriously the Christian contention that there was but one absolute moral code to which men ought to subscribe. From his early training and his reading, then, Montaigne was the type of man who was well-suited to become an apostle of tolerance and moderation.
The starting point of Montaigne's philosophy was true intellectual humility. His philosophy was not grounded in Christian religious debasement, founded as it was in the assumption of sin, the fall of man and his spiritual unworthiness. Rather, he understood well the paucity of information which any one individual could obtain and assimilate and was also convinced of the intellectual limitations of humanity. In his essay, "Of the Education of Children," Montaigne writes:
It was necessary, Montaigne argued, that man constantly subject himself to the most searching intellectual self-examination in order to show how little we really know. Such an attitude flew in the face of the medieval scholastic, smug in his intellectual arrogance, who believed that, armed with the Scriptures and the masters of theology, he possessed the sum total of necessary knowledge (salvation).
Whereas the Christians had emphasized the unity of all true wisdom and the uniformity of conduct essential to salvation, Montaigne stressed the opposite, namely, that diversity and pluralism seem to be the rule of nature, and hence of God as well. He arrived at this point of view because he was conscious of the varying moods of the human individual from day to day and, as an outgrowth of his observation of the enormous variety of human customs and beliefs, reported by ancient observers and by contemporary explorers. Montaigne was overwhelmed by how variable each individual indeed is, and how one's moods change from day to day, because of external conditions and internal stimuli. We differ more from ourselves than we do from each one another.
The combination in Montaigne of intellectual humility with a full comprehension of the inconstancy of man and the diversity of conduct to be observed in the world, served to develop in him a remarkable degree of tolerance and intellectual detachment. something I imagine necessary considering the volatile religious environment which characterizes his epoch. A factor making for his tolerance and urbanity was his repudiation of the otherworldliness of Christian theology. The Christian could not be tolerant or detached for the Christian could not remain indifferent to something which inevitably meant the loss of his soul and perdition for others.
Montaigne took full safety in contemplating the human scene. If philosophy is to teach us how to live rather than how to die, we must gather the largest possible amount of information as to the ways in which men live and then analyze this mass of material in calm and judicious fashion. When we allow emotion and prejudice to enter the process of assimilating such knowledge, we will fail to derive wisdom form the exercise. If nature reveals diversity to be the rule, then the theological effort to teach and enforce uniformity in thought and action must be incorrect and dangerous.
It was perhaps inevitable that in his discussion of morality Montaigne should depart from the Christian identification of morality with religious dogmas, and from the Christian tendency to regard morality as chiefly a matter of chastity in sexual relations. Because of his thoroughgoing secularism, Montaigne was able to attack the problem of ethics in a detached fashion. He perceived that man has devised a great variety of ways of meeting the chief problems of existence. Therefore, he could not subscribe in any sense to the Christian view that the only defensible solution of moral problems consisted of the narrow standards of conduct specified by orthodox Christianity. For Montaigne, God and nature seemed to approve of diversity rather than orthodoxy.
It ought to be clear that Montaigne challenged many of the leading tenets of Christian ethics. He repudiated entirely the Christian tendency to separate body from mind or soul, to regard the soul and its pleasures as good and the body and its enjoyments as base, and to represent bodily pleasures as separate from, and disastrous to, the operations of the mind. He argued that body and soul are given to man by nature and God. Bodily pleasures are as natural and defensible as the experiences of the soul. Indeed, reasonable indulgence in corporeal delights the mind may actually be refreshed and stimulated. Montaigne thus helped to break down the theological dichotomy of the world of spirit and the realm of the flesh, and insisted upon viewing the human organism as a unity.
René Descartes, 1596-1650
In November 1628 RENÉ DESCARTES was in Paris, where he distinguished himself in a famous confrontation with Chandoux whose views on science he attacked, arguing that only absolute certainty could serve as the basis of human knowledge. That year, Descartes retired to Holland where he remained until 1649.
In Holland, Descartes worked on his system, and by 1634 he completed the scientific work, Le Monde. When he heard of the condemnation of Galileo, however, Descartes quickly had his book suppressed. This is an important event to recollect since it demonstrates the caution and conciliation toward authority which Descartes exhibited throughout his life. In 1637, he published a book containing three treatises on mathematical subjects: the Geometry, the Dioptric and the Meteors (prefaced by his equally famous Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences). The Discourse on Method was remarkable in a number of ways: it was autobiographical, it presented a concise statement of Cartesianism, and it was composed in French. By writing in French, Descartes intended (like Galileo before him) to aim over the heads of the academic community and to reach educated men of good sense.
Descartes followed the Discourse in 1641 with a more metaphysical work, the six Meditations on First Philosophy, which were published with six (ultimately seven) sets of Objections from various authors, including Thomas Hobbes (see below), Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694), and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), and also with Descartes' Replies to the Objections.
In 1649, Descartes yielded to the request of Queen Christina of Sweden that he join a distinguished circle she was assembling in Stockholm and instruct her in philosophy. In this year he published The Passions of the Soul. In 1650, however, and as a result of the Swedish climate, and the fact that Queen Christina requested instruction at 4 AM, Descartes caught pneumonia and died.
Descartes' philosophic approach was purely mathematical. In that discipline he thought he had found the key to the secrets of the universe. As he once expressed it: "I am convinced that [mathematics] is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other which has been bequeathed to us by human agency, as being the source of all others." His greatest practical contribution was the creation of analytic geometry. Yet Descartes was no mathematical mystic. He had little use for "pure" mathematics. What interested him most was the mathematical method and its application.
Descartes is important in the western intellectual tradition mainly because of his contribution to philosophical and scientific method. In his Discourse on Method he set forth his body of principles. He asserted that the first step is to wipe away all earlier and accepted authority and to start with a clear and unbiased mind. The philosopher must never accept as true anything that cannot be proven so. Everything must be stated at the outset in the clearest and simplest form, gradually and logically advancing to more complex and involved formulations. Each specific problem must be divided into as many parts as may be necessary to solve it. Thoughts and perceptions must be arranged in an orderly sequence of ideas. In the end there must be a complete analysis and a sufficiently comprehensive review of the whole problem so that nothing is omitted.
The basis of Descartes' thinking was the omnipotence of rational consciousness, summed up in the famous maxim, cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am" or, "I think, therefore I exist"). He thought that he could discover truth by deductive thinking in mathematical terms alone. In doing so, he created a completely mechanistic world view. From this mechanistic explanation he exempted two things: God and the soul of man. Man is the only being in nature who possesses a soul, and the latter is the only part of man which escapes mechanistic necessity. The lower animals he regarded as pure automatons -- mere machines. Man, thanks to his soul, is a conscious, reflective and directive machine.
Descartes is important because he assisted in breaking down the pretensions of authority. If he underestimated the more obscure storehouses of tradition, like the subconscious, and was inconsistent in both accepting and rejecting authority, he did manage to destroy some of the more obvious hindrances to clear thinking.
Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679
Obsessed by the civil disorders of his time, Hobbes wrote The Elements of Law (1640, published 1650) in which he defended the king's prerogative on psychological and not on the theological grounds of divine right. When Parliament impeached Stafford and Laud, Hobbes took himself to Paris (1640), proud to have been "the first of all that fled." He soon immersed himself in a controversy with Descartes, arising out of his objections to the latter's Meditations. In 1642, Hobbes published De Cive, a fuller statement of his views on government, and in 1646, A Minute of First Draught of the Optiques, by which he sought to rival Descartes' views on optics. In 1646, he was mathematical tutor to the Prince of Wales, later Charles II. In 1651, he published his great work of political theory, Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, & Power of a Commonwealth.
The basis of Hobbes' metaphysics is motion of bodies, attraction and repulsion in the wills of men. "Good" and "evil" are inconstant names applied haphazardly by different men to what attracts or repels them. This egotistical psychology makes the life of man in a pre-social state of nature, "nasty, brutish and short," a constant war of every man against every man. Rational, enlightened self-interest makes men want to escape the state of nature by the establishment of a contract in which they surrender the right of aggression, but not that of self-defense, to an absolute sovereign, whose commands are the law, freedom being relegated to the spheres not covered by the sovereign's commands. The social contract is binding only so long as the sovereign has power to enforce such a contract. Sovereignty may be vested in a person or an assembly, but it must not be indivisible, not a division of powers between Parliament and King, or Church and State.
The Leviathan offended the royal exiles at Paris and the French government by its reduction of the status of religious obedience, and so in 1652 Hobbes returned to England and settled in London. Hobbes managed to become embroiled in numerous controversies for the remainder of his life. At the Restoration, Charles II gave his old tutor a pension and probably used his influence to quash a bill aimed at Hobbes' writings, after the Plague and Fire of London (1665-1666) had been explained as God's wrath against England for harboring such an atheist. Hobbes wrote an important dialogue against the defenders of Common Law, Behemoth, a history of his times and an autobiography in Latin verse. At the age of eighty-six, and because, as he said, he had nothing better to do, he set about to compose verse translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (earlier in his career he translated the The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides), all published in 1682. Hobbes died at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.
Hobbes abandoned the obscurantism and dualism of Descartes and the so-called rationalists and applied the new mathematical and mechanical principles to mind as well as matter. He thus destroyed the contradictory and confusing dualism in Cartesianism and established mechanical empiricism. He believed that all materials of positive knowledge are the direct result of the impact of bodily particles on sense organs. Whereas Descartes regarded the basic physical fact as extension, Hobbes viewed it as motion. He held that "all that exists is body (matter); all that occurs is motion.
There are two kinds of bodies ruled by the fundamental principle of motion: the natural bodies of the physical and organic world and artificial bodies, or social groups, culminating in the State. Man is a representative of both. As an organism he is a natural body; as a member of the state he lives in an artificial body. Mind is the link which connects the natural and artificial bodies. Three branches of philosophy are needed to study all of these -- physics which studies natural bodies; psychology which investigates man as an individual; and politics which deals with artificial bodies.
Hobbes imposed impressive limitations on philosophical knowledge. It can never be possible for us to know the external world. The latter may be real, but if so we cannot detect or prove its reality. All we can know about it is the result of stimuli coming from the motions of the external world and acting upon the substance of our brains. The resulting sense perceptions are all that we can be conscious of, and they reveal only our reactions to external stimuli, not the external world as it really is.
Both contemporary and later writers were strongly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, not only because his logic was compelling, but because he functioned like a scientist. From his observations of man and society, he generated propositions about human behavior and from these he deduced his political theory. Furthermore, he applied a mechanistic view to man, thus reducing all that men do to simple appetites and aversions. In doing so, Hobbes contributed to the popularity of the mechanistic view of the universe, a theory derived, in part, from Descartes' philosophy.
John Locke, 1632-1704
Born August 29 at Wrington, Somerset, JOHN LOCKE was educated at Westminster School under Richard Busby and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he found the prevailing Aristotelianism "perplexed with obscure terms and useless questions." He was elected to a life studentship there, which was withdrawn in 1684 by order of the king. His dislike of the Puritan intolerance of the College divines prevented him from taking orders. Instead, he dabbled in medicine and scientific experimentation and discussion and became known as Doctor Locke. In 1667 he became the physician of the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), later first Earl of Shaftesbury (and author of Characteristicks, 1714). After successfully operating upon the latter for an abscess in the chest (1668) he became Ashley's close confidential advisor in political and scientific matters and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.). The latter directed Locke's interests towards philosophy. A small club for the discussion of theological and philosophical questions was founded by Locke and at such a gathering in the winter (1670-71), the group welcomed Locke's suggestion that before attempting to solve any such questions, they should first of all discover what the human understanding was fitted to deal with.
For reasons of health, Locke spent the politically troublesome years (1675-79) in Montpelier and Paris, where he made contact with the circle of Gassendi and Arnauld. Shaftesbury, after a short spell in the Tower, was restored to favor and Locke re-entered his service. In 1683, however, Locke found it necessary to follow his master to Holland. Locke settled in Amsterdam and struck up an intimate friendship with many liberal theologians. In 1687, he moved to Rotterdam and joined the English supporters of William of Orange. His famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), published anonymously, were not written to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In fact, there is evidence that the Treatises may have been written as early as 1681 -- both Treatises attack the divine right theory of Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (1680) and the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.
Locke also built up his political theory from the weaknesses of an imagined pre-civil society, which for Hobbes was simply a war of all against all. Locke, however, insisted on the natural morality of pre-social man. Hence, contracting into civil society by surrendering personal power to a ruler and magistrates is for Locke a method of securing natural morality more efficiently. The ruling body, if it offends against natural law, must be deposed. This sanctioning of rebellion, together with Locke's doctrine of private property, became for the American colonists and the French revolutionaries in the next century, in the words of Michael Oakeshott, "a brilliant abridgement of the political habits of Englishmen."
Locke's last years were spent at Oates, Essex, at the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham, an admirer, the daughter of Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Locke died October 28, 1704, and was buried in the churchyard of High Laver.
Locke's argued that philosophy should pretend to deal only with problems and conceptions that the human mind is capable of encompassing. Admitting definite limitations to the human mind, he excluded from consideration many issues which earlier philosophers and theologians had attempted to meddle with. Locke directed his heaviest fire against the doctrine of innate ideas, that is, against the dogma that ideas are inherent at birth in the human mind and that they are not to be tampered with except on pain of upsetting the natural constitution of society. In attempting to combat this notion, he used the notion of the tabula rasa (blank slate) to signify the condition of the mind at birth.
Locke turned to the problem of how we come to possess the ideas with which the mature human mind is stocked. He contended that these are the product of experience and reflection on experience, that is, reason. He thus expressed his famous theory in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the following manner:
By the rational elaboration of simple ideas we arrive at complex ideas. The processes involved are the uniting of simple ideas, synthesizing activity, and abstracting activity. Simple ideas are valid when they agree with observed reality. Complex ideas, naturally, cannot resemble things, but they correspond to things. By employing derived ideas in thinking we can reflectively test the validity of our concepts and discover whether the combination of qualities implied is to be found in experience.
Among the numerous and important personalities who managed to create the great 18th century Enlightenment, John Locke was rivaled only by Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) and surpassed only by Voltaire (the latter of whom helped popularize both Newton and Locke on the Continent). John Locke was the most popular philosopher of his generation and perhaps the most influential as well. He created a new and progressive type of psychology, led the fight against intolerance, defended reason against faith in a period when this was more more dangerous than a century later, started the revolt in education against pedantry and classicism, and was the most important figure of the age in systematizing the type of political theory that would dominate the western intellectual tradition in the next century. If Locke did not go as far as Voltaire (1694-1778), the path of the latter was made much easier because of Locke's work.
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Copyright © 2002 Steven Kreis