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No sooner did the two imperial systems lose their ascendency than the germs which they had temporarily overshadowed sprang up into vigorous vitality, and for more than4 five centuries dominated the whole course not only of Greek but of European thought. Of these by far the most important was the naturalistic idea, the belief that physical science might be substituted for religious superstitions and local conventions as an impregnable basis of conduct. In a former chapter1 we endeavoured to show that, while there are traces of this idea in the philosophy of Heracleitus, and while its roots stretch far back into the literature and popular faith of Greece, it was formulated for the first time by the two great Sophists, Prodicus and Hippias, who, in the momentous division between Nature and Law, placed themselves鈥擧ippias more particularly鈥攐n the side of Nature. Two causes led to the temporary discredit of their teaching. One was the perversion by which natural right became the watchword of those who, like Plato鈥檚 Callicles, held that nothing should stand between the strong man and the gratification of his desire for pleasure or for power. The other was the keen criticism of the Humanists, the friends of social convention, who held with Protagoras that Nature was unknowable, or with Gorgias that she did not exist, or with Socrates that her laws were the secret of the gods. It was in particular the overwhelming personal influence of Socrates which triumphed. He drew away from the Sophists their strongest disciple, Antisthenes, and convinced him that philosophy was valuable only in so far as it became a life-renovating power, and that, viewed in this light, it had no relation to anything outside ourselves. But just as Socrates had discarded the physical speculations of former teachers, so also did Antisthenes discard the dialectic which Socrates had substituted for them, even to the extent of denying that definition was possible.2 Yet he seems to have kept a firm hold on the two great ideas that were the net result of all previous philosophy, the idea of a cosmos, the common citizenship of which made all men5 potentially equal,3 and the idea of reason as the essential prerogative of man.4

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Whether Spinoza ever read Plato is doubtful. One hardly sees why he should have neglected a writer whose works were easily accessible, and at that time very popular with thinking minds. But whether he was acquainted with the Dialogues at first hand or not, Plato will help us to understand Spinoza, for it was through the door of geometry that he entered philosophy, and under the guidance of one who was saturated with the Platonic spirit; so far as Christianity influenced him, it was through elements derived from Plato; and his metaphysical method was one which, more than any other, would have been welcomed with delight by the author of the Meno and the Republic, as an attempt to realise his own dialectical ideal. For Spinozism is, on the face of it, an application of geometrical reasoning to philosophy, and especially to ethics. It is also an attempt to prove transcendentally what geometricians only assume鈥攖he necessity of space. Now, Plato looked on geometrical demonstration as the great type of certainty, the scientific completion of what Socrates had begun by his interrogative method, the one means of carrying irrefragable conviction into every department of knowledge, and more particularly into the study of our highest good. On the other hand, he saw that geometricians assume what itself requires to be demonstrated; and he confidently expected that the deficiency would be supplied by his own projected method of transcendent dialectics. Such at least seems to be the drift of the following passage:.
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And want of that would be a want of all.鈥16?
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On passing to terrestrial physics, we find that Aristotle is, as usual, the dupe of superficial appearances, against which other thinkers were on their guard. Seeing that fire always moved up, he assumed that it did so by virtue of a natural tendency towards the circumference of the universe, as opposed to earth, which always moved towards the centre. The atomists erroneously held that all matter gravitated downwards through infinite space, but correctly explained the ascent of heated particles by the pressure of surrounding matter, in accordance, most probably, with the analogy of floating bodies.200 Chemistry as a science is, of course, an entirely modern creation, but the first approach to it was made by Democritus, while no ancient philosopher stood farther from its essential principles than Aristotle. He analyses bodies, not into their material elements, but into the sensuous qualities, hot and cold, wet and dry, between which he supposes the underlying substance to be perpetually oscillating; a theory which, if it were true, would make any fixed laws of nature impossible.!
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In this respect Stoicism betrays its descent from the encyclopaedic lectures of the earlier Sophists, particularly Hippias. While professedly subordinating every other study to the art of virtuous living, its expositors seem to have either put a very wide interpretation on virtue, or else to have raised its foundation to a most unnecessary height. They protested against Aristotle鈥檚 glorification of knowledge as the supreme end, and declared its exclusive pursuit to be merely a more10 refined form of self-indulgence;20 but, being Greeks, they shared the speculative passion with him, and seized on any pretext that enabled them to gratify it. And this inquisitiveness was apparently much stronger in Asiatic Hellas, whence the Stoics were almost entirely recruited, than in the old country, where centuries of intellectual activity had issued in a scepticism from which their fresher minds revolted.21 It is mentioned by Zeller as a proof of exhaustion and comparative indifference to such enquiries, that the Stoics should have fallen back on the Heracleitean philosophy for their physics.22 But all the ideas respecting the constitution of Nature that were then possible had already been put forward. The Greek capacity for discovery was perhaps greater in the third century than at any former time; but from the very progress of science it was necessarily confined to specialists, such as Aristarchus of Samos or Archimedes. And if the Stoics made no original contributions to physical science, they at least accepted what seemed at that time to be its established results; here, as in other respects, offering a marked contrast to the Epicurean school. If a Cleanthes assailed the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus on religious grounds, he was treading in the footsteps of Aristotle. It is far more important that he or his successors should have taught the true theory of the earth鈥檚 shape, of the moon鈥檚 phases, of eclipses, and of the relative size and distance of the heavenly bodies.23 On this last subject, indeed, one of the later Stoics, Posidonius, arrived at or accepted conclusions which, although falling far short of the reality, approximated to it in a very remarkable manner, when we consider what imperfect means of measurement the Greek astronomers had at their disposition.24.
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So far, we have only considered belief in its relation to the re-distribution of political, social, and national forces. But behind all such forces there is a deeper and more perennial cause of intellectual revolution at work. There is now in the world an organised and ever-growing mass of scientific truths, at least a thousand times greater and a thousand times more diffused than the amount of positive knowledge possessed by mankind in the age of the Antonines. What those truths can do in the future may be inferred from what they have already done in the past. Even the elementary science of Alexandria, though it could not cope with the supernaturalist reaction of the empire, proved strong enough, some centuries later, to check the flood of Mahometan fanaticism, and for a time to lead captivity captive in the very strongholds of militant theological belief. When, long afterwards, Jesuitism and Puritanism between them threatened to reconquer all that the humanism of the Renaissance had won from superstition, when all Europe from end to end was red with the blood or blackened with the death-fires of heretics and witches, science, which had meanwhile been silently laying the foundations of265 a new kingdom, had but to appear before the eyes of men, and they left the powers of darkness to follow where she led. When the follies and excesses of the Revolution provoked another intellectual reaction, her authority reduced it to a mere mimicry and shadow of the terrible revenges by which analogous epochs in the past history of opinion had been signalised. And this was at a time when the materials of reaction existed in abundance, because the rationalistic movement of the eighteenth century had left the middle and lower classes untouched. At the present moment, Catholicism has no allies but a dispirited, half-sceptical aristocracy; and any appeal to other quarters would show that her former reserves have irrevocably passed over to the foe. What is more, she has unconsciously been playing the game of rationalism for fifteen centuries. By waging a merciless warfare on every other form of superstition, she has done her best to dry up the sources of religious belief. Those whom she calls heathens and pagans lived in an atmosphere of supernaturalism which rendered them far less apt pupils of philosophy than her own children are to-day. It was harder to renounce what she took away than it will be to renounce what she has left, when the truths of science are seen by all, as they are now seen by a few, to involve the admission that there is no object for our devotion but the welfare of sentient beings like ourselves; that there are no changes in Nature for which natural forces will not account; and that the unity of all existence has, for us, no individualisation beyond the finite and perishable consciousness of man.
21 August, 2019 - 13:08
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21 August, 2019 - 13:08
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