The One,” “the Good,” and “Idea of Good” were identical in Plato’s mind. By his follower, Plotinus, on the contrary, “the One” is explicitly exalted above the image of “the One,” and transcends existence altogether. Indeed it does. Plato was frankly an idea man. He took the forms of solids which the mathematicians had discovered and moved them into his cosmology. A cube was the earth; a tetrahedron was fire; an octahedron was water; an icosahedron was air; while a dodecahedron was “the all thing.” No reasons were assigned: “Thus I conceive it, it is best.” He went on to conceive that the universe had a soul, moving in perpetual circles. Man’s soul was in his circular head. “God, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, which we now term the head.” But God foresaw “that this head, being spherical, would roll down the hills and could not ascend steep places. To prevent this, a body with limbs was added, that it might be a locomotive for the head. As the fore parts are more honorable and regal than the hind parts, the gods made man’s locomotion chiefly progressive.”
In spite of learned flights into the meaning of the liver and the intestines, Plato was scornful of scientific inquiry. “The starry heaven which we behold is wrought upon a visible background and therefore must necessarily be deemed inferior far to the true motions of absolute swiftness and absolute intelligence. … It is equally absurd to take so much pains in investigating their exact truth.” Citing these lines, G. H. Lewes remarks that he
does not quote them “for the poor pleasure of holding a great name in the light of ridicule, but to show how even a great intellect may unsuspectingly wander into absurdities when it quits the firm though laborious path of inductive inquiry.”
One can admire Plato and revere him for the Republic and other classics while smiling at his quaint astronomy and anatomy. But we must know where to draw the line. It is hard to root out of our minds the absolutes which his followers planted in the universities of Europe and America and which survive and multiply with vitality even today.
Plato held that geometry represented eternal truth. The principles of geometry, he said, are independent of the human senses and an aid to spiritual perfection. Kant picked up this reasoning as a stick with which to beat the Materialists. One is not expected to attain spiritual perfection and enjoy himself at the same time. Euclid has been taught as a kind of moral discipline ever since.
In reading the extraordinary statements of ancient philosophers we must not forget Malinowski’s adventures in the Trobriand Islands. We cannot understand today what men writing twenty-five Some early philosophers believed that a number had to be either a boy or a girl. Even numbers were male; odd numbers were female. The circle was the most perfect form. The heavenly bodies were perfect. Therefore the heavenly bodies must move in circles. Centuries later, when Kepler showed that planets moved in ellipses, his findings were judged impious. The male sex was more perfect than the female. Therefore rounded eggs, being nearer circles, must be males. This conclusion was contemplated with equanimity for hundreds of years.
The magic-number brotherhood of Pythagoras, among other remarkable findings, established the following identities. The number 1 stood for reason, 2 for opinion, 3 for potency, 4 for justice, 5 for marriage. In the properties of 5 lay the secret of color; in 6, that of cold; in 7, that of health; in 8, that of love. Why love? Because 3 (potency) plus 5 (marriage) produces love. Star distances were a harmonic series, like the strings in lyre or harp—hence “the music of the spheres.” Perfect numbers were located where the factors of a number add up to the number itself, as in 6, 28, 496, 8,128. The boys had to sweat for the next one—33,550,336. These were identified with such things as the 6 days of creation, and the 28 days of the lunar month, to illustrate the perfection of the providential plan. The superiority of Achilles over Hector was demonstrated because the letters of Achilles’ name added to 1,276, while Hector batted only 1,225.
The schoolmen. The “number” of the Beast in the
Book of the Revelation had the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages calculating for centuries. Even Newton, in his old age, went number-chasing through the Book of Daniel. Peter Bungis, a Catholic theologian, wrote a treatise of seven hundred pages to prove that the number of the Beast, 666, was a cryptogram for the name of Martin Luther. Luther smartly returned the compliment by interpreting the number as a prophecy of the duration of the papal regime.
The alchemists, following Aristotle’s idea, had three elementary principles—sulphur, or the fire principle; mercury, or the liquid principle; salt, or the solid principle. Later it was held that phlogiston, or fire substance, escaped from materials when they burned. As it was known through experiment that metals increased their weight with burning, it followed that phlogiston had a negative weight. This gave the savants many a headache. The idea of “substance” dies hard. Not until centuries later did Lavoisier show that breathing, rusting, and burning were similar processes.
The ensemble of the metaphysical attributes imagined by the theologian is but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary adjectives. One feels that in the theologian’s hands they are only a set of titles obtained by a mechanical manipulation of synonyms; verbality has stepped into the place of vision.
So observes William James. Example: God, being the first cause, possesses existence a se; He is necessary and absolute- unlimited, infinitely perfect, one and only,
spiritual, immutable, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. This is an impressive philological parade, but it gets one no nearer to an understanding of God.
Antonio Perez, the disgraced minister of Philip II, was apprehended by the Inquisition for threatening to cut off God’s nose. The Holy Office proceeded against him not for the threat, but for the anthropomorphism; heresy lay not in railing against God, but in holding that God had a nose. God was an essence and faceless. Just how the learned men reconciled this doctrine with the Biblical record that God made man in His own image escapes me. These abstractions, be it observed, were powerful enough to get men hanged, burned, and broken upon the rack.
A Florentine doctor named Redi showed that dead meat could not turn into live maggots by itself. He placed a piece of gauze over the meat, thus preventing flies from laying eggs to produce maggots. The holy men were enraged, and charged Redi with having limited the “power of the Omnipotent.” When Galileo with his new telescope was able to show the moon with its mountains, and Jupiter with its satellites, the professor of philosophy at the University of Padua refused to look through it. He preferred to believe his mind rather than his eyes. The great earthquake at Lisbon in 1753 killed 60,000 people. The English clergy held that it was caused by the large number of Catholics in Portugal. The surviving Catholics held that it was caused by the heretic Protestants resident in the city.
After Galileo. Galileo is widely honored as the father of modern science. When he dropped the cannon balls from the Tower of Pisa he dramatized the operational approach, and put philosophy and theology on the defensive. Gradually the scientific method has gained standing and respectability, though not without violent conflict and the martyrdom of some of the early scientists. The latest major engagement was over Darwin, which lingered on to the Scopes trial in Tennessee.
Early in the eighteenth century Bishop Berkeley published his famous Essay toward a New Theory of Vision. In it he argued matter out of all existence except as an idea in the mind of God. Says Boswell of this essay:
After we came out of church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the Universe is merely ideal. I observed that though we are satisfied that his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”
Another way to look at it would be to assume that a lethal epidemic wiped out the human race. Would the planet continue to turn upon its axis, the seasons go on following the precession of the equinoxes? Would the beasts, birds, and fishes pursue their immemorial customs in an environment still constrained within immemorial laws of energy and change? I am convinced not only that the planet would continue but that it would prob-
ably be improved. “What is man that thou shouldst be mindful of him?” … I would go and Hobie Baker would remain. I hope he would find enough to eat.
A primitive linguistic outlook survives in the work of some profound modern thinkers. The technical philosophy of the nineteenth century was dominated by Idealism. In it, the elaboration of a monstrous word machinery—of which the Dialectic of Hegel provides an outstanding example—took the place of direct observation and research. Here is Herbert Spencer searching for word essence precisely as did the Greeks: “By comparing meanings in different connections, and observing what they have in common we learn the essential meaning of a word … let us ascertain the meaning of the word ‘good.’ : The Eskimos of Greenland believe that a spiritual affinity exists between two persons of the same name. They would have no difficulty in following either Aristotle or Herbert Spencer. “The Sublime,” remarked Croce—apparently fed up—”is everything that is or will be so called by those who have employed or shall employ the name.”
Goethe’s Spiraltendenz was a triumph of inaccurate observation transformed into a Great Truth of the Romantic School. He sought to show that the upward growth of stems in plants was due to a natural, inscrutable life force, and was male, while the spiral tendency of climbing plants was female. We remember that women were much identified with clinging vines in Goethe’s time. Numerology soared superbly among the
Romanticists. The number 5 was taken to be Heaven’s own. Two British ornithologists, Swainson and Vigors, were able to deduce that all species, genera, and families had been arranged in quincunxes, or five systems. If you could not see quincunxes, you were a dolt or a knave. If you professed to see them, it was wiser not to describe what you saw, and in consequence the elect would not stoop to descriptions or proof. 1
Van Wyck Brooks tells how New England seethed with philosophical discussion a century ago. Men argued for or against “potential presence,” “representative presence,” and “representative identity.” Blacksmiths and furriers as well as parsons and lawyers debated “free will” and “predestination,” wrangled over “natural ability,” “moral ability,” “God’s efficiency,” and “man’s agency.” Sometimes the interest in philosophy was morbid, as when children sat on “anxious seats” and cried because of the wickedness of their little hearts. One heard of “sweating” sermons, followed by “fainting” sermons, with “convulsion-fit” sermons as a grand climax.
John Jay Chapman was a kind of American Dr. Johnson, fond of striking his foot against great stones. In 1897, he wrote the following letter to William James concerning Josiah Royce, then a towering figure in philosophy at Harvard:
My dear Professor James,
I am driven to write to you because I so narrowly missed
1 Donald Culross Peattie: Green Laurels. Simon and Schuster, 1936.
seeing you and regretted it so much. Also because I am concerned about Royce. I never heard a man talk so much nonsense in one evening—and a man too who is such a splendid fellow, a unique nature and a very wonderful mind. The inroads of Harvard University upon his intelligence, however, have been terrible. He said he was writing a paper on originality and his conversation betrayed some of the things he is going to say in it. This was that everything was imitative—in art you “imitate the ideal.” This ought to be stopped. He is misleading the youth. I see why they killed Socrates. I say it is pernicious emptiness he is teaching your boys out there.
I know you would say that it’s mere philosophy and not to be taken seriously; but these things do have some influence sometimes. That man—mind you, I love and revere him —but he’s not as interesting a man as he was ten years ago. His mind has less of life in it. His constant strain and endeavor to evacuate his mind and have nothing in it but destruction is beginning to tell. I hear he is going abroad. I am awfully glad. Let him have no money. Let him come in grinding contact with life. Let him go to Greece and get into a revolution—somewhere where he can’t think—I mean do this thing he does, which is not thinking. Let his mind get full of images and impressions, pains, hungers, contrasts—life, life, life. He’s drawing on an empty well. 1
A generation ago philosophy, the queen of studies, was usually taught by the president of the college; in 1888 it was defined by the Century Dictionary as “The body of highest truth; the organized sum of science; the science of which all others are branches.” Observe how the philosophers refused to be elbowed out by science.
No, indeed, they would calmly engulf it. Yet even the staid London T’rmes was driven to check this omnivor-ousness: “In philosophy, as there is no objective standard, there is really no satisfactory reason why one opinion should be better than another.” The philosophers, said Einstein to an interviewer, play with the word “relativity” as a child plays with a doll. Bridgman gloomily predicted an era of debauched thinking as soon as philosophers should hear that in subatomic regions causality cannot be discovered. The era has begun. Maurice Maeterlinck solemnly told us that “all the revelations and apparitions of the Old and New Testaments come from four-dimensional beings; which is for that matter quite reasonable.” He could have made a fortune in Pasadena. Leonard Woolf has written a book attacking this kind of thinking. He remarks:
The demand for absolute truth is in inverse proportion to the possibility of providing it. The savage insists upon knowing everything with complete certainty about the universe, how it works and what it all means. The more civilized men become, the more skeptical do they become. And with skepticism they learn to overcome the fear of mental vacuum, of uncertainty about the truth of things and the meaning of their own existence. It requires no little courage to stand up in the face of the universe and say: “I do not know.”
As an occasional lecturer, I am well aware that it takes resolution, if not courage, to stand’up in front of the Middletown Open Forum and say to a questioner from
the floor, “I do not know.” A kind of shock goes through the audience, as though one had uttered a naughty word. Yet sometimes I have seen that blunt declaration met, after a pause, with a clapping of hands. Perhaps the most important statement in the scientific discipline is “I do not know.”
An ancient impulse leads us to fill any vacuum either with truth as revealed through “authority,” or with the use of reason above and beyond the facts. The latter road is taken by many modern philosophers, including Berg-son. Real facts, he tells us, are gained not by experience with the world outside, but by intuition:
What we have to do is to make a big act of perception, to embrace as wide a field as possible of past and present as a single fact directly known. . . . Intuition may be described as turning past and present into fact directly known by transferring it from mere matter into a creative process of duration.
The last sentence warrants a semantic translation:
Intuition may be described as turning blab and blab into blab directly known by blabbing it from mere matter into a blab blab of blab.
Bergson begins with perceptions and then yanks in the facts. This gives a superior brand of truth. Hitler and his propaganda generals follow a similar technique to less gentle ends. Woolf legitimately inquires why metaphysicians like Bergson, Keyserling, and an Indian seer much respected in England, Sir S. Radhakrishnan, should
stoop to the writing of books. Those who affirm that reality is nonlogical and then proceed to prove the unprovable in logical French or English are in the difficult position of a snake trying to swallow itself. To make certain, C. E. M. Joad wrote a book to drive home the message of Radhakishnan, in which he states flatly that his hero has attained to truth about the universe which is “from its nature incommunicable.”
Here is the majestic Spengler, star of the declining West:
I see further than others. . . . Destiny depends on quite other, robuster forces. Human history is war history. . . . Barbarism is that which I call strong race, the eternal warlike in the type of the beast-of-prey man.
Violence, greed, injustice, are raw, red, and real; liberty, happiness, peace, are “ineffective dreams.” Now the trouble with this stuff is not so much the savagery we read into the words as their vagueness and lack of meaning. “Barbarism is that which I call blab blab, the blab blab in the type of blab man.” Poor Leonard Woolf rolls up his sleeves and argues with Spengler for page upon page. But there is nothing to argue about, nothing susceptible to operational test anywhere in sight. I withdraw my salute of honor, given to philosophers at the beginning of the chapter, in the case of Spengler. The man should have been put in the hands of psychiatrists.
How often have you stumbled across such gems as this, quoted by Bell?
Truth is ever becoming, it never is. No error is ever overcome once and for all; it is only diminishing as truth increases. Truth is the act of this becoming. Truth is the union of the dreamer and the dream; in so far as the dreamer is human, truth is human. As a mathematician might say, truth is the approach of uncertainty to certainty as an asymptote.
The student of semantics grinds his teeth. This is the sort of blather which Adam x and Mrs. Adanii swallow by the bucketful. It goes down as smoothly as an advertisement for toothpaste. It sounds wise. It gives a feeling of comfort. It is undeniably learned, particularly the shrewd crack about the asymptote. And it is nonsense adulterated with perhaps the tiniest flicker of meaning.
Charles Hartshorne in a recent book, Beyond Humanism, lines up and slaughters such thinkers as Freud, Marx, Dewey, Santayana, Russell, Croce. Let an able reviewer, Eliseo Vivas, continue the story.
His thesis … is that the Universe and the electrons may be said to feel and think. … If the Universe feels and thinks, God may have imagination and memory. Therefore He has imagination and memory. All this is reinforced by the claim that only upon this thesis can certain facts be explained. These facts boil down to the assertion that our spontaneous ethical convictions and deep human needs demand this conception of God-Nature if we are to achieve personal integration. What integration is, we are not told. . . . The clever use of the old tricks of apologetics—the claim to be the sole sanction of science; the sharp distinction, when evidence is untoward, between science and philosophy; the facile demonstration of the ignorance of those
one is opposed to, and the scornful arrogance which grows from a monopoly of the truth. . . .
I do not know Professor Hartshorne, but I recognize a philosopher hitting on all sixteen cylinders.
I could continue indefinitely with citations of this nature, but we have many dragons to pursue in other fields. If it be objected that the citations are more or less torn from their contexts, I admit it. But you ought to see the contexts. Let us conclude with a sad exhibit. It comes from a brilliant young educator, R. M. Hutchins, who recently published a book, The Higher Learning in America.
We see, then, that we may get order in the higher learning by removing from it the elements which disorder it today, and these are vocationalism and unqualified empiricism. If when these elements are removed we pursue the truth for its own sake in the light of some principles of order, such as metaphysics, we shall have a rational plan for a university. We shall be able to make a university a true center of learning; we shall be able to make it the home of creative thought.
The subjects to be taught in this ideal university are grammar, rhetoric, logic, Euclid, and the classics— those books which have survived through the ages, many of them written in the ancient and medieval periods.
Back, young men and women of the twentieth century, to the broad bosom of Plato! Within these academic shades let it be known that Galileo flung his cannon balls in vain; Bruno died at the stake to no purpose; Einstein discovered nothing of educational importance. Dr. Hutchins is too young to be so tired. The intellectual elite has been reared on the classics for hundreds of years. Look at the world they have helped to make!
centuries ago actually said. We should have to go back and live in Athens or in Stagira to find the exact meanings. But we can come near enough to their mental processes—they were extremely civilized gentlemen—to warrant the strictures laid here upon their methods of acquiring knowledge.