JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl


§ 1.

1. LOOKED at from the subjective standpoint, Philosophy is nothing more than the effort of discursive thought to reach the highest and ultimate reasons of all things that are, in the measure in which this end is attainable by mere reason. The task which the human mind undertakes in this study is very vast and very difficult. For this reason it lay in the nature of things that Philosophy should not reach its perfect development at a bound -- that in the course of centuries many thinkers should set themselves to the solution of the great problem, and should devote the power of intellect allotted them to attain, as best they could, the end of philosophical inquiry. In this way the course of time has brought forth many philosophical systems. Each of these represents the labour which its author has expended in the investigation of the ultimate reasons of things that are, and the results he has attained by this inquiry.

2. The philosophical systems with which the history of the human race confronts us are not only many in number; they furthermore differ from one another as well in Matter as in Form. The sum of truth is greater in one than in another; and some seem in this respect to have failed altogether; some systems are of wider comprehensive range, taking in the whole domain of speculative thought; others are devoted to a special field of philosophical inquiry; some are, in their arrangement, rigidly systematic -- in others the several parts seem loosely bound together, the effort after system is not prominently apparent. If we seek the reasons of this diversity, we shall find them, partly in the great range and difficulty of the task which Philosophy sets the human mind, partly in the different points of view adopted by the several thinkers, and partly in extrinsic conditions -- in the influences exercised upon the several thinkers by the circumstances in which they lived.

3. In spite, however, of this diversity we find a certain inner connection between the several philosophical systems which succeed one another in time. The results attained by earlier philosophers were not lost upon those who succeeded them. The latter made the theories of their predecessors part of their own systems, when they held them to be satisfactorily established. If they considered them insufficiently proved, or wholly false, they set up in opposition to them other principles which appeared to them more tenable. Thus there came to be established a certain intrinsic order of connection between the successive systems, corresponding to the extrinsic order of succession in time. One philosophical system refers us to another, and each can be understood in its full significance only in connection with others to which it stands immediately related.

4. This inner connection between the successive systems of Philosophy gives a reason why, with the progress of time, a continuous development of Philosophy and philosophic thought is observable. Each succeeding thinker had before him, in the systems of his predecessors, the results hitherto achieved by philosophical inquiry. These were in part available for the construction of his own system. In part they had to be refuted, and the philosopher, in order to set right the teaching in question, was led to a deeper study of the subject matter concerned. His system would naturally be more highly perfected than those of his predecessors -- a distinct advance upon them. The succession of philosophical systems in time is thus seen to involve a progressive development of Philosophy itself, a constant advance towards the perfection of philosophic knowledge.

6. It must, indeed, be admitted that this advance has not always been uninterrupted. The human race does not advance to the goal of perfection fixed for it by God in undisturbed progress. It passes through periods of storm and profound disturbance, though these, in their measure, seem ultimately to purify and perfect it. So it is with the progress of Philosophy. Periods of difficulty and danger arise, which sometimes interrupt for centuries the progress of philosophical thought. Systems imposing in their grandeur, and rich in the possession of truth, are abandoned for others that are at once poor and pretentious; and these failing to satisfy the human mind, a moment comes when philosophical inquiry is thrown aside as without utility and without fruit, and Scepticism or Materialism reigns instead. These, however, are but moments of crisis. They do not last for ever. They even serve to impel the human mind to higher efforts of inquiry when the crisis is past. For the errors which come to the surface in these periods of stormy confusion call for repression and competent refutation, and thus oblige the philosopher to make deeper the foundations, and more extended the range of his philosophic knowledge.

6. It will appear from what we have been saying that it is a profitable study to make acquaintance with the successive philosophical systems, as well in themselves as in their mutual connection and in this way to follow step by step the development of philosophic knowledge as it manifests itself in the series. "The mind is roused and strengthened by observing how many highly-gifted men have, out of mere love of truth, laboured with untiring zeal to build up the great structure of philosophical science, and have furthered by their efforts the harmonious development of man's spiritual life; while at the same time it is protected against pride and self-deception by learning how weak it is, notwithstanding the great thoughts with which it teems. Furthermore, he who will achieve anything like a higher philosophical knowledge must make acquaintance with the opinions and methods which philosophical investigation has already called into existence, that he may estimate the problems before him aright, and avoid every one-sidedness from which others have already escaped." We cannot, however, be required to study all philosophical systems with the same attention. We must chiefly occupy ourselves with those which stand out prominently above the rest, and round which the others group themselves as round so many centres.

7. We are now in a position to form a right notion of the history of Philosophy. Objectively considered, it is nothing more than the series of philosophical systems which have appeared in time, and the development of philosophical knowledge as manifested in them, In the subjective sense -- with which we are now concerned -- the history of Philosophy is an exposition of the successive systems of Philosophy, setting forth their contents, their mutual connection, and the progressive development of philosophical knowledge represented in them.

8. A history of Philosophy thus involves three requirements:

The contents of the several philosophical systems must be set forth with the greatest attainable clearness, and with all possible completeness. The historian must address himself to his task cautiously, thoughtfully, dispassionately and impartially. It must be his first effort to set forth each philosophical system exactly according to the mind of its author, to omit nothing which is essential, and to add nothing.

In the second place, the history of Philosophy has to make clear the relation in which each system stands to those which preceded it, what elements it has borrowed from them, or in what antagonism it stands to them. And again, it has to show what influence each system has exercised upon those that followed, how its principles have been subsequently expanded, transformed, or otherwise modified, that its bearing and significance may be fully understood.

In the third place, the history of Philosophy must indicate how far a given system has been an advance or a falling back in philosophical knowledge, that we may be able to fix its place in the order of development which philosophy has followed.

9. As regards the method to be applied by the historian of Philosophy in the execution of his task, the question arises, which of the two methods, the a priori or the a posteriori meets the requirements of a history of Philosophy such as we have described? To this we reply:

The a priori method lays down a pre-established principle as the foundation of the whole historical system, and from this derives all the systems which have appeared in time, showing their contents and the order of succession in which they have appeared to be alike necessary results of the development of the principle assumed. It is thus that Hegel, in his "History of Philosophy," has endeavoured to establish, on a priori grounds, that the several philosophical systems which the course of time has brought forth are no more than isolated, imperfect elements of the Absolute Philosophy -- the Hegelian. This successive realisation of the several elements of the Absolute Philosophy was required, in order that the gradual synthesis of contradictions might at last give rise to the perfect Philosophy, that is to say, that God might attain to perfect consciousness in the mind of man. This a priori method of Hegel has found many imitators, though the pantheistic principle has not in all cases been an assumption in these methods.

But a priori constructions of history after this fashion must be peremptorily rejected as unjustifiable and mistaken. In the first place, an exact knowledge of the various systems, as their authors framed them, is not possible if we view their development in the light of a philosophical theory of our own, and study them only as seen through this medium. Under such circumstances the several systems will be judged according to the standard and the requirements of our own. The tendencies and opinions of the historian himself will be apparent at every turn, but what the authors of the systems under discussion thought, and aimed at, will not be put before us. In the second place -- and this argument is decisive -- systems of Philosophy come before us as facts of history, and as such they are contingent, not necessary. The contingent cannot be proved a necessity; he who undertakes such a proof is forced to deny the contingent character of all historical facts -- a proceeding which involves assumptions that belong either to Pantheism or Materialism.

The a posteriori method is the only method which accords with the notion of a history of Philosophy. In this matter, as in history generally, we have to do with questions of fact; we have first to make acquaintance with the several systems of Philosophy, as with so many facts, before we proceed to seek the reasons of these facts, that is, before we inquire how they have come to be, in what relations of dependence they stand to other systems, and what progress of philosophical thought is manifested in them. Nor shall we proceed further in this latter direction than the sense attributed by the authors to the systems which they actually framed will warrant. The historian must, therefore, make his own philosophical system subserve the purposes of history. He must not make of it the criterion or the measure of others. Only in this way can he present us with a history of Philosophy true in its details and faithful to facts.

10. Again, "the development of Philosophy is, in many respects, dependent upon the development of other sciences (of the empirical sciences more particularly), and upon the religious convictions and opinions as well of the individual philosopher as of the people to which he belongs. Its progress or decline is influenced by the intercourse of nations with one another, by the conditions of social life peculiar to the several peoples, by the family organisation as maintained among them, by their political institutions, by the state of art among them, and, lastly it is affected by the peculiar circumstances which have shaped the lives of the individuals who have specially contributed to its development. It is true a history of Philosophy cannot enter minutely into all these details. They are the material for other departments of history. But it cannot avoid occasional allusions to them, since they have exercised an important influence on the progress of Philosophy. For the same reason, it cannot omit from view the outward lives of the several philosophers. On this point, too, it must furnish adequate information."

11. The sources from which a history of Philosophy must be drawn are: --

Primarily, such works of the philosophers as have reached us, or such fragments of their writings as are still preserved. But, before using such works or fragments of works for the purposes of history we must first be assured of their authenticity and integrity. Historical criticism, by which this assurance is given us, must, therefore, prepare the way for a history of Philosophy.

In dealing with philosophical theories and systems where the author's own exposition is not accessible to us, we must, of course, content ourselves with the statements of others. In such cases these statements are most reliable which are based immediately on the writings of the philosophers; and next to these, the statements of disciples as to the oral teachings of their masters. If the purpose of the writer whose statements are our source of information be not so much historical narration as proof of the doctrines he is stating, we must, in order to make his utterances available for purposes of history, discover from them the exact thoughts of the author of the theories in question, and we must test each statement made by its bearing on this issue. The source from which the writer drew, and the purpose of his writings, are of first importance; next in importance, as a criterion of his trustworthiness, is his own education in Philosophy, his capacity to understand the doctrines with which he is dealing.

12. In seeking a division of the history of Philosophy, we find two great divisions obviously suggested -- the history of the pre-Christian (ancient) Philosophy, and the history of Philosophy since Christ. Christ is the central point for all history. His coming into the world has been called by the Apostle "the fulness of time" (plenitudo temporis). He was the scope and the consummation of the times that preceded Him; He was the point of departure for the time that followed; for the events that have filled it have all been hallowed by the Redemption he effected. For the Christian all history is thus divided into two great periods, and with the rest, the history of Philosophy. This view is in strict accordance with the facts of the case. The Philosophy which preceded, and that which followed Christ, differ more widely in character than the philosophies of any of the several periods subordinate to these. The world has never witnessed such a revolution in human thought, such an enlargement of the range of human knowledge as that effected by the introduction of Christianity. We cannot, therefore, find elsewhere a more appropriate point at which to divide the history of Philosophy into its main divisions than at the point where Christianity appears in the world.

13. If we inquire what are the characteristic features of these two chief eras of Philosophy, we find them in their respective relations to Christianity which we have indicated above.

To speak first of pre-Christian Philosophy.

Pre-Christian Philosophy is characterised generally by persistent vigorous efforts to attain a purer knowledge of that truth which was embodied in the religious tenets and traditions of the several ancient peoples. Religious traditions, though derived from an untainted source (the primary tradition), had undergone so many transformations among various nations, and had been so thickly overlaid with errors, that in the state they had reached they could no longer satisfy the longing of the human mind for truth. The mind of man set itself, therefore, to reach by rational investigation what it no longer possessed in the traditions of religion. Its innate desire of knowledge was the force which impelled it to consecrate its energies to the search after truth.

This effort of the human mind was, it must be admitted, in many respects successful. The philosophers of antiquity arrived at the knowledge of many important and lofty truths. But the path they had entered on did not lead them to the whole truth, and of this the ablest thinkers amongst them were only too well aware. Manifold errors, too, found entrance into and disfigured their systems. No one of the ancient philosophies stated the whole truth, and all contained many errors. Philosophy could not maintain itself at the level reached in these systems; it sank after a time into Materialism and Scepticism.

From this point of view Philosophy, in its earlier development, appears as a preparation of the human mind for the Christian Revelation which was made to the world in the fulness of time. This preparation was accomplished in three ways:

In the first place, the great thinkers of antiquity, having attained a knowledge of many important truths, but not of the whole truth, had roused that longing after the fulness of truth, to which, as we know, Plato gave such striking expression. By exciting this desire for truth in its fulness, and thus rendering the human mind more ready to receive it, ancient Philosophy did its most important work in preparation for Christian Revelation.

Furthermore, Philosophy, having failed to maintain itself at the level reached in the more celebrated systems, had fallen into Materialism and Scepticism. And these had called forth in the human mind the feeling of need for higher assistance, for some divine revelation which should help man to a fuller knowledge of the truth. This feeling of the need of a revelation further contributed to dispose the human mind for the due reception of revealed teaching.

A third service, important to be remembered, was rendered by the ancient Philosophy to Christianity. On the one hand it thoroughly investigated the conditions and laws of scientific thought; and on the other, by its efforts of speculation, it amassed a considerable body of truths of the natural order. In both these ways it prepared materials for the fabric of speculative Philosophy, which, after the time of Christ, was raised in connection with Christian Revelation. Thinkers of the Christian schools found abundant materials ready to hand, and these, as we shall see, they used in the fullest measure.

14. We come now to the Philosophy of the newer or Christian period.

The Philosophy of this period is characterised in general by the effort to reach a profounder understanding of truth, to dig deeper the foundations of knowledge. But the founders of the newer systems have pursued this effort on widely different lines.

Some have fallen in with the ordinances of God, have submitted to divine revelation, and, in submission to it as the guiding principle of their inquiries, have sought to penetrate the truth more profoundly, and to establish it on a more unassailable foundation. Following this path, they have achieved most brilliant successes, the systems which such thinkers have built up being amongst the most imposing with which the history of Philosophy presents us.

Others again have followed a course at variance with the divinely-established order. They have adopted a false and perverted attitude towards divine revelation, have even rejected Christianity altogether, and by a method thus opposed to the order established by God, have sought to discover the truth and to demonstrate it. Thinkers of this class have never attained satisfactory results. The philosophic movements begun by them have led always, in course of due development, to far-reaching errors, and have at length lost themselves in Scepticism and Materialism.

But whatever road philosophers may have followed, whatever results they may have produced, the final outcome has ever been to place the truth of Christian revelation in clearer light before the scientific mind. To this end one set of philosophers have directly contributed by systems developed in harmony with, and in support of revelation. Others have contributed to the same effect indirectly. By the very errors into which they have fallen in consequence of their perverseness of thought they furnish proof that it is only when in accord with divine revelation, and when unreservedly obedient to its teachings, that the human mind can know the truth profoundly, and vindicate it successfully.

If, then, we regard pre-Christian Philosophy as a preparation for the Christian revelation, we must recognise in the newer Philosophy a continued confirmation of the same revelation, a power which has served to bring out more clearly, more comprehensively, and more forcibly the truth of Christianity.

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