JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Third Period. Decay of Greek Philosophy.

Preliminary Remarks.

§ 39.

1. The golden age of Greek Philosophy closes with Aristotle. The freedom of Greece was lost in the battle of Chaeronea (B.C. 338). The military power which rose on the northern frontier of the Peninsula, laid its iron hand upon the free land of Greece, and stifled the life which had hitherto pulsated within it. It was in vain that the great orator, Demosthenes, a "particularist" in the best sense of the term, strove to rouse the Greeks by his potent eloquence to watchfulness and to union against the danger. Philip of Macedon was able to paralyse his efforts. He was able to form in Greece itself a party which withstood the efforts of the great Demosthenes, dissolved the bonds of union among the Greeks, and so prepared the way for the final blow at Chaeronea. The party of Aeschines triumphed over the patriotism of Demosthenes, and made Greece a prey to the Northern State.

2. The loss of liberty and independence was followed by its natural result -- the torpor of the creative powers of the Greek mind. Under a military tyranny Art and Science cannot flourish. This was signally exemplified in the philosophy of Greece. The Greek mind, held in thrall by the Macedonian power, could no longer attempt an independent solution of speculative problems. It contented itself with returning upon the results attained by earlier thinkers, and reproducing these in new guise for philosophic study. In executing this task the philosophers of this period were not so much guided by love of pure speculation as by practical aims. To discover the conditions and methods by which the individual may reach happiness here below, was the chief end they proposed to themselves. The theoretic elements which the philosophers of this period adopted from earlier systems were utilised chiefly to establish and to justify the practical doctrines regarding subjective happiness on earth, which the several philosophers professed. The lofty mystical flights of Plato, the preference for the Theôria over practical philosophy, which we observe in Aristotle, are not to be found in this period; the Greek mind was no longer capable of this elevation of thought.

3. We cannot be surprised to find that the sum of truth contained in the systems of Greek Philosophy subsequently to the time of Aristotle is reduced to a small compass, and to observe that the ideal or supersensuous element finds no place in the philosophy of this period. The lofty speculative ideas of Plato and the sharply-defined metaphysical conceptions of Aristotle are succeeded by the realistic pantheism of the Stoics and the dull materialism of the Epicureans. Plato's mystical view of the nature of knowledge and Aristotle's well-marked distinction between intellectual and sensuous cognition disappear, and we have instead Empiricism and Sensualism. Virtue is no longer connected with a higher spiritual destiny of man, as in the Platonic system; it is either made its own end, as in the system of the Stoics, or regarded merely as a means to pleasure, as in the view of the Epicureans. The primitive philosophical notions, beyond which the Socratic systems had advanced, were again brought into prominence, and thus a retrograde movement began, which must be described as a decline of philosophy. In due course the scepticism which this relaxation of the earnest philosophical spirit was sure to call forth, made its appearance, and its wasting action utterly destroyed the diminished sum of truth still remaining. This scepticism was the expression of the utter impotence of the philosophical spirit, the death of philosophy, the quagmire in which the current of Greek philosophy was lost.

4. The old spirit of Greek independence and liberty seemed to revive for a time in Sparta when Cleomenes restored the constitution of Lycurgus, and again in the Aetolian and Achaian Leagues, under Aratus and Philopoemen (B.C. 210). But soon another military power -- that of the Romans, took the place of Macedon. By the fall of Corinth (B.C. 145) Greece became subject to Rome, and was reduced to the condition of a Roman province. A consequence of its subjugation was that the language, literature, and refinement of Greece were introduced into Rome. At an earlier period (B.C. 155), three Greek philosophers, Critolaus (a Peripatetic), Carneades (an Academic), and Diogenes (a Stoic), had visited Rome as ambassadors of Athens, and had taken advantage of their visit to recommend by their discourses the philosophy and science of Greece to the Roman youth. After the conquest of Greece, this kind of intercourse between Greeks and Romans was more actively carried on. But no higher development of philosophical speculation was attained by the Greeks, nor did the leaven of Greek civilization introduced at Rome give rise to an original Roman philosophy.

5. The Romans were a people of a practical turn, devoted to practical political aims, and took little pleasure in philosophical speculations. Such mental occupations they held to be useless, aimless, and undignified. The concerns of his country, the promoting of its prosperity at home and of its glory and power abroad, were the only objects which the Roman thought worthy of his efforts. Moreover, he had an interest in preserving Roman principles and Roman morals from the corrupting influences of the later philosophy of Greece. His national pride, too, disdained to imitate the despised Groeculi in their scientific labours. All these causes combined to prevent the growth of an independent philosophy in Rome. The philosophy of the Romans is merely a more or less modified reproduction of the philosophical theories of Greece; and in their choice of systems the Romans confined themselves almost cxclusively to those of later origin, chiefly to those of the Stoics and Epicureans. The systems of Plato and Aristotle, which involved profound and far-reaching speculation, were not to their taste. We find in much favour amongst them a certain Eclecticism, which borrowed from the different systems what appeared to be most probable in each.

What is called the philosophy of Rome is merely an offshoot of Greek philosophy transplanted to a foreign soil, which occasionally assumes a somewhat peculiar character, but which cannot be regarded as a creation of the Roman mind, In the time of the Caesars, Epicurean notions affected more and more profoundly the life of the Roman people; but this is to be attributed to the profound moral corruption which grew and spread abroad under the Empire.

6. In accordance with the general outlines which we have here traced, we proceed to treat first of Stoicism, then of Epicureanism, and lastly of Scepticism and Eclecticism. Roman philosophy we shall not treat apart; we shall refer to the several Roman philosophers when dealing with the school of Greek philosophy to which they happen to belong. For since Roman philosophy is no more than an offshoot from the Greek, it can be rightly treated only in connection with the latter.

<< ======= >>