The Philosophers of the Hellenistic and Christian Eras
Before he died in 323 b.c. at age thirty-two, Aristotle's student, Alexander the Great,
son of the Macedonian king Philip II, had conquered the entire civilized Western world, pulverizing all opposition and naming a score of cities after himself to ensure that everyone got the message. This period of Macedonian domination of the Greek-speaking world, known as the Hellenistic age (Hellene means "Greek"), was a period of major achievements in mathematics and science.
Having started with Alexander around 335 b.c., Macedonian hegemony was carried forth by the families of three of Alexander's generals and lasted about a century and a half, until Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III of Syria were each defeated (around 190 b.c.) by a new ascending power: Rome. From that time on for approximately the next seven hundred years, the Western world was the Roman Empire, built on plunder and the power of the sword.
For two centuries, beginning in 27 b.c. with the reign of Julius Caesars grandnephew Octavian, who was known as "Augustus, the first Roman emperor and savior of the world," the Roman Empire enjoyed peace, security, and political stability. But eventually, after the reign of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 161-180), conditions deteriorated into chaos. Nevertheless, the ultimate fall of the empire was postponed by Diocletian, who divided the empire into eastern (Byzantine) and western (Roman) halves, and by Constantine I, who granted universal religious tolerance, thus in effect recognizing Christianity. Finally, however, internal anarchy opened the Roman frontiers to the barbarians. Although the Eastern empire survived until the fifteenth century, in 476 the last emperor of the West was deposed by the Goths. The Dark Ages followed.
If the Romans were anything, they were practical. They built aqueducts and underground sewers and had glass windows. Wealthy Romans lived in lavish town houses equipped with central heating and running water. Roman highways were built on road base four feet thick and were paved with concrete and squared stone. Roman roads and bridges are still used today, and some may outlive the interstates.
But although they were masters of the applied arts and of practical disciplines such as military science and law (Roman law provided the basis for modern civil law), the Romans had little use for art for art's sake or for literature or science. From the Roman perspective, no form of entertainment was quite so satisfying as watching men fight other men to the death, although seeing humans fight animals came in a close second. Witnessing public torture was a popular amusement.
Metaphysics in the Roman Empire
In philosophy the contributions of the Romans were minimal and almost entirely unoriginal. During Hellenistic and Roman periods there were four main traditions or "schools" of philosophy; three of these arose around the time of .Alexander and were in fact products of Greek culture, not Roman. Two of these—known as Stoicism and Epicureanism—were concerned mainly with the question of how the individual should best conduct his affairs. If there had been supermarkets at the time, then Stoic and Epicurean advice would have been available in paperbacks for sale at the checkout counters. But these schools of philosophy are a subject for our section on ethics. The third school—Skepticism—was concerned with the possibility of knowledge. In just a second we will say something about it. The remaining school, unlike these other three, did arise during Roman times, but this school was for all intents and purposes a revision of Plato's philosophy. It is known as Neoplatonism. Because it had considerable influence on the metaphysics of Christianity, we should say something about Neoplatonism now.
The great philosopher of Neoplatonism was Plotinus (c. a.d. 204-270). During Plotinus's lifetime, the Roman Empire was in a most dismal state, suffering plague, marauding barbarian hordes, and an army incompetent to do anything but assassinate its own leaders. Civilization was in fact tottering dangerously near the abyss. Plotinus, however, was inclined to ignore these earthly trifles, for he had discovered that by turning his attention inward, he could achieve union with god.
Plotinus's interest in philosophy began when he was twenty-eight in Alexandria (the most famous Alexandria, the one in Egypt). His first teacher was Ammonius, the "Sack Carrier," who was so called because he earned his living as a gardener.
About 244, Plotinus traveled to Rome and founded what came to be a renowned school of Neoplatonic philosophy. Even the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina patronized the school. Plotinus tried to get his students to ask questions for themselves; consequently the discussions were lively and sometimes almost violent. On one occasion Plotinus had to stop a particularly ugly confrontation between a senator and a rich man; he urged both parties to calm themselves and think rather only of the One (about which see the text).
Plotinus himself was a quiet, modest, and selfless human being. He was thought to possess an uncanny ability to penetrate into the human character and its motives, and for this reason he was sought out for all manner of practical advice.
He would not, however, acknowledge his birthday. This is because, at least according to Porphyry, who wrote a biography of Plotinus, Plotinus was ashamed that his immortal soul was contained in a mortal body, and the event of his soul entering his body was therefore something to be regretted. He also would not allow his face to be painted or his body to be sculpted. In fact, his long disregard of his body eventually caused him to lose his voice, and his hands and feet festered with abscesses and pus. Because Plotinus greeted his students with an embrace, the net result was a falling off in enrollment.
Plotinus's philosophy had a great influence on St. Augustine and other doctors and fathers of the Church. Christian theology is unthinkable without the mystical depth that comes from him.
Now think back for a moment to Plato. According to Plato's metaphysics, there are two worlds. On one hand, there is the cave, that is, the world of changing appearances: the world of sensation, ignorance, error, illusion, and darkness. On the other hand, there is the light, that is, the world of Forms: the world of intellect, knowledge, truth, reality, and brightness whose ultimate source of existence and essence is the Form the Good.
Plotinus further specified this ultimate source or reality as god or the One. For Plotinus, god is above and beyond everything else—utterly transcendent.
But Plotinus's god, like Platos Good, and unlike the Christian God, is not a personal god. God, according to Plotinus, is indefinable and indescribable, because to define or describe god would be to place limitations on what has no limits. About god it can only be said that god is. And god can be apprehended only through a coming together of the soul and god in a mystical experience. This mystical "touching" of god, this moment in which we have the "vision," is the highest moment of life.
Plotinus's thought was very influential on the last of the great ancient philosophers, Augustine, who also happens to be one of the two or three most important Christian theologians of all time. We might just say a word here about the spread of Christianity because its eventual predominance in Europe came to define the framework within which most Western philosophizing took place. After Plotinus, the great philosophers of the western part of the Roman Empire, or what became of the western part, were almost without exception Christians.
The original Christians, including the rabbi Jesus and his followers, were Jews, though Christianity gradually evolved from a Jewish sect to a separate religion. Now, the Romans were generally pretty tolerant of the religious ideas and practices of the various peoples under their subjugation, but the Jews, including members of the Christian splinter sect, were not willing to pay even token homage to the Roman emperor-deities. The Christians, moreover, were unusually active in trying to make converts. Thus, to Roman thinking, the Christians not only were atheists who ridiculed the Roman deities, but they also, unlike more orthodox Jews, were fanatical rabble-rousers who attempted to impose on others what to the Romans counted as gross superstition. So for a couple of centuries or so, the Christians were persecuted from time to time by assorted Roman emperors, sometimes rather vigorously
Nevertheless, of the numerous cults that existed during the first couple of centuries a.d., Christianity eventually became the most popular. Its followers became so numerous and, thanks to the administrative efforts of Paul of Tarsus—(later St. Paul)—so well organized that by the early part of the fourth century, the emperor Constantine announced its official toleration.
Specifics of Christian doctrine need not concern us, though its central beliefs are well known: Jesus is the son of God, and Jesus's life, crucifixion, and resurrection are proof of God's love for humans and forgiveness of human sin; in addition, by having faith in Christ, you will be saved and have life everlasting. The God of Christianity is thought (by Christians) to be the creator of all; and he is also thought to be distinct from his creation.
St. Augustine (a.d. 354-430), who came from the town of Tagaste, near what is today the Algerian city ofAnnaba, transferred Platonic and Neoplatonic themes to Christianity. Transported down through the ages to us today, these themes affect the thought of both Christian and non-Christian.
"Whenever Augustine," Thomas Aquinas later wrote, "who was saturated with the teachings of the Platonists, found in their writings anything consistent with the faith, he adopted it; and whatever he found contrary to the faith, he amended." Through
Augustine, Christianity became so permanently interwoven with elements of Platonic thought that today, as William Inge said, it is impossible to remove Platonism from Christianity "without tearing Christianity to pieces."
St. Augustine regarded Plotinus and Plato as having prepared him for Christianity by exposing him to important Christian principles before he encountered them in Scripture. (Neither Plato nor Plotinus was Christian, it should be clear.) Augustine had a very strong inclination toward skepticism and was tempted to believe that "nothing can be known." Plato and Plotinus enabled Augustine to overcome this inclination.
Profile: Saint Augustine (354-430)
Augustine grew up in northern Africa. His father was a successful man of the world, and Augustine was expected to follow a similar path. Accordingly, he studied rhetoric in Carthage. While there, however, he fell in with a group of students known as the "rebels" who found amusement in such pasttimes as attacking innocent passersby at night. Augustine, to his credit, did not participate in these episodes, though he did steal fruit from a neighbor's tree for the sheer perversity of doing so.
As a young man Augustine also indulged in many love affairs. He took a concubine, and the union produced a son. He came to have doubts about his lifestyle, however, and eventually these doubts began to take the upper hand. With the encouragement of his family, he became engaged to a young woman of a prominent family. But Augustine grew impatient and took a new lover.
In the meanwhile, Augustine's studies had taken him to Rome and to Milan, where he became a professor of rhetoric. His mother, Monica, had already become a Christian. Through her encouragement and through Augustine's exposure to St. Ambrose, the celebrated preacher, Augustine was baptized into Christianity at the age of thirty-three. He returned to northern Africa and soon thereafter was called on to serve as Bishop of Hippo.
As bishop, Augustine used his rhetorical abilities to the full in fiercely attacking what he perceived to be the many heresies of the time. His thinking was dominated by two themes, the sinfulness of human beings and the inscrutability of God. At the age of seventy-two, he withdrew from the world and died in self-chosen solitude.
We should be more specific, however. Today we take for granted the concept of a separate, immaterial reality known as the transcendent God. Even those who do not believe in God are familiar with this concept of an immateriality and are not inclined to dismiss it as blatant nonsense (though some, of course, do). But careful reflection
reveals that there isn't much within experience that gives rise to this concept, for we seem to experience only concrete, physical things. Through the influence of Plato and Plotinus, St. Augustine perceived that belief in a distinct immaterial reality was not the blindly superstitious thing that it might seem. And through Augustine's thought, the Christian belief in a non-material God received a philosophical justification, a justification without which (it is arguable) this religion would not have sustained the belief of thoughtful people through the ages. (Other explanations of the durability of the Christian belief in God are, of course, possible.)
Augustine accepted the Platonic view that "there are two realms, an intelligible realm where truth itself dwells, and this sensible world which we perceive by sight and touch." Like Plato before him, St. Augustine thought that the capacity of the human mind to grasp eternal truths implies the existence of something infinite and eternal apart from the world of sensible objects, an essence that in some sense represents the source or ground of all reality and of all truth. This ultimate ground and highest being Augustine identified with God, rather than Platonic Forms.
Augustine, however, accepted the Old Testament idea that God created the world out of nothing. This idea of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, is really quite a startling concept when you think about it, and Greek thinkers had had trouble with it. Their view had been that getting something from nothing is impossible.
Augustine, God, and Time
The ex nihilo theory (God created it all out of nothing) invites a troublesome question for Christian theology: Why did God choose to create the world at the time he did and not at some other? Thanks to Plato and Plotinus, Augustine was able to provide a potentially reasonable answer to this question.
According to Augustine, the question rests on a false assumption, that God (and his actions) exist within time. On the contrary, Augustine maintained, God does not exist in time; instead, time began with the creation by God of the world. God is beyond time. In this way the timeless attribute of Plato's Good and Plotinus's One was transferred by Augustine to the Christian God.
But what exactly, Augustine wondered, is time? Here Augustine broke new philosophical ground by coming forth with a very tempting answer to this question.
"What, then, is time?" he asked. "If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not." On one hand only the present exists, for the past is no more, and the future is not yet. But on the other hand certain things did happen in the past, and other things will happen in the future, and thus past and future are quite real. How can the past and the future be both real and nonexistent?
Augustine's answer to this almost hopelessly baffling question is that past and future exist only in the human mind. "The present of things past is memory; the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation."
Thus, Augustine's analysis of time is that it is a subjective phenomenon. It exists "only in the mind." (Thus, before God created us, there was no time.) The idea that time is subjective was later developed by Kant into the theory that time, space, causation, and other basic "categories" of being are all subjective impositions of the mind on the world.
The same idea was then carried to its ultimate conclusion by the 'Absolute Idealists," who said that the world is mind. We will turn to all this in due course.
Augustine's views on time can be found in the eleventh book of his Confessions.
Augustine also accepted, of course, the Gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and believed that God took on human form in the person of Jesus. Thus the Augustinian theology gives God a human aspect that would have been unthinkable for Neoplatonists, who thought that the immaterial realm could not be tainted with the imperfection of mere gross matter.
It is sometimes said that St. Augustine is the founder of Christian theology. Certainly his influence on Christian thought was second to none, with the exception of St. Paul, who formulated a great deal of Christian doctrine. One very important aspect of his thought was his concept of evil, in which the influence of Plato and Plotinus is again evident.
The Skeptical Challenge
Now recall that after Aristotle there emerged four main traditions or schools of philosophy, the Stoics and Epicureans (whose story belongs to Part 2 on ethics), the Neoplatonists (remember Plotinus?), and the Skeptics. To discuss the famous Skeptic tradition that emerged after Aristotle, we'll backtrack a bit to the beginning of epistemological philosophy, for although the Neoplatonists were mainly metaphysicians, the Skeptics were epistemologists. Epistemology, remember, is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and possibility of knowledge.
The roots of Skepticism—and the beginnings of epistemology—may be traced back to certain pre-Socratic philosophers. Heraclitus (c. 535-c. 475 b.c.) had the theory that, just as you cannot step into the same river twice, everything is in flux, and this theory suggests that it is impossible to discover any fixed truth beyond what is expressed in the theory itself. (Heraclitus, however, did not himself deduce skeptical conclusions from his theory.) Cratylus, a younger contemporary of Socrates (469-399 b.c.), carried this view concerning flux even further and said that you cannot step even once into the same river, because both you and the river are continually changing. Because everything is changing, our words themselves change in their meaning as we speak them, and therefore communication, Cratylus maintained, is impossible.
Cratylus, by the way, is said to have refrained from conversation and merely to have wiggled his finger when someone spoke to him, figuring that his understanding of the words he heard must necessarily be different from the meaning intended by the speaker.
Skeptic themes may also be found in the pronouncements of the Sophists, those itinerent Greek teachers of the fifth century b.c. At this time, if you were a citizen of
Athens and wanted to be influential or, say, able to defend yourself in a court of law, you needed to be trained by a Sophist. The Sophists were essentially skilled debaters and speechwriters who could devise an argument to support any claim and were glad to try to teach you how to do the same—for a fee. Because they often argued against the accepted views, they are said to have produced a breakdown in traditional morals. And because they apparently could advance a plausible argument for any position, they seemed to show that any position is as valid as the next.
Gorgias (c. 485-c, 380 b.c.), one particularly famous Sophist, said this:
There is no reality and if there were, we could not know of it, and even if we could, we couldn't communicate our knowledge.
And the remark of perhaps the best-known Sophist philosopher of all, Protagoras (c. 490-c. 421 b.c.), that "man is the measure of all things," can be interpreted (and was so Interpreted by Plato) as meaning that there is no absolute knowledge—that one person's beliefs about the world are as valid as the next person's. Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.) employed several arguments in his dialogue, Theaetetus, in an effort to refute this view.
Plato (c. 427—347 b.c.) played an important role in the history of epistemology, but we won't dwell on him in this chapter. That is because he was less interested in our question about the possibility of knowledge than in the nature of knowledge and its proper objects, and we just don't have the space to cover everything.
You should, however, be aware that in the Republic, Plato argued that true knowledge must concern itself with what is truly real, and therefore the proper objects of true knowledge, he said, are the Forms. And you should be aware that Plato's most extensive treatment of knowledge was in his dialogue, Theaetetus, in which Plato imagines Socrates discussing knowledge with a young mathematician after whom the dialogue is named. In this dialogue Socrates and Theaetetus examine and reject some possible answers to the question: What is knowledge?
First, the notion that knowledge may be equated with sense perception is rejected, principally on the grounds that if you come to know about something, you can retain your knowledge even after you are no longer in sensory contact with the thing. Then the theory that knowledge is "correct thinking" or true belief is discarded: your true belief might be based on nothing better than hearsay evidence, for example. Knowledge, Theaetetus and Socrates finally conclude, must consist of "correct belief together with an account," which means, essentially, that correct belief, to qualify as knowledge, must be based on something solid; it must be more than a lucky guess. Nevertheless, Socrates and Theaetetus find themselves unable to clarify to their own satisfaction this concept of an "account." The dialogue leaves off on this unsatisfactory note.
Plato is also important because he is one of the first rationalists, but this is a theme we will pick up later.
The greatest skeptic of ancient times, however, and perhaps of all time, was Sextus Empiricus (second-third centuries a.d,), about whose life very little is known
(which seems fitting enough). So far, you've heard several skeptical pronouncements, but with Sextus, we get something more than bald pronouncements. We get some very interesting explicit reasons for accepting skepticism, and we're talking here about total skepticism. So let's bring Sextus into clearer focus.
Sextus Empiricus and Total Skepticism
Again, as we mentioned before, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods after Plato, four principal philosophical schools developed: the Stoics, Epicureans, the Neo-platonists, and the Skeptics. There were two kinds of Skeptics, and they were something like rivals: the Academics (who nourished during the third and second centuries b.c. in what had earlier been Plato's Academy) and the Pyrrhonists (stemming from
Pyrrho of Elis, c. 360-270 b.c.). Sextus Empiricus, with whom we are concerned in this section, was the lastgreatPyrrhonist. He is also the principal source of information we have about classical skepticism.
Now the Academics, at least according to Sextus, maintained that "all things are inapprehensible," whereas the Pyrrhonists, he said—and he counted himself as a Pyrrhonist—suspend judgment on all issues.
Not a great deal is known about Pyrrho, after whom the Pyrrhonist tradition is named, for he left no writings. Diogenes Laertius, a third-century Greek biographer (whose tales about the ancient philosophers, despite their gossipy and sometimes unreliable nature, are an invaluable source of history) reported that Pyrrho was totally indifferent to and unaware of things going on around him. A well-known story told by Diogenes Laertius is that once, when Pyrrho's dear old teacher was stuck in a ditch, Pyrrho passed him by without a word.
According to other reports, Pyrrho was a moderate, sensible, and quite level-headed person.
It is at any rate true that Pyrrho held that nothing can be known about the hidden essence or true nature of things. He held this because he thought every theory can be opposed by an equally sound contradictory theory. Hence we must neither accept nor reject any of these theories, but rather must suspend judgment on all issues. The suspension of judgment, epoche, was said by Pyrrho to lead to ataraxia, tranquility or unperturbedness. Pyrrho's fame was apparently primarily a result of his exemplary agoge (way of living), though there are differences of opinion about what that way of life actually was.
All things are inapprehensible, said the Academics. If that means that nothing can be known, then it certainly sounds pretty totally skeptical. Actually, there is some controversy among recent scholars about whether or not the Academic skeptics really held this view, but this has been their reputation through the centuries (thanks to Sextus).
Is it true that nothing can be known? This is one of those philosophical questions that must be handled with a certain amount of care, for if it is true that nothing can be known, or if people came to believe that it is, then we might expect to see some fairly spectacular changes in lifestyles.
Fortunately, there seems to be an obvious and conclusive objection to this notion
that nothing can be known. First of all, the claim that nothing can be known appears to be a knowledge-claim. Thus the claim that nothing can be known seems to be self-canceling.
Second, if it is true that nothing can be known, then any argument used to establish that fact cannot be known, either. Apparently, the idea that nothing can be known is thus not only self-cancelingly unknowable but also cannot be established on any grounds that are themselves claimed to be known.
It is little wonder, then, that Sextus differentiated his own position from that of the Academics. Sextus, unlike the Academics, did not proclaim that nothing can be known. Instead, he said, in effect: "I suspend judgment in the matter. Also, I suspend judgment on all other issues that I have examined, too." His position was, in short, that he did not know whether or not knowledge is possible.
Sextus’s version of total skepticism does not seem nearly so easy to refute as that attributed by him to the Academics. And even today (as we'll see later) Sextus's version of total skepticism has its adherents. Sextus did not affirm the possibility of knowledge of any sort, so it's fair to call him a skeptic. But by not making any judgments—that is, by not committing himself to any claims whatsoever, including the claim that knowledge is impossible—he did not place himself in the self-defeating position of claiming to know that he could not know.
You're not totally convinced by Sextus? Perhaps, then, you have noticed that Sextus certainly appears to make judgments despite the fact that he says that he does not make them. For example, doesn't he make a judgment when he explains the position of the Academics? Doesn't he commit himself to a claim when he says that Pyrrhonists suspend judgment in all matters?
But Sextus said that none of the apparent judgments that came from his mouth were genuine claims of knowledge. He said, in effect, that when it appeared that he was making a knowledge-claim, he was merely expressing his momentary impressions of the way things seem. He wrote:
"It must be understood in advance that we make no assertions to the effect that they are absolutely true. We even say that they can be used to cancel themselves, since they are themselves included in those things to which they refer, just as purgative medicines not only remove the humors from the body but expel themselves together with the humors."
Think about that for a moment.
Pyrrho was the first of the great Pyrrhonist skeptics, and Sextus Empiricus was the last. (Note that the tradition endured fully five or six centuries.) Although Sextus's writings are extensive and constitute the definitive firsthand report on Greek skepticism, little is known about Sextus himself. We don't know where he was born or died or even where he lived. We do know, however, that he was a physician.
In Sextus's writings may be found virtually every skeptical argument that has ever been devised. He too, like Pyrrho, emphasized suspension of judgment (epoche) as the way to attain unperturbedness (ataraxia).
Now what was Sextus's rationale for suspending judgment on every issue? In his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus set forth the infamous "Ten Tropes," a collection of ten arguments by the ancient skeptics against the possibility of knowledge. The idea behind the Ten Tropes is this. Knowledge is possible only if we have good grounds for believing that the world is exactly as we think it is or perceive it to be. But we do not have good grounds for believing that the world is exactly as we think it is or perceive it to be. For one thing, we never are aware of any object as it is independently of us but only as it stands in its relationship to us. Therefore we cannot know how any object really is in itself. For another thing, the thoughts and perceptions of one person are different from those of the next and depend on the person's own circumstances. So who is to say that one person's thoughts and perceptions are more accurate than those of the next?
Sextus's main reason for thinking that one must suspend judgment on every issue, however, was that "to every argument an equal argument is opposed." If this is true, then wouldn't it indeed be rational to suspend judgment on every issue? (Thus the balance scale, which represents the equally compelling force of two contradictory views, is the symbol of skepticism—as well as the scales of justice.)
In a play by the great French comic playwright Moliere called The Forced Marriage, a skeptic is beaten in one scene. While he is being beaten, the skeptic is reminded that skeptics can't be sure that they are being beaten or feel pain. Moliere, evidently, did not view skepticism as a serious philosophy.
In defense of Sextus, we might mention that Sextus placed a small asterisk beside his skepticism. He said that he did not "deny those things which, in accordance with the passivity of our sense impressions, lead us involuntarily to give our assent to them." That I am in pain is an involuntary judgment on my part and therefore doesn't count, Sextus would say.
We'll leave it up to you and your instructor to determine if this tactic enables Sextus to escape Moliere's criticism.
Before you complain that Sextus was in no position to say what is true of every argument, you should remember that he restricted his remarks to arguments "I have examined."
Selection 3-1 is the "Third Trope" from Sextus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism (In this translation, "mode" is used for "trope.")
From Sextus Entpiricus, Outlines of Pyrronism
Chapter 14—Concerning the Ten Modes
The Third Mode is, we say, based on differences in the senses. That the senses differ from one another is obvious. Thus, to the eye paintings seem to have recesses and projections, but not so to the touch. Honey, too, seems to some pleasant to the tongue but unpleasant to the eyes; so that it is impossible to say whether it is absolutely pleasant or unpleasant. The same is true of sweet oil, for it pleases the sense of smell but displeases the taste. So too with spurge: since it pains the eyes but causes no pain to any other part of the body, we cannot say whether, in its real nature, it is absolutely painful or painless to bodies. Rainwater, too, is beneficial to the eyes but roughens the wind-pipe and the lungs; as also does olive-oil, though it mollifies the epidermis. The crampfish, also, when applied to the extremities produces cramp, but it can be applied to the rest of the body without hurt. Consequently we are unable to say what is the real nature of each of these things, although it is possible to say what each thing at the moment appears to be.
A longer list of examples might be given, but to avoid prolixity, in view of the plan of our treatise, we will say just this. Each of the phenomena perceived by the senses seems to be a complex; the apple, for example, seems smooth, odorous, sweet and yellow. But it is nonevident whether it really possesses these qualities only; or whether it has but one quality but appears varied owing to the varying structure of the sense-organs; or whether, again, it has more qualities than are apparent, some of which elude our perception. That the apple has but one quality might be argued from what we said above regarding the food absorbed by bodies, and the water sucked up by trees, and the breath in flutes and pipes and similar instruments; for the apple likewise may be all of one sort but appear different owing to differences in the sense-organs in which perception takes place. And that the apple may possibly possess more qualities than those apparent to us we argue in this way. Let us imagine a man who possesses from birth the senses of touch, taste and smell, but can neither hear nor see. This man, then, will assume that nothing visible or audible has any existence, but only those three kinds of qualities which he is able to apprehend. Possibly, then, we also, having only our five senses, perceive only such of the apple's qualities as we are capable of apprehending; and possibly it may possess other underlying qualities which affect other sense-organs, though we, not being endowed with those organs, fail to apprehend the sense-objects which come through them.
"But," it may be objected, "Nature made the senses commensurate with the objects of sense." What kind of "Nature"? we ask, seeing that there exists so much unresolved controversy amongst the Dogmatists concerning the reality which belongs to Nature. For he who decides the question as to the existence of Nature will be discredited by them if he is an ordinary person, while if he is a philosopher he will be a party to the controversy and therefore himself subject to judgement and not a judge. If, however, it is possible that only those qualities which we seem to perceive subsist in me apple, or that a greater number subsist, or, again, that not even the qualities which affect us subsist, then it will be nonevident to us what the nature of the apple really is. And the same argument applies to all the other objects of sense. But if the senses do not appre
hend external objects, neither can the mind apprehend them; hence, because of this argument also, we shall be driven, it seems, to suspend judgement regarding the external underlying objects.
Augustine and Skepticism
So much, then, for the Academics and Pyrrhonists, as mentioned earlier, total skepticism has its adherents even today, so we shall have an opportunity to return to these issues later. For the most part, however, until recently, skepticism after Sextus was of the "modified" variety, as we will now see.
During the Christianization of the Roman Empire, skepticism waned. St. Augustine (a.d. 354-430) discussed Academic skepticism, as it has been described by the Roman historian Cicero, and concluded that skepticism is refuted by the principle of noncontradiction. This principle is stated in various ways, but the basic concept is that a proposition and its contradictory cannot both be true, and one or the other must be true. The statements, "The world now exists" and "The world now doesn't exist," can not both be true, and one must be true. Thus we know, presumably that the world can't both exist and not exist.
Skepticism is also refuted by the very act of doubting, Augustine held, for the act of doubting discloses your existence as something that is absolutely certain: from the fact that I am doubting it follows automatically that I am.
Furthermore, according to Augustine, even in sense perception there is a rudimentary kind of knowledge. Deception in sense perception occurs, he said, only when we "give assent to more than the fact of appearance." For example, an oar appears bent at the point it enters the water. And if we assent only to the appearance of the oar and say merely that it looks bent, we make no mistake. It is only if we judge that the oar actually is bent that we fall into error.
But Augustine did not particularly develop these three insights. He saw in them a refutation of skepticism and regarded this refutation as highly important. But he did not try to derive anything else of great importance from them. The most important truths, for Augustine, are received by revelation and held on faith, and this doctrine was (of course) assumed throughout the Christian Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages
Augustine died in 430, some forty-six years before the date usually assigned as the end of the (Western) Roman Empire. The final centuries of the empire had witnessed the spread of Christianity through all classes of society and eventually an alliance between the Church and the state. They also had seen a growing belief in demons, magic, astrology, and other dark superstitions. After the abdication of the last Roman emperor in 476, the light of reason was all but extinguished in Europe, and only a few candles flickered in the night. These Dark Ages lasted to about 1000. Compared with the shining cultures of the East at the same time, Europe barely qualified as a civilization.
Precipitating the fall of the empire were the barbarian incursions, and after the fall the invading hordes arrived in waves. In the first wave, a group of Germanic kingdoms replaced the empire. In the next century (i.e., the sixth), Justinian, the Byzantine emperor, partially reconquered the Western empire; but shortly after his death Italy was invaded by the ferocious Lombards, and Syria, Egypt, and Spain were conquered by the Muslims. The Carolingian Franks under Charlemagne restored stability for a brief time, bringing into existence (on Christmas Day, 800) what later was called the Holy Roman Empire, though subsequent invasions by the Vikings and Muslims again spread chaos and destruction. During this period Slavic conquests of the Balkans separated Greek and Latin cultures, and the Greek and Latin churches also gradually drew apart.
Original philosophy was virtually nonexistent during the Dark Ages, though the two most capable and learned thinkers of this grim and lightless period, Boethius in the sixth century (who was executed for treason) and John Scotus in the ninth (whose work was posthumously condemned), were both philosophers of remarkable ability The thought of both men, though basically Neoplatonic, was original and profound.
By about 1000, the age of invasions was substantially over. The assorted northern invaders had been Christianized, a series of comparatively stable states was spread over Europe, and a relationship of rough interdependence and equality existed between the Pope and the various secular authorities.
Then, during the high Middle Ages, as the next few centuries are called, the Pope became essentially the most powerful leader in Europe. This was to be expected, for the Church controlled royal marriage and divorce, not to mention the pathway to heaven. The Church was the unifying institution of European civilization, and no monarch could act in total defiance of it.
In the growing security and prosperity that followed the Dark Ages, urban centers grew, and intellectual life, centered in the great universities that arose under the auspices of the Church, was stimulated through commercial and military contact with Greek, Arabian, Jewish, and (more indirectly) Indian cultures.
Still, independent or unorthodox thinking was not without its hazards, especially if it laid any foundation for what Church authorities perceived to be a heretical viewpoint. During the medieval Inquisition, those accused of heresy were brought to trial. The trials, however, were secret, and there was no such thing as the right to counsel. One's accusers were not named, and torture was used in service of the truth. An interesting practice was that of torturing not only the accused but those speaking on behalf of the accused. As might be imagined, one was apt to find few witnesses on ones behalf. So it was not unusual for heretics to recant their sins.
Nevertheless, despite all this, the high Middle Ages was a period of growing personal liberty, spreading literacy, and increasing intellectual vigor. In a nearby box we explain the philosophical problem that was most important to thinkers of the time.
The Problem of Universals
The three main philosophical problems from around 1000 to 1200 were these: (1) rationally proving the existence of God, (2) understanding the relationship between reason and faith, (3) solving the "problem of universals." Herewith, more about (3).
Some words name a single thing—for example, George Bush, Aristotle, Billy the Kid. Other words are general or "universal" words that apply to several things—for
example, tree, philosopher, horse. The so-called problem of universals concerns general words.
Pretty clearly, individual things—this tree, that philosopher, this horse—exist out there in the world. Do general things such as tree, philosopher, horse— and let's just call these universals—also exist out there in the world, or do they just exist in the mind? The theory that universals exist outside the mind is known as realism, and the theory that they don't is called conceptualism.
Before you say, "Why would anyone care?" think of this. According to Christianity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three individual things, are the selfsame thing, God. The word God, therefore, like the word horse, applies to separate individuals and in this respect seems to denote a general thing, a universal.
Or take another example: According to Christianity, when Adam and Eve ate the apple, thereby committing "original sin," the sin tainted humankind, and that is why all people need baptism. Humankind, of course, is a general thing, a universal.
Thus the question as to the status of general things is very important from a Christian standpoint. If only individual things exist, as conceptualists maintain, then the three persons of the Trinity apparently are three separate individuals, and in that case there are three Gods rather than one. If only individual things exist, then only the individuals Adam and Eve sinned, and there is no such thing as a general or universal humankind or human nature to be tainted.
Questions about the nature and status of universals are important not merely for their connection with theological issues. Experience itself requires universals, because experience involves categorizing particular things, that is, recognizing particular things as this or that kind of thing. "Kinds," of course, are universals. A complete theory of experience would therefore require a satisfactory accounting of universals. To date, an entirely satisfactory account has not yet been found, despite the fact that philosophers of all periods have attempted to discover one.
Contact with the Arabian world during the high Middle Ages led to a rekindling of interest among European churchmen in the philosophy of Aristotle. Through the centuries the Muslim world had enjoyed greater access to ancient Greek philosophy than had the Christian, and many Christian thinkers first encountered Aristotle's philosophy through Arabian commentaries on Aristotle and through Latin translations of Arab translations of Greek texts. Because Aristotle's repudiation of Plato's realm of Forms seemed at odds with Christian philosophy, which was Augustinian and Platonic in outlook, some Church thinkers (notably Bonaventura, 1221-1274) thought it necessary to reject Aristotle. Others (notably Albert the Great, 1193-1280) came to regard Aristotle as the greatest of all philosophers and concluded that there must be an underlying accord between Christian principles and Aristotle's philosophy.
The most important of those who belonged to the second group was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose philosophy was deemed by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 to be the official Catholic philosophy. To this day Aquinas's system is taught in Catholic schools as the correct philosophy, and so Aquinas's thought continues to affect living people directly.
Aquinas had access to translations of Aristotle that were directly from the Greek (and not Latin translations of Arab translations), and his knowledge of Aristotle was considerable and profound. In a manner similar to that in which Augustine had mixed Platonic philosophy with Christianity, Aquinas blended Christianity with the philosophy of Aristotle, in effect grafting the principles and distinctions of the Greek philosopher to Christian revealed truth. The result was a complete Christian philosophy, with a theory of knowledge, a metaphysics, ethical and political philosophies, and a philosophy of law.
Another way in which Aquinas is important is this. In Aquinas's time a distinction was finally beginning to be made between philosophy and theology. No person was more concerned with tracing the boundaries of the two fields than Aquinas. His main idea was that philosophy is based on precepts of reason and theology on truths of revelation held on faith.
As for Aquinas's metaphysics, some of the main points may be summarized as follows. Change, Aquinas thought, can be explained using the Aristotelian four-cause theory: the efficient cause is that which produces the change; the material cause is the stuff that changes; the formal cause is the form the stuff takes; and the final cause is what explains why there was a change.
All physical things are composed of matter and form, he said, following .Aristotle. Matter, which remains constant throughout a change, is that which a thing is made out of, and form is that which determines what sort of thing it is. By virtue of being separate clumps of matter, these two rocks are different, and by virtue of having the same form, these two rocks are both rocks and thus are the same. Contrary to the Platonic-Augustinian tradition, Aquinas held that the form of a thing cannot exist apart from matter.
The universe, he wrote, is a series of things ascending from potentiality to actuality, from the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) through plants, animals, humans, and immaterial intelligences (angels) to God, who is pure act. Because God is pure act, He is changeless; and thus He is without beginning or end (you can't have beginning and end without change).
All living things have a soul, which is indeed the life of a living thing. The human soul, however, can exist apart from the body, and it is the direct creation of God and not of the individual's parents. Further, it is indivisible (and hence immortal). Finally, it stands in a relationship of mutual interdependency relative to the body. A human being is a unity of body and soul, Aquinas taught, for without the soul the body would be formless, and without a body the soul would have no access to knowledge derived from sensation.
That God exists, Aquinas said, is a fact evident to reason unaided by faith. There are, he said, "Five Ways" of proving God's existence. Lets just mention here that the proofs are variations on the idea that things must have an ultimate cause, creator, designer, source of being, or source of goodness: namely, God.
Why do human beings stand upright? Aquinas gives four reasons: (1) Animals use
their sense organs for seeking food. Thus, because the sense organs are located chiefly in the face, their faces are turned to the ground. We humans, by contrast, use the senses in the pursuit of truth as well as food, and for this purpose it is better to have the sense organs looking up and about. (2) The brain functions better when it is lifted up above the other parts of the body. (3) If we walked on all fours, our hands would not be available for other purposes. Further, (4) we would have to take hold of food with our mouths, which would require our mouths to protrude and our tongue and lips to be thick and hard, and this would hinder speech.
Now, we mention this not just to amuse you. We want you to note the kind of explanation that Aquinas has advanced. Aquinas explains our walking erect in terms of the function of purpose that is served by our doing so—doing so enables us to speak and look out at the world. An explanation of something in terms of its ends, goals, purposes, or functions is known as a teleological explanation.
Compare Aquinas's explanation with a modern biological explanation of a human characteristic. According to the latter, chance genetic mutations result in new characteristics in organisms, and those that are not detrimental to the survival of the organisms will be the most influential in the continuing survival of that species of organism and will tend to become characteristics of the species. In this way the characteristics of all species are to be explained as the result of the "natural selection," over the millennia, of comparatively advantageous changes in the gene pool.
Notice that in the modern biological explanation no mention is made of the "purpose" of a characteristic. The explanation looks entirely backward in time and points to those antecedent conditions and events that produced or caused the characteristic in question (e.g., changes in genes). For this reason it is sometimes called a causal explanation. The teleological explanation, by contrast, looks forward in time to the purpose that is served by the characteristic (e.g., by having this characteristic, that type of organisms will be able to do such and such).
Is this important? You bet. A teleological explanation implicitly points to an agency that determines the purpose served by the characteristics of a species: it points to a designing intelligence, a god. A causal explanation doesn't, although some think that it points toward some original episode of causation.
Further, a switch in emphasis from teleological explanations to causal explanations is a major factor that accompanied and helped make possible the scientific revolution.
Of course, for Aquinas as for Aristotle, a teleological explanation is a type of causal explanation. It is an explanation in terms of what Aristotle and Aquinas called a "final" cause.
Our knowledge of God's nature, however, is in terms of what God is not. For example, because God is unmoved and unchangeable, God is eternal. Because He is not material and without parts, He is utterly simple. And because He is not a composite, He is not a composite of essence and existence: His essence is His existence, which means that His nature is to be.
St. Thomas Aquinas lived during the zenith hour in the power of the Church and Pope. After 1300 there began a long decline (that continues still) in the importance of the Church as a political institution and of religion as a governing factor in daily life.
To help you review, here is a checklist of the key philosophers and concepts of this chapter. The brief descriptive sentences that appear with each philosopher summarize one of his leading ideas. Keep in mind that some of these summary statements represent terrific oversimplifications of complex positions.
Questions for Discussion and Review
1. "Everything is changing, so our words change in their meaning as we speak them. Therefore, true communication is impossible." Evaluate this argument.
2. Compare and contrast the views of the Academics and the Pyrrhonists.
3. "Nothing can be known." What is a powerful objection to this claim?
4. "I do not know whether or not knowledge is possible." Critically evaluate this claim.
5. Devise an argument to defend some version of total skepticism.
6. What is creation ex nihilo? What are some reasons for thinking that creation ex nihilo is impossible?
7. Compare and contrast Plato's The Good, Plotinus's One, and Augustine's God.
8. Explain the difference between realism and conceptualism. What theory is more plausible, and why?
9. Give a teleological explanation of why polar bears have white fur.
What is called a Hellenistic age?
What philosophical schools there were during Hellenistic and Roman periods?
What is total scepticism?
What do you know about Pyrrho?
How did Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus express their scepticism?
What are Sextus Empiricus’ reasons for accepting scepticism?
Why the Sextus’ s version of total skepticism is not as easy to refute as that attributed by him to the Academics?
What are possible objections against the claim that nothing can be known?
What do Plato’s and Plotinus’ philosophy have in common?
What is God according to Plotinus?
What is called Dark ages?
What are the central beliefs of Christian doctrine?
Why Plato’s philosophy was important for St. Augustine?
How skepticism is refuted according to St. Augustine?
Which doctrine of St.Augustine was at odds Neoplatonism?
How did St. Augustine solve the trouble with the idea of creation ex nihilo?
What is time according to St. Augustine?
How did St. Augustine defend sense perception as a source of knowledge?
Explain conceptualism as a solution of the problem of universals.
Explain the problem of universals.
Explain realism as a solution of the problem of universals.
Explain nominalism as a solution of the problem of universals.
Which Aristotle’s ideas were used by St. Thomas Aquinas?
What kind of explanation is called teleological?
What is the difference between teleological explanation and causal explanation?
Share with your friends: