A Short History of Greek Philosophy
by John Marshall
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Like the Eleatics he denies that the senses are an absolute test of truth. "For straitened are the powers that have been shed upon our frames, and many the frets that cross us and defeat our care, and short the span of unsatisfying existence wherein 'tis given us to see. Shortlived as a wreath of smoke men rise and fleet away, persuaded but of that alone which each has chanced to light upon, driven hither and thither, and vainly do they pray to find the whole. For this men may not see or hear or grasp with the hand of thought." Yet that there is a kind or degree of knowledge possible for man his next words suggest when he continues: "Thou therefore since hither thou hast been borne, hear, and thou shalt learn so much as 'tis given to mortal thought to reach." Then follows an invocation in true Epic style to the "much-wooed white-armed virgin Muse," wherein he prays that "folly and impurity may be far from the lips of him the teacher, and that sending forth her swift-reined chariot from the shrine of Piety, the Muse may grant him to hear so much as is given to mortal hearing."


Then follows a warning uttered by the Muse to her would-be disciple: "Thee the flowers of mortal distinctions shall not seduce to utter in daring of heart more than thou mayest, that thereby thou mightest soar to the highest heights of wisdom. And now behold and see, availing thyself of every device whereby the truth may in each matter be revealed, trusting not more to sight for thy learning than to hearing, nor to hearing with its loud echoings more than to the revelations of the tongue, nor to any one of the many ways whereby there is a path to knowledge. Keep a check on the revelation of the hands also, and apprehend each matter in the way whereby it is made plain to thee."

The correction of the one sense by the others, and of all by reason, this Empedocles deemed the surest road to knowledge. He thus endeavoured to hold a middle place between the purely abstract reasoning of the Eleatic philosophy and the unreasoned first guesses of ordinary observation suggested by this or that sense, and chiefly by the eyes. The senses might supply the raw materials of knowledge, unordered, unrelated, nay even chaotic and mutually destructive; but in their contradictions of each other he hoped to find a starting-point for order amidst the seeming chaos; reason should weigh, reason should reject, but reason also should find a residuum of truth.



In our next fragment we have his enunciation in symbolical language of the four elements, by him first formulated: "Hear first of all what are the root principles of all things, being four in number,—Zeus the bright shiner (i.e. fire), and Hera (air), and life-bearing Aidoneus (earth), and Nestis (water), who with her teardrops waters the fountain of mortality. Hear also this other that I will tell thee. Nothing of all that perisheth ever is created, nothing ever really findeth an end in death. There is naught but a mingling, and a parting again of that which was mingled, and this is what men call a coming into being. Foolish they, for in them is no far-reaching thought, that they should dream that what was not before can be, or that aught which is can utterly perish and die." Thus again Empedocles shows himself an Eclectic; in denying that aught can come into being, he holds with the Eleatics (see above, p. 47); in identifying all seeming creation, and ceasing to be with certain mixtures and separations of matter eternally existing, he links himself rather to the doctrine of Anaxagoras (see above, p. 53).


These four elements constitute the total corpus of the universe, eternal, as a whole unmoved and immovable, perfect like a sphere. But within this sphere-like self-centred All there are eternally proceeding separations and new unions of the elements of things; and every one of these is at once a birth {63} and an infinity of dyings, a dying and an infinity of births. Towards this perpetual life in death, and death in life, two forces work inherent in the universe. One of these he names Love, Friendship, Harmony, Aphrodite goddess of Love, Passion, Joy; the other he calls Hate, Discord, Ares god of War, Envy, Strife. Neither of the one nor of the other may man have apprehension by the senses; they are spiritually discerned; yet of the first men have some adumbration in the creative force within their own members, which they name by the names of Love and Nuptial Joy.

Somewhat prosaically summing up the teaching of Empedocles, Aristotle says that he thus posited six first principles in nature—four material, two motive or efficient. And he goes on to remark that in the working out of his theory of nature Empedocles, though using his originative principles more consistently than Anaxagoras used his principle of Nous or Thought, not infrequently, nevertheless, resorts to some natural force in the elements themselves, or even to chance or necessity. "Nor," he continues, "has he clearly marked off the functions of his two efficient forces, nay, he has so confounded them that at times it is Discord that through separation leads to new unions, and Love that through union causes diremption of that which was before." At times, too, Empedocles seems to have had a vision of these two forces, not as the counteracting yet {64} co-operative pulsations, so to speak, of the universal life, but as rival forces having had in time their periods of alternate supremacy and defeat. While all things were in union under the influence of Love, then was there neither Earth nor Water nor Air nor Fire, much less any of the individual things that in eternal interchange are formed of them; but all was in perfect sphere-like balance, enwrapped in the serenity of an eternal silence. Then came the reign of Discord, whereby war arose in heaven as of the fabled giants, and endless change,—endless birth, and endless death.

These inconsistencies of doctrine, which Aristotle notes as faults in Empedocles, are perhaps rather proofs of the philosophic value of his conceptions. Just as Hegel in modern philosophy could only adequately formulate his conceptions through logical contradictions, so also, perhaps, under the veil of antagonisms of utterance, Empedocles sought to give a fuller vision,—Discord, in his own doctrine, not less than in his conception of nature, being thus the co-worker with Love. The ordinary mind for the ordinary purposes of science seeks exactness of distinction in things, and language, being the creation of ordinary experience, lends itself to such a purpose; the philosophic mind, finding ready to its hand no forms of expression adapted to its conceptions, which have for their final end Union and not Distinction, {65} can only attain its purpose by variety, or even contradictoriness, of representation. Thus to ordinary conception cause must precede effect; to the philosophic mind, dealing as it does with the idea of an organic whole, everything is at once cause and effect, is at once therefore prior to and subsequent to every other, is at once the ruling and the ruled, the conditioning and that which is conditioned.

So, to Empedocles there are four elements, yet in the eternal perfection, the silent reign of Love, there are none of them. There are two forces working upon these and against each other, yet each is like the other either a unifying or a separating force, as one pleases to regard them; and in the eternal silence, the ideal perfectness, there is no warfare at all. There is joy in Love which creates, and in creating destroys; there is joy in the eternal Stillness, nay, this is itself the ultimate joy. There are two forces working, Love and Hate, yet is there but one force, and that force is Necessity. And for final contradiction, the universe is self-balanced, self-conditioned, a perfect sphere; therefore this Necessity is perfect self-realisation, and consequently perfect freedom.

The men who have had the profoundest vision of things—Heraclitus, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, ay, and Aristotle himself when he was the thinker and not the critic; not to speak of the great moderns, whether preachers or philosophers—have none of {66} them been greatly concerned for consistency of expression, for a mere logical self-identity of doctrine. Life in every form, nay, existence in any form, is a union of contradictories, a complex of antagonisms; and the highest and deepest minds are those that are most adequate to have the vision of these antagonisms in their contrariety, and also in their unity; to see and hear as Empedocles did the eternal war and clamour, but to discern also, as he did in it and through it and behind it and about it, the eternal peace and the eternal silence.

Philosophy, in fact, is a form of poesy; it is, if one pleases so to call it, 'fiction founded upon fact.' It is not for that reason the less noble a form of human thought, rather is it the more noble, in the same way as poetry is nobler than mere narrative, and art than representation, and imagination than perception. Philosophy is indeed one of the noblest forms of poetry, because the facts which are its basis are the profoundest, the most eternally interesting, the most universally significant. And not only has it nobility in respect of the greatness of its subject matter, it has also possibilities of an essential truth deeper and more far-reaching and more fruitful than any demonstrative system of fact can have. A great poem or work of art of any kind is an adumbration of truths which transcend any actual fact, and as such it brings us nearer to the underlying fundamentals of {67} reality which all actual occurrences only by accumulation tend to realise. Philosophy, then, in so far as it is great, is, like other great art, prophetic in both interpretations of the word, both as expounding the inner truth that is anterior to actuality, and also as anticipating that final realisation of all things for which 'the whole creation groaneth.' It is thus at the basis of religion, of art, of morals; it is the accumulated sense of the highest in man with respect to what is greatest and most mysterious in and about him.

The facts, indeed, with which philosophy attempts to deal are so vital and so vast that even the greatest intellects may well stagger occasionally under the burden of their own conceptions of them. To rise to the height of such an argument demands a more than Miltonic imagination; and criticisms directed only at this or that fragment of the whole are as irrelevant, if not as inept, as the criticism of the mathematician directed against Paradise Lost, that it 'proved nothing.' The mystery of being and of life, the true purport and reality of this world of which we seem to be a part, and yet of which we seem to have some apprehension as though we were other than a part; the strange problems of creation and change and birth and death, of love and sin and purification; of a heaven dreamt of or believed in, or somehow actually apprehended; of life here, and of an immortality yearned after and hoped for—these {68} problems, these mysteries, no philosophy ever did or ever can empty of their strangeness, or bring down to the level of the commonplace 'certainties' of daily life or of science, which are no more than shadows after all, that seem certainties because of the background of mystery on which they are cast.

But just as an individual is a higher being, a fuller, more truly human creature, when he has got so far removed from the merely animal existence as to realise that there are such problems and mysteries, so also the humanisation of the race, the development of its noblest peoples and its noblest literatures, have been conditioned by the successive visions of these mysteries in more and more complex organisation by the great philosophers and poets and preachers. The systems of such men may die, but such deaths mean, as Empedocles said of the ordinary deaths of things, only an infinity of new births. Being dead, their systems yet speak in the inherited language and ideas and aspirations and beliefs that form the never-ending, still-renewing material for new philosophies and new faiths. In Thales, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles we have been touching hands with an apostolic succession of great men and great thinkers and great poets—men of noble life and lofty thoughts, true prophets and revealers. And the apostolic succession even within the Greek world does not fail for centuries yet.


Passing from the general conceptions of Empedocles to those more particular rationalisations of particular problems which very largely provided the motive of early philosophies, while scientific methods were in an undeveloped and uncritical condition, we may notice such interesting statements as the following: [135] "The earth, which is at the centre of the sphere of the universe, remains firm, because the spin of the universe as a whole keeps it in its place like the water in a spinning cup." He has the same conception of the early condition of the earth as in other cosmogonies. At first it was a chaos of watery slough, which slowly, under the influence of sky and sun, parted off into earth and sea. The sea was the 'sweat' of the earth, and by analogy with the sweat it was salt. The heavens, on the other hand, were formed of air and fire, and the sun was, as it were, a speculum at which the effulgence and the heat of the whole heavens concentrated. But that the aether and the fire had not been fully separated from earth and water he held to be proved by the hot fountains and fiery phenomena which must have been so familiar to a native of Sicily. Curiously enough he imagined fire to possess a solidifying power, and therefore attributed to it the solidity of the earth and the hardness of the rocks. No doubt he had observed some effects of fire in 'metamorphic' formations in his own vicinity.



He had also a conception of the gradual development on the earth of higher and higher forms of life, the first being rude and imperfect, and a 'struggle for existence' ensuing in which the monstrous and the deficient gradually were eliminated—the "two-faced, the double-breasted, the oxen-shaped with human prows, or human-shaped with head of ox, or hemaphrodite," and so forth. Love and Strife worked out their ends upon these varied forms; some procreated and reproduced after their image, others were incapable of reproduction from mere monstrosity or [138] weakness, and disappeared. Something other than mere chance thus governed the development of things; there was a law, a reason, a Logos governing the process. This law or reason he perhaps fancifully illustrated by attributing the different characters of flesh and sinew and bone to the different numerical proportions, in which they severally contain the different elements.

On this Aristotle, keen-scented critic as he was, has a question, or series of questions, to ask as to the relation between this Logos, or principle of orderly combination, and Love as the ruling force in all unions of things. "Is Love," he asks, "a cause of mixtures of any sort, or only of such sorts as Logos dictates? And whether then is Love identical with this Logos, or are they separate and distinct; and if so, what settles their separate functions?" Questions {71} which Empedocles did not answer, and perhaps would not have tried to answer had he heard them.


The soul or life-principle in man Empedocles regarded as an ordered composite of all the elements or principles of the life in nature, and in this kinship of the elements in man and the elements in nature he found a rationale of our powers of perception. "By the earth," said he, "we have perception of earth; by water we have perception of water; of the divine aether, by aether; of destructive fire, by fire; of love, by love; of strife, by strife." He therefore, as Aristotle observes, drew no radical distinction between sense-apprehension and thought. He located the faculty of apprehension more specifically in the blood, conceiving that in it the combination of the elements was most complete. And the variety of apprehensive gift in different persons he attributed to the greater or lesser perfectness of this blood mixture in them individually. Those that were dull and stupid had a relative deficiency of the lighter and more invisible elements; those that were quick and impulsive had a relatively larger proportion of these. Again, specific faculties depended on local perfection of mixture in certain organs; orators having this perfectness in their tongues, cunning craftsmen possessing it in their hands, and so on. And the degrees of capacity of sensation, which he found in various animals, or even plants, he explained in similar fashion.

{72} The process of sensation he conceived to be conditioned by an actual emission from the bodies perceived of elements or images of themselves which found access to our apprehension through channels [140] congruous to their nature. But ordering, criticising, organising these various apprehensions was the Mind or Nous, which he conceived to be of divine nature, to be indeed an expression or emanation of the Divine. And here has been preserved a strangely interesting passage, in which he incorporates and develops in characteristic fashion the doctrine of transmigration [141] of souls: "There is a decree of Necessity, a law given of old from the gods, eternal, sealed with mighty oaths, that when any heavenly creature (daemon) of those that are endowed with length of days, shall in waywardness of heart defile his hands with sin of deed or speech, he shall wander for thrice ten thousand seasons far from the dwellings of the blest, taking upon him in length of time all manner of mortal forms, traversing in turn the many toilsome paths of existence. Him the aetherial wrath hurries onward to the deep, and the deep spews him forth on to the threshold of earth, and unworn earth casts him up to the fires of the sun, and again the aether hurls him into the eddies. One receives him, and then another, but detested is he of them all. Of such am I also one, an exile and a wanderer from God, a slave to strife and its madness."


Thus to his mighty conception the life of all creation, and not of man only, was a great expiation, an eternal round of punishment for sin; and in the unending flux of life each creature rose or fell in the scale of existence according to the deeds of good or ill done in each successive life; rising sometimes to the state of men, or among men to the high functions of physicians and prophets and kings, or among beasts to the dignity of the lion, or among trees to the beauty of the laurel; or, on the contrary, sinking through sin to lowest forms of bestial or vegetable life. Till at the last they who through obedience and right-doing have expiated their wrong, are endowed by the blessed gods with endless honour, to dwell for ever with them and share their banquets, untouched any more with human care and sorrow and pain.


The slaying of any living creature, therefore, Empedocles, like Pythagoras, abhorred, for all were kin. All foul acts were forms of worse than suicide; life should be a long act of worship, of expiation, of purification. And in the dim past he pictured a vision of a golden age, in which men worshipped not many gods, but Love only, and not with sacrifices of blood, but with pious images, and cunningly odorous incense, and offerings of fragrant myrrh. With abstinence also, and above all with that noblest abstinence, the abstinence from vice and wrong.



THE ATOMISTS (concluded)

The laughing philosopher—Atoms and void—No god and no truth


III. LEUCIPPUS AND DEMOCRITUS.—Leucippus is variously called a native of Elea, of Abdera, of Melos, of Miletus. He was a pupil of Zeno the Eleatic. [144] Democritus was a native of Abdera. They seem to have been almost contemporary with Socrates. The two are associated as thorough-going teachers of the 'Atomic Philosophy,' but Democritus, 'the laughing philosopher,' as he was popularly called in later times, in distinction from Heraclitus, 'the weeping philosopher,' was much the more famous. [145] He lived to a great age. He himself refers to his travels and studies thus: "Above all the men of my time I travelled farthest, and extended my inquiries to places the most distant. I visited the most varied climates and countries, heard the largest number of learned men, nor has any one surpassed me in the gathering together of writings and their interpretation, no, not even the most learned of the Egyptians, with whom I spent five years." We {75} are also informed that, through desire of learning, he visited Babylon and Chaldaea, to visit the astrologers and the priests.


Democritus was not less prolific as a writer than he was voracious as a student, and in him first the division of philosophy into certain great sections, such as physical, mathematical, ethical, was clearly [147] drawn. We are, however, mainly concerned with his teaching in its more strictly philosophical aspects. His main doctrine was professedly antithetical to that of the Eleatics, who, it will be remembered, worked out on abstract lines a theory of one indivisible, eternal, immovable Being. Democritus, on the contrary, declared for two co-equal elements, the Full and the Empty, or Being and Nonentity. The latter, he maintained, was as real as the former. As we should put it, Body is unthinkable except by reference to space which that body does not occupy, as well as to space which it does occupy; and conversely Space is unthinkable except by reference to body actually or potentially filling or defining it.

What Democritus hoped to get by this double or correlative system was a means of accounting for or conceiving of change in nature. The difficulty with the Eleatics was, as we have seen, how to understand whence or why the transition from that which absolutely is, to this strange, at least apparent, system of eternal flux and transformation. Democritus {76} hoped to get over this difficulty by starting as fully with that which is not, in other words, with that which wants change in order to have any recognisable being at all, as with that which is, and which therefore might be conceived as seeking and requiring only to be what it is.


Having got his principle of stability and his principle of change on an equal footing, Democritus next laid it down that all the differences visible in things were differences either of shape, of arrangement, or of position; practically, that is, he considered that what seem, to us to be qualitative differences in things, e.g. hot or cold, sweet or sour, green or yellow, are only resulting impressions from different shapes, or different arrangements, or different modes of presentation, among the atoms of which things are composed.

Coming now to that which is, Democritus, as against the Eleatics, maintained that this was not a unity, some one immovable, unchangeable existence, but an innumerable number of atoms, invisible by reason of their smallness, which career through empty space (that which is not), and by their union bring objects into being, by their separation bring these to destruction. The action of these atoms on each other depended on the manner in which they were brought into contact; but in any case the unity of any object was only an apparent unity, it being really constituted of a multitude of interlaced and mutually related {77} particles, and all growth or increase of the object being conditioned by the introduction into the structure of additional atoms from without.


For the motions of the atoms he had no anterior cause to offer, other than necessity or fate. They existed, and necessarily and always had existed, in a state of whirl; and for that which always had been he maintained that no preceding cause could legitimately or reasonably be demanded.


Nothing, then, could come out of nothing; all the visible structure of the universe had its origin in the movements of the atoms that constituted it, and conditioned its infinite changes. The atoms, by a useful but perhaps too convenient metaphor, he called the seeds of all things. They were infinite in number, though not infinite in the number, of their shapes. Many atoms were similar to each other, and this similarity formed a basis of union among them, a warp, so to speak, or solid foundation across which the woof of dissimilar atoms played to constitute the differences of things.


Out of this idea of an eternal eddy or whirl Democritus developed a cosmogony. The lighter atoms he imagined flew to the outmost rim of the eddy, there constituting the heavenly fires and the heavenly aether. The heavier atoms gathered at the centre, forming successively air and water and the solid earth. Not that there was only one such {78} system or world, but rather multitudes of them, all varying one from the other; some without sun or moon, others with greater luminaries than those of our system, others with a greater number. All, however, had necessarily a centre; all as systems were necessarily spherical.


As regards the atoms he conceived that when they differed in weight this must be in respect of a difference in their essential size. In this he was no doubt combating the notion that the atoms say of lead or gold were in their substance, taking equal quantities, of greater weight than atoms of water or air. The difference of weight in objects depended on the proportion which the atoms in them bore to the amount of empty space which was interlaced with them. On the other hand, a piece of iron was lighter yet harder than a piece of lead of equal size, because of the special way in which the atoms in it were linked together. There were fewer atoms in it, but they were, in consequence of their structure and arrangement, more tightly strung.


In all this Democritus was with great resolution working out what we may call a strictly mechanical theory of the universe. Even the soul or life-principle in living creatures was simply a structure of the finest and roundest (and therefore most nimble) atoms, with which he compared the extremely attenuated dust particles visible in their never-ending {79} dance in a beam of light passed into a darkened room. This structure of exceeding tenuity and nimbleness was the source of the motion characteristic of living creatures, and provided that elastic counteracting force to the inward-pressing nimble air, whereby were produced the phenomena of respiration. Every object, in fact, whether living or not, kept its form and distinctive existence by its possession in degree of a kind of soul or spirit of resistance in its structure, adequate to counteract the pressure of external forces upon its particles.


Sensation and perception were forms in which these external forces acted upon the more nimble and lively existences, more particularly on living creatures. For every body was continually sending forth emanations or images resembling itself sufficiently in form and structure to affect perceptive bodies with an apprehension of that form and structure. These images travelled by a process of successive transmission, similar to that by which wave-motions are propagated in water. They were, in other words, not movements of the particles of the objects, which latter must otherwise in time grow less and fade away, but a modification in the arrangement of the particles immediately next the object, which modification reproduced itself in the next following, and so on right through the medium to the perceptive body.



These images tended by extension in all directions to reach vast dimensions at times, and to influence the minds of men in sleep and on other occasions in strange ways. Hence men imagined gods, and attributed those mighty phenomena of nature—earthquakes, tempests, lightning and thunder, and dire eclipses of sun and moon, to the vaguely visible powers which they imagined they saw. There was indeed a soul or spirit of the universe, as there was a soul or spirit of every individual thing that constituted it. But this was only a finer system of atoms after all. All else is convention or dream; the only realities are Atoms and Emptiness, Matter and Space.


Of absolute verity through the senses we know nothing; our perceptions are only conventional interpretations of we know not what. For to other living creatures these same sensations have other meanings than they have to us, and even the same person is not always affected alike by the same thing; which then is the true of two differing perceptions we cannot say. And therefore either there is no such thing as truth, or, at all events, we know through the senses nothing of it. The only genuine knowledge is that which transcends appearances, and reasons out what is, irrespective of appearances,—in other words, the only genuine knowledge is that of the (atomic) philosopher. And his knowledge is {81} the result of the happy mixture of his atoms whereby all is in equal balance, neither too hot nor too cold. Such a man seeing in the mind's eye the whole universe a tissue of whirling and interlacing atoms, with no real mystery or terror before or after, will live a life of cheerful fearlessness, undisturbed by terrors of a world to come or of powers unseen. His happiness is not in feastings or in gold, but in a mind at peace. And three human perfections he will seek to attain: to reason rightly, to speak graciously, to do his duty.




Anarchic philosophy—Success not truth—Man the measure—All opinions true—Reductio ad absurdum

A certain analogy may perhaps be discerned between the progression of philosophic thought in Greece as we have traced it, and the political development which had its course in almost every Greek state during the same period. The Ionic philosophy may be regarded as corresponding with the kingly era in Greek politics. Philosophy sits upon the heights and utters its authoritative dicta for the resolution of the seeming contradictions of things. One principle is master, but the testimony of the senses is not denied; a harmony of thought and sensation is sought in the interpretation of appearances by the light of a ruling idea. In Pythagoras and his order we have an aristocratic organisation of philosophy. Its truths are for the few, the best men are the teachers, equal as initiated partakers in the mysteries, supreme over all outside their society. A reasoned and reasonable order and method are {83} symbolised by their theory of Number; their philosophy is political, their politics oligarchic. In the Eleatic school we have a succession of personal attempts to construct a domination in the theory of Nature; some ideal conception is attempted to be so elevated above the data of sensation as to override them altogether, and the general result we are now to see throughout the philosophic world, as it was seen also throughout the world of politics, in a total collapse of the principle of forced authority, and a development, of successively nearer approaches to anarchic individualism and doubt. The notion of an ultimately true and real, whatever form it might assume in various theorists' hands, being in its essence apart from and even antagonistic to the perceptions of sense, was at last definitely cast aside as a delusion; what remained were the individual perceptions, admittedly separate, unreasoned, unrelated; Reason was dethroned, Chaos was king. In other words, what seemed to any individual sentient being at any moment to be, that for him was, and nothing else was. The distinction between the real and the apparent was definitely attempted to be abolished, not as hitherto by rejecting the sensually apparent in favour of the rationally conceived real, but by the denial of any such real altogether.

The individualistic revolution in philosophy not {84} only, however, had analogies with the similar revolution contemporaneously going on in Greek politics, it was greatly facilitated by it. Each, in short, acted and reacted on the other. Just as the sceptical philosophy of the Encyclopaedists in France promoted the Revolution, and the Revolution in its turn developed and confirmed the philosophic scepticism, so also the collapse of contending philosophies in Greece promoted the collapse of contending systems of political authority, and the collapse of political authority facilitated the growth of that individualism in thought with which the name of the Sophists is associated.


Cicero (Brut. 12) definitely connects the rise of these teachers with the expulsion of the tyrants and the establishment of democratic republics in Sicily. From 466 to 406 B.C. Syracuse was democratically governed, and a 'free career to talents,' as in revolutionary France, so also in revolutionary Greece, began to be promoted by the elaboration of a system of persuasive argument. Devices of method called 'commonplaces' were constructed, whereby, irrespective of the truth or falsehood of the subject-matter, a favourable vote in the public assemblies, a successful verdict in the public courts, might more readily be procured. Thus by skill of verbal rhetoric, the worse might be made to appear the better reason; and philosophy, so far as it continued its functions, {85} became a search, not for the real amidst the confusions of the seeming and unreal, but a search for the seeming and the plausible, to the detriment, or at least to the ignoring, of any reality at all.

The end of philosophy then was no longer universal truth, but individual success; and consistently enough, the philosopher himself professed the individualism of his own point of view, by teaching only those who were prepared to pay him for his teaching. All over Greece, with the growth of democracy, this philosophy of persuasion became popular; but it was to Athens, under Pericles at this time the centre of all that was most vivid and splendid in Greek life and thought, that the chief teachers of the new philosophy flocked from every part of the Greek world.


The first great leader of the Sophists was Protagoras. He, it is said, was the first to teach for pay; he also was the first to adopt the name of Sophist. In the word Sophist there was indeed latent the idea which subsequently attached to it, but as first used it seems to have implied this only, that skill was the object of the teaching rather than truth; the new teachers professed themselves 'practical men,' not mere theorists.

The Greek word, in short, meant an able cultivated man in any branch of the arts; and the development of practical capacity was doubtless what Protagoras {86} intended to indicate as the purpose of his teaching, when he called himself a Sophist. But the ability he really undertook to cultivate was ability to persuade, for Greece at this time was nothing if not political; and persuasive oratory was the one road to political success. And as Athens was the great centre of Greek politics, as well as of Greek intellect, to Athens Protagoras came as a teacher.

He was born at Abdera, in Thrace (birthplace also of Democritus), in 480 B.C., began to teach at Athens about 451 B.C., and soon acquired great influence with Pericles, the distinguished leader of the Athenian democracy at this time. It is even alleged that when in 445 the Athenians were preparing to establish a colony at Thurii in Italy, Protagoras was requested to draw up a code of laws for the new state, and personally to superintend its execution.

After spending some time in Italy he returned to Athens, and taught there with great success for a number of years. Afterwards he taught for some time in Sicily, and died at the age of seventy, after [178] about forty years of professional activity. He does not seem to have contented himself with the merely practical task of teaching rhetoric, but in a work which he, perhaps ironically, entitled Truth, he enunciated the principles on which he based his teaching. Those principles were summed up in the sentence, "Man (by which he meant each man) is {87} the measure of all things, whether of their existence when they do exist, or of their non-existence when [179] they do not." In the development of this doctrine Protagoras starts from a somewhat similar analysis of things to that of Heraclitus and others. Everything is in continual flux, and the apparently real objects in nature are the mere temporary and illusory result of the in themselves invisible movements and minglings of the elements of which they are composed; and not only is it a delusion to attempt to give a factitious reality to the things which appear, it is equally a delusion to attempt to separate the (supposed) thing perceived from the perception itself. A thing is only as and when it is perceived. And a third delusion is to attempt to separate a supposed perceiving mind from the perception; all three exist only in and through the momentary perception; the supposed reality behind this, whether external in the object or internal in the mind, is a mere imagination. Thus the Heraclitean flux in Nature was extended to Mind also; only the sensation exists, and that only at the moment of its occurrence; this alone is truth, this alone is reality; all else is delusion.


It followed from this that as a man felt a thing to be, so for him it veritably was. Thus abstract truth or falsity could not be; the same statements could be indifferently true or false—to different {88} individuals at the same time, to the same individual at different times. It followed that all appearances were equally true: what seemed to be to any man, that was alone the true for him. The relation of such a doctrine as this to politics and to morals is not far to seek. Every man's opinion was as good as another's; if by persuasion you succeeded in altering a man's opinion, you had not deceived the man, his new opinion was as true (to him) as the old one. Persuasiveness, therefore, was the only wisdom. Thus if a man is ill what he eats and drinks seems bitter to him, and it is so; when he is well it seems the opposite, and is so. He is not a wiser man in the second state than in the first, but the second state is pleasanter. If then you can persuade him that what he thinks bitter is really sweet, you have done him good. This is what the physician tries to do by his drugs; this is what the Sophist tries to do by his words. Virtue then is teachable in so far as it is possible to persuade a boy or a man by rhetoric that that course of conduct which pleases others is a pleasant course for him. But if any one happens not to be persuaded of this, and continues to prefer his own particular course of conduct, this is for him the good course. You cannot blame him; you cannot say he is wrong. If you punish him you simply endeavour to supply the dose of unpleasantness which may {89} be needed to put the balance in his case on the same side as it already occupies in the case of other people.

It may be worth while to anticipate a little, and insert here in summary the refutation of this position put into the mouth of Socrates by Plato in the Theaetetus: "But I ought not to conceal from you that there is a serious objection which may be urged against this doctrine of Protagoras. For there are states, such as madness and dreaming, in which perception is false; and half our life is spent in dreaming; and who can say that at this instant we are not dreaming? Even the fancies of madmen are real at the time. But if knowledge is perception, how can we distinguish between the true and the false in such cases? . . . Shall I tell you what amazes me in your friend Protagoras? 'What may that be?' I like his doctrine that what appears is; but I wonder that he did not begin his great work on truth with a declaration that a pig, or a dog-faced baboon, or any other monster which has sensation, is a measure of all things; then while we were reverencing him as a god he might have produced a magnificent effect by expounding to us that he was no wiser than a tadpole. For if truth is only sensation, and one man's discernment is as good as another's, and every man is his own judge, and everything that he judges is right and true, then {90} what need of Protagoras to be our instructor at a high figure; and why should we be less knowing than he is, or have to go to him, if every man is the measure of all things?" . . . Socrates now resumes the argument. As he is very desirous of doing justice to Protagoras, he insists on citing his own words: 'What appears to each man is to him.' "And how," asks Socrates, "are these words reconcilable with the fact that all mankind are agreed in thinking themselves wiser than others in some respects, and inferior to them in others? In the hour of danger they are ready to fall down and worship any one who is their superior in wisdom as if he were a god. And the world is full of men who are asking to be taught and willing to be ruled, and of other men who are willing to rule and teach them. All which implies that men do judge of one another's impressions, and think some wise and others foolish. How will Protagoras answer this argument? For he cannot say that no one deems another ignorant or mistaken. If you form a judgment, thousands and tens of thousands are ready to maintain the opposite. The multitude may not and do not agree in Protagoras' own thesis, 'that man is the measure of all things,' and then who is to decide? Upon hip own showing must not his 'truth' depend on the number of suffrages, and be more or less true in proportion as he has more or fewer of them? And {91} [the majority being against him] he will be bound to acknowledge that they speak truly who deny him to speak truly, which is a famous jest. And if he admits that they speak truly who deny him to speak truly, he must admit that he himself does not speak truly. But his opponents will refuse to admit this as regards themselves, and he must admit that they are right in their refusal. The conclusion is, that all mankind, including Protagoras himself, will deny that he speaks truly; and his truth will be true neither to himself nor to anybody else" (Jowett, Plato, iv. pp. 239 sqq.)

The refutation seems tolerably complete, but a good deal had to happen before Greece was ready to accept or Plato to offer such a refutation.



THE SOPHISTS (concluded)

Nothing knowable—The solitude of scepticism—The lawlessness of scepticism—The good in scepticism


Gorgias was perhaps even more eminent a Sophist than Protagoras. He was a native of Leontini in Sicily, and came to Athens in the year 427 B.C. on a public embassy from his native city. The splendid reputation for political and rhetorical ability, which preceded him to Athens, he fully justified both by his public appearances before the Athenian assembly, and by the success of his private instructions to the crowds of wealthy young men who resorted to him. He dressed in magnificent style, and affected a lofty and poetical manner of speech, which offended the more critical, but which pleased the crowd.


He also, like Protagoras, published a treatise in which he expounded his fundamental principles, and like Protagoras, he preceded it with a striking if somewhat ironical title, and an apophthegm in which he summarised his doctrine. The title of his work was Of the Non-Existent, that is, Of Nature, and {93} his dictum, "Nothing exists, or if anything exists, it cannot be apprehended by man, and even if it could be apprehended, the man who apprehended it could not expound or explain it to his neighbour." In support of this strange doctrine, Gorgias adopted the quibbling method of argument which had been applied with some success to dialectical purposes by Zeno, Melissus, and others (see above, pp. 44 sqq.)


His chief argument to prove the first position laid down by him depended on a double and ambiguous use of the word is; "That which is not, is the non-existent: the word is must, therefore, be applicable to it as truly as when we say That which is, is; therefore, being is predicable of that which is not." So conversely he proved not-being to be predicable of that which is. And in like manner he made away with any possible assertions as to the finite or infinite, the eternal or created, nature of that which is. Logic could supply him with alternative arguments from whatever point he started, such as would seem to land the question in absurdity. Hence his first position was (he claimed) established, that 'Nothing is.'

To prove the second, that even if anything is, it cannot be known to man, he argued thus: "If what a man thinks is not identical with what is, plainly what is cannot be thought. And that what a man thinks is not identical with what is can be {94} shown from the fact that thinking does not affect the facts. You may imagine a man flying, or a chariot coursing over the deep, but you do not find these things to occur because you imagine them. Again, if we assume that what we think is identical with what is, then it must be impossible to think of what is not. But this is absurd; for we can think of such admittedly imaginary beings as Scylla and Chimaera, and multitudes of others. There is therefore no necessary relation between our thoughts and any realities; we may believe, but we cannot prove, which (if any) of our conceptions have relation to an external fact and which have not."


Nor thirdly, supposing any man had obtained an apprehension of what is real, could he possibly communicate it to any one else. If a man saw anything, he could not possibly by verbal description make clear what it is he sees to a man who has never seen. And so if a man has not himself the apprehension of reality, mere words from another cannot possibly give him any idea of it. He may imagine he has the same idea as the speaker, but where is he going to get the common test by which to establish the identity?

Without attempting to follow Gorgias further, we can see plainly enough the object and purport of the whole doctrine. Its main result is to isolate. It isolates each man from his fellows; he cannot tell {95} what they know or think, they cannot reach any common ground with him. It isolates him from nature; he cannot tell what nature is, he cannot tell whether he knows anything of nature or reality at all. It isolates him from himself; he cannot tell for certain what relation exists (if any) between what he imagines he perceives at any moment and any remembered or imagined previous experiences; he cannot be sure that there ever were any such experiences, or what that self was (if anything) which had them, or whether there was or is any self perceiving anything.

Let us imagine the moral effect on the minds of the ablest youth of Greece of such an absolute collapse of belief. The philosophic scepticism did not deprive them of their appetites or passions; it did not in the least alter their estimate of the prizes of success, or the desirability of wealth and power. All it did was to shatter the invisible social bonds of reverence and honour and truth and justice, which in greater or less degree act as a restraining force upon the purely selfish appetites of men. Not only belief in divine government disappeared, but belief in any government external or internal; justice became a cheating device to deprive a man of what was ready to his grasp; good-faith was stupidity when it was not a more subtle form of deceit; morality was at best a mere convention which a man might cancel if {96} he pleased; the one reality was the appetite of the moment, the one thing needful its gratification; society, therefore, was universal war, only with subtler weapons.

Of course Protagoras and Gorgias were only notable types of a whole horde of able men who in various ways, and with probably less clear notions than these men of the drift or philosophic significance of their activity, helped all over Greece in the promulgation of this new gospel of self-interest. Many Sophists no doubt troubled themselves very little with philosophical questions; they were 'agnostics,' know-nothings; all they professed to do was to teach some practical skill of a verbal or rhetorical character. They had nothing to do with the nature or value of ideals; they did not profess to say whether any end or aim was in itself good or bad, but given an end or aim, they were prepared to help those who hired them to acquire a skill which would be useful towards attaining it.

But whether a philosophy or ultimate theory of life be expressly stated or realised by a nation or an individual, or be simply ignored by them, there always is some such philosophy or theory underlying their action, and that philosophy or theory tends to work itself out to its logical issue in action, whether men openly profess it or no. And the theory of negation of law in nature or in man which underlay {97} the sophistic practice had its logical and necessary effect on the social structure throughout Greece, in a loosening of the bonds of religion, of family reverence and affection, of patriotism, of law, of honour. Thucydides in a well-known passage (iii. 82) thus describes the prevalent condition of thought in his own time, which was distinctively that of the sophistic teaching: "The common meaning of words was turned about at men's pleasure; the most reckless bravo was deemed the most desirable friend; a man of prudence and moderation was styled a coward; a man who listened to reason was a good-for-nothing simpleton. People were trusted exactly in proportion to their violence and unscrupulousness, and no one was so popular as the successful conspirator, except perhaps one who had been clever enough to outwit him at his own trade, but any one who honestly attempted to remove the causes of such treacheries was considered a traitor to his party. As for oaths, no one imagined they were to be kept a moment longer than occasion required; it was, in fact, an added pleasure to destroy your enemy if you had managed to catch him through his trusting to your word."

These are the words not of Plato, who is supposed often enough to allow his imagination to carry him beyond his facts about the Sophists as about others, nor are they the words of a satiric poet such as {98} Aristophanes. They are the words of the most sober and philosophic of Greek historians, and they illustrate very strikingly the tendency, nay, the absolute necessity, whereby the theories of philosophers in the closet extend themselves into the market-place and the home, and find an ultimate realisation of themselves for good or for evil in the 'business and bosoms' of the common crowd.

It is not to be said that the individualistic and iconoclastic movement which the Sophists represented was wholly bad, or wholly unnecessary, any more (to again quote a modern instance) than that the French Revolution was. There was much, no doubt, in the traditional religion and morality of Greece at that time which represented obsolete and antiquated conditions, when every city lived apart from its neighbours with its own narrow interests and local cults and ceremonials. Greece was ceasing to be an unconnected crowd of little separate communities; unconsciously it was preparing itself for a larger destiny, that of conqueror and civiliser of East and West. This scepticism, utterly untenable and unworkable on the lines extravagantly laid down by its leading teachers, represented the birth of new conditions of thought and action adapted to the new conditions of things. On the surface, and accepted literally, it seemed to deny the possibility of knowledge; it threatened to destroy humanity and {99} civilisation. But its strength lay latent in an implied denial only of what was merely traditional; it denied the finality of purely Greek preconceptions; it was laying the foundations of a broader humanity. It represented the claim of a new generation to have no dogma or assumption thrust on it by mere force, physical or moral. "I too am a man," it said; "I have rights; my reason must be convinced." This is the fundamental thought at the root of most revolutions and reformations and revivals, and the thought is therefore a necessary and a just one.

Unfortunately it seems to be an inevitable condition of human affairs that nothing new, however necessary or good can come into being out of the old, without much sorrow and many a birth-pang. The extravagant, the impetuous, the narrow-minded on both sides seize on their points of difference, raise them into battle-cries, and make what might be a peaceful regeneration a horrid battlefield of contending hates. The Christ when He comes brings not peace into the world, but a sword. And men of evil passions and selfish ambitions are quick on both sides to make the struggle of old and new ideals a handle for their own indulgence or their own advancement; the Pharisees and the Judases between them make the Advent in some of its aspects a sorry spectacle.

A reconciler was wanted who should wed what {100} was true in the new doctrine of individualism with what was valuable in the old doctrine of universal and necessary truth; who should be able to say, "Yes, I acknowledge that your individual view of things must be reckoned with, and mine, and everybody else's; and for that very reason do I argue for a universal and necessary truth, because the very truth for you as an individual is just this universal." The union and identification of the Individual and Universal,—this paradox of philosophy is the doctrine of Socrates.




The crisis of philosophy—Philosophic midwifery—The wisest of men—The gadfly of Athens—Justice, beauty, utility—Virtue is knowledge

The sophistic teaching having forced philosophy to descend into the practical interests and personal affairs of men, it followed that any further step in philosophy, any reaction against the Sophists, could only begin from the moral point of view. Philosophy, as an analysis of the data of perception or of nature, had issued in a social and moral chaos. Only by brooding on the moral chaos could the spirit of truth evoke a new order; only out of the moral darkness could a new intellectual light be made to shine. The social and personal anarchy seemed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy of nature; if ever the philosophy of nature was to be recovered it must be through a revision of the theory of morals. If it could be proved that the doctrine of individualism, of isolation, which the analysis of a Protagoras or a Gorgias had reached, was not only unlivable but unthinkable,—carried the seeds of its own destruction, theoretical as well as practical, within {102} itself,—then the analysis of perception, from which this moral individualism issued, might itself be called to submit to revision, and a stable point of support in the moral world might thus become a centre of stability for the intellectual and the physical also.

By a perfectly logical process, therefore, the crisis of philosophy produced in Greece through the moral and social chaos of the sophistic teaching had two issues, or perhaps we may call it one issue, carried out on the one side with a less, on the other side with a greater completeness. The less complete reaction from sophistic teaching attempted only such reconstruction of the moral point of view as should recover a law or principle of general and universally cogent character, whereon might be built anew a moral order without attempting to extend the inquiry as to a universal principle into the regions of abstract truth or into physics. The more complete and logical reaction, starting, indeed, from a universal principle in morals, undertook a logical reconstruction on the recovered universal basis all along the line of what was knowable.

To Socrates it was given to recover the lost point of stability in the world of morals, and by a system of attack, invented by himself, to deal in such a manner with the anarchists about him as to prepare the way for his successors, when the time was ripe for a more extended exposition of the new point of {103} view. Those who in succession to him worked out a more limited theory of law, mainly or exclusively in the world of morals, only were called the Incomplete Socratics. Those who undertook to work it out through the whole field of the knowable, the Complete Socratics, were the two giants of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle.

Greek philosophy then marks with the life of Socrates a parting of the ways in two senses: first, inasmuch as with him came the reaction from a physical or theoretical philosophy, having its issue in a moral chaos; and second, inasmuch as from him the two great streams of later philosophy issued—the one a philosophy of law or universals in action, the other a philosophy of law or universals in thought and nature as well.

Socrates, son of Sophroniscus a sculptor and Phaenarete a midwife, was born at Athens in or about the year 469 B.C. His parents were probably poor, for Socrates is represented as having been too poor to pay the fees required for instruction by the Sophists of his time. But in whatever way acquired or assimilated, it is certain that there was little of the prevalent culture in cultivated Athens with which Socrates had not ultimately a working acquaintance.

Among a people distinguished generally for their handsome features and noble proportions, Socrates was a notable exception. His face was squat and {104} round, his eyes protruding, his lips thick; he was clumsy and uncouth in appearance, careless of dress, a thorough 'Bohemian,' as we should call him. He was, however, gifted with an uncommon bodily vigour, was indifferent to heat and cold, by temperament moderate in food and drink, yet capable on occasion of drinking most people 'under the table.' He was of an imperturbable humour, not to be excited either by danger or by ridicule. His vein of sarcasm was keen and trenchant, his natural shrewdness astonishing, all the more astonishing because crossed with a strange vein of mysticism and a curious self-forgetfulness. As he grew up he felt the visitation of a mysterious internal voice, to which or to his own internal communings he would sometimes be observed to listen in abstracted stillness for hours. The voice within him was felt as a restraining force, limiting his action in various ways, but leaving him free to wander about among his fellows, to watch their doings and interpret their thoughts, to question unweariedly his fellows of every class, high and low, rich and poor, concerning righteousness and justice and goodness and purity and truth. He did not enter on his philosophic work with some grand general principle ready-made, to which he was prepared to fit the facts by hook or by crook. Rather he compared himself to his mother, the midwife; he sought to help others to {105} express themselves; he had nothing to tell them, he wanted them to tell him. This was the irony of Socrates, the eternal questioning, which in time came to mean in people's minds what the word does now. For it was hard, and grew every year harder, to convince people that so subtle a questioner was as ignorant as he professed to be; or that the man who could touch so keenly the weak point of all other men's answers, had no answer to the problems of life himself.

In striking contrast, then, to the method of all previous philosophies, Socrates busied himself to begin with, not with some general intellectual principle, but with a multitude of different people, with their notions especially on moral ideas, with the meaning or no-meaning which they attached to particular words,—in short, with the individual, the particular, the concrete, the every-day. He did not at all deny that he had a purpose in all this. On the contrary, he openly professed that he was in search of the lost universal, the lost law of men's thoughts and actions. He was convinced that life was not the chaos that the Sophists made out; that nobody really believed it to be a chaos; that, on the contrary, everybody had a meaning and purport in his every word and act, which could be made intelligible to himself and others, if you could only get people to think out clearly what they really meant. Philosophy {106} had met her destruction in the busy haunts of men; there where had been the bane, Socrates' firm faith sought ever and everywhere the antidote.

This simple enough yet profound and far-reaching practice of Socrates was theorised in later times as a logical method, known to us as Induction, or the discovery of universal laws or principles out [195] of an accumulation of particular facts. And thus Aristotle, with his technical and systematising intellect, attributes two main innovations in philosophy to Socrates; the Inductive process of reasoning, and the establishing of General Ideas or Definitions upon or through this process. This, true enough as indicating what was latent in the Socratic method, and what was subsequently actually developed out of it by Aristotle himself, is nevertheless probably an anachronism if one seeks to represent it as consciously present in Socrates' mind. Socrates adopted the method unconsciously, just because he wanted to get at the people about him, and through them at what they thought. He was the pioneer of Induction rather than its inventor; he created, so to speak, the raw material for a theory of induction and definition; he knew and cared nothing about such theories himself.

A story which may or may not be true in fact is put in Socrates' mouth by Plato, as to the cause which first started him on his "search for definitions." {107} One of his friends, he tells us, named Chaerephon, went to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and asked whether there was anybody wiser than Socrates. The answer was given that there was none wiser. This answer was reported to Socrates, who was much astonished, his own impression being that he had no wisdom or knowledge at all. So with a view to prove the oracle wrong he went in succession to various people of eminence and reputation in the various walks of life,—statesmen and poets and handicraftsmen and others,—in the expectation that they would show, on being questioned, such a knowledge of the principles on which their work was based as would prove their superior wisdom. But to his astonishment he found one after another of these men wanting in any apprehension of principles at all. They seemed to work by a kind of haphazard or 'rule of thumb,' and indeed felt annoyed that anything more should be expected of them. From which at the last Socrates came to the conclusion that perhaps the oracle was right in this sense at least, that, if he himself knew nothing more than his fellows, he was at least conscious of his own ignorance, whereas they were not.

Whether this tale may not itself be a specimen of Socrates' irony we cannot tell, but at all events it illustrates from another point of view the real meaning of Socrates' life. He, at least, was not content {108} to rest in haphazard and rule of thumb; he was determined to go on till he found out what was the law or principle of men's acts and words. The ignorance of others as to any such law or principle in their own case did not convince him that there was no such law or principle; only it was there (he thought) working unconsciously, and therefore in a way defencelessly. And so he compares himself at times to a gadfly, whose function it is to sting and irritate people out of their easy indifference, and force them to ask themselves what they were really driving at. Or again, he compares himself to the torpedo-fish, because he tried to give people a shock whenever they attempted to satisfy him with shallow and unreal explanations of their thoughts and actions.

The disinterested self-sacrificing nobility of Socrates' life, thus devoted to awakening them that sleep out of their moral torpor; the enmities that his keen and trenchant questionings of quacks and pretenders of every kind induced; the devotion of some of his friends, the unhappy falling away of others; the calumnies of interested enemies, the satires of poets; and lastly, the story of the final attack by an ungrateful people on their one great teacher, of his unjust condemnation and heroic death—all this we must pass over here. The story is in outline, at least, a familiar one, and it is one of the noblest in history. What is more to {109} the purpose for us is to ascertain how far his search for definitions was successful; how far he was able to

Take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them;

how far, in short, he was able to evolve a law, a universal principle, out of the confused babel of common life and thought and speech, strong enough and wide enough on which to build a new order for this world, a new hope for the world beyond.

We have said that Socrates made the individual and the concrete the field of his search. And not only did he look to individuals for light, he looked to each individual specifically in that aspect of his character and faculty which was most particular to himself. That is to say, if he met a carpenter, it was on his carpentering that he questioned him; if a sculptor, on his practice as a sculptor; if a statesman, on his statesmanship. In short, he did not want general vague theories on subjects of which his interlocutors could not be supposed to have any special experience or knowledge; he interrogated each on the subject which he knew best.

And what struck him, in contrast to the confusion and uncertainty and isolation of the sophistic teaching 'in the air,' was that when you get a man to talk on his own trade, which he knows, as is proved by the actual work he produces, you find invariably two {110} things—first, that the skill is the man's individual possession no doubt, the result of inborn capacity and continuous training and practice; but second, that just in proportion to that individual skill is the man's conviction that his skill has reference to a law higher than himself, outside himself. If the man whom Socrates interviewed was a skilful statesman, he would tell you he sought to produce obedience to law or right among the citizens; if he was a skilful sculptor, he produced beautiful things; if he was a skilful handicraftsman, he produced useful things. Justice, beauty, utility; these three words in different ways illustrated the existence of something always realising itself no doubt in individuals and their works, but nevertheless exercising a governing influence upon these to such a degree that this ideal something might be conceived as prior to the individual or his work; or secondly, as inherent in them and giving value to them; or thirdly, as coming in at the end as the perfection or completion of them. This law or ideal then had a threefold aspect in its own nature, being conceivable as Justice, as Beauty, as Utility; it had a threefold aspect in relation to the works produced in accordance with it, as the cause producing, the cause inhering, the cause completing or perfecting.

We may therefore conceive Socrates as arguing thus: "You clever Sophists, when we let you take {111} us into the region of abstract talk, have a knack of so playing with words that in the end we don't seem to know anything for certain, especially on such subjects as we have hitherto thought the most important, such as God and right and truth and justice and purity. We seem to be perfectly defenceless against you; and what is more, any smart youth, whose opinion on any practical matter no one would think of taking, can very soon pick up the trick from you, and bewilder plain people really far wiser than himself by his clever argumentation; all going to prove that there is nothing certain, nothing real, nothing binding; nothing but opinions and conventions and conscious or unconscious humbug in the universe.

"But when I go and have a quiet talk with any man who really is a known master of some craft or skill, about that craft or skill, I find no doubt whatever existing in his mind about there being a law, a something absolutely real and beautiful and true in connection with it. He, on the contrary, lives with no other purpose or hope or desire but as far as he can to realise in what he works at something of this real and beautiful and true, which was before him, will be after him, is the only valuable thing in him, but yet which honours him with the function of, in his day and generation, expressing it before the eyes of men."

{112} "Have we not here a key to the great secret? If each man, in respect of that which he knows best because he lives by it and for it, knows with intimate knowledge and certainty that there at least there is a Law working, not himself, but higher and greater than he,—have we not here a hint of the truth for the universe as a whole; that there also and in all its operations, great as well as small, there must be a Law, a great Idea or Ideal working, which was before all things, works in and gives value to all things, will be the consummation of all things? Is not this what we mean by the Divine?"

Thus Socrates, despising not the meaner things of life, but bending from the airy speculations of the proud to the realities which true labour showed him, laid his ear, so to speak, close to the breast of nature, and caught there the sound of her very heart-beats.

"Virtue is knowledge," thus he formulated his new vision of things. Knowledge, yes; but real knowledge; not mere head-knowledge or lip-knowledge, but the knowledge of the skilled man, the man who by obedience and teachableness and self-restraint has come to a knowledge evidencing itself in works expressive of the law that is in him, as he is in it. Virtue is knowledge; on the one hand, therefore, not something in the air, unreal, intangible; but something in me, in you, in each man, something which you cannot handle except as individual and {113} in individuals; on the other hand, something more than individual or capricious or uncertain,—something which is absolute, over-ruling, eternal.

Virtue is knowledge. And so if a man is virtuous, he is realising what is best and truest in himself, he is fulfilling also what is best and truest without himself. He is free, for only the truth makes free; he is obedient to law, but it is at once a law eternally valid, and a law which he dictates to himself. And therefore virtue is teachable, inasmuch as the law in the teacher, perfected in him, is also the law in the taught, latent in him, by both individually possessed, but possessed by both in virtue of its being greater than both, of its being something more than individual.

Virtue is knowledge. And therefore the law of virtuous growth is expressed in the maxim engraved on the Delphic temple, 'Know thyself.' Know thyself, that is, realise thyself; by obedience and self-control come to your full stature; be in fact what you are in possibility; satisfy yourself, in the only way in which true self-satisfaction is possible, by realising in yourself the law which constitutes your real being.

Virtue is knowledge. And therefore all the manifold relations of life,—the home, the market, the city, the state; all the multiform activities of life,—labour and speech and art and literature and {114} law; all the sentiments of life,—friendship and love and reverence and courage and hope,—all these are parts of a knowable whole; they are expressions of law; they are Reason realising itself through individuals, and in the same process realising them.



SOCRATES (concluded)

The dialectic method—Instruction through humiliation—Justice and utility—Righteousness transcending rule

It must not be imagined that anywhere in the recorded conversations of Socrates can we find thus in so many words expounded his fundamental doctrine. Socrates was not an expositor but a questioner; he disclaimed the position of a teacher, he refused to admit that any were his pupils or disciples. But his questioning had two sides, each in its way leading people on to an apprehension of the ideal in existence. The first side may be called the negative or destructive, the second, the positive or constructive. In the first, whose object was to break down all formalism, all mere regard for rules or traditions or unreasoned maxims, his method had considerable resemblance to that of the Sophists; like them he descended not infrequently to what looked very like quibbling and word-play. As Aristotle observes, the dialectic method differed from that of the Sophists not so much in its form, as in the purpose for which it was employed. The end of the {116} Sophists was to confuse, the end of Socrates was through confusion to reach a more real, because a more reasoned certainty; the Sophists sought to leave the impression that there was no such thing as truth; he wished to lead people to the conviction that there was a far deeper truth than they were as yet possessed of.

A specimen of his manner of conversation preserved for us by Xenophon (Memor. IV. ii.) will make the difference clearer. Euthydemus was a young man who had shown great industry in forming a collection of wise sayings from poets and others, and who prided himself on his superior wisdom because of his knowledge of these. Socrates skilfully manages to get the ear of this young man by commending him for his collection, and asks him what he expects his learning to help him to become? A physician? No, Euthydemus answers. An architect? No. And so in like manner with other practical skills,—the geometrician's, astronomer's, professional reciter's. None of these he discovers is what Euthydemus aims at. He hopes to become a great politician and statesman. Then of course he hopes to be a just man himself? Euthydemus flatters himself he is that already. "But," says Socrates, "there must be certain acts which are the proper products of justice, as of other functions or skills?"—"No doubt."—"Then of course you can tell us what {117} those acts or products are?"—"Of course I can, and the products of injustice as well."—"Very good; then suppose we write down in two opposite columns what acts are products of justice and what of injustice."—"I agree," says Euthydemus.—"Well now, what of falsehood? In which column shall we put it?"—"Why, of course in the unjust column."—"And cheating?"—"In the same column."—"And stealing?"—"In it too."—"And enslaving?"—"Yes."—"Not one of these can go to the just column?"—"Why, that would be an unheard-of thing."

"Well but," says Socrates, "suppose a general has to deal with some enemy of his country that has done it great wrong; if he conquer and enslave this enemy, is that wrong?"—"Certainly not."—"If he carries off the enemy's goods or cheats him in his strategy, what about these acts?"—"Oh, of course they are quite right. But I thought you were talking about deceiving or ill-treating friends."—"Then in some cases we shall have to put these very same acts in both columns?"—"I suppose so."

"Well, now, suppose we confine ourselves to friends. Imagine a general with an army under him discouraged and disorganised. Suppose he tells them that reserves are coming up, and by cheating them into this belief he saves them from their discouragement, and enables them to win a victory. What about this cheating of one's friends?"—"Why, I {118} suppose we shall have to put this too on the just side."—"Or suppose a lad needs medicine, but refuses to take it, and his father cheats him into the belief that it is something nice, and getting him to take it, saves his life; what about that cheat?"—"That will have to go to the just side too."—"Or suppose you find a friend in a desperate frenzy, and steal his sword from him, for fear he should kill himself; what do you say to that theft?"—"That will have to go there too."—"But I thought you said there must be no cheating of friends?"—"Well, I must take it all back, if you please."—"Very good. But now there is another point I should like to ask you. Whether do you think the man more unjust who is a voluntary violator of justice, or he who is an involuntary violator of it?"—"Upon my word, Socrates, I no longer have any confidence in my answers. For the whole thing has turned out to be exactly the contrary of what I previously imagined. However, suppose I say that the voluntary deceiver is the more unjust."—"Do you consider that justice is a matter of knowledge just as much (say) as writing?"—"Yes, I do."—"Well now, which do you consider the better skilled as a writer, the man who makes a mistake in writing or in reading what is written, because he chooses to do so, or the man who does so because he can't help it?"—"Oh, the first; because he can put it right whenever he likes."—"Very {119} well, if a man in the same way breaks the rule of right, knowing what he is doing, while another breaks the same rule because he can't help it, which by analogy must be the better versed in justice?"—"The first, I suppose."—"And the man who is better versed in justice must be the juster man?"—"Apparently so; but really, Socrates, I don't know where I am. I have been flattering myself that I was in possession of a philosophy which could make a good and able man of me. But how great, think you, must now be my disappointment, when I find myself unable to answer the simplest question on the subject?"

Many other questions are put to him, tending to probe his self-knowledge, and in the end he is brought to the conclusion that perhaps he had better hold his tongue, for it seems he knows nothing at all. And so he went away deeply despondent, despising himself as an absolute dolt. "Now many," adds Xenophon, "when brought into this condition by Socrates, never came near him again. But Euthydemus concluded that his only hope of ever being worth anything was in seeing as much of Socrates as he could, and so he never quitted his side as long as he had a chance, but tried to follow his mode of living. And Socrates, when he perceived this to be his temper, no longer tormented him, but sought with all simplicity and clearness to {120} show him what he deemed it best for him to do and think."

Was this cross-examination mere 'tormenting' with a purpose, or can we discover underlying it any hint of what Socrates deemed to be the truth about justice?

Let us note that throughout he is in search of a definition, but that as soon as any attempt is made to define or classify any particular type of action as just or unjust, special circumstances are suggested which overturn the classification. Let us note further that while the immediate result is apparently only to confuse, the remoter but more permanent result is to raise a suspicion of any hard and fast definitions, and to suggest that there is something deeper in life than language is adequate to express, a 'law in the members,' a living principle for good, which transcends forms and maxims, and which alone gives real value to acts. Note further the suggestion that this living principle has a character analogous to the knowledge or skill of an accomplished artificer; it has relation on the one hand to law, as a principle binding on the individual, it has relation on the other hand to utility, as expressing itself, not in words, but in acts beneficial to those concerned. Hence the Socratic formula, Justice is equivalent to the Lawful on the one hand, to the Useful on the other.


Socrates had thus solved by anticipation the apparently never-ending controversy about morality. Is it a matter imposed by God upon the heart and conscience of each individual? Is it dictated by the general sense of the community? Is it the product of Utility? The Socratic answer would be that it is all three, and that all three mean ultimately the same thing. What God prescribes is what man when he is truly man desires; and what God prescribes and man desires is that which is good and useful for man. It is not a matter for verbal definition but for vital realisation; the true morality is that which works; the ideally desirable, is ultimately the only possible, course of action, for all violations of it are ultimately suicidal.

Note finally the suggestion that the man who knows (in Socrates' sense of knowledge) what is right, shows only more fully his righteousness when he voluntarily sins; it is the 'unwilling sinner' who is the wrongdoer. When we consider this strange doctrine in relation to the instances given,—the general with his army, the father with his son, the prudent friend with his friend in desperate straits,—we see that what is meant is that 'sin' in the real sense is not to be measured or defined by conformity or otherwise to some formal standard, at least in the case of those who know, that is, in the case of men who have realised goodness in its true nature in {122} their characters and lives. As St. Paul expressed it (Rom. xiii. 10), "Love is the fulfilling of the law." Or again (Gal. v. 23), after enumerating the 'fruits of the spirit'—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance—he adds, "Against such there is no law."

In the domain of life, not less than in that of the arts, the highest activity does not always or necessarily take the form of conformity to rule. There are critical moments when rules fail, when, in fact, obedience to rule would mean disobedience to that higher law, of which rules and formulae are at best only an adumbration. The originality of the great musician or painter consists in just such transcendence of accepted formulae; this is why he invariably encounters opposition and obloquy from the learned conventional pedants of his time. And in the domain of morals the martyrs, reformers, prophets are in like manner 'willing sinners.' They are denounced, persecuted, crucified; for are they not disturbers of society; do they not unsettle young men; do they not come, as Christ came, not to bring peace into the world, but a sword? And thus it is that the willing sinners of one generation are the martyrs and heroes of the next. Through their life and death a richer meaning has been given to the law of beauty or of rectitude, only, alas! in its turn to be translated into new conventions, new {123} formulae, which shall in due time require new martyrs to transcend them. And thus, on the other hand, the perfectly honest sticklers for the old and common-place, unwilling sinners all unconscious of their sin, are fated to bear in history the brand of men who have persecuted the righteous without cause. To each, according to the strange sad law of life, time brings its revenges.




A philosopher at ease—The sensual sty—Citizens of the world—The tub of Diogenes—A philosophy of abstracts


I. ARISTIPPUS AND THE CYRENAICS.—Aristippus was a native of Cyrene, a Greek colony on the north coast of Africa. He is said to have come to Athens because of his desire to hear Socrates; but from the notices of him which we find in Xenophon's memoirs he appears to have been from the first a somewhat intractable follower, dissenting especially from the poverty and self-denial of the master's mode of life. [205] He in course of time founded a school of his own, called the Cyrenaic from his own place of birth, and from the fact that many subsequent leaders of the school also belonged to Cyrene. Among his notable disciples were his daughter Arete, her son named Aristippus after his grandfather, Ptolemaeus the Aethiopian, Antipater of Cyrene, and a long succession of others.

Aristippus was a man of considerable subtlety of mind, a ready speaker, clever in adapting himself to persons and circumstances. On one occasion, being {125} asked what benefit he considered philosophy had conferred upon him, he answered, "The capacity of associating with every one without embarrassment." Philosophy, in fact, was to Aristippus a method of social culture, a means of making the best of life as he found it. As Horace observes of him (Epp. i. 17. 23)—

Omnis Aristippum decuit color et status et res Tentantem majora, fere praesentibus aequum.

"Every aspect and manner of life and fortune fitted Aristippus; he aimed at what was greater, yet kept an even, mind whatever his present condition."


As we have already said, this school was incompletely Socratic, inasmuch as philosophy was not an end in itself, knowledge whether of oneself or of other matters had no intrinsic interest for them; philosophy was only a means towards pleasurable living, enabling them so to analyse and classify the several experiences of life as to render a theory of satisfactory [207] existence possible. With them first came into prominence a phrase which held a large place in all subsequent Greek philosophy, the End of existence, by which was meant that which summed up the good in existence, that which made life worth living, that which was good and desirable in and for itself, and not merely as a means to something else. What then according to the Cyrenaics was the End of life? {126} Their answer was that life had at each moment its own End, in the pleasure of that moment. The past was gone, the future not yet with us; remembrance of the one, fear or hope of the other, might contribute to affect the purity of the present pleasure, but such as it was the present pleasure was a thing apart, complete in and for itself. Nor was its perfection qualified by any question of the means by which it was procured; the moment's pleasure was pleasurable, whatever men might say as to the manner of its [208] procuring. This pleasure was a tranquil activity of the being, like the gently heaving sea, midway between violent motion which was pain, and absolute calm which was insensibility. As a state of activity it was something positive, not a mere release from [209] pain, not a simple filling up of a vacuum. Nothing was in its essential nature either just or noble or base; custom and convention pronounced them one or other. The wise man made the best he could of his conditions; valuing mental activity and friendship and wealth and bodily exercise, and avoiding envy and excessive indulgence of passion and superstition, not because the first were in themselves good or the second evil, but because they were respectively helpers or hinderers of pleasure. He is the master and possessor of pleasure not who abstains from it, but who uses it and keeps his self-command in the using. Moderate indulgence—this is wisdom.



The one criterion, whether of good or of truth, is the feeling of the moment for the man who feels it; all question of causes of feelings is delusive. We can say with truth and certainty, I have the sensation of white or the sensation of sweet. But that there is a white or a sweet thing which is the cause of the sensation, that we cannot say for certain. A man may very well have the sensation white or sweet from something which has no such quality, as men in delusion or madness have impressions that are true and real inasmuch as they have them, although other people do not admit their reality. There is, therefore, no criterion of truth as between man and man; we may employ the same words, but each has his own impressions and his own individual experiences.

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