May 20, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part VI
The History of Philosophy, cont.
WE RETURN from these queer flights to the question which drove us hence to begin with, and soon must do so again: namely, the question of the proper understanding of the history of philosophy. Now, “the history of philosophy” is and must be an ambiguous phrase, and before we move to consider it, we must comprehend this ambiguity. On the one hand, the “history of philosophy” means something similar to what is meant by the “history of science” or the “history of England”; it is meant as a study of all the works undertaken by the philosophers in their times, together with the lives of the philosophers themselves. It is meant moreover as a survey of those times, toward the end of understanding the philosophers’ preconditions. Put otherwise, this surface history of philosophy is the study of philosophy’s intersection with history.
But philosophy is unique among all human endeavors, with the exception of art, in this: philosophy possesses in fact two histories, two parallel histories, which must be understood both together if one is to understand either of them apart. The history of science is exclusively the study of science’s emergence in history; it is the study of the historical conditions, either social or scientific, which led to this or that scientific discovery. The history of philosophy, on the other hand, is the study of the teachings of the philosophers, which emerge and exist inwardly contra their historical conditions, but which conform with them outwardly.
The outward history of philosophy is the one that is sure to be encountered in almost any given book about philosophy—any book, that is, which approaches the philosopher in a spirit of historical study and not in a spirit of philosophical study. It is the historian’s, and not the scholar’s, view of history. The inward history, on the other hand, has been described through various metaphors—fire on the peaks of mountains, for example, or the passing of the torch, or perhaps most famously as the “Dialogue of the Ages.” This last is especially curious and worthy of consideration, for it suggests a sort of ahistorical community formed by the philosophers, in which they carry on their discussions and conversations at a remove from world events. Yet it is universally known that time for man is unidirectional, and does not bend back upon its path: but instead, with tyrannical and indeflectable determination, it forges forever hungrily ahead. Whence, then, do we speak of a “dialogue”? It rather seems that the history of philosophy, its inward history, is formed by the conversation of newer philosophers to elder, and it is a curious feature of this conversation, that the elder cannot respond in turn. Would it not be better, then, to call it the “Monologue of the Ages,” or perchance the “Secular Echo”?
It is for this reason that certain commentators, several of them brilliant in their way, have sought to find in the inward history of philosophy the very progress that is not apparent on the surface history of philosophy. Hegel, of course, represents the paragon of this kind of interpretation; but many others have followed him. José Ortega y Gasset, for example, was pleased to interpret philosophy in this way—as an ever-improving, though never completing, ascent from falsity toward truth. And truly, one wants to believe in progress—so much senselessness is thereby redeemed. And it is reasonable to believe in such an ascent, if philosophy does in fact present us with a merely temporal history of great thinkers; for it is hard to believe that each successive thinker, in dialectic with all past thinkers, should not perceive their mistakes and to some degree succeed in eliminating them in his own work.
Before we can adequately address this possibility, it would behoove us to set ourselves to understand in what philosophical progress would consist. Now, progress in scientific knowledge consists in this: that new ideas more perfectly, which is to say, more widely, account for phenomena than old ideas. That is to say, the difference between a scientific theory, and a more complete scientific theory, is that the latter explains phenomena which exceed the boundaries of the former’s province, either in whole or in part. Scientific theories can be understood as circles bounding both phenomena and also one another, such that that theory is best, which is at once broadest and simplest. The planetary theory of Kepler is by this understanding superior to that of Copernicus, because it describes the motions of the planets elliptically, and therefore “fits the data” more precisely than Copernicus’ circle-intoxicated system. Here, again, we find the meaning of Husserl’s “boundaries.”
Philosophy, too, concerns itself with that knowledge which is “broadest”; but philosophy does so vitally, because it concerns itself principally with what is profoundest and highest—the twin poles of that third dimension of this human world which science, for radical reasons that we have touched upon, cannot access. Despite our discussion of this, it may yet seem strange that science does not trouble itself over questions of depth; for are we not accustomed to believing that science pierces nearer and nearer the very heart of reality, to such an extent that it quite flies the boundaries of our common sense and sense perceptions? Yet the curious fact of science is that its aims are ever for frontiers and not the center, the human center. That is to say, the phenomena which elude science and necessitate its continued refinement are those furthest from common human experience, those which find themselves in the very outlands of possible experience. To judge by what is most immediate and daily to the practical life of man, Netwonian physics is quite sufficient; perhaps no possible common experience could even be imagined in which one would require recourse to any subtler theory like general relativity or quantum mechanics. Yet to science, these latter theories are the “truer,” insofar as they explain also those phenomena which are observable only peripherally, through fine measurements and laboratory research. Indeed, it is, most strikingly, only through the technology derived from scientific theories that these problems, as it were, become real to us. The movement of the growth of science is ever outward. The movement of science is mirrored in the scientific-exploratory movements of human beings—ever farther from the city, to the unknown frontiers of the world, of the sea, of space—ever farther from the human center.
A similar objection, of course, is often brought against philosophy, insofar as philosophy, too, takes as its object questions which seem atimes far removed from daily human experience. But while they are certainly so removed—while philosophy, like science, is best put to the contemplation of nobly distant questions—even the most distant of philosophical theories is by no means divorced from the human center. Philosophy begins with the human to understand the world in the light of the human; science begins with the “world” to understand the human in the light of “universal laws.” Or put otherwise: while science in its truth-lust travels abroad, philosophy in its truth-love travels beneath, to the root causes, the first things. These are no subject of science, they are not applicable to scientific method. Indeed, the historical emergence of science as separate from philosophy was conditioned by nothing less than the rejection of such investigations as these. Scientific method is the finest tool developed for uncovering and analyzing the contingencies underlying all phenomena: but first things are not contingent on anything but themselves.
Consider a classical example. The eternity of the universe, which is a basic tenet of philosophy, is neither disprovable nor provable by science: not provable, for that should require being able to live forever to test all future existence, and also to travel infinitely backward to test all past; not disprovable, because that should require stepping outside the phenomena upon which science stands and must stand: in both cases, then, because the proposition here considered outsteps the boundaries of the empirical. The incessant debate over the so-called “Big Bang” theory (which title, incidentally, is a sad testament to that necessary lack of poetic sensibility in the scientific community) is reducible to this fact alone. This is a debate which is insoluble by the power of science in and of itself; at best, science might be able to press the question backward in time to some yet more fundamental initiating “singularity.” Nevertheless, the scientific community will never cease this “pressing backward,” for it is loath to accept the eternity of anything, since eternity closes off its questioning as to effective origins. Science, which does not accept the existence of first origins, nevertheless refuses to permit an infinite regress of causality; consequently, it catches itself straining cyclically in the extremities of its purview—neither able nor willing to escape.
We are speaking yet again of the philosophical deficiency of science. Science cannot descend to the consideration of first things, or those things which are fundamentally non-contingent, because its very method is framed upon contingencies: consequently, it denies the existence of the non-contingent things, and proves yet again that man of all the creatures of creation may deny the god that give him reason, on basis of that reason alone. Nor can science ascend to the consideration of last things, because these are deeply entangled with the question of value. In its inability to delve beneath the surface or to ascend above the ceiling of its own suppositions, science also lacks fundamentally the capacity to critique itself, its means and aims. Its project, its limitations, and its loyalties are all given it by powers beyond its vision; it is suspended on invisible clouds, and may continue only so long as the time in which it lives and works and has its being permits it to continue. For science is radically insufficient unto itself, and deeply dependent on its historical moment; and sadly, the greatest evidence of its dependency is its tenacious believe in its independence. It does not even begin to sense, much less to comprehend, the power that gives it life and sanction to continue; and in the absence of knowledge of its monarch, it has not lasting potency in court. This is the fundamental reason why a “history of science” is possible, and why such a history has no necessary bearing on the conclusions of present scientific theories.
Now, science took its first breath in the spirit infused by philosophy, but when it broke from philosophy, it foreswore the shelter of its father, and took a different protector: the state and, which gradually amounts to the same thing in our democracy-obsessed day, the masses. Science, as we have early said, won the affection of the people through its works; it became a flatterer of the demos, and, as is the fate of every flatterer of the demos, subsequently became their handservant. Today it must submit itself to their endless appetites, or it shall be dismantled by them. Science is therefore deeply historically contingent. We do not perceive this contingency, because we are infatuated with power and adore the victorious: and thus we are wont to suppose every virtue in the conqueror, including immortality.
This contingency, this dependency, this mortality is something not to be found in philosophy proper; for when philosophy was offered the same temptation as that given science—when philosophy was offered, that is, the love of mankind, and the government of his being and city—philosophy declined. It is said of Thales that he once used his wisdom to conquer the marketplace, buying up all the olive presses in a year which he in his wisdom knew would be particularly rich in the harvest of olives; and it is said that in this way he proved the utility of philosophy. Yet this interpretation of this story—which story be central to the history of philosophy, whether or not it be apocryphal—is basically flawed. This story, as practically everything relating to philosophy, has both an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. Had Thales truly wished to preserve the reputation of philosophy, he should have taxed his knowledge quite beyond this mere singular display: should have made his fellow citizens rich, and adorned his city with a thousand benefits and improvements, and given his people a wiser government and a more virtuous life. At least some of this was within his power. But the pith of the story is not that Thales had demonstrated his philosophical power—but that he had renounced it. It is not that he proved his capacity to make himself wealthy and great in the popular way—but rather that he never again used this capacity. Science bribed the passions of the people, and consequently became their slave, even if a slave dressed in the robes of a king: philosophy, from the very beginning of its tradition, declined both roles.
This choice, implicit in philosophy’s very beginning, was made explicit in the moment of its first and most brilliant flowering, the classical age of philosophy, which was inaugurated with the execution of Socrates—Socrates, who made himself the gadfly of Athens; Socrates, who became loathed by the sophists by spoiling their attempts to sell philosophy, and who insisted on his way, despite that it carped at their business; Socrates, who was condemned by the city for his disbelief in their gods, and who goaded them even unto his own execution. The very soul of philosophy is here revealed: philosophy is the investigation of the truth, despite all conventions. Philosophy can therefore not sell itself to the people, for this would mean bowing to convention. But still less can philosophy too openly defy those conventions, lest it be administered once again the hemlock, and force itself of its course to drink. For philosophy to try to establish itself as a feature and function of the state would be identical to philosophy making itself the servant of that it wishes to escape: the historical moment.
This irreconcilable conflict between philosophy and convention is the reason that Hesse’s Castalia could never exist. The utopia of a philosophical state—even and especially one contained within another state—is fantastical and chimerical. This has proven to be a basic problem in the history of philosophy, and one which has been solved in two ways—or rather, in one way with two manifestations: the establishment of an esoteric school through either an oral or a written tradition. Now is not the moment to decide which of these schools is the better, and which more truly preserves the tradition. Enough to know that they each of them exist—that they form, indeed, the trans-historical core of philosophy, stretching from its very beginnings into the heart of modernity, at which point this tradition began to be forgotten.
Before we may understand what happened here, we must first fix our meditations on the transformation undertaken by philosophy in the Renaissance—the moment that modernity was born. The Renaissance is a fitting enough name in terms of the society and politics of that time, but it is hopelessly inadequate as regards its philosophy and its art. For the Renaissance in philosophy was no mere rebirth: it was a birth as such, of something fundamentally new and untried. From out this transformation came the social reorientation of philosophy, a revaluation of the Thalian choice of moderation. This reorientation is known to us today as the Enlightenment—that decision, contrary the whole history of philosophy to date, to wield the power implicit in it. And it is through the Enlightenment that we ourselves, and our very time, and all the crisis inherent in our moment, were born.
The Enlightenment devoted itself to three interconnected projects: the instatement of science and scientific method, the introduction of democracy into state and society, and the disenfranchisement of the Roman Church. It may seem odd if I claim that the first two of these projects were ever intended for the supplement of the third—that it was the third most principally that floated before the eyes of the Enlightenment thinkers like the figment of some monomania; that it was the third which demanded the first two as means. It may, I say, seem strange, since one finds no shortage of protestations of belief on the part of so many of these writers, such that a figure outspoken in his denunciation of religion—such as Voltaire, that best-known and least profound character of the Enlightenment—was comparatively rare. Yet I believe that any true reading of the great Enlightenment figures shall show us what there is to see.
Let us take Bacon, that brilliant, that seminal philosopher—so highly regarded by posterity, indeed, and so evoking of its praise, that certain theories even claim he was the true writer of the plays of Shakespeare. As if what we know to attribute to him without controversy were not enough to satisfy his merit! Here is a man who wasted no little ink in testaments of faith. Nonetheless, his magnum opus, Instauratio Magna, is broke into seven parts, like the seven days of Genesis; for Bacon wished to remake the world in man’s image, which is little enough a project of piety. And his New Atlantis is peopled of men who, also despite their outward faith, play god well enough on their little island.
Or let us take Machiavelli, whose blasphemies could have been published only in a period of time which had lately seen the Borgia as Pope. Or take Descartes’ pandering to religion—such as that droll bit of circular reasoning in the preface to the Meditations (again, broken into seven parts), that shameless faith-mongering which he set like bait before the mouths of the foolish and uninitiated. Or take again Spinoza—about whom, no matter what one might make of his written claims of faithfulness, it is enough to note that he was excommunicated by one faith, and his books forbidden by another.
This is a poor selection of the anti-theological material one could excavate from Enlightenment soil, if one so desired. Even that well-known fact regarding the Enlightenment era, that deism rose in that time, is highly telling—for deism is generally but the presentable cloak donned by atheists to avoid such imputations as their true title would rightly arouse. The Enlightenment was the tree that naturally bore such strange fruit as the philosophers who undermined the Church, and finally those who, in breathtaking audacity and irresponsibility, outright proclaimed their disbelief for all eyes and all ears.
Yet—why? Why this rancor, this “anti-theological ire”? Many commentators have discovered its locus in certain particularly inflammatory deeds of the Church toward the height of the Renaissance, and most especially in the banishment of Galileo Galilei and the burning of Giordano Bruno—and well enough do they look here, for there is much in the memory of these events to stir up a righteous indignation in any lover of public liberty of inquiry. Yet these men were hardly the first to suffer for the dogma of the Church; and let their celebrity count for what it will, no man, even before Bruno stood his flaming stake in the Campo de’ Fiori, could have been ignorant of the growing power of the Inquisition, nor of its bloodsoaked and fireshrouded deeds throughout southern Europe.
As for the philosophers themselves—what particular novelty could they perceive in these acts? Persecution, indeed, is a trouble that has pinched the heels of the philosopher since the beginning of philosophy. There is something seductively romantic in the notion that the thinkers of the Enlightenment rallied against the Church in a common defense of the astronomers, who, after all, were the earliest physicists; it seems to us that in this way, the battle against the Church was a heroic struggle in defense of that very science which has given us such unprecedented material benefit and increase. But the very lateness of these martyrs, and the sheer mass of men who preceded them to languish under the heavy hand of the Inquisition, suggests rather that the case stands precisely reversed—that it was in fact the scientific method which was the principle weapon wielded in the already inaugurated war against the Church; that the trials of such men as Bruno and Galileo were fabricated into splendid armors for the soldiers of the field. Indeed, I would claim that philosophy took the illustrious examples of these men to demonstrate what it already wishes to show, namely, that the Church was oppressive and oppressing. I would claim that the technological potency felt even in the time of Bacon to inhere in science, was nothing but the means by which the philosophers wished finally to prove that philosophy’s power in this world were greater than that of the Church, insofar as it could provide plenty where the Church offered but otherworldy consolations, that it could command miracles of a substance and a reality which the Church could only dream, and that it could make of earth itself a heaven, and man himself a savior, a redeemer, a god. Similarly, I say, was republicanism, rather than being the generous aim of our Enlightenment forebears, naught but a great spear hurled against the continuing tyranny of faith. The education of the masses was meant to free them from superstition, the betterment of their material conditions was meant to dispose of the necessity of confession, mass, tithing, and belief in the afterlife: and all this was intended to sap the sway of the Holy Roman Catholic Church; all this to disassemble it brick by brick into a folly of rubble and a ruin of memory; all this to dismantle its cathedrals and to erect in their place towers of ivory. The New Atlantis was a realizable utopia in which philosophers were to rule in the place of priests; that was the dream of the Enlightenment thinkers; and it was not through any glorious frontal assault on the impregnable palisades of Catholicism that this great prize was to be won, but rather through the cultivation of the traitor’s heart.
Well should it be asked why I make such claims as these. First and foremost, this fantastical hatred for the Church, which arose from the infertile swamp of the Dark Ages, requires a deal of explanation—not because it occurred, but because it occurred so very late. A thousand years of the reign of religion had been tolerated by the philosophers before they took up objections which, after all, could not have been foreign to any man of reason. Yet never once in all these thousand years of enforced silence did the philosophers try their fortunes. The standard theory here, of course, is that they had actually become variously Christians, Muslims, and Jews, in accord with the taste of their time and location, and that they, like all of Europe, were but awaiting an awakening to a new secular life after the apocalyptic plague should come to slaughter half of Europe’s population. The commonplace idea has it that this awe binding show of death and misery somehow reminded the beleaguered survivors to eat, drink, and be merry with what little time remained them—as if the misery and squalor of so much of the Middle Ages would not suffice for such a lesson! But leaving to this theory that part of truth which belongs to it—nonetheless, its basic flaw is in treating as historical the one thing that cannot be treated as historical: the history of philosophy. The philosophers had learned to live beneath the arbitrary rule both of man, and of the many gods of man. In accord with a secret law, they had conformed themselves outwardly to custom, and had declined the temptation to make the Republic a reality. Seeing of a certainty that human beings be ready only for such political realities as are worthy of their present characters, they permitted history to go its way without meddling in its current, and lived for their own accounts in that realm suspended between earth and heaven. And yet, beginning as early as the sixteenth century of our Lord, they seized the power they had once repudiated, and took the cities of man that had once been offered them by that shadow on the hill. Why had they so suddenly changed the habits of centuries?
They denied the classical tradition, indeed because it had failed to keep them safe; not in the sense of preserving a Bruno from the flames or of giving to a Galileo the glory he deserved—nay, not so much in such superficial, albeit important, ways as these, which, after all, were but recapitulations of philosophy’s originating moment in that prison cell in Athens. But the classical tradition had rather failed to keep the very spirit of philosophy safe even esoterically. It had silenced the Dialogue of Ages by eliminating the power of the present to speak to the past. For the Church had assimilated philosophy, and had done so nearly without remainder: this was the sin for which the Enlightenment philosophers could not forgive it. Aristotle had been absorbed in the grandess of Aquinas, and Plato, through the Neo-Platonists, had been, as it were, disincorporated and made a pure and quite harmless ghost. Philosophy itself had thus been made an organ and servant of Catholicism; and in this assumption of the two great fathers of philosophy, the precious link between that historic moment and the next had been sundered. Let the art of man and his politics be lost to the ages, to be recovered some fine day and made the stuff of a rebirth of human spirit; such dangers must never beset philosophy, which takes as even its primary imperative not to lose its strand in history, but to keep this golden thread ever unspooled and glittering on the floor, so that he who slays the minotaur may yet again find his way back to the origins. By the time the Renaissance was stirring in Italy, philosophy, as the phrase had it, was quite thoroughly and quite truly the mere handmaiden to theology, and this because, while rationalism was not inherently problematic to the Muslim and especially to Jewish traditions, it was impossible to Christianity and to the Christian notion of faith, which defined itself by its ability to exist in the absence of all evidences, and even in the face of purest outward contradiction. It was this idea of faith which proved disastrous to philosophy, and planted in the heart of philosophy a maggot of doubt and base servitude. Or to use a somewhat less morbid metaphor: the idea of faith had fabricated in the very empyrean such a God as gave no room to the flight of the philosopher, but who, in His very ubiquity and omnipotence, swallowed every philosophy like the void swallows suns. This is the origin of the Enlightenment’s rancor against the Church; this the reason why the Enlightenment took up its sword against Catholicism—not, indeed, with the force of some intellectual or Voltarian skirmish, but rather by drawing out such power as had not even once in all of history been displayed.
The outward results of this war need be apparent enough to us all, who today live in their midst, amongst the wreckage of this battlefield, and in the wake of its bloodletting. We, still lovers of philosophy if not of wisdom, must try to recuperate what we may on blasted ground. The thinkers of the Enlightenment miscalculated fundamentally; to save their noble tradition, they liberated forces deeply and dangerously indifferent to that tradition, and moreover ungovernable by it. They had meant to give themselves the reigns of power; so little did they understand of secular things. They could not have predicted the great discord to wrack their plans; could not have foreseen the bifurcation of philosophy—the liberation of scientism, and its consequent ascendency to rule; could not have known that they gave philosophy over to the academia, while science in its royal inadequacy should become a mere plaything in the hands of the very populace that they themselves attempted to educate and free. The tree was forked with lightning that came from the very sky philosophy had made to storm; the sun was obscured, that it might later shine the brighter; and philosophy sought to draw off mighty Zeus’ power. In the end, it was not this power to fail philosophy; it was rather philosophy’s foresight. It did not know that in bringing fire from the heavens, one always cedes it to mankind.
We, the heirs of the Enlightenment and the world that they wrought, have enshrined science, despite that it be empty of the power to furnish us with a destiny; we have enthroned, even over science (though this drama has yet to play itself out), the mindless and ineducable KRAXOS DEMOI to rule us; we have dissolved religion in its very core, which remained the last power capable of ennobling this ruler; and we have relegated the philosophy through which all this was effected to the academy, where it dwells feebly in its barren and bonelike tower. The Enlightenment, through the abandonment of Plato’s virtue, through the abandonment of prudence, was the artificer of all this; and even in its fanatical and unconscious self-destruction showed without doubt that awesome power at the heart of philosophy, which alone can mend and make crisis in this life of man, and which now be to us the very deus nasconditas behind the locking clouds above—which perforce cannot even watch as we squander ourselves upon this stony ground.
Return to Part V