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Initiation Into Philosophy
The Sixteenth Century
by Faguet, Émile


It Is Fairly Accurate to Consider that from the Point of View of Philosophy, the Middle Ages Lasted until Descartes. Free-thinkers More or Less Disguised. Partisans of Reason Apart from Faith, of Observation, and Of Experiment.
THE FREEDOM OF PHILOSOPHY: POMPONAZZO.--The freedom and even the audacity of philosophy rapidly increased. Learned and convinced Aristotelians were bent, either from sheer love of truth or from a more secret purpose, on demonstrating to what extent Aristotle, accurately read, was opposed to the teaching of the Church. For instance, Pomponazzo revealed that nothing could be drawn from Aristotle in favour of the immortality of the soul, in which he himself believed fervently, but in which Aristotle did not believe, hence it was necessary to choose between the Church and Aristotle; that without the immortality of the soul there could be no rewards beyond the grave, which was entirely his own opinion, but whoever should desire to offer excuses for Aristotle could say it was precisely the existence of punishments and rewards which deprived virtue of existence, which did away with virtue, since the good that is done for the sake of reward or from fear of punishment is no longer good; that, still according to Aristotle, there could never be miracles; that he, Pomponazzo, believed in all the miracles recorded in the Scriptures; but that Aristotle would not have believed in them, and could not have believed in them, a fact which demanded consideration, not assuredly in order to reject belief in miracles, but in order not to bestow on Aristotle that confidence which for so long had been too readily placed in him.

In the same way, he took up again the eternal question of the prescience of God and of human liberty, and showed that no matter what had been said it was necessary to choose: either we are free and God is not omnipotent, or God is omnipotent and we are not free. To regard as true this latter hypothesis, towards which the philosopher evidently leans, would cause God to be the author of evil and of sin. It would not be impossible for God to be the author of evil as an essential condition of good, for if evil were not to exist then there could not be good; nor would it be impossible that He should be the author, not of sin, but of the possibility of sin in order that virtue might be possible, there being no virtue where it is impossible to commit sin; but therein lies a mystery which faith alone can solve, and which Aristotle at any rate has not solved, therefore let us not place reliance on Aristotle.

This disguised freethinker, for he does not appear to me to be anything else, was one of the most original thinkers of the period intermediate between the Middle Ages and Descartes.

MICHAEL SERVETUS; VANINI.--Such instances of temerity were sometimes fatal to their authors. Michael Servetus, a very learned Spanish physician who perhaps discovered the circulation of the blood before Harvey, disbelieved in the Trinity and in the divinity of Jesus, and, as he was a Platonist, perceived no intermediaries between God and man save ideas. Persecuted by the Catholics, he sought refuge at Geneva, believing Calvin to be more merciful than the Inquisitors, and Calvin burned him alive.

Vanini, half a century later, that is at the commencement of the seventeenth, a restless, vain, and insolent man, after a life full of sudden changes of fortune, and yet distinguished, was burnt alive at Toulouse for certain passages in his De admirandis ... arcanis and for having said that he would not express his opinion on the immortality of the soul until he was old, a Jew, and a German.

BRUNO; CAMPANELLA.--Giordano Bruno, an astronomer and one of the first to affirm that the sun was the centre of the world, professed, despite certain precautions, a doctrine which confused God with the world and denied or excluded creation. Giordano Bruno was arrested at Venice in 1593, kept seven years in prison, and finally burnt at Rome in 1600.

Campanella, likewise an Italian, who spent twenty-seven years in a dungeon for having conspired against the Spanish masters of his country, and who died in exile in Paris in 1639, was a sceptic in philosophy, or rather an anti-metaphysician, and, as would be said nowadays, a positivist. There are only two sources of knowledge, observation and reasoning. Observation makes us know things--is this true? May not the sensations of things which we have be a simple phantasmagoria? No; for we have an internal sense, a sense of our own, which cannot deceive us, which affirms our existence (here is the Cogito of Descartes anticipated) and which, at the same time, affirms that there are things which are not ourselves, so that coincidently the ego and the non-ego are established. Yes, but is this non-ego really what it seems? It is; granted; but what is it and can we know what it is? Not without doubt, and here scepticism is unshakable; but in that there is certitude of the existence of the non-ego, the presumption is that we can know it, partially, relatively, very relatively, while we remain infinitely distant from an absolute knowledge, which would be divine. Therefore let us observe and experiment; let us make the "history" of nature as historians make the history of the human race. And this is the simple and solid philosophy of experiment.

But Campanella, like so many more, was a metaphysician possessed by the devil of metaphysics, and after having imperiously recommended the writing of only the history of nature, he himself wrote its romance as well. Every being, he said (and the thought was a very fine one), exists on condition of being able to exist, and on condition that there be an idea of which it is the realization, and again on condition that nature is willing to create it. In other words, nature can, knows what she wishes, and wishes. Now all beings, in a greater or less degree according to their perfection or imperfection, feel this triple condition of being able, knowing, and wishing. Every being can, knows, and wishes, even inorganic matter (here already is the world as will and representation of Schopenhauer), and God is only absolute power, absolute knowledge, and absolute will. This is why all creative things gravitate to God and desire to return to Him as to their origin, and as the perfection of what they are: the universe has nostalgia for God.

Campanella was also, as we should say nowadays, a sociologist. He made his "Republic" as Plato had made his. The Republic of Campanella was called the City of the Sun It was a community republic, leavened with aristocracy with "spiritual power" and "temporal power" somewhat after the manner of Auguste Comte. Campanella was a great sower of ideas.

FRANCIS BACON.--Francis Bacon, lawyer, member of Parliament, Lord Chancellor of England, personal friend of James I, friend, protector, and perhaps collaborator with Shakespeare, overthrown as the result of political animosity and relegated to private life, was a very learned man with a marvellous mind. Like his namesake, Roger Bacon, but in an age more favourable to intellectual reform, he attempted a sort of renewal of the human mind (Instauratio Magna) or at least a radical revolution in the methods and workings of the human mind. Although Francis Bacon professed admiration for many of the thinkers of antiquity, he urged that it was wrong to rely on them because they had not sufficiently observed; one must not, like the schoolmen, have ideas a priori which are "idols," and there are idols of tribe, of party, of school, of eras; intentions must not be perceived everywhere in nature, and we must not, because the sun warms, believe it was created to warm, or because the earth yields nourishment believe her creation was for the purpose of feeding us, and that all things converge to man and are put at his service. It is necessary to proceed by observation, by experiment, and then by induction, but with prodigious mistrust of induction. Induction consists in drawing conclusions from the particular to the general, from a certain number of facts to a law. This is legitimate on condition that the conclusion is not drawn from a few facts to a law, which is precipitate induction, fruitful in errors; but from a very large number of facts to a law, which even then is considered as provisional. As for metaphysics, as for the investigation of universal law, that should be entirely separated from philosophy itself, from the "primary philosophy" which does not lead to it; it has its own field, which is that of faith: "Give to faith what belongeth to faith." In the main he is uninterested in metaphysics, believing them always to revolve in a circle and, I do not say, only believes in science and in method, but has hope only from knowledge and method, an enthusiast in this respect just as another might be about the super-sensible world or about ideas, saying human knowledge and human power are really coincident, and believing that knowledge will support humanity in all calamities, will prolong human life, will establish a new golden age, etc.

Moreover, let there be none of that eternal and unfounded fear that knowledge will cause the disappearance of the religious feeling. With profound conviction and judging by himself, Bacon said: "A little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth a man's mind about to religion." Such is true philosophy, "subordinate to the object," attentive to the object, listening to the voices of the world and only anxious to translate them into human language: "that is true philosophy which renders the voices of the world the most accurately possible, like an echo, which writes as if at the dictation of the world itself, adding nothing of its own, only repeating and resounding"

And, as a man is always of his time, he believed in alchemy and in the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold. But note how he understood it: "To create a new nature in a given body or to produce new natures and to introduce them ... he who is acquainted with the forms and modes of super-inducing yellowness, weight, ductility, fixity, fluidity, solution, and the rest, with their gradations and methods, will see and take care that these properties be united in some body, whence its transformation into gold may follow." Modern chemistry, with scientific methods highly analogous to those which Bacon indicated or foresaw, has not made gold, which is not a very useful thing to do, but has done better.

THOMAS HOBBES.--At the end of the sixteenth century, another Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, began to think. He was, above all else, a literary man and a sociologist; he translated Thucydides and Homer, he wrote Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth which is a manual of despotism, demonstrating that all men in a natural state were beasts of prey with regard to one another, but that they escaped this unpleasant fate by submission to a prince who has all rights because he is perpetually saving his subjects from death, and who can therefore impose on them whatever he pleases, even scientific dogma or religious beliefs. Merely regarded as a philosopher, properly so called, Hobbes has an important position in the history of ideas. Like Francis Bacon, but more rigorously and authoritatively, he began by separating metaphysics and theology from philosophy. Philosophy is the art of thinking. That which is not sensible--mind, soul, God--cannot be thought: can only be believed; philosophy does not deny all that; merely it does not concern itself therewith. Here is the whole of positivism established in principle. What we can think is what we feel. Things are known to us only through sensations; a thought is a sensation, the human mind is a compound of sensations.

No; for I can think of a thing without hearing, seeing, feeling it, etc.

This is because we have memory, which is itself a sensation; it is a sensation which prolongs itself; to remember is to feel that one has felt; it is to feel a former sensation which the brain is able to preserve. We think only by combining current sensations with other current sensations, or much more often indeed, thanks to memory, by combining current sensations with older ones, or former sensations with each other. This is but a fragile basis for knowledge and thought, for sensation is only a modification of ourselves caused by an external object, and consequently gives us nothing at all of the external object, and of itself the external world is eternally unknown to us; but we combine with each other the illusions that the external world deposits in us through the delusive or doubtful intermediary of our senses.

When the sensation thus combined with other sensations has become thought, then ideas begin to exist. They are products of sensation detached from sensation. They are interassociated by laws that are obscure, yet which can be vaguely perceived. They awake, so to speak, and call to one another; every time an idea previously acquired reappears, it is followed by the thought which accompanied it when it was acquired. In a conversation a traitor is spoken of. Someone asks what was the value of a piece of silver in ancient times. This appears incoherent; really it is a natural and simple association of ideas in which there are few intermediate steps. The person who listened as the traitor was mentioned thought of Judas, who was the first traitor of whom he had heard, and of the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the betrayal by Judas. The association of ideas is more or less close, more or less loose; it is disconnected in dreams, irregular in musing, close directly it is dominated and in consequence directed by an end pursued, by a goal sought; for then there is a desire to attain which associates nothing of itself, but which, eliminating all ideas that are not pertinent to the end pursued, permits only the association of those which have relation to it.

Seeing in the human soul only successive impulses arising from those first impulses which are the sensations, Hobbes does not believe we are free to do what we wish; we are carried away by the strongest impulse of our internal impulses, desire, fear, aversion, love, etc. Nevertheless we deliberate, we consider different courses to pursue and we decide on the one we desire to choose. No; we do not deliberate, we only imagine we deliberate. Deliberation is only a succession of different feelings, and to the one that gains the day we give the name of volition. "In the [so-called] deliberation, the final desire or the final fear is called will." Therefore liberty has no more existence among men than among animals; will and desire are only one and the same thing considered under different aspects.

UTILITARIAN MORALITY.--Henceforth there is no morality; without the power to will this and not to will that, there is no possible morality. Hobbes retorts with "utilitarian morality": What man should seek is pleasure, as Aristippus thought; but true pleasure--that which is permanent and that which is useful to him. Now it is useful to be a good citizen, a loyal subject, sociable, serviceable to others, careful to obtain their esteem by good conduct, etc. Morality is interest rightly understood, and interest rightly understood is absolutely blended with the morality of duty. The criminal is not a criminal but an idiot; the honest man is not an honest man but an intelligent one. Observe that a man is hardly convinced when preached to in the name of duty, but always convinced when addressed in the name of his own interest.

All this is fairly sensible; but from the time that freedom ceases there can be no morality, not even utilitarian; for it is useless even from the point of view of his own interests, to preach to a man who is only a machine moved by the strongest force; and, if he be only that, to lay down a moral code for him either from the point of view of his own interests, or from that of morality, or from that of the love of God are things which are the same and which are as absurd the one as the other. All philosophy, which does not believe in human liberty, yet which enunciates a system of morality, is in perpetual contradiction.

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