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The Interdependence of Literature
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Philosophy
by Curtis, Georgina Pell

Eighteenth century philosophy in France, Germany and England was a very different thing from the philosophy of the Ancients. The latter, says a profound German writer, "recognized in time and space an endless theatre for the display of the eternal, and of the living pulsation of eternal love. By the contemplation of such things, however imperfect, the natural, even the merely sensible man, was affected by a stupendous feeling of admiration, well calculated to prepare the way for religious thoughts. It extended and ennobled his soul to thus regard the past, present, and future."

French philosophy took its rise in the seventeenth century, but the philosophers of that age--Descartes, Bayle and others-- assumed the soul of man to be the starting point in all investigations of physical science. The eighteenth century philosophers went a step further and rejected all idea of God and the soul. Voltaire, De Montesquieu, D'Holbach, D'Alembert, Diderot, Helvetius and the Abbe Raynal, are the chief minds who shaped the thought of France in the eighteenth century, and by their cynicism, sensuality, and contempt for law and order, helped to pave the war for the horrors of the French Revolution. What they offered to the world the lower classes could only grasp in its most material sense, and they wrested it indeed to their own, and to others, destruction.

Voltaire, Diderot, D'Holbach and their school in France, with Hume, Bolingbroke and Gibbon in England, formed a coterie whose desire it was to edit a vast encyclopaedia, giving the latest discoveries, in philosophy and science in particular, and in literature in general. These men became known as the Encyclopaedists, and their history is fully set forth by Condillac. They rejected all divine revelation and taught that all religious belief was the working of a disordered mind, and that physical sensibility is the origin of all our thoughts. Alternately gross or flippant, or else both, the French philosophers offered nothing pure or elevating in philosophic thought. Their teaching spread to England, where the philosophy of the eighteenth century, less gross than the French, is chiefly distinguished for being cold and indifferent, rather than actively opposed, to religion. Hume is a type of the class of thinkers whom we find uncertain and unworthy of confidence. The histories of Hume, Robertson and Gibbon are the offspring of this degraded material philosophy of the eighteenth century. They surpassed the histories of other nations in comprehensiveness and power, and became standard works in France and Germany, but in all of them we can trace a lack of true philosophy, due to the blighting influence of the eighteenth century skepticism; for, as the greatest minds, in which Christianity and science are blended, have agreed--"without some reasonable and due idea of the destiny and end of man, it is impossible to form just and consistent opinions on the progress of events, and the development and fortunes of nations. History stripped of philosophy becomes simply a lifeless heap of useless materials, without either inward unity, right purpose, or worthy result; while philosophy severed from history results in a disturbed existence of different sects, allied to formality."

The originator of English philosophy was John Locke, whose teachings were closely allied to the sensual philosophy of the French. It remained for the Scottish school under Thomas Reid to combat both the sensualistic philosophy of Voltaire and Locke, and the skepticism of Hume. Reid was a sincere lover of truth, a man of lofty character, and his philosophy, such as it is, is the purest that can be found, more akin to the profound reasoning of Plato.

In Italy, during the eighteenth century, the theory that experience is the only ground of knowledge, as taught by Locke and Condillac, gained some followers; but none of them were men of any great influence. Gallupi in the beginning of the nineteenth century endeavored to reform this philosophy; others took up his work, and the result was a change of thought similar to that brought about by Reid in England and Scotland.

The earlier German philosophers were influenced by the grosser forms of the science, as found in Locke and Helvetius. Leibnitz and Wolf taught pure Idealism, as did Bishop Berkeley in England. It remained for Kant to create a new era in modern philosophy. His system vas what has become known as the Rationalistic, or what we can know by pure reason. Kant was followed by Lessing, Herder, Hegel, Fichte, and a host of others.

These German philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have had a powerful influence in shaping literature in England, France, Denmark, Sweden and America. The mystic and profound German mind has often been led astray; but its intellectual strength cannot be questioned. Schelling was the author of theories in philosophy that have been adopted and imitated by both Coleridge and Wordsworth, while Van Hartmann teaches that there is but one last principle of philosophy, known by Spinoza as substance, by Fichte as the absolute I., by Plato and Hegel as the absolute Idea, by Schopenhauer as Will, and by himself as a blind, impersonal, unconscious, all-pervading Will and Idea, independent of brain, and in its essence purely spiritual, and he taught that there could be no peace for man's heart or intellect until religion, philosophy and science were recognized as one root, stem and leaves all of the same living tree.

It is curious to trace how these various philosophies, recognized by Van Hartmann under different names to be one, can be merged into the sublime Christian philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught that religion, philosophy and science were indeed one--root, stem and leaves of the one life-giving tree, which is God.

All that is deepest and most profound is to be found in this modern German philosophy, which is diametrically opposed to the flippant and sensual philosophy of the Voltarian school. However far the German philosophers are from true philosophy as seen in the light of Christian truth, they command a respect as earnest thinkers and workers, which it is impossible to accord the eighteenth century French school.


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