Page images
PDF
EPUB

leads us to the greatest fulness of objective truth. As the falling body reaches the goal more quickly upon the brachystochrone than upon an inclined plane, so it is a result of the complex organisation of man that in many cases the roundabout course through the play of imagination leads more quickly to the apprehension of pure truth than the sober effort to penetrate the closest and most various disguises.

There is no room to doubt that the Atomism of the ancients, though far from possessing absolute truth, yet comes incomparably nearer to the essential reality of things, so far as science can understand it, than the Numerical theory of the Pythagoreans or the Ideal theory of Plato; at least it is a much straighter and directer step to the existing phenomena of nature than those vague and hesitating philosophemes which spring almost wholly out of the speculative poesy of individual souls. But the ideal theory of Plato is not to be separated from the man's immeasurable love for the pure forms in which all that is fortuitous and abnormal falls away, and the mathematical idea of all figures is regarded. And so it is with the number-theory of the Pythagoreans. The inner love for all that is harmonious, the tendency of the spirit to bury itself in the pure numerical relations of music and mathematics, produced inventive thought in the individual soul. So from the first erection of the Mηδείς αγεωμέτρητος εισίτω until the termination of the ancient civilisation, there ran this common characteristic through the history of invention and discovery—that the tendency of the spirit to the supersensuous helped to open the laws of the sense-world of phenomena on the path of abstraction.

Where, then, are the services of Materialism? Or, in addition to all its other services to art, poetry, and sensibility, must the preference also be given to fanciful speculation in relation even to the exact sciences ? Obviously not: the thing has its reverse side, and this appears if we regard the indirect effects of Materialism and its relation to scientific method.

Although we may assign great importance to the subjective impulse, to the individual conjecture of certain final causes for the tendency and force of the movement towards truth, yet we must not for a moment lose from view how it is just this fantastic and arbitrary mythological standpoint which has so long and so seriously hampered the progress of knowledge, and to the widest extent still continues to do so. As soon as man attains to the sober, clear, and definite observation of individual events, so soon as he connects the product of this observation with a definite, though, it may be, an erroneous theory, if it be at least a firm and simple one, further progress is secured. This, when it occurs, is easily to be distinguished from the processes of the devising and imagining certain final causes. Though this, as we have just shown, may have, under favourable circumstances, a high subjective value, depending on the interchange of intellectual forces, yet the beginning of this clear, methodical observation of things is in a sense the first true beginning of contact with things themselves. The value of this tendency is objective. Things, at the same time, demand that we shall so approach them, and only when we put a carefully considered question, does nature afford us an answer. And here we must refer to that starting-point of Greek scientific activity which is to be sought in Demokritos and the rationalising influence of his system. This rationalising influence benefited the whole nation; it was completed in the simplest and soberest observation of things which can be imagined-in the resolution of the varying and changeful universe into unalterable but mobile particles. Although this principle, most closely connected as it was with the Epikurean Materialism, has only attained its full significance in modern ages, yet it obviously exercised, as the first instance of a complete and vivid representation of all changes, a very deep influence upon the ancients also. So even Plato himself resolved into mobile elementary bodies his 'non-existent, yet nevertheless indispensable, matter; and Aristotle, who opposes with all his might the assumption of a void, who maintains the dogma of the continuity of matter-seeks, so far as may be done from this difficult standpoint, to compete with Demokritos in the vividness of his doctrine of change and motion.

It is indeed true that the Atomism of to-day, since chemistry has been worked out, since the theory of vibration, and the mathematical treatment of the forces at work in the smallest particles, stands in very much more direct connection with the positive sciences. But the connecting of all these otherwise inexplicable events of nature, of becoming and perishing, of apparent disappearance, and of the unexplained origin of matter with a single pervading principle, and, as one might say, a palpable foundation, was, for the science of antiquity, the veritable Columbus's egg. The constant interference of gods and demons was set aside by one mighty blow, and whatever speculative natures might choose to fancy of the things that lay behind the phenomenal world, that world itself lay free from mist and exposed to view, and even the genuine disciples of a Plato and a Pythagoras experimented or theorised over natural occurrences without confusing the world of ideas and of mystic numbers with what was immediately given. This confusion, so strongly manifested in some of the modern native philosophers of Germany, first appeared in classical antiquity with the decay of all culture at the era of the Neo-Platonic and Neo-Pythagorean extravagances. It was the healthy morality of thought which, sustained by the counterbalance of sober Materialism, kept the Greek Idealists so long away from such errors. In a certain sense, the whole thought of Greek antiquity, from its beginning till the period of its complete destruction, was under the influence of a Materialistic element. The phenomena of the sensible world were, for the most part, explained out of what was perceived by the senses or represented as so perceived.

Whatever judgment, then, we may in other respects pass upon the whole of the Epikurean system, so much, at all events, is certain, that the scientific research of antiquity drew profit not out of this system, but much more from the general Materialistic principles which underlay it. The school of the Epikureans remained, amongst all the ancient schools, the most fixed and unalterable. Not only are the instances extremely rare in which an Epikurean went over to other systems, but we find scarcely a single attempt to extend or modify the doctrines once accepted until the very last developments of the school. This sectarian narrowness bears witness to the strong predominance of the ethical over the physical side of the system. When Gassendi, in the seventeenth century, revived the system of Epikuros, and opposed it to that of Aristotle, he sought, of course, to maintain the ethics of Epikuros so far as was compatible with Christianity, and it cannot be denied that this too had a strong leavening influence in the development of the modern spirit; but the most important fact was the immediate release of the old Demokritean principle out of the chains of the system. Variously modified by men like Descartes, Newton, and Boyle, the doctrine of elementary corpuscles, and the origin of all phenomena from their movements, became the corner-stone of modern science. Yet the work which had secured for the Epikurean system ever since the revival of learning a powerful influence on modern modes of thought, was the poem of the Roman Lucretius Carus, to whom, on the special ground of his historical importance, we will dedicate a special chapter, which will at the same time afford us a deeper view of the most important portions of the Epikureau doctrine.

CHAPTER V.

THE DIDACTIC POEM OF LUCRETIUS UPON NATURE,

AMONG all the peoples of antiquity, none perhaps was by nature further removed than were the Romans from Materialistic views. Their religion had its roots deep in superstition; their whole political life was circumscribed by superstitious forms. They clung with peculiar tenacity to the sentiments they inherited; art and science had little charm for them, and they were still less inclined to bury themselves in the contemplation of nature. A practical tendency, more than any other, governed their life, and yet this was by no means materialistic, but was thoroughly spiritual. They valued dominion more than wealth, glory rather than comfort, and triumph more than all. Their virtues were not those of peace, of industrial enterprise, of righteousness, but those of courage, of fortitude, of temperance. The Roman vices were, at least in the beginning, not luxury and wantonness, but hardness, cruelty, and faithlessness. Their power of organisation, in conjunction with their warlike character, had made the nation great, and of this they were proudly conscious. For centuries after their first contact with Greeks there continued that antipathy which sprang from the difference in their characters. It was only after the defeat of Hannibal that Greek art and literature gradually forced their

way

into Rome. At the same time came luxury and wantonness, with the fanaticism and immorality of the Asiatic and African peoples. The conquered nations crowded to their new capital, and brought about a confusion of all the elements of the old Roman life, while the great more and

« PreviousContinue »