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SEVENTEENTH CENTURY MATERIALISM.
When we attribute to Gassendi in particular the revival of an elaborate Materialistic philosophy, the position we assign him needs some words of vindication. We lay especial stress upon this, that Gassendi drew again into the light, and adapted to the circumstances of the time, the fullest of the Materialistic systems of antiquity, that of Epikuros. But this it is upon which those have relied who reject Gassendi from the period of an independent philosophy which was inaugurated by Bacon and Descartes, and regard him as a mere continuer of the obsolete period of the reproduction of old classical systems.1
1 Gassendiis indeed, as was scarcely knew more of the contents of the five made sufficiently clear in the first edi- burnt books from oral communica. tion of the History of Materialism, tion than has been preserved to us a forerunner of Descartes, and in- in the table of contents. Later, of dependent of Bacon of Verulam. course, when Descartes, through fear Descartes, who was usually not over of the Church, invented a world prone to the recognition of others, re- which rested upon essentially differgards Gassendi as an authority in ent principles from those of Gassendi, scientific matters (comp. the follow- he changed his tone also in reference ing places in his letters: Oeuvres, to Gassendi; especially as he had be. ed. Cousin, vi. 72, 83, 97, 121); come a great man through his atand we may with the utmost proba- tempt to find a compromise between bility assume that he was also ac. science and ecclesiastical doctrine. quainted with the “Exercitationes And upon a stricter examina. Paradoxicac," 1624, and even that he tion of the relations between Gassendi and Descartes, the right of the to the denial of God! It is former to be considered the first re- incomprehensible how Schaller, in presentative of a theory of the world his Gesch. d. Naturphil., Leipzig, which has lasted down to our own 1841, could set Hobbes before Gasdays only becomes more clear, for sendi. It is true enough that in Descartes also, the more narrowly we point of years the former is the older, regard him, enters into a more dis- but then he was as unusually late in tinct relation to the extension and his development as Gassendi was unpropagation of Materialistic modes of usually early, and during their interthought. Voltaire, indeed, said in course in Paris, Hobbes was distinctly his “Elements of the Newtonian the learner, to say nothing of GasPhilosophy” (Oeuvres compl., 1784, sendi's literary productions pubt. xxxi. c. i.), that he had known many lished so long before. who had been lcd on by Cartesianism
This, however, is to overlook the essential difference that existed between the Epikurean and every other ancient system in relation to the times in which Gassendi lived. Whilst the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy, displeasing as it was to the fathers of the Church, had in the course of the middle ages almost fused itself with Christianity, Epikuros remained the emblem of utmost heathenism, and also of absolute contradiction to Aristotle. If we add to this the impermeable masses of traditional calumnies with which Epikuros was overwhelmed, the groundlessness of which a discerning scholar here and there had pointed out, without, however, striking a decisive blow, the rehabilitation of Epikuros, together with the revival of his philosophy, must appear a fact which, regarded merely in its negative aspect as the completed opposition to Aristotle, may be placed by the side of the most independent enterprises of that time. Nor does this consideration exhaust the full significance of Gassendi's achievement.
It was not by accident, nor out of mere love of opposition, that Gassendi lighted upon Epikuros and his philosophy. He was a student of nature, a physicist indeed, and an empiric. Bacon had already held up Demokritos, and not Aristotle, as the greatest of the ancient philosophers. Gassendi, whose thorough philological and historical training equipped him with a knowledge of all the systems of antiquity, embraced with a sure glance exactly what was best suited to modern times, and to the empirical tendency of his age. Atomism, by his means drawn again from antiquity, attained a lasting importance, however much it was gradually modified as it passed through the hands of later inquirers.2
It might, indeed, appear hazardous to make the Provost of Digne, the orthodox Catholic priest Gassendi, the propagator of modern Materialism; but Materialism and Atheism are not identical, even if they are related conceptions. Epikuros himself sacrificed to the gods. The men of science of this time had acquired through long practice a wonderful skill in keeping upon a formal footing of friendliness with theology. Descartes, for example, introduced his theory of the development of the world from small particles with the observation, that of course God had created the world at one time, but that it was very interesting to see how the world might have developed itself, although we know that it had really not done so. But
Naumann, in his Grundr. d. chemical phenomena out of physical Thermochemie, Braunschweig, 1869, changes. It is also not correct to say a work of great scientific merit, ob- (loc. cit., S. 10, 11) that before Dalton serves unjustly, S. II: “The chemi. none had tested the correctness and cal theory of atoms has, however, applicability of Atomism by reference nothing, or next to nothing, in com- to the facts. This had been done mon with the atomistic doctrine pre- immediately after Gassendi, by Boyle viously propounded by Lucretius and for chemistry, and by Newton for Demokritos." The historical conti- physics; and although it may not nuity, which we shall prove in the have been done as the science of tosequel, indicates a community right day would have it done, yet we must from the beginning of the develop- not forget that even Dalton's theory ment, in spite of all the differences is now a discarded standpoint. to be found in the final product. Naumann is quite right in saying Both views, moreover, have this also (with Fechner, Atomlehre, 1855, S. in common-which Fechner points 3), that in order to controvert modern out as the most important feature of Atomism, it is necessary first to know Atomism-that they both suppose what it is. But we may also remark, discrete molecules ; and although this that in order to controvert the conmay not perhaps be so all-important nection of ancient with modern to the chemist as it is to the physicist, Atomism, it is necessary first to know still it remains an essential point: the historical no less than the scienand yet the more essential one is tific'facts. concerned, as is Naumann, to explain
when he is once launched upon the scientific theory, then this development hypothesis alone is visible; it best harmonises with all the facts, and fails in no single point. And thus the divine creation becomes a meaningless formula of acknowledgment. So fares it likewise with motion, in which God is the prime cause—which, however, troubles the inquirer no further. The principle of the maintenance of force through constant transmission of mechanical impact, with its very untheological contents, yet receives a theological form. In the same way, then, the Provost Gassendi goes to work. Mersenne, another theologian, given to the study of science, and at the same time a good Hebraist, had published a Commentary on Genesis, in which all the objections of Atheists and Naturalists were answered, but in such fashion that many shook their heads; and at least the greatest industry was applied to the collection rather than the refutation of these objections. Mersenne occupied a middle position between Descartes and Gassendi, and was a friend of both men, as he was of the the English Hobbes. This last was a decided partisan of the King and of the Episcopal High Church, and is at the same time regarded as the head and father of the Atheists.
It is interesting, too, that Gassendi does not draw the theory of his ambiguous conduct from the Jesuits, as he well might have done; but bases it on the example of Epikuros. In his Life of Epikuros is a long discussion, the point of which lies in the principle, that mentally Epikuros might think as he would, but in his outward demeanour he was subject to the laws of his country. Hobbes stated the doctrine still more sharply: the state has unconditional power over worship; the individual must resign his judgment, but not mentally, for our thoughts are not subject to command, and therefore we cannot compel any one to believe.3
3 De Vita et Moribus Epicuri, iv. 4: Religionis patriae interfuit caerimo. “Dico solum, si Epicurus quibusdam viis, quas mente tamen improbare.