A Critical History of Greek Philosophy – W. T. Stace

This book contains the substance, and for the most part the words, of a course of public lectures delivered during the first three months of 1919. The original division into lectures has been dropped, the matter being more conveniently redivided into chapters. The audience to whom the lectures were delivered was composed of members of the general public, and not only of students. For the most part they possessed no previous knowledge of philosophy. Hence this book, like the original lectures, assumes no previous special knowledge, though it assumes, of course, a state of general education in the reader. Technical philosophical terms are carefully explained when first introduced; and a special effort has been made to put philosophical ideas in the clearest way possible. But it must be remembered that many of the profoundest as well as the most difficult of human conceptions are to be found in Greek philosophy. Such ideas are difficult in themselves, however clearly expressed. No amount of explanation can ever render them anything but difficult to the unsophisticated mind, and anything in the nature of “philosophy made easy” is only to be expected from quacks and charlatans. Greek philosophy is not, even now, antiquated. It is not from the point of view of an antiquary or historian {vi} that its treasures are valuable. We are dealing here with living things, and not with mere dead things–not with the dry bones and debris of a bygone age. And I have tried to lecture and write for living people, and not for mere fossil-grubbers. If I did not believe that there is to be found here, in Greek philosophy, at least a measure of the truth, the truth that does not grow old, I would not waste five minutes of my life upon it. “We do not,” says a popular modern writer, [Footnote 1] “bring the young mind up against the few broad elemental questions that are the questions of metaphysics….

We do not make it discuss, correct it, elucidate it. That was the way of the Greeks, and we worship that divine people far too much to adopt their way. No, we lecture to our young people about not philosophy but philosophers, we put them through book after book, telling how other people have discussed these questions. We avoid the questions of metaphysics, but we deliver semi-digested half views of the discussions of, and answers to these questions made by men of all sorts and qualities, in various remote languages and under conditions quite different from our own. It is as if we began teaching arithmetic by long lectures upon the origin of the Roman numerals, and then went on to the lives and motives of the Arab mathematicians in Spain, or started with Roger Bacon in chemistry, or Sir Richard Owen in comparative anatomy …. It is time the educational powers began to realise that the questions of metaphysics, the elements of philosophy, are, here and now to be done afresh in each mind …. What is wanted is philosophy, and not a shallow smattering of the history of philosophy … {vii} The proper way to discuss metaphysics, like the proper way to discuss mathematics or chemistry, is to discuss the accumulated and digested product of human thought in such matters.” [Footnote 1: H. G. Wells in “First and Last Things.

”] Plausible words these, certain to seem conclusive to the mob, notwithstanding that for one element of truth they contain nine of untruth! The elements of truth are that our educational system unwarrantably leaves unused the powerful weapon of oral discussion–so forcibly wielded by the Greeks–and develops book knowledge at the expense of original thought. Though even here it must be remembered, as regards the Greeks, (1) that if they studied the history of philosophy but little, it was because there was then but little history of philosophy to study, and (2) that if anyone imagines that the great Greek thinkers did not fully master the thought of their predecessors before constructing their own systems, he is grievously mistaken, and (3) that in some cases the over-reliance on oral discussion–the opposite fault to ours–led to intellectual dishonesty, quibbling, ostentation, disregard of truth, shallowness, and absence of all principle; this was the case with the Sophists. As to the comparisons between arithmetic and philosophy, chemistry and philosophy, etc., they rest wholly upon a false parallel, and involve a total failure to comprehend the nature of philosophic truth, and its fundamental difference from arithmetical, chemical, or physical truth. If Eratosthenes thought the circumference of the earth to be so much, whereas it has now been discovered to be so much, then the later correct view simply cancels and renders nugatory the older view. {viii} The one is correct, the other incorrect. We can ignore and forget the incorrect view altogether. But the development of philosophy proceeds on quite other principles. Philosophical truth is no sum in arithmetic to be totted up so that the answer is thus formally and finally correct or incorrect. Rather, the philosophical truth unfolds itself, factor by factor, in time, in the successive systems of philosophy, and it is only in the complete series that the complete truth is to be found.

The system of Aristotle does not simply cancel and refute that of Plato. Spinoza does not simply abolish Descartes. Aristotle completes Plato, as his necessary complement. Spinoza does the same for Descartes. And so it is always. The calculation of Eratosthenes is simply wrong, and so we can afford to forget it. But the systems of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc., are all alike factors of the truth. They are as true now as they were in their own times, though they are not, and never were, the whole truth. And therefore it is that they are not simply wrong, done with, finished, ended, and that we cannot afford to forget them.

Whether it is not possible to bring the many lights to a single focus, to weld the various factors of the truth into a single organic whole or system, which should thus be the total result to date, is another question. Only one such attempt has ever been made, but no one will pretend that it is possible to understand it without a thorough knowledge of all previous systems, a knowledge, in fact, of the separate factors of the truth before they are thus combined into a total result. Besides, that attempt, too, is now part of the history of philosophy! Hence any philosophical thinking which is not founded {ix} upon a thorough study of the systems of the past will necessarily be shallow and worthless. And the notions that we can dispense with this study, and do everything out of our own heads, that everyone is to be his own philosopher, and is competent to construct his own system in his own way–such ideas are utterly empty and hollow. Of these truths, indeed, we see a notable example in what the writer just quoted styles his “metaphysic.” This so-called metaphysic is wholly based upon the assumption that knowledge and its object exist, each on its own account, external to one another, the one here, the other there over against it, and that knowledge is an “instrument” which in this external manner takes hold of its object and makes it its own. The very moment the word “instrument” is used here, all the rest, including the invalidity of knowledge, follows as a matter of course. Such assumption then–that knowledge is an “instrument”– our writer makes, wholly uncritically, and without a shadow of right. He gives no sign that it has ever even occurred to him that this is an assumption, that it needs any enquiry, or that it is possible for anyone to think otherwise. Yet anyone who will take the trouble, not merely superficially to dip into the history of philosophy, but thoroughly to submit himself to its discipline, will at least learn that this is an assumption, a very doubtful assumption, too, which no one now has the right to foist upon the public without discussion as if it were an axiomatic truth.

He might even learn that it is a false assumption. And he will note, as an ominous sign, that the subjectivism which permeates and directs the whole course of Mr. Wells’s thinking is identical in character with that {x} subjectivism which was the essential feature of the decay and downfall of the Greek philosophic spirit, and was the cause of its final ruin and dissolution. I would counsel the young, therefore, to pay no attention to plausible and shallow words such as those quoted, but, before forming their own philosophic opinions, most thoroughly and earnestly to study and master the history of past philosophies, first the Greek and then the modern. That this cannot be done merely by reading a modern resume of that history, but only by studying the great thinkers in their own works, is true. But philosophical education must begin, and the function of such books as this, is, not to complete it, but to begin it; and to obtain first of all a general view of what must afterwards be studied in detail is no bad way of beginning. Moreover, the study of the development and historical connexions of the various philosophies, which is not found in the original writings themselves, will always provide a work for histories of philosophy to do. Two omissions in this book require, perhaps, a word of explanation. Firstly, in dealing with Plato’s politics I have relied on the “Republic,” and said nothing of the “Laws.” This would not be permissible in a history of political theories, nor even in a history of philosophy which laid any special emphasis on politics.

But, from my point of view, politics lie on the extreme outer margin of philosophy, so that a more slender treatment of the subject is permissible. Moreover, the “Republic,” whether written early or late, expresses, in my opinion, the views of Plato, and not those of Socrates, and it still remains the outstanding, typical, and characteristic {xi} expression of the Platonic political ideal, however much that ideal had afterwards to be modified by practical considerations. Secondly, I have not even mentioned the view, now held by some, that the theory of Ideas is really the work of Socrates, and not of Plato, and that Plato’s own philosophy consisted in some sort of esoteric number-theory, combined with theistic and other doctrines. I can only say that this theory, as expounded for example by Professor Burnet, does not commend itself to me, that, in fact, I do not believe it, but that, it being impossible to discuss it adequately in a book of this kind, I have thought that, rather than discuss it inadequately, it were better to leave it alone altogether. Moreover, it stands on a totally different footing from, say, Professor Burnet’s interpretation of Parmenides, which I have discussed. That concerned the interpretation of the true meaning of a philosophy. This merely concerns the question who was the author of a philosophy. That was a question of principle, this merely of personalities. That was of importance to the philosopher, this merely to the historian and antiquary. It is like the Bacon-Shakespeare question, which no lover of drama, as such, need concern himself with at all.

No doubt the Plato-Socrates question is of interest to antiquarians, but after all, fundamentally, it does not matter who is to have the credit of the theory of Ideas, the only essential thing for us being to understand that theory, and rightly to apprehend its value as a factor of the truth. This book is primarily concerned with philosophical ideas, their truth, meaning, and significance, and not with the rights and wrongs of antiquarian disputes. It does indeed purport to {xii} be a history, as well as a discussion of philosophic conceptions. But this only means that it takes up philosophical ideas in their historical sequence and connexions, and it does this only because the conceptions of evolution in philosophy, of the onward march of thought to a determined goal; of its gradual and steady rise to the supreme heights of idealism, its subsequent decline, and ultimate collapse, are not only profoundly impressive as historical phenomena, but are of vital importance to a true conception of philosophy itself. Were it not for this, Mr. Wells would, I think, be right, and I for one should abandon treatment in historical order altogether. Lastly, I may remark that the description of this book as a critical history means that it is, or attempts to be critical, not of dates, texts, readings, and the like, but of philosophical conceptions. I owe a debt of thanks to Mr. F. L.

Woodward, M.A., late principal of Mahinda College, Galle, Ceylon, for assisting me in the compilation of the index of names, and in sundry other matters.


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