solipsism: “1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality. Compare Objectivism.”
empiricism: “the doctrine that all our knowledge (with the possible exception of logic and mathematics) is derived from experience.”
objectivism: “Any one of several doctrines holding that all reality is objective and external to the mind, and that all knowledge is reliably based on observed objects and events. Compare solipsism.”
The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems that are very far from self-evident. The axioms and theorems are held to be true of actual space, which is something given in experience. It thus appeared to be possible to discover things about the actual world by first noticing what is self-evident and then using deduction. This view influenced Plato and Kant, and most of the intermediate philosophers. When the Declaration of Independence says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” it is modelling itself on Euclid. The eighteenth-century doctrine of natural rights is a search for Euclidean axioms in politics. The form of Newton’s Principia, in spite of its admittedly empirical material, is entirely dominated by Euclid. Theology, in its exact scholastic forms, takes its style from the same source. Personal religion is derived from ecstasy, theology from mathematics; and both are to be found in Pythagoras.
In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.
The mixture of philosopher, prophet, man of science, and charlatan, which we found already in Pythagoras, was exemplified very completely in Empedocles, who flourished around 440 B.C., and was thus a younger contemporary of Parmenides, though his doctrine had in some ways more affinity with that of Heraclitus. He was a citizen of Acragas, on the south coast of Sicily; he was a democratic politician, who at the same time claimed to be a god.
The achievements of Athens in the time of Pericles are perhaps the most astonishing thing in all history. Until that time, Athens had lagged behind many other Greek cities; neither in art nor in literature had it produced any great man (except Solon, who was primarily a lawgiver). Suddenly, under the stimulus of victory and wealth and the need of reconstruction, architects, sculptors, and dramatists, who remain unsurpassed to the present day, produced works which dominated the future down to modern times. This is the more surprising when we consider the smallness of the population involved. Athens at its maximum, about 430 B.C., is estimated to have numbered about 230,000 (including slaves), and the surrounding territory of rural Attica probably contained a rather smaller population. Never before or since has anything approaching the same proportion of the inhabitants of any area shown itself capable of work of the highest excellence.
Most of Plato’s dialogues are supposed by him to take place during the time of Pericles, and they give an agreeable picture of life among the rich. Plato belonged to an aristocratic Athenian family, and grew up in the tradition of the period before war and democracy had destroyed the wealth and security of the upper classes. His young men, who have no need to work, spend most of their leisure in the pursuit of science and mathematics and philosophy; they know Homer almost by heart, and are critical judges of the merits of professional reciters of poetry. The art of deductive reasoning had been lately discovered, and afforded the excitement of new theories, both true and false, over the whole field of knowledge. It was possible in that age, as in few others, to be both intelligent and happy, and happy through intelligence.
In spite of political collapse [following the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BCE], the prestige of Athens survived, and throughout almost a millennium philosophy was centered there. Alexandria eclipsed Athens in mathematics and science, but Aristotle and Plato had made Athens philosophically supreme. The Academy, where Plato had taught, survived all other schools, and persisted, as an island of paganism, for two centuries after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. At last, in A.D. 529, it was closed by Justinian because of his religious bigotry, and the Dark Ages descended upon Europe.
The citizens of Athens, like those of other cities in other ages and continents, showed a certain hostility to those who attempted to introduce a higher level of culture than that to which they were accustomed.
Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this, he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since.
Logical errors are, I think, of greater practical importance than many people believe; they enable their perpetrators to hold the comfortable opinion on every subject in turn. Any logically coherent body of doctrine is sure to be in part painful and contrary to current prejudices.
Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.
But even if we suppose that there is such a thing as “wisdom,” is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body.
It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question.
[...] The ethical and aesthetic bias of Plato, and still more of Aristotle, did much to kill Greek science.
It is noteworthy that modern Platonists, almost without exception, are ignorant of mathematics, in spite of the immense importance that Plato attached to arithmetic and geometry. and the immense influence that they had on his philosophy. This is an example of the evils of specialization: a man must not write on Plato unless he has spent so much of his youth on Greek as to have had no time for the things that Plato thought important.
The pentagram has always been prominent in magic, and apparently owes this position to the Pythagoreans, who called it “Health” and used it as a symbol of recognition of members of the brotherhood. It seems that it owed its properties to the fact that the dodecahedron has pentagons for its faces, and is, in some sense, a symbol of the universe. This topic is attractive, but it is difficult to ascertain much that is definite about it.
Here, again, we find that logic and mathematics are peculiar. Plato, under the influence of the Pythagoreans, assimilated other knowledge too much to mathematics. He shared this mistake with many of the greatest philosophers, but it was a mistake none the less.
Every philosopher, in addition to the formal system which he offers to the world, has another, much simpler, of which he may be quite unaware. If he is aware of it, he probably realizes that it won’t quite do; he therefore conceals it, and sets forth something more sophisticated, which he believes because it is like his crude system, but which he asks others to accept because he thinks he has made it such as cannot be disproved. The sophistication comes in by way of refutation of refutations, but this alone will never give a positive result; it shows at best that a theory may be true, not that it must be. The positive result, however little the philosopher may realize it, is due to his imaginative preconceptions, or to what Santayana calls “animal faith.”
The more the Church claimed supremacy on religious grounds, the more plain people were shocked by the contrast between profession and performance. The same motives which ultimately led to the Reformation were operative in the thirteenth century. The main difference was that secular rulers were not ready to throw in their lot with the heretics; and this was largely because no existing philosophy could reconcile heresy with the claims of kings to dominion.
There is little of the true philosophical spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.
The Old Testament, the mystery religions, Greek philosophy, and Roman methods of administration were all blended in the Catholic Church, and combined to give it a strength which no earlier social organization had equalled.
They pity the common people among their enemies, “knowing that they be driven and enforced to war against their wills by the furious madness of their princes and heads.” [...] As for ethics, we are told that they are too much inclined to think that felicity consists in pleasure. [...] The importance of communism is constantly stressed; almost at the end we are told that in all other nations “I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the common wealth.”
The Inquisition was successful in putting an end to science in Italy, which did not revive there for centuries. But it failed to prevent men of science from adopting the heliocentric theory, and did considerable damage to the Church by its stupidity. Fortunately there were Protestant countries, where the clergy, however anxious to do harm to science, were unable to gain control of the State.
After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, [Locke] says that the right use of this consideration “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth; and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenets presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of; it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that any one should readily and obsequiously quit his own opinion, and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. [...] We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man who has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all that he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. [...] There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.”
Empiricism and idealism alike are faced with a problem to which, so far, philosophy has found no satisfactory solution. This is the problem of showing how we have knowledge of other things than ourself and the operations of our own mind.
No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. The most fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true. There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth than one which, like Locke’s, is obviously more or less wrong.
It may be said—this was not said by Locke—that the rate of interest is a quantitative measure of the general discounting of future pleasures. If the prospect of spending $1000 a year hence were as delightful as the thought of spending it today, I should not need to be paid for postponing my pleasure.
Since it is only in the long run that, according to Locke, self-interest and the general interest coincide, it becomes important that men should be guided, as far as possible, by their long-run interests. That is to say, men should be prudent. Prudence is the one virtue remaining to be preached, for every lapse from virtue is a failure of prudence. Emphasis on prudence is characteristic of liberalism. It is connected with the rise of capitalism, for the prudent became rich while the imprudent became or remained poor. It is connected also with certain forms of Protestant piety: virtue with a view to heaven is psychologically very analogous to saving with a view to investment.
Almost all philosophers, in their ethical systems, first lay down a false doctrine, and then argue that wickedness consists in acting in a manner that proves it false, which would be impossible if the doctrine were true.
As a rule, the man who first thinks of a new idea is so much ahead of his time that every one thinks him silly, so that he remains obscure and is soon forgotten. Then, gradually, the world becomes ready for the idea, and the man who proclaims it at the fortunate moment gets all the credit. So it was, for example, with Darwin; poor Lord Monboddo was a laughing-stock.
Some parts of Locke’s natural law are surprising. For example, he says that captives in a just war are slaves by the law of nature. He says also that by nature every man has a right to punish attacks on himself or his property, even by death. He makes no qualification, so that if I catch a person engaged in petty pilfering I have, apparently, by the law of nature, a right to shoot him.
Property is very prominent in Locke’s political philosophy, and is, according to him, the chief reason for the institution of civil government:
“The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.”
Consistently with this doctrine Locke declares that:
“The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent.”
Still more surprising is the statement that, although military commanders have power of life and death over their soldiers, they have no power of taking money. (It follows that, in any army, it would be wrong to punish minor breaches of discipline by fines, but permissible to punish them by bodily injury, such as flogging. This shows the absurd lengths to which Locke is driven by his worship of property.)
The question of the rights of the individual as against the government is a very difficult one. It is too readily assumed by democrats that, when the government represents the majority, it has a right to coerce the minority. Up to a point, this must be true, since coercion is of the essence of government. But the divine right of majorities, if pressed too far, may become almost as tyrannical as the divine right of kings.
The theory that government was created by a contract is, of course, pre-evolutionary. Government, like measles and whooping-cough, must have grown up gradually, though, like them, it could be introduced suddenly into new regions such as the South Sea Islands. Before men had studied anthropology they had no idea of the psychological mechanisms involved in the beginnings of government, or of the fantastic reasons which lead men to adopt institutions and customs that subsequently prove useful. But as a legal fiction, to justify government, the theory of the social contract has some measure of truth.
Some of Locke’s opinions are so odd that I cannot see how to make them sound sensible. He says that a man must not have so many plums that they are bound to go bad before he and his family can eat them; but he may have as much gold and as many diamonds as he can lawfully get, because gold and diamonds do not go bad. It does not occur to him that the man who has the plums might sell them before they go bad.
He makes a great deal of the imperishable character of the precious metals, which, he says, are the source of money and inequality of fortune. He seems, in an abstract and academic way, to regret economic inequality, but he certainly does not think that it would be wise to take such measures as might prevent it. No doubt he was impressed, as all the men of his time were, by the gains to civilization that were due to rich men, chiefly as patrons of art and letters. The same attitude exists in modern America, where science and art are largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich. To some extent, civilization is furthered by social injustice. This fact is the basis of what is most respectable in conservatism.
Enlightened self-interest is, of course, not the loftiest of motives, but those who decry it often substitute, by accident or design, motives which are much worse, such as hatred, envy, and love of power. On the whole, the school which owed its origin to Locke, and which preached enlightened self-interest, did more to increase human happiness, and less to increase human misery, than was done by the schools which despised it in the name of heroism and self-sacrifice. I do not forget the horrors of early industrialism, but these, after all, were mitigated within the system. And I set against them Russian serfdom, the evils of war and its aftermath of fear and hatred, and the inevitable obscurantism of those who attempt to preserve ancient systems when they have lost their vitality.
A limerick by Ronald Knox, with a reply, sets forth Berkeley’s theory of material objects:
There was a young man who said, “God Must think it exceedingly odd If he finds that this tree Continues to be When there’s no one about in the Quad.” (Reply) Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd; I am always about in the Quad. And that’s why the tree Will continue to be, Since observed by Yours faithfully, GOD.
He was the author of the well-known line “Westward the course of empire takes its way” on account of which the town of Berkeley in California was called after him. In 1734 he became Bishop of Cloyne. In later life he abandoned philosophy for tar-water, to which he attributed marvelous medicinal properties. It was tar-water that he described as providing the cups that cheer, but do not inebriate—a sentiment more familiar as subsequently applied by Cowper to tea.
From the sixteenth century onward, the history of European thought is dominated by the Reformation. The Reformation was a complex many-sided movement, and owed its success to a variety of causes. In the main, it was a revolt of the northern nations against the renewed dominion of Rome. Religion was the force that had subdued the North, but religion in Italy had decayed: the papacy remained as an institution, and extracted a huge tribute from Germany and England, but these nations, which were still pious, could feel no reverence for the Borgias and the Medicis, who professed to save souls from purgatory in return for cash which they squandered on luxury and immorality. National motives, economic motives, and moral motives all combined to strengthen the revolt against Rome. Moreover the Princes soon perceived that, if the Church in their territories became merely national, they would be able to dominate it, and would thus become much more powerful at home than they had been while sharing dominion with the Pope. For all these reasons, Luther’s theological innovations were welcomed by rulers and peoples alike throughout the greater part of northern Europe.
...James Mill was horrified. He wrote:
“Their notions of property look ugly; ...they seem to think that it should not exist, and that the existence of it is an evil to them. Rascals, I have no doubt, are at work among them... The fools, not to see that what they madly desire would be such a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring upon them.”
This letter, written in 1831, may be taken as the beginning of the long war between Capitalism and Socialism. In a later letter, James Mill attributes the doctrine to the “mad nonsense” of Hodgskin, and adds: “These opinions, if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilized society; worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars.”
The intolerance of eccentricity that I am speaking of is strongest in the stupidest children, who tend to regard the peculiar tastes of clever children as affording just grounds for persecution. When the authorities also are stupid (which may occur), they will tend to side with the stupid children, and acquiesce, at least tacitly, in rough treatment for those who show intelligence. In that case, a society will be produced in which all the important positions will be won by those whose stupidity enables them to please the herd. Such a society will have corrupt politicians, ignorant schoolmasters, policemen who cannot catch criminals, and judges who condemn innocent men. Such a society, even if it inhabits a country full of natural wealth, will in the end grow poor from inability to choose able men for important posts. Such a society, though it may prate of Liberty and even erect statues in her honor, will be a persecuting society, which will punish the very men whose ideas might save it from disaster.
There are, in the teaching profession, two very different types. There are those who have an enthusiasm for some subject, and who love to teach it and implant their own enthusiasm in their pupils. On the other hand, there are those who enjoy the position of power and easy superiority, who like governing but have not enough skill to govern grown men. Some systems favour the former type, some the latter; modern efficiency tends more and more to favour the man who governs rather than teaches. I do not deny that the governing type has its uses: I once knew a lady who had taught in a public school in Texas, and had found it necessary always to come armed with a revolver. But except in remote and sparsely populated regions, boys or girls who are abnormally refractory can be isolated, with the result that those who remain, having lost their ringleader, will become amenable to less drastic methods. The teacher who is inspired by love of his subject, combined with affection for children, can in most circumstances achieve far more in the way of imparting knowledge and civilization than can ever be achieved by the man who loves order and method and efficiency but lacks knowledge and hates children.
The injustice, the cruelty, and the misery that exist in the modern world are an inheritance from the past, and their ultimate source is economic, since life-and-death competition for the means of subsistence was in former days inevitable. It is not inevitable in our age. With our present industrial technique we can, if we choose, provide a tolerable subsistence for everybody. We could also secure that the world’s population should be stationary if we were not prevented by the political influence of churches which prefer war, pestilence, and famine to contraception. The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.