Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 5

(Read Part 4 of the series.)

Plotinus and Neo-Platonism

During the second century AD, Plotinus attempted to revise Plato’s concepts relating to the nature of reality in order to incorporate the objections that Aristotle had raised. Most people lived at a level below that at which the intellect was able to comprehend the ‘Forms’ that Plato had spoken of, the eternal and unchanging basis for the worldly approximations of concepts such as beauty, justice and so on. The highest of the Forms was the ‘Good’. From it, the entire universe emanated, becoming increasingly less ‘good’ as it spread outwards but nevertheless still being ‘one thing’. The origin, God if you like, first becomes mind (intellect) and then soul. All things, including ourselves, are souls. The purpose of man was to return to the original state by examining the world and following the good back to its source. It was concepts such as this that greatly influenced Christianity, though the philosophers themselves rejected it because of such notions as salvation through grace. The ideas also had a resurgence during the Renaissance, when the writings of Plotinus were translated into Latin.

This is effectively the antithesis of the materialist stance, represented by the Epicureans. We ought to renounce the material world and concern ourselves solely with the ‘ideal’ world of Forms, aiming to become One with the ultimate Form of the Good. The everyday world is primarily one of hardship and misery (or at least was so in the time of Plotinus) and, if we are to search for happiness, we must do so by reflection and imagination, not through the senses. This was, of course, a very ‘anti-scientific’ view (though science as we know it did not yet exist of course), encouraging us to look within for meaning to our lives rather than pursuing external goals.

Early Christianity

St. Augustine was one of the major early proponents of Christianity, being a bishop in what is now Algeria for the second half of his life. In addition to Plato and Plotinus, he was also influenced  by Manichaeism, the idea of the Persian Mani that the universe consisted of twin powers of ‘Good/Light/Spirit’ and ‘Evil/Darkness/Matter’ and that this was represented in man by the soul striving to free itself from the body.

Augustine’s thoughts on such things as the nature of time and mind anticipated the much later philosophers Kant and Descartes. He claimed that God was outside of time, having created it with the universe. There is only the present, with future consisting only of present expectations and the past being present memories. We know that we are and that we think but not where we came from or what our precise nature might be.

In his autobiography, he confesses how he was obsessed by sex in his youth, famously praying ‘Give me chastity and continence, only not yet’ and being granted his wish by the time that he eventually got married! He believed that lust was effectively a punishment for the fall of Adam, its feeling of shamefulness resulting from the fact that it operates regardless of our will. It seems inevitable that much of the guilt associated with anything to do with sex results from ideas such as this, which have been propagated in the name of religion. It certainly seems strange that it should have been thought desirable that something we so much associate with pleasure ought to be divorced from it; that sex should ideally be simply a necessary and quite unemotional act for the purpose of begetting children. Since Darwin, it has been quite apparent that the sex drive and its associated rapture play a vital role in the purely mechanistic propagation of the species and the genetic predisposition for this to continue is inevitable.

The Manichaeans stated that man’s soul was divine and that it was only the body that was evil. To the extent that we identified with the soul, this meant that we could abdicate responsibility for evil actions, effectively claiming that they were the body’s fault. Although initially going along with this, Augustine later revised his position to one that claimed the evil in the world was our doing and not a pre-existing condition of the universe or something imposed by God. But he agreed that the soul is essentially what we are and is immortal.

It is not obvious whether he believed that our souls were also created or somehow always existed or what the ultimate purpose of all this might be but, as far as this life is concerned, our aim should be to shun the limited and temporary world of the senses, which we normally regard as being all that there is, and strive instead to attain to the eternal realm of spirit, truth and goodness. He came to believe however that, though it was possible to improve our soul in this way, it could be done only through the grace of God.

This was contrary to the claims of another ecclesiastical philosopher of the time, the Welshman Morgan, who for some reason was known as Pelagius, the Greek equivalent of the name (meaning ‘man of the sea’). He argued that man could himself choose to act virtuously, so that he could eventually go to heaven as a result of his own efforts. This went against the doctrine of original sin and caused great contention amongst his contemporaries. It is still known today as the ‘Pelagian Controversy’. Augustine eventually had him declared a heretic.

The orthodox view was that, once Adam had eaten from the forbidden apple, he and Eve lost their free will and ability to abstain from sin and this penalty has been passed on to everyone else ever since. Only by being baptised into the Christian faith can this be redeemed (through God’s grace) so that we avoid going to hell.

Following the death of Augustine (not that this was the trigger!), the Western world descended into the ‘Dark Ages’, which lasted until the end of the tenth Century, with bloody wars and little time for philosophising. Barbarians, Vandals and Attila the Hun are just a few redolent names from this period. The church seems to have been the sole (soul) repository of serious thinking – outside the church most people were illiterate – but most of their efforts were devoted to converting the invaders.

One of the few philosophers worthy of note in passing was the Roman Boethius who lived at the end of the fifth and early sixth Century and wrote a book appropriately titled ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ (whilst he was in prison awaiting execution). He was still principally influenced by Plato and Aristotle, as much of Western Philosophy has been ever since. He affirmed that happiness came from ‘good’, not pleasure, equating ‘blessedness’ with God – those who become truly happy achieve divinity, in effect become God.

John the Scot was an Irishman! (This was the meaning of ‘Scotus’.) He taught at the court of the French king in the ninth century. He had a number of heretical beliefs but managed to escape persecution. He believed, for example that truth could be derived by reason and not just by divine revelation; in fact, in the event of any discrepancy, he preferred the former. He divided Nature into four classes. The first was God, who is uncreated but creates. The second equates to Plato’s realm of Forms, that which is created and also creates, the essence of all things. The third is created but does not create; it contains the entire perceivable universe. The fourth neither creates nor is created; it is the end of all, God (again). God, not being objective in any sense, is unknowable, even to Himself. Everything comes from God and returns to Him; is not in any real sense ever distinct from Him – this is the theory of Pantheism. Sin results when man turns away from God towards himself.

Much of the wisdom that had been cultivated by the Greeks died out in the West during the Dark Ages. Fortunately it was kept alive in the East and ideas and writings were effectively reintroduced in the twelfth century. One of the key philosophers responsible for this was Averroës. He lived in Cordoba in Spain and was Islamic, better known as Ibn Rushd. His work was later translated into Latin and became very influential in Europe, though he was effectively only commenting upon Aristotle.

He believed that it was the duty of the philosopher to examine religious beliefs and ‘divine revelation’ in order to discover the truth and he wrote a book, ‘Incoherence of the Incoherence’ to argue this. He maintained, for example, that the human soul is not immortal but that the intellect is, this however being universal and not individual. There is only one truth, determined through philosophical enquiry and then simply followed via religious laws. Acting in accordance with this would inevitably maximise happiness. It is interesting that he believed that the capacity for happiness was proportionate to one’s intellectual abilities. This related to the extent to which a person is able to ‘know’ God.

The reintroduction of Aristotle’s philosophy was bound to affect thinking significantly. The earlier philosophers had been principally influenced by Plato and the Neo-Platonists but St. Thomas Aquinas based his thoughts upon Aristotle and was responsible for making considerable changes to the attitudes of the church in the thirteenth century. His ideas (called ‘Thomism’) became the foundation of the Catholic church and remain significant today. Whereas the emphasis had previously been upon religious dogma and faith, he now emphasised the importance of the intellect and reason acting upon observation. With Aristotle having laid the foundations for what might be called a scientific attitude, this paved the way towards the idea that knowledge derives from experience. Called ‘empiricism’, this belief was more clearly expressed by William of Ockham in the next century, though it was not fully developed until much later in the seventeenth century England of Francis Bacon and John Locke.

Aquinas acknowledged that revelation is the optimum method for realising God but also insisted that it was possible to use reason and he was responsible for producing five ‘proofs’ of the existence of God. As far as happiness is concerned, he claimed that it was man’s nature to seek it and we could not help doing so. But it is not to be gained through sensory means and is not dependent upon pleasures of the body, mind or intellect. The most happiness that we can achieve in this life is from contemplation of God but this is a limited form only and only in heaven can we achieve true joy in meeting with God.

William of Ockham is best known for the so-called ‘Ockham’s Razor’. This was the principle that, in the absence of any more specific guiding knowledge, the simplest explanation for any given phenomenon should be assumed to be the correct one. This is often summed up these days by the acronym KISS – keep it simple, stupid! He maintained that we should use observation, followed by reason in order to make sense of the world; mere argument or speculation was insufficient. In this respect he could be seen as the first advocate of what we might now call the ‘scientific method’. He also predated the 18th Century philosopher David Hume in recognising that, when we say that A causes B, what we are really saying is that, on all of the occasions that we observed B, it had been preceded by A. But B does not necessarily follow A; it only happens to have done so when we observed it and might not next time. Things happen because God wills them to do so and He might will things differently next time.

(Read Part 5 of the series.)