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The Belfast Address - Pt. 2

( Originally Published 1916 )

Still earlier than these three philosophers, and during the centuries between the first of them and the last, the human intellect was active in other fields than theirs. Pythagoras had founded a school of mathematics, and made his experiments on the harmonic intervals. The Sophists had run through their career. At Athens had appeared Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who ruined the Sophists, and whose yoke remains to some extent unbroken to the present hour. Within this period also the School of Alexandria was founded, Euclid wrote his "Elements" and made some advance in optics. Archimedes had propounded the theory of the lever, and the principles of hydrostatics. Astronomy was immensely enriched by the discoveries of Hipparchus, who was followed by the historically more celebrated Ptolemy. Anatomy had been made the basis of scientific medicine; and it is said by Draper that vivisection had begun. In fact, the science of ancient Greece had already cleared the world of the fantastic images of divinities operating capriciously through natural phenomena. It had shaken itself free from that fruitless scrutiny "by the internal light of the mind alone," which had vainly sought to transcend experience, and to reach a knowledge of ultimate causes. In-stead of accidental observation, it had introduced observation with a purpose; instruments were employed to aid the senses; and scientific method was rendered in a great measure complete by the union of Induction and Experiment.

What, then, stopped its victorious advance ? Why was the scientific intellect compelled, like an exhausted soil, to lie fallow for nearly two millenniums, before it could re-gather the elements necessary to its fertility and strength? Bacon has already let us know one cause; Whewell ascribes this stationary period to four causes obscurity of thought, servility, intolerance of disposition, enthusiasm of temper; and he gives striking examples of each.' But these characteristics must have had their antecedents in the circumstances of the time. Rome, and the other cities of the Empire, had fallen into moral putrefaction. Christianity had appeared, offering the Gospel to the poor, and by moderation, if not asceticism of life, practically protesting against the profligacy of the age. The sufferings of the early Christians, and the extraordinary exaltation of mind which enabled them to triumph over the diabolical tortures to which they were subjected, ' must have left traces not easily effaced. They scorned the earth, in view of that "building of God, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." The Scriptures which ministered to their spiritual needs were also the measure of their Science. When, for example, the celebrated question of the Antipodes came to be discussed, the Bible was with many the ultimate court of appeal. Augustine, who flourished A.D. 400, would not deny the rotundity of the earth; but he would deny the possible existence of inhabitants at the other side, "because no such race is recorded in Scripture among the descendants of Adam." Archbishop Boniface was shocked at the assumption of a "world of human beings out of the reach of the means of salvation." Thus reined in, Science was not likely to make much progress. Later on, the political and theological strife between the Church and civil governments, so powerfully depicted by Draper, must have done much to stifle investigation.

Whewell makes many wise and brave remarks regarding the spirit of the Middle Ages. It was a menial spirit. The seekers after natural knowledge had forsaken the fountain of living waters, the direct appeal to nature by observation and experiment, and given themselves up to the remanipulation of the notions of their predecessors. It was a time when thought had become abject, and when the acceptance of mere authority led, as it always does in science, to intellectual death. Natural events, instead of being traced to physical, were referred to moral, causes; while an exercise of the fantasy, almost as degrading as the spiritualism of the present day, took the place of scientific speculation. Then came the mysticism of the Middle Ages, Magic, Alchemy, the Neoplatonic philosophy, with its visionary though sublime abstractions, which caused men to look with shame upon their own bodies, as hinderances to the absorption of the creature in the blessedness of the Creator. Finally came the scholastic philosophy, a fusion, according to Lange, of the least mature notions of Aristotle with the Christianity of the West. Intellectual immobility was the result. As a traveller with-out a compass in a fog may wander long, imagining he is making way, and find himself after hours of toil at his starting-point, so the schoolmen, having "tied and untied the same knots, and formed and dissipated the same clouds,' found themselves at the end of centuries in their old position.

With regard to the influence wielded by Aristotle in the Middle Ages, and which, to a less extent, he still wields, I would ask permission to make one remark. When the human mind has achieved greatness and given evidence of extraordinary power in one domain, there is a tendency to credit it with similar power in all other domains. Thus theologians have found comfort and assurance in the thought that Newton dealt with the question of revelation—forgetful of the fact that the very devotion of his powers, through all the best years of his life, to a totally different class of ideas, not to speak of any natural disqualification, tended to render him less, instead of more, competent to deal with theological and historic questions. Goethe, starting from his established greatness as a poet, and indeed from his positive discoveries in Natural History, produced a profound impression among the painters of Germany, when he published his "Farbenlehre," in which he endeavored to overthrow Newton's theory of colors. This theory he deemed so obviously absurd that he considered its author a charlatan, and attacked him with a corresponding vehemence of language. In the do-main of Natural History, Goethe had made really considerable discoveries; and we have high authority for assuming that, had he devoted himself wholly to that side of science, he might have reached an eminence comparable with that which he attained as a poet. In sharpness of observation, in the detection of analogies apparently re-mote, in the classification and organization of facts according to the analogies discerned, Goethe possessed extraordinary powers. These elements of scientific inquiry fall in with the disciplines of the poet. But, on the other hand, a mind thus richly endowed in the direction of natural history, may be almost shorn of endowment as regards the physical and mechanical sciences. Goethe was in this condition. He could not formulate distinct mechanical conceptions; he could not see the force of mechanical reasoning; and, in regions where such reasoning reigns supreme, he became a mere ignis fatuus to those who followed him.

I have sometimes permitted myself to compare Aristotle with Goethe—to credit the Stagirite with an almost superhuman power of amassing and systematizing facts, but to consider him fatally defective on that side of the mind, in respect to which incompleteness has been just ascribed to Goethe. Whewell refers the errors of Aristotle not to a neglect of facts, but to "a neglect of the idea appropriate to the facts: the idea of Mechanical cause, which is Force, and the substitution of vague or inapplicable notions, involving only relations of space or emotions of wonder." This is doubtless true; but the word "neglect" implies mere intellectual misdirection, whereas in Aristotle, as in Goethe, it was not, I believe, misdirection, but sheer natural incapacity which lay at the root of his mistakes. As a physicist, Aristotle displayed what we should consider some of the worst of attributes in a modern physical investigator—indistinctness of ideas, confusion of mind, and a confident use of language which led to the delusive notion that he had really mastered his subject, while he had, as yet, failed to grasp even the elements of it. He put words in the place of things, subject in the place of object. He preached Induction without practicing it, inverting the true order of inquiry, by passing from the general to the particular, instead of from the particular to the general. He made of the universe a closed sphere, in the centre of which he fixed the earth, proving from general principles, to his own satisfaction and to that of the world for near 2,000 years, that no other universe was possible. His notions of motion were entirely unphysical. It was natural or unnatural, better or worse, calm or violent—no real mechanical conception regarding it lying at the bottom of his mind. He affirmed that a vacuum could not exist, and proved that if it did motion in it would be impossible. He determined à priori how many species of animals must exist, and showed on general principles why animals must have such and such parts. When an eminent contemporary philosopher, who is far removed from errors of this kind, remembers these abuses of the d priori method, he will be able to make allowance for the jealousy of physicists as to the acceptance of so-called d priori truths. Aristotle's errors of detail, as shown by Eucken and Lange, were grave and numerous. He affirmed that only in man we had the beating of the heart, that the left side of the body was colder than the right, that men have more teeth than women, and that there is an empty space at the back of every man's head.

There is one essential quality in physical conceptions which was entirely wanting in those of Aristotle and his followers—a capability of being placed as coherent pictures before the mind. The Germans express the act of picturing by the word vorstellen, and the picture they call a Vorstellung. We have no word in English which comes nearer to our requirements than Imagination; and, taken with its proper limitations, the word answers very well. But it is tainted by its associations, and therefore objectionable to some minds. Compare, with reference to this capacity of mental presentation, the case of the Aristotelian, who refers the ascent of water in a pump to Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum, with that of Pascal when he proposed to solve the question of atmospheric pressure by the ascent of the Puy de Dôme. In the one case the terms of the explanation refuse to fall into place as a physical image; in the other the image is distinct, the descent and rise of the barometer being clearly figured beforehand as the balancing of two varying and opposing pressures.

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