Y2K = AP2583

Jonathan Rée

  • The Cambridge History of 17th-Century Philosophy edited by Daniel Garber and Michael Ayres
    Cambridge, 1616 pp, £90.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 521 58864 2

The earliest systematic history of philosophy, or at least the earliest to survive into the age of print, is Diogenes Laertius’ survey of the Lives, Opinions and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, written in Greek about 250 AD. Diogenes described 82 thinkers, some cursorily, others with copious quotations and stories about their characters and curious habits. He moved equably from Thales through Plato and Aristotle, to Zeno, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and eventually Epicurus, but his impartiality probably had less to do with scruples about objectivity than with uncomprehending indifference to philosophical questions, and a terrific appetite for gossip. If Diogenes Laertius were alive today, he would be a high political journalist rather than a mere historian of philosophy.

He divided philosophy into physics, dialectics and ethics; but the greatest of these was ethics – ethics understood not as theoretical inquiry, but as a practical discipline of the soul, a technique for achieving spiritual constancy and calm. Diogenes found few traces of saintly self-control in the lives of his philosophers, however, and the cumulative effect of his tales is comical rather than edifying. Take Chrysippus, who died of a fit of laughter brought on by one of his own feeble jokes; or Epimenides, who went out one day to look for a lost sheep, but got tired and took a nap which lasted 57 years: ‘he thus became famous throughout Greece,’ Diogenes says, ‘and was reputed a favourite of the Gods.’ Or Heraclitus, who lived in wild solitude on the mountains until, growing sick with dropsy, he tried to cure himself by lying in the sun plastered with cow-dung, only to be eaten alive by dogs who mistook him for a sausage-roll.

Diogenes took care to point out that the Greek word philosophia does not imply actual possession of great truths, which may be beyond us anyway, but only an uneasy longing for them, such as stirs occasionally in us all. But whether or not philosophy was a universal aspiration, Diogenes recognised only one genuine philosophical tradition. ‘It was from the Greeks that philosophy sprang,’ he said, ‘and its very name refuses to be translated into barbarian languages.’ He assumed moreover that the Greek tradition was at last exhausted: the philosophical canon was now closed.

Latin adaptations of Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, were the staple of university arts courses in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But Christians were obliged to regard philosophy as essentially a pagan or ‘ethnic’ tradition – a kind of secular Old Testament, a prologue to the living truth incarnated in Jesus Christ, if not (as Luther thought) the work of the devil. You needed a long spoon when you went to sup with philosophers.

But the fact that philosophers were ‘unbelieving gentiles’ could also be spun into a reason why the faithful should attend to them. As William Baldwin put it in the upbeat English version of Diogenes which he published in 1547 under the title A Treatise of Morall Philosophye, contayning the Sayinges of the wyse, philosophy was to be studied not for its own sake, but ‘only for this purpose, that we Christians, ashamed of our selves, in beholding the lives of these Heathen persons may amend ours and follow the good doctrine they have taught us’.

As long as philosophy (especially moral philosophy) was regarded as an episode that had been brought to an end by Christianity, Diogenes Laertius was bound to remain its principal historian, if only because he drew on sources that were now lost. About the turn of the 17th century, however, philosophy began speaking in the future tense as well as the past. There was much talk of ‘the new philosophy’, and in The Advancement of Learning (1605) Francis Bacon argued that philosophy could no longer be regarded as a mere propaedeutic, to be ‘studied but in passage’. Ancient philosophy might be dead, but with the blessing of King James, a fertile new philosophy was about to take its place – ‘a spouse, for generation, fruit and comfort’ as Bacon put it – and its vigorous offspring were destined to conquer new worlds of ‘endless progress or proficience’.

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