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’.

Seventeenth-century optimism about philosophy’s future called for revision of its past. In place of the sealed but cheery perpetuum mobile presented by Diogenes, it required a history with a serious plot-line leading from a dim past to a bright future. By the new standards, indeed, Diogenes was scarcely a historian at all. His expositions followed no systematic temporal sequence, and he never considered the possibility that the nature of philosophy might have changed during the eight centuries covered by his Lives. He occasionally mentioned a date (‘Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad,’ for instance), and he was touchingly obsessed with philosophical longevity: Epimenides of the 57-year sleep is reported to have lived to the admirable age of 299. But Diogenes took no interest in general chronologies and large temporal patterns, in the overlaps and simultaneities that historians have doted on ever since the Renaissance, or in spirits of the age or period styles. The units by which he measured out the history of philosophy were concrete individual lifespans, not years, decades and centuries. He seems to have had a hole in his head where modern historians have a mighty dome filled with epochs, time-lines and dates.

William Baldwin was one of the first authors to give the history of philosophy a chronological turn. His 16th-century version of Diogenes revived an old patristic practice of calibrating philosophical events with Biblical ones (Pythagoras was a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar, and Thales of Isaiah); and it squared the circle of origins by having God teach philosophy to Noah, who passed it to Abraham, who gave it to the Egyptians, who then transmitted it not only to Moses but, of course, to Diogenes’ Greeks as well.

It was not till the next century that historians of philosophy began to make use of systematic numerical dating systems, replacing the closed human worlds of the individual life-story with the infinite chronological universe of world history. Archbishop Ussher’s Annals of the Old and New Testaments came out in 1650, assigning the Creation to the 4004th year before Christ, and Noah’s flood to the 2349th. And five years later Thomas Stanley published a thorough revision of Diogenes Laertius entitled The History of Philosophy, revealing that he too was a date-freak. He moaned tetchily about traditional ‘anachronisms’, such as Diogenes’ alleged ‘anachronism of one year’ in dating the birth of Thales, and concluded his last book with an unprecedented year-by-year tabulation of the great philosophical events of ancient Greece.

Stanley used a purely philosophical dating system, fixed by the moment when Thales’ speculations earned him public recognition as one of the Seven Sages: that, in Stanley’s calendar, marked Year One of the Aera Philosophiae, so that Xerxes crossed the Hellespont in ap 103, and Socrates lived from ap 114 to ap 184, Plato from ap 152 to ap 234, and Aristotle from ap 199 to ap 261. It is not clear why, but his chronology broke off with the birth of Carneades in ap 372: perhaps it was the looming embarrassment of having to assign Christ’s nativity to a date as unprepossessing as ap 584. But if we carry on counting we will discover that, philosophically speaking, the year 2000 took place in 1417 ad; and that when the rest of the world is making an idiot of itself welcoming a new millennium, sober philosophers will be calmly opening their annals for the year ap 2583.

Unluckily, Stanley’s philosophical dating system did not catch on. Georg Horn’s Historiae Philosophicae, also published in ap 2238 (1655 ad), was the first work to supply philosophy with a history in the proper modern style, starting in antiquity, unrolling all the way to the present, and opening onto the future. But Horn used a Christian chronology rather than a philosophical one, and ever since that time philosophy’s founders have been ignominiously confined to a looking-glass world where they grow older as the numeration of the years falls (Socrates 469-399 bc, for instance), declining pathetically towards a vanishing-point which is known to us but not to them.

In Horn’s history, the ‘old philosophy’ was presented in a single historical sweep running from the creation of the world to the end of the 16th century. It had started with Adam, passing through Noah to the Greeks and Romans, to be relaunched by Jesus, whose teachings were reflected, if only darkly, in the several phases of medieval scholasticism before it began to be outshone by the 16th-century ‘renaissance of letters’. The 17th century, then, would have to inaugurate a new philosophical age, based on ‘new philosophy’ as pioneered not only by Bacon, Campanella and Descartes, recently deceased, but also by Gassendi and Hobbes, probably the first philosophers to get their names into a history of philosophy when they were still alive.

The century’s self-conscious philosophical novelty did not, however, imply indifference to tradition. After all, the only way philosophers could be assured of their originality was by comparing themselves to their predecessors. According to Horn, indeed, the new philosophy had not so much broken with tradition as formed a closer and more fruitful relationship with it, based on what he called ‘syncretism’ – the practice of sifting through all previous doctrines and picking out the best for resuscitation. If the new philosophy was dedicated to innovation, it was also haunted by the past.

Ever since the 17th century, philosophy has been introduced to new generations and defined for the public mainly through books and courses on the history of philosophy, articulated into three epochs: ancient (mainly Greek); medieval (the philosophy of the university arts courses); and modern (beginning with Bacon and Descartes). There was Brucker’s five-volume Historia Critica Philosophiae in the 1740s, and in 1791, William Enfield’s popular English adaptation, complete with a yard-long ‘Biographical Chart’ running from 1000 bc to 1700 ad. Then there was the German textbook tradition of Reinhold, Tennemann and Windelband, which established an enduring myth about the origins of modern philosophy: that it all began in the 17th century and with Descartes’s surly scepticism, his total mistrust of other people, of his own senses and of reason itself; that he then attempted to repair the damage by an appeal to reason, while the British sought solipsistic solace in the evidence of their senses; but that it was all vanity until, at the end of the 18th century, Kant split the difference between rationalism and empiricism and brokered a perpetual philosophical peace.

Publishers still bring out mythfilled histories of philosophy, embellished with colour pictures of this and that, and apparently they sell, though they may not be much loved; in fact they will probably not have been read beyond the first few pages, set in the sun-baked tourist resorts of ancient Greece. The chapters on medieval logic will be wintry and unappealing, and the so-called ‘modern’ period will be as exciting as a rainy Sunday afternoon. Who cares about these lonesome protoanoraks fondling their flimsy verbal arguments about the reality of tables and chairs? And how could anyone call them ‘modern’?

Kant pointed out that there is a big difference between merely knowing about philosophy’s past and being able to philosophise for oneself with a view to the present and the future. Hegel made an attempt to put the two together again, but few 20th-century philosophers thought it worth the candle. Bertrand Russell prided himself on doing ‘pure philosophy’ as distinct from history (just ‘dates and influences’, he thought). Of course his History of Western Philosophy became one of the world’s great bestsellers, solving his financial problems for ever; but it was a matter of regret to him that this unoriginal money-spinner came to overshadow his serious theoretical researches. Russell would have agreed with Quine: ‘There are two kinds of philosophers, those who do philosophy, and those who do history of philosophy.’ He would have endorsed the slogan displayed (or so they say) in the Princeton philosophy department: ‘Just say no to the history of philosophy.’

Recently, however, a growing band of philosophical dissidents have been arguing that if histories of philosophy are philosophically fatuous, it is not because they are too historical, but because they are not historical enough. And no publisher has done more for this reform in the historiography of philosophy than Cambridge University Press. In the Fifties W.K.C. Guthrie was invited to write a one-volume History of Greek Philosophy which, rather like a progressivist history of science, would pass over the individuality of particular works and authors so as to bring out the stately progess of topics and arguments from one century to the next. But it turned out that Guthrie was not right for the job. After a few years he admitted that he was ‘more interested in people than in theories, in philosophers than in philosophy’, and spent six grand volumes (1962 to 1981) straying regally from his brief.

When Cambridge commissioned a successor volume, they prevented further derailments by engaging a divisible team of researchers rather than a single wilful author, and the Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967) provided a disciplined if dry account of the early career of Platonism among Christians, Muslims and Jews. The same method, attending to general conceptual developments rather than individual writers, was followed in the superb volumes on Later Medieval Philosophy (1982) and Renaissance Philosophy (1988). But the real test was going to come when the project reached the 17th century: the period when philosophers became preoccupied with their own novelty, and when, according to tradition, they turned all their attention to trying to limit the devastation caused by Descartes’s fanatical mistrustfulness.

The Cambridge History of 17th-Century Philosophy took its editors 16 years to complete. Convinced that ‘the historical and philosophical understanding of a text are not as separable as philosophers have often ... supposed,’ they have refused to take traditional interpretations on trust, requiring their 33 contributors to adopt fresh and ‘strictly historical’ approaches to all their assignments. The results are simply magnificent Seventeenth-century philosophers can never again be dismissed as a bunch of losers obsessed by idiotic questions about the division between mind and body or the nature and possibility of knowledge. Indeed it is only after 700 mostly engrossing and often original pages on logic and abstract objects, God and atheism, and physics and laws of nature, that we reach the well-trodden epistemological ground; and then the old themes of doubt, reason and sensation look much less familiar than they used to. Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Spinoza appear not as the scorched-earth innovators they sometimes took themselves to be, but as participants in a large and purposeful intellectual community, making creative use of ancient philosophical traditions (especially Platonism and Epicurean atomism) in order to push aside Aristotelian natural science and replace it with a mechanistic physics based on mathematical laws.

It is a grand revision, performed gracefully and without polemic, though Michael Ayers – the original architect of the work, and the author of lucid and perceptive chapters on the continuities between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ epistemology – permits himself a couple of tart remarks about ‘British empiricism’ (‘one of the more inept clichés in the historiography of philosophy’) and the ‘myth’ that a ‘veil’ descended between self and world in 17th-century thought.

The revisionists could have carried their revisions still further. They continue to neglect the rhetorical and narrative inventiveness of philosophical writers, together with the efforts of translators to supply modern languages with philosophical vocabularies to rival those of Greek or Latin; nor do they pay much attention to theories of the origin of language or to changing conceptions of philosophy’s past and future. And it is especially regrettable that – despite excellent contributions by Jill Kraye and Susan James – they allow moral philosophy to be left almost out of sight. For most of the reading public in 17th-century Europe, and indeed for most of its less-known philosophical authors (especially women, whose under-representation is correctly lamented by Garber and Ayers), philosophy was still a personal quest for stoical strength rather than a collaborative pursuit of theoretical truth. Our new historians of philosophy have retained the old habit of neglecting the humble philosophers who were content to reread and retranslate their Plato, Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca or Diogenes, without hope of any reward apart from a little more self-knowledge and perhaps a slightly better sense of moral proportion. The new historians are so addicted to the tick-tock of intellectual advance that novelty and ‘progressiveness’ have become their criteria of historical significance, and thinkers who did not care to keep up to date have dropped out of the picture entirely.

Philosophy need not be regarded as a progressive research discipline, however – or at least not in the same way as the natural sciences. If, after a lifetime’s philosophical reflection, you find you have still not caught up with Socrates, that does not make you a philosophical non-person. You are under no obligation to leave philosophy in a more advanced theoretical state than you found it; indeed you may have reasonable doubts about the very idea of philosophical advance. After all, philosophy contains questions – about faith, friendship and finitude, for example – that we all need to explore for ourselves, on our own terms, always starting from scratch. If we want to get closer to their history, we may need to revive the frivolity of Diogenes, with his enviable insouciance about dates.