The History of Philosophy - Chapter 1 - Do we Need Philosophy?

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The History of Philosophy
Chapter 1 - Do we Need Philosophy?
Chapter 4 - The Renaissance
Chapter 5 - Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz
Chapter 6 - Philosophy in the 20th Century
Indian and Islamic philosophy
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Chapter 1 - Do we Need Philosophy? 

Before we start, you may be tempted to ask, "Well, what of it?" Is it really necessary for us to bother about complicated questions of science and philosophy? To such a question, two replies are possible. If what is meant is: do we need to know about such things in order to go about our daily life, then the answer is evidently no. But if we wish to gain a rational understanding of the world in which we live, and the fundamental processes at work in nature, society and our own way of thinking, then matters appear in quite a different light.

Strangely enough, everyone has a "philosophy." For a philosophy is a way of looking at the world. We all believe we know how to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. These are, however, very complicated issues which have occupied the attention of the greatest minds in history. When confronted with the terrible fact of the existence of events like the fratricidal war in the former Yugoslavia, the re-emergence of mass unemployment, the slaughter in Rwanda, many people will confess that they do not comprehend such things, and will frequently resort to vague references to "human nature." But what is this mysterious human nature which is seen as the source of all our ills, and is alleged to be eternally unchangeable? This is a profoundly philosophical question, to which not many would venture a reply, unless they were of a religious cast of mind, in which case they would say that God, in His wisdom, made us like that. Why anyone should worship a Being that played such tricks on His creations is another matter.

Those who stubbornly maintain that they have no philosophy are mistaken. Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said. Those who lack a coherently worked-out philosophical standpoint will inevitably reflect the ideas and prejudices of the society and the milieu in which they live. That means, in the given context, that their heads will be full of the ideas they imbibe from the newspapers, television, pulpit and schoolroom, which faithfully reflect the interests and morality of existing capitalist society.

Most people usually succeed in muddling through life, until some great upheaval compels them to re-consider the kind of ideas and values they grew up with. The crisis of society forces them to question many things they took for granted. At such times, ideas which seemed remote suddenly become strikingly relevant. Anyone who wishes to understand life, not as a meaningless series of accidents or an unthinking routine, must occupy themselves with philosophy, that is, with thought at a higher level than the immediate problems of everyday existence. Only by this means do we raise ourselves to a height where we begin to fulfil our potential as conscious human beings, willing and able to take control of our own destinies.

It is generally understood that anything worth while in life requires some effort. The study of philosophy, by its very nature, involves certain difficulties, because it deals with matters far removed from the world of ordinary experience. Even the terminology used presents difficulties because words are used in a way which does not necessarily correspond to the common usage. But the same is true for any specialised subject, from engineering to psychology.

The second obstacle is more serious. In the last century, when Marx and Engels first published their writings on dialectical materialism, they could assume that many of their readers had at least a working knowledge of classical philosophy, including Hegel. Nowadays, it is not possible to make such an assumption. Philosophy no longer occupies the place it had before, since the role of speculation about the nature of the universe and life has long since been occupied by the sciences. The possession of powerful radio telescopes and spacecraft renders guesses about the nature and extent of our solar system unnecessary. Even the mysteries of the human soul are being gradually laid bare by the progress of neurobiology and psychology.

The situation is far less satisfactory in the realm of the social sciences, mainly because the desire for accurate knowledge often decreases to the degree that science impinges on the powerful material interests which govern the lives of people. The great advances made by Marx and Engels in the sphere of social and historical analysis and economics fall outside the scope of the present work. Suffice it to point out that, despite the sustained and frequently malicious attacks to which they were subjected from the beginning, the theories of Marxism in the social sphere have been the decisive factor in the development of modern social sciences. As for their vitality, this is testified to by the fact that the attacks not only continue, but tend to increase in intensity as time goes by.

In past ages, the development of science, which has always been closely linked to that of the productive forces, had not reached a sufficiently high level to permit men and women to understand the world in which they lived. In the absence of scientific knowledge, or the material means of obtaining it, they were compelled to rely upon the one instrument they possessed that could help them to make sense of the world, and thus gain power over it—the human mind. The struggle to understand the world was closely identified with humankind’s struggle to tear itself away from a merely animal level of existence, to gain mastery over the blind forces of nature, and to become free in the real, not legalistic, sense of the word. This struggle is a red thread running through the whole of human history.

Role of Religion

"Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot, and he creates Gods by the dozen." (Montaigne.)

"All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the force of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them." (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 110.)

Animals have no religion, and in the past it was said that this constituted the main difference between humans and "brutes." But that is just another way of saying that only humans possess consciousness in the full sense of the word. In recent years, there has been a reaction against the idea of Man as a special and unique Creation. This is undoubtedly correct, in the sense that humans developed from animals, and, in many important respects, remain animals. Not only do we share many of the bodily functions with other animals, but the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent. That is a crushing answer to the nonsense of the Creationists.

Recent research with bonobo chimpanzees has proven beyond doubt that the primates closest to humans are capable of a level of mental activity similar, in some respects, to that of a human child. That is striking proof of the kinship between humans and the highest primates, but here the analogy begins to break down. Despite all the efforts of experimenters, captive bonobos have not been able to speak or fashion a stone tool remotely similar to the simplest implements created by early hominids. The two percent genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees marks the qualitative leap from the animal to the human. This was accomplished, not by a Creator, but by the development of the brain through manual labour.

The skill to make even the simplest stone tools involves a very high level of mental ability and abstract thought. The ability to select the right sort of stone and reject others; the choice of the correct angle to strike a blow, and the use of precisely the right amount of force—these are highly complicated intellectual actions. They imply a degree of planning and foresight not found in even the most advanced primates. However, the use and manufacture of stone tools was not the result of conscious planning, but was something forced upon man’s remote ancestors by necessity. It was not consciousness that created humanity, but the necessary conditions of human existence which led to an enlarged brain, speech and culture, including religion.

The need to understand the world was closely linked to the need to survive. Those early hominids who discovered the use of stone scrapers in butchering dead animals with thick hides got a considerable advantage over those who were denied access to this rich supply of fats and proteins. Those who perfected their stone implements, and worked out where to find the best materials stood a better chance of survival than those who did not. With the development of technique came the development of the mind, and the need to explain the phenomena of nature which governed their lives. Over millions of years, through trial and error, our ancestors began to establish certain relations between things. They began to make abstractions, that is, to generalise from experience and practice.

For centuries, the central question of philosophy has been the relation of thinking to being. Most people live their lives quite happily without even considering this problem. They think and act, talk and work, with not the slightest difficulty. Moreover, it would not occur to them to regard as incompatible the two most basic human activities, which are, in practice, inseparably linked. Even the most elementary action, if we exclude simple biologically determined reactions, demands a degree of thought. To a degree, this is true not only of humans but also of animals, as a cat lying in wait for a mouse. In man, however, the kind of thought and planning has a qualitatively higher character than any of the mental activities of even the most advanced of the apes.

This fact is inseparably linked to the capacity for abstract thought, which enables humans to go far beyond the immediate situation given to us by our senses. We can envisage situations, not just in the past (animals also have memory, as a dog which cowers at the sight of a stick) but also the future. We can anticipate complex situations, plan, and thereby determine the outcome, and, to some extent, determine our own destinies. Although we do not normally think about it, this represents a colossal conquest which sets humankind apart from the rest of nature. "What is distinctive of human reasoning," says Professor Gordon Childe, "is that it can go immensely farther from the actual present situation than any other animal’s reasoning ever seems to get it." (What Happened in History, p. 19.) From this capacity springs all the manifold creations of civilisation, culture, art, music, literature, science, philosophy, religion. We also take for granted that all this does not drop from the skies, but is the product of millions of years of development.

The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, in brilliant deduction, said that man’s mental development depended upon the freeing of the hands. In his important article, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels showed the exact way in which this transition was achieved. He proved that the upright stance, freeing of the hands for labour, the form of the hands, with the opposition of the thumb to the fingers, which allowed for clutching, were the physiological preconditions for toolmaking, which, in turn, was the main stimulus to the development of the brain. Speech itself, which is inseparable from thought, arose out of the demands of social production, the need to realise complicated functions by means of co-operation. These theories of Engels have been strikingly confirmed by the most recent discoveries of palaeontology, which show that hominid apes appeared in Africa far earlier than previously thought, and that they had brains no bigger than those of a modern chimpanzee. That is to say, the development of the brain came after the production of tools, and as a result of it. Thus, it is not true that "In the beginning was the Word," but as the German poet Goethe proclaimed—"In the beginning was the Deed."

The ability to engage in abstract thought is inseparable from language. The celebrated prehistorian Gordon Childe observes:

"Reasoning, and all that we call thinking, including the chimpanzee’s, must involve mental operations with what psychologists call images. A visual image, a mental picture of, say, a banana, is always liable to be a picture of a particular banana in a particular setting. A word on the contrary is, as explained, more general and abstract, having eliminated just those accidental features that give individuality to any real banana. Mental images of words (pictures of the sound or of the muscular movements entailed in uttering it) form very convenient counters for thinking with. Thinking with their aid necessarily possesses just that quality of abstractness and generality that animal thinking seems to lack. Men can think, as well as talk, about the class of objects called ‘bananas’; the chimpanzee never gets further than ‘that banana in that tube.’ In this way the social instrument termed language has contributed to what is grandiloquently described as ‘man’s emancipation from bondage to the concrete.’" (G. Childe, What Happened in History, pp. 19-20.)

Early humans, after a long period of time, formed the general idea of, say, a plant or an animal. This arose out of the concrete observation of many particular plants and animals. But when we arrive at the general concept "plant," we no longer see before us this or that flower or bush, but that which is common to all of them. We grasp the essence of a plant, its innermost being. Compared with this, the peculiar features of individual plants seem secondary and unstable. What is permanent and universal is contained in the general conception. We can never actually see a plant as such, as opposed to particular flowers and bushes. It is an abstraction of the mind. Yet it is a deeper and truer expression of what is essential to the plant’s nature, when stripped of all secondary features.

However, the abstractions of early humans were far from having a scientific character. They were tentative explorations, like the impressions of a child, guesses and hypotheses, sometimes incorrect, but always bold and imaginative. To early humans, the sun was a great being that sometimes warmed them, and sometimes burnt them. The earth was a sleeping giant. Fire was a fierce animal that bit them when they touched it.

Early humans experienced the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. This must have frightened them, as it still frightens animals and people today. But, unlike animals, humans looked for a general explanation of the phenomenon. Given the lack of any scientific knowledge, the explanation was invariably a supernatural one—some god, hitting an anvil with his hammer. To our eyes, such explanations seem merely amusing, like the na•ve explanations of children. Nevertheless, at this period they were extremely important hypotheses—an attempt to find a rational cause for the phenomenon, in which men distinguished between the immediate experience, and saw something entirely separate from it.

The most characteristic form of early religion is animism—the notion that everything, animate or inanimate has a spirit. We see the same kind of reaction in a child when it smacks a table against which it has banged its head. In the same way, early humans, and certain tribes today, will ask the spirit of a tree to forgive them before cutting it down. Animism belongs to a period when humankind has not yet fully separated itself from the animal world and nature in general. The closeness of humans to the world of animals is attested to by the freshness and beauty of cave-art, where horses, deer and bison are depicted with a naturalness which can no longer be captured by the modern artist. It is the childhood of the human race, which has gone beyond recall. We can only imagine the psychology of these distant ancestors of ours. But by combining the discoveries of archeology with anthropology, it is possible to reconstruct, at least in outline, the world from which we have emerged.

In his classic anthropological study of the origins of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer writes:

"A savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural. To him the world is to a great extent worked by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings acting on impulses and motives like his own, liable like him to be moved by appeals to their pity, their hope, and their fears. In a world so conceived he sees no limit to this power of influencing the course of nature to his own advantage. Prayers, promises, or threats may secure him fine weather and an abundant crop from the gods; and if a god should happen, as he sometimes believes, to become incarnate in his own person, then he need appeal to no higher being; he, the savage, possesses in himself all the powers necessary to further his own well-being and that of his fellow-men." (Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p. 10.)

The notion that the soul exists separate and apart from the body comes down from the most remote period of savagery. The basis of it is quite clear. When we are asleep, the soul appears to leave the body and roam about in dreams. By extension, the similarity between death and sleep ("death’s second self," as Shakespeare expressed it) suggested the idea that the soul could continue to exist after death. Early humans thus concluded that there is something inside them that is separate from their bodies. This is the soul, which commands the body, and can do all kinds of incredible things, even when the body is asleep. They also noticed how words of wisdom issued from the mouths of old people, and concluded that, whereas the body perishes, the soul lives on. To people used to the idea of migration, death was seen as the migration of the soul, which needed food and implements for the journey.

At first these spirits had no fixed abode. They merely wandered about, usually making trouble, which obliged the living to go to extraordinary lengths to appease them. Here we have the origin of religious ceremonies. Eventually, the idea arose that the assistance of these spirits could be enlisted by means of prayer. At this stage, religion (magic), art and science were not differentiated. Lacking the means to gain real power over their environment, early humans attempted to obtain their ends by means of magical intercourse with nature, and thus subject it to their will.

The attitude of early humans to their spirit-gods and fetishes was quite practical. Prayers were intended to get results. A man would make an image with his own hands, and prostrate himself before it. But if the desired result was not forthcoming, he would curse it and beat it, in order to extract by violence what he failed to do by entreaty. In this strange world of dreams and ghosts, this world of religion, the primitive mind saw every happening as the work of unseen spirits. Every bush and stream was a living creature, friendly or hostile. Every chance event, every dream, pain or sensation, was caused by a spirit. Religious explanations filled the gap left by lack of knowledge of the laws of nature. Even death was not seen as a natural occurrence, but a result of some offence caused to the gods.

For the great majority of the existence of the human race, the minds of men and women have been full of this kind of thing. And not only in what people like to regard as primitive societies. The same kind of superstitious beliefs continue to exist, in slightly different guises, today. Beneath the thin veneer of civilisation, lurk primitive irrational tendencies and ideas which have their roots in a remote past which has been half-forgotten, but is not yet overcome. Nor will they be finally rooted out of human consciousness until men and women establish firm control over their conditions of existence.

Division of Labour

Frazer points out that the division between manual and mental labour in primitive society is invariably linked to the formation of a caste of priests, shamans or magicians:

"Social progress, as we know, consists mainly in a successive differentiation of functions, or, in simpler language, a division of labour. The work which in primitive society is done by all alike and by all equally ill, or nearly so, is gradually distributed among different classes of workers and executed more and more perfectly; and so far as the products, material or immaterial, of his specialised labour are shared by all, the whole community benefits by the increasing specialisation. Now magicians or medicine-men appear to constitute the oldest artificial or professional class in the evolution of society. For sorcerers are found in every savage tribe known to us; and among the lowest savages, such as the Australian aborigines, they are the only professional class that exists." (Frazer, The Golden Bough, p. 104.)

The dualism which separates soul from body, mind from matter, thinking from doing, received a powerful impulse from the development of the division of labour at a given stage of social evolution. The separation between mental and manual labour is a phenomenon which coincides with the division of society into classes. It marked a great advance in human development. For the first time, a minority of society was freed from the necessity to work to obtain the essentials of existence. The possession of that most precious commodity, leisure, meant that men could devote their lives to the study of the stars. As the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach explains, real theoretical science begins with cosmology:

"The animal is sensible only of the beam which immediately affects life; while man perceives the ray, to him physically indifferent, of the remotest star. Man alone has purely intellectual, disinterested joys and passions; the eye of man alone keeps theoretic festivals. The eye which looks into the starry heavens, which gazes at that light, alike useless and harmless, having nothing in common with the earth and its necessities—this eye sees in that light its own nature, its own origin. The eye is heavenly in its nature. Hence man elevates himself above the earth only with the eye; hence theory begins with the contemplation of the heavens. The first philosophers were astronomers." (Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p. 5.)

Although at this early stage this was still mixed up with religion, and the requirements and interests of a priest caste, it also signified the birth of human civilisation. This was already understood by Aristotle, who wrote:

"These theoretical arts, moreover, were evolved in places where men had plenty of free time: mathematics, for example, originated in Egypt, where a priestly caste enjoyed the necessary leisure." (Metaphysics, p. 53.)

Knowledge is a source of power. In any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a few, that minority will use and abuse its power in its own interests. The annual flooding of the Nile was a matter of life and death to the people of Egypt, whose crops depended on it. The ability of the priests in Egypt to predict, on the basis of astronomical observations, when the Nile would flood its banks must have greatly increased their prestige and power over society. The art of writing, a most powerful invention, was the jealously guarded secret of the priest-caste. As Prigogine and Stengers comment:

"Sumer discovered writing; the Sumerian priests speculated that the future might be written in some hidden way in the events taking place around us in the present. They even systematised this belief, mixing magical and rational elements." (Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, p. 4.)

The further development of the division of labour gave rise to an unbridgeable gulf between the intellectual elite and the majority of humankind, condemned to labour with their hands. The intellectual, whether Babylonian priest or modern theoretical physicist, knows only one kind of labour, mental labour. Over the course of millennia, the superiority of the latter over "crude" manual labour becomes deeply ingrained and acquires the force of a prejudice. Language, words and thoughts become endowed with almost mystical powers. Culture becomes the monopoly of a privileged elite, which jealously guards its secrets, and uses and abuses its position in its own interests.

In ancient times, the intellectual aristocracy made no attempt to conceal its contempt for physical labour. The following extract from an Egyptian text known as The Satire on the Trades, written about 2000 B.C. is supposed to consist of a father’s exhortation to his son, whom he is sending to the Writing School to train as a scribe:

"I have seen how the belaboured man is belaboured—thou shouldst set thy heart in pursuit of writing. And I have observed how one may be rescued from his duties [sic!]—behold, there is nothing which surpasses writing…
"I have seen the metalworker at his work at the mouth of his furnace. His fingers were somewhat like crocodiles; he stank more than fish-roe…
"The small building contractor carries mud…He is dirtier than vines or pigs from treading under his mud. His clothes are stiff with clay…
"The arrow-maker, he is very miserable as he goes out into the desert [to get flint points]. Greater is that which he gives to his donkey than its work thereafter [is worth]…
"The laundry man launders on the [river] bank, a neighbour of the crocodile…
"Behold, there is no profession free of a boss—except for the scribe: he is the boss…
"Behold, there is no scribe who lacks food from the property of the House of the King—life, prosperity, health!…His father and his mother praise god, he being set upon the way of the living. Behold these things—I [have set them] before thee and thy children’s children." (Quoted in M. Donaldson, Children’s Minds, p. 84.)

The same attitude was prevalent among the Greeks:

"What are called the mechanical arts," says Xenaphon, "carry a social stigma and are rightly dishonoured in our cities, for these arts damage the bodies of those who work in them or who act as overseers, by compelling them to a sedentary life and to an indoor life, and, in some cases, to spend the whole day by the fire. This physical degeneration results also in deterioration of the soul. Furthermore, the workers at these trades simply have not got the time to perform the offices of friendship or citizenship. Consequently they are looked upon as bad friends and bad patriots, and in some cities, especially the warlike ones, it is not legal for a citizen to ply a mechanical trade." (Oeconomicus, iv, 203, quoted in Farrington, op. cit., pp. 28-9.)

The radical divorce between mental and manual labour deepens the illusion that ideas, thoughts and words have an independent existence. This misconception lies at the heart of all religion and philosophical idealism.

It was not god who created man after his own image, but, on the contrary, men and womenwho created gods in their own image and likeness. Ludwig Feuerbach said that if birds had a religion, their God would have wings. "Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves. The religious mind does not distinguish between subjective and objective—it has no doubts; it has the faculty, not of discerning other things than itself, but of seeing its own conceptions out of itself as distinct beings." (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, pp. 204-5.) This was already understood by men like Xenophanes of Colophon, who wrote "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods every deed that is shameful and dishonourable among men: stealing and adultery and deceiving each other…The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, and the Thracians theirs grey-eyed and red-haired…If animals could paint and make things, like men, horses and oxen too would fashion the gods in their own image." (Quoted in A. R. Burn, Pelican History of Greece, p. 132.)

The Creation myths which exist in almost all religions invariably take their images from real life, for example, the image of the potter who gives form to formless clay. In the opinion of Gordon Childe, the story of the Creation in the first book of Genesis reflects the fact that, in Mesopotamia the land was indeed separated from the waters "in the Beginning," but not by divine intervention:

"The land on which the great cities of Babylonia were to rise had literally to be created; the prehistoric forerunner of the biblical Erech was built on a sort of platform of reeds, laid crisscross upon the alluvial mud. The Hebrew book of Genesis has familiarised us with much older traditions of the pristine condition of Sumer—a ‘chaos’ in which the boundaries between water and dry land were still fluid. An essential incident in ‘The Creation’ is the separation of these elements. Yet it was no god, but the proto-Sumerian themselves who created the land; they dug channels to water the fields and drain the marsh; they built dykes and mounded platforms to protect men and cattle from the waters and raise them above the flood; they made the first clearings in the reed brakes and explored the channels between them. The tenacity with which the memory of this struggle persisted in tradition is some measure of the exertion imposed upon the ancient Sumerians. Their reward was an assured supply of nourishing dates, a bounteous harvest from the fields they had drained, and permanent pastures for flocks and herds." (G. Childe, Man Makes Himself, pp. 107-8.)

Man’s earliest attempts to explain the world and his place in it were mixed up with mythology. The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk created Order out of Chaos, separating the land from the water, heaven from earth. The biblical Creation myth was taken from the Babylonians by the Jews, and later passed into the culture of Christianity. The true history of scientific thought commences when men and women learn to dispense with mythology, and attempt to obtain a rational understanding of nature, without the intervention of the gods. From that moment, the real struggle for the emancipation of humanity from material and spiritual bondage begins.

A Revolution in Thought

The advent of philosophy represents a genuine revolution in human thought. Like so much of modern civilisation, we owe it to the ancient Greeks. Although important advances were also made by the Indians and Chinese, and later the Arabs, it was the Greeks who developed philosophy and science to its highest point prior to the Renaissance. The history of Greek thought in the four hunded year period, from the middle of the 7th century B.C., constitutes one of the most imposing pages in the annals of human history.

Here we have a long line of heroes who pioneered the development of thought. The Greeks discovered that the world was round, long before Columbus. They explained that humans had evolved from fishes long before Darwin. They made extraordinary discoveries in mathematics, especially geometry, which were not greatly improved upon for one and a half millennia. They invented mechanics and even invented the steam engine.

What was startlingly new about this way of looking at the world was that it was not religious. In complete contrast to the Egyptians and Babylonians, from whom they had learnt a lot, the Greek thinkers did not resort to gods and goddesses to explain natural phenomena. For the first time, men and women sought to explain the workings of nature purely in terms of nature. This was one of the greatest turning-points in the entire history of human thought. True science starts here.

The Birth of Philosophy

Western philosophy was born under the clear blue skies of the early Aegean. The 8th and 7th centuries B.C. was a period of rapid economic expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. These were stirring times. The Greeks of the Ionian islands, which now lie off the coast of Turkey, conducted a thriving trade with Egypt, Babylon and Lydia. The Lydian invention of money was introduced into Europe via Aegina at about 625 B.C., greatly stimulating trade, bringing in its wake great riches for some and indebtedness and slavery for others.

The earliest Greek philosophy represents the true starting point of philosophy. Itt is an attempt to struggle free from the age-old bounds of superstition and myth, to dispense with gods and goddesses, so that, for the first time, human beings could stand face to face with nature and with real men and women.

The economic revolution gave rise to new social contradictions. The breakdown of the old patriarchal society provoked a clash between rich and poor. The old aristocracy was faced with the discontent of the masses and the opposition of the "tyrants," frequently dissident nobles themselves, who were always willing to put themselves at the head of popular risings. A period of instability opened up, in which men and women began to question the old beliefs.

The situation in Athens at this time is described in the following passage:

"In the bad years they (the peasants) had to borrow from rich neighbours; but with the coming of money, this meant that, instead of borrowing a sack of corn in the good old neighbourly way, one had to borrow the price of enough corn to tide one over, before the harvest, when it was cheap; or alternatively, to pay heavy interest, of the kind that raised such indignation at Megara. By 600, while rich men exported to good markets in Aegina or Corinth, poor men were going hungry. Many, too, were losing their land, pledged as security for debts, and even their liberty; for the debtor’s last recourse against the insolvent debtor was to seize him and his family as slaves...The law was harsh; it was rich man’s law." (A. R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, p. 119.)

These laws were put into a code by one Drakon, from which the phrase "Draconian laws" has become proverbial.

The turbulent 6th century B.C. was a period of decline of the Greek Ionian republics of Asia Minor, characterised by social crisis and ferocious class struggle between rich and poor, masters and slaves. "At Miletus, in Asia Minor," writes Rostovtsev, "the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats; then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches." (Quoted in Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 44.)

These conditions were typical of most other Greek cities of Asia Minor, at the time. The heroes of this age had nothing in common with the later idea of the philosopher, isolated from the rest of humanity in his ivory tower. These "wise men" were not only thinkers, but doers, not only theoreticians, but practical men of the world. Of the first of them, Thales of Miletus (c. 640-546 B.C.), we know next to nothing, but it is expressly stated that it was only late in life that he took to philosophy, and that he was also involved in commerce, engineering, geometry and astronomy (he is said to have predicted an eclipse, which must have been the one in 585 B.C.).

What is indisputable is that all the early Greek philosophers were materialists. Turning their backs on mythology, they sought to find a general principle for the workings of nature from an observation of nature itself. The later Greeks refer to them as hylozoists, which can be translated as "those who think that matter is alive." This conception of matter as self-moving is strikingly modern, and far superior to the mechanical physics of the 18th century. Given the absence of modern scientific instruments, their theories frequently had the character of inspired guesswork. But, taking into account the lack of resources, the amazing thing is how close they came to a real understanding of the workings of nature. Thus the philosopher Anaximander (c. 610-545 B.C.) worked out that man and all other animals had developed from a fish, which abandoned water for the land.

It is misleading to suppose that these philosophers were religious just because they used the word "god" (theos) in relation to primary substance. J. Burnet states that it meant no more than the old Homeric epithets like "ageless," "deathless," etc. Even in Homer, the word is used in several different senses. From Hesiod’s Theogeny it is clear that many of the "gods" were never worshipped, but were merely convenient personifications of natural phenomena or even human passions. Primitive religions looked on the heavens as divine and set apart from the earth. The Ionian philosophers radically broke with this standpoint. While basing themselves on the many discoveries of Babylonian and Egyptian cosmology, they rejected the mythical element, which confused astronomy with astrology.

The general tendency of Greek philosophy before Socrates was to search for the underlying principles of nature:

"Nature it was—that which is most immediately present to us, that which lies nearest the eye, that which is palpablest—that first attracted the spirit of inquiry. Under its changeful forms, its multiplex phenomena, there must lie, it was thought, a first and permanent fundamental principle. What is this principle? What precisely, what natural element is the basic element?" (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 6.)

They gave different explanations for this. For example, Thales claimed that the basis of all things is water. This was a great advance for human thought. True, the Babylonians had long before put forward the idea that all things came from water. In their Creation myth, which was the model for the Hebrew story of the Creation in the first book of Genesis. "All lands were sea," says the legend, until Marduk, the Babylonian creator, separated the land from the sea. The difference here is that there is no Marduk, no divine creator standing outside nature. Instead, for the first time, nature is explained in purely materialist terms, that is, in terms of nature itself.

Nor is the idea of nature as reducible to water as far-fetched as it might appear. Apart from the fact that the great majority of the earth’s surface is made up of water, something the Ionian Greeks above all were aware of, water is essential for all forms of life. The bulk of our body consists of water, and we would quickly die if deprived of it. Moreover, water changes its forms, passing from a liquid to a solid, to a vapour. On this Burnet comments:

"Nor is it hard to see how the meteorological considerations may have led Thales to adopt the views he did. Of all the things we know, water seems to take the most various shapes. It is familiar to us in a solid, a liquid, and a vaporous form, and so, Thales may well have thought he saw the world-process from water and back to water again going on before his eyes. The phenomenon of evaporation naturally suggests that the fire of the heavenly bodies is kept up by the moisture they draw from the sea. Even at the present day, people speak of the ‘sun drawing up water.’ Water comes down again in rain; and lastly, so the early cosmologists thought, it turns to earth. This may have seemed natural enough to men who were familiar with the rivers of Egypt which had formed the Delta, and the torrents of Asia Minor which bring down large alluvial deposits." (J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers, p. 49.)

Anaximander

Thales was followed by others philosophers who advanced different theories as to the basic structure of matter. Anaximander is said to have come from Samos, where the famous Pythagoras also lived. He is said to have written about nature, the fixed stars, the earth’s sphere and other matters. He produced something like a map, showing the boundary of land and sea, and was responsible for a number of mathematical inventions, including a sun dial and an astronomical chart.

Like Thales, Anaximander considered what the nature of reality was. Like him, he approached this question from a strictly materialist point of view, without recourse to the gods or any supernatural elements. But, unlike his contemporary, Thales, he did not seek to find the answer in a particular form of matter, such as water. According to Diogenes, "He adduced the Infinite (the indetermined) as the principle and element; he neither determined it as water, air or any such thing." (Quoted in Hegel’s History of Philosophy, Vol. one, p. 185.) And again, "It is the principle of all becoming and passing away; at long intervals infinite worlds or gods rise out of it, and again they pass away into the same." (Ibid.)

This put the study of the universe on a scientific footing for the first time, and enabled the early Greek philosophers to make outstanding discoveries, far in advance of their time. They first discovered that the world is round and does not rest on anything, that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but revolves with the other planets round the centre. According to another contemporary, Hippolitos, Anaximander said that the earth swings free, held in place by nothing, because it is equidistant from everything, and is round in shape and hollow, like a pillar, so that we are on one side of the earth, and others on the other. They also discovered the true theory of lunar and solar eclipses.

With all their gaps and deficiencies, these ideas represent a startlingly bold and original conception of nature and the universe, certainly far nearer to the truth than the blinkered mysticism of the Middle Ages, when human thought was again shackled by religious dogma. Moreover, these important advances were not merely the result of guesswork, but the result of careful thought, investigation and experiment. 2,000 years before Darwin, Anaximander anticipated the theory of evolution, with his amazing discoveries in marine biology. The historian A. R. Burn believes that this was no accident, but the result of scientific investigation: "It looks as though he had made observations on embryos and also on fossils, as one of his successors certainly did; but we are not positively told." (A. R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, p. 130.)

Anaximander effected a great revolution in human thought. Instead of limiting himself to this or that concrete form of matter, he arrived at the concept of matter in general, matter as a philosophical concept. This universal substance is eternal and infinite, constantly changing and evolving. All the myriad forms of being we perceive through our senses are different expressions of the same basic substance. This idea was so novel that for many it proved incomprehensible. Plutarch complained that Anaximander did not specify which one of the elements his Infinite was—water, earth, air or fire. But precisely in this lay the epoch-making character of the theory.

Anaximenes

The last of the great trio of Ionian materialists was Anaximenes (c. 585-528 B.C.). He is said to have been born when Thales "flourished," and to have "flourished" when Thales died. He was younger than Anaximander. Unlike Anaximander, and following Thales, he took a single element—"air"—as the absolute substance, from which everything comes forth and to which everything is ultimately reduced. In fact, Anaximenes’ use of the word "air" (aer) differs substantially from the modern usage. It includes vapour, mist and even darkness. Many translators prefer the word "mist."

At first sight, this idea represents a step back in comparison to the position of matter in general arrived at by Anaximander. In fact, his world-view was a step forward.

Anaximenes attempted to show how "air," the universal substance, becomes transformed through a process of what he called rarification and condensation. When it is rarefied, it becomes fire, when condensed, wind. By further condensation, we get clouds, water, earth and stones. But although in details his view of the universe compares unfavourably with that of Anaximander (he thought the world was shaped like a table, for instance), nevertheless, his philosophy represented an advance, inasmuch as he tried to move beyond a general statement of the nature of matter. He attempted to give it a more precise determination, not only qualitatively, but quantitatively, through the process of rarification and condensation. In the words of professor Farrington:

"Observe, in following this succession of thinkers, how their logic, their stock of ideas, their power of abstraction, increase as they grapple with their problem. It was a great advance in human thinking when Thales reduced the manifold appearances of things to one First Principle. Another great step was taken when Anaximander chose, as his First Principle, not a visible form of things like water, but a concept like the Indeterminate. But Anaximenes was still not content. When Anaximander sought to explain how the different things emerged from the Indeterminate, he gave a reply that was a mere metaphor. He said it was a process of ‘separating out.’ Anaximenes felt that something more was needed, and came forward with the complementary ideas of Rarification and Condensation, which offered an explanation of how quantitative changes could produce qualitative ones." (B. Farrington, op. cit., p. 39.)

Given the existing level of technique, it was impossible for Anaximenes to arrive at a more precise characterisation of the phenomena under consideration. It is easy to point to the deficiencies and even absurdities of his views. But this would miss the point. The early Greek philosophers cannot be blamed for failing to provide their world picture with a detailed content, which was only possible on the basis of over 2,000 years of subsequent economic, technological and scientific advance. These great pioneers of human thought rendered humanity the unique service of breaking away from the age-old habits of religious superstition, and thereby laid the foundation without which all scientific and cultural advance would have been unthinkable.

Moreover, the general view of the universe and nature elaborated by these great revolutionary thinkers was in many respects close to the truth. Their problem was that, given the level of development of production and technology, they did not have the means of testing their hypotheses, and putting them on a solid footing. They anticipated many things which could only be fully worked out by modern science, resting on a far higher development of science and technique. Thus, for Anaximenes, "air" is only shorthand for matter in its simplest, most basic form. As Erwin Schr�dinger, one of the founders of modern physics shrewdly remarked: "Had he said dissociated hydrogen gas," (which he could hardly be expected to say), "he would not be so far from our present view." (Quoted in A. R. Burn, op. cit., p. 131.)

The earlier Ionian philosophers of nature had probably gone as far as they could to explain the workings of nature by means of speculative reason. These were truly great generalisations, which pointed in the right direction. But, in order to carry the process further, it was necessary to examine things in greater detail, to proceed to analyse nature piece by piece. This was later begun by Aristotle and the Alexandrine Greek thinkers. But an important part of this task was to consider nature from a quantitative point of view. Here the Pythagorean philosophers undoubtedly played a major role.

Already Anaximenes had pointed in this direction, in attempting to pose the question of the relation between changes of quantity and quality in nature (rarification and condensation). But this method had by now reached its limits and exhausted itself. As J. D. Bernal puts it: "The triumph of the Ionian school was that it had set up a picture of how the universe had come into being and how it worked without the intervention of gods or design. Its basic weakness was its vagueness and qualitative character. By itself it could lead nowhere; nothing could be done with it. What was needed was the introduction of number and quantity into philosophy." (J. D. Bernal, Science in History, p. 122.)

From Materialism to Idealism

The period of the ascent of ancient Greek philosophy was characterised by a profound crisis of society, marked by a general questioning of the old beliefs, including the established religion. The crisis of religious belief gave rise to atheist tendencies, and the birth of a genuinely scientific outlook, based on materialism. However, as always in society, the process took place in a contradictory way. Alongside the rationalist and scientific tendencies, we also see the opposite—a growing trend towards mysticism and irrationality. A very similar phenomenon occurred at the time of the crisis of Roman society, in the last period of the republic, with the rapid spread of oriental religions, of which Christianity was originally only one among many.

To the mass of peasants and slaves, living in a time of social crisis, the gods of Olympus seemed remote. This was a religion for the upper classes. There was no prospect of a future reward for present suffering in the after-life. The Greek underworld was a cheerless place inhabited by lost souls. The newer cults, with their mimetic dancing and choral singing (the real origin of Greek tragedy), their mysteries (from the verb "myo," meaning to keep your mouth shut), and the promise of life after death, was far more attractive to the masses. Particularly popular was the cult of Dionysius, the god of wine (known to the Romans as Bacchus), which involved drunken orgies. This was much more appealing than the old gods of Olympia.

As in the period of decline of the Roman empire, and in the present period of capitalist decline, there was a spread of all kinds of mystery cults, mixed with new exotic rites imported from Thrace and Asia Minor and possibly Egypt. Of particular importance was the cult of Orpheus, a refinement of the cult of Dionysius, with many points in common with the Pythagorean movement. Like the Pythagoreans, the followers of the cult of Orpheus believed in the transmigration of souls. They had rites of purification, including abstaining from meat, except for sacramental purposes. Their view of man was based on dualism—the idea of the cleavage of body and soul. For them, man was partly of heaven, partly of earth.

So close are these ideas to the Pythagorean doctrines that some authors, such as Bury, maintain that the Pythagoreans were really a branch of the Orphean movement. This is an exaggeration. Despite its mystical elements, the Pythagorean school made an important contribution to the development of human thought, especially mathematics. It cannot be dismissed as a religious sect. Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the idealist conceptions of Pythagoreanism are not just an echo of a religious world outlook, but stem directly from it. Bertrand Russell traces the development of idealism back to the mysticism of the Orphean religion:

"This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was a reformer of orpheanism as Orpheus was a reformer of the religion of Dionysius. From Pythagoras Orphic elements entered into the philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most later philosophy that was in any degree religious." (Russell, op. cit., p. 39.)

The division between mental and manual labour reaches an extreme expression with the growth of slavery. This phenomenon was directly related to the spread of Orphism. Slavery is an extreme form of alienation. Under capitalism, the "free" worker alienates himself from his labour-power, which presents itself to him as a separate and hostile force—capital. Under slavery, however, the slave loses his very existence as a human being. He is nothing. Not a person, but a "tool with a voice." The product of his labour, his body, his mind, his soul are the property of another, who disposes of them without regard to his wishes. The unfulfilled desires of the slave, his extreme alienation from the world and himself, gives rise to a feeling of rejection towards the world and all its works. The material world is evil. Life is a vale of tears. Happiness is not to be found there, only in death, which gives release from toil. The soul, freed from its prison in the body, can become free.

In all periods of social decline, men and women have two options: either to confront reality, and fight to change it, or to accept that there is no way out, and resign themselves to their fate. These two contrasting outlooks are inevitably reflected in two antagonistic philosophies—materialism and idealism. If we desire to change the world, it is necessary to understand it. We must look reality in the face. The cheerful optimism of the early Greek materialists was typical of this outlook. They wanted to know. Later, all that changed. The break-up of the old order, the rise of slavery and a general sense of insecurity led to a certain introversion and pessimism. In the absence of a clear alternative, the tendency to look away from reality, to seek individual salvation in mysticism, gradually gained ground. The lower orders looked to mystery cults, like those of Demeter, giver of corn, Dionysius, giver of wine, and later the cult of Orpheus. But the upper classes were not immune to the problems of the period. These were troubled times. Prosperous cities could be turned to ashes overnight, and their citizens killed or sold into slavery.

The city of Sybaris, Croton’s powerful commercial rival, was renowned for its wealth and luxury. So wealthy were the upper class that all kind of tall stories were told about the "sybarite" life style. A typical example was the young Sybarite who, upon rising, complained of a crumpled rose-leaf in his bed. It is said that they piped their wine to the quay. Allowing for an element of exaggeration, it is clear that this was a most prosperous city, where the rich lived a life of great luxury. However, the growth of inequality gave rise to a ferocious class struggle.

This was a period in which the division of labour was enormously intensified, accompanied by the rapid growth of slavery, and an ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor. The industrial and residential quarters were completely segregated. But high walls and guards did not save the rich citizens of Sybaris. As in other city states, a revolution erupted, in which the "tyrant," Telys, seized power with the support of the masses. This gave Croton the excuse to declare war on its rival, at a moment when it was weakened by internal divisions. After a seventy day campaign, the city fell into their hands. A. R. Burn comments: "They utterly destroyed it, turning the local river across its site, while survivors scattered, largely to the west coast. The particular savagery of this war is more easily understood when it is seen as a class war." (A. R. Burn, op. cit., p. 140.)

It is in this specific context that we must see the rise of the Pythagorean school of philosophy. As in the period of decline of the Roman Empire, a section of the ruling class was filled with a feeling of anxiety, fear and perplexity. The old gods offered no solace or hope of delivery, either to rich or poor. Even the good things in life lost some of their appeal to men and women who felt they were sitting on the edge of an abyss. Under such conditions of general insecurity, when even the strongest and most prosperous states could be overthrown in a short time, the doctrines of Pythagoras struck a chord with a section of the ruling class, despite their ascetic character, or even because of it. The esoteric and intellectual nature of this movement gave it no appeal to the masses, where the Orphic cult had gained a huge following.

Pythagoras and His School

It is safer to speak of the school rather than of its founder, since it is difficult to disentangle the philosophy of Pythagoras from the myths and obscurantism of his followers. No written fragments of his have survived, and it is doubtful if they ever existed. Even the existence of Pythagoras has been questioned. However, the influence of his school on Greek thought was profound.

Pythagoras is said to have been a native of the island of Samos, a thriving commercial power, like Miletus. Its local dictator ("tyrant"), Polycrates, had overthrown the landed aristocracy and was ruling with the support of the merchant class. Of him, the historian Herodotos reports that he robbed all men indiscriminately, for he said that his friends were more grateful if he gave them their property back than they would have been if he had never taken it! In his youth, Pythagoras apparently worked as a "philo-sophos" (lover of wisdom) under the patronage of Polycrates. He travelled to Phoenicia and Egypt, where he is said to have been initiated into an Egyptian priest caste. In 530 B.C., he fled to Croton in southern Italy to escape from civil strife and the threat posed by the Persians to Ionia.

The luxuriant overgrowth of myth and fable makes it almost impossible to say anything certain about the man. His school certainly was a remarkable mixture of mathematical and scientific investigation and a religious-monastic sect. The community was run on monastic lines, with strict rules which included, for instance: not to eat beans; not to pick up what was fallen; not to stir the fire with iron; not to step over a crowbar, etc. The whole idea was to escape from the world, to seek salvation in a life of peaceful contemplation based on mathematics, which was invested with supposedly mystical qualities. Probably reflecting oriental influences, the Pythagoreans also preached the transmigration of souls.

In contrast to the cheerful worldliness of the Ionian materialists, here we have all the elements of the later idealist world outlook later developed by Plato, and taken over by Christianity, which bedevilled the growth of the spirit of scientific inquiry for many centuries. The moving spirit behind this ideology is aptly expressed by J. Burnet in the following lines:

"We are strangers in this world, and the body is the tomb of the soul, and yet we must not seek to escape by self-murder: for we are the chattels of God who is our herdsman, and without His command we have no right to make our escape. In this life, there are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest class is made up of those who come to buy and sell, the next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all, however, are those who simply come to look on. The greatest purification of all is, therefore, disinterested science, and it is the man who devotes himself to that, the true philosopher, who has most effectively released himself from the ‘wheel of birth.’" (Quoted in Russell, op. cit., p. 52.)

This philosophy, with its strong elitist and monastic overtones, proved popular with the wealthy classes of Croton, although how many really gave up eating beans, or anything else, may be open to doubt! The common thread in all this is the radical separation of the soul from the body. This idea, with its roots in a prehistoric conception of man’s place in nature, has been passed down in different forms throughout history. It even resurfaces in one of the Hippocratic treatises:

"When the body is awake, the soul is not her own mistress but serves the body, her attention divided between the various bodily senses—sight, hearing, touch, waking and all bodily actions—which deprive the mind of its independence. But, when the body is at rest, the soul wakes and stirs and keeps her own house, and carries out herself all the activities of the body. In sleep the body does not feel, but the soul awake knows everything; she sees what is to be seen, hears what has to be heard, walks, touches, grieves, remembers—in a word, all the functions of body and soul alike are performed in sleep by the soul. And therefore anyone who knows how to interpret these matters possesses a great part of wisdom."

In contrast to the Ionian materialist philosophers, who deliberately turned their backs on religion and mythology, the Pythagoreans took over the idea of the Orphic mystery cult that the soul could free itself from the body by means of an "ecstasy" (the word ekstasis means "stepping out"). Only when the soul left the prison of the body was it deemed to express its true nature. Death was life and life was death. Thus, from its inception, philosophical idealism, in common with its Siamese twin, religion, represented an inversion of the real relation between thought and being, man and nature, people and things, which has persisted down to the present time, in one form or another, with the most pernicious results.

The Pythagorean Doctrine

In spite of its mystical character, the Pythagorean doctrine marked a step forward in the development of philosophy. There is nothing strange about this. In the evolution of human thought, there are many instances in which the pursuit of irrational and unscientific goals nevertheless have furthered the cause of science. For centuries, the alchemists exerted themselves fruitlessly in an attempt to discover the "philosopher’s stone." This ended in failure. But in the process, they made extremely important discoveries in the field of experiment which provided the basis upon which modern science, especially chemistry, later developed.

The basic tendency of Ionian philosophy was an attempt to generalise from the experience of the real world. Pythagoras and his followers attempted to arrive at an understanding of the nature of things by a different route. Schwegler puts it thus:

"We have the same abstraction, but on a higher stage, when the sensuous concretion of matter in general is looked away from; when attention is turned no longer to the qualitative aspect of matter, as water, air, etc., but to its quantitative measure and relations; when reflection is directed, not to the material, but to the form and order of things as they exist in space." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 11.)

The progress of human thought in general is closely linked to the capacity to make abstractions from reality, to be able to draw general conclusions from a host of particulars. Since reality is many-sided, it is possible to interpret it in many different ways, reflecting this or that element of the truth. This we see many times in the history of philosophy, where great thinkers laid hold of one aspect of reality, and held it up as an absolute and final truth, only to be swept away by the next generation of thinkers, who in turn repeat the process. Yet the rise and fall of great philosophical schools and scientific theories represents the development and enrichment of human thought by a process of endless successive approximations.

The Pythagoreans approached the world from the standpoint of number and quantity relations. For Pythagoras, "all things are numbers." This idea was linked to the search for the underlying harmony of the universe. They believed that number was the element out of which all things developed. Despite the mystical element, they made important discoveries which greatly stimulated the development of mathematics, especially geometry. They invented the terms odd and even numbers, odd numbers being male and even ones female. Since no women were allowed in the community, they naturally declared odd numbers to be divine and even ones earthly! Likewise, our terms squares and cubes of numbers come from the Pythagoreans, who also discovered harmonic progression in the musical scale, linking the length of a string and the pitch of its vibrating note.

These important discoveries were not put to any practical use by the Pythagoreans, who were interested in geometry purely from an abstract mystical point of view. Yet they had a determining influence on subsequent thought. The mystique of mathematics as an esoteric subject, inaccessible to ordinary mortals, has persisted down to the present day. It was transmitted through the idealist philosophy of Plato, who placed over the entrance of his school the inscription: "Let no man destitute of geometry enter my doors."

"The cosmology of the Pythagoreans," writes professor Farrington, "is very curious and very important. They did not, like the Ionians, try to describe the universe in terms of the behaviour of certain material elements and physical processes. They described it exclusively in terms of number. Aristotle said long afterwards that they took number to be the matter as well as the form of the universe. Numbers constituted the actual stuff of which their world was made. They called a point One, a line Two, a surface Three, a solid Four, according to the minimum number of points necessary to define each of these dimensions." (Farrington, op. cit., p. 47.) They attached magical significance to particular numbers—three, four, seven. Of particular significance was the number ten which is the sum of 1, 2, 3, and 4. These superstitions still persist in the Holy Trinity, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the seven deadly sins, and the like. "It is also apparent," adds Bernal, "in modern mathematical physics whenever its adepts try to make god the supreme mathematician." (Bernal, op. cit., p. 124.)

The history of science is characterised by the most fierce partisanship, at times bordering on fanaticism, in defence of particular schools of thought, which put themselves forward as the protagonists of an absolute truth, and who do in fact embody the maximum point reached by human knowledge at a given point in time. Only the further development of science itself reveals the limitations and inner contradictions of a given theory, which is then negated by its opposite, which is itself negated, and so on ad infinitum. This process is precisely the dialectic of the history of science, which for centuries proceeded in tandem with the history of philosophy, and initially was virtually indistinguishable from it.

"All Things Are Numbers"

The development of the quantitative side of investigating nature was obviously of crucial importance. Without it, science would have remained on the level of mere generalities incapable of further development. However, when such a breakthrough takes place, there is inevitably a tendency to make exaggerated claims on its behalf. This is particularly true in this case, where science is still entangled with religion.

The Pythagoreans saw number—quantitative relations—as the essence of all things. "All things are numbers." Indeed, it is possible to explain many natural phenomena in mathematical terms. Nevertheless, even the most advanced mathematical models are only approximations of the real world. The inadequacy of the purely quantitative approach, however, was evident long ago. G. W. F. Hegel, who, as a convinced idealist and a formidable mathematician, might have been expected to be enthusiastic about the Pythagorean school, however, this was far from the case. Hegel poured scorn on the idea that the world could be reduced to quantitative relations.

From Pythagoras onwards, the most extravagant claims have been made on behalf of mathematics, which has been portrayed as the queen of the sciences, the magic key opening all doors of the universe. Breaking free from all contact with crude material reality, mathematics appeared to soar into the heavens, where it acquired a god-like existence, obeying no rule but its own. Thus, the great mathematician Henri PoincarŽ, in the early years of this century, could claim that the laws of science did not relate to the real world at all, but represented arbitrary conventions destined to promote a more convenient and "useful" description of the corresponding phenomena. Many physicists now openly state that the validity of their mathematical models does not depend upon empirical verification, but on the aesthetic qualities of their equations.

Thus, the theories of mathematics have been, on the one side, the source of tremendous scientific advance, and, on the other, the origin of numerous errors and misconceptions which have had, and are still having profoundly negative consequences. The central error is to attempt to reduce the complex, dynamic and contradictory workings of nature to static, orderly quantitative formulae. Starting with the Pythagoreans, nature is presented in a formalistic manner, as a single-dimentional point, which becomes a line, which becomes a plane, a cube, a sphere, and so on. At first sight, the world of pure mathematics is one of absolute thought, unsullied by contact with material things. But this is far from the truth, as Engels points out. We use the decimal system, not because of logical deduction or "free will," but because we have ten fingers. The word "digital" comes from the Latin word for fingers. And to this day, a schoolboy will secretly count his material fingers beneath a material desk, before arriving at the answer to an abstract mathematical problem. In so doing, the child is unconsciously retracing the way in which early humans learned to count.

The material origins of the abstractions of mathematics were no secret to Aristotle: "The mathematician," he wrote, "investigates abstractions. He eliminates all sensible qualities like weight, density, temperature, etc., leaving only the quantitative and continuous (in one, two or three dimensions) and its essential attributes." (Metaphysics, p. 120.) Elsewhere he says: "Mathematical objects cannot exist apart from sensible (i.e., material) things." (Ibid, p. 251.) And, "We have no experience of anything which consists of lines or planes or points, as we should have if these things were material substances, lines, etc., may be prior in definition to body, but they are not on that account prior in substance." (Ibid, p. 253.)

The development of mathematics is the result of very material human needs. Early man at first had only ten number sounds, precisely because he counted, like a small child, on his fingers. The exception were the Mayas of Central America who had a numerical system based on twenty instead of ten, probably because they counted their toes as well as their fingers. Early man, living in a simple hunter-gatherer society, without money or private property, had no need of large numbers. To convey a number larger than ten, he merely combined some of the ten sounds connected with his fingers. Thus, one more than ten is expressed by "one-ten," (undecim, in Latin, or ein-lifon—"one over"—in early Teutonic, which becomes eleven in modern English). All the other numbers are only combinations of the original ten sounds, with the exception of five additions—hundred, thousand, million, billion and trillion.

The real origin of numbers was already understood by the great English materialist philosopher of the 17th century Thomas Hobbes: "And it seems, there was a time when those names of number were not in use; and men were fayn to apply their fingers of one or both hands, to those things they desired to keep account of; and that thence it proceeded, that now our numerall words are but ten, in any Nation, and in some but five, and then they begin again." (Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 14.)

Alfred Hooper explains: "Just because primitive man invented the same number of number-sounds as he had fingers, our number-scale today is a decimal one, that is, a scale based on ten, and consisting of endless repetitions of the first ten basic number-sounds…Had men been given twelve fingers instead of ten, we should doubtless have a duo-decimal number-scale today, one based on twelve, consisting of endless repetitions of twelve basic number-sounds." (A. Hooper, Makers of Mathematics, p. 4-5.) In fact, a duodecimal system has certain advantages in comparison to the decimal one. Whereas ten can only be exactly divided by two and five, twelve can be divided exactly by two, three, four and six.

The Roman numerals are pictorial representations of fingers. Probably the symbol for five represented the gap between thumb and fingers. The word "calculus" (from which we derive "calculate") means "pebble" in Latin, connected with the method of counting stone beads on an abacus. These, and countless other examples serve to illustrate how mathematics did not arise from the free operation of the human mind, but is the product of a lengthy process of social evolution, trial and error, observation and experiment, which gradually becomes separated out as a body of knowledge of an apparently abstract character.

Similarly, our present systems of weights and measures have been derived from material objects. The origin of the English unit of measurement, the foot, is self-evident, as is the Spanish word for an inch, "pulgada," which means a thumb. The origin of the most basic mathematical symbols + and - has nothing to do with mathematics. They were the signs used in the Middle Ages by the merchants to calculate excess or deficiency of quantities of goods in warehouses.

The need to build dwellings to protect themselves from the elements forced early man to find the best and most practical way of cutting wood so that their ends fitted closely together. This meant the discovery of the right angle and the carpenters’ square. The need to build a house on level ground led to the invention of the kind of levelling instrument depicted in Egyptian and Roman tombs, consisting of three pieces of wood joined together in an isosceles triangle, with a cord fastened at the apex. Such simple practical tools were used in the construction of the pyramids. The Egyptian priests accumulated a huge body of mathematical knowledge derived ultimately from such practical activity.

The very word "geometry" betrays its practical origins. It means simply "earth-measurement." The virtue of the Greeks was to give a finished theoretical expression to these discoveries. However, in presenting their theorems as the pure product of logical deduction, they were misleading themselves and future generations. Ultimately, mathematics derives from material reality, and, indeed, could have no application if this were not the case. Even the famous theorem of Pythagoras, known to every school pupil, that a square drawn on the longest side of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares drawn on the other two sides, had been already worked out in practice by the Egyptians.

The Pythagoreans, breaking with the Ionian materialist tradition which attempted to generalise on the basis of experience of the real world, asserted that the higher truths of mathematics could not be derived from the world of sensuous experience, but only from the workings of pure reason, by deduction. Beginning with certain first principles, which have to be taken as true, the philosopher argues them through a series of logical stages until he arrives at a conclusion, using only facts that are agreed first principles, or are derived from such. This was known as a priori reasoning, from the Latin phrase denoting "from what comes first."

Using deduction and a priori reasoning, the Pythagoreans attempted to establish a model of the universe based on perfect forms and governed by divine harmony. The problem is that the forms of the real world are anything but perfect. For instance, they thought that the heavenly bodies were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles. This was a revolutionary advance for its time, but neither of these assertions is really true. The attempt to impose a perfect harmony on the universe, to free it from contradiction, soon broke down even in mathematical terms. Internal contradictions began to surface which led to a crisis of the Pythagorean school.

About the middle of the 5th century, Hippius of Metapontum discovered that the quantitative relations between the side and the diagonal of simple figures like the square and the regular pentagon are incommensurable, that is, they cannot be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers, no matter how great. The square root of two cannot be expressed by any number. It is, in fact, what mathematicians call an "irrational" number. This discovery threw the whole theory into confusion. Hitherto, the Pythagoreans had taught that the world was constructed out of points with magnitude. While it might not be possible to say how many points there were on a given line, still they were assumed to be finite in number. Now if the diagonal and the side of a square are incommensurable, it follows that lines are infinitely divisible, and that the little points from which the universe was built do not exist.

From that time on, the Pythagorean school entered into decline. It split into two rival factions, one of which buried itself in ever more abstruse mathematical speculation, while the other attempted to overcome the contradiction by means of ingenious mathematical innovations which laid the basis for the development of the quantitative sciences.

{mospagebreak title=Chapter 2 - The First Dialecticians} 

Chapter 2 - The First Dialecticians 

Over a hundred years after Darwin, the idea that everything changes is generally accepted among educated people. It was not always so. The theory of evolution by natural selection had to fight a long and bitter struggle against those who defended the biblical view that god created all species in seven days, and that the species were fixed and immutable. For many centuries, the Church dominated science and taught that the earth was fixed at the centre of the universe. Those who disagreed were burnt at the stake.

Even today, however, the idea of change is understood in a one-sided and superficial way. Evolution is interpreted to mean slow, gradual change which precludes sudden leaps. Contradictions are not supposed to exist in nature, and where they arise in human thought are attributed to subjective error. In point of fact, contradictions abound in nature at all levels, and are the basis of all movement and change. This fact was understood by thinkers from the earliest times. It is reflected in some elements of Buddhist philosophy. It underlies the ancient Chinese idea of the principles of ying and yang. In the 4th century B.C., Hui Shih wrote the following lines:

"The sky is as low as the earth; mountains are level with marshes.
The sun is just setting at noon; each creature is just dying at birth."
(Quoted in G. Thomson, The First Philosophers, p. 69.)

Compare this to the following fragments of the founder of Greek dialectical philosophy, Heraclitus (c. 544-484 B.C.):

"Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire;
Water lives the death of earth, and earth lives the death of water." And
 "It is the same thing in us that is living and dead, asleep and awake, young and old; each changes place and becomes the other."
"We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and are not."

With Heraclitus, the contradictory assertions of the Ionian philosophers for the first time are given a dialectical expression. "Here we see land," commented Hegel, "There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. one, p. 279.)

For all his importance, Heraclitus’ philosophy has only come down to us in about 130 fragments, written in a difficult aphoristic style. Even in his lifetime, Heraclitus was known as "the Dark" for the obscurity of his sayings. It is almost as if he deliberately chose to make his philosophy inaccessible. Socrates wryly commented that "what he understood was excellent, what not he believed to be equally so, but that the book required a tough swimmer." (Schwegler, p. 20.)

In Anti-Dühring, Engels gives the following appraisal of Heraclitus’ dialectical world outlook:

"When we reflect on nature or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless maze of connections and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. (At first, therefore, we see the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change and are connected.) This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away." (Engels, op. cit., p. 24.)

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus in the violent period of the 5th century B.C., a period of war and civil strife. Little is known of his life, except that he came from an aristocratic family. But the nature of the period in which he lived is well reflected in one of his fragments: "War is the father of all things and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free." (The fragments are here quoted throughout from the Baywater edition, reproduced in Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophers.) But Heraclitus here does not just refer to war in human society, but to the role of inner contradiction at all levels of nature as well. Indeed, it is better translated as "strife." He states that: "We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife." All things contain a contradiction, which impels their development. Indeed, without contradiction, there would be no movement and no life.

Heraclitus was the first to give a clear exposition of the idea of the unity of opposites. The Pythagoreans, in fact, had worked out a table of ten antitheses:

1) The finite and the infinite
2) The odd and the even
3) The one and the many
4) The right and the left
5) The male and the female
6) The quiescent and the moving
7) The straight and the crooked
8) Light and darkness
9) Good and evil
10) The square and the parallelogram

These are important concepts, but they were not developed by the Pythagoreans, who satisfied themselves with a mere enumeration. In fact, the Pythagoreans had the position of the fusion of opposites through a "mean," eliminating contradiction by seeking the middle ground. Polemicising against this view, Heraclitus uses a most striking and beautiful image: "Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre." Contradiction lies at the root of everything. The desire to eliminate contradiction would actually presuppose the elimination of all movement and life, consequently, "Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…"

These are profound thoughts, but are clearly at variance to everyday experience and "common sense." How can something be itself and something else at the same time? How can a thing be both alive and dead? On this kind of argument, Heraclitus poured scorn: "It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word, and to confess that all things are one." "Though this Word is true evermore, yet men are unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance to this Word, men seem as if they have no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it truly is. But other men know not what they are doing when they awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep." "Fools when they do hear are like the deaf; of them does the saying bear witness that they are absent when present." "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand their language."

What does this mean? The Greek for Word is "Logos," from which logic is derived. Despite its mystical appearance, Heraclitus’ opening remark is an appeal to rational objectivity. Do not listen to me, he is saying, but to the objective laws of nature which I describe. That is the essential meaning. And "all things are one?" Throughout the history of philosophy, there have been two ways of interpreting reality—either as one single substance, embodied in different forms (monism, from the Greek word meaning single); or as two entirely different substances, spirit and matter (known as dualism). The early Greek philosophers were materialist monists. Latter, the Pythagorians adopted a dualist position, based upon a supposedly unbridgeable gulf between mind (spirit) and matter. This is the hallmark of all idealism. As we have seen, it has its roots in the primitive superstitions of savages who believed that the soul left the body in dreams.

The above passage is a polemic against the philosophical dualism of the Pythagoreans, against which Heraclitus defends the position of earlier Ionic monism—that there is an underlying material unity of nature. The universe has not been created, but has always existed, in a process of continuous flux and change, whereby things change into their opposites, cause becomes effect, and effect cause. Thus contradiction lies at the root of everything. In order to get at the truth, it is necessary to go beyond the appearances, and lay bear the inner conflicting tendencies of a given phenomenon, in order to understand its inner motive forces.

The ordinary intelligence, by contrast, is content to take things at face value, the reality of sense perception, the "given," the "facts," are accepted without more ado. However, such perception is at best limited, and can be the source of endless errors. To give just one example—for "sound common sense" the world is flat, and the sun goes around the earth. The true nature of things is not always evident. As Heraclitus puts it, "nature loves to hide." In order to arrive at the truth, it is necessary to know how to interpret the information of the senses. "If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it," he wrote, and again, "Those who seek for gold dig up much earth and find a little."

"Everything flows," was the basis of his philosophy, "You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." This was a dynamic view of the universe, the exact opposite of the static idealist conception of the Pythagoreans. And when Heraclitus looked for a material substance to underpin the universe, following in the footsteps of Thales and Anaximenes, he chose that most elusive and fleeting element, fire.

The idea that everything is in a constant state of flux, that there is nothing fixed and permanent, except motion and change, is an uncomfortable one for the ordinary cast of mind to accept. Human thinking is, in general, innately conservative. The desire to cling to what is solid, concrete and reliable is rooted in a profound instinct, akin to that of self-preservation. The hope for an after life, the belief in an immortal soul, flows from a rejection of the fact that all things come into existence, and also pass away—"panda rhei," everything flows. Man has stubbornly sought to attain freedom by denying the laws of nature, inventing certain imaginary privileges for himself. True freedom, however, as Hegel explained, consists in correctly understanding these laws, and acting accordingly. It was the great role of Heraclitus to provide the first more or less fully worked-out picture of the dialectical world outlook.

Heraclitus’ philosophy was greeted by incredulity and hostility even in his own lifetime. It challenged the assumptions, not only of all religion and tradition, but of the "common sense" mentality which sees no further than the end of its nose. For the next 2,500 years, attempts have been made to disprove it. As Bertrand Russell comments:

"Science, like philosophy, has sought to escape from the doctrine of perpetual flux by finding some permanent substratum amid changing phenomena. Chemistry seemed to satisfy this desire. It was found that fire, which appears to destroy, only transmutes: elements are recombined, but each atom that existed before combustion still exists when the process is completed. Accordingly it was supposed that atoms are indestructible, and that all change in the physical world consists merely in re-arrangement of persistent elements. This view prevailed until the discovery of radio-activity, when it was found that atoms could disintegrate.

"Nothing daunted, the physicists invented new and smaller units, called electrons and protons, out of which atoms were composed; and these units were supposed, for a few years, to have the indestructibility formerly attributed to atoms. Unfortunately it seemed that protons and electrons could meet and explode, forming, not new matter, but a wave of energy spreading through the universe with the velocity of light. Energy had to replace matter as what is permanent. But energy, unlike matter, is not a refinement of the common-sense notion of a ‘thing’; it is merely a characteristic of physical processes. It might be fancifully identified with the Heraclitean Fire, but it is the burning, not what burns. ‘What burns’ has disappeared from modern physics.

"Passing from the small to the large, astronomy no longer allows us to regard the heavenly bodies as everlasting. The planets came out of the sun, and the sun came out of a nebula. It has lasted some time, and will last some time longer; but sooner or later—probably in about a million million years—it will explode, destroying all the planets. So at least the astronomers say; perhaps as the fatal day draws nearer they will find some mistake in their calculations." (B. Russell, op. cit., p. 64-65.)

The Eleatics

In the past it was thought that Heraclitus’ philosophy was a reaction against the views of Parmenides (c. 540-470 B.C.). The prevailing opinion now is that, on the contrary, the Eleatic school represented a reaction against Heraclitus. The Eleatics attempted to disprove the idea that "everything flows" by asserting the direct opposite: that nothing changes, that movement is an illusion. This is a good example of the dialectical character of the evolution of human thought in general, and the history of philosophy in particular. It does not unfold in a straight line, but develops through contradiction, where one theory is put forward, is challenged by its opposite, until this, in turn, is overturned by a new theory, which frequently appears to signify a return to the starting point. However, this apparent return to old ideas does not mean that intellectual development is merely a closed circle. On the contrary, the dialectical process never repeats itself in exactly the same way, since the very process of scientific controversy, discussion, constant re-examination of positions, backed up by observation and experiment, leads to a deepening of our understanding and a closer approximation to the truth.

Elia (or Velia) was a Greek colony in southern Italy founded about 540 B.C. by emigrants fleeing from the Persian invasion of Ionia. According to tradition, the Eleatic school was founded by Xenophones. However, his connection with the school is unclear, and his contribution was overshadowed by its most prominent representatives, Parmenides and Zeno (born 460 B.C.). Whereas the Pythagoreans abstracted from matter all determinate qualities except number, the Eleatics went one step further, taking the process to an extreme, arriving at a totally abstract conception of being, stripped of all concrete manifestations, except bare existence. "Only being is; non being (becoming) is not at all." Pure, unlimited, unchanging, featureless being—this is the essence of the Eleatic thought.

This view of the universe is designed to eliminate all contradictions, all mutability and motion. It is a very consistent philosophy, within its own frame of reference. There is only one snag. It is directly contradicted by the whole of human experience. Not that this worried Parmenides. If human understanding cannot grasp this idea, so much the worse for understanding! Zeno elaborated a famous series of paradoxes designed to prove the impossibility of movement. According to legend, Diogenes the Cynic disproved Zeno’s argument by simply walking up and down the room! However, as generations of logicians have found to their cost, Zeno’s arguments are not so easy to dispose of in theoretical terms.

Hegel points out that the real intention of Zeno was not to deny the reality of motion, but to bring out the contradiction present in movement, and the way it is reflected in thought. In this sense, the Eleatics were, paradoxically, also dialectical philosophers. Defending Zeno against Aristotle’s criticism that he denied the existence of motion, he explains:

"The point is not that there is movement and that this phenomenon exists; the fact that there is movement is as sensually certain as that there are elephants; it is not in this sense that Zeno meant to deny movement. The point in question concerns its truth. Movement, however, is held to be untrue, because the conception of it involves a contradiction; by that he meant to say that no true Being can be predicated in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 266.)

In order to disprove Zeno’s argument, it is not enough to demonstrate that movement exists, as Diogenes did, just by walking around. It is necessary to proceed from his own premises, to exhaust his own analysis of motion, and carry it to its limits, to the point where it turns into its opposite. That is the real method of dialectical argument, not merely asserting the opposite, still less resorting to ridicule. And, in fact, there is a rational basis for Zeno’s paradoxes, which cannot be resolved by the method of formal logic, but only dialectically.

"Achilles the Swift"

Zeno "disproved" motion in different ways. Thus, he argued that a body in motion, before reaching a given point, must first have travelled half the distance. But, before this, it must have travelled half of that half, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, when two bodies are moving in the same direction, and the one behind at a fixed distance from the one in front is moving faster, we assume that it will overtake the other. Not so, says Zeno. "The slower one can never be overtaken by the quicker." This is the famous paradox of Achilles the Swift. Imagine a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Suppose that Achilles can run ten times faster than the tortoise which has 1000 metres start. By the time Achilles has covered 1000 metres, the tortoise will be 100 metres ahead; when Achilles has covered that 100 metres, the tortoise will be one metre ahead; when he covers that distance, the tortoise will be one tenth of a metre ahead, and so on to infinity.

From the standpoint of everyday common sense, this seems absurd. Of course, Achilles will overtake the tortoise! Aristotle remarked that "This proof asserts the same endless divisibility, but it is untrue, for the quick will overtake the slow body if the limits to be traversed be granted to it." Hegel quotes these words, and comments: "This answer is true and contains all that can be said; that is, there are in this representation two periods of time and two distances, which are separated from one another, i.e., they are limited in relation to one another;" but then he adds, "when, on the contrary, we admit that time and space are related to one another as continuous, they are, while being two, not two, but identical." (Hegel, op. cit., p. 273.)

The paradoxes of Zeno do not prove that movement is an illusion, or that Achilles, in practice, will not overtake the tortoise, but they do reveal brilliantly the limitations of the kind of thinking now known as formal logic. The attempt to eliminate all contradiction from reality, as the Eleatics did, inevitably leads to this kind of insoluble paradox, or antimony, as Kant later called it. In order to prove that a line could not consist of an infinite number of points, Zeno claimed that, if it were really so, then Achilles would never overtake the tortoise. There really is a logical problem here. As Alfred Hooper explains:

"This paradox still perplexes even those who know that it is possible to find the sum of an infinite series of numbers forming a geometrical progression whose common ratio is less than 1, and whose terms consequently become smaller and smaller and thus ‘converge’ on some limiting value." (A. Hooper, Makers of Mathematics, p. 237.)

In fact, Zeno had uncovered a contradiction in mathematical thought which would have to wait two thousand years for a solution. The contradiction relates to the use of the infinite. From Pythagoras right up to the discovery of the differential and integral calculus in the 17th century, mathematicians went to great lengths to avoid the use of the concept of infinity. Only the great genius Archimedes approached the subject, but still avoided it by using a roundabout method.

The Pythagoreans stumbled on the fact that the square root of two cannot be expressed as a number. They invented ingenious ways of finding successive approximations for it. But, no matter how far the process is taken, you never get an exact answer. The result is always midway between two numbers. The further down the list you go, the closer you get to the value of the square root of two. But the process of successive approximation may be continued forever, without getting a precise result that can be expressed in a whole number.

The Pythagoreans thus had to abandon the idea of a line made up of a finite number of very small points, and accept that a line is made up of an infinite number of points with no dimension. Parmenides approached the issue from a different angle, arguing that a line was indivisible. In order to prove the point, Zeno tried to show the absurd consequences that would follow from the concept of infinite divisibility. For centuries after, mathematicians steered clear of the idea of infinity, until Kepler in the 17th century simply swept aside all logical objections and boldly made use of the infinite in his calculations, to achieve epoch making results.

Ultimately, all these paradoxes are derived from the problem of the continuum. All the attempts to resolve them by means of mathematical theorems, such as the theory of convergent series and the theory of sets have only given rise to new contradictions. In the end, Zeno’s arguments have not been refuted, because they are based on a real contradiction which, from the standpoint of formal logic, cannot be answered. "Even the abstruse arguments put forward by Dedekind (1831-1916), Cantor (1845-1918) and Russell (1872-1970) in their mighty efforts to straighten out the paradoxical problems of infinity into which we are led by our concept of ‘numbers,’ have resulted in the creation of still further paradoxes." (Hooper, op. cit., p. 238.) The breakthrough came in the 17th and 18th centuries, when men like Kepler, Cavalieri, Pascal, Wallis, Newton and Leibniz decided to ignore the numerous difficulties raised by formal logic, and deal with infinitesimal quantities. Without the use of infinity, the whole of modern mathematics, and with it physics, would be unable to function.

The essential problem, highlighted by Zeno’s paradoxes, is the inability of formal logic to grasp movement. Zeno’s paradox of the Arrow takes as an example of movement the parabola traced by an arrow in flight. At any given point in this trajectory, the arrow is considered to be still. But since, by definition, a line consists of a series of points, at each of which the arrow is still, movement is an illusion. The answer to this paradox was given by Hegel.

The notion of movement necessarily involves a contradiction. Consider the movement of a body, Zeno’s arrow for example, from one point to another. When it starts to move, it is no longer at point A. At the same time, it is not yet at point B. Where is it, then? To say that it is "in the middle" conveys nothing, for then it would still be at a point, and therefore at rest. "But," says Hegel, "movement means to be in this place and not to be in it, and thus to be in both alike; and this is the continuity of space and time which first makes motion possible." (Hegel, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 273.) As Aristotle shrewdly observed, "It arises from the fact that it is taken for granted that time consists of the Now; for if this is not conceded, the conclusions will not follow." But what is this "now"? If we say the arrow is "here," "now," it has already gone.

Engels writes:

"Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body being both in one place and in another place at one and the same moment of time, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continual assertion and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is." (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 152.)

The First Atomists

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 B.C., in Asia Minor, in the period of wars with the Medes, and the rise of Athens under Pericles. Anaxagoras moved to Athens where he was a contemporary of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Diogenes and Protagoras. He was a far more original and profound thinker, who had a tremendous impact on philosophy in Athens. Aristotle said that he was like "a sober man among drunkards." Anaxagoras, following the best Ionian tradition, believed in experiment and observation. "There can be no question," says Farrington, "but that he regarded sense-evidence as indispensable for the investigation of nature, but, like Empedocles, he was concerned to show that there were physical processes too subtle for our senses to perceive directly." (B. Farrington, Greek Science, p. 62.)

His scientific discoveries were of the first order. He believed that the sun was a mass of molten elements, as also were the stars, although these were too far away for their heat to be felt. The moon was nearer, and made of the same material as the earth. The light of the moon was a reflection of the sun, and eclipses were caused by the moon blocking off the sun’s light. Like Socrates later, he was accused of atheism, probably accurately, since he scarcely mentions religion in his cosmology. These revolutionary ideas shocked the conservative Athenians, eventually leading to Anaxagoras’ banishment.

In opposition to Parmenides, Anaxagoras held that everything is infinitely divisible, and that even the smallest amount of matter contains some of each element. He also considered that matter was made up of particles of many kinds. Thus he asked how it occurs that bread, when eaten, turns into bones, flesh, blood, skin, and the rest. The only explanation was that the particles of wheat must contain, in some hidden form, all the elements necessary for the make up of the body, which are rearranged in the digestive process.

He believed there to be an infinite number of elements or "seeds." But there was one of them which played a special role. This was the nous, usually translated as "mind." Lighter than the other elements, it is, unlike the rest, unmixed, and permeates all matter, as an organising and animating principle. For this reason, Anaxagoras is usually regarded as an idealist. But this is far from certain. The arch-idealist Hegel considered that, while the nous was an important step in the direction of idealism, "with Anaxagoras it was not fully worked out." (Hegel, History, Vol. one, p. 330.) Anaxagoras’ nous can also have a materialistic interpretation, as the inner moving spirit of matter, or, more correctly expressed, energy. Hegel himself understood that it did not mean an external intelligence, but the objective processes which take place within nature, providing it with form and definition.

The idea that matter consists of an infinity of tiny particles, invisible to the senses, represents a most important generalisation, and a transition to the atomic theory, that remarkable anticipation of modern science, first expounded by Leucippus (c. 500-440 B.C.) and Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.). The breakthrough was even more astonishing when we bear in mind that these thinkers had no access to electron microscopes, or any other technological aids. There was therefore no means of corroborating the theory, let alone developing it at that time. More importantly, it incurred the wrath of the religious, and the scorn of the idealists, and was allowed to sink without trace in the long, dark night of the Middle Ages, until, like so many ideas of Antiquity, it was rediscovered by the thinkers of the Renaissance, like Gassendi, where it played an important role in stimulating the new scientific outlook.

About Leucippus, so little is known that some even doubted his existence, which, however was proved by the discovery of papyri at Herculaneum. Most of his sayings have come down to us through the writings of other philosophers. In a startlingly new hypothesis, Leucippus stated that the whole universe was made up of just two things, atoms and the void, an absolute vacuum. He was also the first to establish what later became known as the law of causality and the law of sufficient reason. The one authentic fragment which has survived says: "Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and necessity." (Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers, p. 340). The early atomists were determinists. They placed causality firmly at the centre of all natural processes, but they did so in an unbending way, reminiscent of the later mechanical determinism of Laplace. This rigidity of the earliest atomists was later corrected by Epicurus, who put forward the idea that atoms falling through the void swerve slightly, thus introducing the element of accident into the framework of necessity.

The atomists derived all things from an infinite number of fundamental particles, the "atoma" (which means "that which cannot be divided"). These atoms were alike in quality, but unlike in quantity, differing only in size, shape and weight, although the smallness of their size made it impossible to see them. In essence, this was correct. The entire physical world, from coal to diamonds, from the human body to the scent of roses, is composed of atoms of different sizes and weights, arranged in molecules. Present day science can give a precise quantitative expression to this assertion. The Greek atomists were in no position to do this, because the limitation upon the development of technology inherent in the slave method of production prevented the proper utilisation of the brilliant inventions of the time, including the steam engine, which mostly remained on the level of toys and curiosities. All the more remarkable, then, was the way in which they anticipated one of the most important principles of 20th century science.

The celebrated American physicist Richard P. Feynman, underlines the place of atomic theory in present day science:

"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed onto the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied." (Feynman, Lectures on Physics, 1-3.)

And again:

"Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics. This was not known from the beginning: it took some experimenting and theorising to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.

"If a piece of steel or a piece of salt, consisting of atoms one next to the other, can have such interesting properties; if water—which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth—can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible? If instead of arranging the atoms in some definite pattern, again and again repeated, on and on, or even forming little lumps of complexity like the odour of violets, we make an arrangement which is always different from place to place, with different kinds of atoms arranged in many ways, continually changing, not repeating, how much more marvelously is it possible that this thing might behave? Is it possible that that ‘thing’ walking back and forth in front of you, talking to you, is a great glob of these atoms in a very complex arrangement, such that the sheer complexity of it staggers the imagination as to what it can do? When we say we are a pile of atoms, we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms, because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror." (Ibid., 1-13.)

The world outlook of the Greek atomists was naturally materialist. This earned them the hatred of the idealists and the religiously-inclined. A particularly spiteful campaign of calumny was directed against Epicurus, whose philosophical views were so distorted for centuries as to turn them into their exact opposite in the popular imagination. They were self-confessed atheists. There is no room for god in this view of the universe. Democritus found the cause of mutation and change in the nature of the atoms themselves, falling through the vacuum (the "void"), they impinge on one another, arranging themselves in different ways, like combining with like.

Through an endless series of different combinations, we get the constant changes which are everywhere to be seen in nature, and which give rise to the transitoriness of worldly things. There was an infinite number of worlds "born and dying," not created by god, but arising and being destroyed out of necessity, in accordance with natural laws. Knowledge of these things is derived mainly from sensory perception, but this gives us only a "dim" understanding of nature. It must be supplemented and transcended by "bright" reason, which leads to the cognition of the essence of things, the atoms and the void. The fundamental elements of a scientific materialist world outlook are all present in these few lines.

The philosophy of Democritus was further developed and deepened by Epicurus. Like his mentor, he explicitly denied the interference of the gods in the affairs of the world, basing himself on the eternity of matter, in a state of continual motion. However, he rejected the mechanistic determinism of Leucippus and Democritus, introducing the idea of a spontaneous (internally conditioned) "deviation" of the atoms from their course, in order to explain the possibility of collisions between atoms moving at equal speed through empty space. This was an important step forward, posing the dialectical relation between necessity and chance—one of the key theoretical questions over which modern physics is still wracking its brains, although the solution was found long ago by Hegel.

Epicurus’ theory of knowledge is based entirely on acceptance of the information given to us by the senses. All senses are "heralds of the true," nor is there anything that can refute the senses. Here his presentation, while starting from a correct assumption—I interpret the world through my senses—represents a step back in relation to Democritus. It is too one-sided. Sense perception is undoubtedly the basis of all knowledge, but it is necessary to know how to interpret correctly the information of the senses. That is what Heraclitus meant when he said that eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men who have barbarian souls. The narrow empirical approach invariably leads to errors. Thus, according to Cicero, Democritus thought that the sun was immensely large, whereas Epicurus believed it to be only about two feet in diameter. In other respects, however, Epicurus made some startling discoveries. Gassendi, who may be considered the father of modern atomism, praised Epicurus because, exclusively by reasoning, he showed the fact later demonstrated by experiment, that all bodies, irrespective of their mass and weight, have the same velocity when falling from above to below.

Lucretius on Religion

Epicurus and his followers declared war upon religion which feeds off men’s fear and ignorance. The first book of Lucretius’ great philosophical poem The Nature of the Universe contains what amounts to a materialist and atheist manifesto:

"When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather, they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the constraining locks of nature’s doors. The vital vigour of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what can be and what cannot: how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post. Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies." (Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe, p. 29.)

Even here, the religious prejudices of the translator are apparent. He cannot bring himself to translate the word "religio" as religion, preferring to render it as "superstition." This, in 1951! The materialist philosophy of Epicurus made a big impact on the young Karl Marx, who chose it as the subject of his doctoral dissertation while at university. Marx considered that the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius was "the only one in general of all the ancients who has understood Epicurean physics," who has written "a more profound exposition." ( Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 48, referred to hereafter as the MECW.)

In the most striking poetic language, Lucretius defends the indestructibility of matter, the correct idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed:

"This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme, our starting-point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and ocassioned without the aid of the gods." (Lucretius, op, cit. p. )

The law of the conservation of energy, proved by Mayer, Joule, Helmholz and others in the mid-19th century shows that the total amount of energy neither disappears nor is created, when changing from one kind to another. This provides an unshakable basis for the materialist position that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This idea is also brilliantly conveyed by Lucretius:

"The second great principle is this: nature resolves everything into its component atoms and never reduces anything to nothing. If anything were perishable in all its parts, anything might perish all of a sudden and vanish from sight. There would be no need of any force to separate its parts and loosen their links. In actual fact, since everything is composed of indestructible seeds, nature obviously does not allow anything to perish till it has encountered a force that shatters it with a blow or creeps into chinks and unknits it." (The Nature of the Universe, p. 33.)

The Epicurean world view maintains that the universe is infinite, and matter has no limit, either externally or internally:

"If there are no such least parts, even the smallest bodies will consist of an infinite number of parts, since they can always be halved and their halves halved again without limit. On this showing, what difference will there be between the whole universe and the very least of things? None at all. For, however endlessly infinite the universe may be, yet the smallest things will equally consist of an infinite number of parts. (ibid., p. 45.)

And: "Learn, therefore, that the universe is not bounded in any direction. If it were, it would necessarily have a limit somewhere. But clearly a thing cannot have a limit unless there is something outside to limit it, so that the eye can follow it up to a certain point but not beyond. Since you must admit that there is nothing outside the universe, it can have no limit and is accordingly without end or measure." (ibid., p. 55.)

If the scientists of our own century had had an equally sound philosophical outlook, we would have been spared the most glaring errors of method, such as the search for the "bricks of matter," the "big bang" with its finite universe, the "birth of time," the equally absurd "continuous creation of matter," and the like. In relation to time, Democritus stated that time had no origin, that it does not exist in itself, apart from the movement of things or things at rest. How infinitely more scientific than certain present-day physicists who talk about the alleged "beginning of time" 20 billion years ago! In their apparatus, they are more advanced, but in their mode of thinking, they are worlds behind the early materialists.

The consistent materialist outlook of Epicurus earned him the most venomous attacks of the Church from the earliest times. The apostle Paul specifically mentions them in the Acts of the Apostles, xvii, 18. In Dante’s time, the accusation of Epicureanism meant someone who denied the Holy Ghost and the immortality of the soul. In general, Epicurus is thought to have advocated an amoral and hedonistic philosophy, in which all manner of gluttony and licentiousness was permitted. All this is just a crude slander against Epicurus and his philosophy.

In terms of morality and ethics, the Epicurean philosophy represents one of the noblest products of the human spirit. It resembles the famous dictum of Spinoza: "Neither weep nor laugh, but understand." Epicurus sought to free humanity from fear, by promoting a clear understanding of nature, and man’s place in it. He asked himself what is the basis of all fear, and answered, the fear of death. His main aim was to eliminate this fear, by explaining that death is nothing for me in the present, for I am alive, and will be nothing to me in the future, since, after death, I can know nothing about it. Therefore, he enjoined men to set aside fear of death and live life to the full. This beautiful and humane philosophy has always been anathema to those who wish to direct the eyes of men and women away from the problems of the real world to an alleged world after death, which is supposed to reward or punish us according to our just deserts.

The accusation of grossness and hedonism against Epicurus stems from the vengeful attitude of the Christian apologists against a cheerful and life-enhancing philosophy—the exact opposite of their own. They sought to bury their enemy under a heap of slander. In fact, Epicurus, like Spinoza, identified the good with pleasure, or the absence of pain. He considered human relations from the point of view of utility, which finds its highest expression in friendship. In a period of great social turbulence and uncertainty, he preached withdrawal from the world, and a life of peaceful meditation. He recommended men to reduce their needs to a minimum, away from the world of strife, competition and war. This was, of course, an utopian idea, but it is nothing to do with the ugly and spiteful caricature put in circulation by the opponents of materialism. Epicurus remained true to his ideals on his deathbed, from where he wrote: "A happy day is this on which I write to you…The pains which I feel…could not be greater. But all of this is opposed by the happiness which the soul experiences, remembering our conversations of a bygone time."

The Rise of Idealism

The term "dialectics" comes from the Greek "dialektike," derived from "dialegomai," to converse, or discuss. Originally, it signified the art of discussion, which may be seen in its highest form in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. This was no accident, but flowed from the very nature of Athenian democracy, with its ample scope for oratory and debate in public assemblies. This gave rise to a new breed of public figures, professional teachers and speakers of all kinds, from courageous freethinkers and profound philosophers to unscrupulous demagogues.

The words "sophist" and "sophistry" to modern ears have a thoroughly disreputable ring about them, suggesting intellectual dishonesty, trickery and lies, masked by clever turns of phrase. That, indeed, was how sophism ended up. But it was not always so. In a way, they can be compared to the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in the 18th century. They were rationalists and freethinkers, who stood opposed to all existing dogmas and orthodoxy. Their maxim was "Doubt Everything." All existing things and ideas had to be subjected to the most far-reaching criticism. This undoubtedly contained a revolutionary and dialectical kernel. "On this new-found field now the Sophists disported, enjoying with boyish exuberance the exercise of the power of subjectivity, and destroying, by means of a subjective dialectic, all that had been ever objectively established." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 30.)

The activities of the sophists reflected life in Athens during the period of the Peloponesian war between Athens and Sparta. They were both scholars and practical men, the first ones to charge a fee for teaching. Plato remarks in the Republic that the doctrines of the Sophists express only the same principles which guided the practice of the multitude in their civil and social relations. The hate with which they were persecuted by the statesmen proves the jealousy with which the latter saw them. The sophists were attacked for saying that morality and truth were subjective concepts, which could be determined by anyone, according to his personal preferences and interests. But they were only saying what was already the established norm in practice. We see the same thing today. Professional politicians do not like to be reminded of the moral code which really operates in the corridors of power!

"Public life was becoming an arena of passion and self-seeking," writes Schwegler, "the party-strifes, which agitated Athens during the Peloponesian war, had blunted and stifled the moral sentiment; every one accustomed himself to set his own private interest above that of the state and of the common good, and to seek in his own self-will and his own advantage the standard of his action and the principle of his guidance. The axiom of Protagoras, man is the measure of all things, was in practice only all too truly followed, while the influence of rhetoric in public assemblies and decisions, the corruption of the masses and their leaders, the weak points which cupidity, vanity, and party-spirit betrayed to the crafty, offered only all too much occasion for its exercise.

"What was established, and had come down so, had lost its authority, political regulation appeared as arbitrary restriction, moral principle as a result of calculated political training, faith in the gods as human invention for the intimidation of free activity, piety as a statute of human origin which every man had a right to alter by the art of persuasion. This reduction of the necessity and universality of nature and reason to the contingency of mere human appointment, is mainly the point where the Sophists are in contact with the general consciousness of the cultivated classes of the time; and it is impossible to decide what share theory had here, and what practice; whether the Sophists only found practical life in a theoretical formula, or whether the social corruption was rather a consequence of the destructive influence which the Sophists exercised over the entire circle of the opinions of their contemporaries." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 31.)

The turbulence of the times, with constant changes, wars, destruction and unrest, found a reflection in the restless spirit of dialectical contradiction. The unsettling movement of thought, upsetting existing ideas mirrored the actual conditions of Greece at the time of the Peloponesian wars. Likewise, the need to win over the assembly or law-court by clever argument provided a material base for the rise of a generation of professional orators and dialecticians. But that is not to say that the initial content of sophism was determined by considerations of personal advantage or pecuniary gain, any more than was, say, Calvinism. But, given the prevailing social conditions, the later development of sophism was determined in advance.

The first generation of sophists were genuine philosophers, often identified with democratic politics and with a materialist understanding of nature. They were rationalists and encyclopaedists, just as their French equivalents in the decades before 1789. And in the same way, they were clever and witty, with an ability to deal with all sides of a problem. Protagoras was celebrated as a teacher of morals, Gorgias as a rhetorician and politician, Prodicus as a grammarian and etymologist, and Hippias as a polymath. They were to be found in all the professions and spheres of knowledge. But gradually the movement, which really never constituted a real school, began to degenerate. The wandering "wise man" going from town to town in search of good pay and a rich patron became a figure of contempt and ridicule.

The common feature of all the previous schools of thought examined here is their objectivity, the assumption that the validity of our ideas depends on the degree to which they correspond to objective reality, to the world outside us. The sophists broke entirely from this, advancing instead the position of philosophical subjectivity. This is well summed up in the celebrated phrase of Protagoras (481-411 B.C.), "Man is the measure of all things; of those which are, that they are; of those which are not, that they are not."

There is some dispute about the exact meaning of this phrase, which may also be put in a way which implies that Protagoras was a materialist, a view which fits in with a remark of Sextus Empiricus, to the effect that Protagoras said that "the main causes (‘logoses’) of all things are in matter." But there can be no doubt that the general trend of sophism was in the direction of extreme subjectivism. As a result of their withering attacks on existing beliefs and prejudices, they were regarded as subversives in conservative circles. Protagoras himself was expelled from Athens for atheism, and his book On the Gods was burnt.

Religious conviction and its philosophical counterpart, dogmatism, is not culture. Even Heraclitus, despite his great wisdom, was not free from a dogmatic and narrow cast of mind, as shown by the tone of his utterances. But no real progress is possible along this path. Sophism, therefore, at least in its first period, played a positive role in breaking down the old universal dogmas into their component parts and counterposing each of the parts to the others. There was a negative side, in that the isolated elements were open to be twisted and turned out of context, in a typically "sophist" way. Yet, as Hegel says, "A man of culture…knows how to say something of everything, to find points of view in all." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 356.) In fact, Hegel thought that the arguments of Protagoras in Plato’s dialogue of that name were superior to those of Socrates.

This kind of esprit (wit) is entirely foreign to the Anglo-Saxon tradition and mentality, which generally regards it with ill-concealed suspicion, and distaste. Yet, as Hegel, penetratingly observes, sophism marks the beginning of culture in the modern sense of the word. For culture presupposes a rational consideration of things and a choice.

"In fact, what is most striking in a man or people of culture is the art of speaking well, or of turning subjects round and considering them in many aspects. The uncultivated man finds it unpleasant to associate with people who know how to grasp and express every point of view with ease. The French are good speakers in this sense, and the Germans call their talking prattle; but it is not mere talk that brings about this result, for culture is also wanted. We may have mastered a speech quite completely, but if we have not culture, it is not good speaking. Men thus learn French, not only to be able to speak French well, but to acquire French culture. What is to be obtained from the Sophists is thus the power of keeping the manifold points of view present to the mind, so that the wealth of categories by which an object may be considered, immediately occurs to it." (Ibid., p. 359.)

Despite the disrepute in which sophism is supposed to be held nowadays, it is the true father of modern professional politics, law and diplomacy. We observe with tedious regularity how bourgeois politicians are prepared to defend with apparently total conviction, now one position, now precisely the opposite, adducing in either case the most impressive moral and practical arguments. The same procedure may be observed in the law courts any day of the week. And why bother the reader with a list of examples of the consummate lying, manoeuvring deceit practised by the diplomatic corps of every government in the world? These people have all the faults of the sophists and none of their virtues!

It is true that the sophists made a living out of their nimble wits and ability to argue for or against almost anything, as a lawyer argues for the defence or the prosecution, irrespective of the intrinsic rights and wrongs of the case (the verb "sophizesthai" meant "making a career by being clever"). They were the prototype of the smart lawyer and the professional politician. But they were much more than that. Even in the more morally questionable activities of the sophists, there was a real philosophical principle involved. As Hegel wittily observes:

"In the worst action there exists a point of view which is essentially real; if this is brought to the front, men excuse and vindicate the action…A man does not require to make great progress in his education to have good reasons ready for his worst actions; all that has happened in the world since the time of Adam has been justified by some good reason." (Ibid., p. 369.)

The basic idea which underlies the dialectic of sophism is that truth is many-sided. This is an extremely important truth, and fundamental to the dialectical method in general. The difference lies in the use to which it is put. Scientific, objective dialectics strives to grasp every phenomenon in an all-round manner. Subjective dialectics, the dialectic of sophism, takes one or another aspect of the whole, and counterposes it to the rest. In this way, it is possible to deny the whole by insisting on the part, which, in itself, is perfectly sound. This is the method of the legal charlatan, the eclectic, and also, in a cruder way, of "common sense," which makes arbitrary assumptions based upon particulars.

They tried to use the arguments of Zeno and Heraclitus to justify their views, but did so in a negative and one-sided way. For example, Heraclitus had said that it is impossible to step in the same stream twice. One of his disciples went further, saying that you could not even step into it once! This, however, is false. The idea of Heraclitus was that everything is and is not, because everything is in flux, constantly changing. The second view merely takes one half of the equation—that everything is not. This is not at all what Heraclitus meant. The objective world certainly exists, but it is in a permanent process of motion, development and change, in which nothing remains as it was before.

The sophists were sceptics. "As to the gods," wrote Protagoras, "I am unable to say whether they are or are not; for there is much which prevents this knowledge, both in the obscurity of the matter, and in the life of man which is so short." That sentence got him banished from Athens. The fundamental difference with the earlier philosophy is the subjective character of the sophist outlook. "Man is the measure of all things." This statement may be taken in two ways, practical and theoretical. In the first sense, it can be taken as a defence of egotism, self-interest, and the like. In the second sense, it represents a theory of knowledge (epistemology) which is subjective. Man counterposes himself to the objective world, and, at least in his imagination, subjects it to himself. His own reason decides what is what. The essential thing is not what is, but how I see it. This is the basis of all forms of subjective idealism, from Protagoras to Bishop Berkeley, from Kant to Werner Heisenberg.

Basically, the subjective idealist claims that the world is unknowable. We can have no real grasp of the truth, but only opinions, based on subjective criteria. "The truth?" asked Pontius Pilate ironically, "What is the truth?" That is the language of the cynical politician and bureaucrat, who hides his self-interest behind a thin veneer of "cultured" sophistry. Philosophically speaking, however, it is an expression of subjective idealism, which denies the possibility of really knowing the world outside us. This outlook was most clearly expressed by one of the most famous sophists, Gorgias of Leontini (483-375 B.C.), who wrote a provocatively-titled book—On Nature, or On That Which Is Not. The title already says it all. Gorgias based himself on three propositions: a) nothing is real, b) if anything were real, it could not be known, and c) if it could be known, it could not be expressed.

Such opinions seem absurd. Yet they have repeatedly surfaced in the history of philosophy in different forms, including in our own times, when even respected scientists can permit themselves to assert that humans cannot comprehend the quantum world of sub-atomic particles, and that photons and electrons only materialise in a given spot when they are observed by someone; that is, the observer creates his result through the subjective act of observation. Here we once again depart from the world of objectivity, and return, through the tradesman’s entrance of subjective idealism, to the realms of religious mysticism.

The present-day scientists who advocate such views have far less excuse than the sophists, who were the children of their time. The early attempts to find a rational explanation for the processes of nature had reached a point where they could not be taken any further by thought alone. The thinkers of that period arrived at a series of brilliant generalisations about the nature of the universe. But in order to test them and develop them further, it was necessary to examine them in detail, to break them down into their component parts, to analyse them one by one. This work was started by the sophists, and later put on a more rigorous basis by Aristotle. The heroic period of great generalisations gradually gave way to the slow and painstaking accumulation of facts, experiment and observation. Only in this way could the truth or falsehood of the different hypotheses be finally demonstrated. Before we reach this stage, however, we come to the high point of classical philosophical idealism.

Socrates and Plato

By subordinating the objective world to subjectivity, the sophists had stripped it of all inherent law and necessity. The sole source of order, rationality and causation was the perceiving subject. Everything was declared to be relative. For example, they held that morality and social conduct was determined by convenience (a similar view is held by the Pragmatists, a philosophy which enjoyed a lot of support in the United States, and which fits in nicely with the need to make morality compatible with the ethics of the "free enterprise" jungle). Thrasymachus of Chalcedon in the late 5th century B.C. openly declared that "right is what is beneficial for the stronger or better one."

This was another period of war, revolution and counterrevolution. In 411 B. C., after a hundred years of slave-owning democracy, there was a revolution in Athens, followed by a counter-coup two years later. There followed a disastrous war with Sparta, which imposed the rule of the "Thirty Tyrants," under which numerous atrocities were perpetrated by the aristocratic party in power. But by 399 B. C., the Thirty had been overthrown, and Socrates, who had the misfortune to have had several of them as his pupils and friends, was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was regarded by his contemporaries as a sophist, although he did not teach for money. Though he wrote nothing—his ideas have come down to us through the writings of Plato and Aristotle—he had a huge influence on the development of philosophy. His origins were humble; he was the son of a stonemason and a midwife. The motive force of his life was a burning desire to get at the truth, tearing aside all pretences and sophistry by a relentless process of question and answer. It is said that, in his attempt to get people to think about universal principles, he went about the workplaces of artisans and merchants, as well as the haunts of sophists and youths, subjecting all to the same procedure.

The method was always the same: setting out from a particular idea or opinion, usually derived from the concrete experiences and problems of life of the person involved, he would, step by step, by a rigorous process of argument, bring to light the inner contradictions contained on the original proposition, show its limitations, and take the discussion to a higher level, involving an entirely different proposition. This is the dialectic of discussion in its classical form. An initial argument (thesis) is advanced. This is answered by a contrary argument (antithesis). Finally, after examining the question thoroughly, dissecting it to reveal its inner contradictions, we arrive at a conclusion on a higher level (synthesis). This may or may not mean that the two sides reach agreement. But in the very process of developing the discussion itself, the understanding of both sides is deepened, and the discussion proceeds from a lower to a higher level.

The same dialectical process of the development of thought through contradiction can be seen in the history of science and philosophy. It was graphically expressed by Hegel in the Preface to his pioneering work The Phenomenology of Mind:

"The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the like of the whole." (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 68.)

It is possible to say that in the Socratic dialogues we do not find a worked out exposition of dialectics, but we do find many important examples of the dialectical method in action. The celebrated Socratic irony, for example, is not just a stylistic trick, but a reflection of the dialectic itself. Socrates wished to make other people become aware of the contradictions underlying their own ideas, beliefs and prejudices. From each definite proposition, he deduced as a direct result, the exact opposite of what the proposition stated. Instead of merely attacking his opponents’ ideas, he would put them in a position where they themselves would draw the opposite conclusion. This is precisely the basis of irony, not just here, but in general. This dialectic of discussion is an art which was perfected by Socrates. He himself likens it to the art of midwifery, which he jokingly claimed to have learnt from his mother. It is, to quote Hegel, "the assisting into the world of the thought which is already contained in the consciousness of the individual—the showing from the concrete, unreflected consciousness, the universality of the concrete, or from the universally posited, the opposite which is already in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 402.)

In just the same way, the task of Marxists is not to introduce into the working class a socialist consciousness "from without," as some have imagined, but to proceed from the existing state of awareness of the class, and show concretely, step by step, how the problems which workers face can only be resolved by a radical transformation of society. It is not a question of preaching from without, but of making conscious the unconscious aspiration of working people to change society. The difference is that this process is not brought to fruition exclusively in the debating chamber, but by practical activity, struggle and the experience of the class itself. The problem, nevertheless, remains essentially the same: how to break down existing prejudices and get people to see the contradictions present, not only in their heads, but in the world in which they live—to get them to see things as they really are, not as they imagine them to be.

Socrates would begin with the most self-evident, everyday, even trivial facts given to us by our senses. Then he would compare these with other facts, proceeding from one detail to the next, and in this way, gradually eliminating all accidental and secondary aspects, until, finally, we are brought face to face with the essence of the question. This is the method of induction, proceeding from the particular to the universal, a most important method for the development of science. Aristotle explicitly credits Socrates with the invention (or, at least, perfection) of the method of induction and logical definitions which are closely related to it.

The search for the general which lies hidden within the particular is one of the most important aspects of the development of human thought in general. Starting with elementary sense perception which registers individual facts and circumstances, the human mind begins slowly and painfully to abstract from these particulars, discarding the inessential, until it finally arrives at a series of more or less abstract generalisations. Though these "universals" have no existence separate and apart from the particular things that embody them, they nonetheless represent the essential being of things, expressing a far truer and deeper truth than the particular. The progress of human thought in general is closely related to the ability to generalise on the basis of experience, and to arrive at abstract ideas which correspond to the nature of reality.

In his autobiography, Trotsky touches on this question:

"Later, the feeling of the supremacy of the general over the particular became an integral part of my literary and political work. The dull empiricism, the unashamed cringing worship of the fact which is so often only imaginary, and falsely interpreted at that were odious to me. Beyond the facts, I looked for laws. Naturally, this led me more than once into hasty and incorrect generalisations, especially in my younger years, when my knowledge, book-acquired, and my experience in life were still inadequate. But in every sphere, barring none, I felt that I could move and act only when I held in my hand the thread of the general." (Trotsky, My Life, p. 88.)

The aim of Socrates was to proceed, by means of logical argumentation, from the particular to the general, to arrive at the "universal." For him, this was no longer a question of getting to the most general laws governing nature, as was the case with earlier Greek philosophers, but rather of man examining himself, his own nature, his thought and actions. The philosophy of Socrates is not the philosophy of nature but the philosophy of society, above all of ethics and morality. His favourite subject is "What is the Good?" In reality, this question can only be answered concretely, with reference to the historical development of society, since there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. This can be seen clearly in the case of ancient Greece, where the very language betrays the historical relativity of morality. The Greek word for goodness "arete," like its Latin equivalent, "virtus" (from which we get the English "virtue") originally meant something like combative manliness. As J. D. Bernal points out: "It took a long time to soften into the ideal of citizenship and still longer to Christian submissiveness." (J. D. Bernal, op. cit., p. 135.)

Nonetheless, what is important is not the subject matter of these dialogues, but the method. This really represents the birth of logic, which was originally the handling of words (Greek "logoi"). Thus, logic and dialectics were originally the same—a technique for getting at the truth. The method involved breaking up concepts into their constituent parts, revealing their inner contradictions, and putting them back together again. It was a dynamic process, with even a certain element of drama and surprise. The first reaction to the discovery of a fundamental contradiction in previously held ideas is one of surprise. For example, the idea that motion implies being and not being in the same place at the same time. The dialectic constantly challenges what appeared at first sight to be unquestionable. It shows the limitations of vulgar thinking, "common sense" and superficial appeals to the "facts," which, as Trotsky rightly remarked, are "so often imaginary, and falsely interpreted."

The task of going beyond the particular, of breaking down the information provided by our eyes and ears, and arriving at abstract generalisations lies at the root of the development and growth of human thought, not only in a historical sense, but in the evolution of every individual in the arduous struggle to pass from childhood to conscious maturity. In the writings of Plato (428-348 B.C.) the search for the general, the "universal," becomes the central issue of philosophy to the exclusion of all else, one might say almost an obsession. In these works, profound thoughts, a brilliant style and some masterly examples of the dialectic of discussion are mixed up with the most blatant and mystifying idealism ever produced by the human mind.

For Plato, the universals of thought, for example, the idea of a circle, had an independent existence, separate and apart from particular round objects. From a materialist stand point, as we have seen, the idea of a circle was originally derived from the observation of round objects over a long period of time. Not so, says Plato. If one looks at any example of a round object, for instance the plate on this table, it will be seen to be imperfect. It is therefore only a poor copy of the perfect circle that existed before the world began. For a class of wealthy intellectuals, used to working only with thoughts and words, it was logical that these should appear to them to be endowed with a life and a power of their own:

"The emphasis on the discussion of words and their true meanings tended to give to words a reality independent of the things and actions to which they referred. Because there is a word for beauty, beauty itself must be real. Indeed it must be more real than any beautiful thing. This is because no beautiful thing is altogether beautiful, and so whether it is beautiful or not is a matter of opinion, whereas beauty contains nothing but itself and must exist independently of anything in this changing and imperfect material world. The same logic applies to concrete things: a stone in general must be more real than any particular stone." (Bernal, op. cit., p. 138.)

Plato’s Idealism

In his work Phaedo, Plato develops this idea in a consistent way. If we ask what the cause of a thing is, we end up with its essence—the Greek word is "eidos," which can be variously translated as form or idea, although Aristotle interprets it as "species," which is obviously preferable from a materialist standpoint. To go back to our dinner-plate. What makes it round? or—to use Platonic language—What is the cause of its roundness? One might answer, that it was caused by a potter rotating a lump of clay on a wheel and moulding it with his hand. But for Plato, the plate, like all other crude material objects, is merely an imperfect manifestation of the Idea, which, put in plain language, is God.

Plato’s theory of knowledge, which Aristotle says is different from that of Socrates, was based on the idea that the object of knowledge must be permanent, eternal, and since nothing under the sun is permanent, we must seek stable knowledge outside this fleeting and deceitful world of material things. When Diogenes ridiculed the theory of Ideas, by saying he could see the cup, but not "cupness," Plato retorted that that was because he had eyes to see, but no intellect. And it is true that merely to base oneself on sense-perception is not enough. It is necessary to go from the particular to the universal. The fundamental flaw here is to think that the generalisations of the intellect can stand on their own, divorced from, and counterposed to, the material world from which, ultimately, they are derived.

Marx and Engels in The Holy Family explained: in the philosophy of Idealism, the real relations between thought and being are stood on their head, "for the absolute idealist, in order to be an absolute idealist, must necessarily constantly go through the sophistical process of first transforming the world outside himself into an appearance, a mere fancy of his brain, and afterwards declaring this fantasy to be what it really is, i.e., a mere fantasy, so as finally to be able to proclaim his sole, exclusive existence, which is no longer disturbed even by the semblance of an external world." (MECW, Vol. 4, p. 140.)

The sophistical trick whereby this is done was wittily explained in the same work:

"If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea ‘Fruit,’ if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea ‘Fruit,’ derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then—in the language of speculative philosophy—I am declaring that ‘Fruit’ is the ‘Substance’ of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be a pear is not essential to the pear, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea—’Fruit.’ I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of ‘Fruit.’ My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely ‘Fruit.’ Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is ‘the substance’—’Fruit.’ (Ibid, pp. 57-8.)

Far from advancing the cause of human understanding, the idealist method does not take us a single step forward. Only a study of the real, that is to say, material world, can deepen our understanding of nature and our place in it. By directing men’s eyes away from "crude" material things towards the realm of so-called "pure" abstraction, the idealists played havoc with the development of science for centuries. "By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really ‘the Mineral’ would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says ‘the Mineral,’ and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals." (Ibid.)

As opposed to the earlier Greek philosophers, who were generally materialists, and set out from a study of nature, Plato consciously turned his back on the world of the senses. Not experiment and observation, but only pure deduction and mathematics was the road to truth. Above the entrance of his Academy in Athens he placed the inscription: "Let no man destitute of geometry enter my doors." Plato encouraged his students, for example, to study the stars, not as they are, but as they ought to be. Following in the footsteps of the Pythagoreans, he alleged that the planets showed their divine nature by their eternally unchanging orbits, the perfect regularity of their circular motion being an expression of the harmony of the universe. This cosmology, together with that of Aristotle, his great successor, held back the development of astronomy for 2,000 years. It represented a retreat from science to Pythagorean mysticism. Thus, in an Alexandrian hand-book on astronomy written by Geminus, we read:

"There underlies the whole science of astronomy,…the assumption that the sun and the moon and the five planets move at even speeds in perfect circles in an opposite direction to the cosmos. It was the Pythagoreans, the first to approach these questions, who laid down the hypothesis of a circular and uniform motion for the sun, moon, and planets. Their view was that, in regard of divine and eternal beings, a supposition of such disorder as that these bodies should move now more quickly and now more slowly, or should even stop, as in what are called the stations of the planets, is inadmissible. Even in the human sphere such irregularity is incompatible with the orderly procedure of a gentleman. And even if the crude necessities of life often impose upon men occasions of haste or loitering, it is not to be supposed that such occasions inhere in the incorruptible nature of the stars. For this reason they defined their problem as the explanation of the phenomena on the hypothesis of circular and uniform motion." (Farrington, Greek Science, pp. 95-6.)

Kepler discovered that the planets moved, not in circles, but in ellipses. Even this was not completely true, as Newton later showed. The ellipses are not perfect, either. But for the previous two millennia, the idealist picture of the universe held the force of an unchallengeable dogma. For much of that time it was backed by the formidable power of the Church.

It is significant that the ideas of Plato were known in the Middle Ages through only one work, the Timaeus, his worst book. This represents a complete counter-revolution in philosophy. From Thales on, Greek philosophy was characterised by an attempt to explain the world in natural terms, without recourse to the gods or any supernatural phenomena. The Timaeus is not a work of philosophy but a religious tract. Here we see a revival of "all the old crap," as Marx once put it. It is, in effect, the revival of the old creation myth. The world was created by a Supreme Craftsman. Matter consists of triangles because solids are bounded by planes, and planes can be resolved into triangles. The world is spherical and moves in circles because the circle is the most perfect form. Men who live badly are reborn as women in the next reincarnation, and so on and so forth.

In a passage strikingly similar to some of the statements of the present-day defenders of the "big bang," Plato writes about the "beginning of time":

"Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together. It was framed after the pattern of the eternal nature, that it might resemble this as far as was possible; for the pattern exists from eternity, and the created heaven has been, and is, and will be, in all time. Such was the mind and thought of God in the creation of time." (The Dialogues of Plato, Jowett’s edition, Vol. 3, Timaeus, p. 242.) No wonder the Christian Church welcomed this with open arms!

Despite its dialectical side, the Platonic philosophy is essentially a conservative one, reflecting the world outlook of an aristocratic elite, who felt, correctly, that their world was crumbling about them. The urge to turn one’s back on reality, to deny the evidence of one’s senses, to cling to some kind of stability in the midst of turbulence and upheaval, to deny change, all this clearly corresponded to a powerful psychological and moral need.

{mospagebreak title=Chapter 3 - Aristotle and the End of Classical Greek Philosophy}

Chapter 3 - Aristotle and the End of Classical Greek Philosophy

"The greatest thinker of antiquity," Marx called him. Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B.C., and was born, not in Athens but in Stagira, Thrace. Originally a pupil of Plato, he made a thorough study of his philosophy over a period of twenty years, but evidently became dissatisfied with it. After Plato’s death, he left the Academy and later became the tutor of Alexander. He returned to Athens in 335 B.C., to found his own school, the Lyceum. His was an encyclopaedic mind, encompassing a huge number of subjects—logic, rhetoric, ethics, political sciences, biology, physics and metaphysics ("what comes after physics," the study of first principles and presuppositions). He is the real founder of logic, natural history, the theory of morals, and even of economics.

The philosophy of Aristotle marks a sharp break with that of Plato. In many ways it is diametrically opposed to it. Instead of the idealist method, which turns its back upon reality in order to take refuge in a world of perfect ideas and forms, Aristotle proceeds from the concrete facts of sense perception, and from these arrives at ultimate grounds and principles. Whereas Plato started with ideas, and tried to explain reality from them, Aristotle sets out from reality, carefully examining a large number of facts and phenomena, in order to derive from them a series of general inferences. That is to say, he used the method of induction.

Aristotle’s interest in physics and biology is an illustration of his general approach, his love of experiment and observation as the main source of knowledge. In this, he was a pioneer of the modern scientific method. When Alexander the Great was engaged on his wars of conquest, he arranged to send back to Aristotle details and drawings of all new discoveries of plants and animals. What a difference to Plato, who regarded the crude material world of nature as unworthy of his attention! Aristotle spent many years collecting, arranging, and classifying information from all manner of spheres.

Aristotle, however, did not merely collect facts. Basing himself on information derived from the objective material world, he proceeded to generalise. In his most profound work, the Metaphysics, he speculates on the meaning of universal notions. In the process, he sums up and criticises previous philosophies, and therefore may also be regarded as the first historian of philosophy. It should be borne in mind that this has nothing to do with the use of the word "metaphysics" in the writings of Marx and Engels, where it is used in an entirely different sense—as a way of describing the narrow mechanical outlook of the non-dialectical materialist philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, the "metaphysics" of Aristotle occupies a similar place to dialectics in the philosophy of Plato.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle for the first time provides a systematic account of some of the basic categories of dialectics. This fact is often overlooked, because he also laid down the laws of formal ("Aristotelian") logic, which, at first sight, appear to stand in contradiction to dialectics. In point of fact, for Aristotle, logic and dialectics were both valid ways of thinking. This is, in fact, the case. Dialectical thinking does not contradict formal logic, but complements it. More correctly, the laws of formal logic hold good within certain limits, beyond which they break down. In particular, formal logic, based on the law of identity, cannot adequately deal with motion, which involves a contradiction—something which formal logic explicitly rules out. For a whole series of operations in everyday life, the rules of formal logic hold good and play a useful role. But when the attempt is made to apply these laws and thought-forms to areas where they conflict with reality, they turn into their opposite. Far from helping us to understand the workings of nature, they become an endless source of error, holding back the development of science and knowledge.

The whole of formal logic is based on three propositions, which make up the basic Aristotelian syllogism:

1) the law of identity ("A" = "A")
2) the law of contradiction ("A" is not "not-A"), and
3) the law of the excluded middle ("A" is not "B")

For more than 2,000 years, this has been the corner-stone of all logic. Towards the end of the 18th century, Kant was able to say that logic, since Aristotle, had not made any step forward or any step back. Despite all the changes experienced by science in that period, the rules of logic remained petrified, in the forms worked out by Aristotle, and later converted into a dogma by the mediaeval Church. Yet the basic Aristotelian syllogism upon which the whole edifice is constructed is based on a false premise. In the first place, despite the appearance of a logical progression, this is an illusion. All three assertions are, in fact, already contained in the first one, "A" is "A." Everything stands or falls with this, the "law of identity."

At first sight, the truth of this proposition would appear to be self-evident. Like the law of contradiction, which is merely a negative way of saying the same thing, it seems to brook no dissent. "There are some who maintain (a) that the same thing can be and not be, and (b) that it is possible so to judge. Many physicists too, have used language to this effect. Now we have just assumed that a thing cannot both be and not be, and have also shown this to be the most indubitable of all principles. The demand that we should prove the law argues a defective education in logic—a science which enables one to recognise what requires proof and what does not. It is absolutely impossible to have proof of everything: the process would continue indefinitely, and the result would be no proof of anything whatsoever. Granted, on the other hand, that there are some things which do not call for proof, what principle, I ask, is more self-evident than the law of contradiction?" (Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. 125.)

It is interesting to note that here Aristotle, who is normally most concerned to prove each of his postulates by a rigorous process of argument, makes no attempt to prove the law of contradiction, but merely asserts it dogmatically. It is just to be accepted as "common sense." But, upon closer examination, the matter is not at all as simple as it is presented. In real life, a thing is and is not equal to itself, because it is constantly changing. You are in no doubt that you are you. But in the time you have taken to read these lines, billions of changes have taken place in your body—cells have died and been replaced. The body consists of tissue, which is constantly breaking down and being replaced, eliminating waste matter and bacteria, excreting carbon dioxide through the lungs, losing water in sweat and urine, and so on. These constant changes are the basis of all life. They mean that, at any moment, the body is itself and also something different to itself. So you are not the same person you were. Nor is it possible to get round this by arguing that you are you at this precise moment in time, since even in the smallest portion of time, change takes place.

For normal purposes, we can accept that "A = A," that you are you, and nobody else. The reason is that the kind of change we are referring to is so small that it can be ignored for normal purposes. However, over a longer period, twenty years, for instance, a difference would be noticed. And in a hundred years, the difference would be quite sufficient for one to conclude that you are not you at all! Moreover, this does not only apply to living things. Inorganic matter is also in a state of constant change, so that everything is and is not, because, to use Heraclitus’ marvellous expression "everything is in flux."

For ordinary everyday purposes, we can accept the law of identity. Indeed, it is absolutely indispensable, if thought is not to dissolve into utter confusion. But for more accurate calculations, or higher velocities approaching the speed of light, or for a whole series of critical situations, it proves inadequate. At a certain point, an accumulation of small, quantitative changes gives rise to a fundamental change in quality. All of this remains a closed book to formal logic, the fundamental weakness of which is an inability to deal with things in their movement and life.

Similarly with the law of the excluded middle, which states that it is necessary either to assert or deny, that a thing must be either black or white, either alive or dead, either "A" or "B." It cannot be both at the same time. For normal everyday purposes, we can take this to be true. Indeed, without such assumptions, clear and consistent thought would be impossible. In the period of decadence of sophism, it became customary to play with dialectics in an arbitrary way, which so twisted the method of reasoning as to be able to prove practically any opinion. Aristotle was determined to clear up the mess caused by the subjective dialectics of sophism, hence his insistence on elementary logical propositions.

Nevertheless, when we depart from the realm of everyday experience and consider more complex processes, it is by no means such a simple matter to distinguish "A" from "B." The dogmatic insistence on eliminating contradiction leads precisely to the metaphysical mode of thought in the specific sense understood by Marx and Engels, as explained in Anti-Dühring, which points out the limitations of the laws of formal logic when faced with the contradictory reality of nature:

"To the metaphysician, things and their mental images, ideas, are isolated, to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, fixed, rigid objects of investigation given once for all. He thinks in absolutely unmediated antitheses. ‘His communication is ‘yea, yea; nay, nay’; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other.

"At first sight this way of thinking seems to us most plausible because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Yet sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. The metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and even necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the object, invariably bumps into a limit sooner or later, beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions, because in the presence of individual things it forgets their connections; because in the presence of their existence it forgets their coming into being and passing away; because in their state of rest it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees. For everyday purposes we know and can definitely say, e.g., whether an animal is alive or not. But, upon closer inquiry, we find that this is sometimes a very complex question, as the jurists very well know. They have cudgelled their brains in vain to discover a rational limit beyond which the killing of the child in its mother’s womb is murder. It is just as impossible to determine the moment of death, for physiology proves that death is not a sudden instantaneous phenomenon, but a very protracted process.

"In like manner, every organic being is every moment the same and not the same; every moment it assimilates matter supplied from without and gets rid of other matter; every moment some cells of its body die and others build themselves anew; in a longer or shorter time the matter of its body die and others build themselves anew in a longer or shorter time the matter of its body is completely renewed and is replaced by other molecules of matter, so that every organic being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.

"Further, we find upon closer investigation that the two poles of an antithesis, like positive and negative, are as inseparable as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition, they interpenetrate. In like manner, we find that cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to the individual case as such; but as soon as we consider the individual case in its general connection with the universe as a whole, they merge, they dissolve in the concept of universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are constantly changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa.

"None of these processes and modes of thought fit into the frame of metaphysical thinking. But for dialectics, which grasps things and their conceptual images essentially in their interconnection, in their concatenation, their motion, their coming into and passing out of existence, such processes as those mentioned above are so many corroborations of its own procedure." (Engels, op. cit., pp. 26-7.)

It is unfortunate, but not unique, that the brilliant, original thought of a genius became ossified and impoverished in the hands of his successors. The flexible, dialectical aspect of Aristotle’s method, with its emphasis on observation and experiment was lost sight of for a long time. The mediaeval Schoolmen, interested only in providing an ideological basis for the doctrines of the Church, concentrated on his logic, interpreted in a lifeless and formalistic way, to the exclusion of practically all else. Thus, a body of ideas which ought to have provided a healthy stimulus to the development of science, was turned into its opposite—a set of chains for the intellect, which was only shattered by the revolutionary upsurge of the Renaissance.

There is something profoundly ironical about the hijacking of Aristotle by the Church. In fact, his writings are impregnated with a strongly materialist spirit. Lenin considered that "Aristotle comes very close to materialism." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 282.) Thus, unlike Plato, in Aristotle, formal logic is closely connected to the theory of being and the theory of knowledge, because he saw the forms of thought as being, not independently existing phenomena, but forms of being, expressed in human consciousness.

Aristotle totally rejected Plato’s theory of ideas as disembodied forms. The aim of science is, of course, to generalise on the basis of experience. But the general only exists in and through the material things given to us in sense perception. He rightly understood the limitations of the early materialists like Thales who attempted to express the material world in terms of a single concrete manifestation, such as water. He saw matter as an eternal substance, which is always changing, which cannot be created or destroyed, with neither beginning or end, but which is in a constant process of change and transformation. One of his main objections to Plato’s idealism is that non-material ("non-sensible") things can have no movement: "But this is quite inadmissible; a heaven…without movement is unthinkable; yet a non-sensible heaven can have no movement." (Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. 94.)

Aristotle’s penetrating mind detected an insoluble contradiction in Plato’s idealism. If there really existed unchanging, eternal forms, how did they succeed in giving rise to the constantly moving, changing material world we see before us? Out of such an immobile idea, entirely devoid of any principle of motion, one can derive nothing at all, except a complete standstill. Nothing comes into being, without a moving force, either from within itself or from without, as Newton found out, when he assigned God the task of providing the initial impulse to get his mechanical universe moving. But here there is nothing of the sort. Plato’s Ideas have no motion in them. But since all things move and change, these allegedly perfect ideas suffer from the greatest imperfection of all. They do not exist. More correctly, they do not exist anywhere except as phantoms in the brains of philosophers.

The absolute separation between thought and being, that peculiar schizophrenia which afflicts all brands of idealism ultimately leads it to impotence, since there is no real way in which the Absolute Idea which is supposed to stand above the world of crude material reality can affect the latter, or impinge upon it in any way whatever. As Schwegler remarks:

"The supporters of the Ideal Theory, then, are not in a position logically to determine any idea; their ideas are indefinable. Plato has left in complete obscurity the relation in general of things to the ideas. He terms the ideas archetypes, and supposes things to participate in them; but such expressions are only hollow poetical metaphors. How are we to conceive this ‘participation’ in, this copying of, these patterns thus remote, absent in an alien region? It is in vain to seek in Plato any definite explanation here. It is wholly unintelligible how and why matter comes to participate in the ideas." (Schwegler, op. cit., p. 104.)

In his struggle against the subjectivism of the sophists, Socrates laid stress on the need to look for universal ideas, and arrive at correct conceptions and definitions which really correspond to the subject matter under consideration. This was an advance as against the arbitrary method of the sophists. Indeed, without such universals, science in general would be impossible. However, Plato’s attempt to transform these general notions into independent entities led straight into the swamp of religious mysticism. What we are really dealing with here, under the heading of "universals" is the genus and species of things. The notion that a genus or species can exist separate and apart from the individuals that comprise it, or vice versa, is a self-evident nonsense. Aristotle rejected the notion that forms and ideas can exist separate from material things:

"While the Ideal Theory involves us in numerous difficulties, its greatest absurdity is the doctrine that there are entities apart from those in the sensible universe, and that they are the same as sensible things except that the former are eternal while the latter are perishable. Those who uphold this view are saying in effect that there is an absolute Man, and Horse, and Hearth. They follow closely in the footsteps of those who teach that there are gods, but in human form; for as the latter merely set up eternal men, so the former do no more than make the Forms eternal sensibles." (Aristotle, Metaphysics, pp. 93-4.)

With enormous patience and intellectual rigour, Aristotle went through all the categories of thought, which he expressed in a far more developed and explicit way than had hitherto been the case. Many of the categories of dialectical thought later developed in Hegel’s Logic are already dealt with in outline by Aristotle—Being, Quantity and Quality, Part and Whole, Necessity and Accident, Potential and Actual, and so on. There are many important insights here. For example, in the discussion of the relation between potentiality ("dynamis") and actuality ("energeia"), Aristotle anticipates the idea of the unity of matter and energy. For Aristotle, matter consists of two aspects, substance, which contains within itself the potential for an infinite number of transformations, and a kind of active principle, "energeia," which is an innate and spontaneous moving force. In developing the idea of the movement of potential being into actual being, Aristotle gives a more concrete version of the "becoming" of Heraclitus. Here we have the main point of difference between the philosophy of Aristotle and that of Plato. In place of the static, lifeless Idea, we have an inherent tendency of matter towards movement and development, which realises itself by constantly passing from potentiality to actuality.

In relation to time, Aristotle shows himself to be superior, not only to Plato, but to many modern scientists, who talk mystical nonsense about the "beginning of time." He points out that time, like motion, has always existed, and that, consequently, it is absurd to talk of the beginning or end of time:

"It is impossible, however, that motion should be generable or perishable; it must always have existed. Nor can time come into being or cease to be; for there cannot be a "before" or "after" where there is no time. Movement, then, is also continuous in the sense in which time is, for time is either the same thing as motion or an attribute of it." (Ibid., p. 342.) This is a profound thought, and one that anticipates the position of dialectical materialism, that time, space and motion are the mode of existence of matter, although Aristotle was unable to develop this idea in a satisfactory way.

Starting out from the position of objective idealism, Aristotle came quite close to materialism, although he never managed to make a complete break; as Lenin comments, he wavered "between idealism and materialism." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 286.) In the writings of Aristotle, we find the germs of a materialist conception of history and the development of thought and culture. He explains that, while the actions of animals are determined by immediate sense-impressions (the things they can see, hear, etc.) and memory, only the human race lives by shared, social experience, art and science. While the starting point of all knowledge is experience and sense-perception, that is not enough:

"Wisdom, again, is not to be identified with sense-perception which, though it is our primary source of knowledge of particulars, can never tell us why anything is so (e.g., why fire is hot), but only that it is so." Aristotle, op. cit., p. 52.)

The theory of knowledge of Aristotle also comes close to a materialist position. The starting point is the facts and phenomena given to us through our senses (in sense-perception), passing from the particular to the universal, "so that in this case we have to start from what is more intelligible to ourselves (i.e., the complex facts and objects of experience) and advance to the understanding of what is of its nature intelligible (i.e., the simple, universal principles of scientific knowledge)." (Ibid., p. 172.)

The inconsistency of Aristotle’s position is revealed in the concessions he makes to religion, in assigning to God the role of the First Cause. Anticipating Newton, he argued that there must be something which originates motion, and this something must itself be unmoved. This "something," however, must be an eternal substance and actuality. The concept is ambiguous, rather like the "substance" of Spinoza. It is open to the same objections levelled by Aristotle against Plato. For if the universe was once without motion—something which is impossible—there is no way it could be made to move, unless by an external impulse. But if the "unmoved First Mover" is not material, it is impossible that it should impart motion to a material universe.

Moreover, this line of argument does not solve the problem posed, but merely shifts it back one stage. Let us accept that the "First Cause" set the universe in motion. What caused the "First Cause"? This question is not supposed to be asked. The answer is allegedly given in advance by the phrase "unmoved First Mover," which, of course, answers nothing. The weakness of the whole argument is self-evident, and flows from Aristotle’s preoccupation with the search for final causes (as opposed to what he called material, formal and efficient causes). Within certain limits, for everyday purposes, it is possible to do this with a fair degree of satisfaction. For example, the causes of the existence of a house can be traced to the building materials, the builders, the architect, and so on.

In fact, however, it is possible to go on tracing the causes of even the simplest phenomenon indefinitely. Even in the given example, we could go on to specify the demand for housing, the state of the world economy, the atomic composition of the bricks and cement, the parents and grandparents of all the people involved, and so on and so forth. For practical purposes, we choose not to do this, placing a definite limit on causality. But, in reality, the chain of causation is endless, cause becoming effect, and vice versa, ad infinitum. Thus, the very conception of a "First Cause" is unscientific and mystical. Naturally, this weakest side of Aristotle was seized upon and elevated to the rank of dogma by the Church.

Another misconception in Aristotle, related to the above, was the teleological interpretation of nature. Teleology (from the Greek word telos, an end) holds that all natural phenomena, including man, are determined by an ultimate goal or purpose. This mistaken notion played a negative role in holding back science, since it cannot really explain anything. Moreover, it leads to religious conclusions, because one has to say where this "purpose" came from. The conclusion is drawn that the goal of things is determined by God.

Aristotle himself did not approach things in this way, although it suited the Church later on to give it a religious interpretation. To him, everything contained within itself an active principle, or "soul" ("entelechy"), and the whole of nature is guided by a single supreme goal. This idea probably comes from Aristotle’s investigations of biology. In his works, he mentions some 500 different types of animals, of which he himself dissected about fifty different types. From close observation, he noted how the body structure of animals is perfectly adapted to their environment and mode of existence. From such observations, Darwin arrived at the theory of evolution. But Aristotle drew a different conclusion, namely that the nature of each animal is predetermined by Nature in accordance with a given order, a plan almost, which is inherent in the nature of things. Thus, Aristotle ascribes the body to a divine plan:

"Man alone of all the animals is erect, because his nature and his substance are divine. To think, to exercise intelligence, is the characteristic of that which is most divine. This is not easy if much of the body is situated in the upper part. For weight renders the exercise of thought and perception sluggish. Accordingly, if the weight and the bodily element increase, bodies must bow down to earth; then, for security, nature must substitute forelegs for hands and arms, and we get quadrupeds...But man being erect has no need of forelegs; instead of them nature has given him hands and arms. Now Anaxagoras has said that it is the possession of hands that has made man the most intelligent of the animals. The probability is that it was because he was the most intelligent that he got hands. For hands are a tool, and nature, like an intelligent man, always distributes tools to those that can use them. The proper thing is to give a genuine flute-player a flute rather than to give a man who happens to have a flute the skill to play, for that is to add the lesser to the greater and more august instead of adding the greater and more precious to the lesser. If, then, it is best that it should be so, and if nature, out of what is possible always does the best, it is not because he has hands that man is wise, but because he is the wisest of the animals he has hands." (From Parts of Animals, quoted in Farrington, p. 129-130.)

The idea of Anaxagoras, that the development of human intelligence was made possible by the freeing of the hands was a marvellous insight, but Aristotle completely stands it on its head. His teleological approach prevented him from arriving at a genuinely scientific appraisal of nature, in spite of the vast extent of his researches. Taken over by Thomas Aquinas and the Church, it held back the study of nature for centuries, until Darwin’s discoveries gave a rational explanation of the relative purpose of living creatures. Even so, teleological conceptions in biology resurfaced in different guises—neo-vitalism, neo-Lamarckism, etc. The same tendency is often expressed even today by people who, when attempting to describe natural phenomena, unconsciously endow "Nature" with human characteristics, as if it "made" animals and plants, and got them to behave in a certain way. In reality, the "purposefulness" displayed by plants and animals is the process of optimum adaptation of living objects to their surroundings, and not at all the product of a preordained plan.

Greek Science in the Alexandrine Period

The barrenness of idealist philosophy is shown by the fact that it was incapable of further development. Plato’s philosophy ended with the death of Plato. His Academy was taken over by a series of second-raters, who contributed nothing new to the development of thought. This was not the case with Aristotle’s Lyceum. His emphasis on investigation stimulated his pupils to engage in fruitful practical research. The voluminous studies in different fields bequeathed by the Master laid the basis for the development of various sciences. The great museum of Alexandria was an offshoot of the Lyceum, which produced important treatises on botany, physics, anatomy, physiology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, mechanics, music and grammar.

Aristotle’s first successor, Theophrastus, made a breakthrough in biology, being the first to draw a firm distinction between plants and animals to establish the science of botany. Theophrastus also began to question the validity of teleology, and proposed to place a limit on its application to biology:

"We must try to set a limit on the assigning of final causes," he wrote. "This is the prerequisite of all scientific inquiry into the universe, that is, into the conditions of existence of real things and their relations with one another." (See Farrington, p. 162.)

He went back to the materialist explanations of the pre-Socratic philosophers, in order to overcome the contradictions in which Aristotle had found himself in relation to matter and movement.

Strato, who was head of the Lyceum from 287 to 267 B.C., can be considered the father of scientific experiment. According to Polybius, he earned the nickname "The Physicist," which at that time denoted anyone interested in the investigation of nature. Cicero says, in a disapproving tone, that he "abandoned ethics, which is the most necessary part of philosophy, and devoted himself to the investigation of nature" (ibid, p. 182). In 1893, Hermann Diels analysed a fragment attributed to Hero of Alexandria, the Pneumatics, written in the second half of the 1st century A.D., which clearly lays down the basis of the experimental method worked out by Strato.

The scientists of the Alexandrine period made great advances in all fields of knowledge. In mechanics, for example, they produced mathematical explanations of a whole host of operations: the lever, the balance, the pulley, the potter’s wheel, the wedge, the oars of a boat, the problem of inertia, etc. In the field of botany, the work of Theostratus remained without parallel until modern times, according to Farrington. Strato is now considered to be the author of the document Mechanical Problems, originally attributed to Aristotle, which contains the germ of an important principle of mechanics, the principle of virtual velocities (the principle of virtual displacements). Erastothenes calculated the circumference of the earth, using scientific methods, and appears to have come within 0.4% of the correct result. Hero of Alexandria even invented a steam engine, although it could not be put to use. The question invariably arises in our minds why such extraordinary discoveries did not lead to a technological and industrial revolution 2,000 years ago. The answer to this question lies in the nature of the slave economy itself.

In general, with certain exceptions like mining, war engines and public works, the rulers of Greece and Rome were uninterested in the application of scientific discoveries for practical purposes. In the period when slavery became the dominant mode of production, the divorce between science and technology was almost total. Philosophical and scientific speculation was regarded as an intellectual pastime for the wealthy. Philosophers and mathematicians looked with contempt at the men of practical affairs. Euclid, the great geometrician, when asked by an incautious pupil what he would gain by studying geometry, ordered a slave to give him a few coins, "since he must make a gain out of what he learns." In point of fact, no practical use was found for Euclid’s theories until the 17th century, when Galileo discovered that projectiles move in parabolas and Kepler found that planets move in ellipses.

With an abundance of cheap slave labour, there was no incentive to move towards labour-saving technology. The market for refined products was restricted to a small class of wealthy people. The question of mass production therefore did not arise. Even in agriculture, which in the later period of Roman history was based on large-scale latifundia, there was a disincentive to introduce machinery. First, because of the abundant supply of slaves, and second, because the slaves, unlike free labourers, could not be relied upon to look after delicate and costly machines. In a perceptive footnote in the first volume of Capital, Marx explains the reason for the impossibility of introducing advanced technology on the basis of slavery:

"This is one of the circumstances that makes production by slave labour such a costly process. The labourer here is, to use a striking expression of the ancients, distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale, from an animal as instrumentum semi-vocale, and from an implement as instrumentum mutum. But he himself takes care to let both beast and implement feel that he is none of them, but is a man. He convinces himself with immense satisfaction, that he is a different being, by treating the one unmercifully and damaging the other con amore. Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found. (Conf. J. E. Cairnes, The Slave Power, London, 1862, p. 46 sqq.) In his Sea Board Slave States, Olmsted tell us: "I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than with those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield—much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from Negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time, treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North." (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 196, note.)

The rise of slavery undermined the free peasantry, crushed by military service, debt, and the competition of slavery. Paradoxically, the productivity of slave-labour was lower than that of the small peasants they displaced. But with a huge supply of slaves from foreign wars of conquest, the low level of productivity of the individual slave was compensated for by the cheapness of labour power of a large number of slaves subjected to forced labour. The replacement of small peasant holdings by vast latifundia, worked by armies of slaves, gave rise to huge surpluses, as long as the supply of cheap slaves continued. Where slavery is the main mode of production, the very concept of labour becomes debased, identified in men’s minds with all things base and degraded. No wonder Aristotle could not stomach Anaxagoras’ theory that human intelligence depended on the hands!

This is not the place to analyse in detail the contradictions of the slave mode of production, which finally led to its demise. Suffice it to note that, despite the common attempt to compare the slave system with modern capitalism, in many ways it was the exact opposite. For example, the proletariat, which today, along with nature, produces all the wealth of society, in the period of the Roman empire was a parasitic class, which lived on the backs of the slaves. On the other hand, whereas the modern capitalist depends on the continual search for avenues of reinvestment, the possibilities for investment open to the Roman capitalist were limited by the nature of slave production itself.

The key to the expansion of the productive forces under present-day capitalism is the production of the means of production, the manufacture of new machines, which leads to a constant increase in capital. In Antiquity, however, the conditions for the development and application of machinery were lacking. The first of these is the existence of a large class of free labourers, who are compelled to sell their labour power to the owners of industry. There was no incentive to invent machines which could not be put to practical use. The relatively small class of craftsmen devoted themselves to the production of luxury articles for the gratification of the wealthy who, unlike the modern capitalists, having no productive outlet for their surpluses, devoted themselves to conspicuous consumption on a grand scale.

The entire system began to break down when the supply of cheap slave labour dried up, as the empire reached its limits. In the absence of a revolutionary overturn, the whole of society entered into a prolonged phase of decline and decay. The barbarian invasions did not cause the collapse, but were an expression of the fact that the system of slavery had exhausted itself. The all-pervading sense of decay affected the outlook of every class. The feeling of weariness, of moral decadence, of disgust with a world that had outlived itself, finds its expression in the prevailing philosophies of the period—the words for two of them, cynicism and scepticism, have passed into the vocabulary of our own times, although with meanings completely different to the originals.

The cynics were followers of Diogenes of Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who professed his open contempt for all existing morals and customs. His more famous disciple, also named Diogenes, from Sinope, carried this idea to the extreme of wishing to live "like a dog," hence the word "cynic’’ (from the Greek word for a dog). It is said that he lived in a barrel. The idea, like that of present-day "drop-outs," was to reduce one’s dependence on material things to a minimum. According to legend, when Alexander the Great offered him anything he wanted, he answered, "step out of my light." The whole idea, in contrast to the modern cynics, was to despise worldly things.

This idea of turning away from the world to seek spiritual salvation in oneself reflected the profound social and cultural crisis caused by the decline of the Greek city-states. Even Pythagoras and Plato, despite their idealist philosophy, did not actually renounce the world entirely. Both tried to influence it by trying to persuade rulers to put their philosophical views into practice. Both appealed to logic and reason. What we see here is something different. A complete renunciation of this world, and a total denial of the possibility of knowing anything.

While the Lyceum produced important scientific results, the Academy fell increasingly under the influence of scepticism. The sceptic philosophy, represented by Pyhrro, Sextus Empiricus and others, questioned the possibility of objective knowledge of reality. "We can never know anything, not even that we know nothing." This was their central tenet. It was, to some extent, the logical outcome of the method of deduction, which was held up by the idealists as the only means of arriving at the truth, not by reference to the real world of observation and experiment, but by deriving ideas from other ideas, axioms and "first principles," like those of Euclid in geometry, which are regarded as self-evident, and in no need of proof.

Sceptics like Timon denied the possibility of finding such principles. Everything had to be proved by something else, and that in turn by something else, and so on ad infinitum. And therefore, nothing can be known.

This marks a degeneration from objective idealism, which, for all its defects, was capable of reaching some important conclusions, to subjective idealism, the lowest, most primitive and sterile form of idealism. Ultimately, it leads to solipsism, the notion that only "I" exist. Everything depends on my subjective impressions. There is no objective truth. For example, I cannot assert that honey is sweet, only that it seems sweet to me. To most people this seems absurd. But it is basically no different to the views later put forward by Hume and Kant, which have been widely accepted by modern bourgeois philosophers and scientists. For example, the idea advanced by the sceptics that you cannot say anything for certain about the world, but only that certain things are "probable" is the philosophical basis for a false interpretation of the results of quantum mechanics put forward in our own century by Werner Heisenberg and others and uncritically assimilated by many scientists.

Ideas like this do not drop from the clouds. They are the indirect and confused reflection in men’s brains of an existing social reality. Scepticism in all its guises, including the modern ones, is the expression of a period in which a particular form of society has entered into irreversible decline, when the old ideals are breaking down, but the new ones have not yet asserted themselves. A general mood of uncertainty and malaise spreads through society, beginning with the educated layer, which feels it has lost its bearings. The most common expression of such moods is precisely scepticism, the insistence upon the relativity of all human knowledge, doubt, agnosticism. In the 18th century, the period of the revolutionary ascent of the bourgeoisie, the scepticism of Montaigne and others played a progressive role in criticising the religious dogmas of the theologians. However, the scepticism of Hume and Kant, which attempted to place a limit on the possibilities of human understanding, opened the door to the re-entry of religious faith. Not accidentally, it is this latter variant which has been taken over by modern bourgeois philosophy, in the guise of logical positivism.

The common feature of all these philosophies of the period of decline of slave society is the idea of a retreat from the world. It is the philosophy of despair. The world is seen as a vale of tears, from which it is necessary to escape, seeking individual salvation by various means. In the period of decline of the Roman empire, the philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism, dominant from the 1st century A.D. displayed the same tendency, although, as often happens, there was frequently a discrepancy between theory and practice. For example, Seneca, the stern moral philosopher of stoicism, who taught ethics to the emperor Nero, made a fortune out of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest, which provoked the rebellion of Bodicea against the Romans in Britain. This prophet of poverty left behind one of the biggest fortunes of the time—300 million sesterces.

In his masterly study of Antiquity, The Foundations of Christianity, Karl Kautsky describes the intellectual and moral climate in which these ideas took root:

"Epicurus called philosophy an activity that brings about a happy life by means of concepts and proofs. He believed this would be achieved by striving for pleasure, but only for rational lasting enjoyment, not for transitory sensual dissipations, which lead to the loss of health and wealth, and hence to pain.

"This was a philosophy very well suited to a class of exploiters that found no other employment for their wealth than to consume it. What they needed was a rational regulation of the life of enjoyment. But this theory gave no consolation to those, and their number kept growing, who had already suffered bodily, spiritual or financial shipwreck; nor to the poor and wretched, nor to the satiated, those who were revolted by pleasures. And not to those who still had an interest in the traditional forms of the community and still followed goals beyond their own personality, those patriots who grieved to see the decline of state and society, without being able to prevent it. For all these groups the pleasures of this world seemed stale and vain. They turned to the Stoic doctrine, which valued not pleasure but virtue as the highest good, as the only blessedness, and held external goods, health, wealth, etc., to be matters just as indifferent as external evils.

"This ended by leading many people to turn away from the world altogether, to despise life, even to long for death. Suicide became common in Imperial Rome; it actually became fashionable." (Kautsky, op. cit., p. 89.)

Here we stand on the threshold between philosophy and religion. A society which has exhausted itself economically, morally and intellectually finds its expression in a general mood of pessimism and despair. Logic and reason provide no answers, when the existing order of things is itself shot through with irrationality. Such circumstances are not conducive to the growth of scientific thought and bold philosophical generalisations. They are much more likely to produce an inward-looking tendency, reflecting social atomisation, mysticism and irrationality. From this world we can expect nothing, and even understand nothing. Far better to turn our backs on it, and prepare ourselves for a better life to come. In place of philosophy, we have religion, in place of reason, mysticism.

We already see this phenomenon in the period of decline of the Greek city-states when, in the words of Professor Gilbert Murray, "Astrology fell upon the Hellenic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote Pacific island people." (Quoted by Russell, p. 237.) The same phenomenon was multiplied a thousandfold in the long drawn-out decline of the Roman empire. The epidemic of Oriental religions and cults which afflicted Roman society at this time is well documented—not just Christianity and Judaism, but the cult of Mithras, the cult of Isis and Osiris, and a thousand other exotic sects proliferated at the expense of the official religion.

Many of these cults had similar ceremonies and rituals. The sacrament of Mithras included a sacred meal, in which consecrated bread and a chalice of wine were served to the faithful in anticipation of the future life. In fact, many elements of Christianity were taken over from other religions, and most of its doctrines from pagan philosophers. A special role was played by Plotinus (205-270), the Greek mystic and founder of the neo-Platonist school. Here we have the final decadence of classical idealism. The world is supposed to consist of the One, which is unknowable and inexpressible. We can only know it by mystical means, ecstatic communion, trances, and the like. This, in turn, is achieved through the mortification of the flesh, and the emancipation of our better self from the bondage of matter. Plotinus sets out from the idea of a Holy Trinity. Matter has no independent reality, but is the creation of the soul. The only question is, why the soul bothered to create such stuff in the first place. But one is not supposed to ask such questions here, only to accept it as a "mystery." All this was taken over, bag and baggage, by the early Christian apologists, who produced a theology which is the bastard child of Oriental religion and Greek idealism in the period of its decadence. Such was to become the staple diet of European culture for 2,000 years, with the most negative results for science.

The Struggle Against Religion

In the absence of a revolutionary alternative, the breakdown of slave society, produced a frightful collapse of culture, the effects of which lasted for centuries. In the period known as the Dark Ages, the scientific and artistic achievements of Antiquity were largely lost. The flame of learning was kept alight in Byzantium, Ireland and, above all, in the part of Spain occupied by the Arabs. The rest of Europe remained sunk in barbarism for a long time.

Gradually, a new form of society emerged from the wreckage of the old, the feudal system, based on the exploitation of a peasantry who were no longer slaves, but were tied to the land, under the domination of temporal and spiritual lords. The pyramidal structure of society reflected this domination, with a rigid system of alleged duties and rights to one’s "natural superiors." The fundamental duty, however, upon which everything else depended, was the duty of the serf to provide free labour service for his lord and master. This is what distinguishes this form of society from chattel slavery that went before it, and capitalism that followed it. The whole thing was sanctified by the Church, which wielded immense power, and was organised along similar hierarchical lines.

The static, unchanging character of the feudal mode of production, and the rigid social hierarchy that rested upon it, found an ideological expression in the fixed dogmas of the Church, which demanded unquestioning obedience, based on the official interpretation of the sacred texts. The earlier doctrines of the Christians, with their strong revolutionary and communist overtones were persecuted as heresy, and stamped out, once Christianity became accepted as the state religion. In place of reason, the Church Fathers preached blind faith, summed up in the celebrated phrase attributed to Tertullian, "Credo, quia absurdum est"—(I believe because it is absurd). Science was looked on as suspicious, a heritage of paganism. One of the last of the Greek mathematicians, Hypatia, was stoned to death by a mob led by a monk.

The heritage of classical Greek philosophy was lost, and was only partially revived in Western Europe in the 12th century. Such a situation was not conducive to the development of thought and science. "The conditions of feudal production reduced the demand for useful science to a minimum," writes J. D. Bernal. "It was not to increase again till trade and navigation created new needs in the later Middle Ages. Intellectual effort was to go in other directions and largely in the service of a radically new feature of civilisation—organised religious faiths." (Bernal, Science in History, p. 181.)

According to Forbes and Dijksterhuis:

"Generally speaking it may be said that during the first centuries of its existence Christianity was not conducive to scientific pursuits. Science was regarded with suspicion because of its pagan origin; moreover, the ideal prevailed that it was not advisable for the spiritual welfare of Christians to penetrate more deeply into the secrets of nature than was made possible by the Holy Scriptures and than was required to understand these." (Forbes and Dijksterhuis, A History of Science and Technology, Vol. 1, pp. 101-2.)

When the remnants of classical culture eventually reached Western Europe, it was in translations from the Arabic. The great energy shown by the Arabs in conquering North Africa and Spain right up to the Pyrenees was matched by their intelligent and flexible attitude to the culture of the conquered peoples, in marked contrast to the ignorant barbarism displayed by the Christians after the reconquest of Al-Andalus. For centuries, the Islamic universities in Spain, especially the one at C—rdoba, were the only real centres of learning in Europe, if we exclude Ireland, which, because of its remoteness, remained outside the mainstream. The Arabs made great advances in a whole number of fields—mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, optics and chemistry, as well as important technological advances, shown by the vast irrigation schemes which were wantonly destroyed by the Christians. But it took hundreds of years for this knowledge to percolate through to Western Europe.

Because of the Church’s monopoly of culture, all intellectual life had to be channelled through it. At the universities, where everything was taught in Latin, the curriculum was dominated by grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy and music. The high point was philosophy and theology, which were closely related. For centuries, philosophy was seen as the "handmaiden of theology." Science was reduced to a bare minimum: "Arithmetic was numeration; geometry the first three books of Euclid; astronomy hardly got past the calendar and how to compute the date of Easter; and the physics were very remote and Platonic." (Ibid., p. 218.) No interest was shown in scientific research and experiment.

Philosophy was reduced to an impoverished form of Platonic idealism, later replaced by a completely ossified and one-sided reading of Aristotle. In the early period, St. Augustine (354-430) based himself on Neo-Platonism to attack the pagan opponents of Christianity. Much later, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) represent a falsification of Aristotelian philosophy to fit the needs of the Church in the conditions of feudal society, playing down the materialist elements and stressing the weak side of Aristotle, the "unmoved first mover" and so on. To this day, a variant of his philosophy (neo-Thomism) remains the basic position of the Roman Catholic Church.

However, even in such apparently infertile soil, the seeds of further development slowly began to germinate. The mediaeval scholastics, or Schoolmen, who endlessly debated questions of theology in order to provide their religious world outlook with some theoretical basis, eventually produced a number of thinkers who were beginning to draw materialist conclusions. Not by accident, the most prominent of them came from Britain, where the roots of empiricism have traditionally run deep.

In the later Middle Ages, the rise of the towns and trade saw the emergence of a new and vigorous element in the social equation. The rising class of wealthy merchants began to flex its muscles, demanding rights. The expansion of commerce, the opening up of new trade routes, the rise of a money economy, the creation of new needs and the means of satisfying them, the development of arts and crafts, the rise of a new national literature, all these things heralded the birth of a revolutionary force in society, the bourgeoisie, whose interests laid in breaking down the artificial feudal barriers which impeded its development, and also, to an ever-increasing extent, in developing and exploiting technical innovations.

The development of open-sea navigation, for example, demanded the production of new and better charts, based on accurate astronomical observations, and also of more advanced navigational instruments. The introduction of paper and printing had a revolutionary effect on the accessibility of ideas which had earlier been limited to a tiny minority of ecclesiastics. The production of literature written in the vernacular for the first time had the same effect, with the emergence of great recognisable national writers, Boccaccio, Dante, Rabelais, Chaucer and finally, Luther. The introduction of gunpowder not only revolutionised warfare, and helped undermine the power of the nobles, but also gave a new impetus to the study of physics and chemistry.

First in Italy, then in Holland, Britain, Bohemia, Germany and France, the new class began to challenge the old order, which, after nearly a thousand years, had exhausted itself and entered a phase of decline. The endless wars and civil wars of the period bore witness to the impasse of feudalism. The Black Death, which decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century, hastened the dissolution of feudal relations on the land. The peasant "jacqueries" in France and the Peasant Rising in England were a warning of the approaching dissolution of the feudal order. To many people, it seemed that the end of the world was approaching. In fact, the sensation of impending doom which gave rise to phenomena like the flagellant sects, groups of religious fanatics, who travelled the country, whipping and otherwise inflicting pain on themselves, in anticipation of the impending Day of Wrath. This was merely a confused reflection in the popular imagination of the impending break-up of the existing social order.

The breakdown of a social system is anticipated by a crisis of the official morality and ideology, which increasingly enters into conflict with the changed social relations. A critical spirit arises among a layer of the intellectuals, always a barometer of the tensions building up within the depths of society. An ideology and morality which no longer reflects reality is one that has outlived itself, and is destined to be overthrown. The moral and ideological basis for the feudal system was the teaching of the Church. Any serious challenge to the existing order meant an assault on the Church, which defended its power and privileges with all the means at its disposal, including excommunication, torture and the stake. But no amount of repression can preserve an idea whose time has past.

The Middle Ages are usually depicted as a time of extreme religious devotion and piety. But that description certainly does not apply to the period under consideration. The Church, a wealthy and powerful institution which weighed heavily on the back of society, was widely discredited. "Of all the contradictions which religious life of the period presents," writes Huizinga, "perhaps the most insoluble is that of an avowed contempt of the clergy, a contempt seen as an undercurrent throughout the Middle Ages, side by side with the very great respect shown for the sanctity of the sacerdotal office...Hence it was that nobles, burghers and villeins had for a long time past been feeding their hatred with spiteful jests at the expense of the incontinent monk and the guzzling priest. Hatred is the right world to use in this context, for hatred it was, latent, but general and persistent. The people never wearied of hearing the vices of the clergy arraigned. A preacher who inveighed against the ecclesiastical state was sure of being applauded. As soon as a homilist broaches this subject, says Bernardino of Siena, his hearers forget all the rest; there is no more effective means of reviving attention when the congregation is dropping off to sleep, or suffering from heat or cold. Everybody instantly becomes attentive and cheerful." (J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 172-3.)

The undercurrents of dissent were felt even within the Church itself, reflecting the pressures of society. Heretical movements like the Albirgenses were put down in blood. But new oppositional trends appeared, sometimes disguised in the garb of mysticism. A 19th century Italian historian relates:

"The same spirit of reformation which animated the Albigenses had spread throughout Europe: many Christians, disgusted with the corruption and vices of the clergy, or whose minds revolted against the violence on their reason exercised by the church, devoted themselves to a contemplative life, renounced all ambition and the pleasures of the world, and sought a new road to salvation in the alliance of faith with reason. They called themselves cathari or the purified; paterini, or the resigned." (Sismondi, A History of the Italian Republics, p. 66.)

The Dominican and Franciscan orders were founded in the early 12th century to combat heresies, anti-clericalism and new philosophical ideas. Sismondi says of Pope Innocent the Third: "He founded the two mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans; new champions of the church, who were charged to repress all activity of mind, to combat growing intelligence, and to extirpate heresy. He confided to the Dominicans the fearful powers of the inquisition, which he instituted: he charged them to discover and pursue to destruction the new reformers, who, under the name of paterini, multiplied rapidly in Italy." (Ibid., p. 60.)

Violent repression of opposition of any kind was a constant feature of the conduct of the ecclesiastical authorities from the highest level, as the history of the papacy shows. Pope Urban the Sixth, when he could not get the support of his cardinals, resolved the problem by the simple expedient of accusing them of conspiracy against him. He had many cardinals put to the torture in his presence, while he calmly recited his rosary. Others he ordered to be put in sacks and drowned in the sea. The reforming monk Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian precursor of Luther, was tortured until he confessed all the crimes attributed to him, and burnt alive with two other monks. Examples can be multiplied at will.

The development of science was held back for hundreds of years by the stifling of thought by the spiritual police of the Church. The not inconsiderable intellectual energies of the Schoolmen were dissipated in endless and complicated debates on such subjects as the sex of angels. Nobody was permitted to go beyond the limits laid down by Church dogma, and those who attempted to do so laid themselves open to harsh reprisals.

It therefore called for great courage when the English scholastic Roger Bacon (c. 1214-92), went so far as to challenge the Schoolmen’s dogmatism and veneration of authority. Going against the spirit of the times, and anticipating the scientific method, he advocated the experimental study of nature. Given the fact that science had still not separated itself from alchemy and astrology, it is not surprising that elements of these were present in Bacon’s writings. Nor is it surprising that he was rewarded for his boldness by being dismissed from teaching at Oxford and confined to a monastery for his heretical views. In the circumstances, he was lucky.

The philosophical trend known as nominalism, which emerged at this time, stated that universal concepts are only names of individual objects. This reflected a move in the direction of materialism, as Engels explains:

"Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain. Already the British Schoolman Duns Scotus, asked, ‘whether it was impossible for matter to think?’

"In order to effect this miracle, he took refuge in God’s omnipotence, i.e., he made theology preach materialism. Moreover, he was a nominalist. Nominalism, the first form of materialism, is chiefly found among the English Schoolmen." (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 427.)

The nominalist trend was developed by another Englishman (though, to be exact, Duns Scotus, as his name implies, was born either in Scotland or in Northern Ireland) William of Occam (died 1349), the most important of the Schoolmen. Occam maintained that the existence of God and other religious dogmas could not be proved by reason, and were founded solely upon faith. This was a dangerous doctrine, since it would mean separating philosophy from religion, enabling it to develop separately, freed from the dead hand of the Church. Occam was excommunicated in 1328, but escaped from the Pope’s territory in Avignon, and fled to the protection of Louis, King of France, who was also excommunicated. Louis then appealed to a general Council, and the Pope found himself accused of heresy. It is said that when Occam met the Emperor he said to him: "Do you defend me with the sword, and I will defend you with the pen." At bottom, this was not an abstract debate about philosophy, but the reflection of a life and death struggle between the Church and Emperor, and between France, England and Germany.

While containing the germ of a correct materialist idea, the philosophy of nominalism was mistaken in assuming that general concepts ("universals") are only names. In fact, they reflect real qualities of objectively existing things, which, apart from their particular features, also embody within themselves elements of the general, which identify them as belonging to a specific genus or species. This denial of the general and insistence on particulars is a peculiar feature of the empirical cast of mind which has characterised the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition ever since. As a reaction against the sterile idealist doctrines of the mediaeval Church, it represented an important advance, a step in the direction of scientific experiment:

"It will not be surprising that thinkers entertaining nominalistic or related conceptions exerted a favourable influence on the study of science. Nominalism predisposed to attention for the experience of concrete things to be gained through the senses, whereas the opposite doctrine known as platonic realism (a confusing name, because it held that reality lay in ideas, so that it might also have been called idealism) always implied the temptation to aprioristic speculation." (Forbes and Dijksterhuis, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 117.)

Nominalism is the germ of materialism, but a one-sided and superficial materialism which later led to a philosophical dead-end with Berkeley, Hume and the modern semantic philosophers. At the time, however, it represented a huge advance. Occam was the last of the great scholastics, but his approach encouraged a new generation of thinkers, like Nicholas of Oresme, his pupil, who investigated planetary theory. He anticipated Copernicus by considering the geocentric theory, which places the earth at the centre of the universe, and comparing it with the heliocentric theory, which states that the sun is at the centre, and concluding that either theory would serve to explain all the known facts, and that, therefore, it was impossible to choose between them. This apparently cautious conclusion was, in fact, quite a bold step, since it put a question mark over the orthodox position of the Church, and thereby challenged its whole world outlook.

The cosmology of the mediaeval Church formed an important part of its general world outlook. It was not a secondary issue. The picture of the universe was supposed to be a mirror-image of the world, with the same kind of static, unchanging character, the same rigid hierarchy. It was not derived from observation, but taken over from the cosmology of Aristotle and the Alexandrines, and accepted dogmatically. Bernal comments:

"The hierarchy of society was reproduced in the hierarchy of the universe itself; just as there was the pope, bishops, and archbishops, the emperor, kings, and nobles, so there was a celestial hierarchy of the nine choirs of angels: seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominations, virtues, and powers; principalities, archangels, and angels (all fruits of the imagination of the pseudo Dionysius). Each of these had a definite function to perform in the running of the universe, and they were attached in due rank to the planetary spheres to keep them in appropriate motion. The lowest order of mere angels that belonged to the sphere of the moon had naturally most to do with the order of human beings just below them. In general there was a cosmic order, as social order, an order inside the human body, all representing states to which Nature tended to return when it was disturbed. There was a place for everything and everything knew its place." (Op. cit., p. 227.)

This view of the universe could not be challenged without calling into question the entire world-outlook of the Church, and the type of society it defended. The conflict around the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo were not abstract intellectual debates, but a life and death battle between opposing views of the world, which ultimately reflected a desperate struggle between two mutually exclusive social orders. The future of world history hinged upon the outcome.



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