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Initiation Into Philosophy


This volume, as indicated by the title, is designed to show the way to the beginner, to satisfy and more especially to excite his initial curiosity. It affords an adequate idea of the march of facts and of ideas. The reader is led, somewhat rapidly, from the remote origins to the most recent efforts of the human mind.

It should be a convenient repertory to which the mind may revert in order to see broadly the general opinion of an epoch—and what connected it with those that followed or preceded it. It aims above all at being a frame in which can conveniently be inscribed, in the course of further studies, new conceptions more detailed and more thoroughly examined.

It will have fulfilled its design should it incite to research and meditation, and if it prepares for them correctly.



Philosophical Interpreters of the Universe, of the Creation and Constitution of the World.

PHILOSOPHY.—The aim of philosophy is to seek the explanation of all things: the quest is for the first causes of everything, and also how all things are, and finally why, with what design, with a view to what, things are. That is why, taking "principle" in all the senses of the word, it has been called the science of first principles.

Philosophy has always existed. Religions—all religions—are philosophies. They are indeed the most complete. But, apart from religions, men have sought the causes and principles of everything and endeavoured to acquire general ideas. These researches apart from religious dogmas in pagan antiquity are the only ones with which we are here to be concerned.

THE IONIAN SCHOOL: THALES.—The Ionian School is the most ancient school of philosophy known. It dates back to the seventh century before Christ. Thales of Miletus, a natural philosopher and astronomer, as we should describe him, believed matter—namely, that of which all things and all beings are made—to be in perpetual transformation, and that these transformations are produced by powerful beings attached to every portion of matter. These powerful beings were gods. Everything, therefore, was full of gods. His philosophy was a mythology. He also thought that the essential element of matter was water, and that it was water, under the influence of the gods, which transformed itself into earth, air, and fire, whilst from water, earth, air, and fire came everything that is in nature.

ANAXIMANDER; HERACLITUS.—Anaximander of Miletus, an astronomer also, and a geographer, believed that the principle of all things is indeterminate—a kind of chaos wherein nothing has form or shape; that from chaos come things and beings, and that they return thither in order to emerge again. One of his particular theories was that fish were the most ancient of animals, and that all animals had issued from them through successive transformations. This theory was revived for a while about fifty years ago.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (very obscure, and with this epithet attached permanently to his name) saw all things as a perpetual growth—in an indefinite state of becoming. Nothing is; all things grow and are destined to eternal growth. Behind them, nevertheless, there is an eternal master who does not change. It is our duty to resemble him as much as we can; that is to say, as much as an ape can resemble a man. Calmness is imperative: to be as motionless as transient beings can. The popular legend runs that Heraclitus "always wept"; what is known of him only tends to prove that he was grave, and did not favour emotionalism.

ANAXAGORAS; EMPEDOCLES.—Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, above all else a natural philosopher, settled at Athens about 470 B.C.; was the master and friend of Pericles; was on the point of being put to death, as Socrates was later on, for the crime of indifference towards the religion of the Athenians, and had to take refuge at Lampsacus, where he died. Like Anaximander, he believed that everything emerged from something indeterminate and confused; but he added that what caused the emergence from that state was the organizing intelligence, the Mind, just as in man, it is the intelligence which draws thought from cerebral undulations, and forms a clear idea out of a confused idea. Anaxagoras exerted an almost incomparable influence over Greek philosophy of the classical times.

Empedocles of Agrigentum, a sort of magician and high-priest, almost a deity, whose life and death are but little known, appears to have possessed an encyclopaedic brain. From him is derived the doctrine of the four elements, for whereas the philosophers who preceded him gave as the sole source of things—some water, others air, others fire, others the earth, he regarded them all four equally as the primal elements of everything. He believed that the world is swayed by two contrary forces—love and hate, the one desiring eternally to unite, the other eternally to disintegrate. Amid this struggle goes on a movement of organization, incessantly retarded by hate, perpetually facilitated by love; and from this movement have issued—first, vegetation, then the lower animals, then the higher animals, then men. In Empedocles can be found either evident traces of the religion of Zoroaster of Persia (the perpetual antagonism of two great gods, that of good and that of evil), or else a curious coincidence with this doctrine, which will appear again later among the Manicheans.

PYTHAGORAS.—Pythagoras appears to have been born about B.C. 500 on the Isle of Elea, to have travelled much, and to have finally settled in Greater Greece (southern Italy). Pythagoras, like Empedocles, was a sort of magician or god. His doctrine was a religion, the respect with which he was surrounded was a cult, the observances he imposed on his family and on his disciples were rites. What he taught was that the true realities, which do not change, were numbers. The fundamental and supreme reality is one; the being who is one is God; from this number, which is one, are derived all the other numbers which are the foundation of beings, their inward cause, their essence; we are all more or less perfect numbers; each created thing is a more or less perfect number. The world, governed thus by combinations of numbers, has always existed and will always exist. It develops itself, however, according to a numerical series of which we do not possess the key, but which we can guess. As for human destiny it is this: we have been animated beings, human or animal; according as we have lived well or ill we shall be reincarnated either as superior men or as animals more or less inferior. This is the doctrine of metempsychosis, which had many adherents in ancient days, and also in a more or less fanciful fashion in modern times.

To Pythagoras have been attributed a certain number of maxims which are called the Golden Verses.

XENOPHANES; PARMENIDES.—Xenophanes of Colophon is also a "unitarian." He accepts only one God, and of all the ancient philosophers appears to be the most opposed to mythology, to belief in a multiplicity of gods resembling men, a doctrine which he despises as being immoral. There is one God, eternal, immutable, immovable, who has no need to transfer Himself from one locality to another, who is without place, and who governs all things by His thought alone.

Advancing further, Parmenides told himself that if He alone really exists who is one and eternal and unchangeable, all else is not only inferior to Him, but is only a semblance, and that mankind, earth, sky, plants, and animals are only a vast illusion—phantoms, a mirage, which would disappear, which would no longer exist, and would never have existed if we could perceive the Self-existent.

ZENO; DEMOCRITUS.—Zeno of Elea, who must be mentioned more especially because he was the master of that Gorgias of whom Socrates was the adversary, was pre-eminently a subtle dialectician in whom the sophist already made his appearance, and who embarrassed the Athenians by captious arguments, at the bottom of which always could be found this fundamental principle: apart from the Eternal Being all is only semblance; apart from Him who is all, all is nothing.

Democritus of Abdera, disciple of Leucippus of Abdera (about whom nothing is known), is the inventor of the theory of atoms. Matter is composed of an infinite number of tiny indivisible bodies which are called atoms; these atoms from all eternity, or at least since the commencement of matter, have been endued with certain movements by which they attach themselves to one another, and agglomerate or separate, and thence is caused the formation of all things, and the destruction, which is only the disintegration, of all things. The soul itself is only an aggregation of specially tenuous and subtle atoms. It is probable that when a certain number of these atoms quit the body, sleep ensues; that when nearly all depart, it causes the appearance of death (lethargy, catalepsy); that when they all depart, death occurs. We are brought into relation with the external world by the advent in us of extremely subtle atoms—reflections of things, semblances of things—which enter and mingle with the constituent atoms of our souls. There is nothing in our intelligence which has not been brought there by our senses, and our intelligence is only the combination of the atoms composing our souls with the atoms that external matter sends, so to speak, into our souls. The doctrines of Democritus will be found again in those of Epicurus and Lucretius.


Logicians and Professors of Logic, and of the Analysis of Ideas, and of Discussion.

DOCTRINES OF THE SOPHISTS.—The Sophists descend from Parmenides and Zeno of Elea; Gorgias was the disciple of the latter. By dint of thinking that all is semblance save the Supreme Being, who alone is real, it is very easy to arrive at belief in all being semblance, including that Being; or at least what is almost tantamount, that all is semblance, inclusive of any idea we can possibly conceive of the Supreme Being. To believe nothing, and to demonstrate that there is no reason to believe in anything, is the cardinal principle of all the Sophists. Then, it may be suggested, there is nothing for it but to be silent. No, there is the cultivation of one's mind (the only thing of the existence of which we are sure), so as to give it ability, readiness, and strength. With what object? To become a dexterous thinker, which in itself is a fine thing; to be also a man of consideration, listened to in one's city, and to arrive at its government.

The Sophists accordingly gave lessons, especially in psychology, dialectics, and eloquence. They further taught philosophy, but in order to demonstrate that all philosophy is false; and, as Pascal observed later, that to ridicule philosophy is truly philosophical. They seem to have been extremely intellectual, very learned, and most serious despite their scepticism, and to have rendered Greece the very great service of making a penetrating analysis—the first recorded—of our faculty of knowledge and of the limitations, real, possible, or probable, of that faculty.

PROTAGORAS; GORGIAS; PRODICUS.—They were very numerous, the taste for their art, which might be called philosophical criticism, being widespread in Attica. It may be believed, as Plato maintains, that some were of very mediocre capacity, and this is natural; but there were also some who clearly were eminent authorities. The most illustrious were Protagoras, Gorgias, and Prodicus of Ceos. Protagoras seems to have been the most philosophical of them all, Gorgias the best orator and the chief professor of rhetoric, Prodicus the most eminent moralist and poet. Protagoras rejected all metaphysics—that is, all investigation of first causes and of the universe—and reduced all philosophy to the science of self-control with a view to happiness, and control of others with a view to their happiness. Like Anaxagoras, he was banished from the city under the charge of impiety, and his books were publicly burnt.

Gorgias appears to have maintained the same ideas with more moderation and also with less profundity. He claimed, above all, to be able to make a good orator. According to Plato, it was he whom Socrates most persistently made the butt of his sarcasms.

Prodicus, whom Plato himself esteemed, appears to have been principally preoccupied with the moral problem. He was the author of the famous apologue which represented Hercules having to choose between two paths, the one being that of virtue, the other of pleasure. Like Socrates later on, he too was subject to the terrible accusation of impiety, and underwent capital punishment. The Sophists furnish the most important epoch in the history of ancient philosophy; until their advent the philosophic systems were great poems on the total of all things, known and unknown. The Sophists opposed these ambitious and precipitate generalizations, in which imagination had the larger share, and their discovery was to bring philosophy back to its true starting point by affirming that the first thing to do, and that before all else, was to know our own mind and its mechanism. Their error possibly was, while saying that it was the first thing to do, too often to affirm that it was the only thing to do; still the fact remains that they were perfectly accurate in their assurance that it was primary.


Philosophy Entirely Reduced to Morality, and Morality Considered as the End of all Intellectual Activity.

THE PHILOSOPHY OF SOCRATES.—Of Socrates nothing is known except that he was born at Athens, that he held many public discussions with all and sundry in the streets of Athens, and that he died under the Thirty Tyrants. Of his ideas we know nothing, because he wrote nothing, and because his disciples were far too intelligent; in consequence of which it is impossible to know if what they said was thought by him, had really been his ideas or theirs. What seems certain is that neither Aristophanes nor the judges at the trial of Socrates were completely deceived in considering him a Sophist; for he proceeded from them. It is true he proceeded from them by reaction, because evidently their universal scepticism had terrified him; but nevertheless he was their direct outcome, for like them he was extremely mistrustful of the old vast systems of philosophy, and to those men who pretended to know everything he opposed a phrase which is probably authentic: "I know that I know nothing;" for, like the Sophists, he wished to recall philosophy to earth from heaven, namely from metaphysics to the study of man, and nothing else; for, like the Sophists, he confined and limited the field with a kind of severe and imperious modesty which was none the less contemptuous of the audacious; for, finally, like the Sophists, but in this highly analogous to many philosophers preceding the Sophists, he had but a very moderate and mitigated respect for the religion of his fellow-citizens.

According to what we know of Socrates from Xenophon, unquestionably the least imaginative of his disciples, Socrates, like the Sophists, reduced philosophy to the study of man; but his great and incomparable originality lay in the fact that whereas the Sophists wished man to study himself in order to be happy, Socrates wished him to study himself in order to be moral, honest, and just, without any regard to happiness. For Socrates, everything had to tend towards morality, to contribute to it, and to be subordinated to it as the goal and as the final aim. He applied himself unceasingly, relates Xenophon, to examine and to determine what is good and evil, just and unjust, wise and foolish, brave and cowardly, etc. He incessantly applied himself, relates Aristotle—and therein he was as much a true professor of rhetoric as of morality—thoroughly to define and carefully to specify the meaning of words in order not to be put off with vague terms which are illusions of thought, and in order to discipline his mind rigorously so as to make it an organ for the ascertainment of truth.

HIS METHOD.—He had dialectical methods, "the art of conferring," as Montaigne called it, more or less happy, which he had probably borrowed from the Sophists, that contributed to cause him to be considered one of them, and exercised a wide vogue long after him. He "delivered men's minds," as he himself said—that is, he believed, or affected to believe, that the verities are in a latent state in all minds, and that it needed only patience, dexterity, and skillful investigation to bring them to light. Elsewhere, he interrogated in a captious fashion in order to set the interlocutor in contradiction to himself and to make him confess that he had said what he had not thought he had said, agreed to what he had not believed he had agreed to; and he triumphed maliciously over such confusions. In short, he seems to have been a witty and teasing Franklin, and to have taught true wisdom by laughing at everyone. Folk never like to be ridiculed, and no doubt the recollection of these ironies had much to do with the iniquitous judgment which condemned him, and which he seems to have challenged up to the last.

HIS INFLUENCE.—His influence was infinite. It is from him that morality became the end itself, the last and supreme end of all philosophy—the reason of philosophy; and, as was observed by Nietzsche, the Circe of philosophers, who enchants them, who dictates to them beforehand, or who modifies their systems in advance by terrifying them as to what their systems may contain irreverent towards itself or dangerous in relation to it. From Socrates to Kant and thence onward, morality has been the Circe of philosophers, and morality is, as it were, the spiritual daughter of Socrates. On the other hand, his influence was terrible for the religion of antiquity because it directed the mind towards the idea that morality is the sole object worthy of knowledge, and that the ancient religions were immoral, or of such a dubious morality as to deserve the desertion and scorn of honest men. Christianity fought paganism with the arguments of the disciples of Socrates—with Socratic arguments; modern philosophies and creeds are all impregnated with Socraticism. When it was observed that the Sophists form the most important epoch in the history of ancient philosophy, it was because they taught Socrates to seek a philosophy which was entirely human and preoccupied solely with the happiness of man. This led a great mind, and in his track other very great minds, to direct all philosophy, and even all human science, towards the investigation of goodness, goodness being regarded as the condition of happiness.


Plato, like Socrates, is Pre-eminently a Moralist, but he reverts to General Consideration of the Universe and Deals with Politics and Legislation.

PLATO A DISCIPLE OF SOCRATES.—Plato, like Xenophon, was a pupil of Socrates, but Xenophon only wanted to be the clerk of Socrates; and Plato, as an enthusiastic disciple, was at the same time very faithful and very unfaithful to Socrates. He was a faithful disciple to Socrates in never failing to place morality in the foremost rank of all philosophical considerations; in that he never varied. He was an unfaithful disciple to Socrates in that, imaginative and an admirable poet, he bore back philosophy from earth to heaven; he did not forbid himself—quite the contrary—to pile up great systems about all things and to envelop the universe in his vast and daring conceptions. He invincibly established morality, the science of virtue, as the final goal of human knowledge, in his brilliant and charming Socratic Dialogues; he formed great systems in all the works in which he introduces himself as speaking in his own name. He was very learned, and acquainted with everything that had been written by all the philosophers before Socrates, particularly Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras. He reconsidered all their teaching, and he himself brought to consideration a force and a wealth of mind such as appear to have had no parallel in the world.

THE "IDEAS."—Seeking, in his turn, what are the first causes of all and what is eternally real behind the simulations of this transient world, he believed in a single God, as had many before him; but in the bosom of this God, so to speak, he placed, he seemed to see, Ideas—that is to say, eternal types of all things which in this world are variable, transient, and perishable. What he effected by such novel, original, and powerful imagination is clear. He replaced the Olympus of the populace by a spiritual Olympus; the material mythology by an idealistic mythology; polytheism by polyideism, if it may be so expressed—the gods by types. Behind every phenomenon, stream, forest, mountain, the Greeks perceived a deity, a material being like themselves, more powerful than themselves. Behind every phenomenon, behind every thought as well, every feeling, every institution—behind everything, no matter what it be, Plato perceived an idea, immortal, eternal, indestructible, and incorruptible, which existed in the bosom of the Eternal, and of which all that comes under our observation is only the vacillating and troubled reflection, and which supports, animates, and for a time preserves everything that we can perceive. Hence, all philosophy consists in having some knowledge of these Ideas. How is it possible to attain such knowledge? By raising the mind from the particular to the general; by distinguishing in each thing what is its permanent foundation, what it contains that is least changing, least variable, least circumstantial. For example, a man is a very complex being; he has countless feelings, countless diversified ideas, countless methods of conduct and existence. What is his permanent foundation? It is his conscience, which does not vary, undergoes no transformation, always obstinately repeats the same thing; the foundation of man, the eternal idea of which every man on earth is here the reflection, is the consciousness of good; man is an incarnation on earth of that part of God which is the will for good; according as he diverges from or approaches more nearly to this will, is he less or more man.

THE PLATONIC DIALECTIC AND MORALITY.—This method of raising oneself to the ideas is what Plato termed dialectic—that is to say, the art of discernment.

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