January 5, 2019

1. Blair on Natural Philosophy

In high school, I got a D in Physics and an F in Astronomy (or was it a D in Astronomy and an F in Physics?). In college, I struggled to pass a science class (required for graduating). After college, I took the GRE test for graduate school, and did poorly on the math section, partly because I couldn’t remember if the x axis was the vertical one or the horizontal one (I now believe it’s the horizontal one).

Despite this sorry record, I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that science should be part of philosophy, and that quantum physics is an excellent confirmation of the Hermetic worldview. Indeed, an enthusiasm for quantum physics might be the best indicator of one who inclines toward the Hermetic and mystical. We can combine the sciences and the humanities in a new philosophy that embraces the whole universe.

I feel a kinship with Renaissance philosophy (Bruno, Shakespeare, etc.) because it’s a Hermetic philosophy, a philosophy that believes the world is inter-connected. So I recently read Ann Blair’s essay on Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period.1 The term “Natural Philosophy” became obsolete around 1800, when philosophers and scientists parted ways. Until the late 1700s, philosophers like Kant stayed current with scientific literature, and even tried to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

Blair shows how Aristotle dominated the university curriculum. Natural Philosophy consisted largely of the study of Aristotle’s scientific works, such as his Physics. Even as late as 1650, Aristotle’s philosophy was “the point of reference in relation to which every new philosophy had to prove its tenability.”

Would Blair reject my view that Renaissance philosophy was Hermetic and anti-Aristotle? Not necessarily. Blair is discussing the main current of intellectual life, I’m discussing the cutting edge. When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” he wasn’t saying that the average European was an atheist, or even that the average European professor was an atheist. He was talking about the cutting edge, he was saying that the thinkers on the cutting edge had rejected monotheism.

Blair shows how mainstream opinion lags behind the cutting edge. She says that the Copernican theory, first published in 1543, was “discussed but almost universally dismissed in universities prior to 1640.” As for the Cartesian cosmology, it wasn’t accepted until it “had been debunked by the work of Huygens and Newton; but the French natural philosophers, loath to abandon their national champion, only cast off Descartes for Newton some fifty years later, in the 1740s.” Mainstream opinion evolves, but it never catches up to the cutting edge; the academy is always fifty years behind the cutting edge.

Ancient thinkers said that the world consisted of four elements — earth, air, fire, and water. Some ancient thinkers spoke of a fifth element — quinta essentia or quintessence. This fifth element figured prominently in Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy. Aristotle said that the fifth element was in the celestial regions, not on earth (the “superlunary” regions, not the “sublunary” region). The fifth element became known as aether; the aether concept wasn’t abandoned until around 1900.

Thus, Aristotle divided the celestial realm from the terrestrial realm — one had aether, the other didn’t. This puts Aristotle at odds with Hermetism, which says that the world is one (unus mundus); the motto of the Hermetics was “As above, so below.”

My worldview is Hermetic insofar as I believe that the world is one; human beings, with their consciousness and emotions, came from matter; all matter, even the most distant stars, has a kind of consciousness, a kinship with man. Matter’s quasi-consciousness is apparent in quantum physics, hence quantum physics was baffling to the hard-headed scientists who discovered it. I’m attracted to the idea of a “new animism” — that is, a worldview that sees the entire universe as alive.

I also believe in life- and death-instincts; these instincts are the foundation of my theory of history, my theory of renaissance and decadence. These instincts resemble Aristotle’s fifth element insofar as they’re non-material, spiritual, metaphysical. Leonardo compared the death-instinct to the quintessence: “[Man] does not realize that he wishes for his own destruction,” wrote Leonardo. “But this wish is the quintessence, the very spirit of the elements, which finds itself imprisoned by the soul.”

I’m attracted to the idea of a fifth element, a non-material element, an element that can’t be seen or touched or measured. But I wouldn’t locate this fifth element exclusively in the celestial realm, as Aristotle did. I would say that this fifth element exists throughout the universe. Indeed, I might go further and say that the entire universe consists of this fifth element. When we look at other elements, material elements, we find atoms; when we look at atoms, we find particles; when we look at particles, they prove to be elusive — not solid matter, but some sort of... quintessence. Perhaps the fifth element is the only element!

Blair says that German scientific societies “promoted rosicrucianism, alchemy, and the study of mirabilia.” She speaks of a “growing cultural divergence” between Western Europe and Central Europe. Was the German-speaking world more receptive to the occult?

Blair defines a scholastic as “one who was trained at a European university and probably also taught at one for some time, and who commented on the natural books of Aristotle.” If the term “scholastic” implies “academic,” does the term “humanist” imply “layman”? Did humanists operate outside the academy?

Blair says that the skepticism of philosophers like Montaigne led the next generation of philosophers to look for a solid foundation for knowledge. Descartes set aside all theories, and tried to start fresh, tried to start from the fact that he existed (cogito ergo sum), then build on that certain foundation. Descartes acquired considerable influence, and he influenced English thinkers (such as Hobbes) who came to France to escape the turmoil of Civil War. Blair says that Hobbes “returned to England enthusiastic about mechanical philosophy.” Descartes’ mechanical philosophy had a rational bent, while Bacon’s had an experimental bent.

Blair says that scientists like Kepler and Newton studied nature in order to understand the mind of God. “[Kepler’s] method was grounded in the conviction that God had created the universe according to ‘number, weight and measure.’” Newton also aimed to understand God, partly by studying planetary motion, partly by studying how history fulfilled Biblical prophecies. Blair summarizes thus: “One of the ways in which early modern natural philosophy differs from the various ‘sciences’ that later replaced it is that natural philosophy was unified by its search for a better understanding of God.”

2. Refined Aggression

Freud says that civilization is partly successful in checking “brutal violence,”

but the law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressiveness. The time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.2

In a civilized society, where open combat is rare, the sneaky person is more dangerous than the violent person. The sneaky person operates within the law, or turns the law to his advantage. He may have no ill-will toward you, he’s simply indifferent to your welfare. The only defense against such people is abject poverty; if you have anything of value, you become a target.2B

Your enemy may not need your money, but he’ll take it anyway. Greed has no limit, and greed is easy to justify by saying, “I’m trying to help my family, I have a duty to my family.” As the statesman can justify anything with raison d’état, so the private individual can justify anything with raison de famille.

Freud is often criticized for specific theories and practices. Or he’s ignored entirely — the harshest criticism of all. Too often his wisdom is overlooked — a wisdom that’s deep, philosophical, timeless.

3. The Good Life

In a recent column, David Brooks wrote,

the good life consists of being an active citizen and caring passionately about politics... it also consists of knowing something about Latin American fiction, ancient Greek culture and social impact of modern genetics... it also consists of delighting in the latest good movies and TV shows, the best new cocktails and the casual pleasures of life.

So Brooks thinks that we should be passionate about politics, while dabbling in the life of the mind, and enjoying “casual pleasures.” In a world with 8 billion people, what would happen if everyone were passionate about politics? Wouldn’t this raise the level of conflict? Aren’t Fascists, Communists, and terrorists passionate about politics?

Emerson said of friendship, “There must be very two, before there can be very one.” In other words, you must be an individual before you can be a friend; you must find your own center first. The inner life must come first; personal growth and spiritual life must be a priority. If there’s a cure for political sickness, it’s not more politics, it’s finding peace and fulfillment outside politics.

In an earlier issue, I quoted Goethe’s maxim, “Live resolutely in the whole, the good, and the beautiful.” Politics is part of this whole, but to make it a top priority isn’t healthy for the individual or for society.

4. Modern Faith

The English novelist Evelyn Waugh was born into a Protestant family in 1903. In 1930, he converted to Catholicism. In 1944, E. M. Forster reviewed contemporary English literature, and took a dim view of Waugh’s work, saying that world war and industrialization made Waugh feel lost and disgusted.3

How deep was Waugh’s Catholic faith? Was it deep enough to cope with world war and industrialization? Or did Waugh convert to Catholicism out of despair, out of emptiness, out of a feeling of “any port in a storm”?

I’m inclined to think that today’s Christians, like today’s Muslims and Jews, cling to traditional religion because they want something to cling to, because it’s better than nothing.

E. M. Forster took the path that I recommend — that is, he turned away from traditional religion and turned toward Eastern religion and psychology.

5. Momigliano on Antiquarianism

I read Arnaldo Momigliano’s essay “Ancient History and the Antiquarian” (1950). This essay is popular in academia; antiquarianism is all the rage, and Momigliano is regarded as the leading expert on antiquarianism. I found the essay somewhat disappointing, I don’t recommend it. I readily admit that Momigliano is very learned and very talented, but he’s pedantic, he chokes on his own learning. He often quotes foreign languages without translating, leaving monoglots like myself to struggle with Google Translate.

There’s little life in Momigliano’s essay; one feels that the author has never gone outside, never left the library. A truly great writer, while drawn to books, is interested chiefly in life. Kafka said, “From life one can extract comparatively so many books, but from books so little, so very little, life.”4 History has life, especially first-person history (memoirs), but an essay about the writing of history is almost completely lifeless.

As Nietzsche argued in his “Use and Abuse of History,” there should be some connection between history and life.5 The study of history should, in some way, foster life, make life more appealing. History should try to connect to individual life and national life. All scholarship takes place within a nation, and a nation is a precarious thing, a nation is mortal. When we speak of posterity, we should put an asterisk* and say “If there is a posterity, if civilization doesn’t disappear.”6

Momigliano writes,

The whole modern method of historical research is founded upon the distinction between original and derivative authorities.... We praise original authorities — or sources — for being reliable, but we praise non-contemporary historians — or derivative authorities — for displaying sound judgment in the interpretation and evaluation of the original sources.

Momigliano makes no mention of style. Modern scholars tend to overlook style, while earlier scholars — Gibbon, for example — were preoccupied with style. Style is an expression of the human spirit, like painting or calligraphy. Style can make reading enjoyable, hence writers like Gibbon were so intent on style. Momigliano doesn’t try to please, doesn’t try to make his essay enjoyable to read.

Some early historians were so preoccupied with style that they became indifferent to truth. Grunebaum describes early Arab historians thus:

The writer no longer cares for the incident he describes; he cares only for his description. The facts are degraded to occasions for display — display, that is, of his literary skill, his wit, his erudition. The author outweighs the work, and effect relegates truth to the background.7

When style is over-emphasized, then we need the antiquarian, with his shovel, his coins, his vases — his solid facts. Without the antiquarian, facts can be buried under rhetoric, anecdote, legend. In the 1600s, skeptics began to question whether there are any solid facts in history. Momigliano says, “The antiquary rescued history from the sceptics.”

The pendulum swung, and the antiquarian became respected as the source of truth; “non-literary evidence became especially authoritative in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”8 Then the pendulum swung in the other direction, and “philosophical historians” began to scoff at antiquarians:

When the “philosophic” historians began to attack erudition, the prestige of both antiquaries and “learned” historians was affected. In their quest for reliable evidence the learned historians and antiquaries had been apt to forget that history is a re-interpretation of the past which leads to conclusions about the present. The philosophic historians (Montesquieu, Voltaire) asked questions about the present. Indeed, they asked questions about the general development of mankind of such a sweeping nature that exactness in detail might easily seem to be irrelevant.... The idea of civilization became the main theme of history, and political history was subordinated to it. Matters such as art, religion, custom and trade, which had so far been left to the province of the antiquary, became typical subjects for the philosophic historian — but hardly in the manner of the antiquaries.9

My own theory of history can be called “philosophical” insofar as I emphasize culture rather than politics, and I deal with broad questions rather than small facts. I try to explain history, while the antiquarian was content to dig up artifacts and collect them. If we can explain the past, we can predict the future. I predicted a renaissance in our time, a renaissance that’s now near its mid-point. Antiquarian knowledge doesn’t allow predictions about the future.

As the 1700s drew to a close, the pendulum came to rest in the middle: the antiquarian approach was combined with the philosophical approach.

It became evident (thanks chiefly to Winckelmann and Gibbon) that erudition and philosophy were not incompatible. The combination of philosophic history with the antiquarian’s method of research became the aim which many of the best historians of the nineteenth century proposed to themselves. It is still the aim that many of us propose to ourselves.

What motivates the antiquarian? Ruskin said,

I am... a violent Tory of the old school — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, and Homer’s.... I am by nature and instinct Conservative, loving old things because they are old, and hating new ones merely because they are new.10

Perhaps this is one of the main motives of the antiquarian: he loves old things because they’re old. In this sense, I myself am an antiquarian. I never tire of looking at old houses. If I go to an art museum, I’m interested in everything except the contemporary.

For more on antiquarianism, click here.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. In The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3: Early Modern Science, pp. 365-405.

Click here for a talk by Blair about Harvard’s collection of rare books. back

2. Civilization and Its Discontents, Ch. 5

Darwin spoke of “cunning, that lowest power of the mind.” back

2B. The con man seems to thrive in American society. Paul Cantor wrote, “Twain’s America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor.... All the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest.... The country of George Washington — who could not tell a lie — is also the country of P.T. Barnum — who made a career of it.” back
3. Forster: “We must face the unpleasant truths that normal life today is a life in factories and offices, that even war has evolved from an adventure into a business, that even farming has become scientific, that insurance has taken the place of charity, that status has given way to contract. You will see how disquieting all this is to writers, who love, and ought to love, beauty and charm and the passage of the seasons, and generous impulses, and the tradition of their craft. And you will appreciate how lost some of them have been feeling during the last quarter of a century, and how they have been tempted to nostalgia like Siegfried Sassoon, or to disgust like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.” (“English Prose Between 1918 and 1939,” a lecture delivered in Glasgow in 1944, later published in Two Cheers For Democracy) back
4. Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch back
5. Nietzsche: “We need [history] for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action.... We would serve history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life.” back
6. The scholar Peter Miller has noted the melancholy of antiquarianism — how it deals with ruins, fragments, the destruction wrought by Time. But surely a Dark Ages in the future is a more melancholy prospect than a Dark Ages in the past. After all, the earlier Dark Ages has been overcome, the future Dark Ages could last indefinitely.

This raises the question, Is there anything we can do today to avert a Dark Ages tomorrow? Should intellectuals have some political consciousness, some awareness of national life, in order to try to avert another Dark Age?

Perhaps one difference between the scholar and the philosopher is that the scholar focuses on the past, while the philosopher has a strong interest in the future. back

7. Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation, VII, 1 back
8. Momigliano says that Vico didn’t keep abreast of antiquarian studies: “He was isolated in his times partly because he was a greater thinker, but partly also because he was a worse scholar than his contemporaries. The antiquarian movement of the eighteenth century passed him by.” back
9. Momigliano quotes Gibbon: “In France... the learning and language of Greece and Rome were neglected by a philosophic age. The guardian of those studies, the Academy of Inscriptions, was degraded to the lowest rank among the three royal societies of Paris: the new appellation of Erudits was contemptuously applied to the successors of Lipsius and Casaubon.” back
10. The first half of this passage is from Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita (it’s the opening sentence of Praeterita). The second half of this passage is from an 1856 letter; the letter is quoted in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, Ch. 8.

An essayist named Augustine Birrell wrote, “Burke [had] a constitutional love for old things, simply because they were old. Anything mankind had ever worshipped, or venerated, or obeyed, was dear to him.” back