June 19, 2021

1. Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead began his long career in his native England, and spent his last decades in the U.S. He began as a mathematician and logician, then turned to philosophy.

In the 1880s, Whitehead began teaching at Cambridge. His first book was a treatise on algebra, his second dealt with geometry. Around 1910, Whitehead and his former student, Bertrand Russell, wrote a multi-volume work on mathematical logic, Principia Mathematica.

After 1910, Whitehead became interested in the history and philosophy of science. He published The Concept of Nature in 1920, and he published Science and the Modern World in 1925. In 1924, at age 63, Whitehead was invited to teach philosophy at Harvard. He remained at Harvard for the rest of his career.

Whitehead married at about age 30. He and his wife had two sons and one daughter. One of their sons died at 19 in World War I, another son taught at Harvard Business School.

Whitehead made a point of protecting his privacy, so biographers have few materials to work with. The chief Whitehead biography is a 2-volume work by Victor Lowe.

One of the centers of Whitehead studies today is at the Claremont School of Theology. Since Whitehead emphasizes movement and change, his philosophy is often called “process philosophy,” and Claremont has a Center for Process Studies. Whitehead is popular in China; it is said there are 23 Whitehead institutes in China.

Whitehead criticized what he called “scientific materialism,” which “presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material.” This brute matter is “senseless, valueless, purposeless... following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being.”1

How did life arise from non-living matter? To answer this question, Whitehead believed that we must bring in notions of “value and purpose.”2 Whitehead believed that “there is no such thing as wholly inert matter. Instead, all things have some measure of freedom or creativity, however small.”3

Life has purpose, life aims to increase its own satisfaction, life has a “three-fold goal of living, living well, and living better.... Without such a goal, [Whitehead] sees the rise of life as totally unintelligible.”4 I’m reminded of Schopenhauer’s view that everything has will, even matter, and I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s view that all living things try to do more than merely survive, they try to “become more,” they have a “will to power.” I suspect that Whitehead was interested in Goethe’s view of science; Goethe emphasized the inner urge of organisms, he believed in creative evolution, not mechanical evolution.

Whitehead’s views remind me of Bergson’s view that evolution isn’t just a response to environment, evolution is creative, it has purpose/drive, it has “vital push” (poussée vitale). “Henri Bergson was quoted as saying that Whitehead was ‘the best philosopher writing in English.’” Whitehead said he was “greatly indebted to Bergson, William James, and John Dewey.” These philosophers emphasize will, change, relationship, rather than static stuff, independent objects. They traded in Being for Inter-Being.

Whitehead called his philosophy a “philosophy of organism” since he saw the world as alive and inter-connected. Whitehead rejected “the Cartesian idea that reality is fundamentally constructed of bits of matter that exist totally independently of one another.” Whitehead has a “holistic metaphysics.” This holistic approach resembles quantum physics; the quantum physicists David Bohm and Henry Stapp were fans of Whitehead.

Whitehead’s view that the world is “a web of inter-dependent relations” has made him a key figure in ecology. Whitehead influenced ecologists like John B. Cobb.

Whitehead doesn’t appear to be an atheist, but his conception of God is un-traditional. He said, “‘the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.’ Here, Whitehead is criticizing Christianity for defining God as primarily a divine king who imposes his will on the world, and whose most important attribute is power.”

Whitehead saw religion as applied philosophy. “It is the task of religion to make philosophy applicable to the everyday lives of ordinary people.” Like philosophy, religion teaches general truths. “Whitehead saw religion as a system of general truths that transformed a person’s character.” Religion speaks to the solitary individual. “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness... and if you are never solitary, you are never religious.” But religion expands beyond the solitary individual; it becomes a relationship with others, a feeling for the world, a “world-loyalty.”

Whitehead strikes me as a deep thinker, probably a genius, but not a great prose writer. His prose seems to lack poetry and clarity. (Is this because he had a math background, not a literature background?) It has even been said that “His philosophical work is generally considered to be among the most difficult to understand in all of the Western canon.” This may explain why he’s rarely read today.

2. The Greek Enlightenment

Around 450 BC, Greek intellectuals were examining traditional beliefs, much as European intellectuals did in the latter half of the 1700s. Rational Greek philosophers were emboldened to question the religious beliefs of their ancestors.

The Greek Enlightenment started with a few isolated philosophers, such as Xenophanes, who lived around 525 BC. Xenophanes “denied the validity of divination.”5 And he argued that the Greeks had made the gods in their own image. He said, “If the ox could paint a picture, his god would look like an ox.” He believed that some sort of god existed, but he insisted that we could never be certain about such things.

No man, [Xenophanes] says, has ever had, or ever will have, sure knowledge about gods; even if he should chance to hit on the exact truth, he cannot know that he has done so.... That honest distinction between what is knowable and what is not appears again and again in fifth-century thought, and is surely one of its chief glories; it is the foundation of scientific humility.

The phrase “fifth-century thought” refers to the fifth century BC, that is, 499 to 400 BC.

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds refers to religious beliefs as “the Inherited Conglomerate.” Xenophanes was one of the philosophers who cast doubt on this Conglomerate. Another was Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Heraclitus “made fun of ritual catharsis.... That was a direct blow at the consolations of religion.” Heraclitus’ saying “dead is nastier than dung” was a “studied insult to ordinary Greek sentiment: it dismisses in three words all the pother about burial rites.”6 His saying “character is destiny” dismisses “the whole set of archaic beliefs about inborn luck [and about] lucky and unlucky days.”7

The process of questioning the Conglomerate continued with Anaxagoras, who lived around 460 BC. Anaxagoras denied that the sun was a deity, and argued that the sun was a giant mass of flaming metal. He argued that eclipses and meteors, which had long been viewed as “portents,” were actually the result of physical causes.

Greek intellectuals began arguing that law and morality were mere conventions, without roots in nature, mere nomos as opposed to physis.

In discarding the Inherited Conglomerate, many people discarded with it the religious restraints that had held human egotism on the leash.... The liberation of the individual meant an unlimited freedom of self-assertion.... [As Thucydides said,] “what their fathers had called self-control they called an excuse for cowardice”.... The new rationalism did not enable men to behave like beasts — men have always been able to do that. But it enabled them to justify their brutality to themselves.8

Dodds argues that “the breakdown of a religious tradition” leads to “the unrestricted growth of power politics,”9 “a pure anarchic immoralism, the ‘natural right of the stronger’ as expounded by the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue and by Callicles in the Gorgias.”10 He compares this to the “ruthless militarism” of China’s Qin Empire, which grew out of a breakdown of religious tradition.

Surprisingly, Dodds doesn’t compare the Greek situation to modern history, though he’s aware that the 19th century witnessed a breakdown of religious beliefs. The Nazis clearly represent “the unrestricted growth of power politics... a pure anarchic immoralism,” and it’s clear that the Nazis grew out of the breakdown of traditional religion and morality, as we see it in philosophers like Nietzsche. Likewise, the Reign of Terror in France grew out of the Enlightenment’s critique of traditional beliefs, the Enlightenment’s enthronement of Reason.

When you begin smashing the Inherited Conglomerate, when you begin rejecting traditional religion and morality, all hell breaks loose. As Frazer put it, “Society has been built and cemented to a great extent on a foundation of religion, and it is impossible to loosen the cement and shake the foundation without endangering the superstructure.”11 But we can’t cling to an obsolete religion forever; growth is necessary, and ultimately healthy. The tragedy is that growth is destructive as well as necessary. As Whitehead put it, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”12 Hopefully the wrecking phase is over for our society, the “growing pains” are over, and we can regain some sort of equilibrium.

So philosophers like Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Anaxagoras weakened the Conglomerate of inherited belief, they drove a wedge between the beliefs of the people, and the beliefs of intellectuals. Dodds speaks of “a complete breach... between the beliefs of the people and the beliefs of the intellectuals.”

Around 450 BC, the first Sophists come on the stage. While earlier philosophers like Heraclitus were solitary, Sophists like Protagoras brought Enlightenment ideas into the public eye. In 450 BC, the Peloponnesian War was still twenty years away. The Persian Wars had been brought to a successful conclusion, and Athens seemed to have the wind at its back. Sophists like Protagoras were full of optimism; they believed that law and politics could be rationalized, and there was no limit to progress. The Golden Age “lay not behind but ahead, and not so very far ahead either.”13 Rationalism often leads to optimism.

The optimism of Protagoras is analogous to the optimism of the early days of the French Revolution, when Wordsworth said, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” This “revolutionary optimism” was temporarily dashed by the chaos of the Reign of Terror, but it had revived by around 1840. Dodds quotes the optimistic line that Tennyson wrote around 1840: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.” The optimism of Protagoras was destroyed by the Peloponnesian War, as the optimism of Tennyson was destroyed by the two world wars.

In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato depicts a debate between Protagoras and Socrates. Protagoras argues that virtue (arete) can be taught, “but not by an intellectual discipline: one ‘picks it up,’ as a child picks up his native language.”14 Socrates, on the other hand, doubts whether arete can be taught, “for to Socrates arete was something which proceeded from within outward; it was not a set of behavior-patterns to be acquired through habituation, but a consistent attitude of mind springing from a steady insight into the nature and meaning of human life.... It involved the whole man.”

But Socrates and Protagoras agreed that knowledge plays an important role in human behavior. Dodds writes, “What seems to us odd is that both of them dismiss so easily the part played by emotion in determining ordinary human behavior.”15 Socrates said that most Greeks viewed knowledge as a powerless slave, “kicked about” by anger or fear or lust or some other motive.

One could argue that Socrates and Protagoras didn’t grasp the importance of unconscious factors, didn’t grasp that consciousness is merely a skin over the unconscious. Or one could argue that they understood that behind every action is a thought, behind every action is some sort of worldview or philosophy. As Heine said, “Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder.” Perhaps knowledge is as important as Socrates and Protagoras thought it was.

Euripides took issue with Socrates. Euripides depicted people who were swept away by their passions, people whose knowledge/reason can’t control their passions. Euripides makes a “conscious rejection of the Socratic theory.” Time was, Greek writers depicted people driven by some god or daemon, some alien force. But Euripides shows people driven by their own passions, by forces within themselves; psychology was being internalized. “If we must attach a label,” Dodds writes, “I still think that the word ‘irrationalist’ ...fits Euripides better than any other.”16

But this irrationalism goes beyond the issue of human nature, it goes all the way to the nature of the universe. “What chiefly preoccupied Euripides in his later work was not so much the impotence of reason in man as the wider doubt whether any rational purpose could be seen in the ordering of human life and the governance of the world.”

Euripides rejects the extreme rationalism of Socrates, and he also rejects the extreme immoralism that said, “Law and morality are contrary to nature (physis), they’re just convention (nomos), so I’m going to ignore law and morality.” Euripides represents the Greek Enlightenment, but he also tries to rein in the extremes of the Enlightenment. Euripides “reflects not only the Enlightenment, but also the reaction against the Enlightenment.”

The reaction against the Enlightenment took the form of laws against enlightened thought, and prosecutions of philosophers under these laws. Around 430 BC,

disbelief in the supernatural and the teaching of astronomy were made indictable offences. The next thirty-odd years witnessed a series of heresy trials.... The victims included most of the leaders of progressive thought at Athens — Anaxagoras, Diagoras, Socrates, almost certainly Protagoras also, and possibly Euripides.

Why was the Athenian populace opposed to these Enlightenment thinkers? Were they stirred up by professional diviners, who viewed philosophers as a threat to their livelihood? Dodds says it’s “quite likely” that this was one factor. But he thinks that a more important factor was “wartime hysteria.” This was the time of the Peloponnesian War, and during wartime “the whole tendency to conformity is greatly strengthened: the herd huddles together and becomes more intolerant than ever of ‘cranky’ opinion.”17 But there’s yet another reason why the Athenian populace wanted to repress the Enlightenment: they had a “confused inkling” of a deep truth, they felt that it’s dangerous to undermine traditional beliefs, it’s dangerous to question the “Inherited Conglomerate.”

So on one hand we have Enlightenment, on the other hand we have Reaction against Enlightenment. A gulf existed between intellectuals and people:

the divorce between the beliefs of the few and the beliefs of the many was made absolute, to the injury of both.... What Jacob Burckhardt said of nineteenth-century religion, that it was “rationalism for the few and magic for the many,” might on the whole be said of Greek religion from the late fifth century onwards.18

Reaction against Enlightenment has a special significance for foreign countries, non-Western countries, such as Iran; in these countries, Reaction takes the form of a tight embrace of traditional beliefs.

But the ancient Greeks didn’t just prosecute philosophers, they went further, they embraced more primitive forms of religion. The old civic religion was growing weaker, and people were turning to new gods. One of these new gods was the healing god, Asclepius, who was “solemnly inducted” into Athens with his Holy Snake. Other new gods were Cybele, Attis, and Adonis. The worship of these gods often took emotional, orgiastic forms.19 So Enlightenment among intellectuals was accompanied, according to Dodds, by regression among the masses.

Another sign of the regression of the popular mind was that magical practices became more widespread. Black magic was used against one’s enemies: a curse was written on a piece of pottery, which was then placed in a grave, so as to enlist the help of underworld powers. Such a curse was called a defixio, and thousands have been dug up by archeologists. “It was sufficiently common in Plato’s day for him to think it worthwhile to legislate against it, as also against the kindred method of magical attack by maltreating a wax image of one’s enemy.”20

The Greek Enlightenment has numerous analogies to the modern world. The key question, then as now, is “How can you modify religious beliefs without destroying the moral compass that relies on those beliefs?”

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Wikipedia, quoting Science and the Modern World back
2. This is a quote from Wikipedia, not Whitehead back
3. This is a quote from Wikipedia, not Whitehead back
4. This is a quote from Wikipedia, not Whitehead back
5. Ch. 6, p. 181 back
6. p. 181. The phrase “Inherited Conglomerate” comes from Gilbert Murray, who imported it from Geology. The phrase implies that religious belief is a mix of various traditions, a mix that accumulates over time, with new beliefs covering, but not completely obliterating, old beliefs. Among the Greeks, religious beliefs were especially confused because there was no established church to organize them. back
7. p. 182 and footnote 16. There are two approaches to catharsis: “irrational ritual,” and “moral and intellectual” cleansing. Heraclitus criticized “irrational ritual” (footnote 21) while Plato advocated “moral and intellectual” catharsis (footnote 13). Dodds isn’t certain if Heraclitus advocated “Platonic catharsis.”

One might say that religion in general can be either “irrational ritual” or “moral and intellectual” purification. Many religious reformers (including Jesus and Luther?) tried to downplay ritual, and emphasize moral meaning. back

8. p. 191 back
9. Footnote 81 back
10. p. 183 back
11. Footnote 81 back
12. Dodds uses this quote as an epigraph to Chapter 6, “Rationalism and Reaction in the Classical Age.” The quote is from Whitehead’s book Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect. back
13. p. 183. The Greeks seem to have been justly proud of their legal systems. Dodds speaks of, “a rational system of State law, the achievement which distinguished Greeks from barbarians.”(pp. 182, 183) One might compare the Greek enthusiasm for law to the Chinese approach called Legalism. Chinese Legalism arose at about the same time as Greek written law; perhaps this is a stage in the development of civilization. back
14. Quote from Dodds, not Plato; see Dodds p. 184 back
15. p. 185. Like other rational thinkers, Socrates seemed to respect calculation more than impulse. He speaks with approval of “counting and measuring and weighing.”(footnote 36, quoting Xenophon) In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates views virtue (arete) as “a branch of scientific knowledge... the nice calculation of future pains and pleasures.”(Dodds, p. 184) back
16. p. 187. Dodds says that Euripides was “a noted collector of books,” who “wrote about the pleasures of reading.”(footnote 21) back
17. Dodds quoting R. Crawshay-Williams back
18. p. 192 back
19. Dodds says that foreign cults also popped up in Rome during the Second Punic War, when Rome was threatened by Hannibal.(footnote 88) In Athens, the sufferings caused by the Peloponnesian War were exacerbated by a plague. back
20. p. 194. Magic and religion overlapped. The gods invoked on a defixio were the usual gods, such as Hermes and Persephone. “There was thus no sharp line separating superstition from ‘religion.’”(footnote 95)

Dodds thinks that the revival of magic in Greece has a modern analogue. He says that modern intellectuals moved away from Christianity, and the “semi-educated classes” turned to “spiritualism and similar movements.” Spiritualism then spread to “a section of the educated.”(footnote 100) back