« Prev Section XXVI. The Skeptics and the… Next »

SECTION XXVI.

The subjectivism that predominated in Epicurean and Stoic ethics finds its consequential and scientifically-rigorous carrying-out,—and at the same time Greek and heathen ethics in general, its dissolution and honorable self-destruction,—in Scepticism, which declares all judging of good and evil as futile, and all modes of action as indifferent.—Neo-Platonic philosophy, which seeks to rescue heathenism as against Christianity, and which perverts Christian ideas to heathen purposes, presents in its but partially developed ethics little more than a dreamy mysticism—a quietistic self-merging into the one universal divine essence; and it is only for non-philosophers that there is need of a, not scientific but, practical code of morals.

Roman philosophy made no original contributions to ethics. Apart from a but slightly independent adoption of the doctrines of Stoicism, it presents nothing more than a feebly eclectic character, and 145does not rise beyond superficial calculating observations and opinions.

Skepticism has often been misunderstood not only in its scientific, but also in its world-historical significancy; it arose gradually and, as it were, spontaneously, without any one specially prominent founder, as a protest of the general rational consciousness against the self-sufficiency and presumption of the previously existing philosophies,—and, in the sphere of ethics, as the scientific conscience of heathenism. Subjectivism, when consequentially carried out, leads inevitably to skepticism. Socrates had contended with moral earnestness against the subjectivism of the Sophists, and had attempted to find a solid basis also for ethical philosophy; in this commendable effort, however, he succeeded as little as did, after him, Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics. In these efforts they did not rise beyond mere formal definitions of the moral, and were obliged to derive the material contents of the same from the primarily merely fortuitously-determined essence of the individual subject. The sole thought that leads to a true basing of the moral consciousness, namely, that the moral is the will of God, was only dimly caught sight of, and could not in fact, from the heathen stand-point, be carried out with any degree of certainty. That, now, the vail was torn off from the false method of taking the finite subject as the criterion and the infallible source of universally-valid and objective truth, and of attributing to subjective opinion an absolutely valid objective significancy, and that subjectivism was exposed in all its nakedness and invalidity,—this was the scientific service of Skepticism,—which, having shown traces of itself as early as in the age of Aristotle (Pyrrho), attained to greater prevalence in the century before Christ (Ænesidemus of Alexandria), and fully developed itself in the second century after Christ (Sextus Empiricus), and thus like a devouring rust gradually undermined the last self-confidence of heathen philosophy, save in so far as it did not seek refuge. behind the mystical nebulae of Neo-Platonicism.

Skepticism is in fact simply the product of the antithesis between Epicureanism and Stoicism. The former said: the feeling of pleasure and displeasure alone decide as to the 146morally-good; the latter said: not feeling but thinking decides; Skepticism lets the two cancel each other, and says: neither feeling nor thinking is capable of any real decision as to what is good. Man cannot at all know what is per se good; all our feelings, experiences and thoughts have merely and exclusively a subjective significancy,—furnish no truth in regard to things per se. This is not a mere feeble courting of doubt, not a mere, “I know not whether this or that is good,” but a decisive, “I know positively that I cannot know it, and I know also that there is nothing that is per se good;” and this knowledge of the lack of knowledge is the true wisdom and the true virtue. What is good or not good is determined solely by civil law and by adopted custom, and there is no occasion for seeking for another or higher basis therefor. Nothing is per se, and in its essence good or evil. This consideration furnishes the basis for true soul-repose and happiness,—seeing that we then need no longer be disturbed by feelings of desire or of disgust, but that we look upon every thing with calm indifference. The true and highest good consists therefore in this, that we be absolutely indifferent toward all things that are usually regarded as goods. As, on one occasion, during a storm, Pyrrho saw some swine very unconsciously devouring their food, he is said to have exclaimed: “The wise man must also be equally imperturbable!” If there were any thing that is good or evil per se, all men would be found to see it; whereas in fact the judgments of men differ in all things, and the opposing philosophic schools proclaim the most opposite things as good or evil. The truth is, that in every case, the judgment as to good or evil is determined by the spiritual or bodily peculiarity of the person judging, and hence gives no certainty as to the essence of the thing per se, but is always simply indicative as to what chances to seem good or evil to him. Hence a science of the moral, a system of ethics, is absolutely impossible, and all teaching as to the moral is futile. But, as now, notwithstanding this, it is necessary to live and act in some manner, so it is most advisable to act according to the existing laws and customs,—not, however, because they are good, but because this course is most advantageous.—Though Sextus Empiricus,—who has said most on this head,—does not show his best powers on the field of ethics, yet it is not to be denied that his attacks against the results 147of all previous ethics contain much truth, and that from the heathen stand-point the Skeptics were, on the whole, justified in their doubts. Their skepticism gives evidence of a significant self-consciousness in heathen science; and even though its results were unsatisfactory, still there was need of just such a radical sifting and exposure in order to bring to sober reflection the falsely-secure and self-deluding spirit of heathenism, and to render it more receptive for a better-founded world-theory.

Neo-Platonic ethics can hardly be regarded as a genuine phase of Greek thought proper. Entering the lists in antagonism to the new world-power of Christianity for the purpose of rescuing heathenism, mingling together into a nebulous conglomerate all the fragmentary notions of Oriental and Occidental religions and philosophies, and supplementing them with Christian thoughts, Neo-Platonic philosophy manifests also in its but crudely-formed ethics little more than the distressful features of a spirit slowly and painfully dying of the mere senility of age,—a spirit which, without considerate choice of its means, is feverishly possessed with the one desire of arousing up by artificial nerve-stimuli its already half-dead life-forces to one last desperate up-flickering into life,—a tragically-grand desperation-effort of a mortally-wounded combatant,—the titanic rebounding of the spirit of antiquity when pierced through the heart by the arrow of a higher form of truth; (Plotinus, the greater disciple of Ammonius Saccas, the founder of the school, living mostly in Rome, ob. A. D. 270; his disciple Porphyry, ob. A. D. 304; Proclus, who lived mostly at Athens, ob. A. D. 485—the last philosopher of Occidental heathenism.)

Deviating from all previous Greek philosophy, the Neo-Platonists place the idea of God in the fore-ground, and deduce from it, and bring in relation to it, all principles of morality. But this God-idea itself is further remote from the Biblical idea of God than is even that of Plato and Aristotle. God is no longer the infinite personal Reason, but the absolutely undetermined abstract Unity, which unfolds itself, in Pantheistic emanation, into the world of multiplicity,—which world is consequently not a separate reality different from God, but simply the shadow of God himself,—the reverse-side of the divine, the fading-away of the pure divine light, and hence of essentially 148negative essence.—Now as all knowledge must aim at beholding all things in God and God in all things, hence also all moral activity is directed exclusively to this one end, namely, to unite one’s self with God, to press one’s self out of the world of plurality, to renounce one’s self as an individual being, to wish to be and actually to be nothing more than a transient phase of the alone truly-existing unitary divine essence. The moral activity aims not at the producing of a real world of the good different from God,—aims not at realizing any thing which is not already real and perfect from eternity, but, on the contrary, aims at reducing back the soul from its immersion in the world of reality into the solely and the alone-existing good, that is, into God. God is not merely the highest good, but in fact the absolutely sole good; and whatever is different from God is, in so far as it is so, not truly good. Hence the sole path of salvation is the return from plurality to unity, and the first and most essential condition thereto is the beholding of God, an indulging in a mystical speculation, which is possible only in that one forgets one’s self,—spiritually dies away,—so as to permit God alone to prevail. The more I am a particular self-hood claiming personality, so much the more remote am I from God. Morality consists, therefore, not in a developing of this personality, but in a suppressing of it, not in a becoming like God, but in fact in becoming God himself. The self-conscious personality is not the God-like, but the God-foreign; for God himself is not a personality—is not this or that—has no manner of determinateness, but is that which is sublime above all determinateness, all quality, and hence also above spiritual personality; whatever is in any manner determined is not God, but has gone out from God, and hence is, in so far, extra-divine; and the same path which reality has traversed in passing firom undetermined unity to manifoldly-determined plurality, morality traverses again in the’ opposite direction,—passes back from plurality and determinateness to the unitary and undetermined. In all these phases of thought, an Indian influence is unmistakable.

As true cognizing is not dialectical but contemplative, namely, a spiritual beholding of God, so also true morality is not an outward-going activity, but rather a non-acting, a restraining of active volition, a dissolving of all particular personal volitionating 149into the one divine essence. Whoever has the highest good needs and wishes for no other good. But the highest good exists in no sense whatever apart from God, in the world, but solely in the reality-transcending and indeterminate God. For such an outward working, such a creating of a real kingdom of the good, there is no occasion whatever; for all that really exists is good already in so far as it is the divine essence, and hence cannot be an object of change or resistance; and in so far as it is the divine essence as self-estranged, it is evil, and hence should not be loved and confirmed; there remains, therefore, for the moral activity no other work than simply to withdraw itself from the world and, not so much into itself as much rather, into God. Hence there is no need of striving, of combatting, and of laboring, but only of reposing; to the eternal keeping-silence, the eternal repose, of God, corresponds the silent repose of the sage and moral man. Active virtue is not the highest form of morality, but is only a praiseworthy moral quality of such as have not yet risen to the stage of true wisdom,—Such are the chief fundamental thoughts of this Neo-Platonic philosophy, the influence of which made itself felt as late as in the Christian mysticism of the Middle Ages. On the whole, we could not properly expect from this last attempt of heathen philosophy at self-preservation, any rigorous consequential carrying-out of fundamental principles; and hence we in fact often find thoughts in it which but imperfectly harmonize with it as a system. Still, the most of these seemingly irreconcilable views are doubtless to be accounted for in the light of the distinction which it made between wisdom proper (which is attainable only for the elect few) and the moral instruction of the populace at large. For the latter there is in fact need of other moral precepts, seeing that men at large are not yet in such a condition as to be able, through beholding and yielding, to merge themselves into the absolutely One.

Roman philosophy, though enjoying high repute in the Middle Ages, and even as late as in the last century, has, however, for the philosophical development of the science of ethics scarcely any significance. The Stoic Romans did little more than indulge in general popular discussions on the philosophy they had adopted from the Greeks; the Epicurean Romans simply applied their views practically. Cicero is simply a discreet 150Eclectic, though without speculative genius. He discusses moral questions in clear but superficial processes of reasoning, without finding for them a firm philosophical ground, or a really scientific solution. The rhetorical form of his ethico-philosophical writings does not redeem them from that tediousness which inheres in any verbose display of unprofound observations. Zealously opposing Epicureanism, Cicero holds fast in general to the Stoic system, modifying it with Platonic, Aristotelian and other elements, and this too not without many instances of misunderstanding. His most important ethical work is his De officiis, which is based mostly on the Stoic Panaetius. In this work he examines, first, the notion of the morally-good (honestum), then that of the useful (utile), and the mutual relation of these so often conflicting principles. The “useful” he finds to be only seemingly different from the good; the fact is, whatever is good is also useful, and whatever is truly useful is also good, not, however, for the reason that it is useful, but the converse; hence to strive after the good renders necessarily at the same time also happy. Of the other writings of Cicero, belong also here the Quaestiones academ., the Disputationes Tusculanae, and his essays: De senectute, De amicitia, De legibhus, De finibus.—Cicero blames, in the Stoics, that they conceive of the good only partially, that they regard not the entire man, but only his spiritual phase, and lightly esteem the corporeal, so that in fact while professing to follow nature they do not do her justice,—that they place on an equal footing all the virtues as well as all the vices, and admit no intermediate gradations, and also that because of their one-sidedness they involve themselves in many contradictions. Though finding the source of the moral consciousness in reason,—which is an efflux from the divine reason, and by which therefore we become like God,—he yet derives ethics only in a very slight degree from the essence of reason itself, but rather from the experience of life. From this lack of a firm philosophical foundation, we can understand why Cicero placed an especially high value on his discussion upon the collision of duties. On the condition of a real deduction of the various forms of duty from one fundamental principle, there would be no possible place for such a discussion; but to the moralist who takes his starting-point from empirical observation, this field appears as of especial difficulty and 151importance. The question: Which of several morally good actions which cannot be reconciled with each other is to be chosen as the better? Cicero answers very unsatisfactorily and unphilosophically, on the mere ground of the social comfortableness resulting therefrom (De off., i, 43 sqq.). Nor does he succeed in all his sonorous periods on universal benevolence, etc., in rising beyond the narrow views characteristic of heathen ethics.—Plutarch, a Greek with Roman education (about A. D. 100,) furnishes in his numerous moral writings many good observations on the moral lifes and gives evidence of a noble disposition of soul, though he does not rise beyond popular essays and observations, relating for the most part to particular moral topics,—gives neither a system, nor rigorous, clear principles. In general he follows Plato, and rejects the extremes both of Epicureanism and Stoicism.

« Prev Section XXVI. The Skeptics and the… Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |