Manual The Revolution’s Solution: Visionary Plants and Enlightenment in the Golden Age

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If the universe dissolves into the original chaos, there appeared to them to be no reason why the second chaos should produce a world differing in the least respect from its predecessor.

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The nth cycle would be indeed numerically distinct from the first, but otherwise would be identical with it, and no man could possibly discover the number of the cycle in which he was living. As no end seems to have been assigned to the whole process, the course of the world's history would contain an endless number of Trojan Wars, for instance; an endless number of Platos would write an endless number of Republics. Virgil uses this idea in his Fourth Eclogue, where he meditates a return of the Golden Age:. The periodic theory might be held in forms in which this uncanny doctrine of absolute identity was avoided; but at the best it meant an endless monotonous iteration, which was singularly unlikely to stimulate speculative interest in the future.

It must be remembered that no thinker had any means of knowing how near to the end of his cycle the present hour might be. The most influential school of the later Greek age, the Stoics, adopted the theory of cycles, and the natural psychological effect of the theory is vividly reflected in Marcus Aurelius, who frequently dwells on it in his Meditations. A man of forty years, possessing the most moderate intelligence, may be said to have seen all that is past and all that is to come; so uniform is the world.

The cyclical theory was curiously revived in the nineteenth; century by Nietzsche, and it is interesting to note his avowal that it took him a long time to overcome the feeling of pessimism which the doctrine inspired. And yet one Stoic philosopher saw clearly, and declared emphatically, that increases in knowledge must be expected in the future. The day will come when time and human diligence will clear up problems which are now obscure.

We divide the few years of our lives unequally between study and vice, and it will therefore be the work of many generations to explain such phenomena as comets. One day our posterity will marvel at our ignorance of causes so clear to them. In time to come men will know much that is unknown to us.

Many discoveries are reserved for future ages, when our memory will have faded from men's minds.


We imagine ourselves initiated in the secrets of nature; we are standing on the threshold of her temple. See also Epist. Seneca implies continuity in scientific research. Aristotle had stated this expressly, pointing out that we are indebted not only to the author of the philosophical theory which we accept as true, but also to the predecessors whose views it has superseded Metaphysics, i.

But he seems to consider his own system as final. But these predictions are far from showing that Seneca had the least inkling of a doctrine of the Progress of humanity. Such a doctrine is sharply excluded by the principles of his philosophy and his profoundly pessimistic view of human affairs. Immediately after the passage which I have quoted he goes on to enlarge on the progress of vice.

Why, human wickedness has not yet fully developed.

Yet, at least, it may be said, Seneca believed in a progress of knowledge and recognised its value. Yes, but the value which he attributed to it did not lie in any advantages which it would bring to the general community of mankind. He did not expect from it any improvement of the world. The value of natural science, from his point of view, was this, that it opened to the philosopher a divine region, in which, "wandering among the stars," he could laugh at the earth and all its riches, and his mind "delivered as it were from prison could return to its original home.

For Seneca's belief in the theory of degeneration and the hopeless corruption of the race is uncompromising.

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Human life on the earth is periodically destroyed, alternately by fire and flood; and each period begins with a golden age in which men live in rude simplicity, innocent because they are ignorant not because they are wise. When they degenerate from this state, arts and inventions promote deterioration by ministering to luxury and vice.

Interesting, then, as Seneca's observations on the prospect of some future scientific discoveries are, and they are unique in ancient literature, [Footnote: They are general and definite. This distinguishes them, for instance, from Plato's incidental hint in the Republic as to the prospect of the future development of solid geometry.

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For him, as for Plato and the older philosophers, time is the enemy of man. This last letter is a criticism on Posidonius, who asserted that the arts invented in primitive times were due to philosophers. Seneca repudiates this view: omnia enim ista sagacitas hominum, non sapientia inuenit.

Seneca touches on the possibility of the discovery of new lands beyond the ocean in a passage in his Medea sqq. There was however a school of philosophical speculation, which might have led to the foundation of a theory of Progress, if the historical outlook of the Greeks had been larger and if their temper had been different.

The Atomic theory of Democritus seems to us now, in many ways, the most wonderful achievement of Greek thought, but it had a small range of influence in Greece, and would have had less if it had not convinced the brilliant mind of Epicurus. The Epicureans developed it, and it may be that the views which they put forward as to the history of the human race are mainly their own superstructure.

These philosophers rejected entirely the doctrine of a Golden Age and a subsequent degeneration, which was manifestly incompatible with their theory that the world was mechanically formed from atoms without the intervention of a Deity.

For them, the earliest condition of men resembled that of the beasts, and from this primitive and miserable condition they laboriously reached the existing state of civilisation, not by external guidance or as a consequence of some initial design, but simply by the exercise of human intelligence throughout a long period. The gradual amelioration of their existence was marked by the discovery of fire and the use of metals, the invention of language, the invention of weaving, the growth of arts and industries, navigation, the development of family life, the establishment of social order by means of kings, magistrates, laws, the foundation of cities.

The last great step in the amelioration of life, according to Lucretius, was the illuminating philosophy of Epicurus, who dispelled the fear of invisible powers and guided man from intellectual darkness to light. But Lucretius and the school to which he belonged did not look forward to a steady and continuous process of further amelioration in the future. They believed that a time would come when the universe would fall into ruins, [Footnote: Ib. Like many other philosophers, they thought that their own philosophy was the final word on the universe, and they did not contemplate the possibility that important advances in knowledge might be achieved by subsequent generations.

And, in any case, their scope was entirely individualistic; all their speculations were subsidiary to the aim of rendering the life of the individual as tolerable as possible here and now.

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Their philosophy, like Stoicism, was a philosophy of resignation; it was thoroughly pessimistic and therefore incompatible with the idea of Progress. Lucretius himself allows an underlying feeling of scepticism as to the value of civilisation occasionally to escape. Indeed, it might be said that in the mentality of the ancient Greeks there was a strain which would have rendered them indisposed to take such an idea seriously, if it had been propounded. No period of their history could be described as an age of optimism.

They were never, by their achievements in art or literature, in mathematics or philosophy, exalted into self-complacency or lured into setting high hopes on human capacity. Man has resourcefulness to meet everything—[words in Greek],—they did not go further than that. This instinctive pessimism of the Greeks had a religious tinge which perhaps even the Epicureans found it hard entirely to expunge. They always felt that they were in the presence of unknown incalculable powers, and that subtle dangers lurked in human achievements and gains.

Horace has taken this feeling as the motif of a criticism on man's inventive powers. A voyage of Virgil suggests the reflection that his friend's life would not be exposed to hazards on the high seas if the art of navigation had never been discovered—if man had submissively respected the limits imposed by nature.

But man is audacious:. Daedalus violated the air, as Hercules invaded hell. The discovery of fire put us in possession of a forbidden secret. Is this unnatural conquest of nature safe or wise? Nil mortalibus ardui est:. The thought of this ode [Footnote: i.

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It would have struck them as audacious, the theory of men unduly elated and perilously at ease in the presence of unknown incalculable powers. This feeling or attitude was connected with the idea of Moira. If we were to name any single idea as generally controlling or pervading Greek thought from Homer to the Stoics, [Footnote: The Stoics identified Moira with Pronoia, in accordance with their theory that the universe is permeated by thought.

The common rendering "fate" is misleading. Moira meant a fixed order in the universe; but as a fact to which men must bow, it had enough in common with fatality to demand a philosophy of resignation and to hinder the creation of an optimistic atmosphere of hope. It was this order which kept things in their places, assigned to each its proper sphere and function, and drew a definite line, for instance, between men and gods. Human progress towards perfection—towards an ideal of omniscience, or an ideal of happiness, would have been a breaking down of the bars which divide the human from the divine.

Human nature does not alter; it is fixed by Moira. We can see now how it was that speculative Greek minds never hit on the idea of Progress. In the first place, their limited historical experience did not easily suggest such a synthesis; and in the second place, the axioms of their thought, their suspiciousness of change, their theories of Moira, of degeneration and cycles, suggested a view of the world which was the very antithesis of progressive development. Epicurean, philosophers made indeed what might have been an important step in the direction of the doctrine of Progress, by discarding the theory of degeneration, and recognising that civilisation had been created by a series of successive improvements achieved by the effort of man alone.

But here they stopped short. For they had their eyes fixed on the lot of the individual here and now, and their study of the history of humanity was strictly subordinate to this personal interest. The value of their recognition of human progress in the past is conditioned by the general tenor and purpose of their theory of life. It was simply one item in their demonstration that man owed nothing to supernatural intervention and had nothing to fear from supernatural powers.

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It is however no accident that the school of thought which struck on a path that might have led to the idea of Progress was the most uncompromising enemy of superstition that Greece produced. It might be thought that the establishment of Roman rule and order in a large part of the known world, and the civilising of barbarian peoples, could not fail to have opened to the imagination of some of those who reflected on it in the days of Virgil or of Seneca, a vista into the future.

But there was no change in the conditions of life likely to suggest a brighter view of human existence. With the loss of freedom pessimism increased, and the Greek philosophies of resignation were needed more than ever. Those whom they could not satisfy turned their thoughts to new mystical philosophies and religions, which were little interested in the earthly destinies of human society.

The idea of the universe which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, and the general orientation of men's thoughts were incompatible with some of the fundamental assumptions which are required by the idea of Progress. According to the Christian theory which was worked out by the Fathers, and especially by St.

Augustine, the whole movement of history has the purpose of securing the happiness of a small portion of the human race in another world; it does not postulate a further development of human history on earth. For Augustine, as for any medieval believer, the course of history would be satisfactorily complete if the world came to an end in his own lifetime. He was not interested in the question whether any gradual amelioration of society or increase of knowledge would mark the period of time which might still remain to run before the day of Judgment.

In Augustine's system the Christian era introduced the last period of history, the old age of humanity, which would endure only so long as to enable the Deity to gather in the predestined number of saved people. This theory might be combined with the widely-spread belief in a millennium on earth, but the conception of such a dispensation does not render it a theory of Progress. Again, the medieval doctrine apprehends history not as a natural development but as a series of events ordered by divine intervention and revelations.

If humanity had been left to go its own way it would have drifted to a highly undesirable port, and all men would have incurred the fate of everlasting misery from which supernatural interference rescued the minority. A belief in Providence might indeed, and in a future age would, be held along with a belief in Progress, in the same mind; but the fundamental assumptions were incongruous, and so long as the doctrine of Providence was undisputedly in the ascendant, a doctrine of Progress could not arise. And the doctrine of Providence, as it was developed in Augustine's "City of God," controlled the thought of the Middle Ages.