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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Voltaire's Enlightment

Durant's coverage of Plato and Aristotle is very good, and the sharp reader would be quick to raise expectations with the rest of "The Story of Philosophy." I am not that sharp a reader and I seem to exist in a simpler world than the complicated one of trying to outline the history of Western thought. Having said that, a sharp reader will find Durant's jump from Aristotle all the way to Francis Bacon a bit disconcerting. Again, I am not that reader (especially since I am re-reading this). The motivation of Will Durant to jump from Aristotle to Bacon stems from his theory that once Aristotelian structures of philosophical and scientific analysis were established, no other philosopher really deviated from them until Francis Bacon came around. The chapter on Francis Bacon begins with a historical outline "From Aristotle to the Renaissance," and while Durant does a very good job covering the events, most of it gets lost in between a diagnosis of what brought about Stoicism. He details the Epicurian ideas of balance, and exposes one little treasure of philosophy: ataraxia. Durant defines it as "tranquility, equanimity, repose of mind." I suppose it might be what today is commonly known as "Serenity Now!" from the famous Seinfeld episode. From here Durant follows other developments that lead to the advent of the Christian church, and analyzing the connection between religious and philosophical ideas, Durant states that "From Epicurus 'Dissertations' and Aurelius' 'Meditations' there is but a step to 'The Imitation of Christ," referring, of course, to the famous little book by Thomas a Kempis.
Issues with Papacy and developments in Rome lead eventually to advances in technology which brought about an abundance of good and more leisure time (increase of literacy) and the Birth of the Renaissance. How does Francis Bacon fit in all of this? He doesn't, but that is where Durant leaves us off and picks up the trail of our English philosopher.

The second part of the chapter deals directly with Francis Bacon's biography and major accomplishments. Durant's examinations of "The Essays" by Bacon leaves us wanting for more analysis: "Nothing could be more injurious to health as the Stoic repression of desire; what is the use of prolonging a life which apathy has turned into premature death?.... let no man trust his victory of nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation." What is left out of this analysis is, of course, the fact that the Church--struggling for power against secular influence--promoted this passionless/dry life in order to convince men that it was worth dying for a cause rather than dying for nothing. Deprive yourself of earthly pleasures because eternal life is more important. Brilliant. Of course Bacon fought this tooth and nail, and the results were leaps and bounds in the battle against religious influence in daily life. For this reason (and perhaps this is the cause of the major drift between religion and philosophy), Bacon and most of the following philosophers were deemed atheists or anti-Christs. Could we then blame Francis Bacon for this? Durant thinks not (and, after all, it shouldn't be a matter of blame): "A little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism; but a depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." I wonder, then, how it all turned out the way it did in history. Francis Bacon's "The New Organon" appears to Durant as the "love all, save all" work philosophy had been waiting around for: "The first step, therefore, is the Expurgation of the Intellect. We must become as little children, innocent in isms and abstractions, washed clear of prejudices and preconsceptions." If you are thinking tabula rasa, you are absolutely right... although a few centuries off. Durant explains Bacon's later thoughts on the matter quite well, but the philosopher's sketch turns again from an examination of his theories to biographical facts. The story of Bacon being sent to the Tower for a complaint against a suit not being made to measurement or some such thing concludes the chapter on this remarkable (and some what over-rated philosopher).

With Spinoza, however, Durant is less kind. The biography paragraphs are very nicely written and engaging, but the rest of the chapter on Spinoza seems to overlook many of his foremost theories. I love Will Durant, please don't get me wrong, but he strikes me as a scholar who overwhelms the read with those things he loves best and doesn't do justice to those that do not capture his fancy as much. At any rate, Spinoza's important work is describe as follows: "The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is perhaps the least interesting of [Spinoza's work] to us today, because the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life.... The essential principle of the book is that the language of the Bible is deliberately metaphorical or allegorical; not only because it partakes of the Oriental tendency to high literary color and ornament, and exaggerated descriptive expressions; but because, too, the prophets and the apostles, to convey their doctrine by arousing the imagination, were compelled to adapt themselves to the capacities and predispositions of the popular mind." After being excommunicated from his Jewish community, Spinoza full knew the double-edgeness of religion. Durant states it best when he says that "Nothing is so terrible as solitude; and few forms of it so difficult as the isolation of a Jew from all his people." Spinoza, of course, after settling on a remove village of the Netherlands, could (with the benefit of distance) recognize that his work was part analysis, part self-introspection: "'I have often wondered that person who make boast of professing the Christian religion--namely, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men--should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criterion of their faith.'" The reference to Christianity was an attempt to salvage the few bridges he had left after his excommunication, but most of the rabbis knew he was directing the statement at them as well. I can only say that his words come home to me like truth. In the "Improvement of the Intellect," Spinoza tackled more than just the metaphysical. He covered the varied themes of ethics, nature and God, matter and mind with what Durant calls "Euclidean clarity." I have to agree with Durant, as Spinoza theorizes on the dichotomy of mind and matter in this fashion: "'The body cannot determine the mind to think; nor the mind determine the body to remain in motion or at rest, or any other state.... the decision of the mind, and the desire and determination of the body are one and the same thing.'" The idea, it appears to Durant, was a novel concept at the time, and it wasn't until Immanuel Kant and the other German Idealists that the core of this philosophy jelled.

Will Durant loves Voltaire with a passion that is not only palpable but also lengthy. The pages covering Voltaire go from 152 to 190, and it is by far the longest chapter in my edition (1943, Garden City Publ). The biographical sketch is intertwined with theories and Voltaire's long list of famous friends parade before the reader in an amusing fashion. There's Frederick the Great, Louis XIV, Fontenelle, Chevalier de Rohan, Catherine of Russia, among many others. There are, of course, the scandals and Voltaire's handful of trips to the Bastille (courtesy of the Regent). Surely, as an intellectual Voltaire must be admired beyond reproach, but the way Durant presents Voltaire's philosophical principles and theories lacks the luster of the thinker himself. Much time is dedicated to Voltaire's biographical connections to characters in his plays such as "Zadig," and "Candide." Don't get me wrong, I love Durant and I love this book, but I am seeing how 20+ years since I last read it has filled my brain with better books on the history of philosophy. Voltaire gets his due when it comes to his philosophy, but it is at the end of the chapter, when the clash between rationalism, atheism and religion. By the time Durant reaches "The Encyclopedia and The Philosophic Dictionary," Voltaire had done his "damage" to the establishment (and rightly so), and Durant has run out of space in the book to cover it at more detail. Some of the explanatory text that stands out from this chapter begins with, "Conscience is not the voice of God, but the fear of the police; it is the deposit left in us from the stream of prohibitions poured over the growing soul by parents and teachers and press. Morality must be founded not on theology but on sociology; the changing needs of society, and not any unchanging revelation of dogma, must determine the good." Despite the fact that Voltaire did not consider himself an atheist, and to a large extent believed that there was a function for theology within the spirit of man. The problem was always how it applied to monarchical domination and church abuses. Nevertheless, Voltaire did go to his grave praised among the French secularist, damned by the religious populace, and even W.A. Mozart weighed in in a letter to Leopold back in Salzburg: "Voltaire," Mozart wrote, "that Godless pig, just recently died and since has written no more poetry."

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At 11:18 AM, Blogger Khatt said...

In the 1961 edition I have Durant addresses some complaints about the book similar to yours. But hey, we can all read the great philosophers on our own if our educational background has laid a foundation or if we are willing to work really hard. Durant covers what this book does not in his 11 volume History of Civilization. I don't know of any better book than this as a sample of philosophical thought. He is a delightfully readable and often amusing guide to an overwhelming body of work that without such books as his might stay unavailable to most of us. If he indulges himself a bit, I say, good on him. He does tell us in the intro to my edition he is doing it.


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