Monday, October 31, 2016

Essential Thinkers #13: Nicolaus Copernicus, 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium'

Born in Poland and graduate of Cracow University, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) studied Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and theology before becoming a canon of the cathedral at Frauenberg, where he finally settled. Copernicus did more to revolutionize man’s conception of himself and his place in the universe than perhaps any other thinker, before or since. Even if his work would have a profound and negative impact on the Church, he was a man of impeccable orthodoxy. Although he delayed publication of his findings for fear of censure by the Church, it is clear that he believed his views were not inconsistent with his theology.

Prior to Copernicus, astronomers had favoured the view, following both Aristotle and Ptolemy, that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with both the stars, sun and the moon revolving about it. known as the Ptolemaic system, this view was wholly in keeping with many theological teachings, in which the universe is seem to be created by God for the express purpose of man. The effect of Copernicus’ work was to turn all this on its head.

Probably first posited by Aristarchus of Samos around 340 BC, Copernicus revived the idea that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, which remains in a fixed position. Moreover, he proclaimed that in this system the earth has a twofold motion. On the one hand it turns on its own axis, rotating one full turn every 24 hours, and on the other it completely circumnavigates the sun every 364 days.

This heliocentric (sun-centred) system was vigorously resisted by the Church, which saw it as usurping man’s central place in creationist stories of the universe. By using Pythagorean calculations, however, Copernicus managed to predict and account for various astronomical observations with amazing accuracy.

Although Copernicus claimed his work was no more than hypothetical, eventually the weight of evidence would be too great to be resisted, and before long Copernicus would famously be supported by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton amongst others. By the end of the following century Copernicus’ idea would be refined to the point of irrefutability. The heliocentric theory was condemned by the [Roman Catholic] Church, but Copernicus was carefully during his life not to incur its wrath, unlike Galileo after him.  Indeed Copernicus even dedicated the work in which he proclaims the heliocentric theory, the De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium, with apparent sincerity, to the Pope. It was only later, in Galileo’s time, that the Church condemned Copernicus’ work as heretical.

So great and profound was the effect of Copernicus’ hypothesis on the intellectual world that philosophers and scientists have since coined the phrase, “Copernican Revolution” to describe world-changing ideas. The effect of the original ‘Copernican Revolution’ on the development of Western thought, both philosophical and scientific is difficult to exaggerate. It gave birth to the scientific age and helped remove many of the superstitious and ignorant beliefs so typical of the time. It would, for better or worse, lead to the decline of the power of the church, and to a new age of scientific inquiry and invention.

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Copernicus: Mini Biography’]

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Essential Thinkers #12: St Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways from Summa Theologica

The favoured philosopher of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is principally remembered for reconciling the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Born in northern Sicily, he was educated first at the University of Naples and later at Cologne, and lectured at Paris and Naples. Aquinas was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XII (thus, he is called Saint Thomas Aquinas).

While much of Aquinas’ work was Aristotelian in derivation he also extended and clarified many of Aristotle’s ideas and made many original contributions to Aristotelian thought. Chief amongst Aquinas’ many achievements are the Five Ways, or proofs of the existence of God, from his Summa Theologica. The Five Ways are the clearest and most succinct attempt to prove the existence of God by means of logical argument.

In the first of the Five Ways, Aquinas says the existence of God can be proved by considering the concept of change. We can clearly see that some things in the world are in the process of change, and this change must be a result of something else, since a thing cannot change of itself. But the cause of the change itself, since in the process of change, must also be caused to change by something other than itself, and so on again, ad infinitum. Clearly, there must be something which is the cause of all change, but which itself does not undergo change. For, as Aquinas says, “If the hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else.” The first mover, Aquinas concludes, is God.

In the second Way, arguing in a similar manner to the first, Aquinas notes that causes always operate in series, but there must be a first cause of the series or there could not be a series at all. Interestingly, both the first and second Ways proceed on the assumption that a thing cannot cause itself. Yet this is precisely his conclusion, that there is a thing which does cause itself, namely, God. Philosophers have criticized this form of arguing as confused, since the proposition that appears to be proven in the conclusion is the very same proposition denied in the argument.

In the third Way, it is noted that we observe that things in the world come to be and pass away. But clearly not everything can be like this, for then there would have been a time when nothing existed. But if that were true then nothing could ever have come into being, since something cannot come from nothing. Therefore something must have always existed, and this is what people understand by God. The first, second and third Ways of Aquinas’ arguments are often called variations of a more general argument, the Cosmological Argument.

In the fourth Way, Aquinas offers a version of the Ontological Argument (to know more about this argument, see my previous post on St Anselm). In Aquinas’ version some things are noted to exhibit varying degrees of a quality. A thing may be more or less hot, more or less good, more or less noble. Such varying degrees of quality are caused by something that contains the most and perfect amount of that quality. Because, just as the sun is the hottest thing, and thus is the cause of all other things being hot, so there must be some fully ‘good’ thing which makes all other things good. That which is most good is, of course, God.  

Finally, the in the Fifth Way, Aquinas relies on Aristotle’s notion of ‘telos’ or purpose. All things aim towards some ultimate goal or end. But to be guided by a purpose or a goal implies some mind that directs or intends that purpose. That director is, once again, God. Versions of Aquinas’ cosmological and ontological arguments are still accepted by the Catholic Church today, though modern philosophers have almost unanimously rejected all five of Aquinas’ Ways.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘The School of Life: Thomas Aquinas]

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Essential Thinkers #11: St. Anselm, the Father of the Scholastic Tradition

Born at Aosta in Burgundy, Anselm (1033-1109) was a pious child and sought admission to the monastic life at the early age of 15. The local Abbot, however, refused him of his father’s insistence (Abbot mean ‘a man who is the head of an abbey of monks’). After his mother’s death, Anselm went for travelling. Eventually he arrived at the Abbey of Bec and began studying under the renowned Prior Lanfranc. He eventually took his monastic orders in 1060. Only three years later, when Lanfranc was appointed Abbot of Caen, the young Anselm succeeded him as Prior much to the chagrin of older and more established candidates. During the next 30 years he wrote his philosophical and theological works and was appointed Abbot of Bec.

Now remembered as the father of the Scholastic tradition and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death, Anselm is of philosophical interest mainly for his logical arguments in two major works, the Monologion (meaning ‘Soliloquy’) and the Proslogion (Discourse) both of which gave various arguments intended to prove the existence of God. By the 12th century the works of Plato and Aristotle had been rediscovered and reinterpreted by the scholastics who attempted to synthesise early Greek ideas with medieval theology. Following the Greek tradition, it is said that Anselm’s students had been concerned to hear a rational justification for the existence of God that did not rely merely in the acceptance of Scripture or doctrinal teaching. Anselm’s most famous response to this challenge was to become famously known as “the ontological argument for the existence of God” which has been called by some one of the most hotly debated issues in the history of philosophy.

Consider, invites Anselm, that by the term ‘God’ we mean something than which nothing greater can be thought of. Given that even the non-believer or, as Anselm calls him, the Fool, accepts that this is what the concept of God entails, the existence of God would seem to follow necessarily from the definition. For it would be a contradiction to suppose that God is on the one hand something than which nothing greater can be thought of and on the other hand does not exist. For a God thought of that does not really exist is not so great as one thought of that does exist, and since one can clearly think of God and suppose he exists, then something which nothing greater can be thought of must be something that exists (read the last two passages again).

Anselm’s ontological argument is ingenious in its simplicity. While most people agree that there is something rather fishy about it, opinion has been divided as to exactly what is the matter with the argument. The earliest critic of Anselm was a contemporary Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. Gaunilo argued that if Anselm’s reasoning were correct, then one could conceive of a lost island that was the most perfect island there could ever be. Since by definition the island is the most perfect it must exist, for by Anselm’s reasoning it would be less than perfect if it did not. Thus, complained Gaunilo, Anselm’s reasoning licences the existence of all sorts of imaginary objects and must therefore be faulty. In response, Anselm claimed that the quality of perfection is an attribute that only applies to God, and therefore his ontological argument cannot be used to prove the existence of imaginary islands or anything else.

Versions of Anselm’s ontological argument were later used by both St. Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes and were, much later still, heavily criticised by Immanuel Kant. Kant’s principle complaint was that the concept of God as a perfect being does not entail that God exists since ‘existence’ is not a perfection. The concept of a perfect being that exists is no more or less great than the concept of a perfect being that does not exist. Philosophers agree that the problem with Anselm’s argument revolves around the fact that we surely cannot ascertain whether something exists or not merely by analysing the meaning of a word or concept. However, exactly what logical error is being committed by attempting to do so has remained a cause of much dispute amongst philosophers and logicians.

The argument was taken up again in more recent times, in the 1960’s, when the philosopher Norman Malcolm revived a lesser known variant of Anselm’s argument which sidesteps the objections made by Kant and others. According to Malcolm, Anselm argues in the Proslogion that if it is possible that a necessary being could exist, then it must exist, for it would be a contradiction to say a necessary being does not exist. God could only fail to exist of the concept of God was self-contradictory or nonsensical. This remains to be shown by opponents of the ontological argument.

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Anselm and the Argument for God’]

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Essential Thinkers #10: St Augustine, Rational Thought is the Servant of Faith

Religious scholar and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) produced works, principally his Confessions and his City of God, that are classics in both the philosophy of religion and Christian doctrine. Born in Algeria, he studied in Carthage, Rome and Milan before returning to North Africa to found a monastery. He was made Bishop of Hippo Regius in 395. At the heart of Augustine’s philosophy is the belief that only through faith can wisdom be attained. He saw both philosophy and religion as quests for the same thing, namely truth, but with the former inferior to the latter in this pursuit. The philosopher without faith could never attain to the ultimate truth, which for Augustine was beatitude, or ‘the enjoying of truth.’ Although reason alone could attain to some truths, Augustine maintained that rational thought was the servant of faith.

One of Augustine’s favourite texts, quoted from [the prophet] Isaiah, held that “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” One must believe in order to acquire understanding. This idea of Augustine’s was not mere slavish following of Christian doctrine. Indeed, in his youth he had renounced religion, finding the Scriptures intellectually unsatisfying. It was his aim, after his conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, to show how reason could prove the tenets of faith. This was the idea that informed his philosophy.

Augustine’s use of reason to justify the doctrines of faith is best known, famously or infamously depending on one’s point of view, for putting down the so-called ‘Pelagian heresy.’ Pelagius had questioned the notion of original sin, and further held, in accordance with the notion of free will, that when a person does good they do so from the virtue of their own moral character. As a result they are rewarded in heaven. Augustine found this doctrine subversive and distasteful. He argued, following the Epistle of St Paul, that all men are born in sin. Redemption is only possible by the grace of God regardless of our actions on earth. Adam, in taking the apple [Richard: The Bible doesn’t say ‘an apple’ but ‘the fruit’] had condemned himself and all of mankind to damnation. Our only salvation lies in repentance, but this does not guarantee that we will be chosen to go to heaven and not to hell.  

Augustine’s arguments, later revived by John Calvin and eventually abandoned by the Catholic Church, are skilled rationalisations of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. But nowhere does he question the assumptions of the Epistle, concentrating instead on drawing out the logical conclusions of the Scripture.

In more recent times, Augustine’s Confessions received attention from Ludwig Wittgenstein, not for its religious or even philosophical pronouncements, but for the way in which Augustine describes the learning of language:

When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all people: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes…. Thus as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and… I used these signs to express my own desires” (Confessions, I. 8).

At the beginning of his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein famously called this common-place conception ‘the Augustinian picture of language.’ Much of the rest of the Investigations is a successful repudiation of the Augustinian conception of language. [Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Augustine Documentary (2015)’]

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Essential Thinkers #9 Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King

Adopted son of the Emperor Pius, Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) himself became Roman emperor for almost 20 years until his death in 180 AD. He is known for his only work the Meditations or Writings to Himself, written, according to critics, in the midst of the Parthian war when he might have better used his time directing the army. Still, as a ‘converted’ Stoic, he was greatly concerned with the social problems of the poor, slaves, and the imprisoned. Despite this, he continued, as emperor, to persecute the increasing Christian population, undoubtedly because he saw them as a threat to the Roman religion and way of life, based as this was on conquest, polytheism, and the deification of dead emperors. His own life ended as a result of the plague which broke out whilst he was planning a campaign to increase the domain of the Empire to the north.

The important of his Meditations lies in their practical and aphoristic Stoic message. A loosely-organized set of thoughts relating to stoic philosophy, they nevertheless represent an example of a living ethic, of a teaching closer to religion than to philosophic speculation. For example, the following is typical of Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Like Seneca before him, Marcus Aurelius believed that a divine providence had placed reason in man, and it was in the power of man to be one with the rational purpose of the universe. The Stoic philosophy was primary concerned with living in accordance with both one’s own nature and universal Nature, perhaps best understood in the sense meant by Taoist philosophers of the East. Simple living and contentment with one’s lot go hand in hand with stoicism, but run the risk of leading to quietism. As a means of social control Stoicism is the ideal ‘religion’, since the more people are willing to accept the things are just they are, the less trouble they are likely to give the Emperor. Though it is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius professed Stoicism for political purposes – the Meditations seem sincere enough – it is a factor of his philosophy that should not be ignored.

The rationale behind the Stoic insistence on living ‘in accordance with nature’ stems from a certain biological outlook. According to the Stoics, all ‘ensouled beings’ (by which they mean to include everything we would now call ‘sentient life’) strive towards self-preservation. Self-preservation leads a being to look for that which is in tune with its nature and appropriate to its own being. Man, being endowed with reason, seeks not just food, warmth and shelter, but also that which is good for the intellect. Ultimately, Reason allows us to choose that which is in tune with our true nature with greater accuracy than if we merely follow our animal instinct.

Central to this Stoic outlook is an understanding of what constitutes the good or most appropriate life for human beings. Whilst many thinkers might suppose health and wealth, the Stoics insist that the ultimate good must be good at all times. It is conceivable that wealth may be sometimes detrimental to me, and so too, even, health, if for example, my strength were put to ill-doing. Hence the Stoic conclusion that the only infallible good is virtue, which includes the usual list of Greco-Roman excellences: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch Philosophers Note TV: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius]

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Essential Thinkers #8 Seneca, a Simple Life Devoted to Virtue and Reason

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much...
The life we receive is not short but we make it so;
we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

Son of Seneca the Elder, the younger Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in philosophy from an early age in Rome, where he would flirt with death at the hands of thee emperors during his lifetime. Caligula would have had him killed but was dissuaded on the grounds that he was destined to live a short life. Claudius exiled him and finally, after falsely being accused of plotting against Nero, whom he had tutored as a small boy, Seneca took his own life in AD 65. Nevertheless, he had a successful career as a lawyer and amassed a personal fortune. He wrote many works, which can be categorized into broadly three main kinds.

First, there are his essays on Stoic philosophy, then the sermonising Epistles, and finally his plays, often depicting graphic violence. His many plays include The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes.

Seneca was a Stoic philosopher but with a somewhat pragmatic bent. Unlike the other Stoics who often aspired to lofty goals few if any could ever reach, Seneca moderated his philosophy with a more practical approach. As with the other Stoics, the heart of his philosophy was the belief in a simple life devoted to virtue and reason. However, his extant works, particularly the one hundred and twenty-four essays of his Epistles, but also to a degree his essays, contain the same tone, being often persuasive entreaties rather than expositions of technical philosophy. He is constantly trying to administer advice to his reader rather than impart philosophical wisdom. It is said that Boethius was consoled by reading Seneca whilst in prison. One particular passage to Seneca’s grieving mother is illustrative of his sermonising style:

You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty. So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.”

This sermonising is typical of Seneca’s work and becomes more frequent as he matures. His Stoicism is tinged with a kind of pseudo-religious flavour but importantly reflects a concern with ethical and moral principles at the expense of metaphysics. Seneca’s stoicism is less a theoretical philosophy than a guide to living. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics did not pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. Rather, Seneca insists that the only good is virtue. Doing the right thing is of paramount importance and one should show an attitude of indifference to all else. Each and every one of us, professes Seneca, has a god within him guiding us along the path set for us by Providence. We can attain happiness only by acting in accord with our own true nature, as revealed by our inner guide, and by being content with one’s lot in life. Altruism and simple living are essential to Seneca’s idea of correct living.

The important of Seneca places on doing the right thing in his philosophy appears to be sincere, given the manner of his death as reported by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Upon hearing Nero’s sentence, Seneca slashed his arms and legs and gave an erudite speech to his wife and a gathered audience. His wife Paulina, in despair, attempted to take her own life at the same time, to which Seneca said, “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example.” However, the Emperor’s soldiers prevented Paulina from carrying out the dead by tying her up. Despite his wounds, Seneca lingered on. Tacitus reports that Seneca “begged Statius Annaeus… to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, the same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens [i.e. the hemlock of Socrates]. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison… He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without funeral rites. So he had directed in his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.”

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also watch Stoicism: On the shortness of Life by Seneca]

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