Looking backward, either from the year 300 B.C. or from the more enlightened (?) year of grace A.D. 1950, the greatest achievement, the climax, of the enormously long period that this book has covered seems to be the Aristotelian synthesis. The greatness and wisdom of that synthesis appear equally well whether one considers it against the background of the Greek past, brilliant and adventurous, artistic, lyrical, scientific, or from the point of view of the many–sided discussions that agitated Greek minds during the short twilight of Hellenism.
Aristotle had put in good order the knowledge then available in astronomy, physics, zoology, ethics, politics, but in addition he had built up a philosophy that was well documented, rational, and moderate. He established the via media that can be traced after him across the ages down to our own day, the via media that was followed in the course of time by many Muslim and Jewish philosophers, by St. Thomas, the neo–Thomists, and many Jesuits, as well as by the majority of the men of science. The history of that middle road includes a large part of the history of philosophy and of the history of science; to put it otherwise, when one contemplates the history of science in its wholeness, one can see very distinctly that road passing through it, right in the middle of it, from the fourth century B.C. to the twentieth after Christ.
The very mention of a middle road suggests the existence of many other roads around it, which may converge or diverge but remain different. Such roads existed, and they were followed by such men as the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. The via media was very broad, however; it attracted not only Aristotle’s own disciples but also the latest alumni of the Academy who had jettisoned the theory of ideas and the political fantasies of Plato. There was more and more concern for ethics and for common–sense politics, and the via media would have been even more popular than it was but for the terrible vicissitudes of those hard days. The ancient world was going to pieces — but is not the world always disintegrating? Death is the condition of life, war is the condition of peace, suffering is the condition of happiness. Every coin has its reverse; everything, however beautiful, has its wrong side. The old world was dying in order that a new world might be born.
The twilight of Hellenism may be said to begin in the twenties of the fourth century. Alexander the Great died in 323, Aristotle in 322. The Greek world had lost its independence a few years earlier, in 338. The dissolution of the Alexandrian empire introduced the complexities of the Hellenistic age, and prepared a little later the “new deal” of Roman culture. The death of Aristotle coincided with a kind of philosophic recrudescence, as if all the problems of life and knowledge had to be settled before the night set in. The Lyceum and the Academy were still the main schools, but newer schools were trying to crowd them out, chiefly the Epicurean and the Stoic.
These two schools had come into being largely as revulsions against the Academy and even against the Lyceum (the new schools are always of necessity reactions against the old ones; that is a law of life and death). The Garden of Epicuros and the Porch of Zenon had much in common, aside from their distrust of the Academy, and, judging from the writings that have come down to us, many students must have walked from the Porch to the Garden or vice versa. Later writers, like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, mixed Epicurean and Stoic teachings and were not always able to decide between the two.
The post–Alexandrian philosophies had unavoidably in common a sense of disillusion.¹⁶³⁶ Philosophies as well as religions develop because men in the midst of their recurrent miseries require spiritual comfort; the bodies are trembling and the hearts need solace. The Epicureans and the Stoics realized that need and agreed that man can find comfort in himself and nowhere else; they were able equally to please rational men and to offend and irritate the irrational ones. It is true that Stoic physics included various fantasies, but one might be a good Stoic without bothering about these; Stoic morality was eminently acceptable and comforting. No philosophy has ever done more to reconcile man to his fate.
The Stoics and the Epicureans had little interest in science; their supreme concern was ethics, the conduct of life. To that extent one might say that they agreed in discouraging scientific research; yet there was in that respect an essential difference between them. The Epicureans neglected science but did no harm to it; on the contrary, in so far as they were fighting superstition, they helped to clear the ground for the quest of truth. The Stoics indulged in occultism; they favored divination, their acceptance and fosterage of astral religion was a real betrayal of truth (as men of science understand it). The paradoxical consequence of this was that while the Stoics devoted far more attention to science than the Epicureans they jeopardized its progress.
Aside from their physical theories, the main differences between Stoics and Epicureans concerned the life after death and Providence. According to the Stoics, the dead body returned to the “seminal reason” of the cosmos; according to the Epicureans, it was scattered into atoms. The difference was not essential, for none of them believed in personal immortality,¹⁶³⁷ but it was obscured by commentators and controversialists, who jumbled together two different sets of alternatives — atomism versus nonatomism, Providence versus no–Providence–and dealt with them as if the real alternatives were atomism versus Providence.
The Epicureans combined atomism with no–Providence, and the Stoics, Providence with a denial of atomism. However, these two choices were not exhaustive; one might very well believe in atomism and Providence; this was discovered by Muslim philosophers and again by modern men of science beginning with Gassendi,
By the end of the fourth century, the main branches of science (except physics and chemistry) were established, many fundamental problems had been formulated, and nearly every philosophic attitude had been prefigured.
The various philosophic tendencies were interwoven. When one investigates the life of any philosopher, one generally discovers that he sat at the feet of many masters. This is not surprising, because the opportunities existed, especially in Athens, where it was impossible not to know of the competitive theories that were advocated at the same time, and an honest man in search of the truth would shop a long while before making his choice.
The variety was increased by the size of the Greek world and its ramifications into Asia, Africa, and various parts of Europe outside of the Greek peninsula. That vast Greek world was fairly homogenous, yet local differences were abundant. Although Athens was the main center of attraction, where every philosopher, man of science, or artist would spend at least a part of his life, they used to travel considerably from one end of their homoglot territory to another. Sensitive people living near the boundaries could not help being aware of the feelings and ideas that obtained currency beyond them, and thus exotic ideas, especially religious ideas, could and did permeate inside. We must never forget that to the Greek knowledge, experience, and wisdom were added the superstitions that would come naturally to any people, and little by little the Oriental religions which satisfied more completely their hopes and longings.
During the twilight of Hellenism, thinking men had been offered all the possible alternatives, rationalism versus superstition, cynicism, agnosticism, mysticism, defeatism in all its forms. We may assume that the majority of them had chosen the via media of the Peripatos, or the ethical quietism of the Epicureans or of the Stoics.
The main issue, then as now, was not between materialism and spiritualism, but between rationalism and irrationalism. It is amazing to discover that in that early time almost all the Greek philosophers had already realized that. No system of theirs, not even the Epicurean, was purely materialistic; none, not even the Platonic, was purely spiritualistic. They all understood that one needs some kind of matter even for thinking, and that one cannot refute spiritualism except with some kind of mind or spirit. In addition, they had asked all the great questions that we are still trying to answer today.
Hellenism was going down in unique splendor, or rather, it was moving out; one can hardly speak of going down, for it was not a real decadence but the end of an incubation, the preparation for a metamorphosis.
The Greek peoples had been weakened by military and political disasters, by wars and revolutions. It is possible that they had been weakened also (and more deeply) by an infectious disease. During the fourth century malaria became endemic throughout a large part of the Greek world.¹⁶³⁸ Malarial conditions may help to account for the fact that the new culture was begun not in Greece proper —Greece was exhausted — but in a Greek colony in Egypt, Alexandria.¹⁶³⁹’
The end of the fourth century witnessed the end of a cycle and the emergence of a new one. The Greek spirit was not dead, not by any means; it is immortal; it was resurrected in the following centuries in Alexandria, in Pergamon, in Rhodes, in Rome, and in other places scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. We shall tell the history of that resurrection in the next volume.