Page images
PDF
EPUB

LECTURE III.

MODERN MATERIALISM.

In the middle ages there was little physical science and almost no materialism. This was not because there were few great minds or little mental activity in those ages, but because the human intellect was then almost exclusively occupied with religion and theology. Christianity rested on the belief that there was a God, the Creator of the universe and the Father of spirits, who had in the fulness of time made a special and perfect revelation of His character and will in Jesus Christ. Before the light and power of this belief, ancient materialism, like ancient polytheism, faded and withered away. The Christian Church in its earliest days had to battle with heathenism and Judaism, open and avowed, or with suppressed tendencies towards both, expressing themselves in the form of heresy. It had neither the time nor the inclination to busy itself directly with theories which it felt confident of being able to destroy by simply propagating itself. The Christian Fathers, down to the fall of the Roman empire, had their energies fully occupied in the defence of fundamental truths of religion, and especially of those involved in the great doctrine of the Trinity. The schoolmen sought to elaborate the faith which they had inherited into a comprehensive philosophy. Scholasticism was essentially the union, or, perhaps, rather the fusion of theology and philosophy. It proceeded on the assumption that there are not two studies, one of philosophy and the other of religion, but that true philosophy is true religion, and true religion is true philosophy. A theological philosophy was alone possible in the middle ages, and the widespread and intense interest felt in it shows how well adapted it was to meet the desires of men in those times. Medieval speculation was, as a whole, theistic and Christian; it was, as a whole, an effort to comprehend as well as to apprehend Christian truth. Even when not so it might be pantheistic, but it was not materialistic. Mohammedanism, although it was not found to be incompatible with the culture of physical science, was no less hostile to materialism than Christianity. Thus for centuries materialism had almost no existence, almost no history.1

1 See Appendix X.

With the downfall of scholasticism and the emancipation of the mind from ecclesiastical authority, materialistic tendencies began to manifest themselves; but it is late even in modern times before we reach a completely materialistic system. Lord Bacon ranked Democritus higher than Aristotle, but he was no materialist; he simply regarded the atomic hypothesis as luminous and fruitful.

“I had rather," he wrote, “believe all the fables in the legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without Mind; and therefore, God never wrought miracles to convince atheism, because His ordinary works convince it. It is true, a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon the second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no farther; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion—that is the school of Leucippus, and Democritus, and Epicurus; for it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty without a Divine Marshal.”

Gassendi, a dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church, a contemporary and friend yet opponent of Descartes, laboured to present the life and the doctrines of Epicurus in the most favourable light. He endeavoured to prove that all physical phenomena might be accounted for by the vacuum and atoms, and referred to mathematical and mechanical laws. He rejected, however, all Epicurean tenets which seemed to him inconsistent with Christian truth. He maintained God to be the Creator of the atoms, the first cause and ultimate explanation of all things. Some of his contemporaries insinuated doubts as to the sincerity of his religious professions, and some of the historians of philosophy have repeated them, but they are wholly unsupported by evidence, and quite inconsistent with our general knowledge of the high personal character of the man.

Among his friends was the famous Thomas Hobbes. He was, perhaps, more of a materialist not only than any man of his generation, but than any writer to be met with in literature until we come down to the middle of the eighteenth century. He held that we can only reason where we can add and subtract, combine and divide. But where is that? Only where there is what will compound and divide, only where there are bodies and bodily properties, since there is no place for composition or division, no capacity of more or less, in spirit. The consequence is plain,

—there can be no science, no philosophy of spirit. Spirit even as finite is beyond comprehension, beyond the range of experiment and sense, and therefore beyond reasoning and beyond science; and still more is it so with Spirit as infinite, eternal, ingenerable, incomprehensible, that is with the doctrine of God or Theology. We have here a narrow notion of the nature of reasoning, and then a notion of its object made equally narrow to suit it. The reduction of reasoning to the processes of addition and subtraction, and the denial that philosophy can be conversant about anything but body and bodily properties, depend on each other, but are both errors. Philosophy as universal science has a right to extend wherever truth is attainable by reason. Is spiritual truth attainable through reason? Hobbes answered that it was notthat only truth about bodies was attainable. This, however, he forgot to prove. In consequence of assuming it, he represented man as capable of religion only through inspiration, tradition, authority, apart from and independent of reason, which knows not and cannot know God truly. Religion is thus a thing which cannot be proved true; which must be accepted on some other ground than that of truth.

Philosophy, then, according to Hobbes, is con

« PreviousContinue »