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The keynote of the whole poem is struck in its opening lines. When Venus is addressed as Nature鈥檚 sole guide and ruler, this, from the poet鈥檚 own point of view, is not true of Nature as a whole, but it is eminently true of life, whether we identify Venus with the passion through which living things are continually regenerated, or with the pleasure which is their perpetual motive and their only good. And it is equally appropriate, equally characteristic of a consummate artist, that the interest of the work should culminate in a description of107 this same passion, no longer as the source of life, but as its last outcome and full flower, yet also, when pushed to excess, the illusion by which it is most utterly disappointed and undone; and that the whole should conclude with a description of death, not as exemplified in any individual tragedy, but in such havoc as was wrought by the famous plague at Athens on man and beast alike. Again, it is by the orderly sequence of vital phenomena that Lucretius proves his first great principle, the everlasting duration and changelessness of matter. If something can come out of nothing, he asks us, why is the production of all living things attached to certain conditions of place and season and parentage, according to their several kinds? Or if a decrease in the total sum of existence be possible, whence comes the inexhaustible supply of materials needed for the continual regeneration, growth, and nourishment of animal life? It is because our senses cannot detect the particles of matter by whose withdrawal visible objects gradually waste away that the existence of extremely minute atoms is assumed; and, so far, there is also a reference to inorganic bodies; but the porosity of matter is proved by the interstitial absorption of food and the searching penetration of cold; while the necessity of a vacuum is established by the ability of fish to move through the opposing stream. The generic differences supposed to exist among the atoms are inferred from the distinctions separating not only one animal species from another, but each individual from all others of the same species. The deflection of the atoms from the line of perpendicular descent is established by the existence of human free-will. So also, the analysis which distinguishes three determinate elements in the composition of the soul finds its justification in the diverse characters of animals鈥攖he fierceness of the lion, the placidity of the ox, and the timorousness of the deer鈥攓ualities arising from the preponderance of a fiery, an a?rial, and a windy ingredient in the animating principle of each respectively. Finally, by another organic108 illustration, the atoms in general are spoken of as semina rerum鈥攕eeds of things..
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Thus, then, the Socratic dialogue has a double aspect. It is, like all philosophy, a perpetual carrying of life into ideas and of ideas into life. Life is raised to a higher level by thought; thought, when brought into contact with life, gains movement and growth, assimilative and reproductive power. If action is to be harmonised, we must regulate it by universal principles; if our principles are to be efficacious, they must be adopted; if they are to be adopted, we must demonstrate them to the satisfaction of our contemporaries. Language, consisting as143 it does almost entirely of abstract terms, furnishes the materials out of which alone such an ideal union can be framed. But men do not always use the same words, least of all if they are abstract words, in the same sense, and therefore a preliminary agreement must be arrived at in this respect; a fact which Socrates was the first to recognise. Aristotle tells us that he introduced the custom of constructing general definitions into philosophy. The need of accurate verbal explanations is more felt in the discussion of ethical problems than anywhere else, if we take ethics in the only sense that Socrates would have accepted, as covering the whole field of mental activity. It is true that definitions are also employed in the mathematical and physical sciences, but there they are accompanied by illustrations borrowed from sensible experience, and would be unintelligible without them. Hence it has been possible for those branches of knowledge to make enormous progress, while the elementary notions on which they rest have not yet been satisfactorily analysed. The case is entirely altered when mental dispositions have to be taken into account. Here, abstract terms play much the same part as sensible intuitions elsewhere in steadying our conceptions, but without possessing the same invariable value; the experiences from which those conceptions are derived being exceedingly complex, and, what is more, exceedingly liable to disturbance from unforeseen circumstances. Thus, by neglecting a series of minute changes the same name may come to denote groups of phenomena not agreeing in the qualities which alone it originally connoted. More than one example of such a gradual metamorphosis has already presented itself in the course of our investigation, and others will occur in the sequel. Where distinctions of right and wrong are involved, it is of enormous practical importance that a definite meaning should be attached to words, and that they should not be allowed, at least without express agreement, to depart from the recognised acceptation: for such words, connoting as they do the approval or disap144proval of mankind, exercise a powerful influence on conduct, so that their misapplication may lead to disastrous consequences. Where government by written law prevails the importance of defining ethical terms immediately becomes obvious, for, otherwise, personal rule would be restored under the disguise of judicial interpretation. Roman jurisprudence was the first attempt on a great scale to introduce a rigorous system of definitions into legislation. We have seen, in the preceding chapter, how it tended to put the conclusions of Greek naturalistic philosophy into practical shape. We now see how, on the formal side, its determinations are connected with the principles of Socrates. And we shall not undervalue this obligation if we bear in mind that the accurate wording of legal enactments is not less important than the essential justice of their contents. Similarly, the development of Catholic theology required that its fundamental conceptions should be progressively defined. This alone preserved the intellectual character of Catholicism in ages of ignorance and superstition, and helped to keep alive the reason by which superstition was eventually overthrown. Mommsen has called theology the bastard child of Religion and Science. It is something that, in the absence of the robuster parent, its features should be recalled and its tradition maintained even by an illegitimate offspring.?
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Who can be calm when he is called upon to prove the existence of the gods? Who can avoid hating and abhorring the men who are and have been the cause of this argument? I speak of those who will not believe the words which they have heard as babes and sucklings from their mothers and nurses, repeated by them both in jest and earnest like charms; who have also heard and seen their parents offering up sacrifices and prayers鈥攕ights and sounds delightful to children鈥攕acrificing, I say, in the most earnest manner on behalf of them and of themselves, and with eager interest talking to the gods and beseeching them as though they were firmly convinced of their existence; who likewise see and hear the genuflexions and prostrations which are made by Hellenes and barbarians to the rising and setting sun and moon, in all the various turns of good and evil for272tune, not as if they thought that there were no gods, but as if there could be no doubt of their existence, and no suspicion of their non-existence; when men, knowing all these things, despise them on no real grounds, as would be admitted by all who have any particle of intelligence, and when they force us to say what we are now saying, how can any one in gentle terms remonstrate with the like of them, when he has to begin by proving to them the very existence of the gods?160!
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Thou justly guidest all things;.
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We have this great advantage in dealing with Plato鈥攖hat his philosophical writings have come down to us entire, while the thinkers who preceded him are known only through fragments and second-hand reports. Nor is the difference merely accidental. Plato was the creator of speculative literature, properly so called: he was the first and also the greatest artist that ever clothed abstract thought in language of appropriate majesty and splendour; and it is probably to their beauty of form that we owe the preservation of his writings. Rather unfortunately, however, along with the genuine works of the master, a certain number of pieces have been handed down to us under his name, of which some are almost universally admitted to be spurious, while the authenticity of others is a question on which the best scholars are still divided. In the absence of any very cogent external evidence, an immense amount of industry and learning has been expended on this subject, and the arguments employed on both sides sometimes make us doubt whether the reasoning powers of philologists are better developed than, according to Plato, were those of mathematicians in his time. The176 two extreme positions are occupied by Grote, who accepts the whole Alexandrian canon, and Krohn, who admits nothing but the Republic;115 while much more serious critics, such as Schaarschmidt, reject along with a mass of worthless compositions several Dialogues almost equal in interest and importance to those whose authenticity has never been doubted. The great historian of Greece seems to have been rather undiscriminating both in his scepticism and in his belief; and the exclusive importance which he attributed to contemporary testimony, or to what passed for such with him, may have unduly biassed his judgment in both directions. As it happens, the authority of the canon is much weaker than Grote imagined; but even granting his extreme contention, our view of Plato鈥檚 philosophy would not be seriously affected by it, for the pieces which are rejected by all other critics have no speculative importance whatever. The case would be far different were we to agree with those who impugn the genuineness of the Parmenides, the Sophist, the Statesman, the Phil锚bus, and the Laws; for these compositions mark a new departure in Platonism amounting to a complete transformation of its fundamental principles, which indeed is one of the reasons why their authenticity has been denied. Apart, however, from the numerous evidences of Platonic authorship furnished by the Dialogues themselves, as well as by the indirect references to them in Aristotle鈥檚 writings, it seems utterly incredible that a thinker scarcely, if at all, inferior to the master himself鈥攁s the supposed imitator must assuredly have been鈥攕hould have consented to let his reasonings pass current under a false name, and that, too, the name of one whose teaching he in some respects controverted; while there is a further difficulty in assuming that his existence could pass unnoticed at a period marked by intense literary and philosophical activity. Readers who177 wish for fuller information on the subject will find in Zeller鈥檚 pages a careful and lucid digest of the whole controversy leading to a moderately conservative conclusion. Others will doubtless be content to accept Prof. Jowett鈥檚 verdict, that 鈥榦n the whole not a sixteenth part of the writings which pass under the name of Plato, if we exclude the works rejected by the ancients themselves, can be fairly doubted by those who are willing to allow that a considerable change and growth may have taken place in his philosophy.鈥116 To which we may add that the Platonic dialogues, whether the work of one or more hands, and however widely differing among themselves, together represent a single phase of thought, and are appropriately studied as a connected series.
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21 August, 2019 - 13:08
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