Feb 112014
 
This is the true villain of our story. Give it time.

This is the true villain of our story. Give it time.

In the last month we have discovered that there are coral reefs near Greenland, that dung facilitates a symbiotic relationship between moths and treesloths, that one of King Arthur’s knights was black, that protons have a different diameter depending on how we measure them, and that the newly-discovered poems by Sappho may undermine what we thought we knew about Greek theories of the soul.  And we’re fine with all this.

It is easy for us to forget how the Scientific Method, at work behind all this research, is a uniquely flexible and dynamic belief system, one which enables our uniquely flexible and dyamic world.  Some will feel uncomfortable with me calling science a “belief system” but in this context I use the phrase “belief system” as a reminder of what the Scientific Method and its associated aparatus have displaced.  Science has not replaced religion–they coexist happily, productively, even symbiotically within many arenas, places and individuals, even as they chafe and vie in others.  But in the modern West, the Scientific Method has largely displaced older systems for guiding daily micro-decision-making which were more closely tied to religion.  We now use science-based reasoning a hundred times a day when we are called upon to make decisions.  Whether making a sandwich, buying a new teapot or evaluating an argument, we think about data from past experiences, bring in what facts and hypotheses we have accumulated from educated and informed living, consider the credibility of sources, ask ourselves questions about plausability, probability, evidence and counterargument, speculate about the range of possible errors and outcomes. We go through many steps, often fleeting but still present, before we assemble our sandwich (which recent nutrition advice seems plausible in the ever-changing range?) or buy our teapot (plastic so housemates won’t break it, or ceramic for environmental/health/aesthetic/flavor reasons?) or decide whether to grant a politician’s argument our provisional belief or disbelief.  Even for those members of modern Western society whose lives are powerfully informed by faith or institutional religion, who do seriously factor “What would Jesus/Apollo/Whatever do?” into the calculation, evaluatory criteria based on science and its method remain a substantial, if not exclusive, part of our aparatus for daily decision-making.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien. St. Augustine is another figure whose skin tone is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making im pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien. St. Augustine is another figure whose skin is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making him pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

For my purposes today, the most important part of what I just described is that the belief or disbelief we extend to the politician (or to our teapot) is provisional.  We decide that a thing is plausible or implausible, and extend to it a kind of belief which is prepared for the possibility that we will be proven wrong.  That thing the politician said might turn out later to be false (or true) when new information arises.  A teapot, let’s say I pick one which claims to be safe and eco-sound because of XYZ carbon something something, it may seem that I have given its claims my complete belief if I buy the teapot, but that too is provisional since my long-term purchasing decisions for other objects will be informed by further information, changes in industry, and, of course, my empirical experience of whether or not this teapot serves me (and survives my housemates) well.  

What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn.  We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche.  When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great!  Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement.  Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm.  Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.

All this is a way of previewing the endpoint of the present series, in order to show how important the often-invisible role of doubt is in current human thought.  Without skepticism, and important developments in the history of skepticism, we could not have the Scientific Method occupy the position it does in modern daily lives.  So I want to sketch out here some of my favorite moments in the history of skepticism, not a complete history (for that see Popkin’s History of Skepticism or Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea), but the spicy highlights that I’ve most enjoyed.

A "stoa" i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora. The name "Stoic" comes becuase they held meetings in a stoa. So really "Porch-ist" is the literal translation. The more you know!

A “stoa” i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora. The name “Stoic” comes because they met in a stoa. So really “Porchist” is the literal translation. The more you know!

Dogma and Doubt

There are  many ways to subdivide philosophy, but one of the most useful is, in my view, the subdivision into dogmatic and skeptical.  I’m using these terms in their technical philosophical senses, so I do not intend to invoke any of the contemporary, negative cultural associations of “dogma” or “skeptic.”  (Philosophy and history are constantly plagued with the disconnect between formal uses and modern casual uses of terms like these, Epicurean, Hedonist, Realist, Idealist… and it’s worse when I learn the technical term before I meet the popular one.  I can’t tell you how confusing it was the first time I was in a conversation where someone used “libertarian” in its contemporary political sense, which I had never met, having learned it from Spinoza class.  Them: “FDR is a big foe of Libertarianism.”  Me: “Really?  I didn’t know FDR denied the existence of freewill.  Was he a materialist?  A stoic?”  And when I tell my students that, for the purposes of Plato class, “Realist” and “Idealist” are synonyms they sometimes look like they’re about to cry…)  For today’s purposes by “dogmatic” I mean any philosophical moment or system which argues that something can be known, or that there can be certainty.  By “skeptical” I mean a philospohical moment or system arguing that something cannot be known, or that there cannot be certainty.  In this sense, Aristotle’s argument that the existence of a Prime Mover can be logically proved from the principle that any chain of events must have a First Cause is dogmatic, as is the conviction that we know with certainty that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides.  Pierre Bayle’s argument that God’s existence can be known through faith alone is skeptical, as is the argument that quantum uncertainties like Heisenberg’s mean that material reality can never be fully understood because the act of perceiving it alters it.  Thus neither skepticism nor dogmatism is more or less tied to theism than the other – both are broad and diverse categories, and most great intellectual traditions have both in there somewhere.

Dogmatic philosophy is what most people usually think of when we think about philosophy: systems that propose particular things.  The Platonic Good, Aristotle’s Categories, Descartes’ vortices and and Heidegger’s Being are all founded in claims that we know or can know some thing or set of things with certainty.  Yet skeptical arguments, about what cannot be known, have coexisted with dogmatic claims throughout philosophy’s existence, and the two act as foils to one another, arguing, cross-polinating, hybridizing, and spurring each other on, and their interactions have been among the most exciting and fruitful in philosophy’s long history.

I will begin as close to the beginning as I can:

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato's Academy. Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is? I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato’s Academy. Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is?  With the round top? I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Happiness in Ancient Greece:

While post-17th-century philosophy often puts its primary focus on the quest to explain and describe things and create a system of knowledge, one key unifying attribute common to just about all classical Greek philosophical schools, though different in each, is the goal of attaining eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), from “eu” = good, happy, fortunate, and “daimon” = spirit, soul.  It’s usually translated as happiness, but it’s both more specific and stronger.  Other renderings that help get the idea across include wellbeing, self-contentment, self-fulfillment, spiritual joy, and personal wellfare.  It is the kind of happiness which is deep, lasting, tranquil, reliable, complete, and, in the Greek sense, godlike or divine.  By “divine” I mean a list of attributes that most Greek philosophers associated with the gods, who were supposed to be immortal, unchanging, indestructable, eternally happy and satisfied, living in a bliss surrounded by beauties and free from pain.  These are not Homeric Greek gods who feud and lust and rage, but more abstract philosophical gods personifying unchanging eternal principles, the sort of gods Plato believed in and for which reason he wanted to censor Homer’s depictions of the more fallible and anthropomorphic ones.  The word daimon thus occupies a complex space, much debated, but can be rendered as a spirit, soul or thinking thing, referring to a category vaguely encompassing human souls, gods and intermediary spirits.  Thus, eudaimonia is the state of having a happy or fortunate spirit, so my favorite way of rendering eudaimonia is “the kind of happiness Platonic gods experience” i.e. long-term, untroubled, indestructable happiness.

Become a philosopher, lead a philosophical life as I do, and you will achieve, or at least approach, happiness–this is the promise made by every sect, from Epicurus and Seneca to Diogenes and Plato.  In the classical world, being a philosopher was much more about life, living well and demonstrating one’s philosophical prowess through one’s personal excellence and successes than it was about writing comprehensive masterworks expounding systems (See Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life).  Each classical philosophical school had its own path to happiness, and each entwined it with different parallel goals, such as the pursuit of personal excellence, or understanding of nature, or civic virtue, or piety, or worldly pleasure, or friendship, any number of things, but we find no classical school for which approaching eudaimonia through leading a philosophical life was not a core promise.

It's a weirdly small step from souls that exist in the same state as gods to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

It’s a weirdly small step from aiming at a godlike state of the soul to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to be able to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

I should note in passing that, in later classical writings, it becomes clear that they take the divine aspect of eudaimonia very seriously, and Neoplatonists especially refer to past philosophical sages as “divine,” arguing that Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Diogenes of Athens, Seneca and so on, had achieved states of philosophical happiness that made their souls identical with those of gods, even while they were contained within mortal flesh.  The daimon or soul which is happy in eudaimonia is, after all, categorically the same type of thing as a god, and one of the leading differences between a human soul and a divine one is that the divine one experiences indestructable happy serenity.  If a philosopher’s soul achieves the same state, is it not a god?  Particularly in a culture which already practiced deification and ancestor worshop?  Platonic claims about a philosophical soul growing wings, leaving the body and dwelling among the gods helped further cultivate this impulse.  The practice of Theurgy, philosophical magic, developed from the idea that such a divine soul, even while resident in human flesh, could work miraculous effects, such as levitation or generating light.

Now, eudaimonia is a high bar to achieve.  Indestructable, god-like happiness must be able to stand unchanged in the face of all changes, a great challenge in a human existence beset by a thousand evils including wolves, tyrants, malaria, civil war, famine, injustice, accidental dismemberment, urequited love, and human mortality.  All our surviving ancients agreed that real eudaimonia could not be dependent upon external sources, like fame, wealth, property, physical fitness, romantic love, even liberty of person, because such things could be taken away from you by fickle fate, making them unreliable, and your happiness destructable.  I say surviving ancients because we do not have the writings of the Hedonist school, which we know focused on positive, experiential pleasures including, probably, food, drink and sex, and who may have been an exception, but their exceptionality doomed them to be silenced by the dissenting majority.  Those who did agree agreed that eudaimonia had to be a state of the thinking thing, the mind or soul, independent of experience, body or social position.  It was most frequently connected with things like tranquility, self-mastery, acceptance, and taking enjoyment from things that cannot be destroyed, like Truth.  It was also connected with freeing the soul from cares, such as fear, anxiety, envy, ambition, possessiveness, and general attachment to Earthly, perishable things.

These classical philosophical schools developed guides for living and decision-making intended to facilitate a happy life, and those with systems of physics and ontology often tied those closely to their paths to happiness.  For example, the atomic explanations for the natural non-divine mechanisms behind thunder and lightning were promoted by Epicureanism  as something which could make people happy by freeing them from fear of being zapped by a wrathful Zeus.  Thus philosophical disciplines like physics, biology and even basic ontology were in their way tools of eudaimonia as much as they were attempts to explain things.  Modern scholars even debate whether, in such cases, the physics was the source of the moral philosophy, or a tool developed afterward to support it when eudaimonia seemed to need it as an ally.

One of the sources of pain and unhappiness from which such systems set out to free people was curiosity, i.e. the unhappiness that derives from hungering for answers.  This too needed to be satisfied to achieve the stability of eternal, godlike happiness.  The quest to end the pain caused by curiosity meant supplying answers, to questions big and small, but especially big. And they needed to be certain answers, which would be reliable and eternal, and stand up to the assails of fortune, or else eternal, reliable eudaimonia could not rest upon them.  This added extra energy to the quest for certainty.  One wanted to be really, really sure an answer was right, so one could rest comfortably with it, and be happy, and know it would never change.  And one wanted the facts which served as foundations for philosophers’ broader advice on how to achieve happiness to also be certain and unchanging.  If Plato says the key to happiness is Truth, Excellence and the Good, or Aristotle proposes his Golden Mean, you want their claims to be based in certainty.

Two tools were employed in pursuit of certainty: Logic and Evidence.  All dogmatic claims (i.e. claims of certainty) made by any of our classical thinkers were based on one, the other, or both.

Evidence includes any claims based on observation, sensation, lived experience, or, more technically, empiricism.  If Aristotle says bony fish and cartelagenous fish are different because he has dissected a hundred of them and can describe how their insides are different, that is empiricism.  If Thales or Heraclitus draw conclusions based on seeing how fire emerges from wood, that is empiricism.  If Plato asks us to think about when we’ve seen someone beat a dog and say whether it makes the dog better or worse, that too is a kind of empiricism.

Logic includes any argument based on reasoning instead of sense experience.  If Aristotle says that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, that is an argument based on logic.  If Plato asks us if beating a dog makes it worse with respect to the properties of horses or worse with respect to the properties of dogs, that is also an argument asking us to apply logic.

StickInWaterMeanwhile, in a nearby lake…

…a stick fell in a pond, and skepticism was born, like Venus, from the waters.  Or rather, from someone who saw the water, and saw a stick sticking half-way out of it, and noticed that the stick looks bent or broken at the point where it goes into the water.  And yet, the stick is not bent.  The person bends over and touches it, just to be sure, and the fingers confirm the wood is whole and strong.  My eyes are lying to me!  My eyes can’t be trusted!  If this stick isn’t bent, what else that my eyes have told me may be false that I haven’t yet realized?  What if the sky isn’t blue?  Or milk isn’t white?  What if trees have faces, chalk is actually as beautiful as gold, and the sky is swarming with exquisite creatures I have no way to detect?  And if I can’t trust my eyes, what about my ears?  My hands?  Sense perception is unreliable!  But in that case, how do I know anything I’ve experienced is as I thought it was?  Or even that anything is real?!  Panic!  Panic more! (Quietly in the background Descartes and Sartre are still carrying out the “Panic more!” instruction nearly two millennia later).

The stick in water is a genuine, ancient example, much discused by pre-Socratic philosophers.  We don’t know if it’s actually the first example, since the earliest conversations are lost to time, but it may be, and certainly if it isn’t it was something similar, one of the other optical distortions discussed by ancients, like how a square tower can be mistaken for a round tower when seen from a great distance.  What does survive is what later philosophers made of these early discussions of the mystery of the stick in water: epistemology, the study of knowledge, how we know things, and when we can or can’t have certainty.  The stick in water challenges any claim that the senses can be relied upon as a source of certainty.  Forever after, therefore, any philosopher who wanted to make any claim based on sense perception first had to have a way to explain how we could trust the senses despite this, and other, failings.

And the stick in water has a brother: Zeno’s paradoxes.  If the stick in water undermines the credibility of sense-perception, its partner, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, are what undermine the credibility of the other traditional source of information: logic.  You have all heard Zeno’s paradoxes before, but rarely in companionship with the stick in water, which is what gives them their oomph, so it’s worth revisiting one here:

zenomotionAn archer looses an arrow at a target.  Before the arrow reaches the target, it must go half way.  Next it must go half the remaining distance.  Then half that distance.  Then half that distance.  Half, half, half, half but we can do this forever, so the arrow can never actually reach the target, because it must cross an infinite number of micro-distances first, and nothing can travel infinite distance. Therefore, logically, motion is impossible.  Cue polite applause for the logical trick, as at the successful completion of an elegant and challenging ice skating routine.  (Cue also Descartes and Sartre glaring at anyone who’s still smiling.)

Why is this more than a cute trick?

  • Youth: “But we know motion is possible, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “How?”  (All philosophical dialogs are with Socrates, even when they aren’t.)
  • Youth: “Because I can hit you.  See?”  Hits Socrates.
  • Socrates: “Yes, very good.  So you know it is possible because you did it?”
  • Youth: “Exactly, Socrates.  I can do it again if you aren’t convinced.”
  • Socrates: “If you want to exercise your will in that way (if there’s such a thing as will) then that’s your choice (if there’s such a thing as choice), but first, perhaps you could explain to me, using logic, how you are able to hit me, if your arm has to cross infinite distance first?”
  • Youth: “I… um… I don’t think I can, Socrates.  I just know that I hit you, and could do it again.”
  • Socrates: “But you can’t explain logically why.”
  • Youth: “No.”
  • Socrates: “So wouldn’t you say, then, that logic is incapable of explaining motion?”
  • Youth: “I guess so, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “Doesn’t that bother you?  That logic fails to be able to explain something so seemingly simple?  Doesn’t that make you distrust logic itself as a tool?  It would seem that logic itself is unreliable and can’t lead to certainty.”
  • Descartes (quietly in the background): “Panic more!”
  • Youth: “I guess that’s so, Socrates, but it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers those weirdly dressed men over there.”
  • Socrates: “And why doesn’t it bother you?”
  • Youth: “Well, because I know that motion is possible because I can do it and see it.  I don’t need logic to explain it.”
  • Socrates: “So even without logic, you’re sure there is motion… because?”
  • Youth: “Well, because when I move my arm to hit you, I can see it.  When I touch you with my hand, I can feel the impact, the texture of your skin.  I can still feel it a little on my own skin, the spot where it struck yours.”
  • Socrates: “So you know there is motion because your senses tell you so?”
  • Youth: “Yes.”
  • Socrates: “So, since logic is unreliable, you choose to rely on the senses instead?”
  • Youth: “Yes.  I trust things I can see and touch.”
  • Socrates: “Then tell me, my young friend, have you ever happened to notice what happens when a stick falls so it’s sticking half-way into a pool of water?”
Zeno has several paradoxes. In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never beat the tortoise in a race.

Zeno has several paradoxes. In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never catch the tortoise.

Our youth, whom we shall now leave panicking on the riverbank along with Socrates, Descartes, Sartre and, hopefully, a comfortable picnic, has now received the full impact of why Zeno’s paradoxes of motion matter.  They aren’t supposed to convince you there’s no motion, they’re supposed to convince you that logic says there is no motion, therefore we cannot trust logic.  Their intended target is any philosopher *cough*Plato*cough*Aristotle*cough* who wants to make the claim that we one can achieve certainty by weaving logic chains together.  Anyone whose tool is Logic.  Meanwhile, the stick in water attacks any philosopher who wants to rely on sense perception *cough*Aristotle*cough*Epicurus*cough* and say that we know things with certainty through Evidence.  When you put both side-by-side, and demand that Zeno shoot an arrow at the stick in water that looks bent, then it seems that both Logic and Evidence are unreliable, and therefore that… there can be no certainty!

Don’t panic, be happy…

The double challenge of the stick in water and Zeno’s paradoxes had many effects.

One was to make all classical thinkers who wanted to maintain dogmatic principles work a lot harder to nuance their claims of certainty, to justify why and in what specific circumstances logic and evidence could be trusted, to explain why they sometimes failed or seemed to fail, and how one could reason or observe more carefully in order to achieve greater levels of certainty.  Thus these challenges to reason and evidence let dogmatic philosophers adopt skeptical tools and create systems which had space for both dogma and skepticism in the same system, hybridizing the two to achieve greater levels of clarity, complexity, dynamism and subtlety and jumpstarting countless great philospohcial leaps.  To give two quick examples, Aristotle attempted to create a system for achieving infallible logical information by saying that logic is 100% reliable if it is based on a combination of (A) unequivocal carefully defined terms, (B) self-evident first-principles, and (C) geometrically-strict syllogistic reasoning by baby-steps.  Stick to these and exclude logical leaps and unclear vocabulary and you can carve out an arena for reliable logic, even if that arena is necessarily finite and cannot touch everything.  Similarly Epicurus and Aristotle both proposed a kind of empiricism of repeated observation, where we do not trust just one glance at the stick in water but examine it carefully with all our senses, look at many sticks, and eventually draw conclusions we consider more reliable.  And at the same time, these same thinkers gave ground and mixed their dogmatism with skepticism by saying that logic or empiricism worked in some arenas but not others.  Epicurus, for example, says we can learn a lot from sense data but we can never learn true details of atomic level since we can’t see anything that small.  Aristotle similarly says we can learn about the level of the universe that we can experience and think about, the level of the objects we see and contemplate, but not about the chaotic base substructure which underlies the visible and comprehensible world.

sartre(Sartre, who has just been handed a sandwich by Socrates and is now unconsciously applying the Scientific Method as he considers whether or not to accept Descartes’ offer of mayonaise, looks up here to say that he agrees with Aristotle that there are vast and terrifying unknown depths of being which lie beneath perceived reality.  He thinks we should address our long-term attentions to that mystery, and that Aristotle is foolish to cling to pursuing the finite certainties offered by his logic chains and fish observations when no finite knowledge is helpful in the face of the raw unknown infinity beneath.  But Sartre is not interested in pursuing eudaimonia, even if he is interested in the short-term, destructable pleasure offered by Descartes’ excellent fresh mayonaise.)

But our ancient Greeks are interested in eudaimonia, and another product of these challenges to reason and evidence, apart from letting dogmatic philosophers hybridize with it, was the birth of Skepticism (big S) as a philosophical school, in addition to skepticism (small S) as an approach.  As an approach, skepticism is used by all sorts of thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle in their way, but it was also a school, a rival of Platonists and Stoics.  And, like all other ancient schools, Skeptics pursued eudaimonia.

How does doubt lead to happiness?  By allowing one to relax and resign one’s self to ignorance, says Pyrrho, the greatest name in pure classical skepticism.  We cannot know things with certainty, he says, and this is a release (much as Epicurus thought it was a release to believe there is no afterlife).  If we cannot know things with certainty, we don’t have to try.  We don’t need to go with Aristotle to the docks and dissect infinite fish.  We don’t need to sit with Plato and let him pretend to be Socrates through interminable dialogs.  We don’t need to follow Pythagoras and fast ourselves into a trance while contemplating the number ten.  We can stop.  We can say I don’t know, I can’t know, I’ll never know, no one else knows either, no one is right, no one is wrong (not even people on the internet!), so we can just return to our work and rest.  This too, say the skeptics, frees us from pain, from several pains that no dogmatic system can ever free us from.  It frees us from the exhaustion of the quest to know.  It also frees us from the stress we experience when we turn out to be wrong.  If you think you know something, and it’s overturned, that’s stressful and unpleasant.  It makes you feel angry, foolish, violated, shaken, abandoned.  If you never think you know anything about things, you will never experience the pain of being proved wrong.

killed-plutoYou know what the skeptics mean here.  You know because you are alive in 2014, and that means you remember when there were nine planets.  Weren’t you upset?  Wasn’t it distressing and upleasant, shaking your worldview?  We learned there were nine planets in kindergarden!  Of course Pluto is a planet!  Mike Brown, the scientist responsible for getting Pluto’s status stripped away receives hate mail, for precisely this reason: it hurts to be told you’re wrong.  And this is far from the only time you, reader, have experienced this.  There used to be such a thing as a Brontosaurus.  And a Triceratops.  (Youth: What!  We lost the Triceratops too!”)  There used to be four food groups, remember that?  And coral reefs used to exist only in the tropics, and moths used to have nothing to do with tree sloths, and you used to have a volume of the complete works of Sappho.  And the destruction of all these “truths” have unsettled us to different degrees, because we learned them at different times and they were integral to our worldviews to different degrees.  And some we are okay with and with others we smile at the angry t-shirts that say: I remember when there were Nine Planets!

Now, Aristotle would tell us the strife has been caused by the fact that we had not defined “Planet” carefully enough before, so it wasn’t an unequivocal term, and thus led us to confusion and misunderstandings.  “But!” says Pyrrho, “if you had never studied these things, if you had not been taught as a child to memorize dinosaurs, or rest your worldview on the label attached to a hunk of rock far off in the darkness where you never have cause to perceive it, then you would not experience this unhappiness!  Your belief that you knew something has made you unhappy, destroying eudaimonia.  Just admit that you do not know anything with certainty and then you need never experience such pain again!”  And in the case of things we were prepared for–the treesloth and the Sappho and Arthur having a knight of African descent–the Scientific Method told us to do just that, to be prepared for truth to be replaced when it was time, because it was never Truth, it was always provisional truth.

There are two kinds of Giraffes. Two kinds of Giraffes! They look identical, herd together, do the same thing, but won't interbreed! How did this happen? This makes no evolutionary sense! It really bothers me! Pyrrho: "It wouldn't if those pesky geneticists hadn't told you..."

There are two kinds of giraffes. Two kinds of giraffes! They look identical, herd together, do the same things, but won’t interbreed! How did this happen? This makes no evolutionary sense! It really bothers me! Pyrrho: “It wouldn’t if those pesky geneticists hadn’t told you…”

Ten Modes of Skepticism

Many exciting things will happen to skepticism as it leaves Greek hands before reaches ours.  It will be transformed by Bacon and Montaigne, by Averroes and Ockham, Descartes will finish his potato salad and have his day, and it has more refinement yet to undergo among the Greeks as well, and from their sunny riverbank Socrates and company will watch skepticism surge over the marble walls of Plato’s Academy like ants into their picnic basket.  But for today I want to leave you with a taste of raw classical skepticism, so you can taste it for a little while and have a taste of this oddest of philosophies which proposes un-knowledge, rather than knowledge, as its happy goal.  To that end, here, to finish, are examples of the Ten Modes of Pyrrhonism (i.e. the kind of raw skepticism practiced by Pyrrho) based on the handbook of Sextus Empiricus (one of our few surviving ancient skeptical authors).  It is a list of categories of sources of error, things that can make you be wrong.  Many are ones that we are very well prepared for in the modern world and remain on constant or at least near-constant guard against (though rather than guarding against the errors, what Pyrrho and Sextus want us to do is be on guard against imagining we aren’t making errros, i.e. to be on guard against thinking we know something.  I see Socrates is nodding in approval, and that the others are too polite to point out the crumbs on his chin).

The Ten Pyrrhonist Proofs that Nothing can be Known with Certainty:

  1. We cannot have certainty because different animals have different senses.  When do we encounter this?  When walking a dog, sometimes the dog stops to sniff in rapt fascination at a spot on the sidewalk where we see nothing interesting.  But evidently there is something very interesting there if a creature as intelligent as a dog is fascinated, and willing to disobey its friend and choke itself by pulling on its collar in order to study this fascinating thing.  What an error we commit being unable to see this fascination!  Or is the dog in error?
  2. We cannot have certainty because different human beings experience things differently.  When do we encounter this?  I encounter it when friends drink alcohol.  I do not enjoy alcohol.  Not only am I not supposed to have it (because of a specific medical condition), but it tastes like nasty poisonous motor oil to me, and yet I see my friends go into paroxysms of delight over the subtleties and complexities of drinks, and my civilization build entire buildings, institutions, customs and industries around this thing which my senses tell me is terrible.  My senses and those of my friends differ.  Clearly someone must be wrong, unless there is no right here?  I also have a color blind housemate who cannot tell that Hello Kitty Hot Chocolate is bright pink, and struggles to play the game Set in mediocre lighting.
  3. 54478811_bf0c4784c3We cannot have certainty because our senses disagree with each other.  If I want to know if something is good, I ask my senses.  Yet sometimes they disagree with each other.  My eyes tell me this artichoke is just made of smooth leaves, yet my touch tells me it is prickly.  My eyes tell me a lobster is scary and dangerous, and yet my tongue says is delicious. My eyes tell me the molten glass in this glassblowing demo looks goopy and exciting and like a fascinating texture like putty which would be awesome to touch, and yet my touch tells me owwwwwwwwwww hot hot hot hot hot!  My touch tells me this cat is delightful and fuzzy and yet my nose tells me I should not be near it because achooo!
  4. We cannot have certainty because sometimes the same things seem different and lead us to different judgments in different circumstances.  I might enjoy a food for a long time but then get food poisoning from it and, after that, always be revolted when I smell it.  I might feel warm at 70 degrees but then be sick and feel cold at 70 degrees.  I might think Gatorade is nasty but then be dehydrated and think it tastes great because my body craves elecrolytes.
  5.  We cannot have certainty because the same objects seem different from different perspectives.  A mountain that looks like a face from one angle looks like a random jumble from another.  A square tower seen from a distance seems round.  A stick in water looks bent.  The moon above a skyline looks much bigger than the buildings but we have no real sense from that of how enormously big it really is, and can only realize the latter using a lot of math, or a space shuttle.
  6. We cannot have certainty because we never see objects alone.  Have you ever had one of those articles of clothing that looks purple in some light and blue in other light, so people argue over which it is?  Because it looks one way next to one thing and another way next to another.  Well, what does it look like really?  We can never see anything alone, we always see it surrouneded by other objects including air.  If the stick is distorted by water, is it not also distorted by air?  By vacuum?  By light?  We do not see objects, only groups of objects.
  7. We cannot have certainty because things take multiple forms.  Bronze is red, except when it turns green.  Water is clear, unless it’s blue, or fluffy snow white.  Squid ink is black, unless it’s diluted to form purple, or sepia.  That molten glass is enticingly orange and squidgy.  What do any of these things really look like?
  8. The Muller Illusoin, illustrating type 8 doubt.

    Illustrating types 6 & 8 doubt.  Line segment AB is equal to line segment CD but looks longer.

    We cannot have certainty because we experience everything relative to other things.  We cannot see a thing without making some judgment about things that are relative: this clementine is small, this stick is long, this lake is large.  Small, long and large compared to what?  Other objects of comparison intrude themselves into our analysis.  The clementine is small compared to oranges, the stick long compared to other sticks, the lake large compared to my back yard.  But we cannot judge things without judging them relative to others.  To feed his fish for a while my father was growing Giant Amoebas.  Giant Amoebas!  Amoebas so big you could almost see them with the naked eye!  They were huge!  They were smaller than grains of sand and yet I thought they were huge!

  9. We cannot have certainty because we are biased by scarcity.  I love this one, and I love its classic example.  This is about how we judge things to be… well, frankly, how we judge them to be awesome or not.  For example, comets are awesome.  A little bright speck appears in the night that wasn’t there before, and flies across the heavens, really fast, so fast you can almost see it move!  When there is a comet we get very excited.  We discuss it, announce it, get out telescopes to look at it.  In past ages people might pray to it, or read omens from it; now we photograph it and shoot probes at it.  It’s super exciting: little bright speck in sky.  Okay.  So, every morning an enormous blinding ball of fire rises from the horizon, blotting out the night and transforming the entire sky to a wall of brilliant blue brightness streaked with rippling swaths of other beautiful colors, and it radiates down heat enough to transform our weather, burn our skin and feed countless life forms.  It is, from any sense-perception objective sense, ten skillion times more exciting than a comet.  But it’s just the sun, so, shrug.  We are biased by scarcity.  Two poems by Sappho and we all hear, but we find thousands of pages of unknown Renaissance poetry every year.
  10. We cannot have certainty because different peoples have different customs, habits, laws, beliefs and ethics, and are biased by them.  I think you all know this one.  Though it will take over a millennium for it to get to be so common, since cultural relitivism isn’t a broadly-discussed or accepted thing until the enlightenment when Montesquieu and Voltaire made themselves its champions.  Skepticism has a long road ahead of it, from Pyrrho to the present.  But for now, let’s sit back with Socrates and picnic on this raw form of classical, eudaimonist skepticism, challenging our science-loving, learning-loving, exploration-loving, post-enlightenment selves to test ourselves with the quesiton of whether it might be a safe and happy thing sometimes, in its own strange way, to not know.  And we should also comfort Sartre a bit–he hadn’t heard, before today, about poor Pluto.  (Descartes: “What’s Pluto?”  Socrates: “Are you sure you want to know?”)

Continue this foray into the history of skepticism with Part II: Classical Hybrids.

Mar 302013
 

I can’t come up with any really appropriate illustrations for this entry, so am including random pictures of cool objects from Florence, since Machiavelli likes Florence. This is the Chimera, the most impressive Etruscan bronze ever excavated in Tuscany, now in the Florentine Archaeological Museum.  (The Etruscans were contemporaries and rivals of the early Romans).

Was Machiavelli an atheist?  We don’t know and never will, but we can learn much about our society’s attitudes toward atheism by examining the persistence of the question, and the different reasons we have asked it over and over for centuries even though we know we have no proof.

(This is the last entry in my Machaivelli series.  See also Machiavelli Part IPart I.5Part IIPart III and Part IV)

No historical discipline can be honestly called “neutral”, but the study of atheism (and of its cousins skepticism, deism, and more general freethought, heterodoxy and radical religion) has always been particularly charged because it is so impossible to be detached from the central question.  Setting aside the elaborate and bloody history of religious violence, oppression and entanglement in politics, whether you answer “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “Sort-of,” the question of whether or not there is a divine force and/or being(s) ordering or governing the cosmos, your answer has an enormous impact on your everyday actions, decision-making, ethics, attitudes toward law and government, and every other corner of the human condition.  Even if religion and government had never mixed in the history of the Earth, if tomorrow you encountered irrefutable proof that the answer to the question was the opposite of what you had hitherto believed, your life and actions thenceforth would be radically different.  The stakes are high, and personal.  This makes it hard for historians to be calm about it.

Historians did not try to be calm about it in the early, juicy days when atheism was first presented as having a history.  In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets and books discussing famous atheists were a thriller genre, scandalous tales of tyrants and madmen which occupied largely the same niche as biographies of serial killers, or penny museums displaying the death masks of executed murderers.  Treatises on “Infamous Atheists” served a slightly more learned audience than wax heads and the numerous early versions of the Sweeny Todd legend, but only slightly, and as they proliferated in printing shops tales of the scandalous excesses of Tiberius and Caligula under the label “atheist” were part morality play, part voyeurism, and part slander as each particular collection targeted its audience’s enemies.  French collections accused Italians and Englishmen of atheism while Italian collections accused Frenchmen; Catholic collections accused Martin Luther and John Calvin of atheism, while Protestant collections accused popes and papists, and almost all European collections accused Muslims and Jews of atheism in a spirit of general racism and lack of accountability and lexical clarity.

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

You may note that neither Martin Luther nor Caligula is on record as ever having philosophically attacked the existence of God, but the logic chain of these collections is, from our perspective, backwards: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) These men were bad.  (3) These men did not fear Hell.  (4) These men were atheists.  In the Renaissance, sinful living in overt defiance of divine law was considered evidence of atheism, to the degree that we have records of many atheism trials from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in which the evidence brought by the prosecution involves no statement of unbelief on the part of the accused.  Rather the evidence will be sinful living, promiscuity, homosexuality, gluttony, irreverence of civic and religious authority, anything from a monk taking in a mistress to a drunkard running around in public with no pants on (See Nicholas Davidson, “Atheism in Italy 1500-1700,” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter & David Wootton (Oxford, 1992), 55-86, esp. 56-7).

Serious attempts to write a history of atheism began in the later nineteenth century, when secularization had progressed enough that an atheist was no longer a thrilling exotic creature, but was instead a black sheep in a land with many, many sheep of which some were even more alarming colors than black.  It was also at this point that histories of atheism bifurcated.  Some presented pessimistic accounts (by theist authors) of the modern decay of morals as atheism proliferated, while others presented optimistic accounts (by guess who) of the progress of secularization.  Even in their more objective accounts, when dealing with earlier periods when atheism was rare and its traces elusive, these historians were, or rather we historians are, still prone to hyperenthusiasm when we think we have found what we are looking for, as whale watchers may mistake any dark shape for a humped back.

Everyone (whether theist or atheist) who studies pre-modern atheism is excited when we find evidence of it.  This is because secularization, this brave new world in which atheism is both commonplace and legal, is an essential characteristic of the modern Western world, one of its unique features, differentiating us, here, now, from all earlier times and all other places.  When I say the modern world is secularized I do not mean that atheism is a majority or even a plurality—it remains a small minority.  What I mean is that atheism is universally present in Western discourse as a coequal interlocutor in theological debate, and all contemporary Western theists have lived their whole lives in contact with atheism, debating with atheists or at least expecting they might have to do so, and generally knowing that atheism is a commonplace alternative to their own views.  This is radically different from the pre-modern situation, in which people saw atheists as elusive and invisible enemies (rather like vampires), and most books on the subject described atheism as a form of mental illness (often thought to be inborn), or as a moral perversion (compared in the period to homosexuality), while the genuine philosophical atheist was expected to be so extraordinarily rare that we might see only a couple in a century (such categories are employed by David Derodon in his treatise L’atheism Convaincu (1659), see Alan Kors, Atheism in France (1990), p. 28).

In Florence’s $1,000 Purse District, holiday decorations last year consisted of live olive trees inside huge gauze vases with floating neon halos above. Why not?

If the study of history is more than mere delight in exciting stories of past exploits, it is an attempt to understand our origins and ourselves.  When we comb the past and spot something characteristically modern—be it the scientific method, hygiene, feminism or atheism—we are excited because we have found an early trace of home.  Religious tolerance and the presence of atheism as a coequal participant in religious discourse in our own day is part of what makes us radically different from our predecessors.  The following claim may seem counter-intuitive, but if I were to send an average modern American theist back in time to the seventeenth century, I think that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era, because the atheist, while disagreeing with our time traveler, would be disagreeing with somewhat familiar vocabulary and justifications, while the seventeenth-century theist would be going on about Aristotle, and teleology, and angels pushing the Moon around, and other fruits of an alien religious conversation that has no experience of 90% of the theological issues which our modern time traveler is used to considering.  The seventeenth-century atheist probably knows what “natural selection” is (he read about it in Lucretius) but the corresponding theist probably hasn’t read such a rare and stigmatized text, so when our time traveler says “I want a proof of the existence of God that stands up against natural selection,” the atheist can have that conversation, while the theist is much less prepared.  For most Renaissance theists Thomas Aquinas’ Proof of the Existence of God from Design is unassailable; for us, it’s been assailed every minute of every day of our lives; for the early atheist, it has an assailant, and it’s a similar assailant to the one we moderns are used to, so we can talk about it with the atheist and feel more at home than if we tried to talk to a theist who had never experienced any such attack.  A pre-modern theist is, of course, well prepared for attacks from heresies we no longer worry much about: Arianism, Averroism, Antinomianism, but Darwin is a bolt from the blue.  Not so much so for the early atheist, who, whether right or wrong, is more prepared for modern conversations than the average theist of his day.  Thus, for atheists and believers alike, the history of atheism is the history of theology coming to be shaped more like what we’re used to in the modern era.  Hence why even a theist historian thinks it’s super special awesome when we spot a bona fide atheist before the Enlightenment.

The study of what was going on with atheism before the mid-seventeenth century is not, and cannot be, the study of actual atheists.  There are none for us to study.  There may have been some, there may not, but in a period when saying “I think there is no God” led pretty directly to arrest and execution, no one said it.  No one wrote it.  If anyone thought it, not even private letters can confirm.  Knowing that an atheist won’t fess up in documents, we historians naturally read between the lines, seeking hints of heterodoxy in the subtext of a treatise or the double meaning of a couplet.  This is the only place we can realistically expect to find evidence, but it is also prone to giving us false positives.  As Lucien Febvre put it in his enormously influential The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais, we moderns are bound to see that rare beast the atheist around every dark corner.  We see him because we want to.

Why have an enormous awesome globe when you can have an enormous awesome globe sitting on gold lions?

The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public.  This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment.  I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities.  One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe.  The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist?  Anybody?  Machiavelli?”

Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate?  Many reasons.  First, he is in other ways so very modern.  Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.

Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long.  The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror.  (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell.  (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.

But there are more focused reasons than that.  If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow.  By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.

Imagine that you are a biologist studying a particular fungus.  This fungus is hard to find, but often grows around the roots of a particular tree species, with which it has an unexplained but well-documented symbiosis.  You thus survey mainly regions where this tree is common.  And if you hope to trace your fungus back to before material records survive, you might trace the history of that tree species, through fossils or early human artifacts made of its wood, and conclude that, while you can’t be sure the fungus was there too, the odds are certainly better than the odds of it having been in places where its tree friend was unknown.  You have not provably found your fungus, but what you have is certainly enough to talk about, and enough to get people excited if your fungus is a truffle and may yield millions in delicious profit if your information leads to improved cultivation.

Florence struggles to find a Christmas tree that can manage to look big against its architecture.

Now, for the truffle substitute the elusive pre-1650 atheist, and for the tree substitute the ancient Greek theory that matter is made of atoms.  The two are unrelated, and the atomic theory does not attack theism in any way, but it is certainly easier for atheism to flourish when “How was the world made if God didn’t do it?” can be answered with “Atoms interacting chaotically in the void clumped together to form substances… bla bla… planets… bla bla… natural selection… bla bla… people etc.” instead of “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” is the centerpiece here.  Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time.  Take gravity, for example.  Celestial bodies are moved by angels.  As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water.  Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water.  God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will.  If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.”  Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe.  Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics.  They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy.  I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.”  Doing this is very hard.  Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.

One of my favorite Florentine doors, featuring a saint crushing a devil (top left), a saint on fire (top right) and Medici balls (below).

How then do we seek the habitat capable of supporting the invisible pre-1650 atheist?  We look for radical scientific theories: atomism, vacuum, heliocentrism, anything which makes Nature more self-sufficient and less dependent on divine participation.  We look for related theological challenges: attacks on the immortality of the soul, on miraculous intervention, on Providence, on angelology, anything which diminishes how often God is part of the answer to some basic question.  We look for who is reading ancient texts which offer alternate explanations to Christian theological ones: Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, Pythagorean cult writings, Cicero’s skeptical dialogs, Seneca.  Who is reading all this?  Machiavelli.

In the pre-modern world, a firestorm of accusations of atheism and wickedness awaited anyone who raised a powerful and persuasive alternate answer to some question whose traditional answer depended on God.  This firestorm fell even if the author in question never made any atheist arguments, which, generally, they didn’t.  It happened often, and fiercely.

Thomas Hobbes awoke one such firestorm when his Leviathan suggested that savage man, living in a state of terror and war in his caves and trees, might through reason and self-interest alone come together and develop society and government.  Until that time, Europe had no explanation for how government came to be other than that God instituted it; no explanation for kings other than that God raised them to glory; no explanation for what glue should hold men together, loyal to the law, other than fear of divine punishment.  Hobbes’ alternative does not say “There is no God,” but it says, “Government and society arose without God’s participation,” a political theory which an atheist and a theist might equally use.  It gives the atheist an answer, and thereby so terrified England that she passed law after law against “atheism” specifically and personally targeting Hobbes and banning him from publishing in genre after genre, until he spent his final years producing bad translations of Homer and filling them with not-so-subtle Hobbesian political notions one can spot between the lines.

Dante knows where the author of “The Prince,” goes – straight to circle 8 section 10, for those who advise others to do sinful things. Machiavelli knew his Dante well, so one must wonder if he found it comforting to be so sure that, “Well, if there is a Hell, there’s me.”

Machiavelli awoke such a firestorm by creating an ethics which works without God.  Utilitarianism depends entirely on evaluating the earthly consequences of an act, and can be used as a functional system for decision-making whether or not there exists any external divine force or absolute code of Truth.  He also painted a world of politics in which he recommends actions which are the same that one might take if there is no God watching.  In order for people to be virtuous they must first be alive—doesn’t that sound like the sentiment of someone who isn’t thinking about Heaven?  It is justified and necessary to kill and lie in order to protect the stability of the state and the lives of the people—doesn’t that sound like there isn’t a separate Judgment waiting?  The man who will do so much—even serve the Medici who tortured him—in order to guard and protect Earthly Florence seems to have an Earthly mistress, and not to be thinking of a Higher One.  He certainly talks like an atheist, and he certainly created the first system of politics and ethics which an atheist could coherently employ.

In addition to all this, there is what we can glean about religious attitudes from Machiavelli’s personal sentiments and behavior.  We know that he was a military commander, and fought, and killed people.  We know that he was what I think of as “averagely promiscuous” for a Renaissance man based on my experience of letters and autobiographies, which is to say that (while married) he had both male and female lovers, and wrote comfortably and playfully about friends doing the same.  We know friends wrote to him for advice about their love-affairs, which he freely gave, though warning against getting too caught up in them.  We know he helped his family in a push for a profitable priestly position for his brother, and was thus involved in minor acts of simony.  We know he owned many pagan classics and loved to read them, including a fascinating little volume in his own handwriting (now at the Vatican) which contains his complete transcriptions of two texts, first Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, containing antiquity’s best account of god-free atomistic physics and denial of the soul, afterlife, Providence and prayer), and second Terrence’s Eunuch (containing one of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of ancient comedy which the young hero boasts triumphantly about having just committed rape).  Machiavelli himself wrote the infamous comedy The Mandrake, which does not contain rape, but in which the twist is that in the end all the deception and adultery goes just dandy and in the end no comeuppance is had and everyone carries on committing deception and adultery and lives happily ever after, including those being deceived.  We know he had a sense of humor, and we know he often directed it against the antics of priests and monks.  I will include one sample of this edge of him, taken from a letter from late in his life, when he was sent on behalf of the Florentine wool guild to recruit a preacher for Lent (an extremely high-profile public performance, rather like picking who will play at superbowl half-time), Machiavelli wrote to his high-ranking political friend Guicciardini, from Carpi, May 17th 1521 (Note the playful way he juxtaposes the mandatory obsequious Renaissance opening address with the base setting of the second sentence.)

The Florentine cathedral, paid for by the wool guild. It was a great honor to be called there to be the Lent preacher, and they worked hard to pick a real celebrity to come.

Magnificent one, my most respected superior.  I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because I am going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas.  And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words than with signs – I have no intention of disappointing her now.  In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matters.  They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil.  Furthermore, they would like their man to be prudent, honest and genuine, and I should like to find one who would be madder than Ponzo (who at first followed Savonarola, then switched), wilier than Fra Girolamo (Savonarola), and more hypocritical than Frater Alberto (either a Boccaccio character or someone whom Alexander VI sent to Florence and who recommended summoning Savonarola to Rome so they could seize him under false pretenses), because I think it would be a fine thing – something worthy of the goodness of these times – should everything we have experienced in many friars be experienced in one of them.  For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to Paradise: learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it.  Moreover, since I am aware how much belief there is in an evil man who hides under the cloak of religion, I can readily conjure up how much belief there would be in a good man who walks in truth, and not in pretense, tramping through the muddy footprints of Saint Francis.  So, since my imaginative creation strikes me as a good one, I intend to choose Rovaio (Riovanni Gualberto, “the north wind” or “the hangman”), and I think if he is like his brothers and sisters he will be just the right man.”  (Translation from Machiavelli and His Friends, Their Personal Correspondence, James B. Atkinsons and David Sices eds. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 1996, p, 336).

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself.  This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on.  At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.  Unfortunately a later letter hints that Machiavelli thinks they are on to the prank, and the correspondence ends there.

An ambulance parked by Giotto’s bell tower, ready to spring into action to protect Machiavelli’s dear Florentines.

You now have pretty-much as much evidence as anyone does about Machiavelli’s religious beliefs.  Smells like an atheist, doesn’t he?  His manifest unorthodoxy, the unique modernity of his ethics and political attitudes, and his playful anticlericalism, not to mention his charisma as an historical figure, inevitably tempt us into wondering whether we have found here a beautiful specimen of the rare beast we seek.  But until we develop a time-traveling telepathy ray to let us read the thoughts of the dead, we must remain very wary.  Is Machiavelli religiously unorthodox?  Absolutely.  Does he deny the existence of the divine?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  1520 is very early, and there are many genres of heterodoxy besides denial of God which we may be smelling here.  Thinking forward two hundred years, Enlightenment deism with its Clockmaker God denies divine intervention in Nature, removes the Hand of God from politics and lessens theology’s role in ethics without removing God.  If Machiavelli is an early deist, rather than an early atheist, that is certainly enough to fit comfortably his model of politics without God as a central factor, his ethics which segregates Earthly activities and consequences from broader divine concerns, and his interest in Lucretius and pagan scientific models for how Nature can function without constant divine maintenance.  If Machiavelli thinks these monks are corrupt and hypocritical, so would Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Martin Luther, without any of them being atheists.  Radicals yes, atheists no.  We may, in fact, ascribe any number of heterodoxies to Machiavelli, and as we review the history of writings about him we in a sense review the history of what radical religious veins we are most worried about, since whatever is most scary tends to be ascribed to him in any given decade.  These days it is often atheism, nihilism, skepticism, rarely deism, since we are at present as a society very comfortable with the Clockmaker model and associate it more with the bright and kind Enlightenment than with he-who-advocates-fear-over-love.

Is Machiavelli an atheist?  We have no idea, but by looking at why we want him to be, or don’t want him to be, or think he was, or think he wasn’t, and why new historians keep trying to answer this literally unanswerable question, we can watch the evolution of our own societal anxieties about the origins of unbelief, and how we understand how we got to this modern situation in which theism must stand constantly prepared to face its thousand enemies and is not (like Baldur) so secure in the presumption that no one will aim for the heart that it doesn’t realize it might have to dodge.  This is a slight exaggeration, as Medieval Christianity did prepare itself for onslaughts of atheism, and we have numerous practice debates written by theologians showing how they would argue with imaginary atheists since they had no real ones about to spar with.  (Alan Kors in his meticulous history Atheism in France has argued that these practice debates against pretend atheists were actually critical in introducing atheist arguments to broad audiences and thus themselves responsible for propagating atheism, even though they were written by theists for theists in a world populated probably only by theists.)  But it is not much of an exaggeration, since such preparation was much more an academic exercise than real sharpening of mental blades.  Since Machiavelli is the first of the great, famous possible-atheists—before Hobbes, before Spinoza, before Bayle, and before the real beast Rochester—Machiavelli is where we turn to test our anxieties about how our world came to be so secularized.

Machiavelli’s honorary tomb in Santa Croce, with the epitaph: “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium,” (For such a name no praise is enough.)

In the small talk phase of a party, I often answer “What do you do?” with “I study the history of atheism.”  The response usually takes the general form of, “Tell me more!” but as discussion unfolds I often feel one of two undercurrents shaping my new acquaintance’s replies: either “I’m an atheist and, since I presume you’ll agree with me, I now want to vent at you about how much I hate organized religion and my parents,” or “I’m a theist but pride myself on being rational about it, and I’m scared that if I tell you I’m a believer I’ll sound like the kind of religious nut that gives theism a bad name.”  I sympathize with the anxieties behind both these reactions, but both sadden me.  They are symptoms of the debate done badly: an atheist motivated more by rebellion than by Reason, a theist shamed into buying into rhetoric in the worst sense.  They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs than about helping young people meet and explore great questions for themselves (see comment thread).  I love this debate.  I love all of the people on all the sides.  I love the passion, and earnestness, and urgency of writings on atheism, by both sides.  It is the essence of the examined life and the exercise of Human Reason at its most intense.  I love everyone involved: Plato, Aquinas, Ockham, Ficino, Sade, Nietzsche.  I love when a student comes to my office hours and asks me directly, “I want you to be a Socratic gadfly for me and help me test my position,” whichever position it is.  I do it.  I love it.  When I wonder whether Machiavelli was an atheist, it’s not because I want to know, but because I want to talk to him about it, at length, and we would stay up all night, and eat all the cheese and olives, and drink all the wine, and Voltaire would come, and Hobbes, and Locke, and Rochester and Rousseau would get plastered and piss themselves, and Diderot would help me mop it up while we talked about Leibnitz and the imperfection of Creation, and Machiavelli would keep pace with us even though most of the ideas in question would be two hundred years younger than him.  They would be new to him, but he would understand them easily and join in comfortably to the debate.  He should be there.  There isn’t anybody else we know of from Machiavelli’s century who really should be there in the imaginary salon where we revisit the Enlightenment debates that made this modern era secular the way it is.  Just Machiavelli.  That’s why we can’t stop asking.

(Here ends my Machiavelli series.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and thank you for being patient.  Also, I have now added a substantial discussion of atheism in the classical world in the comment thread on this post, for those interested.  You can also read my entries on remembering the Borgias, and the Borgias in TV dramas.)

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of atheism, skepticism, heterodoxy, deism and freethought, I recommend these sources:

  • Allen, Don Cameron.  Doubt’s Boundless Sea; Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins.  1964.
  • Hunter, Michael and David Wootton ed.  Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.  Oxford: Clarendon.  1992.
  • Kors, Alan Charles.  Atheism in France, 1650-1729.  Vol. 1, Princeton: 1990.  (The long-awaited second volume is forthcoming.)
  • Popkin, R. H.  History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle.  Oxford: 2003.  (Earlier editions of the book have titles, “History of Scepticism from X-other-dude to Y-other-other-dude.  All editions are good, but the most recent is the most comprehensive.)

Also recommended:

  • Betts, C. J.  Early Deism in France, From the so-called ‘déistes’ of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s ‘Lettres philosophiques’ (1734).  The Hague: Martinus Nijhogg Publishers. 1984.
  • Buckley, Michael J.  At the Origins of Modern Atheism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  1987.
  • Febvre, Lucien.  The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  1982.
  • Ginsburg, Carlo.  The Cheese and the Worms.  New York: Penguin Publishers. 1992.
  • Jacob, Margaret. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans.  London, Boston: Allen & Unwin.  1981.
  • Kristeller, P. O. ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6 (1968), pp. 233-443.
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo ex.  Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment.  Newark: University of Delaware Press.  1987.
  • Wagar, Warren W. ed.  The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe.  New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers inc.  1982.
  • Wilson, Catherine.  Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.  Oxford: 2008
  • Wootton, David.  ‘Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period’  The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730.