Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.
From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.
Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.
It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.
I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?
Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.
For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.
As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.
Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.
In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.
In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.
One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.
Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.
My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.
Come to rescue us from the dark and gloomy wood of Doubt in which we have been wandering since my first post in this series (did you say hello to Dante?) comes the Criterion of Truth! The idea that, while the skeptics are correct that logic and the senses sometimes fail, they do not always fail, and if we carefully study when they fail, and why, if we identify the source of error, we can differentiate reliable knowledge from unreliable knowledge. For example, our eyes may deceive us when we judge a stick half-submerged in water to be bent, but if we add the testimony of other senses (touch), and of repeated experience (last time we saw an object half-way into water) we can identify the error, and henceforth say that we will not trust sense data based on visual information about objects half-submerged in transparent liquids, but that other sense data may be reliable. Once the causes of error have been defined, once we have a criterion for judging when knowledge is uncertain and when it is reliable, if we thereafter base our conclusions only on what we know is certain, then our conclusions will be reliable, eternal and divine, a steady foundation upon which we may proceed in safety toward that godlike happiness we seek. The Criterion of Truth is the clean and steady light of compromise, which does not banish all shadow, but, like a lantern in the dark, allows a philosophical system to have dogmatic elements while still conceding that much remains in shadow.
“Quite wrong!” cries our Pyrrhonist. “You have it all backwards! Doubt is the steady path toward eudaimonia. The absence of the possibility of certainty is our liberation, not our bane! It is when we embrace the fact that we cannot have certainty that we are finally free from the risk of having our beliefs overturned and our Plutos and Brontosaurs snatched away. It is when truth is firmly beyond human reach that we can finally relax and stop being plagued by curiosity and the endless, restless quest for information. The Criterion of Truth is not a light in darkness, it is a battering ram which has pierced our clean and serene sanctum and smeared it with all the muddled and confusing chaos that we worked so hard to banish! Don’t build a path on this foundation! However steady it may seem, the ground could still give way at any moment and shatter all. And even if it doesn’t, the path will never end. You will exhaust yourself on its construction, your age-gnarled hands still struggling to lay stones when you breathe your last, with never a glimpse of the end in sight, just infinity of toil and darkness. And the you will inflict the same curse upon your children, and your children’s children, and your children’s, children’s, children’s children!”
Whether one sees it as a blessing or a curse, developing a Criterion of Truth is what has allowed, and still allows, dogmatic philosophical systems to exist and progress in a fertile and symbiotic relationship with skepticism, instead of ending with the blank serenity where Pyrrho and other absolute skeptics wanted to dwell forever. Every philosopher with any dogmatic ideas has a criterion of truth (“Yes, even you, Sartre,” says Descartes, “Don’t give me that look!”), and an explanation for the source of error, and frequently I find that, when I am feeling awash in the ideas of a new thinker, one of the best ways to start to get a grip on things is to find the criterion of truth, which gives me an anchor point from which to explore, and to compare that thinker to others I am more familiar with.
Today I shall attempt something a bit compressed but hopefully the compression itself will be fruitful. I intend to briefly examine three of the major classical schools (Platonism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism) and explain just enough of each system to make clear its criterion of truth and its explanation for the source of error. By laying these out in a compressed form, side-by-side, I hope to show clearly how skepticism is at play in each of the dogmatic systems, and to show what the early approaches to it were, so that when I move forward to major turning points in skepticism it will be clearer just how new and different the new, different things are. Tradition dictates that I start with Platonism, but Socrates is looking a little too aggressively eager now that I mention Plato, and furthermore he was being mean to Sartre while we were away (Don’t pretend you didn’t know that dialog trying to define “being” would make him cry!), so I shall instead start with Epicurus:
The Epicurean Criterion of Truth: Weak Empiricism
Take the stick out of the water. Epicureanism faces up to the skeptical challenge to the reliability of sense data and still chooses to promote the senses as our primary source of information, simply proposing that we should not rely upon first impressions, but should consider sense data reliable only after careful investigation, ideally using multiple senses and instances of observation. But there is more to it than that.
Epicureanism is a mature form of classical atomism, positing that on the micro-level matter is composed of a mixture of vacuum and invisibly tiny, individual components or seeds known as “atoms” which exist in infinite supply but finite varieties (see the modern Periodic Table), and that the substances and patterns we see in nature are caused by different recurring combinations of these atoms. If the same kind of sand appears on two unrelated beaches, it is composed by chance of the same combination of atoms. If a piece of wood is burned and goes from being brown, firm and porous to being white and powdery, some atoms have left it (in the smoke, for example), and the remaining ones look different.
Atoms too are responsible for the apparently changeable properties of objects (remember the seventh mode of Pyrrhonism, that we cannot have certainty because objects take multiple forms). The properties of substances do not derive from atoms themselves but from their combinations. Colors, smells and flavors are all effects of the shapes of atoms, so it is not true that sweet substances contain sweet atoms and red substances red atoms, rather sweet substances contain smooth atoms which are pleasant to the tongue rather than rough, and red objects contain atoms whose combinations create redness. If bronze is red and then turns green, or wood is brown but burns and turns gray, then atoms have entered or left and the new combinations create a different color. And it is on this atomic basis that the Epicureans argue that (a) natural interactions of atoms and vacuum are enough by themselves to explain all observed phenomena, so there is no need to posit fearsome interfering gods, and (b) the soul is just a collection of very fine atoms, distributed in the body and breath, which disperse at death, so there is no need to fear a punitive afterlife.
Atoms are, believe it or not, largely a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and also have much to say about our stick in water. As we all recall, Zeno’s arrow can never reach its target because the space in between can be infinitely subdivided into smaller distances which it must cross before it can finish its path, therefore motion is impossible. Epicurus answers: yes. Motion is indeed impossible. Motion is an illusion. The key is that space is not infinitely divisible, as Zeno proposed. Atoms, according to the Epicurean system, are not only the smallest objects but the smallest subdivision of space; it is literally impossible to subdivide either atoms or space further. (Note that if he were around now Epicurus would deny that our modern “atoms” are atoms – he would confer that title upon the smallest known sub-atomic particle, or reserve it for the piece smaller than that which all the king’s horses and all the king’s cyclotrons still can’t detect.) The smallest distance any object can move is one atom-width – any more nuanced motion is impossible. In other words, fluid motion is an illusion, and on the micro-level objects do not slide from one place to another. Rather their atoms pop in an instant from one position to the next atom-width over. One might call it microscopic teleportation. It is by this means that the arrow moves: every component atom in the arrow teleports one space to the left each moment, and thus the arrow proceeds from right to left sequentially.
Positing micro-teleportation as a substitute for motion may seem alien, but it is something we make use of every day in the modern world, and it is in fact much easier to explain Epicurean theories of motion to modern computer-users than it was to people in the past. As you scroll down this page, the cursor of your mouse and the text on the screen seem to move, but in fact nothing is moving. Instead tiny pixels, the atom-widths of your screen, are changing color, or you could say that the black pixels that form the text are teleporting one pixel-width per moment as you scroll. The eye, unable to see such fine distinctions, blurs that micro-teleportation into the illusion of motion. Why couldn’t all motion be a similar illusion? Zeno is defeated, and Reason is once again reliable.
Which is good because Reason is the heart of the system of knowledge Epicurus wants to build. The Epicurean atomic theory, after all, is based on a combination of observations of the sensible world and then logical deductions. We observe that objects change their form when burned, that sea-soaked cloth hung up to dry becomes dry but remains salty, and that the same types of substances recur in many independent locations. From this we deduce the existence of atoms of different types in different combinations without ever directly seeing them. Zeno’s paradox of motion does not, in this interpretation, demonstrate that we can’t trust reason, but that we can’t trust rash, unexamined observations. There seemed to be motion, but with time, patience, observation and reason the Epicurean has determined that that was a mistake, and found a better model.
But this does an interesting thing to sense data, which Epicurus still wants to be more our guide than naked logic. Atomism, which predates Epicurus, seems to have itself arisen from observations of motes in a sunbeam, tiny particles which are invisible normally but visible only in special circumstances, and which all classical atomists cite as sensory evidence for the reality of atoms. From motes in a sunbeam and raw logic, they derive the atomic theory. As Epicureans strive to free themselves from fear of the unknown by observing and explaining natural phenomena through the interaction of atoms, they rely on what they can see, feel, hear and touch to derive their theories. This is empiricism but it is (as Richard Popkin aptly named it) weak empiricism. Why? Because the reality beneath what we observe is invisible. (“Exactly!” cries Sartre, leaping up with sufficient force to knock over Descartes’ thermas.) If atoms are undetectably tiny, and everything we see, taste and smell is a consequence of their combinations rather than the atoms themselves, then we can never have real knowledge of the fundamental substructure of being. There is an insoluble barrier between us and knowledge of true things, the barrier of minuteness. Thus Epicurean empiricism involves surrendering forever any certain knowledge of the truth of things, but in return we can have fairly reliable knowledge based on careful, repeated observation using multiple senses, especially now that logic has been rescued from Zeno’s grasp and is once again our ally.
Source of Error: Twofold. Limitations of the senses, which cannot see atomic reality; unquestioned acceptance of sense data and commonplace cultural assumptions (like superstitions about the gods) which are unreliable because they are not based on careful observation and analysis.
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on a combination of careful observation of the sensible world with multiple senses, and careful logical analysis.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the observable world, and we can make rational deductions about the insensible world which are reliable enough to act upon (since we cannot ever prove or disprove them), but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of the invisible atomic world which is Nature’s true reality.
At this point some readers are not particularly disturbed by Epicurus’ surrender of true knowledge of microscopic things. After all, have advanced since 300 BC. We played with microscopes in grade school, we named the proton and the quark and preon, we made molecules out of toothpicks and gummy candies, and the electric blood of splitting atoms blazes in our lightbulbs. We fixed that weakness. “Delusion!” Sartre says, and he is right that, on a fundamental level, this technological advancement has not let us reclaim what Epicurus surrendered. However advanced our science, we still have no cause to believe we have yet perceived or even hypothesized the literally smallest increment of matter. And, separately, even if we had a machine capable of perceiving the smallest part of matter, we would still be limited by our senses since the machine would have to use our senses to transmit its findings to us, transmitting only an approximation, rather than reality. And in addition, the vast majority of our daily decisions would still be based on what we perceive at the macroscopic level. Thus, even with technological aid, the Epicurean surrender of knowledge of the fundamental seeds of things is a considerable one, and divides all knowledge firmly into two camps, the perceivable world about which it is possible to have certainty, and the reality beneath about which it is not. We have a path and shadows, dogmatism and skepticism coextant within one system.
The Platonic Criterion of Truth: the Forms
My approach to Platonism will be rather sideways, but I want to get us to its criterion of truth by a route that is as parallel as possible to Epicurus’. So, for the vast majority of my readers who know basic Platonism already, please read along thinking about Zeno’s paradoxes and the stick in water how this way of outlining Platonism follows the same logical structure Epicurus did.
Plato, like the skeptics, acknowledges that the senses fail and deceive, and, like the atomists, observed that there are recognizable, recurring objects in nature that come into existence in independent parallel to one another: similar rocks, mountains, trees and animals in distant corners of the Earth, which must, he reasoned, have some common source. He also noticed that humans are able to recognize and identify these objects as being the same, even humans who have never met each other, or speak different languages, and even when the objects may have radically different colors and shapes disguising a shared structure – a disguise we see through. Finally he noticed (something Epicurus did not discuss) the fact that humans not only naturally identify objects, but naturally judge them to be better or worse based on unspoken but nonetheless universal criteria. Anyone can tell that a crisp, fresh apple is “better” and a withered, dry one “worse” without having to discuss or debate that fact, or even to be taught it. I could show you a healthy and a diseased version of some deep-sea fish you’ve never heard of and you would nonetheless successfully identify them as “better” and “worse” exemplars of a completely new and unknown thing.
To explain these patterns, and this universal capacity to identify and judge “better” and “worse” examples of things, Plato posited that these objects must have a shared source, but instead of positing a combination of atoms, he posited a source independent of matter that supplied the object’s structure. All quartz crystals, all trees, and all apples take their structures from a separate structure-supplying object, which exists independent of matter and time. It has to, since the objects it generates can come into existence and be destroyed, but the pattern, the archetype, the source remains. Plato named this structural archetype the “Form” and posited that these Forms exist in a separate level of reality. They create the many material manifestations of their structure as a flag pole might cast many shadows on different objects at different times. As some shadows are crisp, straight images of what casts them and others are vague, twisted or distorted, so objects are sometimes fairly straight and sometimes quite twisted manifestations of their Forms. When we judge an object, we judge it based on how good an image it is, how closely it resembles the Form which is the source of its structure. Hence why anyone of any age, in any culture, without the necessity of communication, can judge the superior of two apples, and tell that twisty trees are weird.
But objects are never truly like their Forms because Forms exist on a completely different level of reality, just as the flag pole exists on a different level of reality from its shadows. We know this the same way we know that the godlike eudaimonia we seek cannot be based on fleeting things like lust and truffles. Forms are indestructible – no matter how many trees or apples burn, the Form remains. With that attribute, in the Greek mind, go the others: Forms are eternal, unchanging, perfect, and divine. They cannot be part of this changing and destructible reality, but must exist on some other layer of reality where change and destruction do not exist. Note how this is in many ways exactly symmetrical to Epicurus’s atomic theory, in which atoms are indestructible, unchanging and perfect, and exist on an imperceptible micro-level accessible to us only by deduction, just as real-but-invisible as the Platonic realm of Forms. Both posit a materially inaccessible world which is the source of the structures of the perceivable world.
What about Zeno and the stick in water? Simple: the motions of a flagpole’s shadow across the earth and ground aren’t rational but bizarre, bending and distorting, split in half at times by passing objects, changing and imperfect. Just so the material world. The stick in water looks bent, and motion is rationally impossible, because the entire layer of reality perceived by the senses is itself bent, distorted, an imperfect effect of a perfect reality elsewhere. When we see the stick look bent, or realize that motion makes no sense, it is at that point that we are beginning to perceive the fundamental flaws in sensible reality, and realize that the true, rational, knowable structure lies elsewhere.
True knowledge, reliable, certain knowledge upon which we may build our path toward reliable, certain eudaimonia must therefore be knowledge of Forms, not of passing things. We can have True knowledge of the Form of Apples, the Form of Trees, the Form of Justice, the Form of Humans, but we cannot have true knowledge of a particular apple, tree, case of justice v. injustice, or human, because such things are changing, imperfect, and perishable, so even if we could know them perfectly at one instant, that knowledge would not be lasting, not enough to be a real foundation for happiness. The only permanent, certain knowledge is knowledge of eternal things, since all other knowledge is, like its objects, destructible. Thus the Forms are the path to Happiness.
And now, without any need to address the soul, or Platonic love, or Truth, or the other great Platonic signatures, we can describe the Platonic Criterion of Truth:
Source of Error: The material world perceived by the senses is imperfect and illusory, and conclusions based on observation of it are full of error, and incomplete.
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on knowledge of the eternal Forms, which can be perceived by Reason. So long as we rely only upon knowledge of abstract, eternal Forms and not on knowledge of specific material things, we will make no errors.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the Forms, i.e. of the eternal structures that create the sensible world, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.
Now, our friend Socrates has been waiting all this time to rant about how Plato put all this in his mouth, by using him as an interlocutor in his philosophical dialogs, when all Socrates stood for was the principle that we know nothing, and wisdom begins when we recognize that we know nothing. But explicated like this, in a way which highlights how substantial a portion of human experience Plato has yielded to the shadows of skeptical unknowability, Socrates has far less cause to object. Plato has taken “I know nothing” as his starting point, as, in fact, did Epicurus, both of them beginning by scrapping the received commonplaces of things people thought they knew about the material world, and instead trying to find a space for certainty far removed from the evidently-unknown world of daily experience. We all know that Plato tried to appropriate Socrates to his system, painting Socrates as a Platonist and implying that Socrates agreed with all Plato’s dogmatic ideas as well as his skeptical ones.
But Plato was far from the only one to do this. In the ancient world, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Aristotelians and Neoplatonists all make claims about Socrates really believing what they believed, that Socrates was really a skeptic, or a stoic sage, etc. This is easy because Socrates left us nothing in his own voice, but also because all of them really did begin as he demanded, by doubting everything, declaring that “I know nothing” and then trying to work from that toward a system which carves out one zone for the knowable and surrenders another to the unknowable. Attempts by later sects to appropriate Socrates reflect his fame, but also their universal gratitude for the way his refinement of skepticism created a starting point from which they could approach their Criteria of Truth, and start from there to lay their foundations. And now that I’ve put it that way, Socrates seems much less set on picking a bone with Plato, and much more interested in the bones of the chicken drumsticks Sartre brought, which are much larger than those Descartes brought, which are larger than the ones Socrates is used to, a mystery which definitely bears investigation. We can in part blame one “Aristotle”, though when I mention him our more modern thinkers smile knowingly, thinking of the many stages that had to pass between the ancient empiricist and the alien concept “progress.”
The Aristotelian Criteria of Truth: Categories and Definitions
Aristotle studied with Plato for decades, and his framework has a similar beginning. Yes, we instantly recognize that apple is apple and cat is cat, even if we are on the other side of the world and recognize apple as ringo and cat as neko. And we instantly judge the withered apple as being farther from what an apple ought to be than the crisp one.
What Aristotle doesn’t like is how Plato has the Forms exist in a hypothetical immaterial reality removed from the sensible reality. Instead, he uses the term “form” to refer to structures within natural objects, which are not material but not immaterial either. They are non-material. This may sound like gibberish, but I recently demonstrated it very effectively to my class by taking two apples to the front of the classroom, setting them down while I had a drink of water, then violently smashing one of the apples with repeated blows from the butt end of the water glass, reducing it to a sticky green pulp and producing an extremely startled and, in the front rows, apple-bespattered classroom. “What did I just destroy?” I asked. It took only a few moments of recovery for one to supply: “The form of the apple.” Aristotle even goes so far as to say that forms, rather than matter, are what senses sense. When we see an apple our minds do not register the raw, chaotic matter, they register the structure: apple. When we see smashed apple pulp even then we do not see matter, we see pulp, which has its own structure. We never perceive matter, or rather never recognize matter, never understand matter. All cognition takes place on the level of form, which is why we can identify “apple” at a glance and not have to spend a minute assembling the millions of points of perceived light and color together to deduce that it’s an apple.
But if the form, for Aristotle, is a structure within individual objects, and is destructible, it can’t be a source of eternal certainty, nor can it explain how my colleague in Japan can recognize and judge apple identically to the way I do. For this Aristotle posits Categories. Universal categories exist in nature, non-material structures just like forms, into which the forms of objects fit. Human Reason is capable of identifying these categories, by looking at objects, understanding their forms, and identifying their commonalities, functions etc. We all see the apple and recognize that it fits in the category apple. We further recognize that the category apple fits in the category fruit, that in the category “part of a plant” etc. And that Stamen Apple is a sub-category within the category apple. This allows us to identify and judge even objects which we have never seen before and have no names for. You probably do not know at a glance what the creature pictured to the left here is, but you can identify that it belongs in the category mammal, possibly in the rodent category or maybe more like a tiny deer judging by those skinny legs, but certainly in the medium-sized, ground-dwelling, non-carnivore, probably scavenger eating fruit and bugs and things, not-dangerous-to-humans category. (It is, in fact, a Kanchil or “mouse-deer”). Similarly we can all categorize trees, rocks, fish, and other things. Aristotelian categories are part of Nature itself, eternal and unchanging, and indestructible, since the category apple and the category Kanchil will be unchanged regardless of the creation or destruction of any individual. A withered apple doesn’t harm the category apple, nor does a limping three-legged Kanchil, and the extinction of the T-Rex didn’t erase the category T-Rex.
The extinction of the Brontosaur didn’t erase the category Brontosaur either – it was our discovery that the category was wrong that did so, and here we get toward Aristotle’s ideas of certainty and error. We had not defined our terms carefully enough, had accidentally separated two things that shouldn’t be, and thus were led to error. Error caused by insufficiently clear definitions of our terms. The categories are sources of true, certain and reliable knowledge. Like with Plato’s forms, we cannot Know-with-a-capital-K individual things with certainty, since they are destructible and changing, and the apple which is fresh today will be withered next week. But we can know the categories, and that it always has been and will be the nature of the apple to grow on trees and try to be sweet and colorful to attract animals to eat it and spread seeds, and that it always and will always be the nature of the T-Rex to be a humungous terrifying predator the sight of which inspires fear in all mammals and other smaller creatures. One source of error is when we make mistakes about categorization. We may mistake the Kanchil for a rodent, or a Vaquita for a dolphin, but with more careful observation we realize it is more closely related to a deer. We may mistake the Brontosaur for its own species before we realize it is a juvenile version of another thing, as easy a mistake to make as thinking that a caterpillar and butterfly are different creatures until we examine more closely. We also want to do this with things we may not, in modern parlance, think of as part of Nature, but just as there is the category “cetacean” within which exists the category “porpoise” so too there exist the category “integer” within which exists the category “prime number,” also the category “system of government” within which lies the category “democracy,” and the category “virtue” within which exists the category “justice.” Aristotle, and the rest of Greece with him, does not draw our modern post-Rousseau line between “Natural” and “artificial” placing human works in the latter. Birds are part of Nature, as are humans; birds’ nests are part of Nature, with a category, as are all the things humans create. The category “web page” which contains the category “blog” is as natural as the category “tree”.
Thus Aristotelian certainty comes with careful, systematic investigation of the categories within nature, and if we want to reduce error we can do so best by studying and measuring and comparing objects we see until we can fit them into categories. The more we study, and the more carefully we define our terms, the clearer our conversations will become, less given to assumptions, misunderstandings and error. One source of error, therefore, is equivocal language, words that are sloppily defined and don’t refer to real categories in nature. Brontosaur, planet, motion, Justice, good, are all sloppily-defined terms. Any term which does not point to a real category in Nature is sloppy and may lead us to error. If we use only vocabulary that is carefully worked through and points only at real categories, then our language will be clear, our communication perfect, and the possibility of error greatly reduced. After all, we only want to be talking about categories, not anything that isn’t one. Since, as with Plato’s forms, categories are eternal, unchanging and reliable. On their foundation we can build our path. As with Plato and Epicurus we have surrendered knowledge of individuals, in favor of knowledge of something structural which underlies them.
Excuse me: to proceed farther with Aristotle, I need to go get my fork. Here it is. (Or rather an image of it, one level less real, its Platonic shadow.)
This fork has been part of my life since I was a tiny girl, and it taught me about the Aristotelian sources of error. When I was little, I would help put the silverware away. This fork puzzled me. Why? Because I couldn’t figure out how to categorize it.
Here you see my dilemma. We had one slot for forks, which had tines and metal handles. And one slot for knives, which had blades and wooden handles. Where then goes this fork, which has tines but a wooden handle? Let’s offer the dilemma to our Youth.
Youth: “I think it should go with the metal-handled fork.
Youth: “Because it’s a fork. It’s used for fork things, that’s more important than what it’s made of.”
*Ding!*Ding!*Ding!* Correct! The Youth, like my child self, has correctly identified the Aristotelian distinction between an “essential property” and an “accidental property”. An essential property is a quality of something essential to it being itself, and filling the function it has in Nature; an accidental property is something that could change and it wouldn’t matter. A cat can be black or tabby (accidental) but must be slinky, carnivorous, and endearing to its owner in order to fulfill the functions of a cat. A tree must grow a woody trunk and produce leaves in order to fulfill the functions of a tree. A fork must fit comfortably in my hand and lift chunks of food to my mouth for it to be a fork. If the cat is orange, the tree is forked, and the fork is a futuristic rod that lifts food using a miniature tractor-beam instead of tines, those are accidents. If these things fulfill these functions badly–if a cat is ugly, a tree is all bent and twisted and produces few leaves, or a plastic fork snaps when I try to skewer food with it–we judge them bad examples of what they are. If these things don’t fill these functions at all–a quadrupedal mammal eats grass, a plant produces a soft viny stalk, and a piece of silverware cuts food in half instead of lifting it–we judge they do not belong in the categories cat, tree and fork respectively because they lack their essential properties. If I had mistakenly stored my wooden-handled fork with knives, that would have produced error, the same source of error as when we mistake a Kamchil for a rodent, or when Descartes, living in the 17th century, reads an article about how people from Africa are not the same as people from Europe because their skin is a different color. Mistaking accidental properties for essential ones has introduced error. And to call a robot toy a “cat”, or a metaphor for understanding genealogy a “tree”, or a fifteen-foot fork-shaped sculpture a “fork” is to employ ambiguous language, not referring to its categories, introducing error.
But what about Zeno, and our stick in water? For our stick in water Aristotle, much like the Epicureans, wants us to examine the stick more carefully, multiple times with multiple senses, to correct the mistake. And, like the Epicureans and Plato too, he surrenders true knowledge of individual objects, saying we can know Categories with certainty, after careful examination, but not specific things.
As for Zeno, there he comes from a different angle, attempting to refute Zeno with pure logic. Aristotle is big on observing Nature, but also on logical principles, especially a priori principles. By these he means logical principles which are self-evidently true and require no knowledge or experience to be proved. For example: The same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. Think about it for a while, take your time. It’s the case, and not only is it the case but it’s the case for lampreys, and thumbtacks, and hypothetical frictionless spheres, and ideas, and systems of government, and people. Even if you were a brain in a jar that had never had any experience of the world outside the mind, you could identify that a concept cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. Here’s another: “One” and “many” are different. It is nonsense to imagine that a thing could be both singular and plural at the same time. That too you can conclude without any basis in anything.
Now, it is possible to use clever syntax to come up with what seem like counter-examples. What about a doughnut hole: surely it exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, for this doughnut has a non-existence which is its hole, and yet here I am eating this doughnut hole. No, says Aristotle. That apparent contradiction is merely a function of unclear vocabulary giving two things the same label when they are utterly different. Similarly this pomegranate is one and many at the same time. Again, no: it is many seeds, but one pomegranate. Use strict vocabulary, unambiguous terms, and discuss only categories, and you will find that Aristotle’s a priori principles are sound.
Reasoning from such starts, and using raw logic without recourse to any knowledge of the material world, he then takes on Zeno. You cannot, says Aristotle, have infinite regression. It may seem you can, but an infinite chain is a logical impossibility because it would never end and never start. When you try to think about it, the mind rebels, just as it does when it tries to think of the one and the many being the same, or a thing both being and not being at the same time. Thus, says Aristotle, Zeno’s paradox is proved false because infinite regression is logically false. We can, now, rely on logic, so long as it is careful and methodical, and based on first principles and on comparison of the categories rather than leaping to conclusions directly from sense impressions of individual objects, which are flawed.
Sources of Error: (1) People using vague vocabulary that is unclearly defined and does not refer to anything Real, (2) Fallibility of individual material objects and rushed conclusions based on observations of such objects (note how similar this latter is to Plato).
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based exclusively on either or a combination of a priori logical principles which are not dependent on anything other than logic to be certain, and on the eternal Categories which exist universally in Nature, and can be known through observation and discussed using a carefully-defined lexicon of philosophical vocabulary.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of logical principles, and of the Categories, i.e. of the eternal structures within Nature that the forms of objects fall into, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.
Thus we have a third path, clearly delineating the arena of certain, eternal knowledge (on the basis of which we may seek eudaimonia) and separating it from the unknowable, which we surrender forever to skepticism. And once again the unknowable is the realm of matter, individual things, the essence which is given structure and comprehensibility by form. Aristotle, like Epicurus, has given up any chance of understanding matter itself, confining the cognizable world to that of form and structure, the macro-level. And he has surrendered knowledge of individuals, of this apple and this lamprey, granting us only the categories. We can still know an enormous amount in Aristotle’s system, enough to build a vast system of knowledge, a library of definitions, a vast network of genus and species names, and an empirical basis for an entire scientific system. Infinite knowledge lies before us on our Aristotelian path, infinite logic chains to follow, infinite categories to investigate, name, compare and discuss. The surrender, like Epicurus’s surrender of the ability to see atoms, feels minor.
“It’s still delusion!” Sartre says. “The surrender is vast! Infinite! Infinitely more vast and fundamental than your daily world imagines!” This outburst has been building up in poor Sartre for some time, which we can tell because since he’s been holding his knees and rocking back-and-forth and flushing, and only barely sociable enough to thank Descartes for that eclair (which is not, in fact, a lightning bolt but is a delicious pastry named “lightning bolt” in French, much to Aristotle’s chagrin). And, at some risk of frightening our innocent interlocutor the Youth (whom I shall advise to have Socrates hold his hand through the next bit) I will let Sartre continue in his own words, an excerpt from his Nausea(note that this particular translation uses existence rather than being):
“So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”
By this point our Youth is very glad to have his hand held, and Descartes is having second thoughts about sharing his eclair with what has evidently turned out to be a lunatic Lovecraftean cultist. But I let Sartre speak here to demonstrate the fact that these surrenders, made in the earliest days of philosophy by system-weavers seeking to escape the web of Zeno and the Stick, are still substantial. Even the most recent modern philosophy returns, from time to time, to these ancient surrenders to unknowability, and some try, like Sartre, to make new inroads toward knowing what the majority of thinkers have given up on. New and, in Sartre’s case, scary inroads. Every system-weaver since Plato may have a Criterion of Truth to be our light in the darkness, our path, our foundation, the circle line for the new philosophical subway system, but the fertile symbiosis between skepticism and dogmatism–the symbiosis which has borne such fruit: Platonic forms, genus and species, atoms, eventually the scientific method itself!–is also still sometimes a hostile symbiosis, and the wild, strong skepticism of Pyrrho still sometimes rears its head to plague Sartre and us, even as we make daily use of soft forms of skepticism like Epicurus’ weak empiricism, and Aristotle’s categories.
Of course, many are the centuries between Epicurus and Sartre, and many the new relationships between doubt and dogma, the new Criteria of Truth and new forms of shadowy un-knowledge which will press upon our fragile paths, before we reach the modern world. So we still have much more to explore in further chapters. Good thing Descartes brought plenty of lightning bolts.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.