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Oration on the Dignity of Man - Part VII

In our own day, many scholars, imitating Gorgias of Leontini, have been accustomed to dispute, not nine hundred questions merely, but the whole range of questions concerning all the arts and have been praised for it. Why should not I, then, without incurring criticism, be permitted to discuss a large number of questions indeed, but questions which are clear and determined in their scope? They reply, this is superfluous and ambitious. I protest that, in my case, no superfluity is involved, but that all is necessary. If they consider the method of my philosophy they will feel compelled, even against their inclinations, to recognize this necessity. All those who attach themselves to one or another of the philosophers, to Thomas, for instance or Scotus, who at present enjoy the widest following, can indeed test their doctrine in a discussion of a few questions. By contrast, I have so trained myself that, committed to the teachings of no one man, I have ranged through all the masters of philosophy, examined all their works, become acquainted with all schools. As a consequence, I have had to introduce all of them into the discussion lest, defending a doctrine peculiar to one, I might seem committed to it and thus to deprecate the rest. While a few of the theses proposed concern individual philosophers, it was inevitable that a great number should concern all of them together. Nor should anyone condemn me on the grounds that “wherever the storm blows me, there I remain as a guest.” For it was a rule among the ancients, in the case of all writers, never to leave unread any commentaries which might be available. Aristotle observed this rule so carefully that Plato called him: auagnooies, that is, “the reader.” It is certainly a mark of excessive narrowness of mind to enclose oneself within one Porch or Academy; nor can anyone reasonably attach himself to one school or philosopher, unless he has previously become familiar with them all. In addition, there is in each school some distinctive characteristic which it does not share with any other.

 

To begin with the men of our own faith to whom philosophy came last, there is in Duns Scotus both vigor and distinction, in Thomas solidity and sense of balance, in Egidius, lucidity and precision, in Francis, depth and acuteness, in Albertus [Magnus] a sense of ultimate issues, all-embracing and grand, in Henry, as it has seemed to me, always an element of sublimity which inspires reverence. Among the Arabians, there is in Averroës something solid and unshaken, in Avempace, as in Al–Farabi, something serious and deeply meditated; in Avicenna, something divine and platonic. Among the Greeks philosophy was always brilliant and, among the earliest, even chaste: in Simplicus it is rich and abundant, in Themistius elegant and compendious, in Alexander, learned and self-consistent, in Theophrastus, worked out with great reflection, in Ammonius, smooth and pleasing. If you turn to the Platonists, to mention but a few, you will, in Porphyry, be delighted by the wealth of matter and by his preoccupation with many aspects of religion; in Iamblichus, you will be awed by his knowledge of occult philosophy and the mysteries of the barbarian peoples; in Plotinus, you will find it impossible to single out one thing for admiration, because he is admirable under every aspect. Platonists themselves, sweating over his pages, understand him only with the greatest difficulty when, in his oblique style, he teaches divinely about divine things and far more than humanly about things human. I shall pass over the more recent figures, Proclus, and those others who derive from him, Damacius, Olympiodorus and many more in whom that to theion, that is, that divine something which is the special mark of the Platonists, always shines out.

 

 

It should be added that any school which attacks the more established truths and by clever slander ridicules the valid arguments of reason confirms, rather than weakens, the truth itself, which, like embers, is fanned to life, rather than extinguished by stirring. These considerations have motivated me in my determination to bring to men’s attention the opinions of all schools rather than the doctrine of some one or other (as some might have preferred), for it seems to me that by the confrontation of many schools and the discussion of many philosophical systems that “effulgence of truth” of which Plato writes in his letters might illuminate our minds more clearly, like the sun rising from the sea. What should have been our plight had only the philosophical thought of the Latin authors, that is, Albert, Thomas, Scotus, Egidius, Francis and Henry, been discussed, while that of the Greeks and the Arabs was passed over, since all the thought of the barbarian nations was inherited by the Greeks and from the Greeks came down to us? For this reason, our thinkers have always been satisfied, in the field of philosophy, to rest on the discoveries of foreigners and simply to perfect the work of others. What profit would have dervied from discussing natural philosophy with the Peripatetics, if the Academy of the Platonists had not also participated in the exchange, for the doctrine of the latter, even when it touched on divine matters, has always (as St. Augustine bears witness) been esteemed the most elevated of all philosophies? And this in turn has been the reason why I have, for the first time after many centuries of neglect (and there is nothing invidious in my saying so) brought it forth again for public examination and discussion. And what would it have profited us if, having discussed the opinions of innumerable others, like asymboli, at the banquet of wise men, we should contribute nothing of our own, nothing conceived and elaborated in our own mind? Indeed, it is the characteristic of the impotent (as Seneca writes) to have their knowledge all written down in their note-books, as though the discoveries of those who preceded us had closed the path to our own efforts, as though the power of nature had become effete in us and could bring forth nothing which, if it could not demonstrate the truth, might at least point to it from afar. The farmer hates sterility in his field and the husband deplores it in his wife; even more then must the divine mind hate the sterile mind with which it is joined and associated, because it hopes from that source to have offspring of such a high nature.

 

 

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May 17, 2015

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(VII)

 

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