John Lord.

The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

. (page 29 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 29 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


methodical investigation. He adopted the doctrine of Socrates as to the
pursuit of moral good. He regarded the duties which grow out of the
relations of human society preferable to the obligations of pursuing
scientific researches. Although a great admirer of Plato and Aristotle,
he regarded patriotic calls of duty as paramount to any study of science
or philosophy, which he thought was involved in doubt. He had a great
contempt for knowledge which could neither lead to the clear
apprehension of certitude, nor to practical applications. He thought it
impossible to arrive at a knowledge of God, or the nature of the soul,
or the origin of the world. And he thus was led to look upon the
sensible and the present as of more importance than inconclusive
inductions, or deductions from a truth not satisfactorily established.

[Sidenote: His eclecticism.]

Cicero was an Eclectic, seizing on what was true and clear in the
ancient systems, and disregarding what was simply a matter of
speculation. This is especially seen in his treatise "De Finibus Bonorum
et Malorum," in which the opinions of all the Grecian schools concerning
the supreme good are expounded and compared. Nor does he hesitate to
declare that happiness consists in the cognition of nature and science,
which is the true source of pleasure both to gods and men. Yet these are
but hopes, in which it does not become us to indulge. It is the actual,
the real, the practical, which preeminently claims attention; in other
words, the knowledge which will but furnish man with a guide and rule of
life. [Footnote: _De Fin._, v. 6.] Indeed, the sum of Philosophy,
to the mind of Cicero, is that she is an instructress and a comforter.
He takes an entirely practical view of the end of philosophy, which is
to improve the mind, and make a man contented and happy. For philosophy
as a science, - a series of inductions and deductions, - he had profound
contempt. He also regards the doctrines of philosophy as involved in
doubt, and even in the consideration of moral questions he is pursued by
the conflict of opinions, although, in this department, he is most at
home. The points he is most anxious to establish are the doctrines of
God and the soul. These are most fully treated in his essay, "De Natura
Deorum," in which he submits the doctrines of the Epicureans and the
Stoics to the objections of the Academy. [Footnote: _De Nat. D._,
iii. 10.] He admits that man is unable to form true conceptions of God,
but acknowledges the necessity of assuming one supreme God as the
creator and ruler of all things, moving all things, remote from all
mortal mixture, and endued with eternal motion in himself. He seems to
believe in a divine providence ordering good to man; in the soul's
immortality, in free-will, in the dignity of human nature, in the
dominion of reason, in the restraint of the passions as necessary to
virtue, in a life of public utility, in an immutable morality, in the
imitation of the divine.

[Sidenote: His ethics.]

The doctrines of Cicero on ethical subjects, are chiefly drawn from the
Stoics and Peripatetics. They are opinions drawn sometimes from one
system and sometimes from another. Thus he agrees with the disciples of
Aristotle, that health, honors, friends, country, are worthy objects of
desire. Then again, he coincides with the Stoics that passions and
emotions of the soul are vices. But he recedes from their severe tone,
which elevated the sage too high above his fellow-men.

[Sidenote: Character of his philosophical writings.]

Thus there is little of original thought in the moral theories of
Cicero, and these are the result of observation rather than of any
philosophical principle. We might enumerate his various opinions, and
show what an enlightened mind he possessed; but this would not be the
development of philosophy. His views, interesting as they are, and
generally wise and lofty, yet do not indicate any progress of the
science; He merely repeats earlier doctrines. These were not without
their utility, since they had great influence on the Latin fathers. They
were esteemed for their general enlightenment. He softened down the
extreme views of the great thinkers before his day, and clearly unfolded
what had become obscured. He is a critic of philosophy; an expositor
whom we can scarcely spare.

If any body advanced philosophy among the Romans, it was Epictetus, and
he even only in the realm of ethics. Qumtius Sextius, in the time of
Augustus, had revived the Pythagorean doctrines. Seneca had recommended
the severe morality of the Stoics, but they added nothing that was not
previously known. The Romans had no talent for philosophy, although they
were acquainted with its various systems. Their greatest light was a
Phrygian slave.

[Sidenote: Epictetus.]

[Sidenote: His lofty ethical system.]

Epictetus taught in the time of Domitian, and though he did not leave
any written treatises, his doctrines were preserved and handed down by
his disciple Arrian, who had for him the reverence that Plato had for
Socrates. The loftiness of his recorded views makes us feel that he must
have been indebted to Christianity; for no one, before him, has revealed
precepts so much in accordance with its spirit. He was a Stoic, but he
held in the highest estimation Socrates and Plato. It is not for the
solution of metaphysical questions that he was remarkable. He was not a
dialectician, but a moralist, and, as such, takes the highest ground of
all the old inquirers after truth. With him, philosophy, as it was to
Cicero and Seneca, is a wisdom of life. He sets no value on logic, nor
much on physics; but he reveals sentiments of great simplicity and
grandeur. His great idea is the purification of the soul. He believes in
the severest self-denial; he would guard against the syren spells of
pleasure; he would make men feel that, in order to be good, they must
first feel that they are evil; he condemns suicide, although it had been
defended by the Stoics; he would complain of no one, not even of
injustice; he would not injure his enemies; he would pardon all
offenses; he would feel universal compassion, since men sin from
ignorance; he would not easily blame, since we have none to condemn but
ourselves; he would not strive after honor or office, since we put
ourselves in subjection to that we seek or prize; he would constantly
bear in mind that all things are transitory, and that they are not our
own; he would bear evils with patience, even as he would practice self-
denial of pleasure; he would, in short, be calm, free, keep in
subjection his passions, avoid self-indulgence, and practice a broad
charity and benevolence. He felt he owed all to God; that all was his
gift, and that we should thus live in accordance with his will; that we
should be grateful not only for our bodies, but for our souls, and
reason, by which we attain to greatness. And if God has given us such a
priceless gift, we should be contented, and not even seek to alter our
external relations, which are doubtless for the best. We should wish,
indeed, for only what God wills and sends, and we should avoid pride and
haughtiness, as well as discontent, and seek to fulfill our allotted
part. [Footnote: A fine translation of Epictetus has been published by
Little and Brown.]

[Sidenote: Marcus Aurelius.]

Such were the moral precepts of Epictetus, in which we see the nearest
approach to Christianity that had been made in the ancient world. And
these sublime truths had a great influence, especially on the mind of
the most lofty and pure of all the Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, who
_lived_ the principles he had learned from a slave, and whose
"Maxims" are still held in admiration.

[Sidenote: General observations.]

Thus did the speculations about the beginning of things lead to
elaborate systems of thought, and end in practical rules of life, until,
in spirit, they had, with Epictetus, harmonized with many of the
revealed truths which Christ and his Apostles laid down for the
regeneration of the world. Who cannot see in the inquiries of the old
philosopher, whether into nature, or the operations of mind, or the
existence of God, or the immortality of the soul, or the way to
happiness and virtue, a magnificent triumph of human genius, such as has
been exhibited in no other department of human science? We regret that
our limits preclude a more extended view of the various systems which
the old sages propounded - systems full of errors, yet also marked by
important truths, but whether false or true, showing a marvelous reach
of the human understanding. Modern researches have discarded many
opinions which were highly valued in their day, yet philosophy, in its
methods of reasoning, is scarcely advanced since the time of Aristotle;
while the subjects which agitated the Grecian schools, have been from
time to time revived and rediscussed, and are still unsettled. If any
science has gone round in perpetual circles, incapable, apparently, of
progression or rest, it is that glorious field of inquiry which has
tasked more than any other the mightiest intellects of this world, and
which, progressive or not, will never be relinquished without the loss
of what is most valuable in human culture.

* * * * *

For original authorities in reference to the matter of this chapter,
read Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Philosophers; the Writings of Plato
and Aristotle; Cicero, De Nat., De Or., De Offic., De Div., De Fin.,
Tusc. Quaest.; Xenophon, Memorabilia; Boethius, De Idea Hist. Phil.;
Lucretius.

The great modern authorities are the Germans, and these are very
numerous. Among the most famous writers on the history of philosophy,
are Bruckner, Hegel, Brandis, I. G. Buhle, Tennemann, Ritter, Plessing,
Schwegler, Hermann, Meiners, Stallbaum, and Speugel. The history of
Ritter is well translated, and is always learned and suggestive.
Tennemann, translated by Morell, is a good manual, brief, but clear. In
connection with the writings of the Germans, the great work of Cousin
should be consulted.

The English historians of ancient philosophy are not so numerous as the
Germans. The work of Enfield is based on Bruckner, or is rather an
abridgment. Archer Butler's Lectures are suggestive and able, but
discursive and vague, as is the History of Ancient Philosophy by
Maurice. Grote has written learnedly on Socrates and the other great
lights. Lewes' Biographical History of Philosophy has the merit of
clearness, and is very interesting, but rather superficial. Henry has
written a good epitome. See also Stanley's History of Philosophy, and
the articles in Smith's Dictionary, on the leading ancient philosophers.
Donaldson's continuation of Muller's History of the Lit. of Greece, is
learned, and should be consulted with Thompson's Notes on Archer Butler.
There are also fine articles in the Encyclopedias Britannica and
Metropolitana. Schleirmacher, on Socrates, translated by Bishop
Thirlwall.




CHAPTER IX.

SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE ROMANS.


[Sidenote: Wonders of modern science.]

[Sidenote: Every great age distinguished for something never afterwards
equaled.]

It would be absurd to claim for the ancients any great attainments in
science, such as they made in the field of letters or the realm of art.
It is in science, especially when applied to practical life, that the
moderns show their great superiority to the most enlightened nations of
antiquity. In this great department, modern genius shines with the
lustre of the sun. It is this which most strikingly attests the advance
of society, which makes their advance a most incontestible fact. It is
this which has distinguished and elevated the races of Europe more
triumphantly than what has resulted from the combined energies of Greeks
and Romans in all other departments combined. With the magnificent
discoveries and inventions of the last three hundred years in almost
every department of science, - especially in physics, in the
explorations of distant seas and continents, in the analysis of chemical
compounds, in the explanation of the phenomena of the heavens, in the
wonders of steam and electricity, in mechanical appliance to abridge
human labor or destroy human life, in astronomical researches, in the
miracles which inventive genius has wrought, - seen in our ships, our
manufactories, our wondrous instruments, our printing-presses, of our
observatories, our fortifications, our laboratories, our mills, our
machines to cultivate the earth, to make our clothes, to build our
houses, to multiply our means of offense and defense, to make weak
children do the work of Titans, to measure our time with the accuracy of
the orbit of the planets, to use the sun itself in perpetuating our
likenesses to distant generations, to cause a needle to guide the
mariner with assurance on the darkest night, to propel a heavy ship
against the wind and tide without oars or sails, to make carriages
ascend mountains without horses at the rate of thirty miles an hour, to
convey intelligence with the speed of lightning from continent to
continent, under oceans that ancient navigators never dared to cross;
these and other wonders attest an ingenuity and audacity of intellect
which would have overwhelmed with amazement the most adventurous of
Greeks and the most potent of Romans. The achievements of modern science
settle forever the question as to the advance of society and the
superiority of modern times over those of the most favored nations of
antiquity. But the great discoveries and inventions to which we owe this
marked superiority are either accidental or the result of generations of
experiment, assisted by an immense array of ascertained facts from which
safe inductions can be made. It is not, probably, the superiority of the
Teutonic races over the Greeks and Romans to which we may ascribe the
wonderful advance of modern society, but the particular direction which
genius was made to take. Had the Greeks given the energy of their minds
to mechanical forces as they did to artistic creations, they might have
made wonderful inventions. But it was so ordered by Providence. Nor was
the world in that stage of development when this particular direction of
intellect would have been favored. There were some things which the
Greeks and Romans exhausted, some fields of labor and thought in which
they never have been, and, perhaps, never will be, surpassed; and some
future age may direct its energies into channels which are as unknown to
us as clocks and steam-engines were to the Greeks. This is the age of
mechanism and of science, and mechanism and science sweep every thing
before them, and will probably be carried to their utmost capacity and
development. Then the human mind may seek some new department, some new
scope for energies, and a new age of wonders may arise, - perhaps after
the present dominant races shall have become intoxicated with the
greatness of their triumphs and have shared the fate of the old
monarchies of the East. But I would not speculate on the destinies of
the European nations, whether they are to make indefinite advances,
until they occupy and rule the whole world, or are destined to be
succeeded by nations as yet undeveloped, - savages, as their fathers
were when Rome was in the fullness of material wealth and grandeur. We
know nothing of the future. We only know that all nations are in the
hands of God, who setteth up and pulleth down according to his infinite
wisdom.

I have shown that in the field of artistic excellence, in literary
composition, in the arts of government and legislation, and even in the
realm of philosophical speculations, the ancients were our
schoolmasters, and that among them were some men of most marvelous
genius, who have had no superiors among us.

[Sidenote: The ancients deficient in the application of science.]

But we do not see the exhibition of genius in what we call science, at
least in its application to practical life. It would be difficult to
show any department of science which the ancients carried to any degree
of perfection. Nevertheless, there were departments in which they made
noble attempts, and in which they showed considerable genius, even if
they were unsuccessful in great practical results.

[Sidenote: Labors of the ancients in astronomy.]

Astronomy was one of these. So far as mathematical genius is concerned,
so far as astronomy taxed the reasoning powers, such men as
Eratosthenes, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy were great lights, of
whom humanity may be proud; and, had they been assisted by our modern
accidental inventions, they might have earned a fame scarcely eclipsed
by that of Kepler and Newton. The Ionic philosophers added but little to
the realm of true philosophy, but they were pioneers of thought, and
giants in their native powers. The old astronomers did as little as they
to place science on a true foundation, but they showed great ingenuity,
and discovered some great truths which no succeeding age has repudiated.
They determined the circumference of the earth by a method identical
with that which would be employed by modern astronomers. They
ascertained the position of the stars by right ascension and
declination. They knew the obliquity of the ecliptic, and determined the
place of the sun's apogee as well as its mean motion. Their calculations
on the eccentricity of the moon prove that they had a rectilinear
trigonometry and tables of chords. They had an approximate knowledge of
parallax. [Footnote: Delambre, _Hist. d'Astr. Anc._, tom. 1, p.
184.] They could calculate eclipses of the moon, and use them for the
correction of their lunar tables. They understood spherical
trigonometry, and determined the motions of the sun and moon, involving
an accurate definition of the year, and a method of predicting eclipses.
They ascertained that the earth was a sphere, and reduced the phenomena
of the heavenly bodies to uniform movements of circular orbits.
[Footnote: Lewis, _Hist. of Astron._, p. 209.] We have settled, by
physical geography, the exact form of the earth, but the ancients
arrived at their knowledge by astronomical reasoning. "The reduction of
the motions of the sun, moon, and five planets to circular orbits, as
was done by Hipparchus, implies deep concentrated thought and scientific
abstraction. The theory of eccentrics and epicycles accomplished the end
of explaining all the known phenomena. The resolution of the apparent
motions of the heavenly bodies into an assemblage of circular motions,
was a great triumph of genius, [Footnote: Whewell, _Hist. Induc.
Science_, v. i. p. 181.] and was equivalent to the most recent and
improved processes by which modern astronomers deal with such motions."

But I will not here enumerate the few discoveries which were made by the
Alexandrian school. I only wish to show that there are a few names among
the ancients which are inscribed on the roll of great astronomers,
limited as were the triumphs of the science itself. But, until the time
of Aristarchus, most of the speculations were crude and useless. Nothing
can be more puerile than the notions of the ancients respecting the
nature and motions of the heavenly bodies.

[Sidenote: Astronomy born in Chaldea.]

Astronomy was probably born in Chaldea as early as the time of Abraham.
The glories of the firmament were impressed upon the minds of the rude
primitive races with an intensity which we do not feel with all the
triumphs of modern science. The Chaldean shepherds, as they watched
their flocks by night, noted the movements of the planets, and gave
names to the more brilliant constellations. Before religious rituals
were established, before great superstitions arose, before poetry was
sung, before musical instruments were invented, before artists
sculptured marble or melted bronze, before coins were stamped, before
temples arose, before diseases were healed by the arts of medicine,
before commerce was known, before heroes were born, those oriental
shepherds counted the hours of anxiety by the position of certain
constellations. Astronomy is, therefore, the oldest of the ancient
sciences, although it remained imperfect for more than four thousand
years. The old Assyrians, Egyptians, and Greeks made but few discoveries
which are valued by modern astronomers, but they laid the foundation of
the science, and ever regarded it as one of the noblest subjects which
could stimulate the faculties of man. It was invested with all that was
religious and poetical.

[Sidenote: Discoveries made by oriental nations.]

The spacious level and unclouded horizon of Chaldea afforded peculiar
facilities of observation; and its pastoral and contemplative
inhabitants, uncontaminated by the vices and superstitions of subsequent
ages, active-minded and fresh, discovered, after a long observation of
eclipses - some say extending over nineteen centuries - the cycle of two
hundred and twenty-three lunations, which brings back the eclipses in
the same order. Having once established their cycle, they laid the
foundation for the most sublime of all the sciences. Callisthenes
transmitted from Babylon to Aristotle a collection of observations of
all the eclipses that preceded the conquests of Alexander, together with
the definite knowledge which the Chaldeans had collected about the
motions of the heavenly bodies. It was rude and simple, and amounted to
little beyond the fact that there were spherical revolutions about an
inclined axis, and that the poles pointed always to particular stars.
The Egyptians also recorded their observations, from which it would
appear that they observed eclipses at least one thousand six hundred
years before the commencement of our era. Nor is this improbable, if the
speculations of modern philosophers respecting the age of the world are
entitled to respect. The Egyptians discovered, by the rising of Sirius,
that the year consists of three hundred and sixty-five and one quarter
days, and this was their sacred year, in distinction from the civil,
which consisted of three hundred and sixty-five days. They also had
observed the courses of the planets, and could explain the phenomena of
the stations and retrogradations, and it is even asserted that they
regarded Mercury and Venus as satellites of the sun. Some have
maintained that the obelisks which they erected served the purpose of
gnomons, for determining the obliquity of the ecliptic, the altitude of
the pole, and the length of the tropical year. It is thought that even
the Pyramids, by the position of their sides toward the cardinal points,
attest their acquaintance with a meridional line. The Chinese boast of
having noticed and recorded a series of eclipses extending over a period
of three thousand eight hundred and fifty-eight years, and it is
probable that they anticipated the Greeks two thousand years in the
discovery of the Metonic cycle, or the cycle of nineteen years, at the
end of which time the new moons fall on the same days of the year. They
determined the obliquity of the ecliptic, one thousand one hundred years
before our era, to be 23 degrees 54' 3-15". The Indians, at a remote
antiquity, represented celestial phenomena with considerable exactness,
and constructed tables by which the longitude of the sun and moon are
determined. Bailly thinks that astronomy was cultivated in Siam three
thousand one hundred and two years before Christ, which hardly yields in
accuracy to that which modern science has built on the theory of
universal gravitation. The Greeks divided the heavens into
constellations fourteen centuries before Christ. Thales, born 640 B.C.,
taught the rotundity of the earth, and that the moon shines with
reflected light. He also predicted eclipses. Anaximander, born 610 B.C.,
invented the gnomon, and constructed geographical charts.

[Sidenote: The early Greek investigators.]

But the Greeks, after all, were the only people of antiquity who
elevated astronomy to the dignity of a science. They however confessed
that they derived their earliest knowledge from the Babylonian and
Egyptian priests, while the priests of Thebes asserted that they were
the originators of exact astronomical observations. [Footnote: Diod., i.
50.] Diodorus asserts that the Chaldeans used the Temple of Belus, in
the centre of Babylon, for their survey of the heavens. [Footnote:
Diod., ii. 9.] But whether the Babylonians or the Egyptians were the
earliest astronomers, it is of little consequence, although the pedants
make it a grave matter of investigation. All we know is, that astronomy



Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 29 of 50)