Friday, July 17, 2009

Plato's Teleological Cosmology & Cicero's Socratic Scepticism

I continue thinking about the history of Plato's teleological cosmology, as well as the history of the break from that cosmology in the work of Hume and Darwin.

As far as I know, the three best surveys of how Plato's cosmology--in the Laws (book 10) and the Timaeus--shaped Western cosmology for 2,000 years are Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, and Remi Brague's The Wisdom of the World. In all three books, the claim is that there was no serious criticism of that Platonic cosmology until the modern era.

But this ignores the evidence that Plato's intelligent-design cosmology provoked sceptical questioning from the very beginning with Plato's Socrates, and that this Socratic scepticism was continued by Cicero and others, which was then renewed in the Eighteenth Century by Hume and then elaborated in the evolutionary science of Darwin in the Nineteenth Century.

Brague does at least give his reader a glimpse of this sceptical tradition. Brague notices that the cosmology of the Timaeus--with its teaching that the moral and political life of human beings must imitate the intelligent order of the cosmos--overturns the "Socratic Revolution" described in the Phaedo. In his famous account of his "second sailing," Socrates says that, as a young man, he was devoted to "inquiry into nature"--looking for the natural causes of all things. He was excited by a writing of Anaxagoras that proclaimed "Mind" (nous) to the the cause of all things. But then Socrates became disappointed when he saw that Anaxagoras's explanations through material causes did not really give Socrates what he was looking for--an explanation for why it was best for everything to be ordered as it was. So Socrates decided that instead of looking directly at natural things--as if he were looking directly at the sun--he must look at their reflections in the accounts or speeches (logoi) about them. Thus, he turned to examining how people talk about their experiences, hoping that through such human experience, he could ascend to the enduring patterns or forms that explain that experience. Brague writes: "Thus Socrates renounced that unification of experience in favor of considering solely phenomena relating to the polis, that is, the being-together of men. In this way he disconnected anthropology from cosmology and introduced his plan to found an anthropology based solely on itself" (31).

But if so, then, Brague insists, Plato in the Timaeus had to reverse the Socratic Revolution by formulating a teleological cosmology by which all things were governed by cosmic Mind so that everything was ordered in the best and most excellent way. "Plato built a bridge over the abyss Socrates had opened, by positing the Good as the supreme principle" (32).

Brague suggests that this "abyss" opened by Socrates and closed by Plato was not opened again until the modern era, when the moral interpretation of the cosmos was challenged by modern thinkers. But this overlooks the ancient tradition of Socratic scepticism. Brague does recognize Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition as deviating from the cosmological thought set in motion by the Timaeus. But this Epicurean tradition of thought was outside the main line of thought from Plato and Aristotle.

To tell this story, Brague has to ignore Cicero's account of Socratic scepticism. Particularly in his Academics, Cicero shows how scepticism emerged early in the history of the Platonic Academy. Part of that scepticism was the thought that the moral and political life of human beings could not be governed by cosmological knowledge, and so Socrates was right to bring philosophy down from the heavens into the realm of human experience. In this Academics (I.15), Cicero has Varro say: "It is universally agreed that Socrates was the first person who summoned philosophy away from mysteries veiled in concealment by nature herself, upon which all philosophers before him had been engaged and led it to the subject of ordinary life, in order to investigate the virtues and vices, and good and evil generally, and to realize that heavenly matters are either remote from our knowledge or else, however fully known, have nothing to do with the good life." So, contrary to Brague's claim, the idea of the moral neutrality of the cosmos was not an invention of the modern era, because the idea was already there in the ancient tradition of Socratic scepticism to which Cicero belonged.

The best critique of intelligent-design cosmology in antiquity is Cicero's dialogue On the Nature of the Gods. This became the model for Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume's character Cleanthes is named after the teacher of the Stoic Balbus, who lays out the intelligent-design argument in Cicero's dialogue. Hume's character Philo (who speaks for Humean scepticism) is named after the teacher of Cotta, who lays out the sceptical arguments in Cicero's dialogue. After allowing Cotta to demolish the intelligent-design cosmology of Balbus, Cicero carefully avoids scandal in the conclusion to his dialogue: "Here the conversation ended, and we parted, Velleius thinking Cotta's discourse to be truer, while I thought that of Balbus approximated more nearly to some semblance of the truth." Similarly, Hume concludes his dialogue by having his narrator Pamphilus say: "I cannot but think that Philo's principles are more probable than Demea's, but that those of Cleanthes approaches still nearer to the truth."

We can see here that Cicero and Hume belong to a tradition of sceptical conservatism that doubts Plato's teleological cosmology, even as it grudgingly acknowledges that this Platonic cosmology might be salutary as a popular "civil religion."

Metaphysical conservatives who believe that moral and political order cannot survive without cosmic support are uncomfortable in the face of this conservative tradition of scepticism. One can see this, for example, in an article published in The Intercollegiate Review in 1968 by Frederick Wilhelmsen and Willmoore Kendall--"Cicero and the Politics of the Public Orthodoxy." They admire Cicero for his understanding of the "public orthodoxy" as "that tissue of judgments, defining the good life and indicating the meaning of human existence, which is held commonly by the members of any society, who see in it the charter of their way of life and the ultimate justification of their society." They see this as corresponding to what Leo Strauss identified as the "way of life" of the politeia or what T. S. Eliot called "culture"--shared judgments about the cosmic meaning of human existence that support social and political order. But they are disturbed by the evidence that Cicero thought that the theological, intelligent-design cosmology of the public orthodoxy was false, even though he might be obligated to avoid publicly denying it.

For Wilhelmsen and Kendall, no public orthodoxy can sustain itself if it is not grounded in some metaphysical conception of the cosmos as intelligently designed as a model for human morality and politics. In the case of Cicero, they see a conflict between theoretical truth (Socratic scepticism) and the customary beliefs required for society. Their solution to this problem is to assert that Christian revelation creates a bridge between transcendent truth and immanent social order. Our Christian faith that God is the source of all order guarantees that there will be no conflict between the truths of the soul and the truths of society. But they leave the reader wondering how this can be "theoretically guaranteed" so as to be immune to the sceptical doubts of Socratic philosophy.

Darwinian science continues the sceptical tradition of Cicero and Hume by showing how the moral order of human life can be based on the natural order of human nature. Even if the natural cosmos as a whole is morally indifferent, the species-specific nature of human beings can support moral distinctions.

If this is persuasive, then we should say that Aristotle was right when he argued in his biological works that in contrast to astronomy, the study of the nature of animals is more open to study, less dependent on traditional myths, and "more akin to our nature" than study of the divine cosmos (Parts of Animals, 642a).

An earlier post on comparing metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism can be found here.

1 comment:

Sensible Knave said...

Then it is not surprising to know that Hume was a great fan of Cicero!

As far as the prominence of Ciceronian thinking in the ancient world, Augustine himself owed a great deal to Cicero in the course of his philosophical development.