Novelist are sometimes lauded for their ability to make a wide range of characters—even the most despicable—understandable and even compelling, if not likable. Call it intuitive sympathy.
We less often meet up with the notion of “conceptual sympathy”—the ability to set the ideas of a given thinker in the clearest light, exposing the nugget of insight that remains valid without dwelling overmuch on the dross and confusion surrounding it. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer possessed this ability to an unusual degree.
Let me give you an example from his late work, An Essay on Man (1944). Summing up the position of the Stoics, he writes:
He who lives in harmony with his own self, his demon, lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle. Man proved his inherent power of criticism, of judgment and discernment, by conceiving that in this correlation the Self, not the universe, has the leading part…”
And a few sentences further on he concludes:
This spirit [of Greek philosophy] was a spirit of judgment, of critical discernment between Being and Non-Being, between truth and illusion, between good and evil. Life in itself is changing and fluctuating, but the true value of life is to be sought in an eternal order that admits of no change. It is not in the world of our sense, it is only in the power of our judgment that we can grasp this order. Judgment is the central power of man, the common source of truth and morality. For it is the only thing in which man depends entirely on himself; it is free, autonomous, self-sufficing.
Cassirer is summarizing the position of Marcus Aurelius here. It’s not clear whether he endorses it entirely, but he describes it eloquently. The association of judgment (rather than verification) with truth and being is sound.
But there are some problems here, too. In particular, the divorce of judgment and sense seems unnecessary and even perverse. To what, after all, do we apply our judgment except our experience, which is derived largely from our senses?
By the same token, is it really true that judgment is “the only thing in which man depends entirely on himself”? Judgment might be considered autonomous is so far as it leaves behind all arbitrary norms and standards. But we apply our judgment to things we come upon, things that lie beyond us. When we’re moved by a work of art, for example, and judge it to be beautiful, the judgment may be ours alone, but the work of art remains a foreign object. That we can respond to such experience at all might be offered as an argument in favor of the Stoic position Cassirer has already described, whereby “the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different … manifestations of a common underlying principle.” But if this is true, then, far from being autonomous, judgment is based on that principle, and reaffirms our connections to things both within and beyond our selves—the murmuring harmonies and discords of life.
According to Cassirer, this is the sort of judgment Jesus executes, and within a paragraph or two of this sympathetic description of Stoicism, Cassirer introduces Christianity as the major historical challenge to the Stoic position. Did Christianity refute Stoicism? Not really, Cassirer tells us. He notes that the two systems have a great deal in common. He breezes past Jesus, however, whose maxims are perhaps too enigmatic and contradictory, in his eagerness to introduce us to the more conceptually fleshed out notions of St. Augustine.
And so it goes. In succeeding pages, Cassirer presents us with similarly cogent references to Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal, whom he clearly admires. As we meet and greet Bruno and Diderot, we may begin to feel that in the course of a few pages, under Cassirer’s gentle guidance, we’re finally getting a grip on the Western intellectual tradition.
Cassirer is impressed with Darwinian evolution, though he observes astutely that its impact on philosophical speculation was rooted less in the “facts” of evolution that in the theoretical interpretation of those facts—an interpretation that had a definite metaphysical character. He points out that Aristotle had an evolutionary theory, too. But in Aristotle’s view, evolution was driven by “final causes.” That is to say, less advanced species were developing toward the supreme species—man. For Darwin, on the other hand, evolution was being driven by accidental causes. It has no pre-determined end or final form.
“Modern thinkers,” Cassirer writes, “have…definitely succeeded in accounting for organic life as a mere product of chance.”
But have they, really? In defense of this claim, Cassirer quotes a passage in which Darwin describes an impressive edifice being built using no material other than the random pieces of rubble he finds at the base of a cliff. Darwin concludes:
Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensible to the architect, bear to the edifice being built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of organic beings bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by their modified descendants.
The careful reader, pursuing the analogy to its logical conclusion, might respond: “Then who is this architect you are referring to? Who is this architect of individual creatures, of Life?”
An architect who builds an edifice begins with a design, a sense of scale and proportion, an aesthetic, and a utilitarian purpose. He chooses his stones accordingly. If his choice of building material is limited to what lies near at hand (and is therefore “accidental”) that will influence the design of the finished product, but only to a degree. Such limitations having been granted, the completed edifice will reflect the architect’s intention.
This scenario doesn’t resemble the evolutionary path in the slightest. When an organism receives a freak mutation, there is no architect present, and neither intention nor choice are involved. Very few mutations are environmentally beneficial. Most peter out within a generation.
Evolutionary development only becomes explicable when we include, along with all the accidental causes, the intentionality of the individual creature, who seizes and makes use of an accidental advantage, imbuing it with value, as it were, and passing it on to its descendants. Both the accident and the urge to thrive are necessary for development. Accident alone produces nothing but chaos.
Cassirer notes that during the course of the nineteenth century, philosophers enamored of Darwinianism found it imperative to explain the diversity of human cultures by recourse to simple mechanisms: “Nietzsche proclaims the will to power, Freud signalizes the sexual instinct, Marx enthrones the economic instinct.”
By this point in time, in Cassirer’s view, “our modern theory of man lost its intellectual center.” (P. 21) Man has made his way from metaphysics to theology to mathematics to biology. Now a “complete anarchy of thought” holds sway, a dreadful “antagonism of thought” in which every thinker relies on “his own conception and evaluation of human life.”
Things sound pretty bad, and more than a few scholars have written weighty books about the “crisis” of late nineteenth-century thought. And yet, doesn’t it also sound strangely familiar? Ten pages earlier, Cassirer had been praising a Stoic world view based on personal judgment, “The only thing in which man depends entirely on himself.” Now he’s describing a very similar situation, in which every thinker relies on “his own conception and evaluation of human life.” But now he's describing it as a world of “complete anarchy.” What happened?
My point is not to challenge Cassirer’s judgment, though I think he’s missed the mark, here, perhaps under the influence of the chaotic and colossally destructive historical situation under which he was writing. What I’m impressed with is Cassirer’s knack for calmly highlighting the essential virtue and drama of any given period, the critical thrust of any thinker’s work.
In an earlier work, The Platonic Renaissance in England (1932), Cassirer makes an attempt to expose the historical significance of now-obscure English writers such as Whichcote, Henry More, and Cudworth. He paints a warts-and-all portrait of thinkers who wrote badly and at great length, but who nevertheless sustained important streams of thought that were in danger of being submerged in the shallower but broader flow of British empiricism.
Especially interesting, at least to my mind, is the thirty-page digression he makes to explain how much more difficult to the Augustinian world view was the challenge presented by Plato, than that which Aristotle had offered at an earlier date.
He suggests that Aristotleanism, as it appears in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, does little to bridge the gap between knowledge and faith, reason and revelation, nature and grace. It was Aquinas's towering intellect that held things together.During the Renaissance the school of Padua, through “laborious philological and systematic analysis,” succeeded in showing how incompatible Aristotelian and Christian positions are.
During the Reformation the entire superstructure of scholasticism was set aside in an effort to return to the Christianity of Augustine and Paul. Cassirer writes: “It seemed finally as if Augustinian doctrine had triumphed over its great philosophical rival—indeed, as if it had emerged more formidable still from its controversy with scholastic Aristotelianism.”
But once Renaissance thinkers gained greater access to Plato’s work through translations, Augustinianism was essentially doomed. Plato’s theory of Eros as a bridge between the real and the ideal, and his association of Eros with “the Good,” (bolstered at a later date by Plotinus’s notion of the beautiful) had no use for Augustine’s higher power.
The Idea of the good is thus set forth not only as the end and aim of knowledge … but also as the strongest bond comprehending all being, earth and heaven, the sensible and the intelligible world. To question the Idea of the good, or to limit it by an ostensibly higher norm, would mean for Plato the dissolution of being itself and the sacrifice of all human as well as all divine order for chaos. Plato’s theology is thus based on self-reliance and on the self-sufficiency of the moral life. In so far as this self-sufficiency has its foundation in the will, there can be no absolute depravity of the will for Plato. The power of Eros constantly works against the doctrine of original evil and triumphs over it.
Bravo! After a lengthy discussion of Ficino and the Florentine Academy, Cassirer moves on to the influence asserted by Neoplatonic doctrines on the poetry of the English Renaissance. He has taken the time to set the stage for the appearance of the Cambridge Platonists, and in so doing, he offers us a brief and illuminating mini-history of Western thought.
It’s almost enough to make you hunt up that old paperback copy of The Fairie Queene!