Scepsis Scientifica - Chap. XVIII.

Chap. XVIII.

            How Aristotle's philosophy came so universally to obtain in these later ages, to the silencing the Zoroastrian, Pythagorean, Platonical, and Epicurean learning, is not my business here to inquire. Worth is nor to be judged by success, and retinue; only we may take notice, that the generality of its reception is with many the persuading argument of its superlative desert. And common judges measure excellency by name and numbers. But Seneca's determination, argumentum pessimi turba est, is more deserving our credit: and the fewest, that is the wisest, have always stood contradictory to that ground of belief; vulgar applause by severer wisdom being held a scandal. If the numerousness of a train must carry it; virtue may go follow Astrea, and vice only will be worth the courting. The philosopher deservedly suspected himself of vanity, when cried up by the multitude: and discreet apprehenders will not think the better of that philosophy, which hath the common cry to vouch it. He that writ counter to the astrologer in his almanac, did with more truth foretell the weather: and he that shall write foul, in the place of the vulgars' fair; passes the juster censure. Those in the fable, who were wet with the shower of folly, hooted at the wise men that escaped it, and pointed at their actions as ridiculous; because unlike their own, that were truly so. If the major vote may cast it, wisdom and folly must exchange names; and the way to the one will be by the other. Nor is it the rabble only, which are such perverse discerners; we are now a sphere above them: I mean the το πολυ [Greek: to poly] of pretended philosophers, who judge as oddly in their way, as the rascality in theirs; and many a professed retainer to philosophy, is but an ignoramus in a suit of second notions. 'Tis such, that most revere the reliques of the adored Sophy; and, as Artemesia did those of Mausolus, passionately drink his ashes. Whether the remains of the Stagirite deserve such veneration, we'll make a brief enquiry.

            In the conduct of which design, 6 things I offer against that philosophy, viz. (1.) That 'tis merely verbal, and (2.) Litigious. That (3.) It gives no account of the phenomena. Nor (4.) Doth it make any discoveries for the use of common life. That (5.) 'Tis inconsistent with divinity, and (6.) With itself. Which charges how just they are, I think will appear in the sequel.

            To the first then. That the Aristotelian philosophy is an huddle of words and terms insignificant, hath been the censure of the wisest: and that both its basis and superstructure are chimerical; cannot be unobserved by them, that know it, and are free to judge it. To detect the verbal emptiness of this philosophy, I'll begin at the foundation of the hypothesis. For I intend but few, and those shall be signal instances.

            (1.) Therefore the Materia prima of this philosophy, shall be that of my reflections. In the consideration of which I shall need no more than the notion wherein Aristotle himself hath dressed it; for evidence of what I aim at; for, nec quid, nec quale, nec quantum, is as opposite a definition of nothing, as can be. So that if we would conceive this imaginary matter, we must deny all things of it, that we can conceive; and what remains is the thing we look for. And allowing all which its assertors assign it, viz. quantity interminate; 'tis still but an empty extended capacity, and therefore at the best, but like that space, which we imagine was before the beginning of time, and will be after it. 'Tis easy to draw a parallelism between that ancient, and this more modern, nothing; and in all things to make good its resemblance to that commentitious inanity. The Peripatetic matter is a pure unactuated power: and this conceited vacuum a mere receptibility. Matter is supposed indeterminate: and space is so, the pretended first matter is capable of all forms: and the imaginary space is receptive of any body. Matter cannot naturally subsist uninformed: and nature avoids vacuity in space. The matter is ingenerate, and beyond corruption: and the space was before, and will be after either. The matter in all things is but one: and the space most uniform. Thus the foundation-principle of Peripateticism is exactly parallel to an acknowledged nothing: and their agreement in essential characters makes rather an identity than a parity; but that imaginary space hath more to plead for its reality, than the matter hath, and in this consists the greatest dissimilitude. For that hath no dependence on the bodies which possess it; but was before them, and will survive them: whereas this essentially relies on the form and cannot subsist without it. Which yet, methinks, is little better than an absurdity: that the cause should be an eleemosynary for its subsistence to its effect, and a nature posterior to, and dependent on itself. This dependentia a posteriori, though in a diverse way of causality, my reason could never away with: yea, a sectator of this philosophy, Oviedo a Spanish Jesuit, hath effectually impugned it. So then there's nothing real, answering this imaginary Proteus; and Materia prima hath as much of being, as Mons aureus.

            (2.) The Peripatetic forms are as obnoxious, and on the same account liable to our reflections as the former principle. I'll not spend time in an industrious confutation of what the votaries of that philosophy themselves can scarce tell what to make of: and the subject being dry and less suitable to those more mercurial tempers for whom I intend these papers: I'll only pass a reflection on it, and proceed to what may be less importunate.

            The form then, according to this hypothesis, is a new substance produced in all generations to actuate the matter and passive principle; out of whose power 'tis said to be educed. And were it supposed to contain anything of the form pre-existing in it, as the seed of the being to be produced; 'twere then sense to say, it was educed from it; but by educing, the affirmers only mean a producing in it, with a subjective dependence on its recipient: a worthy signification of eduction; which answers not the question whence 'tis derived, but into what it is received. The question is of the terminus a quo, and the answer of the subject. So that all that can be made of this power of the matter, is merely a receptive capacity: and we may as well affirm that the world was educed out of the power of the imaginary space; and give that as a sufficient account of its original. And in this language, to grow rich were to educe money out of the power of the pocket. Wherefore, notwithstanding this imaginary eduction out of the power of the matter; we are still to seek whether these forms be produced out of something, or nothing; either of which supposed, bids defiance to the hypothesis. For according to the first, all possible forms will be actually latent in the matter; which is contrary to the stream of the Peripatetic doctors. And the latter as opposite to their master's ex nihilo nihil, and he acknowledged no creation.

            (3.) The third principle of bodies according to the Aristotelian philosophy is privation; concerning which, I'll add nothing but the words of the excellent Lord Montaigne, qu'est il plus vain que de faire l'inanité mesme, cause de la production des choses? La privation c'est une negative: de quel humeur en a-il peu faire la cause & origine des choses qui sont?

            But yet further, to give an hint more of the verbosities of this philosophy, a short view of a definition or two will be sufficient evidence; which, though in Greek or Latin they amuse us; yet a translation unmasks them. And if we make them speak English, the cheat is transparent.

            Light is ΕΝΕΡΓΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΦΑΝΟΥ [Greek:ENERGIA TOY DIAPHANOY] saith that philosophy: in English, the act of a perspicuous body. Sure Aristotle here transgressed his own topics, and if this definition be clearer and more known than the thing defined, midnight may vie for conspicuity with noon. Is not light more known than this insignificant energy? And what's a diaphanous body, but the light's medium the air? So that light is the act of the air. And if Lux be Umbra Dei, this definition is Umbra Lucis. Thus is light darkened by an illustration, and the symbol of evidence, clothed in the livery of midnight: as if light were best seen by darkness, as light inaccessible is best known by ignorance.

            Again (2.) That motion is ΕΝΤΕΛΕΧΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΟΝΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΔΥΝΑΜΕΙ [Greek: ENTELECHIA TOY ONTOS TOY DYNAMEI] &c. Is a definition of Aristotle's, and as culpable as the former. For, by the most favourable interpretation of that unintelligible entelechy: it is but, an act of a-being in power, as it is in power; the construing of which into palpable sense or meaning would pose a critic. Sure that definition is not very conspicuous, whose genus puzzled the Devil. The philosopher that proved motion by walking, did in that action better define it: and that puzzled candidate, who being asked what a circle was, described it by the rotation of his hand; gave an account more satisfying. In some things we must indeed give an allowance for words of art: but in defining obvious appearances, we are to use what is most plain and easy; that the mind be not misled by amphibologies, or ill conceived notions, into fallacious deductions: which whether it be not the method of Peripatetic philosophy let the indifferent determine. To give an account of all the insignificancies, and verbal nothings of this philosophy, would be almost to transcribe it. 'Tis a philosophy, that makes most accurate inspections into the creatures of the brain; and gives the exactest topography of the extramundane spaces. Like our late polititians, it makes discoveries, and their objects too; and deals in beings, that owe nothing to the primitive fiat. The same undivided essence, from the several circumstances of its being and operations, is here multiplied into legion, and emproved to a number of smaller entities; and these again into as many modes and insignificant formalities. What a number of words here have nothing answering them? And as many are imposed at random. To wrest names from their known meaning to senses most alien, and to darken speech by words without knowledge; are none of the most inconsiderable faults of this philosophy: to reckon them in their particular instances, would puzzle Archimedes. Now hence the genuine ideas of the mind are adulterate: and the things themselves lost in a crowd of names, and intentional nothings. Besides, these verbosities emasculate the understanding; and render it slight and frivolous, as its objects.

            Methinks, the late voluminous Jesuits, those Laplanders of Peripateticism, do but subtly trifle, and their philosophic understandings are much like his, who spent his time in darting cummin-seed through the eye of a needle. One would think they were impregnated, as are the mares in Cappadocia; they are big of words: their tedious volumes have the tympany, and bring forth nought but wind, and vapour. To me, a cursus philosophicus, is but an impertinency in folio; and the studying them a laborious idleness. 'Tis here, that things are crumbled into notional atoms; and the substance evaporated into an imaginary Ether. The intellect that can feed on this air, is a chameleon; and a mere inflated skin. From this stock grew school-divinity, which is but Peripateticism in a theological livery. A school-man is the ghost of the Stagirite, in a body of condensed air: and Thomas but Aristotle sainted.

 

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