Ancient vs Modern Philosophers

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Scientific knowledge changes, grows, improves, expands, as a result of refinements in and accretions to the special experience — the observational data — on which science as an investigative mode of inquiry must rely. Philosophical knowledge is not subject to the same conditions of change or growth. Common experience, or more precisely, the general lineaments or common core of that experience, which suffices for the philosopher, remains relatively constant over the ages.

Descartes and Hobbes in the seventeenth century, Locke, Hume, and Kant in the eighteenth century, and Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century enjoy no greater advantages in this respect than Plato and Aristotle in antiquity or than Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Roger Bacon in the Middle Ages.

Modern philosophy, as I see it, got off to a very bad start — with Hobbes and Locke in England, and with Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz on the Continent. Each of these thinkers acted as if he had no predecessors worth consulting, as if he were starting with a clean slate to construct for the first time the whole of philosophical knowledge.

We cannot find in their writings the slightest evidence of their sharing Aristotle’s insight that no man by himself is able to attain the truth adequately, although collectively men do not fail to amass a considerable amount; nor do they ever manifest the slightest trace of a willingness to call into council the views of their predecessors in order to profit from whatever is sound in their thought and to avoid their errors. On the contrary, without anything like a careful, critical examination of the views of their predecessors, these modern thinkers issue blanket repudiations of the past as a repository of errors. The discovery of philosophical truth begins with themselves.

Proceeding, therefore, in ignorance or misunderstanding of truths that could have been found in the funded tradition of almost two thousand years of Western thought, these modern philosophers made crucial mistakes in their points of departure and in their initial postulates. The commission of these errors can be explained in part by antagonism toward the past, and even contempt for it.

The explanation of the antagonism lies in the character of the teachers under whom these modern philosophers studied in their youth. These teachers did not pass on the philosophical tradition as a living thing by recourse to the writings of the great philosophers of the past. They did not read and comment on the works of Aristotle, for example, as the great teachers of the thirteenth century did.

Instead, the decadent scholastics who occupied teaching posts in the universities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fossilized the tradition by presenting it in a deadly, dogmatic fashion, using a jargon that concealed, rather than conveyed, the insights it contained. Their lectures must have been as wooden and uninspiring as most textbooks or manuals are; their examinations must have called for a verbal parroting of the letter of ancient doctrines rather than for an understanding of their spirit.

It is no wonder that early modern thinkers, thus mistaught, recoiled. Their repugnance, though certainly explicable, may not be wholly pardonable, for they could have repaired the damage by turning to the texts of Aristotle or Aquinas in their mature years and by reading them perceptively and critically.

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