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The Decline and Fall of Ancient Empiricism

Condorcet's Progress of the Human Mind

Condorcet believed secular sectarianism was the primary cause of ancient philosophy’s decline, but Christian dogmatism sure didn’t help.

Editor’s Note

Despite his near-exclusive focus on the West, Condorcet’s history is a particular type of world history. For this revolutionary philosophe, history really was the history of ideas. Progress was not the result of nation-states or churches benevolently guiding humanity forward. It was not the creation of armies—they tended merely to destroy; nor was it the child of schools and sects of philosophers and mystics. Condorcet’s vision of civilization and epochal change was purely and entirely based on the accumulated knowledge of generations. The faster information could be obtained through the senses and analyzed with reason, the wealthier and happier people became. Everywhere and always, individuals spend their time applying means to fulfill individual ends, but the acquisition of new scientific, empirical knowledge has been relatively rare until the last few centuries.

In the ancient Greeks—especially pioneers of both empiricism and skepticism like Aristotle—Condorcet sees the crest of early learning. And though the Greeks, too, were subject to decline, their insights became the basis for centuries of technological innovation and scientific investigation while the Greek states declined and the Roman state flourished. Philosophers separated themselves into schools, and schools quickly became institutions with fully attached dogmas. Mystical Neo-Platonism replaced diligently empirical Aristotelianism, and Roman declined meshed well with early Christianity. Condorcet laments the calcification of ancient knowledge and the concomitant rise of an explicitly anti-scientific religion from the Roman frontier. He writes that “The spirit of the new sect was better suited to periods of decline and misfortune,” and dogmatism was so important to them that “Its chiefs, in spite of their impostures and their vices, were enthusiasts ready to suffer death for their doctrine.” Athens executed Socrates for having advanced a skeptical lifestyle, and the new Christians seemed poised to continue the tradition. Condorcet concludes that “Contempt for human sciences was one of the first features of Christianity.” Had only there been a printing press, learning may have continued accumulating despite the triumph of dogma, but that change was still a millenium away.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


M. de Condorcet


Progress of the Sciences, from their Division to their Decline.

Plato was still living when Aristotle, his disciple, opened, in Athens itself, a school, the rival of that of his master.

He not only embraced all the sciences, but applied the method observed in philosophy to the arts of eloquence and poetry. He was the first whose daring genius conceived the propriety of extending this method to every thing attainable by human intelligence; since, as this intelligence exercised in all cases the same faculties, it ought invariably to be governed by the same laws.

The more comprehensive was the plan he formed, the more he felt the necessity of separating the different parts of it, and of fixing with greater precision the limits of each. And from this epoch the majority of philosophers, and even whole sects, are seen consining [sic] their attention to some only of those parts.

The mathematical and physical sciences formed of themselves a grand division. As they were founded upon calculation and the observance of the phenomena of nature, as what they taught was independent of the opinions which embroiled the sects, they separated themselves from philosophy, over which these sects still reigned. They accordingly became the study of the learned, who had the wisdom almost universally to keep aloof from the disputes of the schools, which were conducted in a manner calculated rather to promote the transient fame of the professors, than aid the progress of philosophy itself. And soon this word ceased to be employed, except for the purpose of expressing the general principles of the system of the world, metaphysics, logic, and morals, of which the science of politics formed a part.

Fortunately the era of this division preceded the period in which Greece, after long struggles, was destined to lose her freedom. The sciences found, in the capital of Egypt, an asylum, which, by the despots who governed it, would probably have been refused to philosophy. But as the princes derived no inconsiderable portion of their riches and power from the united commerce of the Mediterranean and Asiatic seas, it was their interest to encourage sciences useful to navigation and commerce.

Accordingly, they escaped the speedy decline that was soon experienced by philosophy, the splendour of which vanished with the departure of liberty. The tyranny of the Romans, so regardless of the progress of knowledge, did not extend to Egypt till a late period, and when the town of Alexandria was become necessary to the subsistence of Rome. By its population, its wealth, the great influx of strangers, the establishments formed by the Ptolemies, and which the conquerors did not give themselves the trouble to destroy, this town, the centre of commerce, and already possessing wherewith to be the metropolis of the sciences, was sufficient of itself to the preservation of their sacred flame.

The sect of Academics, in which, from its origin, the mathematics had been cultivated, and which confined its philosophical instruction almost entirely to proving the utility of doubt, and ascertaining the narrow limits of certainty, must of course have been a sect of men of learning; and as the doctrine had nothing in it calculated to give alarm to despots, it flourished in the school of Alexandria.

The theory of conic sections, with the method of employing it, whether for the constructing of geometrical loci, or for the solution of problems, and the discovery of some other curves, extended the limits, hitherto so narrow, of the science of geometry.

Archimedes discovered the quadrature of the parabola, and measured the surface of the sphere. These were the first advances in the theory of limits which determines the ultimate value of a quantity, or, in other words, the value to which the quantity in an infinite progression incessantly approaches, but never attains; that theory which teaches how to determine the ratios of evanescent quantities, and by other processes to deduce from these ratios the propositions of finite magnitudes: in a word, that very calculus which the moderns, with more pride than justice, have termed the calculus of infinities. It was Archimedes who first determined the proportion of the diameter of a circle to its circumference in numbers nearly true; who taught us how to obtain values approaching nearer and nearer to accuracy, and made known the methods of approximation, that happy remedy for the defects of the known methods, and frequently of the science itself.

He may, in some respect, be considered as the father of rational or theoretical mechanics. To him we are indebted for the theory of the lever, as well as the discovery of that principle of hydrostatics, that a body immersed in any fluid, loses a portion of its weight equal to the mass of fluid it has displaced.

The screw that bears his name, his burning glasses, the prodigies of the siege of Syracuse, attest his skill in the art of constructing mechanical instruments, which the learned had neglected, because the principles of the theory at that time known were inadequate to the attainment. These grand discoveries, these new sciences, place Archimedes among these happy geniuses whose life forms an epoch in the history of man, and whose existence may be considered as one of the munificent gifts of nature.

It is in the school of Alexandria that we find the first traces of algebra; that is to say, of the calculation of quantities considered simply as such. The nature of the problems proposed and resolved in the work of Diophantus, made it necessary that numbers should be considered as having a general value, undetermined in their particular relations, and subject only to certain conditions.

But this science had not then, as at present, its appropriate signs, methods and technical operations. The general value of quantities was represented by words; and it was only by means of a series of reasonings that the solution of problems was discovered and developed.

The observations of the Chaldeans, transmitted to Aristotle by Alexander, accelerated the progress of astronomy. The most brilliant portion of them was due to the genius of Hipparchus. And if, after him in astronomy, as after Archimedes in geometry and mechanics, we no longer perceive those discoveries and acquisitions which change, as it were, the whole face of a science, they yet for a long time continued to improve, expand, and enrich themselves by the truths of detail.

In his history of animals, Aristotle had laid down the principles and furnished an excellent model for observing with accuracy, and describing according to system, the objects of nature, as well as for classing those observations, and catching with readiness the general results which they exhibited. The history of plants and of minerals were treated afterwards by others, but with inferior precision, and with views less extensive and less philosophical.

The progress of anatomy was very slow, not only because religious prejudices would not admit of the dissection of dead bodies, but from the vulgar opinion which regarded the touch of such bodies as a sort of moral defilement.

The medical system of Hippocrates was nothing more than a science of observation, which as yet had led only to empirical methods. The spirit of sect, and the love of hypothetical positions soon infected it. But if the number of errors was greater than that of new truths, if the prejudices or systems of the practitioners did more harm than their observations were calculated to do good, yet it cannot be denied that the science made during this epoch, a real, though very slight progress.

Aristotle introduced into natural philosophy neither the accuracy nor the prudent reserve which characterise his history of animals. He paid tribute to the customs of his age, to the taste of the schools, by disfiguring it with those hypothetical data, which, from their vague nature, explain every thing with a sort of readiness, because they are able to explain nothing with precision.

Besides, observation alone was not enough; experiments were necessary: these demanded instruments; and it appears that at that time men had not sufficiently collected facts, had not examined them with the proper minuteness, to feel the want, to conceive the idea of this mode of interrogating nature, and obliging her to answer us.

At this epoch also, the history of the progress of natural philosophy is confined to a small number of truths, acquired by chance, and derived from observations furnished by the practice of the arts, rather than from the researches of the learned. Hydraulics, and especially optics, present us with a harvest somewhat less sterile; but these also consist rather of facts, which were remarked because they fell in the way and forced attention, than of theories or physical laws discovered by experiments, or obtained by meditation and study…

The academy, the lyceum, the portico, the gardens of Epicurus, were the nursery and principal school of the four sects that disputed the empire of philosophy.

It was taught in the academy, that every thing is doubtful; that man can attain, as to any object, neither absolute certainty nor a true comprehension; in fine, and it was difficult to go farther, that he could not be sure of this very impossibility of knowing any thing, and that it was proper to doubt even of the necessity of doubting.

The opinions of different philosophers, were explained, defended and opposed in this school, but merely as hypotheses calculated to exercise the mind and illustrate more fully, by the uncertainty which accompanied these disputes, the vanity of human knowledge and absurdity of the dogmatical confidence of the other sects.

This doctrine, if it go no farther than to discountenance reasoning upon words to which we can affix no clear and precise ideas; than to proportion our belief in any proposition to the degree of probability it bears; than to ascertain, as to every species of knowledge, the bounds of certainty we are able to acquire,—this scepticism is then rational; but when it extends to demonstrated truths; when it attacks the principles of morality, it becomes either weakness or insanity; and such is the extreme into which the sophists have fallen, who succeeded in the academy the first disciples of Plato…

Aristotle was no better skilled than his master in the art of analysing ideas; that is, of ascending step by step to the most simple ideas that have entered into their combination, of observing the formation of these simple ideas themselves, of following in these operations the regular procedure of the mind, and developement of its faculties.

His metaphysics, like those of the other philosophers, consisted of a vague doctrine, founded sometimes upon an abuse of words, and sometimes upon mere hypotheses.

To him, however, we owe that important truth, that first step in the science of the human mind, that our ideas, even such as are most abstract, most strictly intellectual, so to speak, have their origin in our sensations. But this truth he failed to support by any demonstration. It was rather the intuitive perception of a man of genius, than the result of a series of observations accurately analysed, and systematically combined, in order to derive from them some general truth. Accordingly, this germ, cast in an ungrateful soil, produced no useful fruit till after a period of more than twenty centuries.

Aristotle, in his dialectics, having reduced all demonstrations to a train of arguments drawn up in a syllogistical form, and then divided all imaginable propositions under four heads, teaches us to discover, among the possible combinations of propositions of these four classes in collections of three and three, those which answer to the nature of conclusive syllogisms, and may be admitted without apprehension. In this way we may judge of the cogency or weakness of an argument, merely by knowing to what class it belongs: and thus the art of right reasoning is subjected in some measure to technical rules.

This ingenious idea has hitherto remained useless; but perhaps it may one day become the leading steps toward a perfection which the art of reasoning and discussion seems still to expect.

Every virtue, according to Aristotle, is placed between two vices, of which one is its defect, and the other its excess; it is only, as it were, one of those natural inclinations which reason equally forbids us too strongly to resist, and too slavishly to obey…

The stoics made virtue and happiness consist in the possession of a soul alike insensible to pleasure and to pain, free from all the passions, superior to every fear, every weakness, knowing no absolute good but virtue, no real evil but remorse. They believed that man was capable of raising himself to this elevation, if he possessed a strong and constant desire of doing so; and that then, independent of fortune, always master of himself, he was equally inaccessable to vice and calamity.

An individual mind animates the world: it is present in every thing, if it be not every thing, if there exist any other thing than itself. The souls of human beings are emanations of it. That of the sage, who has not defiled the purity of his origin, is re-united, at the instant of death, to this universal spirit. Accordingly, to the sage, death would be a blessing, if, submissive to nature, hardened against what vulgar men call evils, it was not more glorious in him to regard it with indifference.

By Epicurus, happiness is placed in the enjoyment of pleasure, and in freedom from pain. Virtue, according to him, consists in following the natural inclinations of the heart, at the same time taking care to purify and direct them. The practice of temperance, which prevents pain, and, by preserving our faculties in their full force, secures all the enjoyments that nature has provided for us; the care to guard ourselves against hateful and violent passions that torment and rend the soul delivered up to their bitterness and fury; the farther care to cultivate, on the contrary, the mild and tender affections; to be frugal of pleasures that flow from benevolence; to preserve the soul in purity, that we may avoid the shame and remorse which punish vice, and enjoy the delicious sentiment that is the reward of laudable actions: such is the road that conducts at once both to happiness and virtue.

Epicurus regarded the universe only as a collection of atoms, the different combinations of which were subjected to necessary laws. The human soul was itself one of those combinations. The atoms which composed it united when the body began to live, were dispersed at the moment of death, to unite themselves again to the common mass, and enter into new combinations.

Unwilling too violently to shock popular prejudices, he admitted of Gods; but, indifferent to the actions of men, strangers to the order of the universe, and governed, like other beings, by the general laws of its mechanism, they were a sort of excrescence of the system.

Men of morose, proud, and unjust characters, screened themselves under the mask of stoicism, while voluptuous and corrupt men frequently stole into the gardens of Epicurus. Some calumniated the principles of the Epicureans, who were accused of placing the sovereign good in the gratification of sensual appetites. Others turned into ridicule the pretensions of the sage Zeno, who, whether a slave at the mill, or tormented with the gout, was equally happy, free, and independent.

The philosophy that pretended to soar above nature, and that which wished only to obey nature; the morality which acknowledged no other good than virtue, and that which placed happiness in the indulgence of the natural inclinations, led to the same practical consequences, though departing from such opposite principles, and holding so contrary a language. This resemblance between the moral precepts of all systems of religion, and all sects of philosophy, would be sufficient to prove that they have a foundation independent of the dogmas of those religions, or the principles of those sects; that it is in the moral constitution of man we must seek the basis of his duties, the origin of his ideas of justice and virtue: a truth which the sect of Epicureans approached more nearly than any other; and no circumstance perhaps so much contributed to draw upon it the enmity of all classes of hypocrites with whom morality was no commercial object of which they ambitiously contended for the monopoly.

The fall of the Greek republics involved that of the political sciences. After Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, they almost ceased to be included in the system of philosophy.

But it is time to speak of an event that changed the lot of a considerable part of the world, and exercised on the progress of the mind an influence that has reached even to ourselves.

If we except India and China, the city of Rome had extended its empire over every nation in which human intelligence had risen above the weakness of its earliest infancy.

It gave laws to all the countries into which the Greeks had introduced their language, their sciences, and their philosophy; and these nations, held by a chain which victory had fastened to the foot of the capitol, no longer existed but by the will of Rome, and for the passions of its chiefs.

A true picture of the constitution of this sovereign city will not be foreign to the object of this work. We shall there see the origin of hereditary patrician rank, and the artful means that were adopted to give it greater stability and force, by rendering it less odious; we shall there see a people inured to arms, but never employing them in domestic dissentions; uniting real power to legal authority, yet scarcely defending themselves against a haughty senate, that, while it rivetted the chains of superstition, dazzled them at the same time with the splendor of their victories; a great nation, the sport in turn both of its tyrants and its defenders, and the patient dupe, for four centuries, of a mode of taking votes, absurd but consecrated.

We shall see this constitution, made for a single city, change its nature without changing its form, when it was necessary to extend it to a great empire unable to maintain itself but by continual wars, and presently destroyed by its own armies; and lastly, the people, the sovereign people, debased by the habit of being maintained at the expence of the public treasury, and corrupted by the bounty of the senators, selling to an individual the imaginary remains of their useless freedom.

The ambition of the Romans led them to search in Greece for masters in the art of eloquence, which in Rome was one of the roads to fortune. That taste for exclusive and resined enjoyments, that want of new pleasures, which springs from wealth and idleness, made them court others arts of the Greeks, and even the conversation of their philosophers. But the sciences, philosophy, and the arts connected with painting, were plants foreign to the soil of Rome. The avarice of the conquerors covered Italy with the master-pieces of Greece, taken by violence from the temples, from cities of which they constituted the ornament, and where they served as a consolation under slavery. But the productions of no Roman dared mix with them. Cicero, Lucretius and Seneca wrote eloquently in their language upon philosophy, but it was upon Grecian philosophy; and to reform the barbarous calendar of Numa, Cæsar was obliged to employ a mathematician from Alexandria.

Rome, long torn by the factions of ambitious generals, busied in new conquests, or agitated by civil discords, fell at last from its restless liberty into a military despotism still more restless. And where, among the chiefs that aspired to tyranny, and soon after under the despots who feared truth and equally hated both talents and virtue, were the tranquil meditations of philosophy and the sciences to find a place? Besides, the sciences and philosophy are necessarily neglected as barren and unprofitable in every country where some honourable career, leading to wealth and dignities, is open to all whom their natural inclination may dispose to study: and such at Rome was that of jurisprudence.

When laws, as in the east, are allied to religion, the right of interpreting them becomes one of the strongest supports of sacerdotal tyranny. In Greece they had constituted a part of the code given to each city by its respective legislator, who had assimilated them to the spirit of the constitution and government which he established. They experienced but few alterations. The magistrates frequently abused them, and individual instances of injustice were not less frequent; but the vices of the laws never extended in Greece to a regular system of robbery, reduced to the cold forms of calculation. In Rome, where for a long time no other authority was known but the tradition of customs, where the judges declared every year by what principles disputes would be decided during the continuance of their magistracy, where the first written laws were a compilation from the Greek laws, drawn up by the decemvirs, more anxious to preserve their power than to honour it by presenting a sound code of legislation: in Rome, where, after that period, laws, dictated at one time by the party of the senate, and at another by the party of the people, succeeded each other with rapidity, and were incessantly either destroyed or confirmed, meliorated or aggravated by new declarations, the multiplicity, the complication and the obscurity of the laws, an inevitable consequence of the fluctuation of the language, soon made of this study a science apart. The senate, taking advantage of the respect of the people for the ancient institutions, soon felt that the privilege of interpreting laws was nearly equivalent to that of making new ones; and accordingly this body abounded with lawyers. Their power survived that of the senate itself: it increased under the emperors, because it is necessarily greater as the code of legislation becomes more anomalous and uncertain.

Jurisprudence then is the only new science for which we are indebted to the Romans…[and] while we are indebted to their code for a small quantity of truths, it has furnished us with a far greater portion of tyrannical prejudices.

The mildness of the penal laws, under the republic, is worthy our notice. They in a manner rendered sacred the blood of a Roman citizen…Accordingly, stopping at the times of the Gracchi, in no country have storms so numerous and violent been attended with so few crimes, or cost so little blood.

No work of the Romans upon the subject of politics has descended to us. That of Cicero upon laws was probably but an embellished extract from the books of the Greeks…

Almost every religion of the empire had been national; but they all possessed strong lines of resemblance, and is a manner a family likeness. No metaphysical doctrines; many strange ceremonies, of the meaning of which the people, and frequently the priests, were ignorant; an absurd mythology, in which the multitude read the marvellous history of its Gods only, but which men better enlightened suspected to be an allegory of doctrines more sublime; bloody sacrifices; idols representing Gods, and of which some possessed a celestial virtue; pontiffs devoted to the worship of each divinity, but without forming a political corps, and even without being united in a religious communion; oracular powers attached to certain temples, residing in certain statues; and lastly, mysteries, which their hierophants never revealed without imposing an inviolable law of secrecy. These were the features of resemblance.

Let us add, that the priests, arbiters of the religious conscience, had presumed to assert no claim upon the moral conscience; that they directed the practice of worship, but not the actions of private life. They sold oracles and auguries to political powers; they could precipitate nations into war; they could dictate to them crimes; but they exercised no influence either over the government or the laws.

When the different nations, subjects now of the same empire, enjoyed an habitual intercourse, and knowledge had every where made nearly an equal progress, it was soon discovered, by well-informed minds, that all this multifarious worship was that of one only God, of whom the numerous divinities, the immediate objects of popular adoration, were but the modifications or the ministers.

Meanwhile, among the Gauls, and in some cantons of the east, the Romans had found religions of another kind. There the priests were the arbiters of morality; and virtue consisted in obedience to a God, of whom they called themselves the sole interpreters. Their power extended over the whole man; the temple and the country were confounded: without being previously an adorer of Jehova, or Œsus, it was impossible to be a citizen or subject of the empire; and the priests determined to what human laws their God exacted obedience.

These religions were calculated to wound the pride of the masters of the world. That of the Gauls was too powerful for them not to seek immediately its destruction. The Jewish nation was even dispersed. But the vigilance of government either disdained, or else was unable to reach, the obscure sects that secretly formed themselves out of the wreck of the old systems of worship…

Twenty Egyptian and Jewish sects, united their forces against the religion of the empire, but contending against each other with equal fury, were lost at length in the religion of Jesus. From their wreck were composed a history, a creed, a ritual, and a system of morality, to which by degrees the mass of these fanatics attached themselves.

They all believed in a Christ, a Messiah sent from God to restore the human race. This was the fundamental doctrine of every sect that attempted to raise itself upon the ruins of the ancient sects. They disputed respecting the time and place of his appearance, and his mortal name: but a prophet, said to have started up in Palestine, in the reign of Tiberius, eclipsed all the other expected prophets, and the new fanatics rallied under the standard of the son of Mary.

In proportion as the empire weakened, the progress of this religion of Christ became more rapid. The degraded state of the ancient conquerors of the world extended to their Gods, who, after presiding in their victories, were no longer regarded than as the impotent witnesses of their defeat. The spirit of the new sect was better suited to periods of decline and misfortune. Its chiefs, in spite of their impostures and their vices, were enthusiasts ready to suffer death for their doctrine…

Contempt for human sciences was one of the first features of Christianity. It had to avenge itself of the outrages of philosophy; it feared that spirit of investigation and doubt, that confidence of man in his own reason, the pest alike of all religious creeds. The light of the natural sciences was even odious to it, and was regarded with a suspicious eye, as being a dangerous enemy to the success of miracles: and there is no religion that does not oblige its sectaries to swallow some physical absurdities. The triumph of Christianity was thus the signal of the entire decline both of the sciences and of philosophy.

Had the art of printing been known, the sciences would have been able to preserve their ground; but the existing manuscripts of any particular book were few in number; and to procure works that might form the entire body of a science, required cares, and often journies and an expence to which the rich only were competent. It was easy for the ruling party to suppress the appearance of books which shocked its prejudices, or unmasked its impostures. An incursion of barbarians might, in one day, deprive forever a whole country of the means of knowledge. The destruction of a single manuscript was often an irreparable and universal loss…

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