I have decked my soundproof booth with boughs of holly and, of course, poinsettia or, some say, poin-settia. Though it is actually pronounced pon-see-ha. Did you know that it is a Mexican plant? It is. Named for the ambassador to Mexico, James Poinsett, it was brought to our country in 1828 and quickly became favored over its predecessor, the Christ-odendron.
Some might argue we've ended up with an inferior, less godly plant. But in fact, history shows us so little of Christmas is actually Christian. Most scholars now agree, after all, that Jesus could not have been born on December 25, pointing out that shepherds did not tend their flocks in winter, and thus, could not possibly have seen the star of Bethlehem. And of course, there is no way that Christ was a Capricorn.
Take this mistletoe above my head, for example. It was the symbol of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love. And it was equally prized by ancient druids as a bane against witchcraft and lightening, which I find especially comforting, as both are out to get me. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the Christmas tree itself was generally accepted into the American home.
The tradition originates in Germany. Originally a pagan custom, for many years German Christmas trees were dark or else lit only by natural luminous mosses. It was Martin Luther, the great reformer, who first suggested draping the dry branches with lighted candles, presumably because he felt the custom was not sufficiently dangerous for the thrill-happy protestants.
The circulation of the blood was long since known; but the disposition of the vessels which conveyed the chyle to mix with it, and repair its losses; the existence of a gastric fluid which disposes the elements to the decomposition necessary to separate from organised matter, that portion which is proper to become assimilated with the living fluids; the changes undergone by the various parts and organs in the interval between conception and birth, and afterwards during the different ages of life; the distinction between the parts possessing sensibility and those in which irritability only resides, a property discovered by Haller, and common to almost every organic substance: these facts are the whole of what physiology has been enabled to discover, by indubitable observations, during this brilliant epoch; and these important truths may serve as an apology for the numerous explanations, mechanical, chemical, and organical, which have succeeded each other, and loaded this science with hypotheses destructive to its progress, and dangerous when used as the ground of medical practice. To the outline of the sciences we may add that of the arts, which, being founded upon them, have advanced with greater certainty, and broken the shackles of custom and common practice, which heretofore impeded their progress.
We may shew the influence which the progress of mechanics, of astronomy, of optics, and of the art of measuring time, has exercised on the art of constructing, moving, and directing vessels at sea. We may shew how greatly an increase of the number of observers, and a greater degree of accuracy in the astronomical determinations of positions, and in topographical methods, have at last produced an acquaintance with the surface of the globe, of which so little was known at the end of the last century.
How greatly the mechanic arts, properly so called, have given perfection to the processes of art in constructing instruments and machines in the practice of trade, and these last have no less added force to rational mechanism and philosophy. These arts are also greatly indebted to the employment of first movers already known, with less of expence and loss, as well as to the invention of new principles of motion.
We have beheld architecture extend its researches into the science of equilibriums and the theory of fluids, for the means of giving the most commodious and least expensive form to arches, without fear of altering their solidity; and to oppose against the effort of water a resistance computed with greater certainty; to direct the course of that fluid, and to employ it in canals with greater skill and success.
We have beheld the arts dependent on chymistry enriched with new processes; the ancient methods have been simplified, and cleared from useless or noxious substances, and from absurd or imperfect practices introduced from former rude trials; means have been invented to avert those frequently terrible dangers to which workmen were exposed. Thus it is that the application of science has secured to us more of riches and enjoyment, with much less of painful sacrifice or of regret.
In the mean time, chemistry, botany, and natural history, have very much enlightened the economical arts, and the culture of vegetables destined to supply our wants; such as the art of supporting, multiplying, and preserving domestic animals; the bringing their races to perfection, and meliorating their products; the art of preparing and preserving the productions of the earth, or those articles which are of animal product.
Surgery and pharmacy have become almost new arts, from the period when anatomy and chemistry have offered them more enlightened and more certain direction.
The art of medicine, for in its practice it must be considered as an art, is by this means delivered at least of its false theories, its pedantic jargon, its destructive course of practice, and the servile submission to the authority of men, or the doctrine of colleges; it is taught to depend only on experience. The means of this art have become multiplied, and their combination and application better known; and though it may be admitted that in some parts its progress is merely of a negative kind, that is to say, in the destruction of dangerous practices and hurtful prejudices, yet the new methods of studying chemical medicine, and of combining observations, give us reason to expect more real and certain advances.
We may endeavour more especially to trace that practice of genius in the sciences which at one time descends from an abstract and profound theory to learned and delicate applications; at another, simplifying its means, and proportioning them to its wants, concludes by spreading its advantages through the most ordinary practices; and at others again being rouzed by the wants of this same course of art, it plunges into the most remote speculations, in search of resources which the ordinary state of our knowledge must have refused.
We may remark that those declamations which are made against the utility of theories, even in the most simple arts, have never shewn any thing but the ignorance of the declaimers. We may prove that it is not to the profundity of these theories, but, on the contrary, to their imperfection, that we ought to attribute the inutility or unhappy effects of so many useless applications.
These observations will lead us to one general truth, that in all the arts the results of theory are necessarily modified in practice; that certain sources of inaccuracy exist, which are really inevitable, of which our aim should be to render the effect insensible, without indulging the chimerical hope of removing them; that a great number of data relative to our wants, our means, our time, and our expences which are necessarily overlooked in the theory, must enter into the relative problem of immediate and real practice; and that, lastly by introducing these requisites with that skill which truly constitutes the genius of the practical man, we may at the same time go beyond the narrow limits wherein prejudice against theory threatens to detain the arts, and prevent those errors into which an improper use of theory might lead us.
Those sciences which are remote from each other, cannot be extended without bringing them nearer, and forming points of contact between them.
The heavens are enriched for the man of science with new stars, and he applies his knowledge to determine and foretel with accuracy their positions and movements. Natural philosophy, gradually delivered from the vague explanations of Descartes, in the same manner as it before was disembarrassed from the absurdities of the schools, is now nothing more than the art of interrogating nature by experiment, for the parpose of afterwards deducing more general facts by computation.
The weight of the air is known and measured: it is known that the transmission of light is not instantancous; its velocity is determined, with the effects which must result from that velocity, as to the apparent position of the celestial bodies; and the decomposition of the solar rays into others of different refrangibility and colour. The rainbow is explained, and the methods of causing its colours to be produced or to disappear are subjected to calculation. Electricity, formerly considered as the property of certain substances only, is now known to be one of the most general phenomena in the universe. The cause of thunder is no longer a secret; Franklin has taught the artist to change its course, and direct it at pleasure. New instruments are employed to measure the variations of weight and humidity in the atmosphere, and the temperature of all bodies. A new science, under the name of meteorology, teaches us to know, and sometimes to foretel, the atmospheric appearances of which it will hereafter disclose to us the unknown laws.
While we present a sketch of these discoveries, we may remark how much the methods which have directed philosophers in their researches are simplified and brought to perfection; how greatly the art of making experiments, and of constructing instruments, has successively become more accurate; so that philosophy is not only enriched every day with new truths, but the truths already known have been more exactly ascertained; so that not only an immense mass of new facts have been observed and analysed, but the whole has been submitted in detail to methods of greater strictness.
Natural philosophy has been obliged to combat with the prejudices of the schools, and the attraction of general hypotheses, so seducing to indolence. Other obstacles retarded the progress of chemistry. It was imagined that this science ought to afford the secret of making gold, and that of rendering man immortal.
The effect of great interests, is to render man superstitious. It was not supposed that such promises, which flatter the two strongest passions of vulgar minds, and besides rouse that of acquiring glory, could be accomplished by ordinary means; and every thing which credulity or folly could ever invent of extravagance, seemed to unite in the minds of chemists.
But these chimeras gradually gave place to the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, which in its turn gave place to a chemistry truly experimental. The observation of those facts which accompany the mutual composition and decomposition of bodies, the research into the laws of these operations, with the analysis of substances into elements of greater simplicity, acquire a degree of precision and strictness ever increasing.
But to these advances of chemistry we must add others, which embrace the whole system of the science, and rather by extending the methods than immediately increasing the mass of truths, foretel and prepare a revolution of the happiest kind. Such has been the discovery of new means of confining and examining those elastic fluids, which formerly were suffered to escape; a discovery which, by permitting us to operate upon an entire class of new principles, and upon those already known, reduced to a state which escaped our researches, and by adding an element the more to almost every combination, has changed, as it were, the whole system of chemistry. Such has beenthe formation of a language, in which the names denoting substances sometimes express the resemblance or differences of those which have a common element, and sometimes the class to which they belong. To these advantages we may add the use of a scientific method, wherein these substances are represented by characters analytically combined, and moreover capable of expressing the most common operations and the general laws of affinity. And, again, this science is enriched by the use of all the means and all the instruments which philosophers have applied to compute with the utmost rigor the results of experiment; and lastly, by the application of the mathematics to the phenomena of chrystalization, and to the laws according to which the elements of certain bodies effect in their combination regular and constant forms.
Men who long had possessed no other knowledge than that of explaining by superstitious or philosophical reveries the formation of the earth, before they endeavoured to become acquainted with its parts, have at last perceived the necessity of studying with the most scrupulous attention the surface of the ground, the internal parts of the earth into which necessity has urged men to penetrate, the substances there found, their fortuitous or regular distribution, and the disposition of the masses they have formed by their union. They have learned to ascertain the effects of the slow and long continued action of the waters of the sea, of rivers, and the effect of volcanic fires; to distinguish those parts of the surface and exterior crust of the globe, of which the inequalities, disposition, and frequently the materials themselves, are the work of these agents; from the other portion of the surface, formed for the most part of heterogeneous substances, bearing the marks of more ancient revolutions by agents with which we are yet acquainted.
Minerals, vegetables, and animals are divided into various species, of which the individuals differ by insensible variations scarcely constant, or produced by causes purely local. Many of these species resemble each other by a greater or less number of common qualities, which serve to establish successive divisions regularly more and more extended. Naturalists have invented methods of classing the objects of science from determinate characters easily ascertained, the only means of avoiding confusion in the midst of this numberless multitude of individuals. These methods are, indeed, a real language, wherein each object is denoted by some of its most constant qualities, which, when known, are applicable to the discovery of the name which the article may bear in common language. These general languages, when well composed, likewise indicate, in each class of natural objects, the truly essential qualities which by their union cause a more or less perfect resemblance in the rest of their properties.
We have formerly seen the effects of that pride which magnifies in the eyes of men the objects of an exclusive study, and knowledge painfully acquired, which attaches to these methods an exaggerated degree of importance, and mistakes for science itself that which is nothing more than the dictionary and grammar of its real language. And so likewise, by a contrary excess, we have seen philosophers falsely degrade these same methods, and confound them with arbitrary nomenclatures, as futile and laborious compilations.
The chemical analysis of the substances in the three great kingdoms of nature; the description of their external form; the exposition of their physical qualities and usual properties; the history of the developement of organized bodies, animals, or plants; their nutrition and reproduction; the details of their organization; the anatomy of their various parts; the functions of each; the history of the manners of animals and their industry to procure food, defence, and habitation, or to seize their prey, or escape from their enemies; the societies of family or species which are formed amongst them; that great mass of truth to which we are led by meditating on the immense chain of organised beings; the relation which successive years produce from brute matter at the most feeble degree of organization, from organised matter to that which affords the first indications of sensibility and spontaneous motion; and from this station to that of man himself; the relation of all these beings with him, whether relative to his wants, the analogies which bring him nearer to them, or the differences by which he is separated: such is the sketch presented to the mind by modern natural history.
The physical man is himself the object of a separate science, anatomy, which, in its general acceptation, includes physiology. This science, which a superstitious respect for the dead had retardad, has taken advantage of the general disappearance of prejudice, and has happily opposed the interest of the preservation of man, which has secured it the patronage of men of eminence. Its progress has been such, that it seems in some sort to be at a stand, in the expectation of more perfect instruments and new methods. It is nearly reduced to seek in the comparative anatomy of the parts of animals and man, in the organs common to the different species, and the manner in which they exercise similar functions, those truths which the direct observation of the human frame appears to refuse. Almost every thing which the eye of the observer, assisted by the microscope, has been able to discover, is already ascertained. Anatomy appears to stand in need of experiments, so useful to the progress of other sciences; but the nature of its object deprives it of this means, so evidently necessary to its perfection.
Rational mechanics soon became a vast and profound science. The true laws of the collision of bodies, respecting which Descartes was deceived, were at length known.
Huyghens discovered the laws of circular motions; and at the same time he gives a method of determining the radius of curvature for every point of a given curve. By uniting both theories, Newton invented the theory of curve-lined motions, and applied it to those laws according to which Kepler had discovered that the planets describe their elliptical orbits.
A planet, supposed to be projected into space at a given instant, with a given velocity and direction, will describe round the sun an ellipsis, by virtue of a force directed to that star, and proportional to the inverse ratio of the squares of the distances. The same force retains the satellites in their orbits round the primary planets: it pervades the whole system of heavenly bodies, and acts reciprocally between all their component parts.
The regularity of the planetary ellipses is disturbed, and the calculation precisely explains the very slightest degrees of these perturbations. It is equally applicable to the comets, and determines their orbits with such precision, as to foretel their return. The peculiar motion observed in the axes of rotation of the earth and the moon, affords additional proof of the existence of this universal force. Lastly, it is the cause of the weight of terrestrial bodies, in which effect it appears to be invariable, because we have no means of observing its action at distances from the centre, which are sufficiently remote from each other.
Thus we see man has at last become acquainted, for the first time, with one of the physical laws of the universe. Hitherto it stands unparalleled, as does the glory of him who discovered it.
The transition from the epoch we have been considering to that which follows, has been distinguished by three extraordinary personages, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Bacon has revealed the true method of studying nature, by employing the three instruments with which she has furnished us for the discovery of her secrets, observation, experiment and calculation. He was desirous that the philosopher, placed in the midst of the universe, should, as a first and necessary step in his career, renounce every creed he had received, and even every notion he had formed, in order to create, as it were, for himself, a new understanding, in which no idea should be admitted but what was precise, no opinion but what was just, no truth of which the degree of certainty or probability had not been scrupulously weighed. But Bacon, though possessing in a most eminent degree the genius of philosophy, added not thereto the genius of the sciences; and these methods for the discovery of truth, of which he furnished no example, were admired by the learned, but produced no change in the march of the sciences.
Galileo had enriched them with the most useful and brilliant discoveries; he had taught by his own example the means of arriving at the knowledge of the laws of nature in a way sure and productive, in which men were not obliged to sacrifice the hope of success to the fear of being misled. He founded the first school in which the sciences have been taught without a mixture of superstition, prejudice, or authority; in which every other means than experiment and calculation have been rigorously proscribed; but confining himself exclusively to the mathematical and physical sciences, he was unable to communicate to the general mind that impulsion which it seemed to want.
This honour was reserved for the daring and ingenious Descartes. Endowed with a master genius for the sciences, he joined example to precept, in exhibiting the method of finding and ascertaining truth. This method he applied to the discovery of the laws of dioptrics, of the collision of bodies, and finally of a new branch of mathematical science, calculated to extend and enlarge the bounds of all the other branches.
He wished to extend his method to every object of human intelligence; God, man, the universe, were in turn the subject of his meditations. If, in the physical sciences, his march be less sure than that of Galileo, if his philosophy be less wary than that of Bacon, if he may be accused of not having sufficiently availed himself of the lessons of the one, and the example of the other, to distrust his imagination, to interrogate nature by experiment alone, to have no faith but in calculation, to observe the universe, instead of instructing it, to study man instead of trusting to vague conjectures for a knowledge of his nature; yet the very boldness of his errors was instrumental to the progress of the human species. He gave activity to minds which the circumspection of his rivals could not awake from their lethargy. He called upon men to throw off the yoke of authority, to acknowledge no influence but what reason should avow: and he was obeyed, because he subjected by his daring, and fascinated by his enthusiasm.
The march of the sciences is rapid and brilliant. The Algebraic language becomes generalized, simplified and perfected, or rather it is now only that it was truly formed. The first foundations of the general theory of equations are laid, the nature of the solutions which they give is ascertained, and those of the third and fourth degree are resolved.
The ingenious invention of logarithms, as abridging the operations of arithmetic, facilitates the application of calculation to the various objects of nature and art, and thus extends the sphere of all those sciences in which a numerical process is one of the means of comparing the results of an hypothesis or theory with the actual phenomena, and thus arriving at a distinct knowledge of the laws of nature. In mathematics, in particular, the mere length and complication of the numerical process practically considered, bring us, upon certain occasions, to a term beyond which neither time, opportunity, nor even the stretch of our faculties, can carry us; this term, had it not been for the happy intervention of logarithms, would have also been the term beyond which science could never pass, or the efforts of the proudest genius proceed.
The law of the descent of bodies was discovered by Galileo, from which he had the ingenuity to deduce the theory of motion uniformly accelerated, and to calculate the curve described by a body impelled into the air with a given velocity, and animated by a force constantly acting upon it in parallel directions.
Copernicus revived the true system of the world, so long buried in oblivion, destroyed, by the theory of apparent motions, what the senses had found so much difficulty in reconciling, and opposed the extreme simplicity of the real motions resulting from this system, to the complication, bordering upon absurdity, of the Ptolemean hypothesis. The motions of the planets were better understood; and by the genius of Kepler were discovered the forms of their orbits, and the eternal laws by which those orbits perform their evolutions.
Galileo, applying to astronomy the recent discovery of telescopes, which he carried to greater perfection, opened to the view of mankind a new firmament. The spots which he observed on the disk of the sun led him to the knowledge of its rotation, of which he ascertained the precise period, and the laws by which it was performed. He demonstrated the phases of Venus, and discovered the four satellites that sarround and accompany Jupiter in his immense orbit.
He also furnished an accurate mode of measuring time, by the vibrations of a pendulum.
Thus man owes to Galileo the first mathematical theory of a motion that is not at once uniform and rectilinear, as well as one of the mechanical laws of nature; while to Kepler he is indebted for the acquisition of one of those empirical laws, the discovery of which has the double advantage of leading to the knowledge of the mechanical law of which they express the result, and of supplying such degrees of this knowledge as man finds himself yet incapable of attaining.
The discovery of the weight of the air, and of the circulation of the blood, distinguish the progress of experimental philosophy, born in the school of Galileo, and of anatomy, already too far advanced not to form a science distinct from that of medicine.
Natural history, and chymistry, in spite of its chimerical hopes and its enigmatical language, as well as medicine and surgery, astonish us by the rapidity of their progress, though we are frequently mortified at the sight of the monstrous prejudices which these sciences still retain.
Without mentioning the works of Gesner and Agricola containing such a fund of real information, with so slight a mixture of scientific or popular errors, we observe Bernard de Palissi sometimes displaying to us the quarries from which we derive the materials of our edifices; sometimes masses of stone that compose our mountains formed from the skeletons of sea animals, and authentic monuments of the ancient revolutions of the globe; and sometimes explaining how the waters, raised from the sea by evaporation, restored to the earth by rain, stopped by beds of clay, assembled in snow upon the hills, supply the eternal streams of rivers, brooks, and fountains: while John Rei discovered those combinations of air with metallic substances, which gave birth to the brilliant theories by which, within a few years, the bounds of chymistry have been so much extended.
The Greek and Roman antiquarians, and even their literati and philosophers, are chargeable with a total neglect of that spirit of doubt which subjects to a rigorous investigation both sacts, and the proofs that establish them. In reading their accounts of the history of events or of manners, of the productions and phenomena of nature, or of the works and processes of the arts, we are astonished at the composure with which they relate the most palpable absurdities, and the most fulsome and disgusting prodigies. A hearsay or rumour which they found tacked to any event, was sufficient, they conceived, to screen them from the censure of childish credulity. This indifference, which spoiled their study of history, and was an obstruction to their advancement in the knowledge of nature, is to be ascribed to the misfortune of the art of printing not being known. The certainty of our having collected, respecting any fact, all the authorities for and against it, a facility in comparing the different testimonies, the opportunity of throwing light upon the subject by the discussions to which that difference may give rise, are means of ascertaining truth which can only exist when it is possible to procure a great number of books, when copies of them may be indefinitely multiplied, and when no fear is entertained of giving them too extensive a circulation.
In the midst of the decline of Greece, Athens, which, in the days of its power, had honoured philosophy and letters, owed to them, in its turn, the preserving for a longer period some remains of its ancient splendour. In its tribune, indeed, the destinies of Greece and Asia were no longer decided; it was, however, in the schools of Athens that the Romans acquired the secrets of eloquence; and it was at the feet of Demosthenes’ lamp that the first of their orators was formed.
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.
We shall follow the steps of these sceptics, and exhibit the cause of their errors. We shall examine what, in the extravagance of their doctrine, is to be ascribed to the passion, so prevalent, of distinguishing themselves by whimsical opinions; and shall shew, that, though sufficiently refuted by the instinct of other men, by the instinct which directed these sophists themselves in the ordinary conduct of life, they were neither properly refuted, nor even understood, by the philosophers of the day.
Meanwhile this sceptical mania did not possess the whole sect of academics; and the doctrine of an eternal idea, just, comely, honest, independent of the interests and conventions of men, and even of their existence, an idea that, imprinted on the soul, becomes the principle of duty and the law of our actions, this doctrine, derived from the Dialogues of Plato, was still inculcated in his school, and constituted the basis of moral instruction.
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.
With the Greeks, education was an important part of polity. Men were formed for their country, much more than for themselves, or their family. This principle can only be embraced by commonities little populous, in which it is more pardonable to suppose a national interest, separate from the common interest of humanity. It is practicable only in countries where the most painful labours of culture and of the arts are performed by slaves. This branch of education was restricted almost entirely to such bodily exercises, such manners and habits as were calculated to excite an exclusive patriotism; the other branches were acquired, as a matter of free choice in the schools of the philosophers or rhetoricians, and the shops of the artists; and this freedom was a farther cause of the superiority of the Greeks.
In their polity, as in their philosophy, a general principle is observable, to which history scarcely furnishes any exceptions: they aimed less in their laws at extirpating the causes of an evil, than destroying its effects, by opposing these causes one to another; they wished rather to take advantage of prejudices and vices, than to disperse or suppress them; they attended more frequently to the means by which to deform and brutalize man, to inflame, to mislead his sensibility, than to refine and purify the inclinations and desires which are the necessary result of his moral constitution: errors occasioned by the more general one of mistaking for the man of nature, him who exhibited in his character the actual state of civilization, that is to say, man corrupted by prejudices, by the interest of factitious passions, and by social habits.
The burning of the Pythagorean school had already signalized the war, not less ancient, not less eager, of the oppressors of mankind against philosophy. The one and the other will continue to be waged as long as there shall exist priests or kings upon the earth; and these wars will occupy a conspicuous place in the picture that we have still to delineate.
Priests saw with grief the appearance of men, who, cultivating the powers of reason, ascending to first principles, could not but discover all the absurdity of their dogmas, all the extravagance of their ceremonies, all the delusion and fraud of their oracles and prodigies. This discovery they were afraid these philosophers would communicate to the disciples that frequented their schools; from whom it might pass to all those who, to obtain authority or credit, were obliged to pay attention to the improvement of their minds; and thus the priestly empire be reduced to the most ignorant class of the people, which might at last be itself also undeceived.
Hypocrisy, alarmed and terrified, hastened to bring accusations, against the philosophers, of impiety to the Gods, that they might not have time to teach the people that those Gods were the work of their priests. The philosophers thought to escape persecution by adopting, in imitation of the priests themselves, the practice of a double doctrine, and they confided to such of their disciples only whose sidelity had been proved, doctrines that too openly offended vulgar prejudices.
But the priests represented to the people the most simple truths of natural philosophy as blasphemies; and Anaxagoras was prosecuted for having dared to assert, that the sun was larger than Peloponnesus.
Socrates could not escape their fury. There was in Athens no longer a Pericles to watch over the safety of genius and of virtue. Besides, Socrates was still more culpable. His enmity to the sophists, and his zeal to bring back the attention of misguided philosophy to the most useful objects, announced to the priests that truth alone was the end he had in view; that he did not wish to enforce upon men a new system, and subject their imagination to his; but that he was desirous of teaching them to made use of their own reason: and of all crimes this is what sacerdotal pride knows least how to pardon.
It was at the very foot of the tomb of Socrates that Plato directed the lessons which he had received from his master.