It is in the works of the “sectarians” rather than in the works of pure erudition that we must look for the proper history of doctrines. One of these sects has, from the point of view which occupies us, a particular importance, it is that of the academicians and the Pyrrhonians; one of the traditional arguments of skepticism is indeed the existence of the diversity of sects; and one of the main sources of the historian is the great treatise of Sextus Empiricus against the Dogmatics; Sextus exposes at great length the variations of opinion on the same subject. At that time there were many academicians and there were none who did not use the same process.
Thus of all the erudition of the Renaissance, we collect only one result, it is the fragmentation of philosophical thought into an infinity of sects; or else one chooses one of these sects, and one is a sect in turn; or else one destroys them one by the other and one is skeptical. One could only escape this fatality by completely disengaging philosophy from philology; it was the work of the great thinkers of the 17th century; as early as 1645, Horn remarked with great reason that his century, with Descartes and Hobbes, was the century of the philosophers, while the previous one had been that of the philologists; what we now want is no longer to restore a sect, nor to substitute a new sect for the old ones, it is to find, beyond the opinions of sects, in the very nature of the human mind, the sources of real philosophy.
Under these new conditions, either the history of philosophy will continue to be purely and simply the history of sects; it will then only enumerate the errors or aberrations of the human mind and it will only be cumbersome erudition; or else it will have to profoundly transform its perspectives and methods.
That the history of philosophy should be like a museum of the oddities of the human mind is the common theme of the rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To explain this unfavorable judgment on the past, we must see how it was presented to them by the histories of philosophy. Again in Brücker’s great work, the Historia critica philosophiae (1741-44), which until the end of the 18th century and in particular among encyclopaedists was the most widely used work, we find a traditional diagram of the historical development, which comes from The City of God of Saint Augustine and which has survived through the centuries: philosophy starts from the beginning of the world; the Greeks lied when they said they were the first philosophers; they actually borrowed their doctrines from Moses, Egypt and Babylonia. The first age of philosophy is therefore not the Greek age, but the barbarian age; almost all historians, up to Brücker, begin with a long series of chapters on “barbarian philosophy”: the philosophy which has a divine origin was transmitted to the Jewish patriarchs, then from there to the Babylonians, the Chaldean Magi, the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indians, and even Germans. It was only afterwards that the Greeks collected these traditions, which were more and more effaced; they degenerate among them into an infinity of sects; they lead on the one hand to the skepticism of the new academy, which is the end of philosophy, on the other hand to neo-Platonism which strives to corrupt Christian philosophy.
In a word, the history of philosophy is the history of a gradual and continuous decadence of the human spirit; the proof of this decadence is the number of sects which have replaced the original unity. Greek thought, in particular, is neither a starting point nor a progress; individual imagination, by giving itself free rein, has decidedly almost destroyed what the oriental traditions still preserved of truth. The Greeks do not have at all, we see, in these old histories of philosophy, the place and the value that they will take later. This criticism of the Greeks comes from the fathers of the Church; almost all the philosophers of the 18th century, Voltaire in particular, who never ceased to mock Plato, fully adhered to the old prejudice. But there is more ; the same prejudices are brought forward with regard to modern philosophy; this is the substance of Condillac’s Treatise on Systems (1749); all philosophical systems are the fruit of the “imagination”. “A philosopher dreams easily. How many systems have we not made? How many will we not do yet? If only one could be found who was received almost uniformly by all his partisans! But what funds have we been able to make on systems which undergo a thousand changes, passing through a thousand different hands?”
Such is, in the eighteenth century, the culmination of the judgment of philosophy on its own past; it results from the conflict between a conception of history dating from the Renaissance and a new conception of philosophy. But simultaneously and from the 17th century, by an opposite movement, the conception of history and the perspective from which we see the past are transformed. The new theme is the idea that the unity of the human spirit remains visible through the diversity of sects. From the beginning of the seventeenth century (1609), in his Conciliator philosophicus, Goclenius had endeavored to classify, on each subject, the contradictions of the sects; and he drew up this list of antinomies only to resolve them and to show that they were only apparent. This “syncretism” which affirms the agreement of philosophical thought with itself is considered by Horn as the true result of the history of philosophy.
To this syncretism, which erases the differences between sects, is linked eclecticism which, too, is above any sect but which, instead of uniting, chooses and distinguishes. “There is only one sect,” Justus Lipsius has already said, “in which we can belong with security; it is the eclectic sect, that which reads with application and which chooses with judgment; outside any faction, it will easily become the companion of truth.” This spirit of conciliation and eclecticism, which in the seventeenth century had an illustrious representative in Leibniz, animates Brücker’s great Historia critica philosophiæ, the source from which all the writers of the second half of the eighteenth century drew their knowledge of the history of philosophy. The true use of history is to make known the characteristics which distinguish true philosophy from false. The history of philosophy “develops a sort of history of human intelligence”, it shows “what is the power of intelligence, in what way it was torn from darkness and enlightened by the light of truth, how it arrived, through so many chances and trials, at the knowledge of truth and bliss, through what meanders it got lost, in what way it was brought back to the royal road. The history of sects is therefore only a means of freeing ourselves from sects. Eclecticism, by Brücker enters the Encyclopedia; Diderot in the article Éclectisme praises the eclectic “who dares to think of himself, and, of all the philosophies he has analyzed without regard and without partiality, to make a particular and domestic one”.
But syncretism and eclecticism are not the only way to interpret the past and dominate the diversity of sects. We also seek, while maintaining this diversity, to find a link and historical continuity. In a work a little earlier than that of Brücker, Deslandes protests against the very idea of a history of sects. “To collect separately the various systems of ancient and modern philosophers, to enter into the detail of their actions, to make exact analyzes of their works, to collect their sentences, their apothegms and even their jokes, this is precisely what history of philosophy contains anything less instructive. The main thing, in my opinion, is to go back to the source of the main thoughts of men, to examine their infinite variety and at the same time the imperceptible relationship, the delicate connections that they have between them; it is to show how these thoughts have arisen one after another and often from one another; it is to recall the opinions of the ancient philosophers and to show that they could only effectively say what they said.”
These efforts to free the history of philosophy from the dust of sects naturally find support among the theoreticians of progress. For Condorcet, the division of philosophy into sects is a necessary but temporary state, from which philosophy frees itself little by little, tending “to only admit proven truths”, and no longer opinions. In this historical perspective, Greece has a special place, because the human species must recognize in it the initiative “whose genius has opened to her all the roads of truth. ”
Source: Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie – Tome premier: L’Antiquité et le Moyen âge, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1928. Tanslation and adaptation by Nicolae Sfetcu © 2022 Multimedia Publishing