Chapter XXI: Physical and Social Studies: Naturalism and Humanism - 1. The Historic Background of Humanistic Study

It is noteworthy that classic Greek philosophy does not present the problem in its modern form. Socrates indeed appears to have thought that science of nature was not attainable and not very important. The chief thing to know is the nature and end of man. Upon that knowledge hangs all that is of deep significance—all moral and social achievement. Plato, however, makes right knowledge of man and society depend upon knowledge of the essential features of nature. His chief treatise, entitled the Republic, is at once a treatise on morals, on social organization, and on the metaphysics and science of nature. Since he accepts the Socratic doctrine that right achievement in the former depends upon rational knowledge, he is compelled to discuss the nature of knowledge. Since he accepts the idea that the ultimate object of knowledge is the discovery of the good or end of man, and is discontented with the Socratic conviction that all we know is our own ignorance, he connects the discussion of the good of man with consideration of the essential good or end of nature itself. To attempt to determine the end of man apart from a knowledge of the ruling end which gives law and unity to nature is impossible. It is thus quite consistent with his philosophy that he subordinates literary studies (under the name of music) to mathematics and to physics as well as to logic and metaphysics. But on the other hand, knowledge of nature is not an end in itself; it is a necessary stage in bringing the mind to a realization of the supreme purpose of existence as the law of human action, corporate and individual. To use the modern phraseology, naturalistic studies are indispensable, but they are in the interests of humanistic and ideal ends.

Aristotle goes even farther, if anything, in the direction of naturalistic studies. He subordinates (Ante, ch. XIX p. 1) civic relations to the purely cognitive life. The highest end of man is not human but divine—participation in pure knowing which constitutes the divine life. Such knowing deals with what is universal and necessary, and finds, therefore, a more adequate subject matter in nature at its best than in the transient things of man. If we take what the philosophers stood for in Greek life, rather than the details of what they say, we might summarize by saying that the Greeks were too much interested in free inquiry into natural fact and in the æsthetic enjoyment of nature, and were too deeply conscious of the extent in which society is rooted in nature and subject to its laws, to think of bringing man and nature into conflict. Two factors conspire in the later period of ancient life, however, to exalt literary and humanistic studies. One is the increasingly reminiscent and borrowed character of culture; the other is the political and rhetorical bent of Roman life.

Greek achievement in civilization was native; the civilization of the Alexandrians and Romans was inherited from alien sources. Consequently it looked back to the records upon which it drew, instead of looking out directly upon nature and society, for material and inspiration. We cannot do better than quote the words of Hatch to indicate the consequences for educational theory and practice. "Greece on one hand had lost political power, and on the other hand possessed in her splendid literature an inalienable heritage.... It was natural that she should turn to letters. It was natural also that the study of letters should be reflected upon speech.... The mass of men in the Greek world tended to lay stress on that acquaintance with the literature of bygone generations, and that habit of cultivated speech, which has ever since been commonly spoken of as education.… Our own comes by direct tradition from it. It set a fashion which until recently has uniformly prevailed over the entire civilized world. We study literature rather than nature because the Greeks did so, and because when the Romans and the Roman provincials resolved to educate their sons, they employed Greek teachers and followed in Greek paths."

The so-called practical bent of the Romans worked in the same direction. In falling back upon the recorded ideas of the Greeks, they not only took the short path to attaining a cultural development, but they procured just the kind of material and method suited to their administrative talents. For their practical genius was not directed to the conquest and control of nature but to the conquest and control of men.

Mr. Hatch, in the passage quoted, takes a good deal of history for granted in saying that we have studied literature rather than nature because the Greeks, and the Romans whom they taught, did so. What is the link that spans the intervening centuries? The question suggests that barbarian Europe but repeated on a larger scale and with increased intensity the Roman situation. It had to go to school to Greco-Roman civilization; it also borrowed rather than evolved its culture. Not merely for its general ideas and their artistic presentation but for its models of law it went to the records of alien peoples. And its dependence upon tradition was increased by the dominant theological interests of the period. For the authorities to which the Church appealed were literatures composed in foreign tongues. Everything converged to identify learning with linguistic training and to make the language of the learned a literary language instead of the mother speech.

The full scope of this fact escapes us, moreover, until we recognize that this subject matter compelled recourse to a dialectical method. Scholasticism frequently has been used since the time of the revival of learning as a term of reproach. But all that it means is the method of The Schools, or of the School Men. In its essence, it is nothing but a highly effective systematization of the methods of teaching and learning which are appropriate to transmit an authoritative body of truths. Where literature rather than contemporary nature and society furnishes material of study, methods must be adapted to defining, expounding, and interpreting the received material, rather than to inquiry, discovery, and invention. And at bottom what is called Scholasticism is the whole-hearted and consistent formulation and application of the methods which are suited to instruction when the material of instruction is taken ready-made, rather than as something which students are to find out for themselves. So far as schools still teach from textbooks and rely upon the principle of authority and acquisition rather than upon that of discovery and inquiry, their methods are Scholastic—minus the logical accuracy and system of Scholasticism at its best. Aside from laxity of method and statement, the only difference is that geographies and histories and botanies and astronomies are now part of the authoritative literature which is to be mastered.

As a consequence, the Greek tradition was lost in which a humanistic interest was used as a basis of interest in nature, and a knowledge of nature used to support the distinctively human aims of man. Life found its support in authority, not in nature. The latter was moreover an object of considerable suspicion. Contemplation of it was dangerous, for it tended to draw man away from reliance upon the documents in which the rules of living were already contained. Moreover nature could be known only through observation; it appealed to the senses—which were merely material as opposed to a purely immaterial mind. Furthermore, the utilities of a knowledge of nature were purely physical and secular; they connected with the bodily and temporal welfare of man, while the literary tradition concerned his spiritual and eternal well-being.


  1. "The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church," pp. 43-44

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