However, I have not yet attempted to re-integrate these new observations with the question of the role of explicit philosophical ideas. A good place to start examining the role of those ideas in history is with the history of Ancient Greece, a history that produces results which might seem surprising.
A reader sent me the following recollection of a common Objectivist interpretation of the role of ideas in history, which gave me a sense of recognition:
Long time ago I recall seeing a poster created by an Objectivist depicting "the history of ideas in the world" (the actual title was more fancy). Time ran from left to right, spanning the Greek era to the present. In vertical bands were stacked intellectual disciplines: art, music, history, science, etc., with philosophy occupying the uppermost band. In tracing the connection of ideas, a striking, dominant pattern emerged. This was a downward, diagonal slant of influence. The layout was nicely executed and the message striking: fundamental ideas invariably shape the sciences and humanities, under time delay.
Philosophical ideas can have such an impact, and they have a crucial and irreplaceable role in history—but the question here is the exact nature of that role.
The problem with the view represented by the chart described above first struck me many years ago at a conference on Ancient Greece, when I first grasped a crucial aspect of the timeline of Greek intellectual development: the fact that this timeline is the opposite of the one presented in that chart with the diagonal lines of influence.
The development of Greek culture at its height did not go from the top left to the bottom right, from abstract philosophy down to art and the sciences. It went the other direction, from upper right to bottom left—and the most interesting part about the intellectual history of Ancient Greece is that the greatest Greek philosopher, Aristotle, comes last, after most of the important developments in Greek science, politics, literature, and art.
I won't attempt to create my own graphic representation of Greek history. A summary of some of the top achievements of Greek thought will do. Remember that all of the dates here are in years BC, which means that they go "backwards," with the higher numbers representing earlier dates.
In medicine, the key breakthrough was made by Hippocrates (c. 460–370 BC), whose essay "On the Sacred Disease," written about 400 BC, argued that diseases are not caused by gods or by supernatural forces but instead have natural causes.
In history, Thucydides (c. 460–400 BC, though the date of his death is not known for certain) wrote the first scientific work of history, the History of the Peloponnesian War, which used rigorous research and the comparison of first-hand accounts to separate fact from legend. This work was researched and written from 423 to 411 BC.
Greek sculpture and architecture reached its height with Phidias (c. 490–430 BC), who is considered responsible for the design and sculptures of the Parthenon (though some historians think these may have been created by his students).
Greek drama reached its pinnacle with Aeschylus (525–426 BC), Euripides (c. 480–406 BC), and Sophocles (495–406 BC). The last of their plays was first staged in 401 BC.
Science reached an important peak with the theories of Anaxagoras (500–428 BC), who was accused of being an atheist because he attempted to give natural explanations for such phenomena as eclipses, meteors, and rainbows, and because he taught that the sun and planets were not gods but were made of natural materials such as stone and metal.
In politics, the Athenian state was fundamentally reformed by Solon (638–558), while the statesman who presided over the height of Athenian power was Pericles (495–429 BC).
How does all of this relate to the history of Greek philosophy? While Greek philosophy made some important innovations beginning with Thales (c. 624–526 BC), there was in these early years no strong differentiation between philosophy and science or the other specialized fields, and the views of the early Greek philosophers were a confusing maelstrom, ranging from those who taught that change was impossible (Parmenides, 515–480 BC) to those who taught that there was nothing but change (Heraclitus, c. 535–475 BC).
Philosophy did not fully emerge as a separately defined field until Socrates (c. 470–399), who defined the specific questions addressed by the discipline. The ideas of Socrates, however, were only systematized and widely popularized by his student Plato (c. 427–347), whose philosophical school, the Academy, was founded around 385 BC.
And the pinnacle of Greek philosophy was achieved under Plato's student Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose works were mostly composed after the founding of his Lyceum, in the years 335–322 BC.
Notice the pattern: Greek art, literature, science, history, and medicine reached a crescendo of achievement in the second half of the 5th century BC—while Greek philosophy reached its crescendo of achievement one to two generations later, in the middle of the 4th century BC.
In short, Aristotle was a product of the Golden Age of Athens, not the other way around.
The great founders of Athens did not write the city's laws because they read Aristotle's Politics; Aristotle wrote his Politics after studying the history of Athens and other city-states. Greek science and medicine did not arise because scientists read Aristotle's Metaphysics or Categories; rather, the achievements of earlier scientists (and scientist-philosophers), laid the foundations for Aristotle.
The great Greek dramatists did not write their plays after reading Aristotle's Poetics; rather, Aristotle's Poetics was an attempt to explain the art of the great Greek dramatists. And the great sculptors of Athens did not create art that glorified man's potential because they were inspired by Aristotle's description of the "great-souled man." Rather, Aristotle's exalted conception of man was inspired by these artists, and by the real-life examples of the thinkers and statesmen he had studied and observed.
When I fully realized this progression, I was particularly struck by the role of art, which is the non-verbal companion to philosophy. The fact that the height of Greek art preceded that of Greek philosophy—and by nearly a century—I find to be highly significant. Greek artists were able to train themselves in the minute and accurate observation of the world, and to grasp man's heroic potential well before these things could be fully, explicitly defined by the philosophers.
This history suggests a progression that should, in fact, seem natural and unsurprising: that new ideas arose first from achievements in the special sciences—from physics, mathematics, history, medicine, biology, and politics. These achievements were paralleled by advances in literature and art, which expressed, often in implicit, non-verbal form, the new conception of human life that was suggested by advances in other disciplines. Then at the end of this process, a great philosopher was able to explain what made all of those previous achievements possible, to identify their implicit method, and to draw, in explicit terms, the widest implications for our conception of human life and potential.
This should be no surprise, because it represents a natural inductive process. Thinkers have to arrive at preliminary conclusions about the world on a narrower, more concrete level, before systematic philosophers can then draw wider and deeper conclusions on that basis.
Nor does the fact that the philosopher is, in a sense, following the achievements of those in specialized fields imply that philosophy is irrelevant.
First, we should recognize that the scientists, historians, and statesmen were themselves steeped in the philosophical discussions that were pervasive in Greece's Golden Age, during the era of the "Sophists." (The Sophists have a bad reputation—and many were advocates of philosophical subjectivism—but "Sophist" was something of a catch-all term for the itinerant teachers and burgeoning professional intellectuals of the era.) This was particularly true of the scientist-philosophers, from Thales through Pythagoras, through Anaxagoras. But philosophy as a separate discipline, considered apart from particular scientific questions—and particularly systematic philosophy, a connected system of ideas applying to all aspects of human life, rather than a mere set of particular musings—does not arise except as the product of a long chain of intellectual development.
Second, philosophy did have an impact, particularly on the practice of science. (The two volumes of an overview of Greek science sitting on my bookshelf are titled "Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle" and "Greek Science After Aristotle," with Aristotle as the dividing line in recognition of his profound impact both as a scientist and as a philosopher.) And Greek philosophy was central to the profound influence that Greek ideas had in subsequent centuries throughout the Mediterranean and within the Roman Empire. Greek philosophy helped to shape and sustain Classical Civilization.
But one of the great historical mysteries, in my mind, is why Aristotle did not have more influence on the Classical world. I have not studied Classical history after Aristotle thoroughly enough to have settled on a single hypothesis as to the reason for this, but I am confident in saying that we do not see the explosion of profound new ideas in other fields that are suggested by that diagonal slanting chart showing philosophy as the intellectual driver of all other fields. Aristotle was more the summit of previous Greek intellectual achievement than he was the foundation for subsequent Classical achievements.
So what, then, is the role of the philosopher? As a clue to the answer, note that Aristotle did serve precisely the role of a catalyst for an explosion of knowledge—but not in the Classical era. Representing the pinnacle and integration of Greek intellectual achievement, he was able to transmit that achievement to the late Middle Ages, serving an indispensable role in the launching of the Renaissance.
In what way was Aristotle both the end product of the achievements of Greek civilization, and then later the source for the revival of Classical ideas and the Greek spirit?
The best statement I can give of my view of the role of philosophy in history is a broad analogy between the intellectual progress of a civilization as a whole and the inductive process by which a single individual comes to grasp a high-level abstraction.
When an individual comes to grasp or originate an important new idea, he begins with observation of the world, from which he draws concrete, lower-level conclusions. This is analogous, in the progress of a civilization, to advances in the specialized fields. Then as a man makes more observations and takes actions that produce new results, this evidence leads him to further, more complex conclusions. As he begins to build on previous conclusions to grasp a vast new abstraction, a man often—usually, in my experience—grasps it first as a vague "sense" which he cannot yet define in words. This, I suggest, is the analogy to the role of art, which is the means by which a culture often expresses a new idea in images and metaphors, before its philosophers are able to capture them in words.
Finally, as the pinnacle of an individual's inductive development, there comes the moment when he can name his new concept or hypothesis in words. At this point, a whole series of previous observations and lower-level abstractions are integrated into a wider sum, and connections and implications that had been merely implicit before are now captured explicitly. This is the analogy to the role of philosophy.
In discussing the process of concept-formation in the mind of an individual man, Ayn Rand wrote that "the process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word." This is what makes a concept objective and allows it to be retained and transmitted. Something similar applies to the role of philosophy in the intellectual development of a civilization. Aristotle, as the pinnacle of Greek philosophy, served the role of defining the essence of the Greek achievement—the discovery of reason—in explicit, objective terms, which allowed that achievement to be encapsulated and transmitted, even across many centuries. That is why Aristotle's ideas had such a profound influence when they were rediscovered and embraced at the end of the Middle Ages.
As I said earlier, I have previously emphasized the role of the specialized sciences as a source of knowledge, which may have seemed to downgrade the role of philosophy. A few readers have rather hastily interpreted this to mean that I am denying the importance of philosophy in history. Far from it. Instead, I am attempting to define more precisely what that role is. Philosophy is not the starting point of knowledge, but it is a kind of ending point: its job is to form the widest new conclusions that are made possible by knowledge in other fields—which then serves to integrate, protect, and explain that knowledge.
To return to my analogy to the formation of a concept, the explicit identification of a new philosophical idea makes it possible to understand and retain all of the knowledge on which that idea is based, and to use this knowledge as a foundation for the development of further conclusions and abstractions. Just as naming the concepts of "dog," "horse," "snake," "bird," and so on, enables a man to form the wider concept "animal" (or more specialized concepts like "amphibian"), so the scientific postulates that diseases have natural causes or that the planets are made of stone allow one to form the wider philosophical concept of "natural law."
Instead of the top-down view of history that I have been criticizing, in which philosophical ideas "trickle down" to spur developments in specialized fields, I am suggesting a reciprocal relationship in which achievements in specialized fields provide the inductive basis for wider conclusions in philosophy—which then serves a crucial role in solidifying that knowledge, making explicit its deepest assumptions and widest implications.
If a philosopher fulfills this role (as Aristotle did for the Greeks), the whole sum of these achievements—the achievements of specialized fields, as integrated and interpreted by philosophy—can then serve as an even more powerful base for further achievements in those specialized fields, from physics to politics, which will then provide an inductive base for new philosophical conclusions, and so on, in a virtuous cycle of intellectual and material progress.
The role of the philosopher, historically, is not as the sole motor of all progress, but rather as the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress.
All of this implies, of course, the existence of a good philosopher, one who views his job as being to learn from the specialized fields and to draw conclusions from their achievements. The essence of bad philosophy, and of the malignant impact of bad philosophical theories on history, is the attempt by philosophers and intellectuals, not to learn from achievements in other fields, but to explain them away. It is the attempt, not to amplify new knowledge, but to neutralize it.
The philosophy of Plato, for example, can be seen as an attempt to salvage a role for mystical intuition—turning away from this world and looking inward in order to "recollect" the realm of "pure forms"—in the face of the nascent scientific outlook of his era. Similarly, during the height of the Scientific Revolution in the West, Immanuel Kant declared that he "found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith." In an earlier article in this series, I cited a more colorful example: Mary Shelley and writing of her novel Frankenstein. As I wrote,
Most of us think of it as just another science fiction story or horror flick, but this novel is actually a fascinating window into an important cultural moment, a moment at which something went terribly wrong among the world's intellectual elite. The novel was written at the height of the Scientific Revolution and in the first years of the Industrial Revolution. Science and technology were about to transform human life, resulting in the most profound and sustained improvement of the human condition that man had ever known. Yet Mary Shelley and her circle of friends were immersed in the trend of "Gothic" literature, which was based on a fascination with the mysticism of the Middle Ages. And so, on the eve of a scientific-technological revolution that was about to improve human life, she instead wrote a story about how science and technology would create monsters that threatened to destroy mankind. It is a powerful example of an intellectual clinging to philosophical preconceptions, refusing to alter them in the light of new evidence provided by the world around her.
This explains what went wrong, whenever it has gone wrong in history: the influence of bad philosophy is to reverse the relationship between facts and ideas, rejecting the first in order to preserve the second. In so doing, the malevolent or misguided intellectual acts to wipe out achievements in science, politics, economics, literature, and art.
In describing what went right—the reciprocal, inductive relationship between philosophy and specialized fields—I have focused on Ancient Greece, which is particularly clear case because it was the beginning, both of philosophy and of virtually all of the sciences. It may be helpful to look briefly at a few examples of what went right in later eras.
Let us begin in what may seem like an unlikely time: the late Middle Ages, in the centuries prior to the Renaissance. But this is in fact a logical place to begin if we want to ask: where did the Renaissance come from?
One objection I have heard to the previous installments in this series is that the misinterpretation of the role of ideas in history that I am criticizing is merely a rationalistic error made by a few young Objectivists, but that it is not widely held by other Objectivists. Yet I have found that this erroneous view is pervasive, not usually as an explicitly stated idea, but as an implicit assumption. I saw it some time ago, for example, in an online discussion with a very accomplished Objectivist intellectual. In response to a claim that there was a period of significant technological advance in the late Middle Ages, this philosopher dismissed such a phenomenon as impossible because it preceded the first significant pro-reason philosopher of the era, Peter Abelard (1079–1142 AD). In other words: no significant progress is possible until a philosopher comes along to make it possible.
But we must also ask: what makes the philosophers possible? Abelard and subsequent pro-reason philosophers were made possible by the revival of learning in the West after the chaos of the Dark Ages—a process that began more than two centuries before Abelard and included a revival of commerce and construction, as well as technological progress.
The history of architecture, for example, reveals the full depth of the collapse of the West with the fall of the Roman Empire. Here is how it is described in Marvin Trachtenberg's Architecture: From Pre-History to Post-Modernism, the standard textbook on the history of architecture: "The end of Roman political and social institutions, of cities, wealth, and culture, meant a steep decline in monumental art. From about 500 to after 700 [AD] little was built…. [W]hat survived were mostly small, boxlike structures limited to one or two rooms crudely proportioned and constructed." This "architectural depression" came to a clear end with the Carolingian Renaissance, the revival of architecture and learning under the rule of Charlemagne, who unified Europe and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800.
What inspired this revival was not pro-reason philosophy; Charlemagne saw himself as reviving Christian learning and as deriving his moral authority as emperor from his coronation by the pope. But he was also inspired by the concrete example of Classical civilization. The people of the Middle Ages were aware that they were the inheritors of what had once been a great and powerful civilization, and they were eager to regain their former glory. Thus, Charlemagne called his domains the "Holy Roman Empire," and he instituted a building campaign taking Roman ruins as its model. Here is how Trachtenberg describes it:
The traditions of Roman architectural practice were gone, but Roman buildings remained standing throughout Europe—looming physical presences which even in ruins inspired awe, admiration, and often imitation…. The last Roman Emperor in the West had been deposed in 490, but the idea of the Empire had not died…. The political entity that [Charlemagne] created out of fragments of Western Europe had nothing in common with the Roman political system, yet it was meant and perceived as a revival of it…. Even though Charlemagne spent most of his long reign on one military campaign after another, he had time to establish a strong official policy of reviving "lapsed" Roman culture.
Part of this program of revival was architectural; it would lead to the development of Romanesque architecture, from which Europe developed the amazing structural achievements of High Gothic architecture. But Charlemagne also sought out scholars across Europe and gathered them together at a school that would eventually become the University of Paris. This revival of learning, originally intended as a revival of Christian scholarship, would eventually lead to a rediscovery of Classical learning, to the rise of pro-reason philosophers, and to a revival of the ideas of Aristotle—which would happen, in the 12th and 13th centuries, at this very same school, the University of Paris.
I am not suggesting that the Carolingian Renaissance is a competitor to the full-scale Renaissance of the fourtheenth century. I am pointing it that it was the first, necessary precursor.
The crucial spark that planted the seeds of the fourteenth-century Renaissance was started because Charlemagne wanted to revive the glory of Ancient Rome. The centuries from Charlemagne to the Renaissance are a longer, far more tortuous form of what we see in the world today. Today, nations around the world look at America and at the extraordinary wealth and vibrancy of Western civilization, and they say, in effect: we want that, too. Even if they don't understand what makes Western civilization possible, they are led to investigate it, to emulate it, and to be transformed by it in ways they don't realize or expect.
What led Charlemagne to revive Europe was, in effect, an early version of what I call the "metaphysics of normal life." As with the example of America for people in China or India today, the example of Rome brought to Charlemagne and his followers a vision of what was possible for Europe, which led them to ask how they could achieve what the Romans had achieved. Today, the Chinese conclude that to match the West they need skyscraper, shopping malls, and universities. The men of Charlemagne's day concluded that they needed a unified political system, architectural monuments, and scholars—and this created the preconditions for Europe's rebirth and a cultural context in which later pro-reason philosophers like Abelard and Aquinas could have an impact.
As a final example, let me briefly indicate what I think this analysis implies about the historical role of the philosophy of Objectivism. We hope that Objectivism will be the foundation for a "Second Renaissance" of pro-reason and pro-liberty ideas. But we should also recognize that Objectivism is the product of enormous cultural achievements in many fields during the 18th and 19th centuries.
I don't think it diminishes Ayn Rand's philosophical achievement in any way to point out how much it was dependent on a vast range of achievements that preceded it. In fact, Ayn Rand's philosophy is strengthened when we recognize it as an inductive integration of the achievements of both philosophers and non-philosophers who came before her. All of these achievements were, of course, made possible by the revival of Aristotelian philosophy and its consequences: a renewed confidence that knowledge was to be gained by reasoning from observation of the world, and the subsequent liberation of secular learning from the control of the Church.
But the centuries that preceded Ayn Rand offered significant new accomplishments built on top of this foundation by scientists, artists, and businessmen.
I could cite a number of important examples: the political theory developed and implemented by America's Founding Fathers, which demonstrated for the first time the mechanics of a free society, or the literary trend of Romanticism, which influenced Ayn Rand's own novels and her view of the role of art. But the most interesting factor is the role played by the Industrial Revolution, which Ayn Rand herself credited as the indispensible inductive basis for her view of the role of the mind in human life.
It is interesting that Ayn Rand began her career as a novelist and only later become a philosopher, because her novels can be seen as a step in the inductive process by which she developed her philosophy. The characters and events in her novels were inspired by observation of real individuals and events. Could Ayn Rand have projected the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, for example, without observing the career of Frank Lloyd Wright? More to the point, in Atlas Shrugged, could Ayn Rand have conceived of the character of Nathaniel Taggart without the example of Commodore Vanderbilt, or someone like him? Could she have conceived of Henry Rearden, who works his way up from a child laborer at a coal mine to become a steel magnate, without the example of Andrew Carnegie? And so on; her journals contain notes on her observations of various individuals, both famous and obscure, who inspired characters in her novels.
But in creating these characters—and given the ambitiousness of her esthetic goals—she was led to investigate what principles defined her characters and made them possible, and this is what led her to develop her philosophy. As she tells us, in her essay "The Goal of My Writing,"
Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man, I had to define and present the conditions which make him possible and which his existence requires. Since man's character is the product of his premises, I had to define and present the kind of premises and values that create the character of an ideal man and motivate his actions; which means that I had to define and present a rational code of ethics.
It is not that her characters were all modeled on some specific individual, but that they were modeled on her observation of many real individuals. They are a stage in the process of induction: from observation of real people and events, she created characters who essentialized a particular character trait or world view—and that essentialization served as an abstraction from which she could then draw larger, philosophical conclusions.
The Industrial Revolution and the history of American capitalism was clearly the inspiration for many characters and events in Atlas Shrugged—and this, in turn, enabled her to draw some of the profound philosophical conclusions in that novel, most especially the conclusion that reason is man's means of survival.
But what is interesting is that the Industrial Revolution and the development of American capitalism was not the direct product of any previous philosophical projection. Philosophers such as John Locke developed the notions of individual rights and representative government, while other philosophers, from Francis Bacon on, had projected the practical value of scientific knowledge, and these ideas helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. But I have always been intrigued by the fact that no one was able to predict the degree to which the Industrial Revolution would transform human life—no one even came close—or to guess beforehand what a fully free, scientific and technological economy would actually look like.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, imagined that the political framework he helped create would lead to a agrarian society of independent yeoman farmers—never realizing what his own principles would lead to when fully realized.
I don't just mean that no one guessed the specific inventions and technologies that would emerge. What I mean is that no one guessed, or could have guessed, all of the legal structures, business organizations, individual attitudes and lifestyles—the entire way of life of a modern capitalist society. The philosophers laid an intellectual foundation for capitalism and the Industrial Revolution—but modern capitalism was, in effect, created by the capitalists. It was created by the innovators who conceived of ever more complex forms of the division of labor, who developed the extraordinary complexity of modern capital markets, who developed entire new economic institutions such as lines of credit and insurance, and who pioneered the legal theory behind patents and the corporation.
In effect, what I am pointing out is that the full moral and philosophical basis of capitalism was not and probably could not have been identified before the fact. It could only be identified after the fact, by any intellectual who was willing to look at the facts honestly and draw the conclusions they suggested. Some thinkers drew important conclusions in the fields of economics and history, but Ayn Rand was the only one to draw the full philosophical implications of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism.
That, among other reasons, is why her philosophy is so crucially needed today. It is needed because it serves the function of philosophy: as a new abstraction that integrates, preserves, and magnifies all of the knowledge produced by the scientists, economists, novelists, businessmen who came before it. It represents the greatest such sum to date, the highest integration yet made of what humanity has learned in the five millennia of human civilization.
Is this crucially important? Of course it is.
Ayn Rand's ideas are important for a reason far wider than helping the West avoid a civilizational collapse. For such a modest goal as not collapsing, the current state of knowledge prior to Ayn Rand might well be adequate. The real reason we need Ayn Rand's ideas is because they open to mankind a swifter, straighter, more certain road to even higher achievements—achievements made possible by exploiting the enormous integration of knowledge captured in her philosophy, and by building new specialized knowledge and further philosophical insights on top of this summit.
Ayn Rand's ideas make it possible to ensure that what has gone right keeps going right, that things go right in an ever-expanding portion of the globe—and that even more things go right in the future.
If my view is correct—to the extent that I have offered, in this series of articles, a new and original perspective on the current state of the world and of the role of ideas in history—what does it imply about what we should do, both as Objectivists and as individuals attempting to live and succeed in the world? That is the question I will address in the final article in this series.