History,  Thought-provoking

To be or not to be: the triumph of Logos or why Hamlet was right all along

Can anything really explain everything? Dominic Swords examines a book which thinks it has found the answer.

Imagine if during the coronavirus lockdown the prime minister or president of your country had stepped up to the microphone and told the nation, “We’re doing all we can to beat this thing, to keep people safe – and, rest assured, we’ll be following the philosophy.”

It doesn’t have the same ring as “following the science”, does it? It’s almost the opposite of reassuring.

The general perception is that philosophy goes round in circles, whereas science gets straight to the point. Half an hour on YouTube should be enough to disabuse anyone of this naïve view. But where does it come from?

To some extent, it’s a matter of fashion. The word “philosophy” has been going through a bad patch for the past few hundred years, while “science” has been on the up and up. If I tell you I’m taking something “philosophically”, it’s bad news, can’t be changed and has to be accepted with as little fuss as possible. In other words I shall be taking it lying down. In contrast, taking a scientific approach sounds practical, proactive, even enlightened.

In the ancient world there was no science as such, but there were physikoi, roughly translatable as physicists or natural scientists. In terms of explaining the world, these guys represented a step forward from mere myth-makers such as Homer, because at least they had a shot at the nature of reality. Thales had it that everything was water; for Anaximines it was all air; Heraclitus opted for fire. 

Modern science, similarly, is materialistic: we find out what’s really going on by breaking it down to the underlying stuff and seeing how it all interacts. There is a virus; it can be stopped; we’ll make a vaccine.

Yet in the ancient world it was the step beyond the material that launched thought on its upward path, a path that led towards, not just progressively complex philosophy, but also what we now know as science. This step beyond the material is called abstraction, the capacity to draw deeper and more general conclusions from the immediate sensory evidence. No longer will the fundamental nature of reality be seen as a physical element. From now on it will all boil down to something non-material – the boundless, number, the unchanging etc. 

One candidate for the underlying nature of reality went by the name Logos, and it is on this that E Michael Jones, an American thinker and writer, focuses in his latest book, Logos Rising: A History of Ultimate Reality

When Christians hear the word Logos, they may think of the gospel of John in which the word Logos is translated as “Word”. But for Jones that is an unfortunate translation. How does “word” fit when what is being denoted is the incarnation, the taking human flesh, of God? Like many a Christian (he is a Catholic) Jones never really understood what it meant. But then he looked it up in the Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon and found that the definitions of Logos covered column after column. Logos, it seems, can mean “a tally or reckoning”, “ratio, proportion”, “rule, principle”, “creative reason”, “argument”, “truth”, “the divine order”, “talk”, “tradition”, “wisdom” and on and on.

Cracking open that dictionary proved a fateful step for Jones. He was already a professor of English, but his journey to understand the Logos was to make him an expert in history and philosophy as well. 

His thesis in the book is that Logos is the principle underlying all reality and that it is amenable to human thought, that it interacts with us and guides us. The Logos goes into abeyance during periods when human thought goes awry, and then re-emerges as the limits of erroneous thinking become fully – and often painfully – apparent. 

In many ways the enemy of Logos is the dialectical approach, as developed by Hegel but also existing in many ancient systems, including the Talmud, rabbinic Judaism’s central text. The notion that a higher “truth” can be arrived at through a conflict of opposites fits well with certain strands of political thought and with the evolutionary mindset – think of the history of class struggle and the survival of the fittest. 

But, for Jones, the dialectic is mischievous because it supposes that out of two opposites a new truth can emerge, even when neither of the opposites is itself true. He prefers a term used by Hegel, “the cunning of reason”, whereby the evil that men do gets turned, by divine providence, into good. 

Unlike the dialectical approach, the Logos works by bringing good out of evil. Fundamentally true in itself, the Logos drowns evil in an abundance of good, whereas the dialectic approach simply weaves evil into the system, into the new synthesis. The Logos vision of history believes in the ultimate triumph of good and truth.

Logos Rising has two parts: the History of Logos; and the Logos of History. The first provides a deep primer to the scholastic thought once taught at Notre Dame, the big university in Jones’s home town of South Bend, Indiana. Scholasticism is the philosophical and theological approach which dominated medieval universities and is based on both a very clear ordering or systematization of thought and a conviction, following Aristotle, that there is an objective reality which the human mind can know. This is a necessary explanation in a book precisely about “ultimate reality”.

“Can we actually know reality?” is a fundamental question and much of modern philosophy has been based on the (often very harmful) premise that we cannot.

The book starts with a chapter called “The Beginning of Everything”, which becomes an extended critique of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. 

These four – a zoologist, a journalist, a neuroscientist and a philosopher – are sometimes referred to as the four horsemen, after those dramatic bearers of woe described in the biblical book of Revelation. Apart from their professed atheism, what unites them is not just a belief in evolution, but a conviction that it explains everything. 

Jones takes on Dawkins’s Mount Improbable argument, and shows its fallacy. Dawkins used this mountain metaphor to counter his opponents who pointed out the massive improbability of evolution by random mutation and natural selection. The idea is that like the sheer face of a mountain, it seems like an impossibly intimidating climb to get from not-an-eye to an eye; but then you realise that the mountain also has a gentle slope to the summit. In other words, given a long enough time-line, evolution can get to the summit. 

There’s a gentle slope that leads all the way from slime to eye, via primitive light-sensitive cells, claims Dawkins. But to Jones there is a word for light-sensitive cells. It’s “eyes”. Each step up the gentle slope turns out to be as daunting a climb as the north face of the Eiger. The point is, you can’t just claim that every step happens automatically, almost easily. There needs to be a genius behind the process. Though nature surely does have its own natural processes, it still needs a creative mind to guide it. Without this, so many processes would simply have halted.

Dialectical thinkers are relaxed about the idea of things like eyes emerging from a sort of fruitful clash, over vast expanses of time, of various things that are not eyes. Randomness is very dialectic. Things just pop up and help form the new synthesis.

Scholasticism, being more Logos-oriented, is not per se against evolution (like the whole of medieval thought, it just didn’t envisage it) but it is against the idea that reality is based on opposites, that contradiction is somehow part of the foundation of reality.

Scholastic thought, as propounded by Aristotle and then Aquinas, begins with the law of non-contradiction: two contraries cannot both be true at the same time.

“To be or not to be, that is the question”: Hamlet was profoundly scholastic.

Much of what passes for sophistication these days – philosophical, scientific, even spiritual – rests on the belief that contradictories can simultaneously be true. That God is and is not. That the universe began and yet always was. That wearing a mask will protect you, and that it will do nothing, or make you ill. It becomes abundantly clear in the pages of Logos Rising that this dualism is a heady potion with which people have been dosing each other for a long, long time. 

The rest of the History of Logos consists of the birth and death of various civilisations, philosophies and religions, with Christianity winning out and being richly punished for it. There’s a very interesting section on Islam, which as a civilisation had so much going for it but crucially failed to develop science. Why? Because it did not allow for secondary causality, one of Aquinas’s breakthroughs, namely the understanding that God the maker of all things gave those things themselves the capacity to help make other things in their turn. God doesn’t simply do miracles all the time. He allows natural processes to take their course and one thing to cause another. This was not understood in Islam. It was even argued by al-Ghazali that fire didn’t cause heat, but was just always around when Allah decided to burn something. 

If you’ve ever wanted to defeat those who argue that religion has held back scientific understanding, read Logos Rising. It shows in painstaking detail that not just Christianity but theology actually made science possible, monasticism having already done the same for western civilisation. 

Part two, the Logos of History, presents a steeper climb. It starts with the under-appreciated role of Giambattista Vico, an Italian who had an unacknowledged influence, Jones shows, on Goethe and Hegel. Here we are treated to the following sentence, which demonstrates Jones’s great humour, the breadth of his knowledge and the ambitiousness of his task: “Two hundred years after Charles [VIII]’s mercenaries had infected the brains of Europe with syphilis, the philosophical version of the French disease returned to Naples, where it was known first as Cartesianism and then, when it began to manifest full-blown delusions of grandeur, the Enlightenment.” 

For Jones, the excessive reliance on human reason, making it the arbiter and even (in some forms of thought) the creator of reality, instead of humbly acknowledging a reality external to itself, is a serious mental disease.

In the chapter “Heisenberg and the Collapse of Atomism”, we learn that Werner Heisenberg, the great German quantum physicist, read Plato in the original Greek. Being steeped in the culture of Logos, we surmise, helped him stand up to the Nazis and think so clearly about uncertainty. The book is brought to a close with the arrival of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain in the New World and the installation of Logos (well, Thomism as the greatest expression of Scholasticism) at Notre Dame, and its subsequent dethroning. 

Time and again Jones returns to the use of the word Logos in the Gospel of John, in which the ultimate reality becomes a living person, the Son of God made man. He contends that John, writing in Ephesus, was well aware of the Greek philosophical tradition, and used the term deliberately. At one level John’s intention in using the word Logos was to speak to the Greek world in terms it understood; but he was also, perhaps unconsciously, grafting that rich philosophical tradition more securely on to the Christian vine. Such a fortuitous move, it is tempting to speculate, might itself also be an example of the working of Logos through history. 

For so it goes with Logos. As Hamlet puts it, there’s a divinity that shapes out ends, rough-hew them how we will. The great value of Logos Rising is that we need to study the best and the worst that has been thought in order to see the flaws and wrong turns to which we are susceptible now. We may strive to “follow the science”, but a scientific conversation remains a conversation, and for a conversation to be fruitful it must tolerate a frank inspection of its logical assumptions. 

Behind the so-called “scientific” facts of our time, there are many ideas and assumptions from the history of philosophical thought and we need to know what they are. 

To quote Jones in his summation: “With each historical cycle, the distinction between Logos and its opposite becomes more apparent. Because the distinction between Logos and anti-Logos in our day has never been more obvious, its victory has never been more certain.” In other words, Logos will win out precisely because it is real, logical, and shows up clearly the forces of chaos which oppose it.

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Dominic Swords studied at Wadham College Oxford and is a freelance writer and editor.

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