1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: Empedocles. Anaxagoras. Atomists. The Sophists. Critias.

(Part 10)


Empedocles.—Empedocles took an important step in the direction of modern conceptions of physical evolution by teaching that all things arise, not by transformations of some primitive form of matter, but by various combinations of a number of permanent elements. Further, by maintaining that the elements are continually being combined and separated by the two forces love and hatred, which appear to represent in a figurative way the physical forces of attraction and repulsion, Empedocles may be said to have made a considerable advance in the construction of the idea of evolution as a strictly mechanical process. It may be observed, too, that the hypothesis of a primitive compact mass (sphaerus), in which love (attraction) is supreme, has some curious points of similarity to, and contrast with, that notion of a primitive nebulous matter with which the modern doctrine of cosmic evolution usually sets out. Empedocles tries to explain the genesis of organic beings, and, according to Lange, anticipates the idea of Mr Darwin that adaptations abound, because it is their nature to perpetuate themselves. He further recognizes a progress in the production of vegetable and animal forms, though this part of his theory is essentially crude and unscientific. More important in relation to the modern problems of evolution is his thoroughly materialistic way of explaining the origin of sensation and knowledge by help of his peculiar hypothesis of effluvia and pores. The position that sensation thus rests on a material process of absorption from external bodies naturally led up to the idea that plants and even inorganic substances are percipient, and so to an indistinct recognition of organic life as a scale of intelligence.

Anaxagoras.—The doctrine of Homaemeries, propounded by Anaxagoras, agrees with that of Empedocles in assigning the origin of things to combinations and redistributions of certain primordial forms of matter. Yet these are less simple than the elements of the other thinkers.3 Moreover, the idea that the diversity of things arises from a preponderance of certain elements, and not from the mere fact of various combination, removes the theory of Anaxagoras further from modern conceptions of cosmic evolution than that of Empedocles.4 According to Grote’s interpretation, Anaxagoras, in his conception of nous as the originator of movement and order which manifests itself as the vital principle in plants as well as in animals and man, would appear to lean rather to a monistic and purely materialistic than to a dualistic conception of evolution.

Atomists.—In the theory of Atomism taught by Leucippus and Democritus we have the basis of the modern mechanical conceptions of cosmic evolution. Here the endless harmonious diversity of our cosmos, as well as of other words supposed to co-exist with our own, is said to arise through the various combination of indivisible material elements differing in figure and magnitude only. The force which brings the atoms together in the forms of objects in inherent in the element, and all their motions are necessary. The origin of things, which is also their substance, is thus laid in the simplest and most homogeneous elements or principles. The real world thus arising consists only of diverse combinations of atoms, having the properties of magnitude, figure, weight, and hardness, all other qualities being relative only to the sentiment organism. The problem of the genesis of mind is practically solved by identifying the soul, or vital principle, with heat or fire which pervades in unequal proportions, not only man and animals, but plants and nature as a whole, and through the agitation of which by incoming effluvia all sensation arises.

The Sophists—Critias.—Of the Sophists there is but one whose doctrine need concern us here, namely, Critias. In a fragment of his writings we meet with a speculation on the past development of man, which is curious as distinctly recognizing the upward direction of human history, and so as contrasting with the prevailing view of this history as a gradual deterioration. Critias tells us there was a time when the life of man was lawless (GREEK) and beast-like (GREEK), when he was a slave of force, and when no honour was paid to the good nor punishment administered to the bad. Laws having arisen, evil actions which could no longer be done overtly were still practiced in secret, and at this stage a wise man arose who sought to install terror into the minds of the people, and so conceived the Deity, who is made the more terrible by being localized in the region whence proceed thunder and lightning.

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