Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/191

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
181
EVOLUTION AND ETHICS.

auditors must have observed that more than once I have borrowed from him in the brief exposition of the theory of evolution with which this discourse commenced.

But when the focus of Greek intellectual activity shifted to Athens, the leading minds concentrated their attention upon ethical problems. For saking the study of themacrocosm for that of the microcosm, they lost the key to the thought of the great Ephesian, which I imagine is more intelligible to us than it was to Socrates or to Plato. Socrates more especially set the fashion of a kind of inverse agnosticism, by teaching that the problems of physics lie beyond the reach of the human intellect; that the attempt to solve them is essentially vain; that the one worthy object of investigation is the problem of ethical life; and his example was followed by the Cynics and the later Stoics. Even the comprehensive knowledge and the penetrating intellect of Aristotle failed to suggest to him that in holding the eternity of the world within its present range of mutation, he was making a retrogressive step. The scientific heritage of Heracleitus passed into the hands neither of Plato nor of Aristotle, but into those of Democritus. But the world was not yet ready to receive the great conceptions of the philosopher of Abdera. It was reserved for the Stoics to return to the track marked out by the earlier philosophers, and, professing themselves disciples of Heracleitus, to develop the idea of evolution systematically. In doing this, they not only omitted some characteristic features of their master's teaching, but they made additions altogether foreign to it. One of the most influential of these importations was the transcendental theism which had come into vogue. The restless, fiery energy, operating according to law, out of which all things emerge and into which they return, in the endless successive cycles of the great year; which creates and destroys worlds as a wanton child builds up and, anon, levels sand castles on the seashore, was metamorphosed into a material world-soul, and decked out with all the attributes of ideal Divinity; not merely with infinite power and transcendent wisdom, but with absolute goodness.

The consequences of this step were momentous; for, if the cosmos is the effect of an immanent, omnipotent, and infinitely beneficent cause, the existence in it of real evil, still less of necessarily inherent evil, is plainly inadmissible.[1] Yet the universal


  1. Pope's lines in the Essay on Man (Ep. i, 267, 268),

    "All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
    Whose body Nature is, and God the soul,"

    simply paraphrase Seneca's "quem in hoc mundo locum deus obtinet, hunc in homine animus: quod est illic materia, id nobis corpus est" (Ep. Ixv, 24) [And what God is in the world, such is the mind or soul in man; what in the world is matter, in us is body.—