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Odyssey of the Idea

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

The story of human progress is not one with chronological history. All attempts to read a continuous advance into the time order and thus to show civilization as cumulatively advancing from era to era are futile. On the contrary, the chronicle of history examined in factual detail is a strange affair of alarums and excursions, a medley of invasions, revolutions, tyranny, and reform, of progress, stagnation, and retrogression. Uninterpreted history is irrational and hopeless. But there is another way to regard the story of mankind. This method is to perceive within the welter of temporal accidents, a fumbling and confused ambition often balked bv the forces of chance and tradition but after innumerable setbacks resuming nevertheless its puzzled way. This is the history of human progress which has no necessary connection with the onflowing of time. Over small areas and for short ages progress has shown itself huge out of all comparison with great empires and long epochs. A notable case is Greece of the fifth century before Christ, as contrasted with Mesopotamia between the times of Sar-gon I and Cyrus the Great, roughly twenty-one hundred years. Progress comes not automatically with the lapse of time, but through the discovery by the human reason of ideas, and through their application as tools to human problems.

In the chronicle of the past there are many cases of short and brilliant eras when, perhaps by chance, society having been made receptive to the discovery of ideas, progress was rapidly accelerated. The “great age” was usually followed by long epochs of conservatism and decay. Such a period of advance must have taken place sometime toward the close of the fourth millennium before Christ in Egypt and in the Near East. Between the “Step Pyramid” and the Pyramid of Gizeh lay extraordinary improvement in the use of masonry but only a hundred years in time. Between the pseudo-science of the sixteenth century and Sir Isaac Newton less than one hundred years elapsed; yet in this interval the whole foundation of mathematical physics was laid down, hardly to be altered until the twentieth century. Most of our present claim to progress is based on the perfection of the power-driven tool. It is indeed a real advance, but this development is less than one hundred and fifty years old and we have no certainty that it will accelerate or even continue. Alexandrian science and technology began to decline after 100 B. C. To realize how far this degeneration went, it is only necessary to compare the Alexandrian era with European science fifteen hundred years after. When inertia smothers out “great” eras nothing remains save those traditional results which were alone good enough in the eyes of stupid rulers to escape. So endorsed, they became traditional patterns to be followed verbatim and looked upon with reverence.

We have called a tool the application of an idea. It is something which adds scope and power to our arms. Thus a tool multiplies or conserves energy; it increases mastery over time and space. These are two ways of stating the same thing. The ax, the wheel, writing, the dynamo, the logarithm are all tools, which help to overcome our animal limitations and permit us to dominate our surroundings far beyond the short reach of our physical bodies at any moment. With the accomplishment of such fundamental problems, we are freed to face other and more subtle problems, problems in turn soluble through the same agency—ideas expressed in concrete manner. Ideas so embodied we familiarly call institutions. But there is no essential dissimilarity between tools and institutions. The latter are only more complicated examples of the former. The solution of every problem raises new and higher problems to be solved; and the increase in knowledge which such a solution yields creates the need for more knowledge until the deliberate search for knowledge for its own sake is reached. Thus, problems that have been solved generate the need for increasing rationality and with it goes widening understanding of the universe and man’s proper place in it. By “tools” we have organized our environment, physical and social, beyond the ability of any other species, and have thereby been freed to perceive and address ourselves to problems far more important if less importunate, It is to the power of tools, then, that the human race first owes its achieved superiority to the beasts.

Now the invention of tools depends upon the discovery of ideas. Unfortunately the mind is not often conscious of its method of discovery, so that the greater number of ideas have been stumbled upon by accident. Nevertheless the method is the same whether arrived at accidentally or deliberately, whether grasped implicitly or explicitly. This method is called abstraction, which means simply “to take from.” The word extraction, meaning “to take out of,” is almost a synonym. When gold is extracted from ore, the valuable part is separated from the non-valuable and preserved, the non-valuable is discarded. When the idea is abstracted in a concrete situation the essential element in the situation is separated from the non-essential, and preserved, the non-essential ignored. The discovery of every idea, simple or complex, involves this process. Thus the early man who discovered the ax had first to separate or abstract the idea of a sharp-edged wedge, perhaps found in a flattish stone, from that particular stone, before it could have occurred to him to duplicate the idea by human artistry. Whole tree trunks must have been used as rollers for a long time before some anonymous genius separated in his mind the idea of rolling from that of a whole tree and so discovered the wheel. But the greatest tool was language, whereby a spoken sound came to mean not this bear or that tree, but any bear or any tree. Here again the process of abstraction can be seen at work: the separation of the important and essential element in a situation from its particular setting, so that the same essential element can be recognized in other particular settings.

To recognize the identical element in various particular settings is to generalize or reason. It is literally to comprehend the idea in its varying expressions. For instance, the domestication of animals is a generalization of hunting. The idea of procuring food is better expressed by herding cattle. If this seems an obvious piece of reasoning, it is only because we are so familiar with the idea of domesticating animals that we do not stop to consider what a feat of abstraction such a generalization once represented. Nor can we preen ourselves on our superiority to primitive man in this respect. Our greater ability in abstraction is not due to innate capacity exceeding that of primitive man, but to our heritage of his tools and those of his successors. To see that it is still overwhelmingly difficult for us to separate the essential idea from its historical and traditional expression, we have only to remember that for a while automobiles were made to resemble horse-drawn vehicles and indeed thought of as “horseless carriages.” Neither the automobile manufacturer nor the public was able to separate or abstract altogether the idea of wheeled transportation from the traditional method of pulling by horses.

It is right here that the basic cause of the hesitating advance of humanity is touched upon. The process of abstraction, the employment of reason, is hindered by all the forces of use and tradition. We are blinded by the vivid immediacy of the moment; the concrete world is too much with us to allow for abstract consideration. So we tend to perpetuate past customs and tools. But the trouble goes deeper. Not only are ways of living built around the expressions of ideas after they reach a certain perfection, so that they enter into the pattern of daily life, but each new tool seems a final good and tends to become something of intrinsic worth quite aside from its usefulness. Eventually we begin to worship the concrete expressions of old ideas and to make these sacrosanct; at this stage it becomes sacrilegious even to suggest an improvement. As one small example, hunting remains a sport, a pleasure and a ritual long after it has lost its major function as a means of acquiring food. Now this introduction of intrinsic value into the realm of usefulness is in a sense justifiable and right. It is desirable that most men should keep their feet solidly on the ground and live largely in the moment. But by the same token such constant practice disallows generalization and thus prevents the continuance of progress. It is not remarkable that human advance has been so agonizingly slow, so tantalizingly zigzag, and that vast eras of slow decline have followed short and rare ages of rapid achievement.

Habit, tradition, the vivid immediacy of life, the feeling for beauty, religious worship—all stand in the way of abstraction by mistakenly putting value on concrete and historical expressions rather than on the spirit which informed them. The constitution of the United States, a rational instrument when composed, has now taken on a sacredness which may estop political progress, though ironically enough it was designed to overthrow mystical sanctions. But perhaps the best example of this smearing of value from the essential to the historical is presented by hero-worship, where esteem rightly belonging to the deeds of great men transfers itself to the lives and persons of these men until they are remembered as demigods: Prometheus, Lincoln, Gilgamesh, Charlemagne.

This seemingly irrational attachment to the tangible and visible symbols of great accomplishments cannot be altogether condemned. Symbolism is as indispensable to feeling as concrete embodiment is to thought. One cannot love and venerate a mere abstract quality. Likewise an idea requires some material to express it. The idea of the ax needs stone or bronze or steel to cut wood; the loftiest flights of the intellect must be mediated in the traditional and the sensuous or they are “writ in water.” Yet this bondage to the past and this preoccupation with the vivid present largely account for the slow and meandering course of human progress. They explain why, granted the usefulness of new ideas and tools, these are not encouraged beyond a certain point, and why progress loses acceleration and cultures retrogress. But meanwhile it must also be recognized that throughout history there has always been some struggle of the spirit of man to transcend the limitations of place and moment through the employment of reason, and that to some extent this impulse has been victorious.


The history of human civilization, the Odyssey of the Idea, is just this unstable compromise of “the spirit which goeth upward” with “the spirit which goeth downward to the earth.” It is in very fact an Odyssey—in which the bark of the idea has been delayed and shipwrecked, but in which it always reappears and continues the voyage. History is meaningless without the understanding of both the ambition to go forward and the inertia which holds back. We must, therefore, go further in our analysis of the cult of the idea and the cult of tradition to see why they are not mere surface whims or fashions, but are involved with every movement of action and thought. They show themselves in manners, in political institutions, in the kind of art an age produces, in military organization—in fact, in every possible human activity. But especially and most significantly they manifest themselves in religion.

From the large point of view there have been only two gods. Under various names and in different aspects these have been the objects of worship of all peoples—since earliest times and today. The one is the principle of light, of reason—he is Re, Assur, Yahweh, Zeus, Wotan, Ormuzd, Allah. He is the sun, the way, the resurrection and the life. The other is the principle of darkness, conservation, and submission. She is Ishtar, Astarte, Ma, Rhea, Cybele; or he is Satan, Loki, Dionysos, Ahriman. This is the Earth, the fate, the limitation, the death. But the sun also scorches and dries; and the earth also gives nurturing life. The first principle is male, formful and illuminative; the second is female, formless and conservative. Religion is our best key for the understanding of two principles which govern society. But this attribution of sex to deity-principles must not be taken to mean that religion is sex worship, nor on the other hand that religion is a mere attempt to work fertility magic. Religion is the total organic response of man to the world, expressing itself consciously and unconsciously in all kinds of activity and symbolism. It is the passion-play of a philosophy of the universe in which reproduction and subsistence are subordinate though familiar characters.

A culture which predominantly worships the earth principle thus shows itself a culture crushed in conservatism, submission, and mystical feeling. The female principle, like the teeming earth, is the womb and grave of all things—the vivid sentiency of actuality as it runs and the initial source of all life; it is by the same token habit and servitude to the moment with its failure to make distinctions between what is and what ought to be. It is cruelty and generosity but not justice. When the female principle is in the ascendancy, a culture continues old ideas as a ritual in which their meaning has long been forgotten; it submits to irrational authority as a matter of course; its ability to separate the good from the evil becomes flaccid. In other words, its grasp on rationality is weak, since reason consists in this very ability to get away from the immediately particular and by consequence to separate the run of experience into good and evil. Inevitably a society which worships the female principle is involved in alternate sensuality and asceticism; it runs to size without order, to reliance on custom and to a stifling of individual initiative, just as the rites of its chthonic deities are celebrated in orgiastics of intoxication—and in self-laceration and the abandonment of the personality.

Nevertheless we must not draw the easy conclusion that the male principle is altogether the hero. What is presented is no simple melodrama but rather a play in which both characters must supplement each other, and which disintegrates whenever one is given too much scope. The male principle is the potent cause of all progress; yet without the female it is sterile. When it loses its connection with the nurturing life of the roots, its flowers wither and perish. We have examples in history of the vice of intellectualism where societies have died of dessicated abstraction. Yet the societies which have come to ruin by over ambition are far out-numbered by those which have perished through inertia.

The amazement which we are bound to feel at the progress of human culture in the fourth millennium before Christ in Egypt and Sumeria, blinds us to the equally amazing fact that from that time onward for three thousand years the Orient showed little if any progress, rather a holding on to ancient ideas through a gradual but cumulative decline, in which the ideas suffered slow paralysis smothered in theocratic veils. The ancient Orient, which developed such important tools as writing, astronomy, and mathematics, was unable to go forward past a certain point which may be dated roughly at 2500 B. C. In this connection it is significant that the early religion of both the Egyptians and the Su-merians was a sun worship—Re and Enlil. But as their history proceeded, Lsis and Osiris, Ishtar and her consorts took their place, until the great Asian Mother became the deity of the whole Near East. This change in religious observance was not the cause but the significant symptom of a changing attitude showing itself in a hardening of classes, in which knowledge reduced to magic formulas became the esoteric property of a priestly caste, in which the position of women was notoriously an exalted one, in which the major ambition was that of luxury and thus the major activity that of commerce. To call the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and their derivatives “commercial” civilizations does not imply a derogation of trade and commerce; it means that the aim of the ruling classes in these societies reached no further and envisaged nothing more lofty than riches and luxury. Athens, too, was a commercial city, but its main ambition was not individual wealth.

Thus the cultures of the Orient utilized the ideas of preceding great eras toward what are called “practical” purposes. The organization of the water supply, by sluices and reservoirs in Egypt, and by control of the spring freshets in Mesopotamia, to yield unbelievably bounteous harvests— these were the work of great creative minds. So also were the discoveries of clay baking, glass blowing, the papyrus, etc. But from the beginning of history these ideas were used to enrich a small class of nobles and priests surrounded by a huge servile population in virtual slavery and with apparently no resentment against this state. This could have occurred only in a society which believed that the actual state of affairs was the only possible state of affairs, and which accepted the goods with thanks, and the evils with entire submission. It was, moreover, a condition of almost complete ignorance as to the basis of its wealth. In short, such a society continues by sacrosanct custom to carry through unin-telligently the work of rationality. Again, the vagueness of comprehension of these oriental societies was bound to place more emphasis on mere size than on organization, and thus finally on military imperialism rather than commerce, until they blindly destroyed the economic organism on which they had fattened. The remarkable beginnings of the Idea in the prehistoric Orient were not followed through and the idea of rationality hardly grasped. Whatever the legacy of the ancient Orient, it was plainly not clarified into a general ideal of living, but consisted rather in a few great concrete expressions perpetuated through centuries of human folly.


This failure of the East brings into acute relief the tremendous historical import of ancient Greece. The Hellenes were the first peoples finally to clarify the Idea in such unmistakable terms that the Western world has not been able altogether to lose sight of its value. But to accomplish this, it was necessary for the Greeks to develop such extreme emphasis on the male principle that Greece eventually died of arid abstraction, and while it lived it had to live in poverty and incredible intolerance and insularity. However, we must not suppose that many of the inhabitants of Hellas were aware of this purpose or that the great philosophers thoroughly grasped it. Undoubtedly this attitude came to be nurtured through a series of fortunate accidents. Lastly and most important, the actual history and the accomplishments of the Greeks must not be taken as ideals of reason. It is imperative to separate the value of Hellenism from the careers of those who made it explicit. The path by which men have striven toward rationality has never itself been altogether rational. This, nevertheless, is no criticism of the results.

Bewilderment over the fact that the men of ancient Greece do not reveal the perfection of Hellenism, is based upon a confusion of history with value. The Greeks are not identifiable with Hellenism, nor can one be altogether judged by the other. It fell to the lot of these Hellenes, partly by chance and partly by understanding, to be cultivators of that attitude, sometimes called the Western, and sometimes, after them, the Hellenic. But essentially Hellenism has no place and date. We call it after Hellas because the Hellenes were the first to be imbued with it as a dominant mode of life and to bring it to expression. Hellenism must be distinguished from any of its historical expressions if we are to understand either Hellenism or history.

What is Hellenism? And what does its acceptance imply? It should be remembered that what is here put into words, words similar to those used by Plato and Aristotle, was not before their time explicit; nevertheless the attitude existed, implicit and unconscious, within the significant actions of the Hellenes from the time of Homer. The credo of Hellenism is at bottom the affirmation of life—not life as it is, but life as it should be. It is faith in the ultimate rationality of the universe and in the reasoning power of man to find its underlying eternal laws. The task of the wise man and the virtuous man is to find and follow within this confusion of temporal happenings that which is true, necessary, and valuable—and to discard that which is false, accidental, and inharmonious—so that the essential truth and the good action will stand out in their glorious perfection of beauty. Hellenism, therefore, both accepts and rejects experience, accepting what is good, true, and beautiful, and rejecting all else. In the words of Socrates, “Not life, but the good life, is to be chiefly valued.” Now obviously this conception, which puts its faith in the reasoning power of man to find the underlying order, stands resolutely opposed to irrational authority, to reverence for tradition and external coercion. It is exactly opposed to the historical attitude which pursues the program of blind obedience, the submergence of individuality, and accepts the actual state of affairs as divine will— miseries and evils along with pleasures and goods. Hellenism stands for law as opposed to chance, progress as opposed to inertia, the creativeness of the male as superior to the conservative principle of femaleness, the sun as prior to the dark mother earth. In a word, Hellenism is faith in reason and individual effort; its opposite, faith in submission to irrational fate.

It has been shown that the Idea did not start or stop in Hellas, and that great Hellenic works do not exhaust Hellenism, although they are some of its finest embodiments. Whenever we admire them unreasonably we are misunderstanding the spirit which informs them and makes them admirable. The Athenians used the sculpture from the pediments of the ruined! Parthenon of Pisistratus as foundation stones on which to erect the Parthenon of Ictinus. Imitation and fond adoration of Greek things hold on to the letter of Hellenism and let escape altogether the spirit. The spirit of Hellenism is often exemplified by persons ignorant of Greek antiquities. The story is told of the Roman consul, Mummius, who was bent on the removal of a large amount of Greek statuary to Rome, that he cautioned the contractor that should any of the statues be broken they would have to be replaced! The naive faith of this Roman vulgarian in the eternal ability of man to equal or excel his past is really more Hellenic than our sophisticated smiles over his ignorance. Again, the Roman law, recognizing no difference in race or tradition of Briton, Egyptian, Jew, Gaul, or Italian, but only a universal humanity, was a nearer approach to Hellenism than the awkward direct borrowings from Greek architecture and literature on the part of Rome. Hellenism is not necessarily “Greek.”

How, then, did it fall to the lot of the Aryan speaking peoples who dwelt in Greece, the Aegean islands, southern Italy, and the coast of Asia Minor between 1200 B. C. and 300 B. C. to develop and make explicit the rational principle? How did these Hellenes, by origin no different from the Persians, the Hindus, and the Thracians, come to defend and define an emphasis so entirely at variance with any other prior civilization and with that of their neighbors? The resolution of these questions entails a re-examination of important facets of Greek history—economic behavior as well as art, literature, and philosophy. I believe the facts of Greek history take on a new meaning when the whole career of Hellas is seen as an integral pattern. The history of Greece is a tragic drama, grander than any written by Aeschylus or Sophocles, in which every actor, every episode, plays its part in the articulation of the whole, in which the sacrifice suffered and the evil done are justified by one high purpose through them unfolded. With this key it will not be seen as incongruous that Hellas often fell short of Hellenism, since the actors and the theme of the drama are never the same. We may be able to understand the provincialism of the Hellene and his intolerance as the extreme tension of a desperately necessary one-sidedness. Hatred of the “Thracian ships and the foreign faces” was a defense erected, for the most part unwittingly, against an alien attitude—because Hellas was tending a tiny light within a vast darkness.

The history of ancient Hellas, having served its tragic purpose, ended with Macedonian supremacy—but Hellenism proliferated mightily. Hellas had done its work. It had developed and abstracted a new thing in human comprehension, the cult of reason. Its art and poetry had revealed that eternal law underlies beauty. Its philosophy did little more than set forth the abstract implications of what its artists had already done. But this abstraction once made—-the plant seeded—its growth was over. The provincialism of Greece was to give way to a cosmopolitanism at the same time that its universal art was to become naturalistic. The Olympian religion having reached its predestined end in metaphysical abstraction, religious worship turned back to the earth deities. Athens, the nucleus of Hellas, was to become at once a memorable relic and a disembodied idea. It was left to Alexander the Great to carry the seeds of Hellenism back to mother Asia for a new sowing and a new harvest. It was he who wedded Europe and Asia; and from the union rose the so-called Hellenistic world. Hellas was wherever Hellenism took root. Attic Greek became the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world.

This is the world which produced the cosmopolitan cities of Alexandria, Syracuse, Tarsus, and hundreds of others-equipped with state buildings, government supported universities, paved streets, plumbing, and thousands of amenities strange to Periclean Athens. The marriage of Hellas and the East produced many talented children, but only one of genius—science. But as Hellenistic man grew cosmopolitan he lost his identification with the state, and became a citizen of a world which had no visible meaning. The dynastic empires of Seleucus, Ptolemy, and others drew no loyalty and have little significance. They passed over to Rome without in the main disturbing Mediterranean life. Rather it was Rome that in every intelligible sense was annexed; and Rome became the visible symbol of the universal empire to its Hellenistic subjects—just as the city of Athens had been the visible symbol to its citizens. This importance of Rome is too often forgotten by those historians who see her only as a military power, or narrowly as a jurist. For the ideal of just law requires the concept of a homogeneous humanity which supersedes all differences of race, customs, and localisms. Rome became the inheritor of Hellenism not because of her imitative art, and certainly not because of her non-comprehending reading of Greek philosophy, but organically because her institutions were permeated with the ideal of rational justice. Thus Rome came to designate not the city on the Tiber so much as an idea of a universal and eternal state.


Nevertheless the union between the mother Orient and the maleness of Greece was incomplete. Greek philosophy remained largely arid and tended more and more toward an individualistic interpretation of human significance. On the other side religion, removed from rationality, resumed the old earth worship of the East in a thousand cults. All were orgiastic “mysteries,” offering emotional catharsis and redemption from sin, and life after death. It was into this cosmopolitan Hellenistic-Roman world with its hiatus between the intellect and the feeling, obsessed by ethical questions and seething with mystical feeling, that Jesus was born. And out of his doctrines and personality there was fashioned the religion of Christianity which healed for one thousand years the breach between reason and feeling, between form and content, between the male and the female principle.

Jesus was a Jew; and Judaism had had a strange history. Arising in revolt against the earth worship of ancient Mesopotamia, Judaism did not follow the development of Hellenism—a foliation frem within; it took the form of revelations and commandments, moralism, and savage tenacity to custom. Its understanding of rationality was irrational— a dramatic acting out of a program explicit only in detail. But though the expressions of Judaism and Hellenism were entirely dissimilar, the essence of both is the same. Christianity is the historical understanding of this fact; and the sayings of Jesus spoken “with authority and not as a scribe” bear the closest relation to the words of Socrates. “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” This is a summation of Hellenism, though there be nothing literally Greek about it.

When Christianity emerged in Europe at the end of the fifth century it had found union with the two manifestations essentially identical with it. These were the Greek philosophy of Plato and the universal empire of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church was nicely named. Its task for seven hundred years was to be that of inculcating Christian Hellenism into the minds of the barbarians who had taken possession of Western Europe. The more or less easy conversion of these Teutonic tribes did not consummate this spiritual union. No man was more assiduous in his intentions toward the Church than was Charlemagne. Yet Charlemagne never understood the Hellenic Christian ideal but remained a barbarian at heart, believing that ideas could be implanted by force and a change of heart effected by affixing penalties against failure to comply with pious practices. The real triumph of Christianity was made dramatically evident in the eleventh century, long after Rome had lost all armed allies and temporal power, when Hildebrand showed that the Church had gained completely the hearts and minds of people. For two hundred years afterwards it was to be the temporal and spiritual administrator of Europe.

The Middle Ages have been maligned by modern historians. Certainly the Church conceived the universal empire of absolute justice too narrowly. Many of its officials were no better than they should have been. Assuredly Rome was not favorable to heterodox criticism or fundamental change. This must not blind us to the fact that its ambition of establishing order on an eternally just basis was the grandest ever conceived, and that its accomplishments, in view of their stupendous reach, were great. By and large, Christian Hellenism kept the peace of Europe for nearly one thousand years and succeeded in introducing justice and rationality into numberless activities and institutions.

Nevertheless the Roman Church failed in the end. It failed, like Hellas, from an undue concentration on form and intellect to the neglect of content and feeling. It died of intellectualism—its abstractions were no longer mediated in the known, the vivid, and the sensuous, and were too literally expounded. Again the male principle emphasized to the point of extreme dominance ended in sterility, and the world turned once more to refreshment in the earthy.

For a brief period there was a synthesis of the human spirit when male formfulness was revivified by contact with the earth. The matchless Gothic cathedrals remain as attests to this rebirth. But the tension created by prolonged emphasis on abstract reason was too great to hold an equilibrium, and the period of high Gothic art was quickly succeeded by one of over-ornamentation and logical weakness. In other respects the unity of the Middle Ages was broken. Nationalities succeeded the universal empire, the cult of the individual burst old forms, men turned to experimentation in all facets of activity. It was a time of luxuriation for the human spirit, but unity and coherence were lost. The understanding of the idea which the Greeks had accomplished became dim and distorted. In explicit philosophy nominalism succeeded realism: The Idea was no longer believed to exist save as a concept in the human mind. Thus sophistry, beaten in Hellas, gained the ascendancy over Platonism in Christendom seventeen hundred years later; and chaos in social relations resulted.

The Renaissance has been as much overpraised as the Middle Ages have been belittled—and for the same reason. It has been called the successor to Greece. Outwardly it did return to the antique in style and manner. Essentially there is no relation between the Neo-Platonists of the Medicean circle and the founder of the Academy. One finds the return to Hellenism not in the host of experimenters from Roger Bacon to Paracelsus, who were as serious about the black arts as any Chaldean priest, but rather in Leonardo da Vinci who, spurning the Greek obsession, nevertheless arrived at a comprehension of the Idea. It was he who rediscovered that in and through the sensuous world is manifested abstract and immutable law. It was Galileo who, turning away from Greek idealism to mechanism, nevertheless enunciated the Platonic doctrine that “The book of the universe is written in mathematical characters.”


Thus modern science rediscovered the principle of the Idea and with it the new caution of empiricism. Unfortunately for the world, however, the scientists stumbled upon their method accidentally and under the impression that reason is not its leading principle. In the physical sciences this misunderstanding of the Idea has not critically hindered the pursuance of the rational method. But in almost every other branch of activity it has proved crucial. Our major uses of scientific ideas have been in the field of mechanical advantage for commercial purposes. The results are magnificent when considered in isolation. When, however, we view them in relation to the whole of society, we see at a glance, in the lack of synthetic understanding, the weakness of the formal principle.

In a world which has solved accidentally and for the first time the problem of human subsistence, and which yet is in danger of perishing by failure to organize such a benefit, it cannot be said that the Idea is better comprehended than it was twenty-three hundred years ago. Without this understanding it is folly to hope that the future will hold anything very different from the past in orderly and accelerating progress. There is only one hope that Western civilization will not follow the pattern of every other female civilization through commercialism to imperialism—paralleled by a fatalistic acceptance of actuality—down the long slide which leads to invincible inertia, senseless repetition, and dissolution. That hope lies in its becoming utterly conscious of the meaning and value of the Idea. We can no longer rely on lucky accident and response to dire challenge for progress to continue. Up to now our ideas have all been stumbled upon and we have stupidly applied them to traditional customs until the new wine has burst the old bottles. Ideas discovered have themselves created a situation which must be met by increasing rationality. For progress to continue, our vague understanding of Hellenism must be supplemented by a newer clarification and a greater generalization of the Idea. The Odyssey of the Idea has not ended.


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