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Physics and Faith in Pierre Gassendi


Ann T. Orlando


3 April 2007


Submitted in partial fulfillment for the requirements of the S.T.D. degree


To


Frances Ann Orlando Bertolami, M. D.

University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, May 2007


While a guest in Aix, he must have met that master to whom he refers often, with devout respect, as Canon of Digne and sometimes as le doux pretre….He spent his days learning from the Canon how a world made of atoms could be conceived, just as Epicurus had taught, and yet willed and governed by Divine Providence; but, attracted by that same love for Epicurus, he spent his evenings with friends who called themselves Epicureans and could combine debate about the eternity of the world with the society of beautiful ladies of scant virtue.


Humberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 153-154.


Table of Contents


Acknowledgements ……………………………………………………….

vi

Abstract …………………………………………………………………...

viii







1. Introduction……………………………………………………………..

1

1.1 Purpose and Methodology……..……………………………………..

3

1.2 Recent Gassendi Scholarship………………………………………….

7

1.3 Dissertation Synopsis …………………………………………………


16







2. Gassendi’s Life and Intellectual Environment………………………….

20

2.1 Summary of Gassendi’s Life and Historical Context…………………

20

2.2 Gassendi and the Mechanical Universe ………………………………

33

2.3 Gassendi and Early Modern Ethics……………………………………

50

2.4 Epicurean Revival Before Gassendi…………………………………..

57







3. Gassendi’s Intellectual Model and Methods……………………………

61

3.1 Gassendi’s Methods…………………………………………….

62

3.2 Defending Epicurus……………………………………………………

72

3.3 Defining Philosophy ………………………………………………….

86

3.4 Implications …………………………………………………………..

94







4. Existence and Properties of Things …………………………………….

95

4.1 Physics and Faith of Incorporeal Things ……………………………...


95

4.2 The Properties and Structure of Corporeal Things …………………...

114

4.3 Implications …………………………………………………………...

136







5. Causes, Motion, and End of Things ……………………………………

141

5.1 Efficient Causes and Motion in Physics and Ethics …………………..

142

5.2 Teleology …………………………………………………………….

177

5.3 Implications …………………………………………………………...

191







6. Conclusions……………………………………………………………..

199

6.1 Gassendi’s Achievements………………………….………………….

197

6.2 Gassendi’s Legacy ……………………………………………………

207

6.3 Future Research ……………………………………………………….

225







Appendices ………………………………………………………………..

228

A. Summary of Gassendi’s Major Works ………………………………...

228


B. Synopsis of Ancient Epicureanism ……………………………………

240

C. Background on Christian Classics ……………………………………..

263







Bibliography ………………………………………………………………

274









Acknowledgements

My deepest gratitude goes to my advisor, Prof. Francine Cardman. Francine’s high standards and careful attention to my work have made me a better scholar and writer. Her painstaking analysis and correction of my neo-Latin translations were invaluable to me. Her support was often above and beyond the call of duty, such as her nighttime delivery of corrections to my apartment.

Rev. John O’Malley first suggested a focus on Gassendi for my dissertation, for which I am very grateful. John’s comments on my work forced me to greater precision in thought and language. I am also very grateful for John’s willingness to make a special trip to Cambridge for my defense. Prof. Khaled Anatolios was most helpful by suggesting that I clarify some of the distinctions between Platonic and Aristotelian theories of form and matter. I also appreciate Khaled’s willingness to interrupt his sabbatical to work on my dissertation. Prof. Norman Faramelli kindly agreed to serve as examiner in the defense. I appreciate his willingness to take time from his other responsibilities to assist me in this way.

I have benefited from the high standards of the faculty at Weston. In addition to Francine, John and Khaled, two others have been especially important to me Rev. Daniel Harrington was an invaluable resource for my STL thesis, and I want to acknowledge him here for that. Similarly, I want to acknowledge Dan’s pedagogy, which I have tried, however imperfectly, to emulate in my own teaching. Prof. Meg Guider has gently challenged the Weston STD candidates to consider carefully their role in society, academia and the Church. I am appreciative of her guidance in the STD program.


Finally, Prof. Terry Orlando has encouraged me every step of the way in this project, as in all projects in our life together.


Abstract


1.0 Introduction

Richard Westfall has observed that, “the seventeenth century was the watershed, and the relations of science and Christianity during that time appear to me as a problem the significance of which spreads out over the history of the entire civilization.”1 He suggests that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “Christian” (Catholic or Protestant) would be the single most suitable adjective to describe European civilization. By the end of the century that was no longer the case. While the Reformation of the sixteenth century had attacked and undermined specifically Catholic dogmas, it was the seventeenth century that began the attack on Christianity itself.

The relation between Galileo and the Church is most often given as the prototypical example of the conflict between Church and science in this period. But the turmoil over Galileo was only the most famous instance of the conflict. Its root cause was the rejection of a Christianized Aristotelian world view (Scholasticism) in order to accommodate new observations and experiments at the beginning of the scientific revolution. The new physics had not only undermined the cosmological understanding of the Scholastics, but, because so much of ethics and metaphysics was built using Aristotelian language, Scholastic speculative ethics was called into question as well.

In this regard, Pierre Gassendi was both on the vanguard of the new science and an intellectual anachronism. Gassendi was an excellent experimental scientist and a devout son of the Church. He was an active participant in the astronomical disputes of the day (including the Galileo affair); yet once the Church had ruled against Galileo he tried as he could to reconcile the new astronomy with Church teachings. Gassendi saw the need for a complete philosophical system to replace the Aristotelian (Scholastic) system that had held sway since the thirteenth century. The key for Gassendi was finding the correct philosophical framework within which to organize human knowledge.


Gassendi was not alone among his contemporaries in arguing against Aristotelianism. Indeed almost all of the great intellects of his day (Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal) rejected the Aristotelian system. But Gassendi was virtually alone among his contemporaries in reaching to antiquity for a replacement. He maintained the quaint notion that there was important knowledge in what we have received from antiquity, as well as in what is received from the new physics. In her new book on Gassendi, Antonia Lolordo correctly observes, “Gassendi’s use of the genealogical method seems to me to be strikingly antihistorical in that it presupposes that there are grand, transhistorical questions and that everyone discussed was engaging with the same issues and with similar aims.”2

Gassendi found in Epicurus, Aristotle’s near contemporary, the framework which could support both the new experiments and a new Christian ethical system. By building his new overarching world-view around Epicureanism, Gassendi became one of the first examples of the attempt to reconcile Church teaching and science at the beginning of Modernity. For Gassendi held that there was a unity of knowledge. History, philosophy and ethics had something as important to offer as empirical science did; further for Gassendi there was not necessarily a conflict between the two. By the end of the seventeenth century, as the Enlightenment started to take hold, the next generation of intellectuals would decide that no such unified world-view was needed, or rather that a world-view that was narrowly restricted to ‘science’ was the only valid source of knowledge.


1.1 Purpose and Methodology

My primary motivation in this research is my belief that we live in an Epicurean age, which is to say that we are still living in the Age of the Enlightenment. Science, materialism, and individualism dominate every aspect of American life. Thus I am particularly interested in the devout Catholic priest who more than any other, introduced Epicureanism to Modernity. In particular I want to explore Gassendi’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to Christianize Epicureanism. It was his Epicureanism that endured, not his Christianization of it.


Little work has been done on Gassendi’s use of the Christian classics. Most commentators on Gassendi focus on either his arguments against Descartes3 or Aristotle. Lolordo has recently drawn attention to Gassendi’s arguments against the revival of various neoplatonic philosophies in the seventeenth century. However, within the large body of Gassendi’s works, these arguments are only a small fraction. Gassendi’s real passion was the rehabilitation of ancient Epicureanism as a suitable modern scientific and ethical philosophy. An examination of Gassendi’s use of the Christian classics will shed further light on his efforts to reconcile Epicurean philosophy and the new physics and ethics with Church teaching.

Perhaps the first methodological issue to address is what is meant by ‘Christian classics.’ First and foremost it is what Christians accepted as Sacred Scripture. The Council of Trent declared the Vulgate translation of the Bible as the authentic document for Catholic faith and doctrine. A close second to the Bible was the writings of the Church Fathers and their interpretation of the Bible in formulating Christian teaching. For the purposes of this dissertation, the Bible and the Church Fathers form the canon of ‘Christian classics.’

Gassendi has been called “the last of the humanists” or “among the first of the scientists”.4 Both appellations are based on his desire to ground the new scientific discoveries, especially in astronomy, dynamics and atomic motion, on suitable ancient philosophical thought. Gassendi early on rejected Aristotle, and discovered in Epicurus a system of logic, science and ethics that seemed compatible with early seventeenth century empirical science. Most of Gassendi’s life was spent revitalizing Epicureanism and reconciling Epicureanism to Christian beliefs. To do so he relied on the Christian classics.

The Church Fathers, along with most other ancient schools of philosophy, condemned Epicureanism in almost all its aspects. Thus Gassendi had two tasks in order to make Epicureanism a suitable Christian (really Catholic) replacement to Aristotle; first, he had to counter the specific attacks that the Church Fathers had made against Epicurus and his followers; and, second, he had to demonstrate how his new philosophical system supported the Catholic doctrines developed by the Church Fathers and Councils. To investigate how Gassendi pursued these goals, and to evaluate the outcome of his efforts, I concentrate on the entirety of De Vita et Moribus Epicuri, the Preface and Ethics of the Syntagma Philosophicum and selections from the Physics in the Syntagma Philosophicum.5 The De Vita et Moribus Epicuri is important because here Gassendi addresses the ad hominem attacks against Epicurus in antiquity, including those from patristic authors. The Preface and selections from the Physics of Syntagma demonstrate how patristic authors were integrated into his development of natural philosophy (physics). In the Ethics of the Syntagma, Gassendi attempts to reconcile Epicurean ethic of pleasure with the Christian ethic of self-sacrificing virtue. While this dissertation focuses on Gassendi’s use of the Christian classics in portions of the Syntagma Philosophicum and De Vita et Moribus Epicuri, other works by Gassendi will also be used selectively.


The overarching theme of this dissertation is Gassendi’s use of physics and faith in his philosophy. He read both the “Book of Nature” and the “Book of Revelation” with equal attention, and attempted a synthesis of both in his Physics and Ethics in his crowning achievement, the Syntagma Philosophicum. To achieve his synthesis, Gassendi often had to resort to creative quotations from Church Fathers to demonstrate consistency between Church teaching and the new physics. Perhaps the most important example of this is Gassendi’s understanding of space and time as being coeternal with God.

Three Church Fathers were especially important to Gassendi: Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius and Augustine. Clement could be considered a role model for Gassendi; his high regard for Greek philosophy and his attempt to incorporate it into Christian theology mirrored Gassendi’s own approach. And, like almost all philosophers in antiquity, while Clement had disparaging things to say about Epicureanism, he also occasionally referred to some of Epicurus’s sayings favorably. Gassendi made maximum use of Clement’s favorable comments in his own arguments.

Lactantius produced the most detailed and ‘systematic’ attack against Epicureanism in Christian antiquity. Because of this, Gassendi carefully refuted Lactantius point by point throughout his work. Another reason for the emphasis on Lactantius was that Gassendi may not have felt comfortable directly refuting Augustine. Gassendi often tries to enlist Augustine as supportive of his own ideas, but as a result he often misquotes Augustine or quotes him out of context. Gassendi needed the authority of Augustine on his side, so that in some respects Lactantius became Gassendi’s whipping boy for Augustine.

He also used Scripture creatively to support his physics; especially notable is that Gassendi seemed to think of Ecclesiastes as being explicitly supportive of Epicureanism. He frequently cites Ecclesiastes in support of his idea of time and space, multiple worlds, and ethics based on pleasure.

Gassendi’s extensive efforts to reconcile Christianity and the new physics by way of a refurbished Epicureanism were not deemed important by subsequent physicists or natural philosophers. In part this may be because by the end of the seventeenth century a distinction was being made between a physicist and a philosopher, a distinction that Gassendi would not have recognized.



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