The History of Western Philosophy (1945)


Grad school piqued my interest in philosophy, and once I had free time to read what I wanted (i.e. once I graduated), my first foray into the daunting ocean of philosophy was Will Durant’s admirable book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. It was refreshing to gain some context to many hitherto familiar names, to begin going beyond a purely nominal understanding of western philosophy. I thought of working through Copleston’s 11-volume history thereafter but opted for the arguably more ambitious step of absorbing original sources. I read (slowly) through what I considered the major works of Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (Ethics, Politics, Poetics), Spinoza (Ethics, Theologico-Political Treatise), Descartes (Discourse, Method), Bacon (Essays), Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, Prolegomena), Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit), Schopenhauer (The World As Will and Presentation), and Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human). Seven years later, I found myself in need not only of a reinforcement of all that I’d ingested but also some means of putting it all together. As it turns out, Russell’s inimitable book was just what I needed to add some cohesion to the story.

Russell, probably best known as a mathematician (with Whitehead he is the co-author of Principia Mathematica) and an atheist (due to his long essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”), asserts his prowess as writer, historian, and thinker in his history of western philosophy. It is an astonishing work of scholarship, deftly synthesizing history, culture, biography, and philosophy in such as way as to come as near as possible to a book form of engaging documentary. Being an analytic philosopher of the school of logical analysis, one would not think Russell capable of tolerating the task of immersing himself in the thickets of antithetical ways of thinking (only the final chapter, pp. 828-836, is devoted to Russell’s own school of thought), but in this he excels. Even when conveying the admittedly sparse philosophical field of the book’s middle section, “Catholic Philosophy,” Russell maintains an even, journalistic tone, praising Saint Augustine where the credit is due.

This is not to say that Russell’s own opinions and ideologies aren’t present—they are simply parceled out in such a way as not to detract from the history at hand and usually in good humor. The chief goal of this massive undertaking, as he sets out in his introductory, is to trace the philosophical thoughts that have shaped history and culture from the ancient Greeks to the present-day (1940s) logicians. The goal is not to ridicule others and prove points. In this I rate the book a success. There is disinterested scholarship with droll humor:

When they [i.e. the ancient Greeks] discovered how to make beer, they thought intoxication divine, and gave honour to Bacchus. When, later, they came to know the vine and to learn to drink wine, they thought even more of him (14).

Though thought in the twentieth century would progress to the opinion of some scientists that philosophy is dead, Russell provides two good reasons for the study of it:

To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it (xiv).

Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible (xxiii).

That latter quote is particularly poignant. When I first read it back in August of 2015, I knew I had chosen the right book. And to think of this bifurcation in the historical context of Russell’s writing, in the midst of WWII, it is acutely barbed and potent. Yet, despite the war that was embroiling Russell’s, there are very few places in which it eclipses the work. There are only two explicit references during the course of the text proper: “At the present time, Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill, of Locke” (685). “In Germany all advocacy of [Marx’s] doctrines has been forcibly suppressed, but may be expected to revive when the Nazis are overthrown” (789). This is not to say that Russell should have turned a blind eye to such events; it is rather to show again the patience and control with which he patches together the threads of western philosophy philosophy without falling prey to presentism.

One of Russell’s greatest achievements is his ability to distill the whole corpus of some philosopher or other into an eloquent and memorable anecdote, usually in a single sentence. (Of course, I’m still scratching my head at Hegel, but that’s another matter.) In this, Russell may have single-handedly supplanted my DK Publishing copy of The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained as a my go-to reference, no matter how aesthetically pleasing the latter book is. The Greeks, or more precisely the Age of Pericles, perplex Russell as to how they came to be. Plato was a creative genius (the only one who could have invented Socrates); Aristotle was Plato repackaged in rational thought, and who remained unmatched for two millennia; Pax Romana allowed a blend of Stoicism and Christianity to appropriate and superannuate Jewish philosophy (in the western world); Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine left little for Aquinas to do once he came along; the Reformation put power back in the hands of the laity; the Renaissance then flourished in the humanities and gave way to the rise of science; Locke begat empiricism; Berekeley gave us solipsism; Hume took Locke to his logical conclusion, which was a dead end; Kant awakened from his ponderous constitutionals in Königsberg to respond to Hume and beget German Idealism; Hegel and Schopenhauer followed in somewhat the same vein, but Hegel was academic and dense and nearly impossible whereas Schopenhauer was given more to the arts; Rousseau was a madman who begat Romanticism, in reaction to the Age of Enlightenment and Reason; then we get Nietzsche, who was also mad and professed the cult of the hero; and finally the utilitarians, pragmatists, and analytic philosophers.

Indeed, a wide swath of thinkers is covered, but Russell’s intuition as to whom to highlight and whom to merely mention keeps a tight reign on the narrative. For example, the importance of, say, Helvétius, Condorcet, and Bentham is covered but not exhausted in light of those whom they influenced. Conversely, with heavyweights like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Bergson, Russell spends considerable time analyzing their thoughts. And while these extended sections will continue to be useful as reference, I submit that Russell shines brightest in his succinct statements that sum up a week’s worth of studying:

Plato was the most important in early Christianity, Aristotle in the medieval Church; but when, after the Renaissance, men began to value political freedom, it was above all to Plutarch that they turned (101).

[Aristotle] came at the end of the creative period in Greek thought, and after his death it was two thousand years before the world produced any philosopher who could be regarded as approximately his equal (159).

What was best in the Cynic doctrine passed over into Stoicism, which was an altogether more complete and rounded philosophy (233).

Scepticism was a lazy man’s consolation since it showed the ignorant to be as wise as the reputed men of learning (234).

Spinoza, like Socrates and Plato, believes that all wrong action is due to intellectual error… (573).

Pragmatically, the theory was useful, however mistaken it may have been theoretically. This is typical of Locke’s doctrines (606).

And my personal favorite:

Every one knows that “mind” is what an idealist thinks there is nothing else but, and “matter” is what a materialist thinks the same about. The reader knows also, I hope, that idealists are virtuous and materialists are wicked (658).

It took me quite a while to work through this staggering read (it clocks in at over 800 pages). I began reading it in August 2015 and just finished it today, 14 September 2017. I had to take many recesses along the way to give my mind a rest—whenever I felt that my mind had stopped absorbing the material, I would back up and take a break. Not to mention the fact that I just simply wanted to intersperse the reading with other books piling up in queue. This year, however, I resolved to finish it just around the time that I had started Norman Davies’s Europe: A History. In a fortunate coincidence, the two books ended up paralleling each other chronologically, which served as another means of reinforcing the knowledge I was imbibing; but it would be presumptuous and pretentious of me to recommend reading these two bricks in tandem. In short, Russell’s book stands alone as the one-volume reference of western philosophical thought when scored on the properties of clarity, erudition, and entertainment.


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