On first looking into Russell’s History

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Notes from Ber­trand Rus­sell’s His­tory of Western Philos­o­phy, in par­tic­u­lar the sec­tions on an­cient philos­o­phy and the­ol­ogy.

  • Western civil­i­sa­tion be­gan in the city-states of Greece—and there wasn’t any com­pa­rable in­tel­lec­tual and artis­tic flour­ish­ing un­til the city-states of Italy dur­ing the Re­nais­sance. Rus­sell ar­gues that this isn’t a co­in­ci­dence: that the in­tel­lec­tual cli­mate of a time is bound up in the poli­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances.

  • He also draws sev­eral di­chotomies: be­tween op­ti­mistic and pes­simistic times; be­tween in­di­vi­d­u­al­is­tic and grouped times; also sys­tem­atic and piece­meal; also sub­jec­tive and ob­jec­tive. Some of these are use­ful per­spec­tives, al­though they’re the sort of cat­e­gories we should be care­ful not to over-gen­er­al­ise.

  • Rus­sell holds that the first philoso­phers cre­ated sci­en­tific hy­pothe­ses which were, if not ex­actly testable, at least em­piri­cally mean­ingful. Th­ese in­cluded Thales (around 585 BC; he held that ev­ery­thing was made out of wa­ter) and his Mile­sian School, Anax­i­man­der (ev­ery­thing was made of one el­e­men­tal sub­stance), Anaximenes (air), Her­a­cli­tus (fire and change), Par­menides (no change), Empe­do­cles (4 el­e­ments), Anaxago­ras (in­finite di­visi­bil­ity) and even­tu­ally Dem­ocri­tus (atoms), who was per­haps the most rigor­ous, though his cor­rect­ness was still es­sen­tially ac­ci­den­tal. Th­ese were also, no­tably, all re­duc­tion­ist doc­trines, in that they were con­cerned with analysing ob­jects in terms of their sim­pler com­po­nents; and non-tele­olog­i­cal (al­though Anax­i­man­der in­cor­po­rated a no­tion of cos­mic “jus­tice”).

  • We must also in­clude Pythago­ras as the founder of math­e­mat­ics (in the sense of demon­stra­tive de­duc­tive ar­gu­ments), whose in­fluence is a source of the be­lief in “eter­nal and ex­act truth” in philos­o­phy. He for­warded a view of philoso­phers as con­tem­pla­tive gen­tle­man aris­to­crats, and fore­shad­owed Plato’s forms.

  • Next, the Sophists, led by Pro­tago­ras, who claimed the skep­ti­cal hy­poth­e­sis that “[each] man is the mea­sure of all things.”

  • After this, we en­counter Socrates, Pluto and Aris­to­tle, the three great­est names in an­cient philos­o­phy but also (along with Pro­tago­ras) her­alds of a turn to­wards hu­man-cen­tred philos­o­phy. Socrates, in­so­far as we can sep­a­rate him from Plato, was largely con­cerned with eth­i­cal ques­tions, which he ap­proached us­ing the So­cratic method of con­cep­tual anal­y­sis, which teased out de­tails of what peo­ple gen­er­ally agreed were virtues.

  • Plato is best known for his poli­ti­cal philos­o­phy, meta­physics and the­ol­ogy. Un­for­tu­nately, all were per­ni­cious in­fluences on the next two mil­len­nia of in­tel­lec­tual thought. His ideal Repub­lic was based on the myth of Sparta, and es­sen­tially to­tal­i­tar­ian (based, again, on “jus­tice” as oc­cu­py­ing one’s nat­u­ral role) In­deed, it is not sur­pris­ing that he em­braced a unilat­eral con­cep­tion of the good, since it is im­plicit in his doc­trine of forms. This meta­physic is not just false but deeply anti-em­piri­cal and anti-re­duc­tion­ist. So is his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a uni­ver­sal and perfect God.

  • Aris­to­tle was un­for­tu­nately similarly the­olog­i­cal. Known in the me­dieval pe­riod sim­ply as “The Philoso­pher”, he came up with a com­pet­ing the­ory to Pluto’s forms, as well as the idea of log­i­cal syl­l­o­gisms. Every­thing above the moon was in­de­struc­tible and eter­nal. The ul­ti­mate source of all move­ment was Will; God’s ex­is­tence could be proved by iden­ti­fy­ing him as the First Mover. Me­ta­physics was es­sen­tially frozen at this point for two mil­len­nia. Aris­to­tle’s ac­count of causes was largely tele­olog­i­cal; his ethics (par­tic­u­larly the “golden mean”) ab­solutist. Notably, the best in­di­vi­d­ual would be a “proud, great-souled” man who knows his own great­ness—in stark con­trast to Chris­ti­an­ity. Similarly to Plato, this im­plies an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of ethics as in­trin­si­cally poli­ti­cal, be­cause the rest must be sub­or­di­nate to such great men. The supreme plea­sure is con­tem­pla­tion. The aim of the state is to pro­duced cul­tured gen­tle­men, such as those of the Athens of Per­i­cles, or the 18th cen­tury—but their day is past.

  • Rus­sell ar­gues that many of the er­rors made in Plato can be cor­rected us­ing a sys­tem of pred­i­cate logic—for ex­am­ple, his mi­s­un­der­stand­ing of re­la­tional propo­si­tions, and his claims that some­thing can be “one” (or other num­bers).

  • After the Alexan­drean con­quests, the Greek world be­came chaotic, and philoso­phers be­came more spe­cial­ised, as well as su­per­sti­tious. Ethics be­comes of fore­most im­por­tance, as men strove to deal with the gen­eral con­fu­sion—in par­tic­u­lar by cul­ti­vat­ing mind­sets that would help en­dure the suffer­ing of life, rather than those that would pro­mote any en­er­getic or use­ful ac­tivity.

  • The Cyn­ics, led by Dio­genes, taught that we should re­ject wor­ldly goods and in­stead fo­cus on virtue. This passed into Zeno’s Sto­icism, which ar­gued that such pur­suit of virtue was in­de­pen­dent of all ex­ter­nal cir­cum­stances. Sto­icism greatly in­fluenced a num­ber of Ro­mans, no­tably Seneca, Epicte­tus and Mar­cus Aure­lius.

  • By con­trast, Epicu­rus con­sid­ered plea­sure and the avoidance of pain to be the good. Virtue is “Pru­dence in the pur­suit of plea­sure”—like the Sto­ics, he thought at­ti­tude in­cred­ibly im­por­tant and ar­gued that, in prac­tice, most de­sires and ex­treme plea­sures led to more pain than they were worth. Epicu­rus thought that “death was noth­ing to us”, and re­li­gions should be over­thrown, since the su­per­nat­u­ral causes ter­ror.

  • Mean­while Pyrrho, the Scep­tic, de­nied the abil­ity to know any­thing, and con­cluded that we should fall back on com­mon prac­tice.

  • Th­ese doc­trines were all more uni­ver­sal than those of pre­vi­ous philoso­phers—Rome was the world, and thus it was easy to be­lieve in one uni­ver­sal cul­ture and broth­er­hood. As Rome de­clined, Plot­inus for­warded Neo­pla­ton­ism, an im­por­tant pre­cur­sor to Chris­tian the­ol­ogy in its fo­cus on an­other more perfect world, ac­cessed by look­ing in­wards and re­flect­ing.

  • The Church also con­tained im­por­tant el­e­ments from Ju­daism—in par­tic­u­lar, a sa­cred his­tory; an iden­tity as God’s cho­sen few; a con­cep­tion of righ­teous­ness; the Mes­siah and the King­dom of Heaven. Jews dis­t­in­guished them­selves by their monothe­ism, and the wicked­ness of all other re­li­gions. This meant that their suffer­ing could only be ex­plained by the sins of the Jewish peo­ple in vi­o­lat­ing their laws. This made them par­tic­u­larly rigid—dur­ing the Mac­cabean Re­volt, many Jews were tor­tured and kil­led for re­fus­ing to eat pork or stop cir­cum­cis­ing their chil­dren.

  • Gib­bons iden­ti­fies five fac­tors be­hind Chris­ti­an­ity’s rise:

    1. In­flex­ible re­li­gious zeal

    2. Doc­trine of fu­ture life

    3. A sa­cred book which tes­tified to a mirac­u­lous history

    4. Pure and aus­tere morality

    5. Union and dis­ci­pline of Chris­tian organisation

  • Doc­tri­nal rigidity caused a num­ber of con­flicts over here­sies, the most no­table be­ing the Arian heresy that God the Father was su­pe­rior to Je­sus. This was con­demned at the Coun­cil of Ni­caea in 325, which (along with Con­stan­tine’s ac­cep­tance of Chris­ti­an­ity) her­alds a doc­tri­nal con­soli­da­tion and the end of the early Chris­tian pe­riod. It’s no­table how many of the early here­sies made al­most en­tirely op­po­site claims to other here­sies, with only a nar­row mid­dle ground be­ing ac­cept­able (e.g. the Nesto­rian and Mono­physite here­sies; the Arian and Sa­bel­lian hereises).

  • The “four doc­tors of the Church” from the 4th to 6th cen­turies were St Am­brose, St Jerome, St Au­gus­tine and Pope Gre­gory the Great. The first ini­ti­ated the con­soli­da­tion of power in the Pa­pacy, the sec­ond trans­lated the Bible and was a ma­jor in­fluence to­wards monas­ti­cism, and the third was the foun­da­tion of Catholic the­ol­ogy. Au­gus­tine was ob­sessed by sin: passed down from Adam, God re­deems some of us from it via pre­des­ti­na­tion, al­though none of us de­serve re­demp­tion. He holds that the Church must be sep­a­rate from and su­pe­rior to the State. He is heav­ily Pla­tonic. Around this time an in­tense ad­mira­tion for celibacy de­vel­oped, and it be­came es­sen­tial for the moral au­thor­ity of the church. Gre­gory the Great is known for in­sti­gat­ing the Gre­go­rian Mis­sion to con­vert the An­glo-Sax­ons, as well as his pro­lific writ­ings.

  • St Bene­dict founded the most im­por­tant monas­tic group, the Bene­dic­tine Order, at the be­gin­ning of the 6th cen­tury. Bene­dictines did not have to be as aus­tere as pre­vi­ous monks. Around this time Gre­gory the Great was con­soli­dat­ing power in the pa­pacy, Jus­ti­nian was com­piling Ro­man law—and Muhammed was born. Thus the men of the 6th cen­tury had a dis­pro­por­tionate in­fluence on the world. How­ever, the Dark Ages over the next 5 cen­turies meant very lit­tle in­tel­lec­tual progress oc­curred. In the 11th cen­tury, St Anselm laid out the on­tolog­i­cal ar­gu­ment for God. From around then on, an­cient philos­o­phy be­gan to be re­dis­cov­ered, mainly via Is­lamic schol­ars.

  • By the 13th cen­tury, the popes had lost much of their moral au­thor­ity, and a num­ber of hereti­cal move­ments sprouted. How­ever, the rise of the men­di­cant or­ders re­stored some of this faith. St Fran­cis was no­tably zeal­ous in his aus­ter­ity; St Do­minic similarly zeal­ous in com­bat­ing heresy. Though their or­ders were soon cor­rupted, they con­tained a num­ber of philoso­phers, most no­tably Thomas Aquinas, who was a keen Aris­totelian.

I also made a rough di­a­gram of the flow of in­tel­lec­tual in­fluence through the ages—again fo­cus­ing on an­cient philoso­phers, but with a few mod­ern ones thrown in when there was a par­tic­u­larly strong link. Philoso­phers most as­so­ci­ated with one big idea or virtue have it noted be­neath them. The graph is sur­pris­ingly neat (and pla­nar!), no doubt be­cause I’ve sim­plified a lot of re­la­tion­ships and over­looked many more—don’t in­ter­pret this as any­thing more than an out­line.