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.