Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: History of Western Philosophy (1946) by Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

History of Western Philosophy
and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances 
from Earliest Times to the Present Day

George Allen & Unwin, Paperback, 1969.
8vo. 842 pp. Preface by BR [7-8]. Index [791-842].

First published in the US by Simon & Schuster, 1945.
First published in the UK by George Allen & Unwin, 1946.
Second edition (reset), 1961.
Fifth impression, 1969.




BOOK ONE: Ancient Philosophy

PART I: The Pre-Socratics
1. The Rise of Greek Civilisation
2. The Milesian School
3. Pythagoras
4. Heraclitus
5. Parmenides
6. Empedocles
7. Athens in Relation to Culture
8. Anaxagoras
9. The Atomists
10. Protagoras

PART II: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
11. Socrates
12. The Influence of Sparta
13. The Sources of Plato's Opinions
14. Plato's Utopia
15. The Theory of Ideas
16. Plato's Theory of Immortality
17. Plato's Cosmogony
18. Knowledge and Perception in Plato
19. Aristotle's Metaphysics
20. Aristotle's Ethics
21. Aristotle's Politics
22. Aristotle's Logic
23. Aristotle's Physics
24. Early Greek Mathematics and Astronomy

PART III: Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle
25. The Hellenistic World
26. Cynics and Sceptics
27. The Epicureans
28. Stoicism
29. The Roman Empire in Relation to Culture
30. Plotinus

BOOK TWO: Catholic Philosophy


PART I: The Fathers
1. The Religious Development of the Jews
2. Christianity During the First Four Centuries
3. Three Doctors of the Church
4. St Augustine's Philosophy and Theology
5. The Fifth and Sixth Centuries
6. St Benedict and Gregory the Great

PART II: The Schoolmen
7. The Papacy in the Dark Ages
8. John the Scot
9. Ecclesiastical Reform in the Eleventh Century
10. Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy
11. The Twelfth Century
12. The Thirteenth Century
13. St Thomas Aquinas
14. Franciscan Schoolmen
15. The Eclipse of the Papacy

BOOK THREE: Modern Philosophy

PART I: From the Renaissance to Hume
1. General Characteristics
2. The Italian Renaissance
3. Machiavelli
4. Erasmus and More
5. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation
6. The Rise of Science
7. Francis Bacon
8. Hobbes's Leviathan
9. Descartes
10. Spinoza
11. Leibniz
12. Philosophical Liberalism
13. Locke's Theory of Knowledge
14. Locke's Political Philosophy
15. Locke's Influence
16. Berkeley
17. Hume

PART II: From Rousseau to Present Day
18. The Romantic Movement
19. Rousseau
20. Kant
21. Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century
22. Hegel
23. Byron
24. Schopenhauer
25. Nietzsche
26. The Utilitarians
27. Karl Marx
28. Bergson
29. William James
30. John Dewey
31. The Philosophy of Logical Analysis



Many astute reviewers have observed that the chapters in this book are relatively self-sufficient and can be read independently. I have been doing just that intermittently for years, and do you know what I have found? It is not true. The book can be used to dip into all right, but you will gain enormously from reading it complete, in the right order and in as short time as possible. Thus you will appreciate the numerous cross-references, most of them subtle and suggestive, and you will also get a much better idea of the all-important big picture. Don’t let the size or subject scare you. It is no heroic achievement to read the whole thing from cover to cover. The book is beautifully written and supremely readable.

Professional philosophers (surely this is an oxymoron?) should be aware that this book was not written for them. Nor is it for seasoned amateur philosophers. This book is designed for the intelligent and curious laymen; if they are fans of Bertrand Russell, so much the better. Of that company am I. So this is going to be one unapologetically prejudiced review, prejudiced in favour of the author that is. The aforementioned, and no doubt hugely knowledgeable, reviewers have claimed countless times that Russell is biased, opinionated and irreverent. They are right. But what they call “faults”, I prefer to call “integrity”. Being the man he was, Bertrand Russell could not have written any other History of Western Philosophy but this one.

Biased, opinionated and irreverent as he is, it is important to note some things Bertrand Russell is not. He is not boring, dishonest or, except occasionally in the purely historical chapters, superficial. He is certainly no mean master of the English prose. Speculative non-fiction on abstruse subjects doesn’t get better than that. Lucidity, precision, brevity, brains and wit are elevated to their utmost heights and merged with fantastic readability. As for the book’s shortcomings in terms selection and emphasis, no work of such sweeping scope – from Thales to Dewey, all of them within social and historical context – could possibly be perfect, to begin with. The author knows this all too well, and he lets you know it in the Preface.

A few words of apology and explanation are called for if this book is to escape even more severe censure than it doubtless deserves.


There are many histories of philosophy, but none of them, so far as I know, has quite the purpose that I have set myself. Philosophers are both effects and causes: effects of their social circumstances and of the politics and institutions of their time; causes (if they are fortunate) of beliefs which mould the politics and institutions of later ages. In most histories of philosophy, each philosopher appears as in a vacuum; his opinions are set forth unrelated except, at most, to those of earlier philosophers. I have tried, on the contrary, to exhibit each philosopher, as far as truth permits, as an outcome of his milieu, a man in whom were crystallized and concentrated thoughts and feelings which, in a vague and diffused form, were common to the community of which he was a part.


The problem of selection, in such a book as the present, is very difficult. Without detail, a book becomes jejune and uninteresting; with detail, it is in danger of becoming intolerably lengthy. I have sought a compromise, by treating only those philosophers who seem to me to have considerable importance, and mentioning, in connection with them, such details as, even if not of fundamental importance, have value on account of some illustrative or vivifying quality.

Philosophy, from the earliest times, has been not merely an affair of the schools, or of disputation between a handful of learned men. It has been an integral part of the life of the community, and as such I have tried to consider it. If there is any merit in this book, it is from this point of view that it is derived.[1]

If this book has any defect, it is the fact that it fails to justify its subtitle. Despite the enormous effort of Bertrand and Patricia (his wife who did much of the research as acknowledged in the Preface) to include historical background, pretty much every thinker on these pages “appears as in a vacuum”. Philosophers often influenced one another but seldom changed the society they, or their grandchildren, lived in. Stimulating parallels between different philosophers, their characters, outlooks and ideas, are legion; but very few are related, however vaguely, to profound historical changes. There are exceptions, of course – without Plato and Plotinus, if not without Pythagoras indeed, Christianity would never have become what it is; Marx clearly moulded larger part of the world than any other single man – but on the whole it seems that Ancient Greece (and, to a much lesser extent, the Middle Ages) was not just the cradle of philosophy, but also the last period when it had truly universal importance. Even the greatest names from modern times are dwarfed when set against the vast canvass of history. Kant and Hegel are supposed to have been hugely influential. Sure they were – over other philosophers. Schopenhauer did have a profound effect on Wagner, a phenomenon Russell rightly has no time for, but how he changed the world, if at all, remains elusive.

In his fascinating book An Anatomy of Musical Criticism (1968), Alan Walker proposes his theory that music is “autonomous”, complete in itself, entirely independent of history. “I do not think it is sufficiently realized”, he says, “that there is no valid theoretical concept in the entire history of music which did not first emerge as an intuitive part of creative practice. Musical theory is always wise after the creative event.” This is precisely how this book makes me feel about philosophy. The only difference is that music is more emotional and less intellectual. Otherwise philosophy seems to me just as much divorced from history; like two rivers going their own ways without ever really crossing. While the lovers of wisdom passionately speculate about mind and matter, unity and plurality, knowledge and perception, the purpose of the universe and other exotic stuff like that, the world is ruled by commerce, politics and war, all of them decidedly unphilosophical forces. History of philosophy, like musical criticism, is always wise after the events. It is apt to mould the material into an illusive pattern and to make it unduly dependent on history.

I do not know if this impression of mine is true; Bertrand Russell certainly would not agree with it. It may be that the links between philosophy and history have been much closer, but I failed to appreciate them or Russell failed to do them justice in the first place. It may also be that, ever since Antiquity, the social importance of philosophy has been steadily decreasing, to be reduced today to a strictly academic pursuit of no importance whatsoever – except to guarantee distinguished careers for those who are fit for nothing else. Nowadays, few people outside the tiny academic circles read philosophy; fewer still understand it.

This is why Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is an important, relevant and indeed great book. It is a fine starting point and it helps you make up your mind as regards philosophy: to explore its vast and varied horrors, or to dismiss them as idle cheating with words not worth your time. I’m still somewhere in the middle between these extremes. So, what is philosophy and why should we bother with it? The answers are given in the Introduction and worth considering:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work.


There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

Worth a journey through 25 centuries, is it? You bet it is! The last sentence from the quote above is the best reason I have ever heard why philosophy is worth studying.

Before going on a short sightseeing tour, two caveats – not defects – should be mentioned: repetitions and quotations. Neither is really a problem. Extensive quotations can be tiresome when they come from a deranged mystic like Heraclitus, an abstruse metaphysician like Plotinus, a monster of verbosity like Kant, a master of obscurity like Hegel, or a muddleheaded nincompoop like Bergson, but they are important first-hand evidence that must not be neglected. Since few writers can equal Bertrand Russell’s ability to summarize and explain complex matters, comparisons with other philosophers often have considerable value as light entertainment. As for repetitions, they are few and always worth repeating.

I suppose one doesn’t have to be terribly well-versed in philosophy to realise that Russell’s opinions are hardly conventional. They are likely to provoke hostility and argument. But I do think Russell is better balanced than generally recognised. He is never dogmatic or obnoxious. However harshly he may criticise the sacred cows, he never tries to downplay their influence, nor does he disagree without providing his own ideas on the matters in question. He is often amused but never angry. He seldom passes a philosopher without some appreciative words about his merits. This is evident throughout the whole book.

Russell is fond of the Greeks, especially if they happen to be mathematicians. I’m not sure the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident...”), still less theological dogma, is modelled on Euclid, but I guess his foundational work in geometry may well be regarded as one of the most lasting contributions to human knowledge. Russell even claims that Newton’s Principia is “entirely dominated by Euclid” and that the Greek invention to start with self-evident axioms and “arrive at theorems that are very far from self-evident”, which is of course an integral part of geometry, influenced numerous philosophers from Plato to Kant. Pythagoras is hailed as “intellectually one of the most important men that ever lived”. The mystical side of his genius, as anybody who has read Russell’s stirring essay “Mysticism and Logic” (1914) would expect, is treated seriously. Perhaps surprisingly to some people, Democritus is regarded as the peak of Greek philosophy, but it seems to me that his multifarious and insatiable genius deserves the accolades. After him “there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence.” When he comes to the greatest luminaries of all, Bertie is merciless:

In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of the victory of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates.

This is just the conclusion. The rest is even more merciless. Plato’s utopia is deemed to be nothing more than a totalitarian dystopia; his theory of ideas “contains a number of obvious errors”, his cosmogony is influential but “unimportant”. (Russell asks: what would Plato’s Republic achieve? I ask: how long would it last? Would it last a billion years, like Arthur Clarke’s Diaspar?) Aristotle’s metaphysical speculations are declared to be nothing more than vague juggling with words like “soul”, “mind” and the like; his ethics is commonplace, his politics dated. Nevertheless, Russell is quite aware that “Plato and Aristotle were the most influential of all philosophers, ancient, medieval, or modern”. Furthermore, Plato is “an imaginative writer of great genius and charm” and for Aristotle’s demerits “his successors are more responsible than he is”. The table of contents is telling. Aristotle and Plato alone occupy 11 (eleven) chapters! As for Socrates, well, he isn’t immune to Russell’s criticism either, but he is regarded as a figment of Plato’s imagination:

The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? (I am concerned only with the man as Plato portrays him.) His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.

On the whole, I think Russell’s words about the Milesian school may be applied to the ancient Greeks on the whole. They are important “not for what [they] achieved, but for what [they] attempted.” Much of what they wrote, including Plato and Aristotle, is indeed “infantile”, but their restless curiosity is something to marvel at. Their precocity is astonishing. This is another reason why this book should be read systematically. It makes you realise, not without slight surprise in my case, how much of the medieval and modern philosophy is merely derivative and repetitious variations of what the Greeks achieved several centuries before Christ. There is some extension and elaboration for the sake of originality, but there is hardly anything in the Western philosophy that was not foreshadowed, often in substantial detail, by the ancient Greeks. Small wonder that nearly one third of the book is dedicated to them.

Considering Russell’s notorious agnosticism, I was curious to read his treatment of Catholic philosophy. Would he be more partial than usual? Would his anti-dogma attitude get the better of him? Would he be caught off balance for once? Nope; not at all. He disagrees with the most revered saints politely and respectfully. He sticks to philosophy and never digresses into the untold misery caused by the Church. He carefully summarises the basic writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, but for the most part he refuses to expose their transcendental silliness. Few gentle barbs notwithstanding (“so much for the pears”, he ends the section about Augustine’s “abnormal” preoccupation with sin), Russell’s treatment of the “fathers” and the “schoolmen” of Christianity is characterised by the same beautiful balance as his discourse on the Greeks. It may even be called generous.

St Augustine, we are told, seldom occupied himself with “pure philosophy” (whatever that means), but when he did he showed “very great ability”. His theory of time, for instance, was “a great advance on anything to be found on the subject in Greek philosophy.” It was more than that. It anticipated Kant’s theory on the same subject and Descartes’ subjectivism. The bishop of Hippo was less successful in his “impure philosophy” (if that’s the phrase), namely his pious rambling in The City of God, which sometimes makes a racy reading, and his opposition to the Pelagians,  damnable heretics who had the impiety to believe in free will and heavenly bliss in exchange for a virtuous life on earth. For all his merits as a philosopher, as a theologian St Augustine was morbidly obsessed with sin and totally convinced that we are all wicked. This leads to a perceptive parallel with Tolstoy and a fascinating discussion of one of the most unfortunately important parts of Christianity:

St Augustine is in some ways similar to Tolstoy, to whom, however, he is superior in intellect. He was a passionate man, in youth very far from a pattern of virtue, but driven by an inner impulse to search for truth and righteousness. Like Tolstoy, he was obsessed, in his later years, by a sense of sin, which made his life stern and his philosophy inhuman. He combated heresies vigorously, but some of his views, when repeated by Jansenius in the seventeenth century, were pronounced heretical. Until the Protestants took up his opinions, however, the Catholic Church had never impugned their orthodoxy.


The sense of sin, which was very strong in his [St Augustine’s] day, came to the Jews as a way of reconciling self-importance with outward defeat. Yahweh was omnipotent, and Yahweh was specially interested in the Jews; why, then, did they not prosper? Because they were wicked: they were idolators, they married gentiles, they failed to observe the Law. God’s purposes were centred on the Jews, but, since righteousness is the greatest of goods, and is achieved through tribulation, they must first be chastised, and must recognize their chastisement as a mark of God’s paternal love.
There was, however, one important development, already made, to a great extent, by the Jews, and that was the substitution of individual for communal sin. Originally, it was the Jewish nation that sinned, and that was collectively punished; but later sin became more personal, thus losing its political character. When the Church was substituted for the Jewish nation, this change became essential, since the Church, as a spiritual entity, could not sin, but the individual sinner could cease to be in communion with the Church.

St Thomas Aquinas is duly acknowledged to be “the greatest of scholastic philosophers”. But the author has serious issues with him. For one thing, Aquinas extols Aristotle, and Russell is convinced that much of what the Stagyrite wrote on logic is simply erroneous. He is amused that Aristotle “has, among Catholics, almost the authority of one of the Fathers; to criticize him in matters of pure philosophy has come to be thought almost impious.” He remarks in a rueful footnote that when he did so in a broadcast “very many protests from Catholics resulted.” He patiently outlines in detail the contents of Summa contra Gentiles and he graciously spends only one short paragraph on the idiotic “proofs” of God’s existence in Summa Theologiae. He admires Aquinas’ preference for rational argument than for blind reference to authority, but he still considers the saint greatly overrated as a philosopher. Russell’s conclusion on St Thomas and his succinct summary of the major defects of the “scholastic method” make for an instructive comparison:

There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an enquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.

The defects of the scholastic method are those that inevitably result from laying stress on ‘dialectic’. These defects are: indifference to facts and science, belief in reasoning in matters which only observation can decide, and an undue emphasis on verbal distinctions and subtleties. These defects we had occasion to mention in connection with Plato, but in the scholastics they exist in a much more extreme form.

One might say with equal justice that these are the defects of philosophy in general. All ages and all schools fit the description. Bertrand Russell, incidentally, was one of the very few exceptions: a philosopher whose outlook was thoroughly conditioned by science.

To get back to the fathers and the schoolmen, Russell’s affection is reserved, significantly, for the more iconoclastic members. John the Scot (who was Irish, not Scottish) is “the most astonishing person of the ninth century”. A rare case of Russellian raving! Johannes Scotus was indeed a most remarkable man, “a Neoplatonist, an accomplished Greek scholar, a Pelagian, a pantheist.” He valued reason more than faith, despised ecclesiastical authorities, and wrote a good deal of philosophy which is quite contrary to the Christian doctrines. How he came to die of natural causes is a mystery. Perhaps we should be grateful to Charles the Bald for that. Very similar example from the sixth century is Boethius. In 524, while he was awaiting his execution (successfully carried out, alas), he wrote Consolations of Philosophy, a “golden volume” (Gibbon) that “does not prove that he was not a Christian, but it does show that pagan philosophy had a much stronger hold on him than Christian theology.” Russell praises it hardly less lavishly than Gibbon:

The tone of the book is more like that of Plato than that of Plotinus. There is no trace of the superstition or morbidness of the age, no obsession with sin, no excessive straining after the unattainable. There is perfect philosophic calm – so much that, if the book had been written in prosperity, it might almost have been called smug. Written when it was, in prison under sentence of death, it is as admirable as the last moments of the Platonic Socrates.

Makes you eager to read that book, doesn’t it? On a smaller scale, Marsiglio of Padua and William of Occam are praised for their brave, but ultimately completely unsuccessful, attempts to make the Church democratic. How these guys didn’t end at the stake is a mystery. The former seriously proposed that only a General Council, elected by the majority of people including the laity, should have the power to excommunicate and give authoritative interpretation of Scripture, that the Church on the whole should have no secular authority, and that the Pope should have no special powers. Imagine that! William of Occam, though slightly less daring than Marsiglio in terms of politics, was greatly superior as a philosopher, in fact the most important schoolman after Tommy. He enjoys a thorough philosophical discussion, including the famous principle that bears his name.

Occam is best known for a maxim which is not to be found in his works, but has acquired the name of ‘Occam’s razor’. This maxim says: ‘Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.’ Although he did not say this, he said something which has much the same effect, namely: ‘It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.’ That is to say, if everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it. I have myself found this a most fruitful principle in logical analysis.

The part about modern philosophy is at once the most and the least interesting. On the one hand, the list of names is quite a who’s who in the field. Even people like me, woefully ignorant of philosophy, have heard something about Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Marx. (If nothing else, you’ve tasted the Leibniz biscuits, haven’t you?) Some people may object to the inclusion of Machiavelli and Byron, but everybody has heard of them, and it’s of no small consequence to investigate how they might have influenced the course of history and the minds of the philosophers. On the other hand, the modern times mark, for me, the decline of philosophy. Slowly but surely, it has turned more and more into an esoteric pursuit nobody outside its own circle cares about. Philosophers are officially respected and lip service is paid to them, but secretly they are regarded as a bunch of crackpots. Russell would never go that far, but he clearly recognised the estrangement between modern philosophers and society:

Modern philosophy, however, has retained, for the most part, an individualistic and subjective tendency. This is very marked in Descartes, who builds up all knowledge from the certainty of his own existence, and accepts clearness and distinctness (both subjective) as criteria of truth. It is not prominent in Spinoza, but reappears in Leibniz’s windowless monads. Locke, whose temperament is thoroughly objective, is forced reluctantly into the subjective doctrine that knowledge is of the agreement or disagreement of ideas – a view so repulsive to him that he escapes from it by violent inconsistencies. Berkeley, after abolishing matter, is only saved from complete subjectivism by a use of God which most subsequent philosophers have regarded as illegitimate. In Hume, the empiricist philosophy culminated in a scepticism which none could refute and none could accept. Kant and Fichte were subjective in temperament as well as in doctrine; Hegel saved himself by means of the influence of Spinoza. Rousseau and the romantic movement extended subjectivity from theory of knowledge to ethics and politics, and ended, logically, in complete anarchism such as that of Bakunin. This extreme of subjectivism is a form of madness.

Earlier in the book, in the Introduction itself indeed, Russell frankly calls Fichte’s idea that everything is an emanation of the ego “insanity”, an extreme view from which "philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of everyday common sense.” Anarchism and Romanticism, Russell contends, were among the by-products of subjectivism. How much they were influenced by philosophy and how much happened the other way round, that is for the reader to decide. More fruitful, philosophically at any rate, are the different antidotes to subjectivism. They dominated much of modern philosophy:

Against the more insane forms of subjectivism in modern times there have been various reactions. First, a half-way compromise philosophy, the doctrine of liberalism, which attempted to assign the respective spheres of government and the individual. This begins, in its modern form, with Locke, who is as much opposed to ‘enthusiasm’ – the individualism of the Anabaptists – as to absolute authority and blind subservience to tradition. A more thorough-going revolt leads to the doctrine of State worship, which assigns to the State the position that Catholicism gave to the Church, or even sometimes, to God. Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel represent different phases of this theory, and their doctrines are embodied practically in Cromwell, Napoleon, and modern Germany. Communism, in theory, is far removed from such philosophies, but is driven, in practice, to a type of community very similar to that which results from State worship.

There are several philosophers whose outlook, as presented by Russell, I should like to discuss in some detail. These are Spinoza, Locke and Hume as regards the intrinsic value of their writings; Kant and Hegel as regards an often encountered criticism against Russell; Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as examples of what the author sharply disagrees with. This doesn’t mean the rest of Part Three is boring. Far from it. But it’s important to make some choices. Russell’s confrontation with arch-Romantics like Rousseau and Byron is compelling, but not nearly as much as the one with their philosophical successors. The ideas of Machiavelli, More, Hobbes and Erasmus are intriguing, but not nearly as much as those of their post-Cartesian colleagues. Last but not least, in spite of Russell’s matchless eloquence, I do not buy the Cartesian doctrine of the two clocks, Leibniz’s “windowless monads” or Berkeley’s non-existence of matter. (Berkeley is indeed “a very attractive writer, with a charming style”, but that’s not enough to make his system credible).

Spinoza, “that tender and austere spirit” according to Somerset Maugham[2], “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers” according to Bertrand Russell, is a very interesting creature – according to me. Unfortunately, I must agree with Russell that his Euclidean method in Ethics, full of definitions, propositions, axioms, proofs and corollaries, “makes him difficult reading”. I guess one must have a mathematically orientated mind to follow Spinoza, and I certainly don’t have it. Nevertheless, I think he is worth reading not just out of curiosity how accurate Russell’s summary is or why Maugham was filled “with just that feeling of majesty and exulting power that one has at the sight of a great mountain range” the first time he read him (“one of the signal experiences of my life”)[3], but out of the selfish motif for personal profit as well. I will not embark on one of my lame summaries riddled with quotation marks. I will give you Russell’s salient points first hand.

Spinoza (1632–77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism. Leibniz, who owed much to him, concealed his debt, and carefully abstained from saying a word in his praise; he even went so far as to lie about the extent of his personal acquaintance with the heretic Jew.


Spinoza’s Ethics deals with three distinct matters. It begins with metaphysics; it then goes on to the psychology of the passions and the will; and finally it sets forth an ethic based on the preceding metaphysics and psychology. The metaphysic is a modification of Descartes, the psychology is reminiscent of Hobbes, but the ethic is original, and is what is of most value in the book.


The metaphysical system of Spinoza is of the type inaugurated by Parmenides. There is only one substance, ‘God or Nature’; nothing finite is self-subsistent. Descartes admitted three substances, God and mind and matter; it is true that, even for him, God was, in a sense, more substantial than mind and matter, since He had created them, and could, if He chose, annihilate them. But except in relation to God’s omnipotence, mind and matter were two independent substances, defined, respectively, by the attributes of thought and extension. Spinoza would have none of this. For him, thought and extension were both attributes of God. God has also an infinite number of other attributes, since He must be in every respect infinite; but these others are unknown to us. Individual souls and separate pieces of matter are, for Spinoza, adjectival; they are not things, but merely aspects of the divine Being. There can be no such personal immortality as Christians believe in, but only that impersonal sort that consists in becoming more and more one with God. Finite things are defined by their boundaries, physical or logical, that is to say, by what they are not: ‘all determination is negation’. There can be only one Being who is wholly positive, and He must be absolutely infinite. Hence Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism.

Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties in regard to sin, which critics were not slow to point out. […] This doctrine, though, in one form or another, it has been held by most mystics, cannot, obviously, be reconciled with the orthodox doctrine of sin and damnation. It is bound up with Spinoza’s complete rejection of free will. Although not at all polemical, Spinoza was too honest to conceal his opinions, however shocking to contemporaries; the abhorrence of his teaching is therefore not surprising.


I come now to Spinoza’s theory of the emotions. This comes after a metaphysical discussion of the nature and origin of the mind, which leads up to the astonishing proposition that ‘the human mind has an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God’. But the passions, which are discussed in the Third Book of the Ethics, distract us and obscure our intellectual vision of the whole. […] But even in this Book there are moments when Spinoza abandons the appearance of mathematically demonstrated cynicism, as when he says: ‘Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love.’ Self-preservation is the fundamental motive of the passions, according to Spinoza; but self-preservation alters its character when we realize that what is real and positive in us is what unites us to the whole, and not what preserves the appearance of separateness.

The last two books of the Ethics, entitled respectively ‘Of human bondage, or the strength of the emotions’ and ‘Of the power of the understanding, or of human freedom,’ are the most interesting. We are in bondage in proportion as what happens to us is determined by outside causes, and we are free in proportion as we are self-determined. […] He makes no appeal to unselfishness; he holds that self-seeking, in some sense, and more particularly self-preservation, govern all human behaviour. ‘No virtue can be conceived as prior to this endeavour to preserve one’s own being.’ But his conception of what a wise man will choose as the goal of his self-seeking is different from that of the ordinary egoist: ‘The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s highest virtue is to know God.’ Emotions are called ‘passions’ when they spring from inadequate ideas; passions in different men may conflict, but men who live in obedience to reason will agree together. Pleasure in itself is good, but hope and fear are bad, and so are humility and repentance: ‘he who repents of an action is doubly wretched or infirm’.


Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear. ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.’ Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely. On the last day of his life he was entirely calm, not exalted, like Socrates in the Phaedo, but conversing, as he would on any other day, about matters of interest to his interlocutor. Unlike some other philosophers [e.g. Schopenhauer, see below], he not only believed his own doctrines, but practised them; I do not know of any occasion, in spite of great provocation, in which he was betrayed into the kind of heat or anger that his ethic condemned. In controversy he was courteous and reasonable, never denouncing, but doing his utmost to persuade.


Spinoza does not, like the Stoics, object to all emotions; he objects only to those that are ‘passions’, i.e. those in which we appear to ourselves to be passive in the power of outside forces. ‘An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.’ Understanding that all things are necessary helps the mind to acquire power over the emotions.


Spinoza’s metaphysic is the best example of what may be called ‘logical monism’ – the doctrine, namely, that the world as a whole is a single substance, none of whose parts are logically capable of existing alone. The ultimate basis for this view is the belief that every proposition has a single subject and a single predicate, which leads us to the conclusion that relations and plurality must be illusory. […] The whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not by reasoning; when we successfully infer the future, we do so by means of principles which are not logically necessary, but are suggested by empirical data. And the concept of substance, upon which Spinoza relies, is one which neither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept.

But when we come to Spinoza’s ethics, we feel – or at least I feel – that something, though not everything, can be accepted even when the metaphysical foundation has been rejected. Broadly speaking, Spinoza is concerned to show how it is possible to live nobly even when we recognize the limits of human power. He himself, by his doctrine of necessity, makes these limits narrower than they are; but when they indubitably exist, Spinoza’s maxims are probably the best possible. Take, for instance, death: nothing that a man can do will make him immortal, and it is therefore futile to spend time in fears and lamentations over the fact that we must die. To be obsessed by the fear of death is a kind of slavery; Spinoza is right in saying that ‘the free man thinks of nothing less than of death’.


But how about misfortunes to people whom you love?


If you follow Christ’s teaching, you will say ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I have known Quakers who could have said this sincerely and profoundly, and whom I admired because they could. But before giving admiration one must be very sure that the misfortune is felt as deeply as it should be. One cannot accept the attitude of some among the Stoics, who said, ‘What does it matter to me if my family suffer? I can still be virtuous.’ The Christian principle, ‘Love your enemies,’ is good, but the Stoic principle, ‘Be indifferent to your friends,’ is bad. And the Christian principle does not inculcate calm, but an ardent love even towards the worst of men. There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practise sincerely.

Spinoza would say what the Christian says, and also something more. For him, all sin is due to ignorance; he would ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’. But he would have you avoid the limited purview from which, in his opinion, sin springs, and would urge you, even under the greatest misfortunes, to avoid being shut up in the world of your sorrow; he would have you understand it by seeing it in relation to its causes and as a part of the whole order of nature. As we saw, he believes that hatred can be overcome by love: ‘Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love. Hatred which is completely vanquished by love, passes into love; and love is thereupon greater, than if hatred had not preceded it.’ I wish I could believe this, but I cannot, except in exceptional cases where the person hating is completely in the power of the person who refuses to hate in return. In such cases, surprise at being not punished may have a reforming effect. But so long as the wicked have power, it is not much use assuring them that you do not hate them, since they will attribute your words to the wrong motive. And you cannot deprive them of power by non-resistance.

The problem for Spinoza is easier than it is for one who has no belief in the ultimate goodness of the universe. Spinoza thinks that, if you see your misfortunes as they are in reality, as part of the concatenation of causes stretching from the beginning of time to the end, you will see that they are only misfortunes to you, not to the universe, to which they are merely passing discords heightening an ultimate harmony. I cannot accept this; I think that particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole. Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part.

Nevertheless, when it is your lot to have to endure something that is (or seems to you) worse than the ordinary lot of mankind, Spinoza’s principle of thinking about the whole, or at any rate about larger matters than your own grief, is a useful one. There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.

I have deliberately omitted most references to God. They are countless. Spinoza’s philosophy is totally God-dominated, probably more so than even the most pious ramblings of the scholastics. But it’s essential to understand that his idea of God is profoundly different than that of any religion, least of all Christianity. Spinoza’s God, if I understand him correctly, is something very much like what Richard Dawkins calls “Einsteinian religion”[4]. In simple words: awe-inspiring admiration of nature and its laws. In this sense, to understand and love God – Spinoza doesn’t seem to think that love and understanding are mutually exclusive – is a curiously modern and scientific aspiration. It certainly is a noble one. It dispenses with hope, but it also gets rid of fear. It deems free will to be nothing more than illusion, but it doesn’t descend, as Schopenhauer does, in the noxious dungeons of pessimism. I can well see why Russell holds Spinoza to be “ethically supreme”.

John Locke (1632–1704) is regarded as “the apostle of the Revolution of 1688, the most moderate and the most successful of all revolutions” and “the most influential though by no means the most profound of modern philosophers.” He is also the father of both empiricism and liberalism. Stunning credentials! It is no coincidence that three full chapters are dedicated to him. Though I suspect he is in general agreement with his liberal outlook and lack of dogmatism, Russell is quite critical of Locke’s philosophy, which he finds full with all sorts of glaring contradictions. Locke seems to have been the perfect embodiment of the practical man, “contemptuous of metaphysics” and “always willing to sacrifice logic rather than become paradoxical”. I like Locke more than Russell does, but the most thought-provoking passage from all three chapters is not a quote from Locke but a casual reference to the two main types of philosophy.

No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. The most fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true. There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth than one which, like Locke’s, is obviously more or less wrong.

“A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false.” There’s wisdom here! The passage above naturally leads to Hume who, as opposite to Locke, achieved consistency at the expense of credibility.

Somerset Maugham once wrote about David Hume that “it would be impossible, I think, to write philosophy with more elegance, urbanity and clearness.[5] If An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is anything to go by, I might agree entirely about the “urbanity”, but only to some extent about the “elegance” and “clearness”. That said, Hume is one of the very few philosophers – not to say the only one – whose major works I would love to read complete. In this respect, Russell mentions one charming detail. The famous Enquiry (1748) is a shortened version of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) which Hume did “by leaving out the best parts and most of the reasons for his conclusions”. Russell opens his chapter with another – the usual – bang:

David Hume (1711–76) is one of the most important among philosophers, because he developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent made it incredible. He represents, in a certain sense, a dead end: in his direction, it is impossible to go further. To refute him has been, ever since he wrote, a favourite pastime among metaphysicians. For my part, I find none of their refutations convincing; nevertheless, I cannot but hope that something less sceptical than Hume’s system may be discoverable.

Russell’s attitude to Hume is exceptionally ambiguous. He clearly admires him, as he finds none of the numerous refutations (Kant be blown!) of his ideas convincing, but at one place he states that when Hume “achieves some degree of consistency he is wildly paradoxical”. I am not sure how one is supposed to reconcile words like “consistency” and “paradoxical”, but I freely admit that some of Hume’s conclusions are very disturbing. Causation is a case in point. If I understand him correctly, Hume claims it is non-existent. And his arguments, convincing or not, are vastly superior to the Cartesians with their parallel clocks and ludicrous notions like God. Russell discusses the arguments for and against Hume’s “complete scepticism” and, for once, confesses himself puzzled:

Hume’s real argument is that, while we sometimes perceive relations of time and place, we never perceive causal relations, which must therefore, if admitted, be inferred from relations that can be perceived. The controversy is thus reduced to one of empirical fact: Do we, or do we not, sometimes perceive a relation which can be called causal? Hume says no, his adversaries say yes, and it is not easy to see how evidence can be produced by either side.

Hume is quoted at length – invariably from Treatise, never from Enquiry – and he is worth re-quoting here, keeping in mind that these are merely his conclusions; I suppose they are accompanied by formidable argumentation. He was quite aware that the problem is difficult to grasp and may have serious repercussions:

I am sensible, that of all the paradoxes, which I have had, or shall hereafter have occasion to advance in the course of this treatise, the present one is the most violent, and that ’tis merely by dint of solid proof and reasoning I can ever hope it will have admission, and overcome the inveterate prejudices of mankind. Before we are reconcil’d to this doctrine, how often must we repeat to ourselves, that the simple view of any two objects or actions, however related, can never give us any idea of power, or of a connexion betwixt them: that this idea arises from a repetition of their union: that the repetition neither discovers nor causes anything in the objects, but has an influence only on the mind, by that customary transition it produces: that this customary transition is, therefore, the same with the power and necessity, which are consequently felt by the soul, and not perceiv’d externally in bodies?
[Book I, part iii, sec. xiv.]

All probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ’Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinced of any principle, ’tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give the preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence. Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of one to the existence of another.
[Book I, part iii, sec. viii.]

This abolition of causation, if accepted, has shattering consequences. It undermines the existence of knowledge itself. It deems rationality to be an illusion. It has had, directly or indirectly, stupendous historical significance. In Russell’s infinitely more powerful words:

The ultimate outcome of Hume’s investigation of what passes for knowledge is not what we must suppose him to have desired. The sub-title of his book [Treatise] is: ‘An attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.’ It is evident that he started out with a belief that scientific method yields the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; he ended, however, with the conviction that belief is never rational, since we know nothing.


Hume’s philosophy, whether true or false, represents the bankruptcy of eighteenth-century reasonableness. He starts out, like Locke, with the intention of being sensible and empirical, taking nothing on trust, but seeking whatever instruction is to be obtained from experience and observation. But having a better intellect than Locke’s, a greater acuteness in analysis, and a smaller capacity for accepting comfortable inconsistencies, he arrives at the disastrous conclusion that from experience and observation nothing is to be learnt. There is no such thing as a rational belief: ‘If we believe that fire warms, or water refreshes, ’tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.’ We cannot help believing, but no belief can be grounded in reason.


It was inevitable that such a self-refutation of rationality should be followed by a great outburst of irrational faith. The quarrel between Hume and Rousseau is symbolic: Rousseau was mad but influential, Hume was sane but had no followers. Subsequent British empiricists rejected his scepticism without refuting it; Rousseau and his followers agreed with Hume that no belief is based on reason, but thought the heart superior to reason, and allowed it to lead them to convictions very different from those that Hume retained in practice. German philosophers, from Kant to Hegel, had not assimilated Hume’s arguments. I say this deliberately, in spite of the belief which many philosophers share with Kant, that his Critique of Pure Reason answered Hume. In fact, these philosophers – at least Kant and Hegel – represent a pre-Humian type of rationalism, and can be refuted by Humian arguments. The philosophers who cannot be refuted in this way are those who do not pretend to be rational, such as Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume’s destruction of empiricism.

It is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within the framework of a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, or rather – since we must not assume democracy – on the ground that the government does not agree with him. This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that there is some way of escaping from it.

Hume’s scepticism rests entirely upon his rejection of the principle of induction. The principle of induction, as applied to causation, says that, if A has been found very often accompanied or followed by B, and no instance is known of A not being accompanied or followed by B, then it is probable that on the next occasion on which A is observed it will be accompanied or followed by B. If the principle is to be adequate, a sufficient number of instances must make the probability not far short of certainty. If this principle, or any other from which it can be deduced, is true, then the causal inferences which Hume rejects are valid, not indeed as giving certainty, but as giving a sufficient probability for practical purposes. If this principle is not true, every attempt to arrive at general scientific laws from particular observations is fallacious, and Hume’s scepticism is inescapable for an empiricist. The principle itself cannot, of course, without circularity, be inferred from observed uniformities, since it is required to justify any such inference. It must therefore be, or be deduced from, an independent principle not based upon experience. […] What these [Hume’s] arguments prove – and I do not think the proof can be controverted – is, that induction is an independent logical principle, incapable of being inferred either from experience or from other logical principles, and that without this principle science is impossible.

Quite apart from his doubts, Russell has some acute criticisms of Hume. He boldly accuses him of inconsistency and insincerity, not without reason in either case.

Even in his most sceptical chapter, in which he sums up the conclusions of Book I, he says: ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.’ He has no right to say this. ‘Dangerous’ is a causal word, and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is ‘dangerous’.

In fact, in the later portions of the Treatise, Hume forgets all about his fundamental doubts, and writes much as any other enlightened moralist of his time might have written; he applies to his doubts the remedy that he recommends, namely ‘carelessness and inattention’. In a sense, his scepticism is insincere, since he cannot maintain it in practice. It has, however, this awkward consequence, that it paralyses every effort to prove one line of action better than another.

On the other hand, occasionally Russell is quite unfair to Hume:

There is no reason for studying philosophy – so Hume maintains – except that, to certain temperaments, this is an agreeable way of passing the time.

I very much doubt Hume maintained anything of the sort. In Part I of Enquiry, he claims for philosophy much greater ambitions:

Besides, we may observe, in every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action, that a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Noble sentiments. I don’t think Russell would have disagreed with them and I wish the “genius of philosophy” would be more widespread. Hume’s proposed improvement of human nature is not unlike Russell’s attempts to spread a more rational outlook among the people at large, to gradually free the masses from their propensity to be enslaved by superstitions and dogma. Both thought – and, for my part, both were right – that philosophy could help establishing critical thinking and subtlety of reflection, or at least their approximation, among men of action not generally burdened by mental activities. Both agreed that certain matters are best left to unreasonable passions, but Hume summarised the issue better: “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."[6]

Russell’s account of post-Cartesian (i.e. modern) philosophy has been criticised on a number of points. One of them is his notoriously unfair treatment of Kant. I’m not sure this corresponds with the truth. The most horrible thing Russell says about Kant is that he disagrees with the common opinion that the Sage from Königsberg is the greatest of modern philosophers. But Russell doesn’t try – again this marvellous integrity! – to downplay Kant’s importance, and he goes through his refutation of the intellectual arguments of God’s existence, his elaborate ethical system, and especially his bizarre theory of space and time. I am pleased to say that there is not a word about Kant’s aesthetics. As far I’m concerned, Somerset Maugham has settled the matter conclusively. In his brilliant essay “Reflections on a Certain Book”, he met Immanuel at the Aesthetics Ring and sent him in a permanent knockout.

For my part, the most interesting thing about Kant is his staggering arrogance. In the preface to the first edition of his magnum opus, The Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote modestly: “I venture to assert that there is not a single metaphysical problem which has not been solved, or for the solution of which the key at least has not been supplied.” Have you, indeed! Russell would have none of this. For his part, the chief importance of Kant is not that he refuted Hume (which he didn’t), but that he made possible the philosophy of Hegel. Kant may have originated the German idealism in philosophy, but it was Hegel who brought it to its culmination.

Those who have read Russell’s essay “How to Read and Understand History” (1943) would not be surprised that the chapter on Hegel is the wittiest and most devastating in the whole book. He starts with bluntly stating his belief that “almost all Hegel’s doctrines are false”, but he immediately admits their vast historical importance, extending far beyond “pure philosophy”. He then embarks on a fascinating discussion of Hegelian logic and dialectic, or the Absolute and its final conclusion, the “Absolute Idea”, reached by thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and other really rather obscure notions. Instead of lapsing into a diluted version of Spinoza’s pantheism, Hegel, a mystic under cover, ventures into the slightly nonsensical hypothesis that the whole is so much more important than its parts that we cannot truly know anything except in relation to the entire universe. Russell argues that these ideas, if true, effectively eliminate the existence of knowledge – it cannot even begin – and he finally demolishes the Hegelian logic completely:

Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic. This was a mistake, and from this mistake arose the whole imposing edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.

As for Hegel’s relentlessly nationalistic, militaristic and dictatorial political philosophy, it is ingeniously shown to be inconsistent with his metaphysical fantasies. The glorification of the State, “a doctrine which, if accepted, justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly be imagined” (and which, indeed, is something of a misnomer as the existence of other states is granted), hardly agrees with Hegel’s passion that the whole alone can be true and real. The so-called “theory of history”, of which the divine State is of course an indispensable part, Russell destroys with uncompromising arguments; note his delicious sarcasm that enlivens these passages:

World history, in fact, has advanced through the categories, from Pure Being in China (of which Hegel knew nothing except that it was) to the Absolute Idea, which seems to have been nearly, if not quite, realized in the Prussian State. […] It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Marx and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications. It is odd that a process which is represented as cosmic should all have taken place on our planet, and most of it near the Mediterranean. Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the later parts of the process should embody higher categories than the earlier parts – unless one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that the Universe was gradually learning Hegel’s philosophy.


In the historical development of Spirit there have been three main phases: The Orientals, the Greeks and Romans, and the Germans. ‘The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom. The East knew, and to the present day knows, only that One is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that All are free.’ One might have supposed that democracy would be the appropriate form of government where all are free, but not so. Democracy and aristocracy alike belong to the stage where some are free, despotism to that where one is free, and monarchy to that in which all are free. This is connected with the very odd sense in which Hegel uses the word ‘freedom’. For him (and so far we may agree) there is no freedom without law; but he tends to convert this, and to argue that wherever there is law there is freedom. Thus ‘freedom’, for him, means little more than the right to obey the law.


To our mundane vision, it may seem that the Spirit that gives laws is embodied in the monarch, and the Spirit to which laws are given is embodied in his subjects. But from the point of view of the Absolute the distinction between monarch and subjects, like all other distinctions, is illusory, and when the monarch imprisons a liberal-minded subject, that is still Spirit freely determining itself. Hegel praises Rousseau for distinguishing between the general will and the will of all. One gathers that the monarch embodies the general will, whereas a parliamentary majority only embodies the will of all. A very convenient doctrine.

German history is divided by Hegel into three periods: the first, up to Charlemagne; the second, from Charlemagne to the Reformation; the third, from the Reformation onwards. These three periods are distinguished as the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, respectively. It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants’ War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an incident. Instead, he goes off, as might be expected, into praises of Machiavelli.

The best test for a writer’s mettle is the way he disagrees most violently with people and ideas he dislikes. For Russell, these are Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Marx. The first sunk into profound resignation and pessimism, the second developed one of the most peculiar and appallingly elitist philosophical doctrines, and the third was really no philosopher at all but a propagandist with a revolutionary agenda. Russell’s main objection, I think, is that all three were mainly inspired by fear and hate. But he disagrees calmly and thoughtfully, with clearly stated arguments instead of obscure ranting. When he resorts to ad hominem attacks, as he does in all three cases, these are put into wider philosophical context. For example, Nietzsche’s ludicrous dismissal of women is traced to his own frustrating experience (or simply inexperience) with them and “Schopenhauer’s gospel of resignation is not very consistent and not very sincere” because the great philosopher hardly practised the asceticism he preached. The latter case seems the more controversial to me, but unless we accept that philosophers exhibited the same disparity between questionable private life and sublimity in their work as great artists often did (the Schopenhauer-obsessed Richard Wagner is the classic example), I think it makes a lot of sense. It leads, in Russell’s hands, to a shrewd analysis of pessimism and optimism, both alike defective, and a not ungenerous conclusion about the importance of Schopenhauer:

Historically, two things are important about Schopenhauer: his pessimism, and his doctrine that will is superior to knowledge. His pessimism made it possible for men to take to philosophy without having to persuade themselves that all evil can be explained away, and in this way, as an antidote, it was useful. From a scientific point of view, optimism and pessimism are alike objectionable: optimism assumes, or attempts to prove, that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us. Scientifically, there is no evidence that it is concerned with us either one way or the other. The belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason, but the optimistic temperament has been much commoner among Western philosophers. A representative of the opposite party is therefore likely to be useful in bringing forward considerations which would otherwise be overlooked.

More important than pessimism was the doctrine of the primacy of the will. It is obvious that this doctrine has no necessary logical connection with pessimism, and those who held it after Schopenhauer frequently found in it a basis for optimism. In one form or another, the doctrine that will is paramount has been held by many modern philosophers, notably Nietzsche, Bergson, James, and Dewey. It has, moreover, acquired a vogue outside the circles of professional philosophers. And in proportion as will has gone up in the scale, knowledge has gone down. This is, I think, the most notable change that has come over the temper of philosophy in our age. It was prepared by Rousseau and Kant, but was first proclaimed in its purity by Schopenhauer. For this reason, in spite of inconsistency and a certain shallowness, his philosophy has considerable importance as a stage in historical development.

In spite of his sharp disagreement with his philosophy, Russell freely admits that Nietzsche was not just Schopenhauer’s successor, but “superior [to him] in many ways, particularly in the consistency and coherence of his doctrine.”  In the end, he reaches the (startling for some people) conclusion that Nietzsche’s ethics, however repugnant, are irrefutable by logical arguments. Like Hume’s scepticism, they can be accepted or rejected on emotional grounds only. Even Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity, which might be expected to draw both men together, fails to do so. Russell agrees about Pascal, who “sacrificed his magnificent mathematical intellect to his God”, and about Dostoyevsky, who “would sin in order to repent and to enjoy the luxury of confession.” Their main arguments also seem to agree, up to a point at least. Nietzsche thinks the greatest vice of Christianity was that “it caused acceptance of what he calls ‘slave morality’.” Russell’s major objection is that Christianity is untrue (for which Nietzsche cares not) and that it promotes unreasonable submission to authority (pretty much the same as Nietzsche’s “slave morality”). Where both great men conflict is as to what to put in the place of religion, and it’s amusing to see Russell in such a Christian mood, though he chooses Buddha, not Jesus, to plead his case. A lengthy quotation is due here.

It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His ‘noble’ man – who is himself in day-dreams – is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, cruel, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says:

I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not – but they shall be
The terror of the earth.

This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.


The question is: If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of the Book of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?

Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment; the wounded in battle, dying in slow agony; the orphans, illtreated by cruel guardians; and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow, he would say, a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.

Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out when his turn came: ‘Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fibre. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be completely secured by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Frederick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. I appeal to You, Lord, as the greatest of creative artists, do not let Your artistic impulses be curbed by the degenerate fear-ridden maunderings of this wretched psychopath.’

Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learnt all history since his death, and has mastered science with delight in the knowledge and sorrow at the use to which men have put it, replies with calm urbanity: ‘You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element, the absence of suffering; but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. Though I have no special admiration for Alcibiades and Napoleon, I, too, have my heroes: my successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature and secure food with less labour; the medical men who have shown how to diminish disease; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations; they are enough to fill the lives of the greatest men that have ever lived.’

‘All the same,’ Nietzsche replies, ‘your world would be insipid. You should study Heraclitus, whose works survive complete in the celestial library. Your love is compassion, which is elicited by pain; your truth, if you are honest, is unpleasant, and only to be known through suffering; and as to beauty, what is more beautiful than the tiger, who owes his splendour to his fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom.’

‘You might,’ Buddha replies, ‘because you love pain, and your love of life is a sham. But those who really love life would be happy as no one can be happy in the world as it is.’

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any arguments such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

Russell’s philosophical discussions have attracted a good deal of criticism, but that’s nothing compared to the historical chapters. Oddly enough, it is philosophers, not historians, that find them most unsatisfactory. Browse the omniscient Wikipedia and you will find self-righteous professors of philosophy, nowadays happily forgotten, denouncing Russell as “dreadful historian” and his book as “misreading history”. (You will even find the shocked “he did it for the money” argument. It’s true, of course, but what it has to do with the book is not clear. The writer’s motives are no business of the reader: he is concerned only – I repeat: only – with the final result.) To be sure, Russell’s historical “digressions” are full of sweeping generalisations, inevitably so as he often has to compress whole shelves of historical studies in a few pages, but for the most part they repay careful reading. In his Preface, he defends the kind of book he writes:

Some, whose scholarly austerity is unbending, will conclude that books covering a wide field should not be written at all, or, if written, should consist of monographs by a multitude of authors. There is, however, something lost when many authors co-operate. If there is any unity in the movement of history, if there is any intimate relation between what goes before and what comes later, it is necessary, for setting this forth, that earlier and later periods should be synthesized in a single mind. The student of Rousseau may have difficulty in doing justice to his connection with the Sparta of Plato and Plutarch; the historian of Sparta may not be prophetically conscious of Hobbes and Fichte and Lenin. To bring out such relations is one of the purposes of this book, and it is a purpose which only a wide survey can fulfil.

Some of Russell’s parallels can be quirky. The kind of idée fixe he had for the far-reaching influence of Sparta is a case in point. Now and then he mentions contemporary politics, especially as regards Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which must be put in the right historical context to be understood; he seems to have been aware of these “dated” bits because there are several footnotes, probably added for the second edition in 1961, reminding the reader that the book was written in the early 1940s. Nevertheless, I often find (perhaps due to my lamentable ignorance of history) Russell’s historical reflections illuminating and stimulating. Here are just a few examples, including a wonderful character sketch of St Francis of Assisi and how his followers misused the order founded by him.

             [In Athens of Plato:]
The art of deductive reasoning had been lately discovered, and afforded the excitement of new theories, both true and false, over the whole field of knowledge. It was possible in that age, as in few others, to be both intelligent and happy, and happy through intelligence.

[The end of the chapter on St Augustine (354–430):]
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition.

Our use of the phrase ‘the Dark Ages’ to cover the period from 600 to 1000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe. In China, this period includes the time of the Tang dynasty, the greatest age of Chinese poetry, and in many other ways a most remarkable epoch. From India to Spain, the brilliant civilization of Islam flourished. What was lost to Christendom at this time was not lost to civilization, but quite the contrary. No one could have guessed that Western Europe would later become dominant both in power and in culture. To us, it seems that West-European civilization is civilization, but this is a narrow view. Most of the cultural content of our civilization comes to us from the Eastern Mediterranean, from Greeks and Jews.

In the matter of saintliness, Francis has had equals; what makes him unique among saints is his spontaneous happiness, his universal love, and his gifts as a poet. His goodness appears always devoid of effort, as though it had no dross to overcome. He loved all living things, not only as a Christian or a benevolent man, but as a poet. His hymn to the sun, written shortly before his death, might almost have been written by Ikhnaton the sun-worshipper, but not quite – Christianity informs it, though not very obviously. He felt a duty to lepers, for their sake, not for his; unlike most Christian saints, he was more interested in the happiness of others than in his own salvation. He never showed any feeling of superiority, even to the humblest or most wicked. Thomas of Celano said of him that he was more than a saint among saints; among sinners he was one of themselves.

If Satan existed, the future of the order founded by St Francis would afford him the most exquisite gratification. The saint’s immediate successor as head of the order, Brother Elias, wallowed in luxury, and allowed a complete abandonment of poverty. The chief work of the Franciscans in the years immediately following the death of their founder was as recruiting sergeants in the bitter and bloody wars of Guelfs and Ghibellines. The Inquisition, founded seven years after his death, was, in several countries, chiefly conducted by Franciscans. A small minority, called the Spirituals, remained true to his teaching; many of these were burnt by the Inquisition for heresy. These men held that Christ and the Apostles owned no property, not even the clothes they wore; this opinion was condemned as heretical in 1323 by John XXII. The net result of St Francis’s life was to create yet one more wealthy and corrupt order, to strengthen the hierarchy, and to facilitate the persecution of all who excelled in moral earnestness or freedom of thought. In view of his own aims and character, it is impossible to imagine any more bitterly ironical outcome.

Last but not least, Russell’s delicious sense of humour must be mentioned. It is not as outrageously flippant and hilarious as in some of his finest essays (“An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish” is the classic example). It is much rarer and more subtle than that, mostly manifested by pointed phrases that are very effective within the context but may sound trivial out of it. He seldom misses the opportunity to have some discreet fun at the expense of his colleagues. For example, Xenophon was “a military man, not very liberally endowed with brains”, St Jerome was “a man of many quarrels”, St Bernard was a “heresy-hunter” whose “saintliness did not suffice to make him intelligent”, Hobbes is “vigorous, but crude; he wields the battle-axe better than the rapier”, Kant was awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by Hume “but the awakening was only temporary, and he soon invented a soporific which enabled him to sleep again”, David Hume “became first tutor to a lunatic and then secretary to a general” and then “fortified by these credentials, he ventured again into philosophy.” I have chosen to quote at some length another example not only because it’s funny, but because it combines Russellian humour with provocative historical speculation.

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and unfortunate at all times. St Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell =  Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth        

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx’s eschatology credible. A similar dictionary could be made for the Nazis, but their conceptions are more purely Old Testament and less Christian than those of Marx, and their Messiah is more analogous to the Maccabees than to Christ.

In his Preface to A Brief History of Western Philosophy (1998; illustrated edition, 2006), written especially as a “modern equivalent” to the one reviewed above, Anthony Kenny loftily observes that “the book is not generally regarded as one of Russell’s best, and he is notoriously unfair to some of the greatest philosophers of the past, such as Aristotle and Kant.” I don’t know about the latter, but I do contend that the book is among Russell’s best. By no means should you accept his facts and opinions at face value. He is bound to be “unfair” to many philosophers, by which people usually mean they disagree with him. Bertrand Russell didn’t write this book as a scholar in (vain) searching of perfect objectivity. He wrote it as a professional philosopher (perhaps it’s not an oxymoron, after all) who was absorbed in philosophical problems for his entire life, not to mention that he made some reportedly not negligible contributions to many of them. Looking Inside, Mr Kenny’s book may well be less subjective and factually more accurate; but at the heavy cost of personality, vigour and charm. Russell’s History of Western Philosophy remains a classic and a wonderful place to start your personal adventure in the field. Later, you can read the “modern equivalents” of Anthony Kenny and Brian Magee (The Great Philosophers, 1987), or the 11 volumes of Father Copleston’s A History of Philosophy (1946–86) if you’re brave enough, and see how “unfair” Russell really is. 


[1] This quote comes from the Preface to the British edition (1946). The original Preface to the American edition (1945) says pretty much the same, but in different words. It was completely revised and re-arranged for the British edition. The corresponding passages are as follows:

Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished. This purpose demands more account of general history than is usually given by historians of philosophy.


One consequence of this point of view is that the importance which it gives to a philosopher is often not that which he deserves on account of his philosophic merit. For my part, for example, I consider Spinoza a greater philosopher than Locke, but he was far less influential; I have therefore treated him much more briefly than Locke. Some men – for example, Rousseau and Byron – though not philosophers at all in the academic sense, have so profoundly affected the prevailing philosophic temper that the development of philosophy cannot be understood if they are ignored. Even pure men of action are sometimes of great importance in this respect; very few philosophers have influenced philosophy as much as Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, or Napoleon. Lycurgus, if only be had existed, would have been a still more notable example.

In attempting to cover such a vast stretch of time, it is necessary to have very drastic principles of selection. I have come to the conclusion, from reading standard histories of philosophy, that very short accounts convey nothing of value to the reader; I have therefore omitted altogether (with few exceptions) men who did not seem to me to deserve a fairly full treatment. In the case of the men whom I have discussed, I have mentioned what seemed relevant as regards their lives and their social surroundings; I have even sometimes recorded intrinsically unimportant details when I considered them illustrative of a man or of his times.

Finally, I owe a word of explanation and apology to specialists on any part of my enormous subject. It is obviously impossible to know as much about every philosopher as can be known about him by a man whose field is less wide; I have no doubt that every single philosopher whom I have mentioned, with the exception of Leibniz, is better known to many men than to me. If, however, this were considered a sufficient reason for respectful silence, it would follow that no man should undertake to treat of more than some narrow strip of history. The influence of Sparta on Rousseau, of Plato on Christian philosophy until the thirteenth century, of the Nestorians on the Arabs and thence on Aquinas, of Saint Ambrose on liberal political philosophy from the rise of the Lombard cities until the present day, are some among the themes of which only a comprehensive history can treat. On such grounds I ask the indulgence of those readers who find my knowledge of this or that portion of my subject less adequate than it would have been if there bad been no need to remember "time's winged chariot."

Another fascinating difference between the American and the British editions of the book is that the indefinite article is dropped in the latter. Personally, I like the original American title – A History of Western Philosophy – better. It emphasises the personal character of the book.

The most interesting difference between the first (1946) and second (1961) British editions, besides minor corrections, is that in the newer edition the chapter on Bergson is greatly shortened. This is a great improvement! Interestingly, no corrections seem to have been made in later editions across the Pond. Apparently, all American editions still have, not just the complete – and tedious – chapter on Bergson, but a wrong year (1634) for Spinoza’s birth (1632).

[2] Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), chapter LXXIII.

[3] Ibid., chapter LXIII.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), chapter 1.

[5] Maugham, ibid., chapter LXIII. A lifelong student of human character and writing style, Maugham has some tantalising things to say about the great English philosophers. The phrase about Hume is extracted from this passage:

And when I came to the English philosophers, […] I found that besides being philosophers they were uncommonly good writers. And though they might not be very great thinkers, of this I could not presume to judge, they were certainly very curious men. I should think that few could read Hobbes' Leviathan without being taken by the gruff, downright John Bullishness of his personality and surely no one could read Berkeley's Dialogues without being ravished by the charm of that delightful bishop. And though it may be true that Kant made hay of Hume's theories it would be impossible, I think, to write philosophy with more elegance, urbanity and clearness. They all, and Locke too for the matter of that, wrote English that the student of style could do much worse than study.

[6] An Enquiry into Human Understanding, Section I (“Of the different Species of Philosophy”), part 4.