A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 1, Chapters 1–2 : Ancient Philosophy (The Pre-Socratics) | Summary



Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 1: The Rise of Greek Civilization

"Much of what makes civilization had already existed for thousands of years in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, and had spread thence to neighboring countries," says Bertrand Russell, in accounting for the rise of Greek civilization. Nonetheless, the Greeks "invented mathematics and science and philosophy; they first wrote history as opposed to mere annals; they speculated freely about the nature of the world and the ends of life."

Philosophy and science began around the 6th century BCE, and Thales is known as the first Greek philosopher. From 2500 to 1400 BCE, the artistically advanced Minoan culture flourished in Crete. Minoan culture spread to mainland Greece, where it survived until about 900 BCE. The mainland culture is called Mycenaean—depicted in the epics of Homer. It is uncertain to what degree the Mycenaeans owe their civilization to the Cretans or even if the Mycenaeans were Greek (and spoke some form of that language). Three successive waves of Greek-speaking invaders come to Greece: the Ionians, Achaeans, and Dorians. The religion of classical Greece was a blend of the Indo-European religion of the Dorians and the earlier religion of the Mycenaeans. The Dorians continued to spread beyond Greece into Sicily and southern Italy.

Greek society evolved into an aristocracy and then alternated between tyranny (nonhereditary rule by one man) and democracy (rule by citizens). Greek writing probably began around the 10th century BCE and borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. The first "notable product of the Hellenic civilization" was Homer. The poems attributed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were probably written over a 200-year period, between 750 and 550 BCE. During the 6th century BCE the Homeric poems became fixed, and philosophy and mathematics began. Similar events were happening in other parts of the world, with Confucius, Buddha, and Zoroaster coming of age in the same century.

Greece comprised a number of independent city-states, but only a small number of cities developed Hellenistic culture. Dionysus or Bacchus was originally a Thracian God and fertility figure. Eventually, Bacchus's fertility functions were subordinated to his status as the god of intoxication and "divine madness." When the cult of Bacchus migrated to Greece, his rite retained barbaric elements, such as tearing wild animals to pieces. The cult of Bacchus served as a corrective to overcivilization. A more spiritualized form of the "religion of Bacchus," associated with Orpheus, had an influence on Greek philosophy, according to Russell. The ascetic Orphic cult created an elaborate theology and substituted mental for physical intoxication. Its mystical elements "entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras," an early philosopher and reformer. The commonsense empirical side of the Greeks along with their religious and mystical sides (as seen in the Dionysian and Orphic cults) both influenced philosophy.

Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Milesian School

Thales was a native of Miletus in Asia Minor and the first known Greek philosopher. He may have traveled to Egypt and brought back to the Greeks a rudimentary knowledge of geometry. According to Aristotle, Thales thought water was the original substance from which all others were formed. The second philosopher of the Milesian school, Anaximander, held all things come from one primal substance, which he believed is transformed into all other substances. These substances were then transformed into one another. The substances "make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time," according to Anaximander. He saw the elements as constantly trying to enlarge their territory while nature keeps them in balance. Russell explains that the idea of justice as not overstepping "eternally fixed bounds" is a profound belief among the Greeks. Even the gods are subject to justice, an impersonal supreme power. Anaximenes was the third of the trio of important Milesian philosophers, succeeding Anaximander. For him the fundamental substance is air.


Bertrand Russell mentions that the Greeks invented mathematics but does include a footnote saying arithmetic and some geometry existed among the Egyptians and Babylonians, mainly as "rules of thumb." He says deductive reasoning from general premises is something the Greeks invented. While Russell clearly gives credit to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in more than one place mentions philosophers who may have studied in Egypt, he perhaps does not give Egyptians enough credit. According to more recent scholarship, Egypt may have had more of an influence on Greek philosophy than originally thought. Beginning in 1987, Martin Bernal, an expert in Chinese, published Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization in four volumes. Bernal argues that classical civilization came from Egypt and Phoenician and Hebraic sources and speculates that racism colored scholars' assessments of African and the Middle Eastern influence in developing so-called Western civilization. The extent of these influences continues to be debated by classical scholars.

Russell is clearly writing a history of Western philosophy; nonetheless, both philosophy and science were going on in other parts of the world. While Russell mentions in passing the coming of age of philosophers in other parts of the world, it is important to understand that a great flowering of intellectual thought took place from 800 to 200 BCE. This period of history, referred to as the "Axial Age," saw great strides in philosophy in various parts of the world.

Russell mentions the importance of the cult of Bacchus or Dionysius, which adds a mystical element to Greek religion and is transferred to philosophy, counterbalancing the rational approach of the Milesian school. The intoxication sanctioned by Bacchus allows his followers to tap into the intuitive, unconscious side of their psyches, which give access to a nonrational type of knowledge. The religion of Bacchus is replaced by the more refined asceticism of the Orphic cults. Like the cult of Bacchus, Orphism is an alternative religion. The mainstream religion is belief in the various gods of Zeus's heaven. As early as the 6th century BCE, the Milesian philosophers are speculating about substances, or the most basic of realities, to understand the nature of the world. Russell notes these philosophers have contact with Egypt and Babylonia, and their speculations are early scientific hypotheses, without "any undue intrusion of anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas." Thus, the Milesians represent the scientific, empirical current of Greek philosophy, while the Dionysian and Orphic cults represent the idealistic and mystical current.

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