A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 1, Chapters 7–10 : Ancient Philosophy (The Pre-Socratics) | Summary



Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 7: Athens in Relation to Culture

The golden age of Athens began around 490 BCE, after the city defeated the Persian king Darius at Marathon. Athens became rich and prosperous under Pericles, who ruled for 30 years until his fall in 430 BCE. In the age of Pericles Greek tragedy was born, and the "father of history," Herodotus, wrote an account of the Persian wars. The temples on the Acropolis were rebuilt, and Socrates came to manhood. "Most of Plato's dialogues are supposed by him to take place during the time of Pericles," according to Russell. Athens was a democracy, but in practice power was mostly in the hands of the aristocracy. Athens lost its ascendency for a number of reasons. Athenians began to demand more political power, and government policies caused friction with Sparta, which led to the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE), in which Athens is defeated. Nonetheless, the city retained its cultural prestige, particularly in the area of philosophy, for at least a millennium.

Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 8: Anaxagoras

Anaxagoras was the first to claim mind is the "primary cause of physical changes." He claims everything is "infinitely divisible ... and ... even the smallest portion of matter contains some of each element." He agreed with Empedocles that there is no such thing as a void, since air exists (for example, in an inflated skin) where there appears to be nothing. Mind is a substance that "enters into the composition of living things" and has power over all that is imbued with life. Except for mind, everything is made up of opposites.

Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 9: The Atomists

Leucippus (d. 370 BCE) and Democritus were the founders of atomism—although Leucippus is a shadowy figure, and more is known about Democritus. Democritus traveled widely, spending a lot of time in Egypt and visiting Persia. Atomism was an attempt to mediate between monism and pluralism, says Russell, as represented by Parmenides and Empedocles, respectively. Atomists believed everything is made of atoms that are physically indivisible, indestructible, eternal, and always in motion. Atoms are infinite and come in different shapes; between them is empty space (a void). The atomists saw no need to provide causation for the original motion of atoms, explaining the world "without introducing the notion of purpose or final cause." Their choice of a mechanistic question (What caused this event?) over a teleological question (What is the purpose of this event?) put the atomists in the materialistic, scientific camp, in Russell's view.

The atomists wanted to reconcile the argument of Parmenides—that nothing changes—with the empirical observations that things move and change. If things did change, then there must be a void in which change occurs. Empedocles's discovery that air exists where there appears to be nothing appears to have reinforced Parmenides's argument that the world is a plenum with no possibility of movement. The atomists insisted that since motion can be observed, there must be a void, although it is not corporeal. This seems to have solved the problem for them.

Russell then briefly traces the evolution of thought about space and matter until the modern era (the early 1940s) and notes that the atomists' ideas are somewhat akin to Isaac Newton's idea of absolute space, which was overturned by Albert Einstein's physics. In Russell's view the atomists, particularly Democritus, were the last of the Greek philosophers to embody a scientific attitude. After that philosophy became gradually decadent, with "an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe."

Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 10: Protagoras

Protagoras was chief among the skeptical Sophists. The Sophists made their living teaching young men useful skills, particularly how to speak in public on their own behalf. Protagoras was best known for teaching that "man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not." He argued there is no such thing as objective truth. To many ancient Greeks the Sophists seemed immoral because they were concerned with winning and were willing to follow an argument wherever it led. In that sense they were intellectually honest. Plato disliked the Sophists, since his purpose was to promote views that he believed would make people more virtuous.


Prior to the Age of Pericles, the philosophers came from Ionia (coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey) and the Greek cities of southern Italy and Sicily. After the war against the Persians, the center of Greek philosophy was Athens. The Greeks defeated both Darius and his son Xerxes, but their ascendency is cut short by the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. To say that Athens prior to the war is a democracy ruled by an aristocracy means that Greek men who were citizens and at least 20 years old could vote. Neither women nor slaves could vote. In practice aristocrats were disproportionately represented on the main governing council, whose duties include deciding what issues will be brought before the Assembly.

The atomist philosophers are important because they represent an early empiricist view. They were more concerned with speculating about the ultimate purpose of a phenomenon and less interested in its cause. Further, they tried to reconcile the metaphysical view of Parmenides, that nothing changes, with the evidence of their own senses. They could clearly see that things change, and they attempted to account for that change. Thus they decided that the universe cannot be a plenum as assumed by Parmenides but must contain a void so that things can move around.

Russell compares early ideas of philosophers about space and time until Isaac Newton—a 17th-century mathematician and the father of modern physics. Newton asserted that there is absolute space distinct from relative motion, while Albert Einstein's theory of relativity predicted distance between events rather than objects and involves both space and time. It is a "causal conception, and in modern physics there is no action at a distance," Russell says. In adding to Russell's explanation, Einstein posited space-time as a fourth dimension. Gravity bends space and makes it seem as if action takes place at a distance when in fact it does not. Modern physics does not call space a void, but rather a vacuum where there are no stars or planets. Nonetheless, at first glance it seems hard to tell the difference between a vacuum and the void posited by the atomists. According to one view in modern physics, 68 percent of space is made up of dark energy and 27 percent of it is dark matter, with everything else accounting for 5 percent of what is in space. According to another theory, "empty space" is full of virtual particles that continuously form and disappear. Thus is appears that one way or another, space is not empty.

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