A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 2, Chapters 11–13 : Ancient Philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) | Summary



Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 11: Socrates

History knows about Socrates only through his pupils, primarily Plato and Xenophon. Socrates was "an Athenian citizen of moderate means, who spent his time in disputation, and taught philosophy to the young, but not for money, like the Sophists." He was condemned to death for impiety and corrupting the young and died at age 70.

With Plato it is difficult to know how much he portrays the real Socrates and how much he uses his teacher as the "mouthpiece of his own opinions." The dialogue of the Apology, which relates Socrates's defense at his trial, is generally considered to be historical. In it Socrates owns up to being the wisest man in Athens because he knows that his wisdom "is worth little or nothing." He exposes pretenders to wisdom out of a sense of duty and calls himself a "gad-fly, given to the state by God." Socrates does not fear death and believes he will migrate "to another world" and "continue his search after knowledge." Russell draws parallels between Socrates and Christian martyrs or Puritans because he feels himself to be guided by an oracle or daimon, which is similar to hearing the voice of God or angels.

Known for his mastery over bodily passions, Socrates seems impervious to heat, cold, and the effects of alcohol and is indifferent to death. "He was the perfect Orphic saint: in the dualism of heavenly soul and earthly body, he had achieved the complete mastery of the soul over the body," says Russell. Socrates does believe knowledge is obtainable and should be sought. Since no man sins on purpose in his view, knowledge is needed to arrive at perfect virtue. This connection between virtue and knowledge is found in Socrates, Plato, and all Greek thought, says Russell. This is different from Christian ethics, which contends that virtue can be found among the ignorant. Socrates refines the dialectic method of seeking knowledge through questions and answers, and "through Plato's influence, most subsequent philosophy has been bounded by the limitations resulting from his method," says Russell. Debates of logic rather than fact can be sorted out through the Socratic method, but it is not helpful in discovering new facts.

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 12: The Influence of Sparta

The culture of Sparta is known through both history and myth—the mythical portion fully developed in Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus. Russell says this text helped frame the doctrines of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Adolph Hitler's National Socialism. The Spartans were a warrior people who conquered Laconia (also Lacedaemon), of which Sparta was the capital, and reduced the conquered people to serfs who worked the land for them. Spartan males were raised from a young age for war, and sickly children were left to die. Both boys and girls were physically trained, and everything that people did, including marrying and procreating, was done for the benefit of the state and to obtain success at war.

What persisted in people's imaginations was not the real Sparta but the one idealized by Plato in his Republic, and Plutarch (46–119 CE) some 400 years later, says Russell. Reading these works, people aspired to become philosopher-kings. While the Spartans were excellent fighters, they did nothing to spread Greek culture. Rather, Alexander the Great, a "semi-barbarian," spreads Hellenism throughout the Near East and Asia Minor. Plutarch's works influenced 18th-century European liberalism and American republicanism as well as the Romantic movement in Germany, says Russell. But in Plutarch's account of Lycurgus and Sparta his influence has been categorically bad, he says.

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 13: The Sources of Plato's Opinions

In Bertrand Russell's view Plato and Aristotle are among the most influential of all philosophers, with Plato having more influence "upon subsequent ages." Christian theology until the 13th century is more Platonic than Aristotelian. The most important aspects of Plato's philosophy are his vision of utopia, theory of ideas, arguments in favor of immortality, cosmogony (theory of the origins of the universe), and conception of knowledge as reminiscence instead of perception.

Plato was born in the early days of the Peloponnesian War. A prosperous aristocrat, he was not a supporter of democracy and likely attributed the fall of Athens to this form of government. Moreover, Socrates, his beloved teacher, was put to death by the democracy, so it is not surprising that he looked toward Sparta in imagining an ideal society. Other influences on Plato were Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. Platonic philosophy raised two important questions: (1) "Is there such a thing as 'wisdom'?" and (2) "Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?" In Russell's view Plato would likely answer the second question by saying a ruler should be informed by "knowledge of the good." No doubt people will also disagree about the kind of training needed for political wisdom. "The problem of finding a collection of 'wise' men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one," says Russell, which is "the ultimate reason for democracy."


Everything that is known about Socrates comes through secondary sources, which is true of most of the pre-Socratic philosophers as well. Texts of the pre-Socratics are mostly fragments. The term Pre-Socratic may also be problematic since some of the early philosophers were contemporaries of Socrates. Socrates himself would not deign to write his philosophy down, so historians have to take Plato's word for what Socrates said. Some information also comes through his pupil Xenophon, but Russell says he is less trustworthy, being somewhat dull witted. However, according to David K. O'Connor, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, Xenophon is also a brilliant student of Socrates. After the death of Socrates, a number of his students memorialize his life and conversations using the dialogue genre so familiar in Plato's work, which mimics the way in which Socrates taught philosophy.

Socrates is likely accused of impiety because of his claim he is guided by a divine spirit (daimon), a belief that violated conventional religious beliefs and practices. The charge of corruption of the young is probably based on his criticisms of the current democracy and his friendships with people of the antidemocratic factions in Athens. Socrates disliked democracy because the majority of people were uneducated, and he believes government is an art or a skill that should be entrusted to an intelligent minority. He also is aware of how mob rule can quickly become the norm since masses of people can be easily swayed.

Russell is a Socialist and champion of democracy, and perhaps for this reason he is not overly impressed with Socrates. Russell perhaps somewhat disparagingly calls him an "Orphic saint," although Russell's description as such proves himself, not Socrates, to be a dualist. Rather, Socrates's ability to master his body-mind does not make him a dualist but rather a philosophical master, or if Russell likes, a saint, but not a dualist saint.

Russell says Plato and Aristotle are the most influential of all philosophers in the Western tradition because they are the founders. Both left behind extensive bodies of work, and both integrated the thinking of previous philosophers in creating their own comprehensive philosophical systems. Plato has more influence than Socrates because the people who carried on the Western philosophical tradition—primarily Catholic clergy after the fall of the Roman Empire—had no access to Aristotle's work until the 13th century, when translations became available. There is a little more access to a few of Plato's works, however, as well as to the Neoplatonist Plotinus. These texts are read in Greek by Christian theologians and scholars such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Boethius. While Aristotle represents the scientific and empirical trend in Western philosophy, Plato represents the mystical, religious, and idealistic trend, so it is no surprise that Western philosophy leaned in the latter direction for hundreds of years, especially given than the torch of philosophy is passed from the Greeks to the Christians.

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