Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 1 Part 2 Chapters 14 18 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 2, Chapters 14–18 : Ancient Philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) | Summary



Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 14: Plato's Utopia

Plato's most important work is the Republic. The first part imagines a utopia or ideal commonwealth; the second part defines "philosopher," the type of person who should rule a utopia; and the third part discusses various kinds of constitutions for government. In his ideal society gravity, decorum, and courage are cultivated by way of a strict education and rigid censorship. This means most types of art are prohibited. Plato advocates a type of communism among the guardian (ruling) class and the soldiers, in Russell's view. Plato also advocates the sharing of women and children and complete equality between the sexes, who will receive the same education from the state. Mating takes place according to eugenic principles, and deformed or inferior children are "put away."

In Plato's utopia the state will also lie to the people when necessary for their own good. For Plato justice is somewhat synonymous with "law" as he has construed it. The Sophist Thrasymachus argues that "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger," and Russell opines this argument is never adequately refuted. Plato firmly believes in "the Good," whose "nature can be ascertained." He thinks he can prove his ideal state is good while a democrat can prove it is bad, Russell says. Meanwhile, from the Sophist's perspective, the state is good or bad according to whether one likes it, and that decision will be made by force, not reason.

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 15: The Theory of Ideas

Russell notes that sections of the Republic have literary beauty, even if the reader disagrees with the actual content of Plato's philosophical ideas. A philosopher, according to Plato, is a lover of wisdom, which is not the same as knowledge. Opinion belongs to the world presented to the senses, while knowledge is apprehension of a super-sensible eternal world. The philosopher loves the "vision of truth," or absolute beauty itself as opposed to beautiful things—which belong to the realm of knowledge. Plato posits a world of forms or ideas. For example, every individual cat partakes of "universal cattyness," which has no position in time or space and is eternal. The word cat refers to an ideal cat created by God. This "cat is real; particular cats are only apparent." Plato distinguishes two types of intellect—reason and understanding: reason is the higher kind, concerned with pure ideas. In the allegory of the cave Plato compares sensible reality to shadows of objects that prisoners in a cave perceive with the help of firelight. Russell argues the distinction between reality and appearance made by Plato and those who followed him is moot, since "if appearance really appears, it is not nothing, and is therefore part of reality."

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 16: Plato's Theory of Immortality

Russell uses the Phaedo to discuss Plato's ideas about the afterlife. Death is the separation of the soul and body, which continues Plato's dualism, according to Russell—between reality and appearance, ideas and sensible objects, and reason and sense perception. The distinction between mind and matter continued after Plato in both philosophy and science, Russell notes. Plato attributes to Socrates the idea that "the body is a hindrance in the acquisition of knowledge" and "true existence, if revealed to the soul at all, is revealed in thought, not in sense." Russell points out that such a view is a rejection of empirical knowledge, including history and geography. Scientific knowledge and experiment thus become unimportant in the attainment of knowledge. The body is "doubly evil, as a distorting medium ... and as a source of lusts [that] distract us from the pursuit of knowledge." Socrates offers several arguments for the existence of the soul, which Russell finds weak and unconvincing. He says the good go to heaven, the bad to hell, and the intermediate to purgatory. Russell finds the Platonic Socrates to be "dishonest and sophistical in argument," interested in proving what he finds agreeable rather than disinterestedly searching for knowledge.

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 17: Plato's Cosmogony

Timaeus lays out Plato's cosmogony or theory of how the universe was formed. "What is unchanging is apprehended by intelligence and reason; what is changing is apprehended by opinion," says Timaeus. God brought the world to order out of disorderly matter and first made the soul before the body. The soul is made up of what is both unchangeable and changeable and is thus a third or intermediate essence. He names two kinds of causes: intelligent causes and those that are moved by others and thus are compelled to also move others. The first has a mind while the second produces chance effects. Russell notes it is difficult to know what Plato means to be taken seriously in this dialogue and what is simply a "play of fancy." Russell says much in this dialogue is "simply silly," albeit influential on ancient and medieval thought.

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 18: Knowledge and Perception in Plato

This chapter reiterates Plato's distinction between knowledge and perception, in which true knowledge cannot be derived from the senses. Plato's idea is (1) existence is a property that belongs to everything and (2) the mind can apprehend existence by itself. "Without reaching existence, it is impossible to reach truth," explains Russell, but everything that Plato says about existence is simply bad syntax. Russell says that in the world only particular objects exist while the rest is abstraction. Therefore, the mind cannot be aware of existence in objects.


It is somewhat surprising to read Bertrand Russell's assessment of Plato, who is generally treated with some degree of reverence by modern-day philosophers and critics.

While Russell says early on that his purpose is to contextualize philosophy within its social and political milieu and to show how history affects philosophy and vice versa, he perhaps has another agenda as well. Russell believes in his own philosophical agenda, and his assessment of the philosophical canon is partly in the service of moving his own philosophical program forward. His philosophy falls squarely in the empirical camp, and he also sees the work of an intellectual as promoting a liberal and democratic outlook and battling autocracy and totalitarian regimes. The reader also needs to keep in mind he is writing his history while World War II is going on, and the need to preserve democracy must feel urgent.

For this reason Russell has little patience for an imagined utopia in which rigid censorship is enforced, reproduction is regulated by the state (which enforces the principles of eugenics), and art is forbidden. Plato's republic looks very much like a totalitarian state. But there is another way to look at Plato's philosophy. Philosopher Gerald A. Press notes that philosophy is an activity for Plato rather than "a set of philosophical doctrines." Plato exhibits "playful seriousness" in his work, and some of what he says can be taken as extreme verbal irony. For example, he says art, which is an imitation, would be banned from his utopia, yet he himself is a practicing imitative poet/artist, which is something that could not have escaped him. Similarly, the philosopher is described as someone who loves truth and apprehends the forms, and yet Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece in the Republic, never describes the Good and claims to have no knowledge of it. Thus, perhaps Plato should not be taken entirely at his word while reading the Republic.

In discussing Plato's theory of ideas in the Republic, Russell does give him credit as a writer. He then summarizes the allegory of the cave, Plato's famous metaphor illustrating his world of form or ideas. Plato's view that the world of forms is real and the actual forms are but the shadow of the real continues the trend in Greek philosophy, going back to Parmenides, which claims that only a metaphysical ideal realm—however it is conceived—is real, while the sensible world is its mere phantom. This is something Russell vigorously disagrees with. He also objects to Plato's discounting of sensory knowledge, which leads to a rejection of science and the body as a "distorting medium." Using his unimpeachable logic, Russell demolishes Plato's notion that people experience only an appearance. An appearance is something and not nothing, he says. Someone might answer that appearance only "appears to appear," but Russell handily answers, "'Does it really appear to appear, or only apparently appear to appear?' Sooner or later, if appearance is even to appear to appear, we must reach something that really appears, and is therefore part of reality." Plato must face up to the implications of multiple appearances of beds in the world, for example, even if only one bed is crafted by God. Any attempt to divide reality into parts, "of which one is more 'real' than the other, is doomed to failure."

In discussing Plato's ideas about knowledge and perception, Russell attempts to demonstrate the bad syntax of Plato's argument with an example. When Russell speaks about bad syntax, he means that the structure in a person's language used to represent reality is illogical and therefore wrong or false. Here is a shortened paraphrase of his example: A parent takes a child to the zoo to prove lions exist. When they get there, the parent may say, "Look, that's a lion." However, if the parent then adds, "And you can see that that exists," the parent would be "uttering nonsense." Thus, a generically existing lion cannot be found in a particular lion, which is what Plato's faulty syntax indicates—that is, he says existence is a property in objects that the mind can apprehend. And since the generic lion does not exist, its existence cannot be apprehended by the mind. What Russell indicates is a particular lion exists and can be apprehended by the senses and understood by the mind.

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