Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 1 Part 3 Chapters 25 26 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 3, Chapters 25–26 : Ancient Philosophy (Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle) | Summary



Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 25: The Hellenistic World

Russell divides "the Greek-speaking world in antiquity" into three eras: the period of the free city-states, dominion of the Macedonians, and rule under the Roman Empire. He calls the second period the Hellenistic age, in which the Greeks did their best work in science and mathematics.

Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Samarcand (Samarkand), Bactria, and the Punjab. He brought down the Persian Empire and spread Greek culture by encouraging its fusion with the cultures he conquered. Alexander reigned from 334 to 324 BCE, and when he died his empire was divided among the families of three generals. Persia (present-day Iran) was reconquered by the Parthians, and Hellenistic influences brought by Alexander were somewhat overshadowed by the spread of Buddhist culture under the Indian emperor Asoka (also Ashoka). Babylonia (present-day Iraq) and Mesopotamia (some of Iraq plus Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, and southeastern Turkey) were strongly influenced by Hellenism until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century CE. The urban areas of Syria were Hellenized, along with Alexandria in Egypt, which became a center of learning for mathematics.

Under Alexander old Greek city-states became "parochial and unimportant." But after Alexander "the Hellenistic world was sinking into chaos, for lack of a despot strong enough to achieve stable supremacy, or a principle powerful enough to produce social cohesion." While the civic spirit of the old cities mostly survived, this period after Alexander and before the Roman conquest is one of confusion and moral decay. Russell quotes C.F. Angus, who says that in the 3rd century BCE, metaphysics took a back seat, and ethics became a matter for individuals. Philosophy was no longer "the pillar of fire" followed by "intrepid seekers" but rather "an ambulance following in the wake of the struggle for existence ... picking up the weak and wounded."

Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 26: Cynics and Sceptics

The emphasis on "other-worldliness" of the Christian era was related to the "eclipse of the City State," says Russell. After the conquest of Alexander Greek philosophers turned away from politics and focused on "individual virtue or salvation," asking how men can be good in a "wicked world" or happy "in a world of suffering." Four schools of philosophy founded around the time of Alexander's conquest were the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Stoics, and the Epicurians.

The founder of the Cynics was Diogenes, whose teacher Antisthenes was a student of Socrates. Antisthenes wanted to return to nature and believed everything important can be learned from plain, uneducated men. Diogenes went further, rejecting all conventions and deciding to live like a dog, which is why he is called a Cynic (meaning canine). Diogenes was passionate about virtue and had no use for worldly goods. "He sought virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire," says Russell. Though a contemporary of Aristotle, Diogenes belongs in temperament to the Hellenistic age. "Aristotle is the last Greek philosopher who faces the world cheerfully; after him, all have, in one form or another, a philosophy of retreat," says Russell. The doctrine of Diogenes appealed to weary men who have been disappointed and have lost their zest for life.

Skepticism was a radical continuation of earlier Greek ideas in which the value of perception was called into question by more than one philosopher. Russell calls Skepticism a philosophy of "dogmatic doubt," in which the philosopher claims "nobody knows, and nobody ever can know." Pyrrho (360–270 BCE) was the first Skeptic, and his disciple Timon of Phlius (320–230 BCE) used logic to argue that everything has to be proved "by means of something else," which makes all argument "either circular or an endless chain hanging from nothing." Thus nothing can be proved with certainty. The best one can say is that the "honey appears sweet," for example, which is highly probable but not certain. A contemporary of Timon was Arcesilaus (315–240 BCE), who maintained no tenets of his own but "would refute any thesis set up by a pupil." Because of his influence, Plato's Academy remained skeptical for about 200 years. Skepticism continued to have some appeal until the 3rd century CE, even after the Academy turned away from this philosophy (in the first century BCE). Nonetheless, Skepticism is "contrary to the temper of the age, which was turning more and more to dogmatic religion and doctrines of salvation."


Bertrand Russell backtracks in Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 25 to talk about the time period before the Roman conquest. His account of history from the time of Alexander the Great's conquest until the domination of the Greeks by Rome is confusing because he refers to the domination of the Macedonians—by which he means both the period of conquest under Alexander and the period following, when his generals carved up Alexander's kingdom. This period is also called the Hellenistic era or Hellenistic age. Russell also seems to contradict himself because he previously said Rome was responsible for Greek culture going into decline, but in this chapter he blames the decline of Greek culture on the splintering of Alexander's kingdom among the generals. He also seems to jump back and forth in time, so he says on the one hand that mathematics and science flourished during the Macedonian period and later says culture was in decline. Perhaps he is thinking about different parts of the period, which is at least 300 years long. Here as well as elsewhere in the text, Russell refers to "barbarians," meaning peoples who are not culturally Greek, Roman, or Christian.

The events of the Hellenistic Era can be summarized as follows: The first period of the free city-states ends with Alexander's conquest in 334 BCE. Alexander rules the Greek world for 10 years, and when he dies in 323 his empire is carved up by his senior officers, with the longest lasting kingdom of Ptolemy flourishing in Egypt and Libya (323 BCE to 30 BCE), according to scholar Anthony Kenny. The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, kills herself to avoid becoming the prisoner of Augustus, the first Roman emperor who conquers Egypt in 30 BCE. The other kingdoms of Alexander's generals gradually come under the rule of the Romans. When the Romans battle Carthage the Greeks try to help them, but Carthage is defeated as well as Greece, which is conquered in 146 BCE. Although the Romans destroy Corinth to punish the Greeks, they quickly rebuild the ancient cities, and the Greeks prosper under the Romans who allow them to sail and trade.

Under the Romans Greek civilization around the eastern Mediterranean flourished, says contemporary scholar Anthony Kenny. Greek colonists in Bactria, at the eastern end of the empire, encounter Buddhism because of the missionary efforts of the Indian emperor Asoka. In Persia the Greeks were exposed to Zoroastrianism, whose prophet was Zoroaster (also Zarathustra). In Palestine the Greeks met the Jews. Kenny notes the early Ptolemies built the great library at Alexandria, which was a melting pot of people from all over the Greek world. In Alexandria the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by 70 scholars. Anthony Kenny says brilliant mathematicians and scientists in Alexandria competed with the scholars of Plato's Academy and the Lyceum, the school founded by Aristotle. Meanwhile philosophy was flourishing in Athens as a number of new schools are established.

Russell's lens on this historical period sees the eclipse of the city-state as a reason for philosophers' turning away from civic-mindedness and worldly engagement and focusing on individual enlightenment or salvation. Thus Russell accounts for the four schools of philosophy that ask how men can be good in a wicked world. But perhaps the new trends in philosophy can be partially accounted for by the fact that the Greeks came into closer contact with the religions of India, Persia, and the Middle East during the Hellenistic period and incorporated some of these "pessimistic" ideas from Eastern philosophies into the historically optimistic Greek view. Certainly the ideas of the Cynics and Stoics seem to have more than a little in common with the practices of nonattachment taught in Buddhism and earlier Indian philosophers in which Buddhism has its roots. To say that Cynicism was a philosophy in retreat is a cultural bias on Russell's part. This philosophy can also be seen as a turning inward upon realizing that the charms of the world are temporary satisfactions. For such people the gifts of the internal world may more than make up for what the external world has to offer.

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