Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 3 Part 2 Chapters 18 19 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 18–19 : Modern Philosophy (From Rousseau to the Present Day) | Summary



Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 18: The Romantic Movement

Beginning in the late 18th century, a sensibility associated with the Romantic movement has influenced art, literature, philosophy, and even politics, even up to the current era. The first great figure of the movement is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who embodied already existing tendencies. Romanticism follows the Restoration period after the French Revolution and the age of Napoleon. The 19th-century Romantic revolted against progress and capitalist values. However, the Romantic revolt was unlike the Marxist and Socialist revolt against monarchy and aristocracy and the mistreatment of the working class. A Romantic may shed copious tears for an oppressed mother or her ragged child, but never will they actually do something to change the social system. The Romantics were individualists with very little social conscience. They scorned society and felt nostalgia for the classic and medieval ages of their imaginative fancies. Their moral values are primarily based on aesthetics.

Bertrand Russell notes the Romantic temperament is best studied in the fiction of the period. One archetypical exemplar of the Romantic being is the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. A misfit created by science, the monster begins as a gentle soul longing for human affection and contact. When he is rejected because of his ghastly appearance, he goes on a killing spree. Still, his sentiments remain "noble" from a Romantic perspective, as he laments his loneliness and moral destruction. Russell criticizes the Romantic project. Like the mystic, the Romantic separates himself from society, following the instinct of solitude and individuation. But while the mystic becomes one with God, the Romantic as "anarchic rebel" feels himself to be God with no obligations to others. A consummate egotist, he demands slavish love, and his own love turns to hatred when he comes up against the egos of others. The Romantics preferred relations with those who are like themselves—blood relations and people of the same tribe. Russell associates Romanticism with strong feelings of tribalism, which translates into nationalism and racism, particularly anti-Semitism. "Man is not a solitary animal," says Russell, "and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics."

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 19: Rousseau

Although not strictly a philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a powerful influence on philosophy, literature, culture, and politics. His attractiveness came from his "appeal to the heart," or what may be called sensibility. Rousseau was educated in Geneva as an orthodox Calvinist (Protestant who believes in a strict moral code and predestination) but from an early age turned his back on convention to live a wandering, disheveled life. His antics, recorded in his biography Confessions, show how he used people and tricked them for his own advantage. Rousseau first came to public notice when he won a literary prize for an essay on the negative effects of science on society. In a second essay he held that "man is naturally good, and only by institutions is he made bad." He counseled abandoning civilization. Rousseau eventually met Voltaire, and before long they became bitter enemies—with Rousseau initiating the quarrel between them. Rousseau got into trouble with the authorities in Geneva in 1762 when he published Emile (a treatise on natural education) and The Social Contract, which appeared to advocate democracy and deny the divine right of kings. Rousseau was forced to flee to France and then England.

Rousseau was important for creating an innovation in religious belief that continues to this day. Specifically, unlike the philosophers and religious people of previous times who believed in God and offered intellectual proofs, Rousseau based his belief in God on his feelings. Modern Protestants "base their faith upon some aspect of human nature—emotions of awe or mystery, the sense of right and wrong, the feeling of aspiration, and so on," says Russell. Rousseau's natural religion, which got him into so much hot water, had no need of revelation. Further, the vicar in Emile does not believe in exclusive salvation for only one church or religion, and he doesn't believe in everlasting hell.

In The Social Contract Rousseau offers up a pastiche of political and philosophical ideas along with some idealized history of the Greek city-state. The contract Rousseau imagines borrows from Hume's Leviathan, since the citizens hand their freedom over to the state, in the form of the "Sovereign." This is "the community in its collective and legislative capacity," which is something of a "metaphysical entity, not fully embodied in any of the visible organs of the State." The Sovereign's will is always right, since it is the "general will," and those who refuse to obey "will be forced to be free." Rousseau imagines a direct democracy, following the ancient Greek model. But such a democracy is impossible since people cannot continually assemble and occupy themselves with public policy. The Social Contract became the playbook of the French Revolution, says Russell, although it was not carefully read or understood. The idea of the general will makes it possible to elevate a charismatic autocrat—as can be seen not only in Revolutionary France but also in Russia and Germany of the 1940s. "What further triumphs the future has to offer to [Rousseau's] ghost I do not venture to predict," says Russell.


A major theme in Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy is that Romanticism is the foundational philosophy for subsequent ideas that justify totalitarian states. He specifically says, "The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler." He sees Nazi Germany naturally growing out of the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche. While he doesn't lay the blame for Joseph Stalin's totalitarianism at the door of Romanticism, he claims the "hard-headed" school of liberalism can be traced from utilitarian philosophers and Karl Marx to the Soviet Union's dictator Joseph Stalin, although he does say his statement might be "too schematic to be quite true." Certainly revolutionaries used the ideas of Karl Marx in conceptualizing a Russian revolt against the aristocracy, but Marx envisioned his proletarian revolution as occurring in a democratic, industrialized nation. Thus Soviet communism was a far cry from the state that Marx had in mind.

Russell's sweeping generalizations about how certain philosophies have affected history seem to hold some truth—and they have been taken seriously by thinkers who came behind Russell—but on the other hand they seem to be somewhat glib and reductionist, particularly the view that Romanticism indirectly inspired the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Russell himself warns the reader in his chapter on Philosophical Liberalism (Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 12) about overestimating the influence of the philosopher. Moreover, when a political movement claims inspiration from a certain philosopher, not infrequently the philosopher becomes merely a representation of what the movement or party would have done anyway.

Russell argues that Romanticism is partially a reaction to the ennui (boredom; weariness) that affected Europe after the bloody French Revolution (actually a series of revolts), followed by the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, and then followed by the Restoration of the French monarchy. Napoleon, a French autocrat with republican pretentions, successfully conquered most of Europe until he was first stopped by the Russian winter in 1812 and later defeated for good at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Some Romantics were enamored of his larger-than-life figure, which was more exciting than that of the capitalist mogul. Russell uses literature to illustrate the Romantic temperament. While he mentions several authors, his example of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a good instance of how Russell shapes the facts to suit his overreaching thesis. He incorrectly identifies the Creature (the monster) as the Romantic hero of the novel, when in fact the Romantic antihero is Victor Frankenstein, his creator. Far from being a paean to Romantic aspirations, Shelley's novel is a cautionary tale about the consequences of Romantic hubris and the bad results that occur when man puts himself on the level of God. Victor Frankenstein takes no responsibility for his monstrous creation and allows the Creature to kill several people, including the people who are nearest and dearest to him, without reporting his perverse experiment. Thus, another way of looking at the Romantic movement is that it has two sides: one glorifies the anarchic rebel who is the natural by-product of freer societies that allow for more individuation, but the other sees the danger in too much freedom, especially when coupled with advances in science and technology that have wider consequences for society as a whole.

Rousseau is identified by Russell as the first Romantic before Romanticism became a movement in the 19th century. Rousseau is contemporaneous with Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher whose liberal ideas intersected with some Romantic notions. Russell claims the French Revolution, which took place between 1789 and 1799, relied heavily on Rousseau's philosophy in The Social Contract. While it is certainly true French revolutionaries justified their actions by quoting Enlightenment philosophers, the Revolution was mostly caused by the burdensome taxation of the middle class following the French involvement in the American Revolution. Furthermore, increases in bread prices along with bad harvests led to massive food shortages among the populace. Thus, economic conditions rather than Rousseau's "general will" likely elevated the revolutionary autocrats of France.
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