A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 23–25 : Modern Philosophy (From Rousseau to the Present Day) | Summary



Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 23: Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron needs reevaluation as someone who was influential on European thinking, more on the Continent than in the British Isles (he was an English gentleman). He represents the aristocratic rebel whose criticism of society sometimes takes the form of "Titanic cosmic self-assertion, or, in those who retain some superstition, of Satanism." Bryon is an exemplar of both types of rebel in Bertrand Russell's view. "The aristocratic philosophy of rebellion ... has inspired a long series of revolutionary movements," until Adolf Hitler's "coup in 1933."

Russell covers Byron's biography to show how he was shaped by his difficult early life and his sudden inheritance of wealth and title. Byron admired Napoleon Bonaparte as an exemplar of a Romantic hero and was sorry to hear he finally lost to the English at Waterloo. In Germany Napoleon is admired by some as "the mighty missionary of liberalism" and by others as the "Antichrist, but an Antichrist to be imitated, not merely to be abhorred." In Russell's view "nationalism, Satanism, and hero-worship, the legacy of Byron, became part of the complex soul of Germany."

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 24: Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a pessimist, unlike the majority of Western philosophers. He disliked Christianity and embraced the philosophies of Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, acknowledging Immanuel Kant, Plato, and the Upanishads (Hindu philosophical texts) as the sources of his philosophy. Schopenhauer adapted elements of Kant's philosophy, particularly his idea of a thing in itself, which becomes will in Schopenhauer's system. Will is behind all phenomena and is not found in time or space since it is not a plurality. Schopenhauer sees this cosmic will as wicked—the source of endless suffering, which is increased with knowledge. Happiness is not possible, since unfulfilled wishes cause pain and fulfillment of desire "brings only satiety." In Schopenhauer's view shame is associated with sex because while people instinctively wish to procreate, they are simply bringing to fruition new occasions for suffering and death.

If people do not wish to suffer, the best thing they can do is attenuate their will or cultivate a state of being without desire. The distinction between one person and another is an illusion of the phenomenal world (Maya), and the good person "reaches this insight by love, which is always sympathy, and has to do with the pain of others." When the "veil of Maya is lifted, a man takes on the suffering of the whole world." This helps to quiet the will. The philosopher feels "a horror of the nature of which his own phenomenal existence is an expression," in Schopenhauer's words, and turns away from life. He declares Buddhism the highest religion, although he finds value in the Christian doctrine of original sin. The good person practices asceticism not to achieve harmony with God, as do the Western mystics, or to be reabsorbed "into Brahma" or "Nirvana" as do the Eastern mystics. Rather, Schopenhauer's goal is to reduce oneself to nothing. Russell points out that Schopenhauer does not clearly explain what he means by coming "as near as possible to non-existence." Russell also points out that this philosophy is not the same as the "Beatific Vision" sought by the mystics, since Schopenhauer has more or less replaced God with Satan (in a metaphorical sense) as the omnipotent will.

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 25: Nietzsche

Bertrand Russell finds Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw himself as Arthur Schopenhauer's successor, to be more consistent and coherent. Russell says Nietzsche is important primarily in the field of ethics and as a historical critic. An exemplar of the Romantic strain in philosophy, he is in "conscious opposition to ... the dominant political and ethical trends of his time," and his political philosophy has much in common with Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince.

Nietzsche admired qualities he believed were found only in an aristocratic minority. The majority of people should be the "means to the excellence of the few," and he is not concerned with their well being. For example, he says, "The [French] Revolution made Napoleon possible," and that is a good thing. Beyond Good and Evil, one of his seminal texts, has as its motive changing people's ideas about what is good and bad. "True virtue" is a characteristic of higher men, who should "make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age," according to Russell's reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche expects his higher man to have Spartan-like discipline and "the capacity to endure as well as inflict pain for important ends." The German philosopher "admires strength of will above all things." For him compassion is a weakness to be combated. "He wants an international ruling race, who are to be the lords of the earth," says Russell, heroes writ large in the mold of Napoleon.

Nietzsche hates Christianity because it accepts "slave morality," says Russell. Since Nietzsche doesn't believe any religion is true, he judges religions by their effects on society. For the masses of people submission should not be to God but to "artist-tyrants," except for the "supermen," who submit to nobody. Christianity has allied itself will the spirit of the French Revolution and socialism, which promotes equality among all men, which Nietzsche clearly does not support. He finds both Buddhism and Christianity to be nihilistic religions. Christianity is the worse of the two, being the champion of "the revolt of the bungled and botched."

"In place of the Christian saint Nietzsche wishes to see what he calls the 'noble man,'" or "governing aristocrat." The noble man recognizes duties only to men of his own rank but will protect all those who have mastered some skill (particularly artists and poets). Cruelty plays a role in "aristocratic excellence," and Russell quotes Nietzsche as saying, "Almost everything that we call 'higher culture' is based upon the spiritualizing and intensifying of cruelty." The noble man must be "the incarnate will to power."

In assessing Nietzsche's philosophy Russell provides psychological analysis, saying much of his philosophy should be "dismissed as merely megalomaniac." Nietzsche is fearful himself and "day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor." His low opinion of women reflects his fear of them as well. He cannot imagine anyone feeling universal love because "he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference." He accuses Nietzsche of being partly responsible for the fact that the "real world has become very like his nightmare." No doubt Russell is referring to the horrors of World War II. At the end of the chapter Russell imagines a conversation between Nietzsche and the Buddha, saying he would agree with the Buddha as he has imagined him, although he can give no mathematical or scientific proof. His argument is an appeal to emotions: "Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world," he says.


It is difficult to account for Bertrand Russell's inclusion of a chapter on Lord Byron, the English poet, when he could just as easily have included him in his chapters on the Romantic Movement and/or the 19th century (Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 18 and 21). Clearly Byron is not a philosopher, and the main point Russell needs to get across is that the Byronic hero is an archetypal Lucifer who would rather rule in hell rather than bow down in heaven. Byron admires the world conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, as does Friedrich Nietzsche, but Napoleon is admired by many in the 19th century. It is a sad fact of life that people in any era "romanticize" successful, ruthless, and powerful heroes, even when they are on the wrong side of the law or the wrong side of history. And Napoleon was also admired for genuinely good things that he did—for example, instituting the Napoleonic code of law and spreading republican ideas, even if he was an autocrat. But Napoleon will come up again in the discussion of Nietzsche's philosophy; he is a symbol of the glorification of the autocratic ruler in Russell's text.

Arthur Schopenhauer takes ideas from Eastern spirituality and Kant's idea of the noumenal world, beyond direct perception, and melds them to create a manifestation of a malignant will. This demonic will is a kind of negative of the Indian idea of Brahman, or the One without a second, and in Schopenhauer's philosophy it is the opposite of fullness. Rather it is an insatiable yawning maw that can never be satisfied. Schopenhauer also borrows the Eastern idea that attachment or desire is the source of all suffering; the solution is to practice nonattachment and contentment. This idea is found in both Buddhism and Hinduism, from which Buddhism sprang. Schopenhauer declares Buddhism the highest religion because it dispenses with all ideas of divinity and boils the goal of life down to Nirvana, or extinguishment of personal self. Schopenhauer is a nihilist, and his vision of life has little in common with the Eastern mystics, as Russell points out.

When Russell turns to Friedrich Nietzsche, he correctly outlines the "letter" of his philosophy but misrepresents the spirit of it. Nietzsche is perhaps the most maligned of philosophers, called a Nazi and anti-Semite for years by people reading bad translations. Moreover, after Nietzsche's death, his anti-Semitic sister, who supported the Nazi cause, appropriated his works and even published unfinished works, leaving out portions that didn't suit her. She went as far as to forge documents and say they had been written by her brother and represented him as supporting her views. The Nazis appropriated certain ideas that were in Nietzsche's philosophy and could easily be misunderstood when taken out of context, especially because Nietzsche is such a dense and complex thinker and writer. Russell would have had access to Nietzsche in German since he was fluent in that language, and he doesn't misrepresent what Nietzsche says. But he leaves out other things that Nietzsche also says, so the effect of the whole is a misrepresentation. He seems less indignant with Nietzsche than some other philosophers, perhaps because he thinks he is mentally ill. He psychoanalyzes him, something he hasn't done with any other philosopher—calling him a megalomaniac and implying he is somewhat pathetic and deluded.

Russell is incorrect in saying that Nietzsche wanted to change people's ideas about what is good and bad. Rather, Nietzsche, like Socrates, is the state's gadfly, and he is more interested in disrupting the status quo than in instituting a philosophical program or a state based on his philosophy. In Beyond Good and Evil he attacks the prejudices of philosophers, as he says, and he forces them to examine the presuppositions underlying the beliefs that they hold. He argues that there is no such thing as objective morality, but only interpretation of acts according to an invented moral code or conceptual scheme. He shows how all human activity boils down to strategies for masking oneself behind a persona, and the true measure of a man can be taken when all masks have been stripped away.

Nietzsche took Schopenhauer's malevolent will and turned it into the "will to power," a universal human drive to thrive, expand, and conquer. This idea became an important psychological fact in the writings of Sigmund Freud. Certainly will to power can be directed for good or for ill, but it clearly exists. What is more, the sublime aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy address the turning of the will to power on oneself, to overcome and cross a metaphorical bridge and become the overman. Toward the end of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche addresses a prose poem to the god Dionysus, "the genius of the heart," who, among other things, "smooths rough souls and lets them taste a new desire—to lie still as a mirror, that the deep sky may mirror itself in them." Nietzsche says he has learned from Dionysus and now wishes to offer his readers a taste of what he knows.

Russell diagnoses Nietzsche's neuroses, but he doesn't mention the physical pain he lived with his whole life, never complaining nor feeling sorry for himself. Russell often uses the bits of biography to put the philosophers he dislikes in the worst light. For example, he faults Schopenhauer for being a hedonist while espousing an austere philosophy. But do the facts of Schopenhauer's life change his philosophy? Russell is understandably outraged about Nazi genocide, but his accusation that Nietzsche is "partly responsible" for the fact the "real world has become ... his nightmare" is false and irresponsible. If Russell wants to hold artists and philosophers accountable for the misuse of their ideas, then the logical corollary of that is a vigorous program of state censorship in case an idea might cause some harm. Russell appears to consciously misrepresent Nietzsche—surprising in a brilliant mathematician and philosopher who had the benefit of reading Nietzsche in his original language. Second, Russell perhaps engages in his own hypocrisy by committing the cardinal philosopher's sin, which is to impose their own moral prejudices on philosophy in a desire to improve others. "Morally a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for the truth is guilty of a kind of treachery," says Russell, and his own words indict him in his treatment of Nietzsche.

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