A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell ( Summary )

Bertrand Russell’s book provides a comprehensive insight into the history of western philosophy. It is regarded as one of the most significant philosophical works of all time. It is a dazzlingly unique examination of the ideologies of critical philosophers throughout history, from Plato and Aristotle through Kant and the twentieth century. His work is divided into three sections: ancient philosophy, Catholic philosophy, and current philosophy.

Part 1- Ancient philosophers


Pythagoras was one of the most significant individuals who ever lived. His time promoted mathematics to have a profound and disastrous impact on philosophy. He established a disciplined society (“society of disciplines”) in Croton, which was prominent for a brief period. The locals eventually turned against him, and he relocated to a town in southern Italy, where he died. Men and women were accepted on equal terms in the community he formed, and the genders owned the property in common along with a standard set of rules to live life. According to Pythagoras, first, the soul is an immortal thing that transforms into other kinds of living things. Second, whatever comes into existence is born again in the revolutions of an inevitable cycle, nothing being new. Whatever comes into existence should treat all things taken with life in them as kindred. He, like Saint Francis, is claimed to have preached to animals.

The Pythagorean ethic stands in contradiction to the current ideals. For example, in sports, modern-minded people see the players as more essential than mere spectators. Similarly, in politics, they value active participants in the game more than passive onlookers. The shift in values corresponds to a change in the social system; each warrior, gentleman, plutocrat and tyrant have their standard of what is good and faithful.


Empedocles was a native of Acragas on Sicily’s west coast; the people claimed him to be a deity. Most Greek cities, particularly those in Sicily, were always at odds between democracy and tyranny; the leaders of which faction was beaten at the time were killed or banished. Those exiled seldom hesitated to negotiate with Greek enemies- Persia and Carthage. Empedocles’s views on himself seem to oscillate very quickly, even if his “crime” is nothing worse than chewing laurel leaves or guzzling beans. He agreed with contemporary beliefs in other ways, although he was no worse than many more modern men of science. Outside of science, Empedocles’ innovation rests in the idea of the four elements and applying the two principles of Love and Strife to explain the change. He rejected monism and saw nature as governed by accident and necessity rather than design. In these ways, his thought was more scientific than Parmenides’, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s.


Socrates is a challenging subject for historians to study. Xenophon and Plato, two of his students, wrote extensively about him, yet they stated pretty different things. Even when they agree, Burnet claims that Xenophon is imitating Plato. Where they disagree, some believe one, others, and believe neither.


Xenophon is outraged that Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting youth; he claims that Socrates was extraordinarily pious and had a beneficial impact on those under his influence. This reasoning goes too far because it ignores Socrates’ hostility. His thoughts, far from revolutionary, appear to have been relatively bland and mundane. He describes (as Plato did) Socrates’ constant preoccupation with the problem of putting competent persons in leadership positions. He’d ask, “Who should I hire if I needed a shoe mended?” Some astute lad would respond, “A shoemaker, O Socrates.” He would then go to carpenters, coppersmiths, and so on, asking questions like “who should fix the Ship of State?” Critias, their commander, who had studied under him and knew his techniques, barred him from continuing to educate the young when he clashed with the Thirty Tyrants.


Plato’s account of Socrates differs from Xenophon’s. It is hard to determine how far Plato means to portray the actual Socrates and how far he means to be only a voice for his own opinions. In addition to being a philosopher, Plato was a brilliant and charming writer. No one believed, and he does not genuinely pretend, that the talks in his dialogues occurred as he recounted them. Plato’s skill as a fiction writer casts doubt on his abilities as a philosopher. No one believes, and he does not genuinely pretend, that the talks in his dialogues occurred as he recounts them. However, in the early exchanges, the discourse is perfectly genuine, and the characters are pretty believable. Plato’s skill as a fiction writer casts doubt on his abilities as a historian. Socrates is a constant and incredibly engaging figure, well beyond the capacity of most men to create. The essential facts of Socrates’ trial are without dispute. Socrates was accused of being “an evil-doer and an inquisitive person, searching  things under the earth and above the skies; making the worse appear, the better reason, and teaching others.” His hate sprang from his association with the aristocratic party; most of his students belonged to this faction, and those in positions of authority had proven to be highly toxic.

A majority declared him guilty, and Athenian law allowed him to seek a lighter sentence than death. If found guilty, the judges would have to choose between the sentence imposed by the prosecution and the punishment proposed by the defence. Socrates was incentivised to present a severe penalty, which the court may have recognised as appropriate. On the other hand, he provided a thirty-minae fine, for which he prepared several of his friends (including Plato) to go surety. This was such a minor penalty that the court was irritated. He was sentenced to death by a higher majority than that which had found him guilty. He undoubtedly predicted this outcome. He had no desire to evade the death penalty by making concessions that appeared to admit his guilt.


One must first comprehend their creative foundation to understand Aristotle’s and most Greeks’ ideas on physics. Every philosopher had a far simpler system they may have been entirely unaware of. If they are aware, they likely recognise that it would not suffice. Therefore, it was buried, and they presented something more difficult because it was comparable to the primary system. It nevertheless wanted to be accepted because it felt it had developed something compelling.

The sophistication comes from rebuttals of refutations. However, this alone can never yield a positive result: it indicates that a theory may be correct, but not that it must be. The excellent outcome is attributable to the philosopher’s imaginative assumptions, or what Santayana calls “animal faith.”

Nature is a type of cause that operates for the sake of something. This leads to a discussion of the belief that nature works by necessity rather than design. Aristotle examines the survival of the fittest in the Empedoclean form. This cannot be accurate, he claims, because things happen in predictable ways. Those things are “natural” if they “arrive at some completeness by a continuous movement originating from an inherent basis.” When a series concludes, all prior stages are for its benefit. The concept of “nature” may appear well suited to explain the origins of animals and plants, but it’s not. It ultimately became a huge obstacle to scientific progress and a source of much wrong in ethics. It remains dangerous in this way.

Part 2- Catholic philosophy

The Christian religion- original ideologies

The Christian religion, as it was handed down to the barbarians by the late Roman Empire, consisted of three elements: first, certain philosophical beliefs derived primarily from Plato and the Neoplatonists, but also in part from the Stoics; second, a moral and historical conception derived from the Jews; and third, specific theories, particularly concerning salvation, which were entirely new in Christianity, though traceable to Orphism and other related cults.

Christians thought a lot about sin, but few considered themselves sinners. This mainly was a Christian creation, presented by the Pharisee and the Publican story and taught as a virtue in Christ’s condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees as the Christians attempted to practice Christian humility. The problem with these scriptures was that, on the one hand, appropriately used pure reason suffices to prove the basics of the Christian faith, most notably God, immortality, and free choice. However, the Scriptures establish much more than these simple elements. The prophets demonstrate the Scriptures’ divine inspiration foresaw the advent of the Messiah through miracles and the beneficial consequences of believing in the lives of the believers. Some of these arguments are now considered outdated, but William James still used the last one. Until the Renaissance, every Christian philosopher embraced all of them.

The later years- evolved ideologies.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Muslims were more polite and humanitarian than Christians. Christians attacked Jews, especially during religious fervour; the Crusades were connected with heinous pogroms. On the contrary, Jews were treated well in Mohammedan nations. They contributed to learning, particularly in Moorish Spain; Maimonides (1135-1204), born in Cordova, is regarded as the wellspring of much of Spinoza’s philosophy. When the Christians reclaimed Spain, it was mostly the Jews who passed on the Moorish knowledge to them.

Church administration evolved slowly throughout the first three centuries but quickly following Constantine’s conversion. Bishops were democratically chosen, and they progressively gained enormous power over Christians in their particular dioceses. Still, there was little central governance over the entire Church before Constantine. The practice of almsgiving increased the power of bishops in large cities: the bishop oversaw the donations of the faithful, who may give or withhold charity to the needy. As a result, a swarm of poor people gathered to do the bishop’s bidding. The bishops were given judicial and administrative powers when the State converted to Christianity. There was also a central government, at least in doctrinal concerns.

The doctors of the Church

The Doctors of the Western Church are four men: Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great. The first three were contemporaneous, but the fourth was from a later period. A brief description of the first three lives and times is described in this chapter, leaving the ideas of Saint Augustine, the most significant of the three, for a later chapter.

Civilisation deteriorated for generations, and it wasn’t until almost a thousand years later that Christendom produced men who were intellectually and culturally equivalent to them. The civilians venerated their authority throughout the dark and mediaeval times; more than any other individuals, they set the mould into which the Church was fashioned. In general, Saint Ambrose established the religious concept of the Church-State relationship. Saint Jerome gave the Western Church his Latin Bible and a significant impetus to monasticism. Saint Augustine affirmed Church theology until the Reformation and a considerable portion of Luther and Calvin’s doctrines.

The independence of the Church from the secular State, as successfully maintained by Saint Ambrose, was a new and innovative idea that remained until the Reformation. When Hobbes opposed it in the seventeenth century, he chiefly argued against Saint Ambrose. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Saint Augustine was at the centre of the philosophical dispute, with Protestants and Jansenists supporting him and orthodox Catholics opposing him.

Part 3- Modern Philosophy

In many aspects, the time of history known as “modern” varies from the mediaeval period in terms of mental attitude. The strength of the national State and the functions it performs developed continuously throughout the era (with some minor changes). States are gradually replacing the Church as the governing authority over culture. Monarchs first dominated countries’ governance, but, like in ancient Greece, kings were progressively superseded by democrats or dictators. Still, the State had less impact on philosophers’ beliefs than the Church did in the Middle Ages. The feudal nobility had been able to hold its own against central governments until the fourteenth century when it began to lose political and economic power. It is replaced by the king in collaboration with wealthy merchants; in various nations, these two share power in varying degrees. The wealthiest merchants have a propensity to be absorbed into the aristocracy. Democracy, in the modern sense, became a major political force after the American and French Revolutions.

Socialism, as opposed to democracy based on private property, gained political power for the first time in 1917. However, this kind of governance must inevitably bring a new culture; the culture we will be concerned with is primarily “liberal,” of the type most organically associated with the business. There are notable outliers, particularly in Germany; Fichte and Hegel, to name two, have a worldview entirely unrelated to trade. However, such anomalies are not typical of their generation.

Most modern philosophers view the authority of science as distinct from the power of the Church because it is intellectual rather than governmental. There are no costs for those who reject it, and no pragmatic considerations affect those who accept it. It only wins because of its inherent appeal to logic. Furthermore, unlike the corpus of Catholic theology, it is a partial and incomplete authority. It does not offer a comprehensive framework covering human morality, hopes, and the past and future history of the cosmos. It only makes pronouncements on what seems scientifically proven at the moment, a small island amid a vast ocean of nescience. Another distinction from assertions made by spiritual power is that their declarations are definitive and unchangeable scientific statements and are susceptible to change. This results in a mental state that differs substantially from that of the mediaeval dogmatist.

The Renaissance

The ‘Emancipation’ initial moral consequence was as terrible. The ancient ethical principles were no longer followed; most rulers of states had obtained their power via betrayal and maintained it through savage cruelty. For fear of poison, cardinals invited to dine at a pope’s coronation carried their wine and cup-bearer. The dangers of papal corruption were clear, yet the authorities did little to address them. The desire for Italian unification was evident, but the rulers were incapable of combining. The possibility of foreign rule loomed. Yet, every Italian monarch was eager to seek the help of any foreign power, even the Turk, in any dispute with another Italian king.

Outside of morals, the Renaissance offered many advantages. It produced brilliant men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli; It released educated men from the narrowness of medieval culture. Although still a follower of the worship of antiquity, it made scholars aware that respected authority had diverse perspectives on every issue. It produced a mental climate in which people might match Hellenic achievements. The individual ability could develop with a freedom not seen since Alexander’s day by revitalising knowledge of the Greek world. The political conditions of the Renaissance encouraged personal development but were unstable. Like in ancient Greece, politics was tied to instability and individualism. Although a secure social framework is essential, every sound system constructed thus far has hampered the development of exceptional creative or intellectual qualities. How much violence and turmoil are we ready to tolerate for glorious victories like the Renaissance? While social organisation is becoming increasingly important, there is no answer to this problem.

Source: http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/History%20of%20Western%20Philosophy.pdf

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