More Pearls from Bertie

Here are some more of my favorite bits from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.

On the dirty secret that philosophers, who pretend to base their theories on arguments, actually start out with beliefs and then make up arguments to support what they already think:

Every philosopher, in addition to the formal system which he offers to the world, has another much simpler, of which he may be quite unaware. If he is aware of it, he probably realizes that it won’t quite do. He therefore conceals it, and sets forth something more sophisticated, which he believes because it is like his crude system, but which he asks others to accept because he has made it such as he thinks cannot be disproved.


An aside in his discussion of Augustine’s City of God:

To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = dialectical materialism

the Messiah = Marx

the elect = the proetariat

the Church = the Communist Party

the Second Coming = the Revolution

Hell = punishment of the capitalists

the millennium = the communist commonwealth

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx’s eschatology credible.


On Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome:

It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the Dark Ages were concerned not with saving civlization or expelling the barbarians, or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition.

This passage is admittedly marred by the reference to ‘superstition,’ which is a slur without any real meaning that I can discern.


On Justinian and Theodora:

Both were very pious, though Theodora was a lady of easy virtue whom he had picked up in the circus. What is even worse, she was inclined to be a Monophysite. But enough of scandal—the emperor himself was, I am happy to say, of impeccable orthodoxy.

“I am happy to say” is the key here. So arch.


On one of the great power Popes:

Except in this instance, I do not know of anybody who ever in any degree got the better of Innocent III. He ordered the great crusade against the Albigensians, which rooted out heresy, happiness, prosperity and culture from southern France….

Sounding a bit like Mark Twain there.


On the Italian Renaissance:

French troops shocked the Italians by actually killing people in battle.


A deft swipe at traditions of morality:

Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.


Leibnitz sells optimism to the Queen of Prussia:

The world that resulted, although it contains evil, has a greater surplus of good over evil than any other possible world….This argument apparently satisfied the Queen of Prussia,; her serfs continued to suffer the evil, while she continued to enjoy the good, and it was comforting to be assured by a great philosopher that this was just and right.

Hegel, who owed much to Rousseau, adopted his misuse of the word ‘freedom’ and defined it as the right to obey the police, or something not very different.


Russell wrote the book during WWII, and the shadows of Hitler and Stalin sometimes darken the pages:

To frame a philosopy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power, and also with the apathy of the powerless, is the most pressing task of our time.

Would apply very nicely to our own time, except that I’m not sure that framing an adequate philosophy would do much good.


Not a big fan of Nietzsche:

Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siefgried except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

  1. apparently said, “Goest thou to woman? Then forget not thy whip.”

His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip,” but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

A friend once gave us a small whip as an anniversary present, but didn’t say who he expected to use it on whom.


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