Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the tag “A History of Western Philosophy”

Will Durant and the Story of Philosophy

I concluded my last post on this website, Defining Philosophy and Its Uses, with a long quotation from Will Durant stating the importance of philosophy as a synthesis of knowledge and distiller of wisdom. Now, I would like to write more about Durant and why he is important. Unlike Bertrand Russell, whom I have discussed several times, Durant was not primarily a philosopher or an academic. He was primarily a popular writer of world history and philosophy. His first major work was The Story of Philosophy in 1926, which I will compare with Russell’s similarly-themed 1945 work, A History of Western Philosophy.

From: willdurant.com

Will Durant was born in Massachusetts in 1885, and after receiving a Jesuit education, began working as a journalist, school teacher, and librarian. As a young man he was politically aligned with the socialist cause, which led him to begin teaching at an advanced working-class school, and which influenced his social views the rest of his life. He gradually rejected the political radicalism which became associated with socialism of the period, and deepened his relationship with philosophy and culture. He quit his teaching job in 1913 in pursuit of a doctorate in philosophy, and a bigger classroom. The Story of Philosophy was published in 1926, and became an enormous popular success that gave Durant financial independence for the rest of his life. Accordingly, he used this freedom to continue his lifelong project of spreading knowledge and culture to the masses–that is, to the common, non-academic, working-class reader. Along with his wife Ariel, he spent the rest of his very long life working on the 10-volume, 10,000+ page The Story of Civilization. He died in 1981 at the age of 96. Many of his works can be downloaded and read for free from the internet (The Story of Philosophy here; the first 4 volumes of The Story of Civilization here; some assorted articles here).

I have already mentioned how one of the downsides of Russell’s History is its rather cursory, and occasionally overly-critical, commentary on large swathes of important thinkers, which was obviously a necessity for a book with such an enormous scope. In the case of Durant’s work, this criticism must be even more pronounced. Rather than attempting to paint a complete picture of all of western philosophy, Durant is satisfied to go into reasonable depth with just a small and select group of the most important thinkers (and, as we shall see, some that were his personal favorites). The main chapters of the work are based around vignettes of Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche, and short discussions of then-contemporary European and American philosophers–Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, and Bertrand Russell; and George Santayana, William James, and John Dewey. Even from within this small group, you will no doubt notice the presence of some names that are not considered part of the most important or influential philosophic tradition–Herbert Spencer most of all, and Voltaire to a lesser degree. In my opinion, the chapter on Voltaire needs no apology since it is such an elegant and entertaining description of an almost impossibly interesting and powerful mind (it is probably my favorite part of the book, and I learned much about the now criminally-underrated Enlightenment thinker). Spencer is more perplexing, and must be mostly attributed to the fact that he seemed to share Durant’s mission for synthesizing and uniting all science and knowledge into a useful whole for mankind, rather than its many technical parts. In any case, Durant states his purpose in the preface:

This book is not a complete history of philosophy. It is an attempt to humanize knowledge by centering the story of speculative thought around certain dominant personalities. Certain lesser figures have been omitted in order that those selected might have the space required to make them live. Hence the inadequate treatment of the half-legendary pre-Socratics, the Stoics and Epicureans, the Scholastics, and the epistemologists. The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of the science of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

In this purpose, I think there is no doubt that he has succeeded. The Story of Philosophy is not only eminently readable, but engrossing, pleasurable, and fully worthy of the word ‘story’. It was difficult to select even some short representative passages to quote here, because every sentence is elegantly and poetically crafted, and the book is already such a compact and fast-moving summary of its protagonists. It is often said that the best way to understand philosophy is to read the works of the great philosophers directly. If we are to make exceptions to this dictum, I think the best place to begin for the young or uninitiated student of philosophy is The Story of Philosophy, followed by Russell’s more comprehensive, critical, and profound (though no less stylistically written) A History of Western Philosophy. Both works also achieve the identical goal of both authors in spreading and increasing human wisdom through knowledge and culture, and via history and philosophy.

(Incidentally, these two men were not necessarily in agreement on specific views within philosophy, but happened to share the same overall education purpose. In his autobiography, Russell includes a long letter from Durant, which appears to have been their only direct communication. Durant gives a rather long-winded account of his views on the antagonism of science and philosophy, and states his newest mission of interviewing all the greatest minds in the world for their opinions on the meaning of life, and ends with a list of his own literary and professional qualifications. Russell responds tersely, and somewhat dismissively, that “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever… I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.”)

Durant criticizing Plato:

What Plato lacks above all, perhaps, is the Heracleitean sense of flux and change; he is too anxious to have the moving picture of this world become a fixed and still tableau. He loves order exclusively, like any timid philosopher; he has been frightened by the democratic turbulence of Athens into an extreme neglect of individual values; he arranges men in classes like an entomologist classifying flies; and he is not averse to using priestly humbug to secure his ends. His state is static; it might easily become an old-fogey society, ruled by inflexible octogenarians hostile to invention and jealous of change. It is mere science without art; it exalts order, so dear to the scientific mind, and quite neglects that liberty which is the soul of art; it worships the name of beauty, but exiles the artists who alone can make beauty or point it out. It is a Sparta or a Prussia, not an ideal state.

On adapting Plato to our own purposes (educational and political reform in this case):

And now that these unpleasant necessities are candidly written down, it remains to do willing homage to the power and profundity of Plato’s conception. Essentially he is right–is he not?–what this world needs is to be ruled by its wisest men. It is our business to adapt his thought to our own times and today we must take democracy for granted: we cannot limit the suffrage as Plato proposed; but we can put restrictions on the holding of office, and in this way secure that mixture of democracy and aristocracy which Plato seems to have in mind. We may accept without quarrel his contention that statesmen should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians; we might establish departments of political science and administration in our universities; and when these departments have begun to function adequately we might make men ineligible for nomination to political office unless they were graduates of such political schools. We might even make every man eligible for an office who had been trained for it, and thereby eliminate entirely that complex system of nominations in which the corruption of our democracy has its seat; let the electorate choose any man who, properly trained and qualified, announces himself as a candidate. In this way democratic choice would be immeasurably wider than now, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee stage their quadrennial show and sham. Only one amendment would be required to make quite democratic this plan for the restriction of office to graduates in administrative technique; and that would be such equality of educational opportunity as would open to all men and women, irrespective of the means of their parents, the road to university training and political advancement. It would be very simple to have and counties and states offer scholarships to all graduates of grammar school, high school and who had shown. a certain standard’ of ability, and whose parents were financially unable to see them through the next stage of the educational process. That would be a democracy worthy of the name.

On the some of the problems with Aristotle:

It is difficult to be enthusiastic about Aristotle, because it was difficult for him to be enthusiastic about anything… He realized too completely the Delphic command to avoid excess: he is so anxious to pare away extremes that at last nothing is left. He is so fearful of disorder that he forgets to be fearful of slavery; he.is so timid of uncertain change that he prefers a certain changelessness that near resembles death. He lacks that Heraclitean sense of flux which justifies the conservative in believing that all permanent change is gradual, and justifies the radical in believing that no changelessness is permanent. He forgets that Plato’s communism was meant only for the elite, the unselfish and ungreedy few; and he comes deviously to a Platonic result when he says that though property should be private, its use should be as far as possible common. He does not see (and perhaps he could not be expected in his early day to see) that individual control of the means of production was stimulating and salutary only when these means were so simple as to be purchasable by any man; and that their increasing complexity and cost lead to a dangerous centralization of ownership and power, and to an artificial and finally disruptive inequality.

On Francis Bacon:

His achievement was not the less great because it was indirect. His philosophical works, though little read now, “moved the intellects which moved the world.” He made himself the eloquent voice of the optimism and resolution of the Renaissance. Never was any man so great a stimulus to other thinkers… The whole tenor and career of British thought have followed the philosophy of Bacon. His tendency to conceive the world in Democritean mechanical terms gave to his secretary, Hobbes, the starting-point for a thorough-going materialism; his inductive metbod gave to Locke the idea of an empirical psychology, bound by observation and freed from theology and metaphysics; and his emphasis on “commodities” and “fruits” found formulation in Bentham’s identification of the useful and the good. Wherever the spirit of control has overcome the spirit of resignation, Bacon’s influence has been felt. He is the voice of all those Europeans who have changed a continent from a forest into a treasure-land of art and science, and have made their little peninsula the center of the world… Everything is possible to man. Time is young; give us some little centuries, and we shall control and remake all things. We shall perhaps at last learn the noblest lesson of all, that man must not fight man, but must make war only on the obstacles that nature offers to the triumph of man.

Durant’s simple “Table of Philosophic Affiliations”. Of the philosophers mentioned in his book, only Rousseau is missing, whom I would place somewhere to the beneath and to the left of Liebniz.

On Intelligence and Morals in the Ethics of Spinoza (the earliest and favorite of Durant’s influences):

Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character and the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought. He begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions… He thinks that egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation…

So he builds his ethic not on altruism and the natural goodness of man, like utopian reformers; nor on selfishness and the natural wickedness of man, like cynical conservatives, but on what he considers to be an inevitable and justifiable egoism… He believes it is a simple matter to show that hatred, perhaps because it trembles on the verge of love, can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. For hatred is fed on the feeling that it is returned; whereas “he who believes himself to be loved by one whom he hates is a prey to the conflicting emotions of hatred and love,” since (as Spinoza perhaps too optimistically believes) love tends to beget love; so that his hatred disintegrates and loses force…

Spinoza’s ethics flows from his metaphysics: just as reason there lay in the perception of law in the chaotic flux of things, so here it lies in the establishment of law in the chaotic flux of desires; there it lay in seeing, here it lies in acting, sub specie eternitatis–under the form of eternity; in making perception and action fit the eternal perspective of the whole. Thought helps us to this larger view because it is aided by imagination, which presents to consciousness those distant effects of present actions which could have no play upon reaction if reaction were thoughtlessly immediate. The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination. By imagination and reason we turn experience into foresight; we become the creators of our future, and cease to be the slaves of our past. So we achieve the only freedom possible to man. The passivity of passion is “human bondage,” the action of reason is human liberty. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know. To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts. With this completeness and integrity comes the equanimity of the wise man; not the aristocratic self-complacency of Aristotle’s hero, much less the supercilious superiority of Nietzsche’s ideal, but a more comradely poise and peace of mind. “Men who are good by reason–i. e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them–desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” To be great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling others; but to stand above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desire, and to rule one’s self…

Such a philosophy teaches us to say Yea to life, and even to death–“a free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purposes must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength.

On Voltaire:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He carried on the antiseptic scepticism of Montaigne, and the healthy earthy humor of Rabelais; he fought superstition and corruption more savagely and effectively than Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Knox or Melanchthon; he helped to make the powder with which Mirabeau and Marat, Danton and Robespierre blew up the Old Regime…

No, never has a writer had in his lifetime such influence. Despite exile, imprisonment, and the suppression of almost everyone of his books by the minions of church and state, he forged fiercely a path for his truth, until at last kings, popes and emperors catered to him, thrones trembled before him, and half the world listened to catch his every word. It was an age in which many things called for a destroyer. “Laughing lions must come,” said Nietzsche; well, Voltaire came, and “annihilated with laughter.” He and Rousseau were the two voices of a vast process of economic and political transition from feudal aristocracy to the rule of the middle class…

He was happy in his garden, planting fruit trees which he did not expect to see flourish in his lifetime. When an admirer praised the work he had done for posterity he answered, ”Yes, I have planted 4000 trees.”

He rejects all systems, and suspects that “every chief of a sect in philosophy has been a little of a quack.” “The further I go, the more I am confirmed in the idea that systems of metaphysics are for philosophers what novels are for women.” “It is only charlatans who are certain. We know nothing of first principles. It is truly extravagant to define God, angels, and minds, and to know precisely why God formed the world, when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”

On Kant:

The great achievement of Kant is to have shown, once for all, that the external world is known to us only as sensation; and that the mind is no mere helpless tabula rasa, the inactive victim of sensation, but a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as experience arrives. We can make subtractions from this accomplishment without injuring its essential greatness…

There is something of a severe Scotch Calvinism in this opposition of duty to happiness; Kant continues Luther and the Stoic Reformation:, as Voltaire continues Montaigne and·the Epicurean Renaissance. He represented a stern reaction against the egoism and hedonism in which Helvetius and Holbach had formulated the life of their reckless era, very much as Luther had reacted against the luxury and laxity of Mediterranean Italy. But after a century of reaction against the absolutism of Kant’s ethics, we find ourselves again in a welter of urban sensualism and immorality, of ruthless individualism untempered with democratic conscience or aristocratic honor; and perhaps the day will soon come when a disintegrating civilization will welcome again the Kantian call to duty…

After a century of struggle between the idealism of Kant, variously reformed, and the materialism of the Enlightenment, variously redressed, the victory seems to lie with Kant. Philosophy will never again be so naive as in her earlier and simpler days; she must always be different hereafter, and profounder, because Kant lived.

On Schopenhauer:

Part of the cause of pessimism, in Schopenhauer and his contemporaries, lay in their romantic attitudes and expectations. Youth expects too much of the· world; pessimism is the morning after optimism, just as 1815 had to pay for 1789. The romantic exaltation and liberation of feeling, instinct and will, and the romantic contempt for intellect, restraint, and order, brought their natural penalties; for “the world,” as Horace Walpole said, “is a comedy for those who think, but a tragedy for those who feel.”…

Is it true that ”he that increaseth lmowledge increaseth sorrow,” and that it is the most highly organized beings that suffer most? Yes; but it is also true that the growth of knowledge increases joy as well as sorrow, and that the subtlest delights, as well as the keenest pains, are reserved for the developed soul. Voltaire rightly preferred the Brahmin’s ”unhappy” to the blissful ignorance of the peasant woman; we wish to experience life keenly and deeply, even at the cost of pain; we wish to venture into its innermost secrets, even at the cost of disillusionment…

There are other difficulties, more technical and less vital, in this remarkable and stimulating philosophy. How can suicide ever occur in a world where the only real force is the will to live? How can the intellect, begotten and brought up as servant of the will, ever achieve independence and objectivity? Does genius lie in knowledge divorced from will, or does it contain, as its driving force” an immense power of will, even a large alloy of personal ambition and. conceit? Is madness connected with genius in general, or rather with only the “romantic” type of genius (Byron, Shelley, Poe, Heine, Swinburne, Strindberg, Dostoievski, etc.); and is not the “classic” and profounder type of genius exceptionally sound (Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Goethe, Darwin, Whitman, etc.)? What if the proper function of intellect and philosophy is not the denial of the will but the coordination of desires into a united and harmonious, will? What if “will” itself, except as the unified product of such coordination, is a mythical abstraction, as shadowy as “force”?…

On Nietzsche:

Only a professor of paradox could rank the obscure and dogmatic fragments of Heraclitus above the mellowed wisdom and the developed art of Plato. With all his philology, Nietzsche never quite penetrated to the spirit of the Greeks; never learned the lesson that moderation and self-knowledge (as taught by the Delphic inscriptions and the greater· philosophers) must bank, without extinguishing, the fires of passion and desire; that Apollo must limit Dionysus. Some have described Nietzsche as a pagan; but he was not that: neither Greek pagan like Pericles nor German pagan like Goethe; he lacked the balance and restraint that made these men strong. “I shall give back to men the serenity which is the condition of all culture,” he writes, but alas, how can one give what one has not? …

Nietzsche here fell short of that historical sense which he lauded as so necessary to philosophy; or he would have seen the doctrine of meekness and humbleness of heart as a necessary antidote to the violent and warlike virtues of the barbarians who nearly destroyed, in the first millennium of the Christian era, that very culture to which Nietzsche always returns for nourishment and refuge. Surely this wild emphasis on power and movement is the echo of a feverish and chaotic age? This supposedly universal “will to power” hardly expresses the quiescence of the Hindu, the calm of the Chinese, or the satisfied routine of the medieval peasant. Power is the idol of some of us; but most of us long rather for security and peace…

Foiled in his search for love, he turned upon woman with a bitterness unworthy of a philosopher, and unnatural in a man; missing parentage and losing friendship, he never knew that the finest moments of life come through mutuality and comradeship, rather than from domination and war. He did not live long enough, or widely enough, to mature his half-truths into wisdom. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have turned his strident chaos into a harmonious philosophy. Truer of him than of the Jesus to whom he applied them, were his own words: “He died too early; he himself would have revoked his doctrine had he Teached” a riper age; “noble enough to revoke he was!” But death had other plans…

He spoke with bitterness, but with invaluable sincerity; and his thought went through the clouds and cobwebs of the modern mind like cleansing lightning and a-rushing wind. The air of European philosophy is clearer and fresher now because Nietzsche wrote.

On Henri Bergson:

It was a wholesome thing that this eloquent challenge should check the excesses of intellectualism; but it was as unwise to offer intuition in the place of thought as it would be to correct the fancies of youth, with the fairy-tales of childhood. Let us correct our errors forward, not backward. To say that the world suffers from too much intellect would require the courage of a madman. The romantic protest against thinking, from Rousseau and Chateaubriand to Bergson and Nietzsche and James, has done,its work; we will agree to dethrone the Goddess of Reason if we are not asked to re-light the candles before the ikon of Intuition. Man exists by instinct, but he progresses by intelligence.

On Bertrand Russell:

There have been two Bertrand Russells: one who died during the war; and another who rose out of that one’s shroud, an almost mystic communist born out of the ashes of a mathematical logician. Perhaps there was a tender mystic strain in him always; represented at first by a mountain of algebraic formulae; and then finding a distorted expression in a socialism that has the earmarks rather of a religion than of a philosophy. The most characteristic title among his books is Mysticism and Logic: a merciless attack on the illogicality of mysticism, followed by such a glorification of scientific method as makes one think of the mysticism of logic. Russell inherits the English positivist tradition, and is resolved to be tough-minded, because he knows that he cannot…

It is remarkable that after writing several volumes of this learned moonshine, Bertrand Russell should suddenly come down upon the surface of this planet, and begin to reason very passionately about war, and government, and socialism, and revolution,– and never once make use of the impeccable formulae piled like Pelion upon Ossa in his Principia Mathematica. Nor has anyone else, observably, made use of them…

Freedom is the supreme good; for without it personality is impossible. Freedom of thought and speech would go like a cleansing draught through the neuroses and superstitions of the “modern” mind. For we are not so educated as we think; we are but beginning the great experiment of universal schooling; and it has not had time to affect profoundly our ways of thinking and our public life. We are building the equipment, but we are still primitive in methods and technique; we think of education as the transmission of a certain body of settled knowledge, when it should be rather the development of a scientific habit of mind. The distinctive feature of the unintelligent man is the hastiness and absoluteness of his opinions; the scientist is slow to believe, and never speaks without modification…

There is nothing that man might not do if our splendid organization of schools and universities were properly developed and properly manned, and directed intelligently to the reconstruction of human character. This, and not violent revolution, or paper legislation, is the way out of economic greed and international brutality. Man has come to control all other forms of life because he has taken more time in which to grow up; when he takes still more time, and spends that time more wisely, he may learn even to control arid. remake himself. Our schools are the open sesame to Utopia…

All in all, a very lovable man: capable of the profoundest metaphysics and the subtlest mathematics, and yet speaking always simply, with the clarity which comes only to those who are sincere; a man addicted to fields of thought that usually dry up the springs of feeling, and yet warmed and illumined with pity, full of an almost mystic tenderness for mankind. Not a courtier, but surely a scholar and a gentleman, and a better Christian than some who mouth the word. Happily, he is still young and vigorous, the flame of life burns brightly in him yet; who knows but this next decade will see him grow out of disillusionment into wisdom, and write his name among the highest in “the serene brotherhood of philosophs”?

On George Santayana:

“Wisdom comes by disillusionment,” says Santayana; but again that is only the beginning of wisdom, as doubt is the beginning of philosophy; it is not also the end and fulfillment. The end is happiness and philosophy is only a means; if we take it as an end we become like the Hindu mystic whose life-purpose is to concentrate upon his navel.

On William James:

Certainly, as everyone has pointed out, the manner, if not the substance, of James’s thinking was specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought, and gives them a buoyant and almost aerial motility. Huneker calls it “a philosophy for philistines,” and indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it: James talks of God as of an article to be sold to a materialistically-minded consumer by every device of optimistic advertising; and he counsels us to believe as if he were recommending long-term investments, with high dividends, in which there was nothing to lose, and all the (other) world to win. It was young America’s defense-reaction against European metaphysics and European Science…

When some pragmatists speak of a belief having been true once because they were useful (though now disproved), they utter nonsense learnedly; it was a useful error, not a truth. Pragmatism is correct only if it is a platitude.

On John Dewey:

In an industrial society the school should be a miniature workshop and a miniature community; it should teach through practice, and through trial and error, the arts and discipline necessary for economic and social order. And finally, education must be re-conceived, not as merely a preparation for maturity (whence our absurd idea that it should stop after adolescence), but as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life. In a sense, the schools can give us only the instrumentalities of mental growth; the rest depends upon our absorption and interpretation of experience. Real education comes after we leave school; and there is no reason why it should stop before our death…

What Dewey sees and reverences as the finest of all things, as growth; so much so, that he makes this relative but specific notion, and no absolute “good,” his ethical criterion…

Our trust must after all be in thought, and not in instinct;–how could instinct adjust us to the increasingly artificial environment which industry has built around us, and the maze of intricate problems in which we are enmeshed?…

But political reconstruction will come only when we apply to our social problems the experimental methods and attitudes which have succeeded so well in the natural sciences. We are still in the metaphysical stage of political philosophy; we fling abstractions at one another’s heads, and when the battle is over nothing is won. We cannot cure our social ills with wholesale ideas, magnificent generalizations like individualism or order, democracy or monarchy or aristocracy, or what not. We must meet each problem with a specific hypothesis, and no universal theory; theories are tentacles, and fruitful progressive living must rely on trial and error.

Advertisements

Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche

Russell in 1907 (from Wikipedia)

In my last post, Part One of a two-part series on Bertrand Russell’s monumental A History of Western Philosophy, I highlighted the author’s critical views of Plato and Aristotle from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ section of the work. Now, in Part Two, I will summarize and comment on just one chapter from the ‘Modern Philosophy’ section of this same work–the one dealing with the German-born philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with Plato and Aristotle, Russell is highly disapproving of the outcome of much of Nietzsche’s thought; unlike with the former two thinkers, however, Russell’s critique of Nietzsche seems like a personal ad hominem polemic against the latter. Russell does not only seek to demonstrate scientific, logical, or methodical errors or prejudices, as with many of the philosophers he discusses, but intends to completely ridicule, demolish, and discredit the entire foundation on which Nietzsche’s ideas are built. In addition to prima facie philosophical disagreement, most of the hostility of Russell (who was writing this book in the last years of WWII) comes from the fact that he sees Nietzsche as the most recent example of a European philosophical tradition that has culminated in, or at least prepared the way for, Fascism. Though he would not find Plato innocent of these same charges, it was difficult to trace such a direct line of influence from antiquity to the modern age and the war that was then in progress. This, according to Russell, could not be said about many philosophers of the modern era ever since the successors of John Locke. Here is an example of Russell’s commentary from the chapter entitled “Locke’s Influence”:

Since Rousseau and Kant, there have been two schools of liberalism, which may be distinguished as the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. The hard-headed developed, through Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, by logical stages into Stalin; the soft-hearted, by other logical stages, through Fichte, Byron, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, into Hitler. This statement, of course, is too schematic to be quite true, but it may serve as a map and a mnemonic… A man’s ethic usually reflects his character, and benevolence leads to a desire for the general happiness. Thus the men who thought happiness the end of life tended to be the more benevolent, while those who proposed other ends were often dominated, unconsciously, by cruelty or love of power.

Russell further compares the evolution of ideas to the present day in terms of romanticism, which he opposed, and rationalism, which he supported. From the chapter entitled “Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”:

This revolt (against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics) had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.

Nietzsche in 1869 (from Wikipedia)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Russell’s views on Nietzsche, and the reason I have chosen to comment on this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps the only place in A History of Western Philosophy in which I found myself in something less than complete substantive acquiescence with Russell. For reasons that are not entirely known to me, I think Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche was too harsh, too biased, or possibly based on an incomplete reading, interpretation, translation, or understanding.

The following series of quotes will provide a brief, but representative, synopsis of Russell’s chapter entitled “Nietzsche”, which will be followed by a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

Lord Byron, Romantic rogue

In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men… Both have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.

Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification…”

It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters… He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated… He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

There is a great deal in Nietzsche that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac… It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. 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.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear… It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them… I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it: Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Suppose we wish–as I certainly do–to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?… The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.)

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

So what are we to make of Russell’s scathing indictment of Nietzsche? Russell has certainly made a strong and convincing case for his opinions, but one that I feel is only one possible interpretation and in one historical context. This interpretation seems too shallow and dismissive of such a complex well-spring of ideas that was Nietzsche. For example, I understand and sympathize with Russell’s rejection of the concept of the Übermensch and the Will to Power as an ‘aristocratic lust for power’. I am not so sure about the validity of Russell’s conclusion that Nietzsche’s philosophy was the result of universal hatred and fear. My reading of Nietzsche is incomplete, but it is already clear to me that he is more important and useful than Russell gives him credit for. He is one of the most original and captivating Western thinkers of modern times (or probably of any age), and the breadth of his influence already shows that his ideas cannot be pigeon-holed or dismissed so easily.

As for the historical context, Russell was writing during World War II, as an obvious opponent of Fascism and war in general. It is true that Nietzsche’s works had influenced German militarism and nationalism in both world wars, including misuse by the Nazis. This cannot necessarily be understood as a fault of Nietzsche, who was an opponent of Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Germany itself (he renounced his citizenship and was officially stateless for the last 31 years of his life). Hitler probably never actually read Nietzsche, and the Nazis mostly cherry-picked lines that seemed convenient to them. This is hardly a surprise in the case of such a multi-layered and open-to-interpretation thinker such as Nietzsche. Indeed, some of his earliest followers were not Fascists but left-wing anarchists and Zionists, and poets such as Yeats and Mencken, as well as virtually every ‘Continental’ philosopher of the 20th century–Heidegger, Sartre, Strauss, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, etc. It is with them in mind that I shall conclude this post.

(The above video is a spoken excerpt from Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche, followed by Martin Heidegger’s contradictory remarks on the importance of Nietzsche).

Martin Heidegger was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a 4-volume work on him. Though I am less familiar with the notoriously difficult Heidegger than I am with Nietzsche, the emphasis of the former seems to be much more on the individualistic and ontological aspects inspired by the latter. For example, Heidegger continues Nietzsche’s veneration of pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus over Parmenides and the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus believed that everything was in a state of flux, famously stating that a person cannot step twice into the same river, and therefore the focus was on the process of Becoming. Parmenides, followed by Plato, believed that everything is eternal and unchanging, with the focus on the state of Being. Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche led to his own attempt to redefine the meaning of Being itself and its consequences for human affairs. I have found here a useful synthesis and exegesis of many of Heidegger’s working notes on Nietzsche.

Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, though opposed by Heidegger on different grounds, continued this line of thought further from its Nietzschean origins. When taken out of his political context, it is in this regard that I think Nietzsche may still be useful, contra Russell. The fact that Nietzsche helped diminish the role of metaphysics has led to questions as to the nature of our existence, which was expressed by Sartre as “existence precedes essence.” From a certain perspective, it even seems possible that Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with Russell’s Analytical school in that they, too, had no use for metaphysics. Their solutions to this problem differed, with Nietzsche prophesying and attempting to create a new morality “beyond good and evil”, and Russell adamantly advocating the case for logic, reason, and liberalism.

This is certainly not a closed book, and at this point I can come to no definite conclusions, except for a tentative belief that Russell’s criticism is not wholly valid, and that other uses of Nietzsche are possible. For example, here is a curious article I have found that attempts to portray Nietzsche as a proto-egalitarian. As with most thinkers, Nietzsche is often misunderstood and can quite easily be exploited or twisted into service for many ends. I will have some occasion to discuss this in the future, as, for example, in the unfortunate case of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for a positive and empowering individualistic interpretation of Nietzsche, such as was used, I believe, by Nikos Kazantzakis (whom I discussed here). Walter Kaufman’s excellent translation and commentary (which I employ) has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s post-WWII image in the Anglo-American world. I will continue to search for a common-ground between divergent modern philosophical ideas as represented by Russell and Nietzsche (which sums up, on a smaller scale, the ongoing conflict between Analytic and Continental philosophy), as I believe both provide useful tools for asking questions and finding solutions as to the nature of truth and existence in the universe and in our lives.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: