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Bertrand Russell on Plato and Aristotle

Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, 1872-1970.

Bertrand Russell must be considered, by any standards, one of the greatest intellectuals and human beings of the 20th century. Upon completing his magisterial A History of Western Philosophy, one can also understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, chiefly for this work– the citation states that the award was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” These varied writings consist of more than 90 published works in philosophy, logic, mathematics, political theory, education, and social commentary over the course of 74 years, until his death at the age of 97. The details of his life are equally varied and significant, though I will only provide here a couple of my favorite anecdotes. He was the godchild of John Stuart Mill (whom I discussed here), orphaned by the age of 6, and raised by his grandfather who was the former Prime Minister (and who had visited Napoleon on Elba!). He was one of the most important founders of the Analytic school of philosophy, along with his brilliant student Ludwig Wittgenstein, and attempted to provide a mathematical and logical solution for all problems of philosophy. He was imprisoned during World War I for pacifism, which did not stop him from receiving the Order of Merit from the King 30 years later. He co-authored the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 calling for nuclear disarmament, and remained an anti-war activist, especially in regards to Vietnam and the Israeli-Arab wars, until his last days. An online sample of some of his writings can be found here. Perhaps these opening lines from his autobiography, completed the year before his death, most eloquently encapsulate the man (video excerpt is here):

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

A History of Western Philosophy was written in the United States, which Russell had fled to while it was still neutral, in the last years of World War II, and it was published in 1945. Over the course of 76 chapters and 836 pages it traces the history and evolution of ideas from early Babylonians and Egyptians to the Greeks and on to the 20th century (ending with a justification for his own school of logical analysis). Divided into three large sections, the longest and most comprehensive is “Ancient Philosophy”, the shortest and most tedious is the medieval “Catholic Philosophy”, and the most interesting is, in my opinion, “Modern Philosophy”. The strengths of the work include not only its great “clarity, erudition, grace, and wit”, but also the historical context and continuity derived from a single-volume work that sheds light on the influences and origins of modern ideas, as well as the useful commentary by the author, an eminent philosopher in his own right. Its weaknesses include its cursory treatment or outright omission of certain philosophers (mostly in the section on “Modern Philosophy”–Kierkegaard is famously not mentioned, nor is Pascal; and unfortunately Husserl’s Phenomenology and Heidegger’s and Sartre’s Existentialism seem to have been too recent; curiously, Russell’s student and friend Wittgenstein is unnamed in the final chapter on the Analytics), as well as his highly partisan treatment against many philosophers (especially those in the Continental tradition from Rousseau to Kant to Nietzsche).

In this post, I intend only to highlight some examples of Russell’s witty and useful commentary on those most influential of all ancient philosophers– Plato and Aristotle. Russell provides a concise summary of the thoughts of both of these men, as well as painting a picture as to why they are so important, despite being wrong about almost everything. To begin, I will give some context from his chapter on the pre-Socratic atomists, such as Democritus (whom I wrote about here), as well as from the chapter on Protagoras, a sophist and subject of one of Plato’s dialogues.

The Atomists

Democritus– such, at least, is my opinion– is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought… From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of how we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of the victory of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates.


Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions


Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

Plato’s Utopia

When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.

The Theory of Ideas

Plato is perpetually getting into trouble through not understanding relative terms. He thinks that if A is greater than B and less than C, then A is at once great and small, which seems to him a contradiction. Such troubles are among the infantile diseases of philosophy.

The belief in the good as the key to the scientific understanding of the world was useful, at a certain stage, in astronomy, but at every later stage it was harmful. The ethical and aesthetic bias of Plato, and still more of Aristotle, did much to kill Greek science.

Plato’s Theory of Immortality

The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humourous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.

Plato’s Cosmogony

Plato’s cosmogony is set forth in the Timaeus, which was translated into Latin by Cicero, and was, in consequence, the only one of the dialogues that was known in the West in the Middle Ages… As philosophy, it is unimportant, but historically it was so influential that it must be considered in some detail.

It is difficult to know what to take seriously in the Timaeus, and what to regard as play of fancy.

Knowledge and Perception in Plato

All that Plato says about existence is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax. This point is important, not only in connection with Plato, but also with other matters such as the ontological argument for the existence of the Deity.

Plato, under the influence of the Pythagoreans, assimilated other knowledge too much to mathematics. He shared this mistake with many of the greatest philosophers, but it was a mistake none the less.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Aristotle’s metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily.

His doctrine on this point (theory of universals), as on many others, is a common-sense prejudice pedantically expressed.

Aristotle’s Ethics


This book (Nicomachean Ethics) appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.

There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally… More generally, there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle’s speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten. Even his account of friendship is tepid… For these reasons, in my judgment, his Ethics, in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance.

Aristotle’s Politics

Plato’s communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common… Finally we are told that, if Plato’s plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner. I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.

Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer. The aim of the State, in his view, is to produce cultured gentlemen– men who combine the aristocratic mentality with love of learning and the arts… Various forces have put an end to this state of affairs (government by cultured gentlemen). First, democracy, as embodied by the French Revolution and its aftermath. The cultured gentlemen, as after the age of Pericles, had to defend their privileges against the populace, and in the process ceased to be either gentlemen or cultured. A second cause was the rise of industrialism, with a scientific technique very different from traditional culture. A third cause was popular education, which conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practice a new type of propaganda, as seen in the dictatorships. Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.

Aristotle’s Logic

I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle’s logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative.

Aristotle’s Physics

Words such as “quintessence” and “sublunary” are derived from the theories expressed in these books (Physics and On the Heavens). The historian of philosophy, accordingly, must study them, in spite of the fact that hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science.

Finally: The view that the heavenly bodies are eternal and incorruptible has had to be abandoned. The sun and stars have long lives, but do not live for ever. They are born from a nebula, and in the end they either explode or die of cold. Nothing in the visible world is exempt from change and decay; the Aristotelian belief to the contrary, though accepted by medieval Christians, is a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets.

Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato is holding the Timaeus and Aristotle the Nichomachean Ethics.

Democritus: The Laughing Philosopher

Hubble Space Telescope

This year, the Large Hadron Collider celebrated its second year of service, and the Hubble Space Telescope its 21st year. The former is a 27-kilometer long circular underground particle accelerator near Geneva that creates and measures some of the smallest and most elusive particles in (sometimes still-theoretical) existence. The latter is a telescope in Low Earth orbit with a 2.4 meter diameter that observes some of the oldest, largest, and farthest objects in the universe.

Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector

Together, these two modern machines could be considered the most important in their respective fields of particle physics and astronomy, as well as pinnacles of excellence in the constant growth of human knowledge, technology, and capability. It is hard to imagine that less than 200 years ago, there was no atomic theory, and no knowledge of anything outside of our own solar system. Over 2000 years ago, generations of the best thinkers of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks knew next to nothing of the true nature of the world, despite their best efforts. Well, there was one man who had a pretty good idea about how things worked–perhaps the one man from the ancient world who might be totally unsurprised by the findings of the HST and the LHC, were he alive today. That man is Democritus.  Read more…

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