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Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (chap 1)

This is available for free via Audible, and in free-text form at The introduction is stimulating and sweeping, and whets the interest. Today I finished listening to chapter 1 (“The Rise of Greek Civilization”), and a few passages struck me.

It’s difficult to try to summarise the information presented, because the whole thing is pretty dense. Lazily, I’m just going to quote liberally for my own future recollection. Here is a section which exemplifies the humane rationality for which I particularly appreciate Russell:

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion. This check it inherits from barbarism, but it makes it less instinctive and more systematic. Certain acts are labelled criminal, and are punished; certain others, though not punished by law, are labelled wicked, and expose those who are guilty of them to social disapproval. The institution of private property brings with it the subjection of women, and usually the creation of a slave class. On the one hand the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.

It is evident that this process can be carried too far, as it is, for instance, by the miser. But without going to such extremes, prudence may easily involve the loss of some of the best things in life. The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm,” which means, etymologically, having the god enter into the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god. Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party.

This reminds me of an essay I wrote for a philosophy class which was a part of my jazz degree, years ago, where I feel I was striving towards some similar standpoint. Russell goes on to make an explicit connection to music in describing the cult of Orpheus, perhaps a Bacchic priest offering reform or interpretation, perhaps a sub-doctrine coming to Greece from Egypt via Crete. He speaks of Orpheus’ addiction to music, and a Stoic thread of ascetism, life as suffering, the wheel of reincarnation, and the desire to ascend to the divine, escaping the wheel of temporal suffering, through a life of virtue.

For me, it is the transport and the consolation of music which resonates—and perhaps for the most banal reasons, specifically that for me the pursuit of music seems the best access for me to the fulfillments of the life of the mind (I would sweepingly loop in the plays of Stoppard, the songs of Neil Hannon and Stephin Merritt, and the many other delightful arts), but this pursuit is always in tension with the sensible provision of the means of life. In Russell’s account, this tension is in a sense the gift of the Greeks, whose awareness of philosophy, science, spirituality, and the joys of transcendence (whether through wine, or song, or both), set up an internal conflict which was uniquely theirs in the world up until then.

Not all of the Greeks, but a large proportion of them, were passionate, unhappy, at war with themselves, driven along one road by the intellect and along another by the passions, with the imagination to conceive heaven and the wilful self-assertion that creates hell. They had a maxim “nothing too much,” but they were in fact excessive in everything— in pure thought, in poetry, in religion, and in sin. It was the combination of passion and intellect that made them great, while they were great. Neither alone would have transformed the world for all future time as they transformed it. Their prototype in mythology is not Olympian Zeus, but Prometheus, who brought fire from heaven and was rewarded with eternal torment.

I can’t help but mention that Russell ties this back to the blues (well, in his terms, “negro spirituals”): amongst the consolations of music, as a connection to the divine, is the means of expression of a longing to ascend to heaven and escape the toils of earth. I don’t read any condescension in this allusion; for me it’s more of Russell’s wide-ranging humanity.

Also, I think unusually for the time (1945), or the scholars of his generation, he approves of the early shoots of feminism in Bacchus.

The cult of Bacchus […] had a curious element of feminism. Respectable matrons and maids, in large companies, would spend whole nights on the bare hills, dances which stimulated ecstasy, and in an intoxication perhaps partly alcoholic, but mainly mystical. Husbands found the practice annoying, but did not dare to oppose religion.

and again

Certain definitely Bacchic elements survived wherever Orphism had influence. One of these was feminism, of which there was much in Pythagoras, and which, in Plato, went so far as to claim complete political equality for women. “Women as a sex,” says Pythagoras, “are more naturally akin to piety.”

And his first reference is to a book by a woman:

The influence of religion, more particularly of non-Olympian religion, on Greek thought was not adequately recognised until recent times. A revolutionary book, Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, emphasised both the primitive and the Dionysiac elements in the religion of ordinary Greeks.

On the other hand, he seems perhaps to ascribe primitive thought amongst the Greeks to the influence of the mother:

We know more or less what an educated Greek learnt from his father, but we know very little of what, in his earliest years, he learnt from his mother, who was, to a great extent, shut out from the civilization in which the men took delight. It seems probable that educated Athenians, even in the best period, however rationalistic they may have been in their explicitly conscious mental processes, retained from tradition and from childhood a more primitive way of thinking and feeling, which was always liable to prove victorious in times of stress. For this reason, no simple analysis of the Greek outlook is likely to be adequate.

The chapter combines a summary of the early history of Greek religion, some commentary on religious dynamics (Russell was very familiar with Greek and Roman literature, and clearly here is sensitive to religious feeling), and some broad assertions on the significance of the development of Greek thought. Here is Russell’s quote from another work which claims that what flowered in Greece was distinct from similarly developed religious societies because of the introduction of science (no acknowledgment of gunpowder or Chinese astronomy here):

The most balanced statement known to me is in John Bumet’s Early Greek Philosophy, especially Chapter II, “Science and Religion.” A conflict between science and religion arose, he says, out of “the religious revival which swept over Hellas in the sixth century B.C.,” together with the shifting of the scene from Ionia to the West. “The religion of continental Hellas,” he says, “had developed in a very different way from that of Ionia. In particular, the worship of Dionysus, which came from Thrace, and is barely mentioned in Homer, contained in germ a wholly new way of looking at man’s relation to the world. It would certainly be wrong to credit the Thracians themselves with any very exalted views; but there can be no doubt that, to the Greeks, the phenomenon of ecstasy suggested that the soul was something more than a feeble double of the self, and that it was only when ‘out of the body’ that it could show its true nature.


It looked as if Greek religion were about to enter on the same stage as that already reached by the religions of the East; and, but for the rise of science, it is hard to see what could have checked this tendency. It is usual to say that the Greeks were saved from a religion of the Oriental type by their having no priesthood; but this is to mistake the effect for the cause. Priesthoods do not make dogmas, though they preserve them once they are made; and in the earlier stages of their development, the Oriental peoples had no priesthoods either in the sense intended. It was not so much the absence of a priesthood as the existence of the scientific schools that saved Greece.

I confess that even having listened to the chapter, and written these notes, I remain unsure of what the nature of this difference between the Ionian and Hellenic religions is, or how in particular it gave rise to science.

Russell gets into the science, and thence the philosophy, in the next chapter, but it seems that the core thesis of this chapter, and the reason to found the history on the contributions of the Greeks, is that this was the first civilisation to exalt rational thought and scientific enquiry outside of any stricture of dogma or religion. According to Russell, “Deductive reasoning from general premisses was a Greek innovation”. It would be interesting to know how, or indeed if, Greek philosophy is given similar precedence in the history of thought as taught outside of Europe etc.

This next passage reminded me of the romanticised notion of Ireland sometimes encountered in fiction, and perhaps our own brand of post-colonialism. I can’t deny some personal resonance here, as a passionate Irishman etc:

The success of Bacchus in Greece is not surprising. Like all communities that have been civilized quickly, the Greeks, or at least a certain proportion of them, developed a love of the primitive, and a hankering after a more instinctive and passionate way of life than that sanctioned by current morals. To the man or woman who, by compulsion, is more civilized in behaviour than in feeling, rationality is irksome and virtue is felt as a burden and a slavery.

It interests me that it is written from the point of view of a coloniser (at least by association), and I don’t think the English can be said to have been civilized quickly. Perhaps a sensitive type would discern an amused superiority, though I can imagine Russell passing similar judgement over his own society.

And on the lineage of religion.

Among Greek philosophers, as among those of later times, there were those who were primarily scientific and those who were primarily religious; the latter owed much, directly or indirectly, to the religion of Bacchus. This applies especially to Plato, and through him to those later developments which were ultimately embodied in Christian theology.

In Russell’s account, all religions start as fertility cults, for the encouragement of a good harvest, good breeding of livestock, and healthy progeny. It seems plausible that the mysteries of life would be central and inexplicable to early societies, and that rituals and superstitions might arise around them. I think that introducing religion to children, from a humanist perspective, could would start with fertility and the importance of procreation, connecting perhaps with the wonder of children in the face of these mysteries (life coming from life), and perhaps offering some account of how this might lead to the arcana and pomp of the Christian churches.

Here is the kind of sweeping paean to reason that perhaps marks the book as comfortably written from a bastion of good sense, in the grandiose terms which I personally find quite reassuring, but which can seem too categorical and logo- (Euro-?) centric from a relativist perspective:

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant.

(there’s plenty more in that vein throughout, which for me is a feature).

The chapter does present a history of religion in the area around Greece up to about 500BC, but it’s interspersed with entertaining asides, observations, and speculations. I’ve found it helpful to extract just the timeline, to give an overview:

The art of writing was invented in Egypt about the year 4000 B.C., and in Babylonia not much later.

The Egyptians were preoccupied with death, and believed that the souls of the dead descend into the underworld, where they are judged by Osiris according to the manner of their life on earth. They thought that the soul would ultimately return to the body; this led to mummification and to the construction of splendid tombs. The pyramids were built by various kings at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and the beginning of the third. After this time, Egyptian civilization became more and more stereotyped, and religious conservatism made progress impossible. About 1800 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Semites named Hyksos, who ruled the country for about two centuries. They left no permanent mark on Egypt, but their presence there must have helped to spread Egyptian civilization in Syria and Palestine.


Babylonian religion, unlike that of Egypt, was more concerned with prosperity in this world than with happiness in the next. Magic, divination, and astrology, though not peculiar to Babylonia, were more developed there than elsewhere, and it was chiefly through Babylon that they acquired their hold on later antiquity. From Babylon come some things that belong to science: the division of the day into twenty-four hours, and of the circle into 360 degrees; also the discovery of a cycle in eclipses, which enabled lunar eclipses to be predicted with certainty, and solar eclipses with some probability. This Babylonian knowledge, as we shall see, was acquired by Thales.

The civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were agricultural, and those of surrounding nations, at first, were pastoral. A new element came with the development of commerce, which was at first almost entirely maritime. Weapons, until about 1000 B.C., were made of bronze, and nations which did not have the necessary metals on their own territory were obliged to obtain them by trade or piracy. Piracy was a temporary expedient, and where social and political conditions were fairly stable, commerce was found to be more profitable.

In commerce, the island of Crete seems to have been the pioneer. For about eleven centuries, say from 2500 B.C., to 1400 B.C., an artistically advanced culture, called the Minoan, existed in Crete. What survives of Cretan art gives an impression of cheerfulness and almost decadent luxury, very different from the terrifying gloom of Egyptian temples. […] It was a maritime civilization, in close touch with Egypt; the very considerable commerce between Egypt and Crete reached its maximum about 1500 B.C.

The Cretan religion appears to have had many affinities with the religions of Syria and Asia Minor, but in art there was more affinity with Egypt, though Cretan art was very original and amazingly full of life. The centre of the Cretan civilization was the so-called “palace of Minos” at Knossos, of which memories lingered in the traditions of classical Greece. The palaces of Crete were very magnificent, but were destroyed about the end of the fourteenth century B.C., probably by invaders from Greece.

The Cretans worshipped a goddess, or perhaps several goddesses. The most indubitable goddess was the “Mistress of Animals,” who was a huntress, and probably the source of the classical Artemis.

Hence the Minotaur, I guess—the bull of the Minoans.

Before the destruction of the Minoan culture, it spread, about 1600 B.C., to the mainland of Greece, where it survived, through gradual stages of degeneration, until about 900 B.C. This mainland civilization is called the Mycenaean; it is known through the tombs of kings, and also through fortresses on hill-tops, which show more fear of war than had existed in Crete. Both tombs and fortresses remained to impress the imagination of classical Greece. The older art products in the palaces are either actually of Cretan workmanship, or closely akin to those of Crete. The Mycenaean civilization, seen through a haze of legend, is that which is depicted in Homer.

There is much uncertainty concerning the Mycenaeans. Did they owe their civilization to being conquered by the Cretans? Did they speak Greek, or were they an earlier indigenous race? No certain answer to these questions is possible, but on the whole it seems probable that they were conquerors who spoke Greek, and that at least the aristocracy consisted of fair-haired invaders from the North, who brought the Greek language with them.

The first notable product of the Hellenic civilization was Homer. Everything about Homer is conjectural, but the best opinion seems to be that he was a series of poets rather than an individual. Probably the Iliad and the Odyssey between them took about two hundred years to complete, some say from 750 to 550B.C., while others hold that “Homer” was nearly complete at the end of the eighth century. The Homeric poems, in their present form, were brought to Athens by Peisistratus, who reigned (with intermissions) from 560 to 527 B.C. From his time onward, the Athenian youth learnt Homer by heart, and this was the most important part of their education.

Philosophy begins with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse which, according to the astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C.

Going back to the development of religion:

Babylonia had a more warlike development than Egypt. At first, the ruling race were not Semites, but “Sumerians,” whose origin is unknown. They invented cuneiform writing, which the conquering Semites took over from them. […] Babylon became supreme and established an empire. The gods of other cities became subordinate, and Marduk, the god of Babylon, acquired a position like that later held by Zeus in the Greek pantheon. The same sort of thing had happened in Egypt, but at a much earlier time. The religions of Egypt and Babylonia, like other ancient religions, were originally fertility cults. The earth was female, the sun male. The bull was usually regarded as an embodiment of male fertility, and bullgods were common. In Babylon, Ishtar, the earth-goddess, was supreme among female divinities. Throughout western Asia, the Great Mother was worshipped under various names. When Greek colonists in Asia Minor found temples to her, they named her Artemis and took over the existing cult. This is the origin of “Diana of the Ephesians.” Christianity transformed her into the Virgin Mary, and it was a Council at Ephesus that legitimated the title “Mother of God” as applied to Our Lady. The oldest legal code still known is that of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, about 2100 B.C.; this code was asserted by the king to have been delivered to him by Marduk. The connection between religion and morality became continually closer throughout ancient times.

The introduction of Pan (the Wikipedia page on Pan has much more and is quite fun):

Then there were purely agricultural rural communities, such as the proverbial Arcadia, which townsmen imagined to be idyllic, but which really was full of ancient barbaric horrors. The inhabitants worshipped Pan, and had a multitude of fertility cults, in which, often, a mere square pillar did duty in place of a statue of the god. The goat was the symbol of fertility, because the peasants were too poor to possess bulls. When food was scarce, the statue of Pan was beaten. (Similar things are still done in remote Chinese villages.)

Pan, whose original name was “Paon,” meaning the feeder or shepherd, acquired his better known title, interpreted as meaning the All-God, when his worship was adopted by Athens in the fifth century (B.C.), after the Persian war.

And the significance of Bacchus:

There was, however, in ancient Greece, much that we can feel to have been religion as we understand the term. This was connected, not with the Olympians, but with Dionysus, or Bacchus, whom we think of most naturally as the somewhat disreputable god of wine and drunkenness. The way in which, out of his worship, there arose a profound mysticism, which greatly influenced many of the philosophers, and even had a part in shaping Christian theology, is very remarkable, and must be understood by anyone who wishes to study the development of Greek thought.

Dionysus, or Bacchus, was originally a Thracian god. The Thracians were very much less civilized than the Greeks, who regarded them as barbarians.

I remember seeing an exhibition of Thracian ruins in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which was most impressive. Much was made, as I recall, of the fact that this advanced civilization predated that of the Greeks.

It seems unlikely that I would ever read more deeply into these topics (this book alone has about 50 chapters, and it leaves out all modern thought), but of the many trails and avenues for exploration indicated by this first chapter, I think I’d most like to read some Herodotus. Perhaps one day.

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