A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

I’ve lived a signifiant portion of my life as both a monotheist (there is one God) and an atheist (there is no God). Nowadays, after a great deal of thought, I’m something akin to a pantheist (God is indistinguishable from the universe). In the past, I have been both a materialist (matter is what’s real) and an idealist (mind is what’s real); now I’m a neutral monist (mind and matter are both expressions of an unknown third essence). Those words may carry no relevance to the lives of some readers, but it’s where we stand on these foundational beliefs that affects a great deal of our behaviour, and hence our happiness. Philosophy, defined as the love of wisdom, is where we get our ideas about God, the universe, and the self. For most people, where they stand on those ideas comes down to unquestioned assumptions that are inherited through cultural norms. The real thinker wishes to uncover as many of these assumptions as possible, and determine for himself what to believe. That is the value in reading something like Bertrand Russell’s titanic work on western philosophy.

The volume contains around 800 pages, divided into three parts: (1) the ancient Greek philosophers, (2) philosophy under the triumph of Christianity, and (3) philosophy from the Renaissance to the present (mid-twentieth century). I confess that after about two hundred pages I was feeling quite fatigued, and I had to wonder just how much I was taking in. If you asked me right now to tell you one significant assertion by Empedocles or Protagoras, I would be lost. It’s impossible for the brain to hold this amount of information. But the real value in reading, I realised, was the ability to compare my own personal philsophy with the assertions of past philosophers. I found my own belief in a universe of perpetual flux mirrored in Heraclitus, and my belief in an underlying non-duality of all things reflected in Parmenides.

Following philosophy all through the Christian era was fascinating, in light of my Christian past. I came to realise that Christianity truly is a spent force in the world. Despite pockets of contemporary success, especially in the USA, its influence is nothing compared to centuries past. What we see today is more like a last gasp. Under the pressure of science, there is simply no going back to a universally Christian civilisation. As a general history of Christianity, Russell’s book is incomplete. The same is true of the Greek era. This was the one weakness in the volume, and created an additional difficulty for me in understanding some of what I was reading. Although I have to wonder just how big this book would have ended up, if the author had chosen to be more thorough in his telling of history. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

Regardless of how much or how little I can recall, I now have an overall picture of the history of philosophy. Some of the questions asked by philosophers were of great importance; others were intellectual dead-ends, issues of mere syntax. Oftentimes, a philosopher was overly influenced by his culture. Sometimes the success of a philosophy was determined more by political considerations, than pure logic. Ultimately, I came away with a sense of confidence about my own beliefs, since I found nothing to refute them within Russell’s work. And while I love philosophy, an awareness of such of high level of differing ideology through the ages can only make one wonder how far we might yet be from the truth in our present.

Listen, Little Man! by Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich is a name that has fascinated me for some time now. He was a radical individualist, sexual revolutionist, and discoverer of “orgone” – his term for a mysterious hidden life energy. Like all outspoken individualists, he was tarred with the “villain” brush by the common herd of humanity, because he didn’t conform to established norms.

This short volume of only a hunded pages doesn’t go into his theories. Instead, it is a rant against the small-mindedness and pettiness of the herd animal that is the common man. And it’s fabulous. A damning treatise against group-think. It was originally never meant to be published, but I’m very glad it was. Written not long after the Second World War, it makes frequent reference to the Little Man’s own self-destructive insanity, in his need for a fuhrer to rule over him – which Reich blames on the cowardice of refusing to take responsibility for one’s own existence.

The Little Man spoken of throughout the book is a composite character of every perceived pettiness, written from the bitter experience of being at the brunt of it. The book is honest, thorough and passionate, with both anger and fear prominent emotions. If you’re an outspoken individualist, then you might know what it’s like to suffer at the hands of others who consider it their moral duty to bring about your undoing. You will find much to relate to in Wilhelm Reich. For a book that’s so angry, it ends on a surprisingly optimistic note about the human race. There is also some important introspection on rooting out the Little Man within all of us.

Listen, Little Man! actually inspired me to write an essay of my own in the same formula, based on my own personal life experience. I might never publish it, but writing it served me as a personal exorcism of unwanted emotion.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley

Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.

When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.

Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.

Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.

I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.

The New World Order by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is best known for his fiction. This little book is non-fiction. It’s essentially a very long essay on the subject of globalisation, something that is highly relevant in today’s world, where we see so much centralisation of power underway, as corporations merge into bigger corporations, and governments become collectivised into unions. When reading this book, which was published in 1940, it’s important to remember that the term “New World Order” didn’t carry the same sinister significance that it has in the minds of many conspiracy believers today. What I’m saying is, let’s not call Wells a bad guy on the grounds of the title alone. There’s much in the book to commend it.

Here are three quotes that I find particularly impressive. I don’t know how much these will strike you, but I personally went through an awakening about eight or nine months ago, where I became aware of how much my mind was being manipulated by the dogma of religion and the false assumptions of science. In my eyes, these quotes are as fresh and relevant today as they ever were.

On religion and its resistance to criticism:

Most of our belief systems rest upon rotten foundations, and generally these foundations are made sacred to preserve them from attack. They become dogmas in a sort of holy of holies. It is shockingly uncivil to say “But that is nonsense.” The defenders of all the dogmatic religions fly into rage and indignation when one touches on the absurdity of their foundations. Especially if one laughs. That is blasphemy. This avoidance of fundamental criticism is one of the greatest dangers to any general human understanding.

On our planet-wrecking consumer mentality:

Natural resources are being exhausted at a great rate, and the increased output goes into war munitions whose purpose is destruction, and into sterile indulgences no better than waste. Man, “heir of the ages,” is a demoralised spendthrift, in a state of galloping consumption, living on stimulants.

On the false assumptions of science that turn us into know-it-alls:

“Science” comes to us from those academic Dark Ages when men had to console themselves for their ignorance by pretending that there was a limited amount of knowledge in the world, and little chaps in caps and gowns strutted about, bachelors who knew all that there was to be known. Now it is manifest that none of us know very much, and the more we look into what we think we know, the more hitherto undetected things we shall find lurking in our assumptions.

The thrust of the book is this: Wells believes the world must become collectivised under a single leadership, or else the world is doomed to destruction by inevitable war. He bases this conviction on something he calls “the abolition of distance.” War, in olden times, was fought by travelling on foot or horseback to your destination, but in the modern world of technology, it is now possible to attack any part of the world very quickly. Everyone is neighbour to everyone else, in that sense. It begs the question, how do you defend your border? You can’t. The abolition of distance, Wells argues, creates too many possibilities for devastating war scenarios, and makes the end of the world inevitable.

Much of the book theorises about what sort of world government could function to be fair to all people. This was tough stuff to understand for me personally, because my political knowledge is not good. The overarching question I kept asking myself was, “If there’s one force at the top of the tree to which all others are subservient, how do you stop it turning into a global tyranny somewhere down the line?” It seems naive to suppose that a single centralised world government would simply stay good and fair over time. And if there are no powerful independent countries (which is the idea) to call upon for help to release you from such tyranny, what can you do? Nothing. In my mind, centralisation of world power is one way to world peace and a very short step from permanent tyranny. The book didn’t give me answers to that objection. Wells was firmly locked into the mentality that the world as it stands is doomed unless we centralise power. I’m not sure if the present world system really does need to collectivise, and I certainly don’t think a single world government is the answer. We’re almost seventy years past the writing of this book, we’re in possession of far more destructive technology, and we’re still here.

In any case, this book is an illuminating, thought-provoking read.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

This short book is comprised of thirty-one letters. Each one begins with “My dear Wormwood” and is signed “Your affectionate uncle – Screwtape.” Weird names, no doubt, and weird characters to go with them. Wormwood and Screwtape are not human beings; they are demons of the spiritual world, existing only to prey upon human souls. Screwtape is an experienced tempter, while his “nephew” Wormwood is new on the scene. The latter’s task is to entrap and destroy one particular human to whom he has been assigned. Each of Screwtape’s letters consists of advice to the inexperienced tempter as to how he might best exploit the human’s circumstances to secure his soul for hell.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a serious book, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, it’s laced with humour; yes, it contains the most ridiculous character names (Slubgob & Toadpipe are a few incidental demons you’ll meet); but this book is actually trying to be deadly serious. “What about?” you might ask. “How to send someone to hell?” Quite the opposite. In reading The Screwtape Letters, the reader gets clued into the subtle strategies of Satan so that they are exposed for what they are, and the reader is able to withstand them. Here’s one example which stood out for me, on the subject of how to pray:

Whenever they [the humans] are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds are trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

Being a Christian, I believe in the existence of demons, and I’ve picked up a thing or two from the Bible about how they operate. The details are sketchy at best, and it makes me unsure whether everything Lewis talks about is related to demonic activity in human life. But that’s not really important, becuase the purpose of each letter is to communicate warnings about dangers which Christians can fall into unawares, and those dangers are real, whether they are related to spiritual warfare or not. It’s a stroke of genius that Lewis decided to write a book of this nature in this highly entertaining format.

There are thirty-one letters in all, one for each day of the month, if you like. I found that some topics were more relevant to me than others, but I came away with a sense that this is a book I should read again in the future, when fresh insights would be gained.