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.