MY TOP SHELF -45 – RUSSELL

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY

Bertrand Russell

George Allen & Unwin limited, 1961; rebound in half red morocco, with sage title and author, and floral boards.

Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.

Bertrand Russell may not have been a very pleasant man, but he was very, very bright, and he could expound difficult concepts in a way that even those who are not experts or who have not been exposed to philosophy at university can understand.  This book is in my view a classic of that kind of exposition.  I have used it as a reference book for nearly fifty years, but recently I read it for the first time from cover to cover.  I wish other scholars would use it as a model of the kind of book that can be read by the general reader.  When asked about his style once, Russell said that it should be a mixture of the prose of Milton and a Baedeker Guide.  That was very good advice.

The book is large.  Its 800 pages, with a very full index, cover the ambit from the beginnings of Greek civilization to the time at which Russell wrote.  The book may therefore serve as a very good introduction to the history of the West because Russell never hesitates to put his subject in a wider political or social context.  Here, for example, are two passages on the relative claims of ancient Greece and Rome.

These [Greek] cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes [admirers of Greeks], and did not destroy what they had conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done.  The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilisation which they governed but did their utmost to preserve.

The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture, and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy.  The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion.  The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but the latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted for a long time.

I have probably spent more time reading this book than any other non-fiction book on the shelf.  It has been beautifully rebound, and it is a pleasure to both hold and read.  I just fear that if I start picking out slabs to quote, I may not serve the cause of getting it read.  It does if nothing else show the danger of judging a book by its author.

 

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