June 26, 2016

Book : A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:07 am

imageDon’t get put off by the boring title of this book. The title suggests that this is a boring, college text kind of book on philosophy. But you would never guess how many things you learn by reading it! At times it does read like a college text book, the dry, pedagogic kind, and at others, this is quite fascinating.
Take the beginning of the book, which starts with a discussion on philosophy. This is not what you would expect in a ‘philosophy’ book as generally understood. When talking about individual liberty vs duties to the state, he says that ‘In [ancient] Sparta, [the citizen] had as little liberty as in modern Germany or Russia’. The book was written in 1946 just when the Second World War had come to an end so makes sense, but in today, it sits odd, especially with the word modern thrown in front of Germany. The intro is excellent, showing the power and conflicts among church and king in various countries and how the mix varied with time, especially with the dark ages of the barbarian conquest of Europe turning the clock back on civilization for many years; the later monopoly of the church on all education; the fact that even in medieval times, absolute monarchs did not have all the power you think they have. And their rebellion against religion is the plunder and rape and then go for absolution with the clerics!



Wow, in about 50 pages of this book, you learn stuff that you would not get in several books elsewhere. You learn how tribal gods, human sacrifices and cannibalism were prevalent in all societies, only with timing differences! He says that mathematics as we know it (with rules and proof) originated in Greece. So much for Indian claims to astronomy and maths! Also he says that when religion regressed in Greece (For instance, Homer’s Gods are not worthy of reverence. They are petty jealous etc) he claims all societies went through it and unlike India (authors words, but the italics are mine), Greece was saved from an unlucky fate by the flowering of science at the same time. Wow!


Thales said (again from Greece) that everything was made out of water but Anaximander, a . contemporary,  said that everything in the worlds is made of another substance not yet known. (There are things that can be inferred to refer to not only atoms, or even protons and electrons! Amazing!) Remember this is 6th century BC. However they also believed that fire, water, earth etc were basic elements like we think of atoms today.


A lot more interesting trivia follows. For instance, we learn that Dionysis, the God of Greeks was the model for Apollo and other later Gods.


Pythagoras was the father of inductive reasoning (he of the famous theorem of right angled triangles) but also was into a lot of superstitious mumbo jumbo and formed a religious sect with rules like ‘Do not pick up anything that has fallen’; ‘Do not look into a mirror near a light’ and other illogical stuff like that. And humility was something he was not guilty of. He said ‘There are some men like Gods, they are like Pythagoras’.


Another fun thing pointed out by Bertrand is that all sciences had a non scientific side to it, which could have been even the prime reason the sciences developed – astronomy with astrology, chemistry with alchemy, etc. Fascinating.


Ancient philosophers were not blind followers of faith either. Listen to Xenophanes, who came after Pythagoras (and made fun of his idea of transmigration of souls, incidentally): “If lions had hands and could paint, they will paint their Gods as lion-like” (I paraphrase to get the meaning across, but it makes perfect sense. Like why humans discovered the decimal system? Because they have ten fingers. If Octopi had discovered maths, they will be using the octal numbers!).

In a way, Parmanides has interesting thoughts on philosophy. He claims that there are no opposites in the world at all.  Darkness is just the absence of light. Coldness is just the absence of heat. As an outlook, it is interesting, though you may be able to poke a million holes into the theory if you went down to the detail. Maybe.


Athens was destroyed by Persians and after defeating Persia (both Darius and his son Xerxes), Pericles who was elected for 30 years repeatedly, built all the modern ruins we see now (Coliseum etc) . Greece until its victory over Persia was a cultural laggard!  (Can you believe it?)


The Spartan way of life, the reality and the myth, is interesting. It is odd that Sparta is held to such high ideals and yet, life was horrible. Men were allowed to marry but they lived in the company of other men and meet wife only as if a secret illicit lover. Then if a man did not have children, another man can lie with the wife (with permission of husband) to beget children.


No property was allowed, gold and silver disallowed, coin was to be made in iron.

Plato was influenced very much by the Sparta (the ideal, not the real) and in turn influenced Western thought for centuries to come.


It is fun to see parallels of Plato’s Utopia (the Guardians) with the Soviet communist party! But easy to see why. Plato did not want the wife, child relationship of families, he wanted no corruption of young minds by reading poems of Homer (‘where Gods behave badly’). He wanted man woman relationship to be temporary and decided by state, he wanted the state to have pure monopoly on lying (one thing that governments all over the world seem to have adopted!) and to top it all, no one should own property or accumulate wealth. Seems more Pol Pot ideology, surprisingly. If this is Utopia, we definitely do not want any part of it, do we?


Also, those philosophers had weird ideas – what we see is only perception not the truth so whatever we see is false!


Aristotle’s ideas can also be strange. He has cynical advice to tyrants on how to keep themselves in power. He says war is justified to acquire ‘natural slaves’ from other countries but war by others against Greece is not justified because Greeks are not ‘natural slaves’. Go figure.

Aristotle was the father of Logic as the study is known today.


It is fun to see Aristotle define aristocracy as the best system and that his definition of democracy is not ours. (Only the educated, free, males participate).


Euclid came up with the geometry. Even though an ancient Greek philosopher correctly postulated a heliocentric “universe” where every planet revolves around the sun, the Romans and the Christians killed the idea as this is not according to the accepted mythology of the times. The syllogism centric logic (All Greeks are men, all men are mortal and therefore all Greeks are mortal” ) they carried it to the extreme.


Some philosophers were personally very “colourful” as the author puts it. One was found drunk all the time but was a profound thinker. Once they found him naked in the garden sitting on a birdbath pretending to be a fountain statue.


Sceptics and Cynics come next. These two have different meaning from today’s. It is interesting to note that the word cynic evolves from dog with the same root word as for canine. They were given the name because a leader of them decided to live like a dog!

Bertrand also  covers Epicureans and  Stoics and their philosophy.  The section ends with Platonius, who formed a bridge for ideas to flow from Stoics to Christianity.


Interesting that the Jewish philosophy was almost dead and absorbed into Greek philosophy. If that had fully happened, then there would be no Judaism, Christianity or Islam today.


St Augustus, famous for ‘God, give me forbearance but not yet’, is discussed as well.


You learn that Charlemagne, praised by Popes for political reasons and called Holy Emperor was a barbarian with loose morals.

How and why did Catholic priests become celibate? Interesting Explanation in the book.


Also the Islamic prohibition of graven images was revived from an earlier Jewish decision. Islam said that People of the Book (Jews and Christians) should be treated as brothers! It was the Persians who brought true religion to Islam, as Arabs were not very religious and used this only for plunder and conquest. (Really?)  Umayyads, the Sunnis were overthrown by Abbasids who were more fanatical but one of them escaped to Spain and ruled there. Thus Spain, albeit Mohammaden, was divorced from the rest of the Islamic world.


Then the book gets a lot heavier to read and a bit dry. You still come across interesting tidbits. Here is an example : at the end of Italian Renaissance, the city states like Florence feuded and battled each other but bloodlessly not least because the army consisted of mercenaries on all sides and they did not want to cause losses to themselves! So when France attacked it they were totally unprepared and, in the words of the author, “French troops shocked the Italians by actually killing people in battle.”


Utopia, as explained, is another surprise, at least to me. It was described by Sir Thomas Moore who was killed by Henry VIII after he opposed the King’s divorce to marry Anne Bolyn. Utopia is a communist paradise with common property etc. All houses in the entire Utopia of fifty four towns are exactly alike except in the capital. Even in Utopia they needed to separate the rulers! All clothes are alike, men and women dress alike… Funny when you consider the modern meaning of Utopia.


In case of painful and incurable disease, the patient is advised to commit suicide but is carefully tended to, if he or she refuses to do so.


Interesting descriptions of Descartes and his belief in science. And how scientific progress was aided by the decline of the Papal power and the Protestant movement.


The rivalry between Rousseau and Voltaire is well brought out with Voltaire’s sarcastic reply to Rousseau’s essay on how man should eschew civilization altogether to be ‘pure’.


We learn that Darwin’s theory of Evolution did not originate from him at all but had been proposed by many before him, including his own grandfather Erasmus. The survival of the fittest theory was new from him to supplement the evolution from a common ancestry principle.


Can you believe that Nietzsche’s dad was a priest? And that he had a pious upbringing as a child? In 1888, when he was just 44 he went insane and remained so until his death twelve years later. He did all his work before 1888.


Interesting to see that Nietzche is a misogynist. A typical quote is “Are you going to a woman? Don’t forget your whip”. Overall though, the extreme development of the Nietzche philosophy resulted in Nazism and Facism, as described by Bertrand in this book.


But here is the kicker. Marx who is considered the father of Marxism if not all of communism, was married to an aristocratic lady and was totally devoted to her all his life. In addition, he hated Slavs and it is Russia, from the Slavic tradition who adopted his philosophy for their country, not his Germany or his adopted home, London. But how he developed the philosophy is explained in interesting detail in this book. He believes that work is the only value add in economy and it makes sense for those times where the aristocrats led a life of pure leisure living on their inheritance and money provided by the government. The ‘gentlemen don’t soil their hands by deigning to do any real work’ kind of thing. (For a romantic and humorous account of this person, the best known example is Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves series by P G Wodehouse). So given that the only value add is labour, the spoils of the industry or the profits are unjustly distributed. This is the fundamentals of communism.


Lots of deep philosophy and that could be a drag. There are also parts that are very difficult to understand.


But the interesting pieces are fascinating and a treasure trove of jaw dropping information, for which alone, this book gets a 7/10


  • – Krishna

Movie: X Men : Apocalypse (2016)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:12 am

imageAll your favourite characters are here. Except one of the most famous, the Wolverine.  Also you get to know how the young Xavier whom we met in the previous XMen movie as a young man, becomes bald and crippled.


You also meet some new characters (Angel, for instance) that is nice. But otherwise it is the gsame XMen kind of movie.


The story starts with ancient times in – where else? – Egypt. The supervillain this time is Apocalypse himself, with the Four Horsemen in toe. He is trying to move his essence into a younger body so that he may live on, but a people’s revolt stops it midstream and buries him under rubble, frozen forever until he is disturbed again. Which on cue, happens in our times (OK in the 1980s) due to an earthquake.


Meanwhile, Magneto is quietly working in a factory, as an ordinary man, trying to make a living with a wife and a daughter, hiding his identity. When he saves a man from certain death, he has to do so by revealing his power over machinery and is castigated for it and his daughter calls birds to attack the officers who came to arrest the father. One soldier accidentally kills the wife and daughter and Magneto kills them all with a chain that was hanging on his daughter’s neck.


Meanwhile, Angel, a mutant with wings is challenging to combat others and a fellow mutant called NightCrawler, who can move anywhere like smoke, who is caged inside an electrified cage (so not being able to escape out). When things look very bad for NightCrawler, Mystique (the famed Jennifer Lawrence) saves him, burning Angel’s wings in the process.


We meet Scott Summers whose eyes can burn anything until in Xavier’s school, they give him glasses to protect others and also enable him to see.


The Apocalypse tries to rally all the mutants against the XMen. With some (Magneto and others) on his side and XMen split into law abiding (Ironman)  and law defying groups, there is plenty of potential for turning XMen against XMen until all ends well.


The thrills are there. The story is too comic-book-like to narrate in detail. If you liked the previous one, you will enjoy this one too.

–  –  Krishna

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