Understanding History

Understanding History coverUnderstanding History and Other Essays
Bertrand Russell
Philosophical Library/Open Road (December 2, 2014), 124 pages
Kindle edition $9.95, Amazon hardcover $12.95
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

This book is something of a time capsule. The essays were written in 1943 according to the Amazon description. That means he was writing in the middle of World War II and the outcome of the war was not yet known. Much of the book reflects the perspective of that snapshot in time.

The title essay takes up forty percent of the book, according to my Kindle iPad app. Russell has some interesting perspectives. He points out that when you become familiar with the larger framework of some aspect of history, the bits of trivia that can be gleaned from sources such as the letters of key figures become all the more interesting. He talks about the interactions between individuals and how you might expect a pair to like each other when they really didn’t and vice versa. (Beethoven didn’t like Goethe because Goethe tried to to teach Beethoven how to act before royalty, something in which Beethoven was not interested.)

Russell states:

quoteThe ultimate value of culture is to suggest standards of good and evil which science alone cannot supply, and this should be remembered in all our study of culture in the past and in the present.

These essays reflect that this is a core belief of Russell’s. At the same time he has no use for religion. While he has disparaging comments about both Protestantism and Anglicanism, he goes out of his was to discredit Catholicism. That is unfortunate because from the perspective of the second decade of the twenty-first century such vitriol undermines his laudable arguments about standards and values.

Understanding History is an interesting snapshot of a great twentieth century philosopher writing at a pivotal time in history. I’m sot sure that it is worth $9.95, but it was definitely worth the $2.99 that I paid.

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