Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

The Spectator vs. the Actor

I have always loved reading Bertrand Russell. He was a mathematician and a philosopher. So his philosophical writings are based on sound logic and great thought. I had read a lot of his books in college but I never got around to reading the “History of Western Philosophy”. A few years back my friend Abhishek Datta said so manythings in the praise of this book that I decided to read it. I started reading this a few weeks back and I am loving every page. Each page of this book contains so much thought, so much knowledge that it is difficult to remain calm while reading it. This book is a masterpiece. If you read this book you will realize why Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature.



In this VERITAS I want to tell you about some very interesting observations made by Bertrand Russell about how Pythagoras’ philosophy influenced how people looked at philosophers and thinkers then and how we look at them today. But before I talk about Russell’s observation let’s talk about Pythagoras.

Russell says : ” Pythagoras was one of the most important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise”. He lived in the Greek island of Samos during the 6th century B.C. He had many disciples and founded a school of mathematics and philosophy in the city of Croton. But the citizens of Croton turned against him and his teachings forcing him to move to Metapontion. Very little is known about his personal life.

However we do know a lot about his philosophy and his mathematical contributions. He is known to have said : “All things are numbers”. He discovered the importance of numbers in music, shapes and everything around us. He considered numbers to be the theory behind everything. For Pythagoras, numbers are perfect- almost divine. He also discovered the Pythagoras’ theorem- in a right angle triangle the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of squares of the other two sides. But this theorem caused the biggest damage to Pythagoras and his philosophy.
Imagine a right angled triangle with the base and height of 1 unit each. Then the length of the hypotenuse would be the square root of 2. This is an irrational number. Pythagoras struggled but could not find any perfection in a number like that. This was a huge blow to Pythagoras’ philosophy that numbers are perfect and thus constitute the foundation of this universe.

Pythagoras formed a religious sect and the followers of this sect were known as Pythagoreans. Their love for numbers was just one part of their philosophy. And that was the soundest part of their philosophy. A huge part of their philosophy deals with fantastic and superstitious stuff. The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls- the soul reincarnates again and again in human or animal form. The Pythagorean religion also had a set of crazy rules. Some of them are:

1) To never eat beans

2) Not to pick up what is fallen

3) Not to break bread

4) Not to touch a white cock

5) Smooth the impress of the body on the bed after you get up.

…… and the list goes on and on. You may find all these rules absurd. But in my personal opinion all religions and their rules are absurd. The followers of a particular religion find the rules of their own religion wise and good but they find the rules of other religions absurd. And atheists like me find the rules of all religions absurd. So you may find the rules of Pythagorean religion silly but they seemed logical and good to the followers of that religion.

And now let’s come to Russell’s observation about how people in that time viewed philosophers and how it seems to have changed in the modern world. Russell’s observation is based on the following philosophy of Pythagoras: 
” There are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to see the Olympic games. The lowest class is made up of those who come to buy and sell goods. The next higher class are the people who come to compete in the games. And the highest people are the one who come simply to look on.”

Russell’s says that this philosophy of Pythagoras is opposed to modern values. Most people would consider cricketers or footballers grander than the “mere” spectators. Russell says that this is a change in our social system. Today we tend to give more importance to people of action but in ancient Greece the people of pure thought were considered the highest class. And the men of action worked for them. Russell says: ” The gentleman has had a long innings in philosophical theory because he is associated with the Greek genius, because the virtue of contemplation acquired theological endorsement and because the ideal of disinterested truth dignified the academic life”. Men of action are a produce of industrialization. Men of thought are a produce of aristocracy where the men of action serve the men of thought.

Russell says that it is to the ancient Greek social system that we owe Mathematics and Philosophy. So pure mathematics,pure science and philosophy are the products of an aristocratic system that considers pure contemplative thought higher than practical action.

It is for insights and observations like these that I read Russell’s books. This observation hit me real hard- I had never thought about it. But I realize that it is true. Today we tend to make heroes of cricketers and movie stars. But in the old days they were mere entertainers for the gentlemen and ladies who spent their lives discussing, thinking or reciting poetry. Today we do not consider a scientist great till he writes a book or wins a Nobel Prize – becomes a man of action and not just thought. But remember- all philosophy, science, music, mathematics is based on a world where pure contemplation is the greatest thing.

I sum it up with Pythagoras’ words: “The greatest purification of all is, therefore, disinterested Science, and it is the man who devotes himself to that, the true philosopher who has most effectively released himself from the wheel of birth”.


Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.