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In "History of Western Philosophy" Bertrand Russell wrote

"The Arabs, although they conquered a great part of the world in the name of a new religion, were not a very religious race; the motive of their conquests was plunder and wealth rather than religion. It was only in virtue of their lack of fanaticism that a handful of warriors were able to govern, without much difficulty, vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion."

Probably because there are no strict parallelisms between the English and the Italian language, I'm having some doubts about the correct interpretation of this piece.

In fact I'm not able to understand whether Bertrand Russell uses "a handful of warriors" to refer to "The Arabs" as a whole, almost as if it were a "kind" of synonymous used to not repeat the same word two times, or not.

Strictly speaking, I am aware that in the above piece "The Arabs" and "a handful of warriors" are not exactly the same thing, but at the same time I'm under the impression that if Bertrand Russell had written the second sentence in this way

It was only in virtue of their lack of fanaticism that the Arabs were able to govern, without much difficulty, vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion.

the meaning and interpretation of the entire piece would not have changed.

Can anybody explain how that piece should be interpreted in reference to the correlation between "The Arab" and "a handful of warriors"?

  • I think this is based on a mistranscription, and thus Too Localised. Google Books has Russell's words indexed 4 times as The Arabs, although they conquered a great part of the world..., but none at all for OP's singular version. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 17 '13 at 18:13
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    @Fumble, but I'm not asking to know if the exact word is Arabs or Arab! – user114 May 17 '13 at 18:16
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    @ Carlo: As you know, I can't repeal my downvote - but I wouldn't anyway, because I think Russell's outmoded phrasing (c.f. in virtue of) is a bad place for the average learner to start getting to grips with contemporary English. However, what he means is that in any given place a mere handful of Arabs could rule the local populace, because they didn't arouse civilian resentment by attempting to enforce their alien religion. It may have needed more Arabs to originally subjugate those people, of course. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 17 '13 at 18:30
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    @FumbleFingers I think Russell's use is not "outmoded" but dialectal. This is the ordinary phrase in philosophy and theology, where the rest of use "by virtue of"; and Russell is after all writing a history of philosophy. I agree the use should not be emulated in other fields; but you can't tell people not to read philosophy just because philosophers talk funny. :) – StoneyB on hiatus May 17 '13 at 23:18
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    @FumbleFingers But every field has these marginalised usages -- business, education, IT. And 14% of the field seems to me a minority rather than a marginal usage. – StoneyB on hiatus May 18 '13 at 0:00
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I don't think this alternation can be characterized as "elegant variation", Fowler's deprecatory term for what you call 'a "kind" of synonymous used to not repeat the same word two times'.

The Arabs may not have been a large people in the seventh and eighth centuries; but certainly they were not all, or even mostly, actively involved in the conquest and government of the empire which stretched from Spain to Pakistan.

Russell distinguishes the few conquerors from the ethnicity which provided their fundamental religious attitudes, exactly as if one were to distinguish the English soldiers and administrators who conquered India a thousand years later from the millions of Britons from whom they were drawn.

(To be sure, in the later case the "handful", which included Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen, might have cavilled at the demonym. But perhaps that would have been true of the Muslim conquistadores, too.)

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I would "retranslate" the piece as follows:

"A handful of warriors were able to govern vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion," without much difficulty, because they were NOT fanatic about religion, and therefore did not stir up much (religious) controversy.

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