A History of Western Philosophy

From the mastery of Truth, Nature, Freedom to the mastery of Class, Gender, Race

In our previous lectures we have seen how Plato inspires the Great Chain of Being, and how Aristotle creates hierarchy from the logic of mastery that supports the principles of truth, nature, and freedom. In this lecture and future lectures we are going run them together in our presenting of the history of western philosophical prejudice and inequality. 

In this lecture we are going to look at ways in which these ideas took cultural forms in the categories we know today as class, gender and race. Our interest here is to see how the logic of mastery or identity and non-contradiction, and the principles of plenitude and continuity, shaped society in particular ways.  

The Great Chain of Being: Class

I want to start in a general sense with reading Page du Bois. The book I’m referencing is Centaurs and Amazons, Women and the Pre-history of the Great Chain of Being (1982). It is a book that tries to chart the rise of hierarchy and uses the idea of the Great Chain of Being to do so. In some general observations du Bois makes the following points. 

The transition from predominantly narrative discourse—history, tragedy, and comedy—to the discourse of a new philosophy, a transition which occurs in the fourth century B.C., is one of the most significant shifts in the history of Western culture. It marks, in part, the change from a mythic, literary, poetic consciousness to one which examines problems in terms of logos, reason. (p. 1)

I am concerned with a particular area of speculation, the ideas of difference—sexual, racial, species difference—in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. In the shift from poetic and artistic production to “philosophy,” there is a corresponding and, I will argue, related shift in thinking about these kinds of difference. In general terms, there is a break, a shift from speculation based primarily on polarity and analogy to speculation using a hierarchical logic. The shift from polarity to hierarchy corresponds to the shift from the democratic city of the fifth century to a period in the fourth century of questioning the polis as a form. A fundamental crisis is brought on by the Peloponnesian War of 431-404, by subsequent social conflict within Athens, by returning prosperity and by a growing dependence on slavery. The new philosophy, as a hierarchizing, rational form of discourse, is born of these changes. (p. 2)

In the fifth century, the earliest formulations about difference establish a series of polarities which are linked by analogy. That is, the definition of the norm, the human subject, proceeds through a catalogue of difference. The human Greek male, the subject of history and of the culture of the polis, is defined in relation to a series of creatures defined as different. He is at first simply not-animal, not-barbarian, not-female: Greek/barbarian; Male/female; Human/animal.

The sum of these polarities yields the norm, the Greek male human being, and the others, on the opposite side of the series of polarities, are grouped together by analogy. Barbarian is like female is like animal; these “different” beings share attributes and function essentially to define the norm through opposition.

In subsequent elaboration of the speculative process, the playwrights and artists of the fifth century began to focus more directly on the subject of polis culture, the Greek male human being. In considering him as the center of culture, they moved away from the polarizing logic of the earlier period to a model focusing on the citizen, and on his relations with his equals, the isonomoi of the city. The other—alien, female, bestial—is excluded, in this discourse, from culture and set at the boundaries of the city to define it as a circle of equals. (p. 4)

It is also significant that Plato and Aristotle developed the idea of aristocracy. Plato describes The Republic as an aristocracy (448d) or as excellent rule (note: it is not an aristocracy where power is passed on through blood lines). Aristotle wrote of aristocracy in The Politics (129a32-b10; 1280a 7; 1280a2).

William Doyle (2010) notes[1]

Aristotle preferred description to prescription, and he offered a definition of aristocracy based upon observation. It was a form of government ‘in which more than one, but not many, rule . . . and it is so called, either because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the state and its citizens’. It was thus the rule of a virtuous few; but was easily perverted into mere oligarchy ‘when it has in view the interests only of the wealthy’. In an extreme oligarchy, the governing class ‘keep offices in their own hands, and the law ordains that the son shall succeed the father’. But Aristotle was realistic: wealth was essential to underpin the leisure and lack of temptation necessary for holders of public office, and so in aristocracies magistrates were chosen ‘both according to their wealth and according to their merit’. And if ‘the principle of an aristocracy is virtue’, this quality was more likely to be found among people of ‘birth and education’, good birth being ‘only ancient wealth and virtue’. (pp. 1-2)

Note that in The Politics, Aristotle says of a man of excellence that rather than ostracize him, ‘all should happily obey such a ruler, according to what seems to be the order of nature, and that men like him should be kings in their state for life’ (1284b32-4).

Doyle tells how the term ‘aristocracy’ largely disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire, resurfacing in the 15thcentury. Medieval nobles had no sense of Aristotelian civic minded virtue, and nobility meant wealth and fighting. By the time of the French revolution aristocracy was not a form of government so much as a privileged social class.

To illustrate the Great Chain of Being and more recent ideas on social class I have chosen to think about bees…  and in particular the idea of Victorian Britain as a hive of industry, rigidly structured on a division of labour believed to be natural. This is no better illustrated than in the sketch by the 19th century illustrator and caricaturist George Cruikshank. During his career, Cruikshank produced well over 10,000 drawings and etchings ranging from book illustrations to political caricatures and social satire. He illustrated over 860 books plus countless periodicals and magazines. His illustrations for the novels of Charles Dickens and many others, brought him great fame during his lifetime. One of his best known is The British Beehive, a cartoon first drawn in 1840 but not printed until 1867.

British society and the economy are depicted as a large self-contained beehive. Why a hive? Because bees were seen to have a naturally hierarchical social structure ruled by a Queen, much like England in his day. In addition, bees were regarded as naturally industrious and so comparing the social structure of the Great Chain of Being to the social structure of bees in the hive was meant to accentuate the natural station of different social classes in Britain. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 was described at the time as ‘The Great Gathering of Industrious Bees.’ 

Cruikshank depicts British society as strictly hierarchical where every person and every social institution has its naturally assigned place. At the top is the Queen and her court. At the bottom are the soldiers and sailors who defend the beehive. In between are different levels of society, and its members, ranked by order of importance. 

The First and Second Levels

At the top is the Queen and her court. Directly beneath the Queen’s throne is a structure labelled, the Pillar of the State, meant to drive home the fact that the Queen was the main support and the one essential element of British society. Directly below the Queen and the Royal Family are the two chambers occupied by the House of Lords and the House of Commons. These chambers are supported by a floor labelled the “British Constitution”, signifying both the importance of the rule of law and the natural position of superiority of the landed classes. The floor of the Queen’s chamber is labelled “The Royal Family by Lineal Descent” as a reminder of the law of inheritance through the concept of primogeniture by which the eldest son inherits the title from the father (or the daughter in the absence of a male heir.) 

The Third and Fourth Levels

These levels represent the institutions which make the country strong, eg. trial by jury, Freedom of Religion for All Denominations, and Law and Equity. The chambers on the third level show people exercising these freedoms and rights: pastors preaching, juries deliberating, lawyers advocating.

Below that is the practical application of British knowledge and science. There are chambers labelled Medical Science, Schools, Free Press, Art, Colleges and Chemistry. It is an exclusively male world on this level.

The Fifth and Sixth Levels

These levels depict various trades and occupations: there are bakers, drapers, farmers, bakers, green grocers, and butchers. Some women manage to break through the beehive ceiling and work as dairy maids, drapers and some other female dominated occupations. There are also some quaintly Victorian occupations such as cheesemongers and tea dealers.

The Seventh and Eight Levels

More Victorian occupations are depicted: bricklayers, coal heavers, hatters, dustmen. Once again, most of the occupations are male dominated.

The Ninth Level

This level portrays the bedrock of the British Beehive. Interestingly it shows the Bank of England at the same level and importance as the army, navy and merchant marine. The Bank of England was seen as the foundation of the country’s ability to finance its military operations and trade. Interesting that should be at the bottom! Here is the whole hive again.

Let us take from this how the Great Chain of Being survived, and perhaps even survives today, as a justification for inequalities in wealth, and in opportunity, and as an apology for the natural order and hierarchy of society. 

Great Chain of Being: Gender

We have seen, and we already knew, that men are higher in the hierarchy of the GCB than women. And in terms of Aristotelian logic we have seen that the truth is that which has its own self-sufficient identity and mastery, and that it was believed that intellect, or intellectual substance, had this unity and truth in-itself. Intellect was essentially male, and against this, woman was seen as material and therefore subservient to man. Take for example Plato in the Phaedo (1997). 

It really has been shown to us that, if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom, as our argument shows, not while we live; for if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either we can never attain knowledge or we can do so after death. Then and not before, the soul is by itself apart from the body. While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us. In this way we shall escape the contamination of the body’s folly. (66e-67a)

There follows now a short selection of quotations that illustrate the point.

First, from Susan Griffin (1978).

It is decided that matter is transitory and illusory like the shadows on a wall cast by firelight; that we dwell in a cave, in the cave of our flesh, which is also matter, also illusory; it is decided that what is real is outside the cave, in a light brighter than we can imagine, that matter traps us in darkness. That the idea of matter existed before matter and is more perfect, ideal. (p. 5)

It is decided that matter is passive and inert, and that all motion originates from outside matter. That the soul is the cause of all movement in matter and that the soul was created by God: that all other movement proceeds from vio­lent contact with other moving matter, which was first moved by God. That the spheres in perpetual movement are moved by the winds of heaven, which are moved by God, that all movement proceeds from God. That matter is only a potential for form or a potential for movement. It is decided that the nature of woman is passive, that she is a vessel waiting to be filled. (p. 5)

It is decided that in birth the female provides the matter (the menstruum, the yolk) and that the male provides the form which is immaterial, and that out of this union is born the embryo. And it is written in the scripture that out of Adam who was the first man was taken Eve, and because she was born of man he also named her: “She shall be called Woman.” And it is written in the bestiary that the cubs of the Lioness are born dead but on the third day the Lion breathes between their eyes and they wake to life. It is decided that Vital Heat is the source of all vital activity, that this heat emanates from God to the male of the species, and that this vital heat informs the form of the species with maleness, whereas the female is too cold to effect this change. It is decided also that all monstrosities of birth come from a defect in the matter provided by the female, which resists the male effort to determine form. (p. 8)

And it is said that women are the fountain, the flood and the very root of deception, falsity and lies. (p. 12)

It is ascertained that sensations are confused thoughts and that imagination and memory because they derive from sensation should be distrusted. The word “hysterical” is taken from the word hyster, meaning womb, because it is observed that the womb is the seat of the emotions (and women are more emotional than men). That crying is womanish, it is observed, and that dramatic poetry, since it causes crying, ought to be avoided, that it “has a most formidable power of corrupting even men of high character.” (p. 13)

That as God is the principle of the universe so is man, in likeness to God, the principle of the human race. It is decided that the minds of women are defective. That the fibers of the brain are weak. That because women menstruate regularly the supply of blood to the brain is weakened … It is decided that matter cannot know matter. That matter “is but a brute thing and only capable of local motion. That matter has no intellect and no perception. And it is stated that nature should be approached only through reason. (p. 14)

Now from Adriana Cavarero (1995). In the symbolic framework, 

a male subject claiming to be neutral/universal declares his central position, disseminating a sense of the world cut to his own measure and revealed in his own mythic figures. According to this perspective, even female figures have a place in reference to the male subject who is at the origin of their creation … the unchanging symbolic framework determines that all feminine representations are based on the central position of the masculine, so that, inevitably, the roles played by female figures have their meaning in the patriarchal codes that constructed them. For men, there­fore, one can observe a whole parade of figures in which masculine subjectivity expects recognition. For women, on the other hand, one finds the selfsame parade of figures imposed by a masculine subject. But here we women find that we are the object, not the subject, of the other’s thought. (p. 2)

What remains constant is that a woman, thought up by man in his image and un-likeness, lacks a mythic figure that can represent her as a female subjectivity capable of taking shape within her own symbolic order. Instead, she finds herself already reconfigured, and is obliged to recognize herself in the imaginary of the other. So, for women, the exercise of finding a female subjectivity in men’s dreams of omnipotence through a process of adjustment and accommodation proves to be difficult and pointless. The only reward for this pointless effort is an essential image of otherness. The female subject searching for figures of her own comes face to face with stereotypes from the age-old process of deporting the feminine into the destiny of Man. (p. 3)

Next, Carolyn Merchant (1980).

Central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe. But another opposing image of nature as female was also prevalent: wild and uncontrollable nature that could render violence, storms, droughts, and general chaos. Both were identified with the female sex and were projections of human perceptions onto the external world. The metaphor of the earth as a nurturing mother was gradually to vanish as a dominant image as the Scientific Revolution proceeded to mechanize and to rationalize the world view. The second image, nature as disorder, called forth an important modern idea, that of power over nature. Two new ideas, those of mechanism and of the domination and mastery of nature, became core concepts of the modern world. An organically oriented mentality in which female principles played an important role was undermined and replaced by a mechanically oriented mentality that either eliminated or used female principles in an exploitative manner. As Western culture became increasingly mechanized in the 1600s, the female earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine. (p. 2)

The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold or mutilate her body, although commercial mining would soon require that. As long as the earth was considered to be alive and sensitive, it could be considered a breach of human ethical behavior to carry out destructive acts against it. For most traditional cultures, minerals and metals ripened in the uterus of the Earth Mother, mines were compared to her vagina, and metallurgy was the human hastening of the birth of the living metal in the artificial womb of the furnace—an abortion of the metal’s natural growth cycle before its time. Miners offered propitiation to the deities of the soil and subterranean world, performed ceremonial sacrifices, and observed strict cleanliness, sexual abstinence, and fasting before violating the sacredness of the living earth by sinking a mine. Smiths assumed an awesome responsibility in precipitating the metal’s birth through smelting, fusing, and beating it with hammer and anvil; they were often accorded the status of shaman in tribal rituals and their tools were thought to hold special powers. (pp. 3-4)

In his Timaeus, Plato endowed the whole world with life and likened it to an animal. The deity “framed one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature.” Its shape was round, since it had no need for eyes, ears, or appendages. Its soul was female, “in origin and excellence prior to and older than the body,” and made “to be ruler and mistress, of whom the body was to be the subject.” The soul permeated the corporeal body of the universe, enveloping it and “turning herself within herself.” The earth “which is our nurse” was placed at the immovable center of the cosmos. For Plato, this female world soul was the source of motion in the universe, the bridge between the unchanging eternal forms and the changing, sensible, temporal lower world of nature. The Neoplatonism of Plotinus (A.D. 204-270), which synthesized Christian philosophy with Platonism, divided the female soul into two components. The higher portion fashioned souls from the divine ideas; the lower portion, natura, generated the phenomenal world. (p. 10)

Aristotelian philosophy, while unifying matter and form in each individual being, associated activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness. Form reigned superior over dead, passive matter. Socially, Aristotle found the basis for male rule over the household in the analogy that, as the soul ruled the body, so reason and deliberation, characteristic of men, should rule the appetites supposedly predominant in women. (p. 13)

Next, Lisa Walters (2014) from her book on Margaret Cavendish who we will read for ourselves in a later lecture.

Conflation between power, gender and body can be seen particularly in early modern understandings of sex difference, influenced by the ancient physiology of Aristotle and Galen, who understood women as being imperfect men. Aristotle, for example, argued that ‘the female is as it were a deformed male’.5 The male body was the perfect form, and the female body was a defect from this generic type, and was thus defined as a kind of monster in Nature.6 Like Aristotle, Galen also argued that ‘the female has been made less perfect than the male’.7 Galen posits that women’s ‘whole nature is weaker and less fully developed’.8 Consequently, women were perceived as unable to become physically mature and develop to a fully masculine state. Within this logic, there was in a sense no female body, since females were essentially males that went wrong. (p. 39)

In context of the history of the body, Aristotelian physiology powerfully demonstrates how deeply sexual politics shaped perceptions of reproduction. Aristotle argues that the male ‘is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter’. According to this logic, the woman does not actively participate in reproduction, since the womb was merely the place where matter is worked on by form and it had no actual active role in generation: “The female always provides the material, the male provides that which fashions the material into shape; this, in our view, is the specific characteristic of each of the sexes: that is what it means to be male or to be female”[3] (p. 44)

Great Chain of Being: Race

I’m sure you can anticipate what the role of the Great Chain of Being is going to be in terms of race. Within its hierarchy, skin colour will become a determining factor. We will return to this in later lectures, but for now here are a few illustrations.

First from Peter Wade (1993) (note, a phenotype is a set of observable characteristics). 

The point is to recognise what is implied by the unselfconscious use of ‘phenotypical variation’ as a natural resource. The less that resource is recognised as socially constituted, the more ‘race’ itself is reproduced as a category which, for all its social construction, is based on some fixed signifier: ‘race’ is reproduced s a naturally unyielding and obdurate category because apparently people ‘so readily’ perceive physical difference. (p. 25)

We’re naturally suspicious of people who look different. Suspicion can quickly turn to fear and fear turns to hatred in no time at all.” This easy move from physical appearance as a general category (‘look different’) to racialised phenotypes (‘racial fear’) naturalises the perception of physical difference as the perception of ‘racial’ difference. (p. 26)

The potency of ‘race’ lies not so much in the fact that it involves physical features as in the particular history of European colonial encounters that have focused on certain features and given them such powerful and deeply rooted meanings. (p. 26)

Donna Haraway’s book Primate Visions (1989) looks to ‘feminist and anti-racist movements and theories to craft a view of nature as it is constructed and reconstructed in the bodies and lives of “third world” animals serving as surrogates for “man”’ (1989, 2).

Primatology is western discourse, and it is sexualized discourse. It is about potential and its actualization. Nature/culture and sex/gender are not loosely related pairs of terms; their specific form of relation is hierarchical appropriation, connected as Aristotle taught by the logic of active/passive, form/matter, achieved form/resource, man/ animal, final/material cause. Symbolically, nature and culture, as well as sex and gender, mutually (but not equally) construct each other; one pole of a dualism cannot exist without the other. (p. 12)

monkeys, apes, and human beings emerge in primatology inside elaborate narratives about origins, natures, and possibilities. Primatology is about the life history of a taxonomic order that includes people. Especially western people produce stories about primates while simultaneously telling stories about the relations of nature and culture, animal and human, body and mind, origin and future. Indeed, from the start, in the mid-eighteenth century, the primate order has been built on tales about these dualisms and their scientific resolution. (p. 5)

And from a series of lectures given by Michel Foucault in 1975-6, we are introduced to the idea of biopower, (think of biopower, in short, as the new power in society since the early 19th century which regularises life itself: i.e., it is a power that shapes how people are to be determined as living, how to make them be living, and a power that can let them die.) On race and natural hierarchy Foucault said this in his lecture of 17th March, 1976.

What in fact is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break be­tween what must live and what must die. The appearance within the biological continuum of the human race of races, the distinction among races, the hierarchy of races, the fact that certain races are described as good and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior: all this is a way of fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls. It is a way of separating out the groups that exist within a population. It is, in short, a way of establishing a biological­type caesura within a population that appears to be a biological do­main. This will allow power to treat that population as a mixture of races, or to be more accurate, to treat the species, to subdivide the species it controls, into the subspecies known, precisely, as races. That is the first function of racism: to fragment, to create caesuras within the biological continuum addressed by biopower. (pp. 254-5)

Our final author is Aileen Moreton-Robinson the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to a mainstream lecturing position in women’s studies in Australia. She returns us to the idea of a logic that underpins racism. It’s not quite the same as the Aristotelian logic of mastery we have been looking, at least not at first glance, but perhaps you can see some relations between them. In her book The White Possessive (2015) she talks of white possessive logic. 

I use the concept “possessive logics” to denote a mode of rationalization, rather than a set of positions that produce a more or less inevitable answer, that is underpinned by an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state’s ownership, control, and domination. As such, white possessive logics are operationalized within discourses to circulate sets of meanings about ownership of the nation, as part of commonsense knowledge, decision making, and socially produced conventions. (p. xii)

Race matters in the lives of all peoples; for some people it confers unearned privileges, and for others it is the mark of inferiority. Daily newspapers, radio, television, and social media usually portray Indigenous peoples as a deficit model of humanity. We are overrepresented as always lacking, dysfunctional, alcoholic, violent, needy, and lazy, whether we are living in Illinois, Auckland, Honolulu, Toronto, or Bris-bane. For Indigenous people, white possession is not unmarked, un- named, or invisible; it is hypervisible. In our quotidian encounters, whether it is on the streets of Otago or Sydney, in the tourist shops in Vancouver or Waipahu, or sitting in a restaurant in New York, we experience ontologically the effects of white possession. These cities signify with every building and every street that this land is now possessed by others; signs of white possession are embedded everywhere in the landscape. The omnipresence of Indigenous sovereignties exists here too, but it is disavowed through the materiality of these significations, which are perceived as evidence of ownership by those who have taken pos-session. This is territory that has been marked by and through violence and race. Racism is thus inextricably tied to the theft and appropriation of Indigenous lands in the first world. In fact, its existence in the United States, Canada, Australia, Hawai’i, and New Zealand was dependent on this happening. The dehumanizing impulses of colonization are successfully acted upon because racisms in these countries are predicated on the logic of possession. (p. xiii)

Consider the conceptual schemata constituted by and of racialized discourse: “Classification, order, value and hierarchy; differentiation and identity, discrimination and identification; exclusion, domination, subjection, and subjugation as well as entitlement and restriction.” Knowledge and power are produced in and through these concepts in relation to possession. You cannot dominate without seeking to possess the dominated. You cannot exclude unless you assume you already own. Classification therefore ascribes value and identification, which manifest in racial markers like blood quantum and skin color. Thus white possession is a discursive predisposition servicing the conditions, practices, implications, and racialized discourses that are embedded within and central to white first world patriarchal nation-states. (p. xxiv)

I focus on the origins of white possession by analyzing Captain James Cook’s reasoning not to follow instructions to make a treaty with the natives, instead declaring that the land was uninhabited. I argue that white possession as configured through the logic of capital functions sociodiscursively to inform and shape subjectivity and the law. Cook, as the embodiment of patriarchal white sovereignty, willed away the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples by placing them in and of nature as propertyless subjects to claim the land as terra nullius. (p. xxii)

I am not going to comment here on those pieces we have quoted from. What I would suggest is that you come back to read them again later in the lecture programme, when they will be able to contribute to discussions that we are having in more detail about prejudice and inequality surrounding class, gender and race. 


Cavarero, A. (1995) In Spite of Plato, A Feminist Rewriting of Plato, New York, Routledge.

Doyle, W. (2010) Aristocracy a very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Du Bois, P. (1982) Centaurs and Amazons, Women and the Pre-history of the Great Chain of Being, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press. 

Foucault, M. (2003) Society Must Be Defended, New Yok, Picador.

Griffin, S. (1978) Woman and Nature, The Roaring Inside Her, New York, Harper Row.

Haraway, D. (1989) Primate Visions, New York, Routledge.

Merchant, C. (1980) The Death of Nature; women, ecology and the scientific revolution, San Francisco, Harper Row.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015) The White Possessive, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Plato, (1997) Plato Complete Works, edited J. Cooper, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Co.

Wade, P. (1993) ‘”Race”, Nature, and Culture,’ Man , Mar., 1993, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1993), pp. 17-34.

Walters, L. (2014) Margaret Cavendish, gender, science & politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[1] Doyle, W. (2010) Aristocracy, a very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] The idea of such a class prevails today.


[3] Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 738b 20-22

Also In this Lecture Series


And so, we reach an interesting problem.  There is the

A History of Western Philosophy: Prejudice and Inequality

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