A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 1, Chapters 1–2 : Catholic Philosophy (The Fathers) | Summary



Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 1: The Religious Development of the Jews

The Christian religion at the time of the late Roman Empire consisted of three elements: philosophical beliefs derived from Plato, the Neoplatonists, and Stoics; ideas about morals and history derived from the Jews; and salvation theories partly traceable to Greek Orphism and similar Near East cults. These elements from Judaism were imported into Christianity: (1) sacred history "justifying the ways of God to man"; (2) the idea of an "elect" chosen by God; (3) ideas about righteousness, particularly almsgiving; (4) the Law, written in sacred texts; (5) the Messiah; and the Kingdom of Heaven. Both Jews and early Christians conceived of the "Other World" as material.

Historians must depend on the Old Testament (or "Hebrew Bible") for the early history of the Israelites. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and removed most of the population, but the kingdom of Judah preserved the Israelite religion and tradition. In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, enslaving most of the population and bringing them back to Babylon. In 538 BCE Babylon fell and the Jews returned to Judea (Judah) and established orthodoxy. In the period of captivity they conceived of Yahweh as a jealous god. Fiercely nationalistic prophets of Jewish religion taught that other gods and religions are false: the Jews are chosen by God, and he will punish them for their wickedness. In this way they accounted for their sufferings.

The Jews were again disrupted in 175 BCE when King Antiochus IV tried to Hellenize them. A successful revolt against Antiochus was led by Judas Maccabaeus, who then negotiated with Rome and won Jewish autonomy for a time. Since the Jews living outside their homeland had become acculturated, the religion was saved by the Maccabees (followers of Maccabaeus). Judaism later became the seedbed for Christianity. Eventually Judea was put under the charge of a Roman procurator. In 66 the Jewish Zealots rebelled against Rome, and in punishment the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple. For the most part the Jews were dispersed from their homeland. Because the Alexandrian Jews could not read Hebrew, the Old Testament was translated into Greek and called the Septuagint. Christians relied on this somewhat defective translation until Saint Jerome produced a Latin Bible, which became the authoritative Catholic text. After the diaspora (dispersion) the Jews established colonies all over the ancient world. As Christianity took shape, it grew hostile toward Judaism. Throughout the Middle Ages the Jews were persecuted in Christian countries. Only among the Muslims in Europe are "Jews ... treated humanely ... and ... able to pursue philosophy and enlightened speculation."

Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 2: Christianity during the First Four Centuries

Christianity began as a reformed Judaism, as taught by Jesus's disciples James and Peter, but Saint Paul insisted on converting Gentiles (non-Jews) without subjecting them to such customs as circumcision and the food rules prescribed by Jewish law. Since Paul's view won, Christianity spread. The Gnostics mixed new Christian ideas with old Greek concepts; Russell calls Gnosticism "a half-way house between philosophic paganism and Christianity." Manichaeism and other forms of Gnosticism flourished until Christianity became the official government religion. The Christian view of the Jews is that God had spoken to the prophets and foretold Christ's coming, but the Jews refused to recognize him. Further, Jesus has replaced Mosaic Law with his salvific death and new commandments. Thus when Christianity became a state religion, anti-Semitism began to flourish.

As Christianity became Hellenized, it became more theologically complicated, says Russell. The simplicity of Jewish theology can be seen in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Saint John, however, has a Greek flavor, identifying Jesus with the Logos of Platonic and Stoic thinking. The Church fathers followed Saint John's lead and referenced his Gospel more than the others. Origen was the first serious synthesizer of Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture. He identified God as wholly incorporeal. In his view all people will ultimately become bodiless when they submit to Christ, and even the devil will be saved in the end. In later times the Church called Origen a heretic because of some of his beliefs.

Church government developed during the first three centuries after Christ. In the early centuries certain doctrinal quarrels arose—for example, whether Jesus was a divine being. To settle this dispute Constantine convened an ecumenical council, which drew up the first version of the Nicene Creed enumerating the tenets of Christian faith. Russell discusses possible motives for Constantine's conversion to Christianity, relying heavily on Gibbon's analysis in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Constantine obtains an "organized bloc" of support by converting. Moreover, a large part of Constantine's army is Christian already.


In the first chapter on Catholic philosophy, Russell provides background on the sources of Christianity, in Greek philosophy, Judaism, and the religions of the Near East. As already noted, concepts of heaven, hell, and purgatory can be found in Mesopotamian religion, which make their way into Greek Orphism. From Stoic philosophy came the idea of resigning oneself to the will of God. While Russell notes the Jews conceived of the "Other World" as material, as did the early Christians, Neoplatonism later added to Christianity a coherent explanation of a transcendent God. Neoplatonism also had a concept of a divine Trinity, perhaps prefiguring the three persons of the Christian God. From Judaism came shared history, beginning with the Creation story found in the Hebrew Bible.

Russell says the Christian idea of the elect of God, chosen for heaven, can be traced back to the Jewish idea that they are chosen by God, but perhaps the Christians followed the Jews more so in their insistence that all other notions of God except their own are false. Russell also claims the Jews preceded the Christians in coming up with the idea that the virtuous are rewarded in the afterlife and the wicked tormented. This occurs after Jewish persecution by Antiochus IV recorded in the First Book of Maccabees. While Judaism generally does not put a lot of emphasis on the afterlife, especially in the modern period, the idea that the wicked will be punished after death does appear in Jewish scripture.

Russell mentions the Jewish Dispersion in passing. The first diaspora (dispersal) of the Jews occurred when many were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. A large number of Jews fled to Egypt at that time and formed a large community there. After the Jews were freed by Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE, some stayed behind. Despite the Exodus story, there is no credible historical evidence that the Jews were ever in captivity in Egypt or that a leader named Moses defeated the pharaoh of Egypt and led his people through the desert. No doubt this is why Russell leaves Moses out of his history. The second great diaspora of the Jewish people occurs when Romans forced the Jews out of their homeland beginning in 70 CE because of their repeated rebellion against their conquerors, who first arrived in 63 BCE.

In providing a thumbnail sketch of the early years of Christianity, Russell mentions the Christian mystic Origen, who is the first to introduce into the Christian tradition the idea of an incorporeal God. In fact Origen had the same teacher as Plotinus, as Russell notes. Both men lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and studied with Ammonius Saccas, whom some historians identify as the true founder of Neoplatonism. Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry were later read by Bishop Ambrose and the Christian community in Rome, which introduced Saint Augustine to the same ideas. The incorporeal God entered Western Christianity more directly as a result of Augustine's teachings rather than Origen's. Although Origen is not given much space in Russell's survey of Catholic philosophy, he is the first systematic theologian and philosopher of Christianity.

Russell mentions the Gnostics in his survey but follows the general Christian bias of excluding them as Christians. In fact many Gnostics considered themselves to be Christians with alternative views. Scriptures of the Gnostic Christians found buried in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 reveal some of their beliefs, excluded and suppressed as mainstream doctrine hardened and the leaders of the new religion regularized the dogma that would become the orthodox teaching of the Church. Russell also has a habit of referring to the Arian Christians as Arians throughout his treatise. The Arians were most certainly Christians, but they believed that God did not share his godhead with Jesus, contrary to what became orthodox belief—that Jesus is equal to God as one of the three persons of God. The Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325 CE to settle this dispute, was the first of many counsels convened through the centuries to determine what Christians would believe. Eventually the Church breaks into Eastern and Western divisions, partially over the East's refusal to accept the authority of the pope. Russell does not distinguish between the first and second Church schisms, nor does he adequately explain the issues at stake.

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