A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 1, Chapters 3–4 : Catholic Philosophy (The Fathers) | Summary



Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 3: Three Doctors of the Church

Bertrand Russell names four men as Doctors of the Western church: Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Pope Saint Gregory the Great. But their correct title is the four "Latin Fathers of the Church." The first three were contemporaries in the period "between the victory of the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasion." These men "fixed the mold into which the Church was shaped." Ambrose created a model for Church-state relations; Jerome produced the Latin Bible and promoted monasticism; and Augustine created the theology of the Church until the Reformation. In this period the Church was "vigorous ... guided by men prepared to sacrifice everything personal in its interests" with "far-sighted" policies that kept the Church in power for many centuries.

Ambrose renounced a successful government career and became bishop of Milan "by popular acclaim" at the end of the 4th century. His duties required him to speak often with Rome's emperors, whom he approached as an equal. He was successful in establishing that the state must yield to the Church in matters of religion, a principle that has retained its importance until the present day, says Russell. In one case Ambrose supported a bishop who destroyed a synagogue, "an example of the manner in which, as soon as it acquired power, the Church began to stimulate anti-Semitism."

Jerome is known for his production of the Vulgate or Latin Bible, accepting help from Jewish rabbis for his translations of the Old Testament from the original Jewish texts. Jerome was born five years after Ambrose, studied in Rome, and spent time as a hermit in Syria. He was a querulous man, even quarreling with the pope and moving to Bethlehem in 386, where he remained until his death.

Russell provides a very short summary of Augustine's life based on the saint's Confessions, saying he is primarily concerned with sin, both before and after his conversion to Catholicism.

Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 4: Saint Augustine's Philosophy and Theology

Bertrand Russell references The Confessions to highlight Augustine's "purely philosophical work." The most interesting part of Confessions is Book 11, which discusses time and God's relation to creation. Augustine sees time as always present—the subjective experience of a created being in the now. Thus to speak about time before creation makes no sense. While Russell does not agree that time is a mental construct, he finds Augustine's theory plausible and a great advance over anything found in Greek philosophy. It is also a clearer statement than Kant's subjective theory of time. Russell moves on to The City of God, which was in part an answer to the charge that Rome was sacked by the Goths because the pagans had abandoned their ancient gods. Russell says that the "broad conception" of the book is to contrast the city of the world with the city of God. He finds this book important for establishing these viewpoints: (1) the state must submit to the Church in religious matters; (2) people are predestined for heaven or hell, although they must be baptized to obtain salvation; and (3) Christianity champions the oppressed and downtrodden.

Russell spends the last part of his summary of Augustine on the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius, whom Russell claims is Welsh (although other sources say he is Irish), believed in free will but doubted original sin and thought people are virtuous by their own effort, for which they would be rewarded in heaven. Such views became heretical, largely through Augustine's efforts. Russell represents Augustine's "ferocious doctrine—which was revived by Calvin" as one in which God chooses certain people among the baptized for heaven. All people are depraved, although God bestows grace on the elect; damnation proves God's justice and salvation his mercy. Russell traces this doctrine back to Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which Augustine, with the skill of a lawyer, uses to support his own view. Augustine's "gloomy sense of universal guilt" is the basis of what is harshest in the medieval Church, says Russell. He faults Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose for being less concerned with saving civilization from the barbarians and more concerned with such issues as virginity (in Saint Jerome's case) and damnation of unbaptized infants (Augustine): "Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition."


Bertrand Russell names four Doctors of the Church, but even in Russell's time there were more than four. The four he names—Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great—are the four Latin Fathers of the Church (that is, the Fathers of the Church who lived or worked in the western part of the Roman Empire). Russell explains why the Church is so vigorous in the early centuries—guided by men who themselves are guided by a compelling religious vision that is difficult for most people in modern secular culture to imagine. The early Catholic leaders wholeheartedly and devoutly believed and were prepared to sacrifice everything for their faith. Similarly, the people who followed them lived and breathed this shared vision and worldview.

The Latin Bible (the Vulgate) of Jerome replaced the less accurate Latin-based translations of the Bible—both the Old Testament (also called the Hebrew Bible and originally written in Hebrew with a few passages in Aramaic) and the New Testament (originally written in common Greek). Prior to Jerome, Latin translations of the Old Testament were based on the Greek translation from Hebrew, called the Septuagint, but Jerome went back to the original material. Bertrand Russell says the Vulgate, which has since been revised, is the official Bible of the Catholic Church. Currently the Catholic Church claims no official Bible, although the Vulgate continues to get special recognition from the Church.

While Russell tries for even-handedness in outlining the writings of Saint Augustine, he can't help but be swayed by his own indignation as a humanistic agnostic to Augustine's more "ferocious" teachings. The Augustine who writes The Confessions, however, is not the same Augustine who writes The City of God. Augustine became more rigid and uncompromising as time went on because he felt called upon to stamp out unorthodoxies that threatened the early Church. Augustine particularly fought Pelagianism, which taught that people do not need God's grace to be good. Such a belief clearly threatened the central role of the Church as mediator between God and man. But the Augustine of The Confessions is not a Gloomy Gus, as Russell would have it, suffering under the weight of guilt about sin. Furthermore, in the Confessions Augustine argues people need the grace of God for salvation, but never that only a certain number of people are destined to be saved ahead of time.

Perhaps it would have been fairer of Russell to explain that Augustine held different views of salvation in different parts of his life. Further, it can be argued that The Confessions had much more of an impact on Western Christianity than did The City of God, particularly as a model for an individual's relationship with God. The Confessions also has great literary value, which Russell fails to notice, although he gives Plato kudos for style even if he doesn't like his philosophy either. Granted, Russell is angry about draconian Christianity that promotes feelings of sin and guilt and terror of hell, but it seems hardly fair to lay so much of the blame on Augustine. Certainly some of the blame should be shared with those who came up with the idea of hell in the first place, as well as with those who focused on certain aspects of Augustine that support an extreme view.
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