A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 1, Chapters 5–6 : Catholic Philosophy (The Fathers) | Summary



Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 5: The Fifth and Sixth Centuries

In the fifth century the barbarians overran the Western empire. The English invaded Britain, which became England; the Franks invaded Gaul, which became France; the Vandals invaded Spain; and Saint Patrick converted the Irish. "Rough Germanic kingdoms" replaced the central government. The mail stopped, the roads decayed, war put an end to commerce, and life was lived once again locally, both politically and economically.

The subject of the Incarnation (God becoming man) became a serious point of theological contention during this period. The dispute involved whether Jesus is two persons—one human and one divine—or two natures (human and divine) in one person. Russell then relates how Saint Cyril, a fanatical advocate of unity, incited pogroms against the Jews in Alexandria and is behind the horrific death of female Neoplatonic philosopher and mathematician Hypatia. Due to Cyril's tactics at an ecumenical council called to decide the issue of the Incarnation, his party's theory wins the day.

At the beginning of the 6th century Theodoric, an Arian and Ostrogothic barbarian, conquered Italy and restored peace for more than three decades. (An Arian is an unorthodox Christian who denies that Jesus is equal in divinity to God the Father or first person of God.) Four men important in the history of Catholic culture in this century are Boethius, Justinian, Benedict, and Gregory the Great. Boethius, Theodoric's minister and a senator, was accused of plotting against the king and sentenced to death. While in prison Boethius wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy. Russell calls this text, written by someone the Church considers a devout Christian, "purely Platonic." Russell admires the Consolation, noting that it contains "no trace of the superstition or morbidness of the age, no obsession with sin, no excessive straining after the unattainable." After Boethius's death Justinian (r. 527–65) became emperor of the East and closed the schools of philosophy in Athens. He attempted to reconquer the Western empire, and a long war ensued with terrible consequences for Italy and Rome. In 568, three years after Justinian's death, the Lombards invaded Italy and fought an intermittent war with the Byzantines for 200 years. "It was this period that ruined Italian civilization," Russell says.

Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 6: Saint Benedict and Gregory the Great

During the period of incessant war the Church "preserved whatever survived of the culture of ancient Rome." Despite prevailing "fanaticism and superstition ... ecclesiastical institutions created a solid framework, within which, in later times, a revival of learning and civilized arts became possible." Important Church activities in this century are the rise of monasticism and the conversion of the barbarians. Gregory the Great played an important role in strengthening the papacy.

Monasticism began in Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, with both solitary hermits and monastic communities. Saint Anthony is the first of the hermits, who left solitude in 305 to preach and promote his way of life. Russell mentions some of the extremes of asceticism practiced by monastics, such as living on a pillar. Nuns came into existence as early as the 3rd century, and some shut themselves up in tombs, according to Russell. The chief figure in Western monasticism was Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order and rule. In a sardonic tone using verbal irony Russell relates several miraculous events in the life of Benedict, as told by Pope Gregory the Great. He remarks on the difference between Gregory's "childish and credulous" religious accounts and his mastery as a statesman.

Gregory, born into a rich and noble family, embraced religious life in his 30s. He was tapped by the pope to go to the emperor's court in Constantinople as a diplomat. Then he was abbot of a monastery, and finally he was made pope himself. Gregory was a force against anarchy during turbulent times, writing to bishops and secular rulers. He wrote the Book of Pastoral Rule, advice to bishops that remained authoritative through the early Middle Ages. During this period the Goths convert from Arianism to Catholicism, and the Visigoths also adopt Catholicism. Gregory is much involved in the English conversion. Russell does not consider Justinian, Benedict, nor Gregory great men but gives them credit for having much more influence on future ages than the great men of prior times. "Roman law, monasticism, and the papacy owe their long and profound influence very largely to Justinian, Benedict, and Gregory," he says.


The Incarnation controversy refers to an argument within the Church over the nature of Jesus's godhead. According to Catholic doctrine, Jesus is God but is born as man, in the normal fashion, although his mother remains a virgin who conceives through the Holy Spirit or third person of God. In the 5th century, however, Saint Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, and Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, disagreed about the exact nature of Jesus's godhead, and this led to terrible consequences for both the Jews and the philosopher Hypatia who got caught in the crossfire. Despite the excesses of fanatics the Church preserves culture through a period of continual warfare.

Once the Western part of the Roman Empire began to suffer waves of invasion, the locus of political power remained in the East. The Ostrogoths were Germanic Goths who originated in the area around the Black Sea. Justinian attempted to get back the Western empire from the Ostrogoth Theodoric, who had originally been backed by the Byzantines in his fight against Odoacer. Russell notes the Lombards who invaded Italy fight the Byzantines. This is because parts of Italy remained under control of the Eastern Empire after the fall of Rome. Another Germanic people, the Lombards conquered all the main cities of northern Italy and occupied areas in central and southern Italy. They remained in power until the ascendency of Charlemagne at the beginning of the 8th century.

In Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 6 Russell notes some extremes of ascetic practice among the monastics, saying nuns shut themselves up in tombs. Russell is likely referring to anchorites, who are both male and female. Anchorites generally did not belong to a religious order before choosing their vocation. They were permanently enclosed or "walled in," often in an enclosure attached to a church. The quarters of these recluses had one window that looked into the church and one that opened onto the outside world, and people visited and spoke with them through the window. Some anchorite cells had several rooms, and some included a garden. An anchorite also had a servant to bring food and remove waste. Such people must have had enough money to support their enclosure, and they also received alms (charitable contributions). Anchorites spent most of their time in prayer and meditation.

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