Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 2 Part 2 Chapters 10 12 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 2, Chapters 10–12 : Catholic Philosophy (The Schoolmen) | Summary



Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 10: Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy

The main attacks on the Eastern Empire came from Muslims. After Mohammed's death in 632, his Arab followers began a rapid conquest of Arabia, Syria, Persia, and parts of India, Carthage, and most of Spain, and they besieged Constantinople twice. The Muslim imperialists killed rivals among themselves and took large numbers of slaves. However, they didn't force people to convert (only to pay a special tax) and maintained the roads of previous conquerors to carry on extensive commerce.

Eventually Muslim rule was fractured, with various parts of the empire remaining somewhat independent and distinctive cultures flourishing in the extreme east (Spain) and west (Persia). The Arabs first learned Greek philosophy from the Syrians, who preferred Aristotle to Plato. From the Indians the Muslims learned astronomy and the "Arabic" numerals. The Persians contributed poetry and mysticism to Islam, the latter in the form of Sufism, a Neoplatonic and allegorical interpretation of orthodox Muslim dogma.

Two important Islamic philosophers cited by Russell are Avicenna and Averroes. Avicenna was learned in both medicine and philosophy and wrote an encyclopedia that became influential in the West in Latin translation. His philosophy was more Aristotelian than Neoplatonic, and he "invented a formula ... [that] 'thought brings about the generality in forms.'" For example, the idea of a cat exists before cats, and then the idea of a cat (felinity) exists in actual cats. Averroes sought to improve the Arabic interpretation of Aristotle and claimed existence of God can be proven by reason, a position also taken by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Averroes followed Aristotle in believing the soul is mortal but the intellect (nous)—impersonal and the same in all persons—is immortal. Russell sums up by saying Arabic philosophy is for the most part derivative, although the Muslims showed some originality in mathematics, chemistry, and the arts. The Muslims stimulated Western thought, however, especially when Muslim philosophers who followed Aristotle and were persecuted in their homelands took refuge with Jewish communities in the West. Since the Jews knew both Arabic and Western languages, they were able to translate both Muslim philosophers and works of Aristotle already translated into Arabic.

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 11: The Twelfth Century

Four aspects of the 12th century are discussed in this chapter: (1) the continued conflict between the papacy and the secular state; (2) the rise of the Lombard cities; (3) the Crusades; and (4) the growth of Scholasticism. The papacy finally forced the emperors to give up their role in the investitures of bishops along with control over their election. Russell provides many details of the quarrels between Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1152–90) and the Lombard cities in northern Italy. The cities were often allied with the pope against the emperor, who on his side enlisted his own alternative pope. "The rise of free cities is what proved of most ultimate importance in this long strife," says Russell.

The Crusades are initiated by the papacy to increase the power of the Church, Russell says, although their ostensible reason was religious (to reclaim the "Holy Lands" from the Muslims). An important side effect locally was the massacre of large numbers of Jews—in Germany at the time of the first Crusade, and in England during the third Crusade. In this period Jews were also forced to convert and lose property. The Crusades also increased "literary intercourse" between East and West, and many Greek works were translated into Latin.

Scholasticism began in the 12th century, and Aristotle became increasingly known and "accepted as the supreme authority," pushing Plato out of his first place. Although scholars are bound by the limits of dogma, there begins a "vigorous exercise of reason." The most distinguished man among the early Scholastics was Abélard (1079–1142), an exceptional teacher and a quarrelsome philosopher who got into trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion. Abélard said the "dialectic [arguing opposing positions] is the sole road to truth," challenging people's prejudices. His wheelhouse was linguistic critical analysis, and he argued that philosophy doesn't explain things in the world but rather predicates words as meanings. Saint Bernard, a Cistercian monk, was the opposite of Abélard, seeking religious truth in prayer. He was most successful in Church politics, combating heresy, supporting the Crusades, enforcing orthodoxy, and increasing "the power of the pope in secular affairs."

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 12: The Thirteenth Century

The 13th century marked a synthesis in Catholic thought. It was an era of great achievement (Gothic cathedrals, chivalric literature, the beginnings of constitutional government) as well as religious excess. Pope Innocent III (r. 1198–1216) "was the first great Pope in whom there was no element of sanctity," says Bertrand Russell. "The power motive, from his time on, more and more exclusively dominated the papacy, and produced opposition from some religious men even in his day." Innocent persecuted a heretical sect in France known as the Albigenses. Their "cult of poverty" and disdain of created things was spurred in part by the failure of the Crusades as well as "the wealth and wickedness of the clergy." The Church was "rich and largely worldly" and "many priests were grossly immoral," even engaging in sexual abuse in the confessional. The Church also persecuted the Waldenses, a sect practicing poverty and strict virtue. They were condemned but continued to preach, which resulted in Innocent III calling on the king of France to take up a crusade against them. He did so in 1209, carrying out a massacre. The "ferreting out of heresy" was then turned over to the Inquisition, founded by Gregory IX in 1233. The accused were not given counsel, and if condemned they were turned over to secular authorities. If secular authorities "failed to burn [them]," such negligence could be punished as well.

The Italian saint, Francis of Assisi, represented the saintly side of Christianity. He and his order of monks followed the strictest vow of poverty. What makes Saint Francis unique, in Russell's view, is "his spontaneous happiness, his universal love, and his gifts as a poet. His goodness appears always devoid of effort." After his death his order abandoned its poverty and became leaders of Inquisitorial persecution in several countries. "The Dominicans were even more active than the Franciscans in the work of the Inquisition," says Russell. Founded by Saint Dominic (1170–1221), a fanatic for orthodoxy, they became devoted to learning after the death of their founder and worked to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity. Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk.


Russell devotes Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 10 to the effect of Islamic culture on Western civilization and philosophy. In the centuries after Mohammed's death in 632, the caliphate, or political and religious entity under Islam, significantly expanded its territory through conquest. The Islamic Golden Age generally dates from the 8th century until the 13th century, a period of economic and cultural growth. Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries a translation movement began under the first Abbasid caliphs, who founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a library and translation institute. The Muslims supervised translation of medical, scientific, and philosophical texts from Greek or Syriac (the language of the Syrians), including works by Aristotle and Plato.

The Arabic texts were later translated into Latin in Europe, with most of the work done in Spain, where many people knew both Latin and Arabic. Averroes, a native of Córdoba in Spain, was polymath and master of both Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy and a philosopher in his own right. His extensive and thorough commentaries were very important in shaping late medieval understanding of Aristotle. By the end of the 12th century almost all of Aristotle's works had been translated into Latin along with commentaries, and by the mid-13th century they were widely known among scholars. As a result medieval Scholastic philosophers embraced Aristotle and integrated his thinking into Catholic theology.

Russell shows in his chapters on the 12th and 13th century how the papacy increased its power. One theme that comes up in these chapters and is recurring in Russell's treatise is the mass slaughter of Jews. The Crusades turned out to be occasions to carry out pogroms (mass killing events) against the Jews as a sidelight to reclaiming land conquered by Muslims. No doubt Russell is thinking about the slaughter of Jews in concentration camps in Germany as he is writing in 1943, and he is drawing a parallel between the historical persecution of the Jews by Christians for hundreds of years and the launching of Hitler's "final solution" for the Jews. In the 20th century Europeans in many countries stood by, turned a blind eye, or participated in the killing—something that was not new.

Russell also returns to the theme of Church corruption. While the 11th century was a time for cleaning house, reform was short-lived as the some clergy engaged in worse institutional misconduct. According to Russell, this is because the reform made the clergy feel secure in their moral prestige, which gave them cover for bad behavior. Russell describes political finagling and backroom deals being made at the highest levels, the accumulation of fabulous wealth, and widespread sexual abuse of the laity. Some of the abuse was carried out during the sacrament of confession, during which a penitent receives absolution for their sins. In the 13th century the Church also began widespread persecution of heretics, beginning in France with the Albigenses.

The Inquisition was launched in 1233 to smoke out heretics and false conversions. By 1252 the Church had sanctioned torture as a method of extracting the secrets of the accused. The Inquisition petered out by the end of the Middle Ages but was taken up again in the 15th century, most notoriously as the Spanish Inquisition, conducted by the Spanish government, which eventually was extended to other European countries and even to the New World. While only a small percentage of people were burned to death by Church authorities, the numbers were still in the tens of thousands. Russell is somewhat restrained in his retelling of the worst parts of Catholic history, although at times he is bitter and sardonic and uses understatement as verbal irony. Even though he is an agnostic, Russell shows appreciation for genuine spirituality, for example, in his description of Saint Francis of Assisi. But he is understandably outraged by some of the actions of the Church in the late medieval period.

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