A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 2, Chapters 13–15 : Catholic Philosophy (The Schoolmen) | Summary



Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 13: Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest of the Scholastic philosophers by the Church, and his system is taught in Catholic institutions as the only correct one. This has been true since Pope Leo XIII issued a papal decree on the subject in 1879 calling for the revival of Saint Thomas's Scholastic philosophy, says Bertrand Russell. Unlike his contemporaries Saint Thomas had a good understanding of Aristotle, reading translations from the Greek not "obscured by Neoplatonic accretions [additions]." Saint Thomas disliked Neoplatonism, even when he found it in Saint Augustine. He persuaded the Church that Aristotle's philosophy is a better fit with Christianity than Platonism and calls the Muslim philosopher Averroes's readings of Aristotle (somewhat heretical from the Church's point of view) a misinterpretation. Saint Thomas's most important work is Summa contra Gentiles, followed by Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologica).

Russell provides an abstract of some key concepts in Summa contra Gentiles. Saint Thomas says there are three ways of knowing God: reason, revelation, and intuition. In Saint Thomas's view human happiness is not the result of moral virtue but rather comes in the contemplation of God. However, the knowledge of God in this life is limited for most people, and they will have to wait for the hereafter to enjoy such bliss.

Saint Thomas shows originality in adapting Aristotle to Christian dogma "with a minimum of alteration" and displays "sharpness and clarity" in distinguishing "arguments derived from reason and arguments derived from revelation." However, his merits "seem scarcely sufficient to justify his immense reputation," says Russell. His appeal to reason seems insincere since he's already reached his conclusions in advance and resorts to faith when he can't square reason with dogma. At the same time he doesn't admit the weakness in his reasoned arguments when they don't fit his religious beliefs. "There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas," Russell says, and he does not put him on the same level as the best philosophers of Greece or of the modern era.

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 14: Franciscan Schoolmen

The three most important Franciscan philosophers are Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam. Roger Bacon received little notice in his own day but has been praised in the modern era "far beyond his deserts," says Russell. His passion was mathematics and science, and he regularly was suspected of heresy because of his intemperate tongue. He was condemned in 1278 and put in prison for 14 years, dying shortly after release. Unlike his colleagues Bacon valued experimentation. He respected Aristotle as well as the Muslim philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists he read in translation.

Duns Scotus opposed the views of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Scotus is a "moderate realist" who believed in free will and that being is not different from essence. He was interested in evidence, which can be (1) principles known by themselves; (2) things known by experience; and (3) people's actions. There is no difference between being and essence in his view, and the "principle of individuation" (what makes one thing different from another) is form, not matter. Saint Thomas said the essence of two things is identical when they are made of immaterial substances, but different if made of material substances, while Scotus says they are always different. Scotus's view is closer to Platonism. This problem of the nature of essence continued into the modern era of philosophy, and Russell mentions his own work in this regard.

William of Occam was an important English philosopher who became embroiled in political quarrels between the pope and the emperor. After he is excommunicated, Occam was forced to settle in Munich under the protection of the Bavarian emperor Louis IV, who was also at odds with the pope. France and England have grown into outsized political entities in the so-called Empire.

The papacy, also diminished, is dominated by France, so it moves to Avignon in the 14th century. The conflict between the pope and emperor was a standoff between France and Germany allied with England. Opposition to the pope had on the whole taken a new tone—a desire for more democracy. William was peripherally involved in the Conciliar Movement, which sought to push back against the absolutism of the pope.

With regard to philosophy, Occam is best known for his "razor," or not unnecessarily multiplying entities. In fact, he said: "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer." Occam was also associated with nominalism, a later philosophical school holding that universals or general principles are simply names that do not correspond with an actual reality. Occam faulted Scotus for misinterpreting Aristotle through a Platonic lens. This was particularly true in discussing Aristotle's categories, which are not meant to be metaphysical. William saw logic as an instrument to use in understanding the natural world, independent of metaphysics. The terms and concepts of logic were not things in themselves but vehicles for understanding the physical world. Occam's secular attitude toward philosophy encouraged scientific research.

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15: The Eclipse of the Papacy

At the end of the second part of his treatise Bertrand Russell sums up the Catholic synthesis. Christianity took from Judaism the concept of a sacred book and the doctrine that all religions but theirs are false. The afterlife is not new, but Christians give "new definiteness to heaven and hell." Persian dualism (as in the Manichean idea of separate gods for good and evil) was absorbed, although the omnipotence of the good principle was more dominant. Beginning with the philosopher Origen, Christians developed "an adequate philosophy by modification of Neoplatonism." The Church took a note from the East in promoting the exceptionality of the priesthood and used Roman ideas of government to create its power structure. Over time Augustinian philosophy, largely Platonic, was enriched with new ideas from Aristotle, who became known in the 13th century and established, primarily by Thomas Aquinas, as "the supreme authority after Scripture and the Church."

The disintegration of the Catholic synthesis began with the rift between East (the Byzantine Empire) and West, after the latter conquered Constantinople in the last Crusade in 1204. Although the Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261 and a council held in 1438 seemed to reunite the churches of the East and the West, this was mere window dressing, and they grew further apart. The growing power of nation states weakened the papacy, along with the rise of a rich commercial class and a laity demanding more power. The popes lost moral authority in their quarrels with both the emperors and religious within the Church. Pushback against papal dominion was sometimes "a Puritan horror of the corruption and worldliness of the papal court." At the end of the chapter Russell gives an account of the "Great Schism," which is actually the second schism, the first being the split between the Eastern and Western churches, occurring in 1054. The second crisis began in 1378 and lasted 40 years, with rival popes attempting to claim the Holy See. The Conciliar Movement successfully healed the breech at the Council of Constance, ensuring that Martin V was the pope in 1417.


Although Bernard Russell was writing in the early 1940s, what he says about the stature of Saint Thomas Aquinas among Catholics remains true. According the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Catholic Church has consistently reiterated the central importance of Saint Thomas's work for understanding Church doctrine on revelation. The Stanford entry on Saint Thomas says anyone would recognize his writings as philosophical, and his dozen commentaries on Aristotle are garnering more interest and respect among Aristotelian philosophers. Russell, on the other hand, says Saint Thomas lacked the "true philosophical spirit" and does not follow an argument where it leads. "Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith," says Russell. However, British philosopher Anthony Kenny says that such a remark coming from a man "who takes hundreds of pages to prove that one and one make two" is somewhat ironic—meaning Russell himself philosophizes in his Principia Mathematica about what he sees as a foregone conclusion. Kenny defends Saint Thomas, saying he reaches many novel conclusions and never endorses an argument simply because he supports it.

Russell also notes that Saint Thomas says practically nothing about the third way of knowing God, which is intuition, indicating his temperament is very far from mysticism. An interesting sidelight on Saint Thomas, however, is that he appears to have experienced God in a mystical encounter at the end of his life and stopped philosophizing, putting his pen aside and never completing his treatise Summa Theologica. When questioned, he answered either, "I cannot go on ... All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me." Or "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value."

Of the Franciscan schoolmen Russell highlights William of Occam, saying that a modern philosophical outlook is often read into what Occam said. In fact, his primary agenda was simply to restore "pure Aristotle, freed from both Augustinian and Arabic influences." Occam's razor urges scientific interpretation without assuming "hypothetical entities," a principle Russell says he has found to be most useful in logical analysis.

The last chapter in Part 2 on Catholic philosophy sums up the Catholic synthesis and briefly explains how it disintegrated. According to Russell, the rift between the Eastern and Western churches occurred when the West conquered Constantinople and ruled the city from 1204 to 1261. However, the churches had already split in the East-West Schism of 1054, which began as an argument between the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople about enforcing Latin Church customs on the Greek Catholics in southern Italy. The second schism (also called the Great Schism or the Great Western Schism) is the fallout from keeping the papal court in Avignon, France, for 70 years and then moving it back to Rome. This resulted in rival popes at each seat excommunicating each other until they were reined in by representatives of the Conciliar Movement, which was a movement within the structure of Catholicism to curb abuses of papal power. While the papacy is restored with one pope, the Conciliar Movement is eventually condemned in 1870 by the First Vatican Council. The fiasco of dueling popes leaves a permanent scar, and it is only a matter of time until additional forces will come together to deconstruct the monolith that is the Catholic Church.

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