A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 2, Part 2, Chapters 7–9 : Catholic Philosophy (The Schoolmen) | Summary



Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 7: The Papacy in the Dark Ages

After the barbarian Lombards defeated the Eastern Byzantines who held territory in northern Italy, the papacy necessarily allied itself with the Franks to fight this immediate threat. This move also frees the West from the Greek/Eastern emperors. The Franks were barbarian invaders who, beginning at the end of the 5th century, dominated what is today northern France, Belgium, and western Germany. Pope Gregory III first turned to the Franks in 739 when the Lombards tried to take Rome. In 732 Charles Martel, a powerful Frankish statesman, defeated the invading (Muslim) Moors at the Battle of Tours in France. Martel is the "Mayor of the Palace." The Mayors of the Place are the true power brokers behind the Frankish throne. The Frankish ruler Charlemagne (a convert to Catholicism) defeated the Lombards for good in 774. He conquered both Italy and Germany and became emperor of a somewhat revived Western empire through the machinations of his father and the Mayor of the Palace, Pepin. Charlemagne is crowned with the Church's blessing by Poe Leo III in 800. Thus the "Holy Roman Empire" comes into existence, which under Charlemagne's rule ranges over central Europe and parts of Western Europe, and in Italy as far as Rome.

The pope and emperor have uneasy interdependence, since "no one could be emperor unless crowned by the Pope in Rome; on the other hand ... every strong emperor claimed the right to appoint or depose popes." The Catholic power structure continued to gain ground, even if it experienced setbacks. Germany was converted largely due to the missionary efforts of Saint Boniface, who founded many monasteries. After the death of Charlemagne Western Europe again fell into disarray. Pope Nicholas I (r. 858–67) initially increased papal power, which is subsequently lost when a local Roman ruling family gained the power to appoint their own family members as popes. Meanwhile bishops in the provinces became "assimilated to lay feudal magnates." Russell marks the year 1000 as "the lowest depth to which the civilization of Western Europe sank." Barbarians came in successive waves, and though Christianized, "weakened the civilized tradition." Muslims conquered areas of Western Europe, and local kings lost control of their feudal lords. Russell comments that although the Dark Ages (600–1000) are dark for Europeans, in other parts of the world civilization is flourishing—particularly in China and Japan, while Islamic culture blossomed from India to Spain. He notes that most of Western civilization comes from "the Eastern Mediterranean, from Greeks and Jews." The West's superiority since the Renaissance is due mostly to scientific and political advances, but there is no reason to think this superiority will continue, he says.

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 8: John the Scot

Russell devotes one chapter to John the Scot, also known as Johannes Scotus Erigena, an Irish Neoplatonist. Russell explains how in the chaotic period of the early Middle Ages, the Irish become the guardians of Western culture, preserving in their monasteries knowledge of Greek and Latin brought by European cultural refugees. Later, when Ireland is under siege by the Scandinavians, Irish scholars fled back to the continent. John, possibly one of these refugees, was patronized by the French king and Holy Roman emperor, Charles the Bald. John supported the Pelagian view of free will, which held that people can reach salvation through their own good deeds. He contended that truth can be found in both reason and revelation, but when they are in contention reason is to be preferred. John translated an important Neoplatonic work by Pseudo-Dionysius, which "had a great influence on Catholic philosophy in the West." He also wrote his own great work, On the Division of Nature, and came up with the idea that God is "incomprehensible to Himself and to every intellect," although he can be seen in the being of things. He also said that God creates out of nothing, which is to say out of himself, and thus God transcends all knowledge. Sin is the result of freedom, and evil has no ground in God—rather evil is the absence of good. John calls the Logos "the principle that brings the many back to the One ... By union with God, the part of man that effects union becomes divine." Russell finds John's pantheism, "which refuses substantial reality to creatures," (as well as many other of his ideas) contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Russell is amazed to find such an independent thinker in the 9th century.

Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 9: Ecclesiastical Reform in the Eleventh Century

The Dark Ages began to see a light in the 11th century. The worst of the barbarians were expelled, and the rest settled down to Christian culture. Reformers sought to improve the clergy as well as further separate them from the laity. The doctrine of transubstantiation further elevated the priesthood when it becomes "an article of faith, though it had been generally believed for a long time." During the sacrament (rite or ceremony) of the Eucharist performed by a priest, the faithful believe that bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ. The Church also now wished to impose celibacy on priests, mostly so they could not pass Church property to their sons. At the same time reformers believed celibacy is a higher state than marriage and that celibacy will further separate priests from the laity.

Since the monasteries had become both rich and lax, they too were the targets of reform measures. The source of Church wealth came from the offerings of the laity as well as from simony—or the selling of ecclesiastical privileges, benefits, or offices. For example, the king could sell the office of bishop, and the bishop in turn could sell the office of priest. Even the office of pope was sometimes sold. Simony was a widespread practice and a big concern of reformers.

Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–85) was the first pope to attempt to strictly enforce clerical celibacy. He also battled "investitures," which is when a newly consecrated bishop is invested with a ring and staff from the king or emperor, symbolizing his position as a vassal to secular power. Gregory wanted those symbols bestowed by the pope. With regard to philosophy Russell gives most attention to Saint Anselm, an Italian monk who developed an "ontological argument" for the existence of God: since God is the greatest possible object of thought, he must exist; otherwise a still greater object would be possible—which is not possible. Some philosophers revived some version of this argument in subsequent centuries, which is reason enough to give this idea serious consideration, says Russell.


When Russell refers to the papacy, he means the pope and his office—and all the power than went with it. In this period the papacy struggled with various people at different times: the Greek or Byzantine emperor and sometimes with the Western emperor or the Roman aristocracy. The papacy also struggled with the Greek (Byzantine/Eastern) church, led by the patriarchs in Constantinople and allied with the Eastern emperor. Even though they submitted to papal authority, the patriarchs resented being managed "by Rome." The Eastern churches broke away from the Catholic Church in 1054 and formed the various Orthodox churches. This break is called the East-West Schism.

Russell marks 600–1000 CE as the Dark Ages, although this period is now referred to by some as the Migration period or the Early Middle Ages. The early medieval period generally covers 476–800 CE in Western Europe, or more generally 500–1000 CE, during the period of continual warfare. During this period the so-called barbarian peoples moved into what had been the Western Roman Empire. The Western Empire got a temporary reprieve from the fighting when Charlemagne was named the first "Holy Roman Emperor" in 800 through the machinations of his father Pepin, who struck a devil's bargain with the pope. For his son to be considered a legitimate ruler of the Western empire, he needed to be crowned and approved by the pope, although he was in fact not a legitimate Frankish heir to the crown (being only the son of Pepin and not a true descendent of the Frankish Merovingian kings).

On his part the pope needed to be freed from the domination of the Eastern emperor. To establish a papal monarchy in the West, he needed land. Thus the pope and the emperor cooked up a false document—the Donation of Constantine—purportedly signed by the first Eastern emperor and bequeathing old Rome and its western territories to the pope. Russell explains that this illegal gift from Pepin is taken on face value and gave the pope jurisdiction over these lands through the Middle Ages. This is the first in a long line of abuses of papal power that follow. With the bogus gift Charlemagne became emperor of a newly revived Western empire. In the 10th century one corrupt family took over the papacy, and in the northern provinces feudal rulers controlled bishops, Russell says.

By the 11th century Europe is ready for reform. Russell notes the Church addressed the laxity that had crept into the monasteries and is somewhat successful in stopping simony. Although priests and other clergy had been allowed to marry until then, Pope Gregory VII worked to standardize celibacy among the clergy, according to Russell. But in 1123 the First Lateran Council, held under the reign of Pope Calixtus II, officially forbade Catholic clergy to marry or have concubines and also outlawed other abuses, such as the sale of ecclesiastical offices. Thus the Church reforms begun in the 11th century carried over into the 12th century.

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