A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 1, Chapters 1–3 : Modern Philosophy (From the Renaissance to Hume) | Summary



Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 1: General Characteristics

The modern outlook differs from the medieval worldview primarily in "the diminishing authority of the Church, and the increasing authority of science." States replaced the Church as the controller of culture. Beginning with the American and French revolutions, democracy became a powerful political force. Democracy bred liberalism, the kind associated with commerce. The rejection of religious authority eventually led to acceptance of scientific authority, but a long battle was fought before the religionists gave ground. Science's authority was recognized by most modern philosophy, but its basis was intellectual, not governmental. Unlike Catholic dogma, science offered a partial view: its "pronouncements ... are made tentatively, on a basis of probability, and are regarded as liable to modification." Practical science had nearly overshadowed theoretical science, and "the practical importance of science was first recognized in connection with war." Even the physicist Galileo Galilei and the artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci worked for the government on war products. Freedom from Church authority led to the growth of individualism and even increased anarchy. For the most part philosophy kept this subjective, individualist bias, evident in the first important philosopher of the modern period, René Descartes. The philosophies in the modern era inspired by scientific technique (technology) were "power philosophies," says Russell, regarding "everything ... as mere raw material." Only the ends were considered. This "is a form of madness," for Russell, and a dangerous one, for which "sane philosophy" should find an antidote.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Italian Renaissance

Modernity began with the Renaissance, which blossomed in the 15th century among cultivated Italians, both churchmen and laity. With a few exceptions the Renaissance men had no interest in science and "substituted the authority of the ancients for that of the Church." Italy was mostly free of foreign interference from about 1250 to 1494 (when Charles VIII invaded Italy). Italy had five important political entities: Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papal States, and Naples. Genoa came under Milan's control in 1378. Florence was the center of the Renaissance and something of a plutocracy (an oligarchy of the rich) run by the Medici family. The temporal power of the pope increased during this period. The Church's temporal power consisted in its rule of papal lands, called the Papal States. The popes encouraged the humanism of the day, which held classical culture in higher regard than Church culture. Russell characterizes Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503) as wicked, along with his son Caesar Borgia. Among other transgressions, they illegally tried to enlarge papal landholdings. Pope Julius II (r. 1503–13) continued this work and was successful in increasing the temporal papal domain. Power politics and political intrigue among the Italian states were quite complicated, with constant wars—though mostly bloodless—which did not interfere with trade.

The Renaissance is not known for its philosophy, but it paved the way for the more philosophical 17th century by breaking the Scholastic system, reviving the study of Plato, and promoting genuine firsthand knowledge of both Plato and Aristotle. The attitude of the Renaissance scholars toward the Church was ambiguous. These men were freethinkers, but they still want to receive "extreme unction" (the last rites of the Catholic Church administered to the dying) on their deathbeds. They were disgusted by the vices of churchmen, but they learned to live with it. In fact many of these men relied on the Church for patronage. The papal lands accounted for little of the Church's revenues, says Russell; most of it is from "tribute, drawn from the whole Catholic world, by means of a theological system which maintained that the popes held the keys of heaven." A rich Church was good for Italy and good for Italians, so it was best for urbane men not to rock the boat. While the Renaissance was bad for morality, it was good for architecture, painting, and poetry, unleashing a torrent of creativity once society was liberated from the straightjacket of medieval culture. But when the social system was dissolved, excess ensued. This seesaw of too much control and too much freedom continued to be a problem with no solution in the modern era.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 3: Machiavelli

An important political philosopher of Renaissance Italy was Niccolò Machiavelli, a man "free from humbug," with a philosophy both "scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs." He expounded on "the means to assigned ends," without any moral prejudice. More simply, he approved whatever means it takes to achieve a given ends. His most famous work is The Prince, written in 1513 and dedicated to Lorenzo di Medici. Machiavelli had fallen out of favor with the family, but he could not worm his way back into the government of Florence and was forced to spend the rest of his life as a writer. His second volume, Discourses, provides a very different view of political philosophy.

The Prince has the object of figuring out how principalities (political entities) win, keep, and lose power. Machiavelli praises those who are skillful in doing so and does not judge their morality. To achieve a political end, power is needed. Since power often depends on opinion, it is important to appear virtuous or religious. Machiavelli expresses the idea that "civilized men are almost certain to be unscrupulous egoists."

In Discourses Machiavelli creates an ethical hierarchy and says religion is important to the state for its role as "social cement." He prefers democratic governments because they are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconsistent than tyrannies. Most of the book reads as if it were written by an 18th-century liberal, Russell says. Machiavelli delineates a system of governmental checks and balances, for example, and the word liberty is used frequently to describe something precious—though never defined.

Russell concludes Machiavelli's political thinking is shallow, since he doesn't grasp the modern conception that community grows organically and evolves over time. However, this more modern view may no longer be true in the present and the future, Russell says. He mentions the mechanistic societies of Russia and Germany, which are "a terrifying reality." In fact the world has become more Machiavellian in Russell's view, and the philosopher who wishes to refute Machiavelli must indeed think deeply.


Bertrand Russell associates liberalism with commerce because the safeguarding of private property and the ability to profit from business are essential in the formation and growth of democracy. Whenever an autocratic government is overthrown by a popular uprising, the middle class is always at the forefront of the revolution and makes up the majority of the revolutionary element. This is because those who have accumulated some wealth and/or property have the most to gain from a change in leadership. The ascendency of the middle class is a key factor in the French and American revolutions. In modern democracies, which are not truly democracies (one person, one vote) but representative democracies or republics, the government counterbalances unbridled capitalism, which can become as oppressive for the majority of people as life under other types of autocratic governments.

Liberalism is traditionally suspicious of government but sees it as a necessary evil that should protect people's individual rights, especially their right to make money. This is what Russell means when he uses the terms liberalism and libertarian. Liberalism is a compromise between anarchy and autocracy, or between social control and individual freedom, as Russell notes. But in modern times liberalism has come to be associated with "the welfare state," or a government that plays a much greater role in providing an economic safety net for its citizens. Liberals in the modern era also look to the government to regulate business and protect citizens from the worst abuses of capitalism. Nowadays the term libertarian has come to mean a doctrine that harkens back to the more traditional form of liberalism.

In speaking of science Russell recognizes how practical science is wedded to the machinery of war. Certainly it is true that the progress of any civilization is marked by advances in weaponry, and some have even argued that such advanced killing machinery is necessary to move civilization forward. As Russell notes, science and technology are neutral, and it is up to human beings to decide whether they will be used for good or ill. No doubt in the midst of World War II, Russell is thinking of the level of destruction that has become possible because of new weapons. For example, while genocide was nothing new, the level on which Adolf Hitler was able to carry out his killing program in concentration camps was the result of advances in technology. The bombs that are dropped on cities are bigger and more powerful than ever before. In the year Russell published A History of Western Philosophy, the United States dropped the first nuclear weapons on two cities in Japan, and the author later became involved in the antinuclear movement. Russell ends this chapter by saying the modern world seems to be moving toward "a social order imposed by force, representing the will of the powerful rather than the hopes of common men." A new philosophy is needed, one that combines the "solidity of the Roman Empire with the idealism of Saint Augustine's City of God."

The Italian Renaissance is not focused on science, but rather on culture and the revival of the "ancients," which is something like nostalgia for a nobler and less complicated era. Russell characterizes the attitude of the urbane and secular Italians as one in which they look askance at the corruption of the Church but accept it as part of doing business in a modern world. For example, Pope Julius II was the greatest patron of the arts Italy has ever seen as well as a powerful military leader who restored the Papal States and even expanded the papacy's territory. He commissioned artwork by Renaissance giants like architect Donato Bramante, painter Raphael, and painter and sculptor Michelangelo. Michelangelo Buonarroti, perhaps the greatest visual artist who ever lived, completed his arresting statue of Moses and the magnificent paintings of the Sistine Chapel at the behest of Pope Julius. Although no saint, Pope Julius is an improvement over the corrupt men who preceded him—most notoriously the Borgia popes and other Borgia clergy. For example, Borgia pope Alexander VI has several children by his mistress, and the Borgias engage in unapologetic simony (selling of clerical offices) and nepotism (awarding of jobs to relatives) to further their family's fortunes. Machiavelli's famous (or infamous, as the case may be) political philosophy expounded in The Prince is an apt reflection of the times, and Machiavelli had plenty of examples from life to work with, since in his role as a statesman and diplomat he had spent a lot of time with the Borgias.
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