A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 1, Chapters 4–6 : Modern Philosophy (From the Renaissance to Hume) | Summary



Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 4: Erasmus and More

The Renaissance began later in the northern European countries than in Italy, but at the beginning of the 16th century, new learning had been successfully introduced to France, England, and Germany without controversy. Bertrand Russell characterizes the Italian Renaissance as "anarchic and amoral" and the northern Renaissance as "associated with piety and public virtue." He then relates the influences of Erasmus and Saint Thomas More in the north.

Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch monk, became good friends with More after he visited England for the first time. Erasmus was an exceptional Latinist who later taught himself Greek. In 1516 he published an annotated Greek New Testament alongside a Latin translation and pointed out numerous inaccuracies in Saint Jerome's version of the Bible. Erasmus's Testament is later used as ammunition by the Protestants against the Catholics. Erasmus also published The Praise of Folly, a satirical work that took aim in places at some of the abuses of the Church—such as selling indulgences. (An indulgence is the remission or reduction of the time a soul spends in purgatory.) When the Reformation began, Erasmus ultimately sided with the Catholics, writing a work in 1524 defending the concept of free will, which Martin Luther rejected based on a very narrow reading of Saint Augustine.

Saint Thomas More is best known as the Catholic martyr beheaded for treason by King Henry VIII and the author of Utopia. Although not a member of the Catholic clergy, More was a humanist and pious Catholic appointed Henry's chancellor. However, he refused to approve Henry's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, or sign a parliamentary act declaring Henry the head of the Church of England. More's Utopia is an imaginative portrait of a society that, like the one in Plato's Republic, holds all property in common. Russell finds More's vision "astonishingly liberal," less for its communism and more for its views on war, nonviolence, and religious toleration.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 5: The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

Russell calls the Reformation "the rebellion of less civilized nations against the intellectual domination of Italy." The Reformation was both political and theological in its revolt against the authority of the pope. The Counter-Reformation was a revolt against the humanism and amorality of the Italian Renaissance. The Counter-Reformation did not challenge the power of the pope but, rather, restored the idea that the office should be a paragon of probity. Russell sees the Reformation as German and the Counter-Reformation as Spanish. The most important figures in these movements, all medieval in their philosophical thinking, are Martin Luther, John Calvin, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Martin Luther and John Calvin both broke with the Catholic Church and created new interpretations of Christian teaching. Both also relied on portions of Saint Augustine to support their beliefs. They denied teachings about purgatory (the immaterial realm in the afterlife where Catholics purge the stain of sin) and condemned the practice of selling indulgences, "upon which a large part of the papal revenue depended." The doctrine of predestination, or the predetermined fate of the soul after death, bypassed the priests in accomplishing individual salvation. Protestants were willing to follow England in acknowledging the sovereign as the head of the Church, which increased royal power. Nonetheless, some minority sects refused to replace the pope with a king, and they were persecuted by the majority Protestants.

Protestantism was checked by the work of Saint Ignatius of Loyola's Jesuit order, the soldiers of the Counter-Reformation. Loyola had been a soldier, and he used the military model in building an army of priests to battle heresy. The Jesuits rejected those portions of Saint Augustine's theology the Protestants emphasized—particularly supporting free will against predestination. The Jesuits were also successful missionaries, popular as confessors, and noted as educators. But they are merciless with heretics, reestablishing "the terror of the Inquisition, even in Italy, which had had nearly a century of free-thought."

The results of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were good in the long run, says Russell, since the enforcement of "doctrinal unity" came to an end. "Disgust with theological warfare turned the attention of able men increasingly to secular learning, especially mathematics and science."

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 6: The Rise of Science

Russell emphatically states the modern world is a product of science, which began in the 17th century and profoundly influenced philosophy. Russell names René Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy and Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton as most important in the creation of modern science.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), an amateur astronomer, arrived at the hypothesis that Earth and known planets revolve around the sun, upending the geocentric view of the world (with Earth at the center). He also said that Earth has a daily rotation. Copernicus published his work on heliocentric theory the year of his death and dedicates his treatise to the pope. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) escaped condemnation until Galileo revived Copernicus's ideas.

Mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) adopted the heliocentric theory and discovered three laws of planetary motion, which he published in 1609 and 1619, the first of which states that the planets move in an elliptical orbit around the sun. This finding overturned centuries of aesthetic bias insisting planets move in perfect circles, since they are celestial orbs and even gods (in Greek philosophy) or heavenly bodies created by God (in Catholic philosophy).

Galileo Galilei made important discoveries in astronomy and dynamics. He was the first to establish the law of falling bodies (acceleration of falling bodies is constant apart from any other interference or resistance). He also studied projectiles and showed how "when several forces act simultaneously, the effect is as if each acted in turn." After adopting the heliocentric theory, Galileo corresponded with Kepler, fashioned his own telescope, and discovered the four moons of Jupiter. Condemned by the Inquisition, first privately and then publicly in 1633, Galileo ultimately denied Earth rotates or revolves around the sun to save his life.

Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was a physicist and mathematician who discovered the three laws of motion (the first two owing to Galileo), along with the universal law of gravitation: "Every body attracts every other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them." Using this formula, scientists calculated motions of planets, orbits of comets, and sea tides. Newton's influence was so profound that a century had to pass before scientists could free themselves from his authority "sufficiently to do important original work in the subjects of which he had treated."

By the end of the century scientific law had "established its hold on men's imaginations," rendering many medieval beliefs absurd. God became further removed from his creation. Although most scientists were religious, their work disturbed the orthodoxy. Man's place in the universe had also changed, with Earth demoted to the status of a minor planet revolving around a somewhat ordinary star. Russell briefly touches on Albert Einstein and the physicists of quantum mechanics, saying they have radically changed the view of the universe since Galileo and Newton.


In Book 3, Part 1, Chapters 4–6 Bertrand Russell provides his analysis of the social, political, and religious currents that transform the European worldview of the 15th and 16th centuries. To call the Italian Renaissance "anarchic and immoral" seems somewhat exaggerated. It may be more accurate to call the Italian Renaissance secular while the Northern Renaissance is religious and reformist.

In the prosperous city-states in northern and central Italy, a new mercantile class had gained political and cultural ascendency. The Medici banking family in Florence became a political dynasty and was a great patron of the arts. The Catholic Church continued to lose credibility as God's representative organization on earth, following the Western Schism and the continued corruption of the popes and the clergy. Humanism, a new mode of thinking that puts human beings at the center of inquiry and seeks to improve them without necessarily relying on religion, became part of a growing secularization in Italy. The revival of classical literature went hand in hand with the humanist movement, as people interested in developing moral philosophy looked further afield for guidance.

Although a monk and firmly attached to Catholicism, the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus is an example of an early humanist who criticized the Church and called for a return to a purer Christianity. Erasmus, like Martin Luther, objected to the practice of selling indulgences.

According to Catholic practice, the faithful confess their sins to a priest during the sacrament of confession and then receive absolution or forgiveness from God, but this forgiveness is predicated on the completion of a penance to make up for the sin. Catholics also must undergo additional penances in purgatory after they die, a sort of vestibule in which souls are made to suffer until they are sufficiently purified for heaven. Penance on earth may be carried out in the form of prayer and good works, but indulgences can be used in lieu of penance to cancel sin. Indulgences are granted only by the pope, and by the 13th century they are being sold for the remission of sin. As the sale of indulgences grows, they are extended to cover the penance of purgatory.

Pope Leo X (r. 1513–21), a Medici, stepped up the selling of indulgences, first encouraged by his predecessor, Julius II, to help fund the building of Saint Peter's in Rome. Dominican monk Johann Tetzel vigorously hawked indulgences in Germany, which is the immediate event precipitating Martin Luther's revolt against the Church. He is the first, but by no means only, heretic to start a new version of Christianity. King Henry VIII of England, himself a staunch defender of the Church against Luther, defied the Church over his need for an annulment and as a result became the first secular religious authority. Thus began the idea of "divine right of kings," and over time the kings of Europe wrested more and more power away from the Church. The Protestant Reformation, which is an internal revolt (Martin Luther is a Catholic priest and John Calvin a devout Catholic), frees Christians to engage directly with God, removing the priests and the bishops as middlemen. Thus the Catholic Church, whom Saint Augustine has called God's "chaste city" and which has been the source of all authority in justifying the ways of God to man, is put in second place, behind the individual's conscience. No doubt Protestants went on to create their own dogmas, but for a moment in time the Reformation rides the current of the Northern Renaissance and becomes the revived face of religious virtue.

The Catholic Church responded to the Protestant revolt by instituting a Counter-Reformation, which restored a great deal of its credibility among remaining Catholics. As part of the Catholic reforms, the Church stepped up its missionary efforts in the Americas and other parts of the world. Reforms in the monasteries produced two of the Church's great mystics, the Spanish saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Spain also became the center of a new Inquisition, cracking down on heretics. The Inquisition in the retrospection of history may be seen as the last gasp of the old Christian order to impose its theological view on a world that has suddenly become much larger and no longer containable.

The worldview of Europeans was also transformed by the Scientific Revolution. Despite the best efforts of the Church the geocentric view of the solar system was replaced by the heliocentric view, and human beings were thus demoted in a metaphorical sense, in the grand hierarchy of the cosmos. Kepler and Galileo follow Copernicus, and Newton follows Galileo—all articulating a new structure of the known world in scientific terms. In the 20th century Galileo's heliocentric view and Newton's physics were displaced by the physics of Albert Einstein and the founders of quantum mechanics—specifically, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrodinger.

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