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A.D. 381 : heretics, pagans, and the dawn of…

A.D. 381 : heretics, pagans, and the dawn of the monotheistic state (2008)

by Charles Freeman

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Showing 5 of 5
Read from February 24 to March 20, 2014, read count: 1

This book opened my eyes to what happened during the Fourth Century and the part the government played in stopping the dialogue between the various different groups involved in trying to decide what would be orthodox and what would be heterodox.

Freeman calls this the closing of the Western Mind and even wrote a book on that, which I plan to read soon! ( )
  homericgeek | Apr 14, 2014 |
This is an interesting and well written book about Christianity in its early years as a dominant religion. I learned a lot from it, and found many of its arguments convincing, though there are some points on which the author may overstate his case. All in all, well worth reading.

The book argues a) that the Emperor Theodosius imposed a single version of Christianity at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that b) this imposition was a critical turning away from freedom of thought, and from a reliance on reasoned argument.

The author's argument about Theodosius' key role make sense: Christianity had vaulted very suddenly to its place as Rome's dominant religion, and it is not surprising that the emperor tried to shape its direction. It was just 68 years earlier, in 313, that Constantine issued an edict of toleration for the faith: before then Christianity was apersecuted religion, existing in many separate congregations, and developing many different approaches to key problems of the faith. Once the faith came out into the open -- and, indeed, came to a central role -- fissures and divisions became vividly clear. These contributed to civil disorder, and Theodosius did not like disorder.

The argument that this specific decision shut down a free-wheeling culture of debate is perhaps too narrow. I haven't read the author's "Closing of the Western Mind", but I intend to. My impression from reviews is that "Closing" focusses on Constantine's support of the Church, which moved it from outsider status towards a role as state religion. This process was intensified under Thodosius, and the logic of an imperial autocracy pushed the Church towards a single, codified set of beliefs. It seems to me that the process, the politicization of the Church and the sacralization of politics, was well underway before Theodosius. I will be better able to comment after reading Freeman's earlier book.

Be that as it may, this is a very valuable book. First, it clarifies key issues in the development of Christianity. Secondly, it underlines the interaction between political forces and systems of faith -- something that not begin in 381, and hasn't ended today. Finally, it's a good read. I read it right after "Jesus Wars", which is a more nitty-gritty discussion of a slightly later phase in the intra-Christian conflicts that were addressed, but not resolved, in 381. ( )
  annbury | Nov 4, 2012 |
Wonderful...heretics, pagans and the dawn of the monotheistic state, some of my most favorite things!! ( )
  Harrod | Aug 11, 2011 |
One of the main points of this book, which is that Rome had succeeded due to its flexibility and that Theodosius' decree imposing the Niceaen Creed was directly antithetical to that, hits its mark. Inasmuch as what intellectual freedom existed in 300 AD was abolished by 476 AD, the fusion of Church with State was a novel approach with profound consequences.

But Freeman leaves two glaring gaps which need to be addressed. First, he never considers the spectrum of intellectual freedom which exists in all functional societies, which spans from limited liberty to destructive and irreconcilable license. Second, he does not fully consider the possibility that Theodosius had much more pressing issues to take care of and was simply fed up with the repeated disputes, mostly violent, about trifling philosophical minutiae (Freeman mentions this in bits and pieces but does not address why this may have justified Theodosius' position). Certainly as regards the first of these, he is quick to criticize Gibbon for believing the intellectual dynamism of antiquity to be extinguished well before 381, but not quick to acknowledge that Gibbon believed this because Plotinus is more or less unintelligible (and I have read Plotinus), because there is no poet even remotely approaching Virgil and no historian resembling in the slightest Tacitus, Plutarch, or Livy dating from 150 until 1320, when Dante becomes the first great Renaissance poet. For 200 years then, the intellectual world appeared to be in heavy swing, but was not procuding anything truly worthwhile.

Much bigger than any of these issues, however, is Freeman's barbarous abuses of the English language. He uses the wrong words at times ("Processes" was repeatedly used where he meant "proceeds"), the wrong tenses of verbs at times, poorly considers what voice he is using, often winding up in passive voice when active would be much clearer. What this amounts to is a lack of clarity of mind, and a lack of clarity of thought, which is further reflected in his narrative, which is out of chronological order and at times confusing as hell.

I still believe this is a valuable book and considers an extremely important historical topic, but it contains many major flaws and would have benefited from a more substantial consideration of the thoughts of the British Enlightenment. All of the flaws I have here noted are more marked in contrast with Gibbon (as noted and also he shows a good way to consider historical events chronologically) and Hume (who has strong remarks on liberty/license), and the language is of course used exceptionally clearly in all of those writings, especially Smith, Hume, Locke, and others. ( )
1 vote jrgoetziii | Apr 11, 2011 |
An interesting review of the situation in the reign of Theodosius, with a thesis that the council of Constantinople led to a shutting down of an age of toleration and critical thinking, ushering in the dark ages.

There is much to commend the book, and the case is well argued using suitable source material. However, the thesis fails ultimately because of the tendency to think more highly of the previous situation than is deserved. The golden age of critical thinking and toleration is asserted, but it is not at all clear that such really ever existed.

There are also questions over whether Theodosius' decrees were anything new, among other issues. Most other historians of the period would perhaps write a different book to this one, and it is for the reader to decide whether Freeman has discovered something the academics have overlooked, or whether his thesis tends to focus to greatly on some specifics at the expense of the greater picture. But all in all its still a sound book that starts a useful debate an re-evaluation of Church history. ( )
3 vote sirfurboy | Apr 23, 2009 |
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"In AD 381, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christian orthodoxy and brought to an end a lively and wide-ranging debate about the nature of the Godhead; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. Moreover, for the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization, free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Not since the attempt of the pharaoh Akhenaten to impose his god Aten on his Egyptian subjects in the fourteenth century BC had there been such a widesweeping programme of religious coercion. Yet surprisingly this political revolution, intended to bring inner cohesion to an empire under threat from the outside, has been airbrushed from historical record. Instead, it has been claimed that the Christian Church had reached a consensus on the Trinity which was promulgated at the Council of Constantinople in 381." "In this groundbreaking new book, acclaimed historian Charles Freeman shows that the council was a shambolic affair which only took place after Theodosius' decree had become law. In short, the Church was aquiescing in the overwhelming power of the emperor. Freeman argues that Theodosius' edict and the subsequent suppression of paganism not only brought an end to the diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs throughout the empire, but created numerous theological problems for the Church, which have remained unsolved. The year AD 381, Freeman concludes, marked 'a turning point that time forgot'."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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