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The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2002)

by Charles Freeman

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1,0721218,654 (4.14)2 / 45
A radical and powerful reappraisal of the impact of Constantine s adoption of Christianity on the later Roman world, and on the subsequent development both of Christianity and of Western civilization. When the Emperor Contstantine converted to Christianity in 368 AD, he changed the course of European history in ways that continue to have repercussions to the present day. Adopting those aspects of the religion that suited his purposes, he turned Rome on a course from the relatively open, tolerant and pluralistic civilization of the Hellenistic world, towards a culture that was based on the rule of fixed authority, whether that of the Bible, or the writings of Ptolemy in astronomy and of Galen and Hippocrates in medicine. Only a thousand years later, with the advent of the Renaissance and the emergence of modern science, did Europe begin to free itself from the effects of Constantine's decision, yet the effects of his establishment of Christianity as a state religion remain with us, in many respects, today. Brilliantly wide-ranging and ambitious, this is a major work of history."… (more)

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An excellent work of intellectual and cultural history. Focusing on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the western empire's decline following the reign of Constantine, this book heralds the impact of Constantine's adoption of Christianity over the following decades. ( )
  jwhenderson | Aug 19, 2022 |
Scholarly but readable book that highlights an era when religion began to take over from reason. Hmmm--maybe that era has never really ended, at least not in some parts of the world (or some parts of our own country). ( )
  datrappert | Oct 18, 2016 |
Charles Freeman’s dense, panoramic and controversial The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason is actually three books synthesized into a single volume. One characterizes the marked transition from the ancient pagan rational philosophical and scientific world – especially in the west – into an increasingly rigid doctrinaire faith-driven Christian domain. This will come as quite a surprise to those who believed that this was a much later development characteristic of the medieval period subsequent to the fall of Rome. The second serves essentially as a history of Christianity and Christian theology that catalogs a merciless evolution into a static creed that not only unequivocally rejected scientific and rational thought but embraced an unquestioning dogmatism that brooked neither dissent nor even inquiry, and frequently brutally punished those who did not satisfactorily conform as heretics, much like a brand of Stalinism with a crucifix. The third is Freeman’s exploration of his thesis as spelled out in the book’s full title that Christianity was indeed responsible for what he terms “the fall of reason:” the end of science and philosophy and rational thought that thrived in the Classical World, whether by design or unintended consequence.
This is rather heady stuff, more than dizzying at times and by no means a light Saturday afternoon read. I myself read this book over several months along with multiple others, which allowed me more time to contemplate the contents. And there is much to contemplate! The book jacket credits Freeman with an “. . . encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient world,” which the text of this volume clearly reveals to be no idle boast. I have read Freeman before and he is always ambitious but this effort steps beyond ambition to the comprehensive and the magisterial and in this he mostly succeeds, although the complexity and the overwhelming wealth of detail will leave many readers behind in a swirl of ancient schools of philosophy, early Christian sects, asceticism, ecumenical councils, eschatology, emperors, bishops, martyrs, heretics and much more to make the heads of the uninitiated spin. In other words, don’t tread lightly as you open the covers of this work.
At the outset it should be noted that certain readers will no doubt queue up at diametrically opposed fault lines in reaction to this book, with true believers of the Christian faith likely to be hostile to a theme that might be happily embraced by the unapologetically atheist anti-religious school of a Richard Dawkins devotee. Much of the rest of us probably don’t fall neatly into either camp of extremes, although I myself would rather have a beer with Dawkins than Mike Huckabee. Among historians, I suspect most non-evangelical Christians and most secularists will have few passions stirred, but will instead read and study Freeman with exactly the kind of healthy skepticism more characteristic of Classical pre-Christian times than that which came after. Full disclosure: I am a historian and I have studied both philosophy and religious studies to some depth. I was raised with a Christian faith that precipitously tumbled after a long summer devoted to reading much of the King James Version, Old and New Testaments; by the fall I tagged myself an “atheist.” Much later in life, I find that term far too arrogant, so I often describe myself – with tongue fully in cheek – as a “dogmatic skeptic.” Whatever your beliefs, faith must be set aside in any rational study of history.
Edward Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome. Freeman hardly goes so far, but he does unequivocally hold it responsible for the fall of reason. Gibbon’s thesis has largely been rebuffed by later historical analysis. It will be more difficult to dislodge Freeman. At first blush, I expected Freeman’s approach to be – like Gibbon’s in this regard – far too simplistic for such a complex topic, but as it turns out there is nothing even remotely simplistic about Freeman. Very slowly and methodically, Freeman walks us through how the most famous philosopher to embrace the supernatural – Plato – rewrites the logos of Greek reason to represent a higher perfection that can only be seen in rough reflection in this world (i.e. the perfect chair metaphor), which later Christians would rewrite yet again in a different form in the Holy Spirit. It is at once clear why and how Christianity was able to absorb and accept Plato as a noble pagan, while generally rejecting Aristotle the natural scientist. Christianity simply could not abide differing views, even between and especially among other Christian communities. This was true from the very birth of the faith, even in the legendary days of persecution and martyrdom, but its adoption as the official worship of Rome fueled its rage at dissent and likewise provided the tools to crush it. It was not as if there was a kind of conspiracy between the Roman state and the Christian creed to demand unquestioned obedience and orthodoxy, yet once the two became entangled it seemed impossible for any other course to prevail. This hardly abated when the central authority later weakened and powerful bishops enforced conformity instead.
In pre-Christian times, the gods of others – especially the conquered – were often absorbed into the prevailing deities of the conqueror, a process known as religious syncretism. The exception was Jewish monotheism which developed in Hellenistic times out of the earlier Hebrew henotheism; still, Jews hardly expected or desired other peoples to worship Yahweh. In Classical times, there were dozens of competing schools of philosophy, as well as budding explorations of science and the natural world, of which Aristotle was perhaps the most prolific writer. Persecutions of opposing beliefs were rare. Everyone who has studied the era knows that Socrates was not really condemned by the Athenians for disrespecting the gods, but rather for unfortunate political connections in the aftermath of the disastrous Peloponnesian War. Christian martyrs in pagan Rome were less common than advertised, but when this occurred it was more about their refusal to honor the Emperor Cult in worship than about their faith. But when Christianity became preeminent, all of this was to change – forever.
There is so much material in this book on so many interrelated topics that a solid review could easily run a dozen pages and still fall short. I will spare the reader that but instead focus on some key points. First of all, Freeman reminds us how little of Christianity really has much to do with Jesus at all, something most contemporary Christians and especially Roman Catholics are often shocked to discover. The gospels – with their often conflicting accounts of the life and death of Christ – were written long after his death and decidedly not by any of the original twelve apostles. The actual founder of Christianity was Paul, the erstwhile Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen who never met Christ in life but whose dramatic vision of the resurrected Jesus transformed him into an indefatigable proselytizer who constructed the foundation of Christianity as a universal religion rather than a Judaic cult. More than half of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul, who seems to have been a difficult man obsessed with guilt and a horror of human sexuality. As Christianity – with its emphasis on the afterlife rather than the world of the living – spread throughout the Roman Empire, its earlier theology struggled with its many contradictions, not the least of which was the character of Jesus: was he God or man? As such, there were schisms almost from the very start, much like that whimsically portrayed in the satiric Monty Python’s Life of Brian in the sect that formed around Brian’s lost shoe. But there was nothing funny about early Christian theological disputes, which often turned bloody.
Once Christianity achieved dominance in the Empire, it became critical that orthodoxy be established and enforced at the point of the sword if necessary. The most famous example of this was the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine, which essentially established the most fundamental orthodoxy of Christianity – that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of a single immutable “Trinity.” Not only is this notion nowhere to be found in scripture, but scripture decidedly contradicts it on more than one occasion with its portrayals of a very human Jesus struggling with doubt. No matter: this was deemed the correct interpretation and to reject it was heretical. And this tradition, that as Freeman notes “. . . castigates intellectuals and glories in paradox” long pre-dates Nicaea, has its roots in Paul and perhaps its best expression in Tertullian writing circa second/third century CE: “The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” [p272]. As such, logic, science, and rational thought were deliberately crushed. Much more was to come as bishops, councils and great thinkers from Eusebius to Augustine created new manifestations of faith such as a pantheon of angels and demons, the cult of Mary, relics of martyrs, spurious miracles and new doctrines of theology, all of which brooked no room for dissent. In the late fourth century, the unquestionably brilliant Augustine became obsessed with the pessimistic notion of inescapable “original sin” that condemned much of mankind at birth, which also had little basis in scripture. Freeman argues that essentially “. . . Augustine’s rejection of reason and the wider philosophical tradition of the classical world had led him to a philosophical dead end.” [p290] And while Augustine was himself less sanguinary than most, from the very dawn of Christianity’s evolution it was a metaphorical “my way or the highway,” and that highway was often littered with the bloodied corpses of dissenters from the “true faith” -- as current doctrine had defined it. It was less that rigid orthodoxy and a rejection of reason was a byproduct of a later medieval corruption of a more pure early church, but that these flaws were present at the creation, so to speak. Many will no doubt be as surprised as I was to learn that the vicious and often merciless persecution of Jews by Christians dates back to the very early days and was far more institutional than random.
Another significant victim was science, which like philosophy was no longer needed nor desired; if it was not part of scripture or theology, then it had no purpose. Hovering over it all was to my mind the image of Dr. Zaius crumpling up the paper airplane in the original chilling film version of Planet of the Apes. As Freeman reports: “Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation . . . The last recorded astronom¬ical observation in the ancient Greek world was one by the Athenian philosopher Proclus in A.D. 475, nearly 1,100 years after the prediction of an eclipse by Thales in 585 B.C., which traditionally marks the begin¬ning of Greek science. It would be over 1,000 years—with the publica¬tion of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543—before these studies began to move forward again.” [p322]
I would have liked to see Freeman devote more time to the Roman “Cult of the Emperor” and how that enabled a transition to a state religion wrapped around Christ. I would also have been interested in an exploration of how Hebrew monotheism was turned on its head in its Christian offshoot to not only invite universal participation but to demand universal loyalty. But is there actually room to explore more ideas and concepts in this thick tome? Freeman will no doubt also be taken to task by some readers for failing to identify or focus upon the positive contributions that Christianity may have offered to Western Civilization, but I suspect that will be more of an issue with believers than secularists. Regardless of your perspective, I would recommend this book as very well-researched, well-written and highly thought-provocative. ( )
3 vote Garp83 | May 13, 2015 |
This is a sweeping and brilliant history of the early Christian Church. While Freeman has done no real original research, he has a comprehensive command of the recent scholarly literature in English and synthesizes the results in a way that is comprehensible to the layman without seeming to dumb it down. He has a knack for explaining complex fourth century controversies concerning the scriptural validity of the doctrine of the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ in a way that is keeps them interesting and at the same time shows why they seemed of such vital importance. The central thesis that the tradition of intellectual inquiry cultivated by the Greeks was largely suppressed by the emerging Christian Church is convincingly argued. This is about as good as sophisticated history written for the lay audience can be. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote sjnorquist | Apr 2, 2015 |
The Closing of the Western Mind is a long and detailed argument, which might be easier to follow if one began with the Epilogue. But Charles Freeman begins instead with a late 15th century fresco called "The Triumph of Faith," by Filippino Lippi, which depicts Thomas Aquinas, triumphant over heretics and philosophy alike. The reference is somewhat ironic; Freeman returns to Aquinas in his final chapter, to observe his rehabilitation of Greek reason, through the integration of Aristotle into Christian theology, which was so successful "that he unwittingly laid the foundations of the scientific revolution that was to transform western thought." (Page 328.) And in his Epilogue, Freeman makes it clear that wants to explain why the legacy of Greek rational thought needed rehabilitation in the first place, but without making the "simplistic" argument that Christians just suppressed it. (Page 339.)

The journey to the closing of the Western mind proceeded by innumerable steps over several centuries, through processes more than just theological or intellectual. Political forces were at work, too, and Freeman argues that "[t]he important question to answer is why Christianity was different from other spiritual movements in the ancient world in insisting that Christians throughout the empire should adhere to a common authority." (Page 336.) He argues that the demand for orthodoxy was prompted by a need for social stability in the midst of the disintegrating Roman Empire, but was also carried along, to a lesser extent, by the problem of group identification, which was difficult in a cosmopolitan new religion that was open to all, without regard to traditional social markers like race or ethnicity.

During the first five centuries of Christianity, when the Greek ways of rational inquiry held greater sway, the continuous eruption of doctrinal disputes threatened the unity of the movement. Emperors, needing the assistance of the bishops to maintain order, called the famous councils—at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—to quell the riotous arguments and establish authoritative doctrines to which bishops would adhere in order to receive patronage. Ultimately, under Pope Gregory ("the Great"), in the sixth century, the doctrinal identity of the western church was consolidated and history was rewritten, to expunge "the political dimension to the making of Christian doctrine," as Freeman puts it. (Page 339.) Rather than recognized as evolving in a political, theological, philosophical, and social pressure-cooker, those consolidated Christian doctrines were posited as having existed for all time, producing the oddity that even the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—are said to have known the Trinity. (See page 313.) This rewritten history persists today, especially within the Catholic church, where the ancient "heresies" are understood not as simply on the losing side of history, but as having espoused obvious theological falsehoods, which were rooted out by people who were appointed by God to stamp out heresy, not by people who became authorities simply by virtue of being the political and historical victors. (And there the adage that history is written by the victors is fully true.)

So Freeman has dug into the recent scholarship to write a history of the formation of Christianity that has the refreshing virtue of reading the source material far more evenhandedly than church-aligned historians do. The historical players in this book do not come across like their craven and bastardized descendants in modern fundamentalism, who make a conscious effort to suppress any ideas that conflict with their beliefs simply because of the conflict. Instead, the people who laid the foundations for the doctrines that later became the fodder for fundamentalists come across in Freeman's argument as people who struggled to solve other kinds of problems, of a more immediate nature, like how to maintain social order and reconcile conflicting ideas within their scriptures. The suppression of the Greek ways and the silencing of rational debate appears not as the result of a conscious program, but rather as a corner that the western church painted itself into without really noticing until centuries later. But there is Thomas Aquinas, standing at the other end of the long bewilderment, rediscovering reason and, as Freeman puts it, unwittingly laying the foundation for the scientific revolution.

The book is not burdened by academic prose, but the reading is made difficult by the combination of a long narrative arc, stretching several centuries, and the great amount of supporting detail. As suggested above, reading the epilogue first might help, but the entire book needs to be read carefully and cohesively; if one pulls out a chapter here or there, the direction of the argument will be hard to perceive. This reviewer read several of the chapters more than once before proceeding to the next, in order to maintain a fuller sense of the argumentative direction, with all its attendant details. For the best experience, be sure to check the endnotes; they often include tangential commentary or additional quotations from source material that can be both entertaining and edifying. Freeman cites many other modern works and his notes and bibliography suggest that the fascinating pursuit to answer his central questions could easily be continued, and ought to be. ( )
5 vote peterwall | Oct 9, 2010 |
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Each part of [his] argument is highly questionable, but Freeman tells an entertaining story, and on the way produces an excellent and readable account of the development of Christian doctrine. It is not easy to make an interesting or even comprehensible subject out of the angry controversies about the Trinity that preoccupied early Christians. But he manages it.
Freeman repeats an oft-told tale of the rise of Christianity and the supposed demise of philosophy in a book that is fascinating, frustrating and flawed. . . . While Freeman tells a good story, his arguments fail to be convincing.
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A radical and powerful reappraisal of the impact of Constantine s adoption of Christianity on the later Roman world, and on the subsequent development both of Christianity and of Western civilization. When the Emperor Contstantine converted to Christianity in 368 AD, he changed the course of European history in ways that continue to have repercussions to the present day. Adopting those aspects of the religion that suited his purposes, he turned Rome on a course from the relatively open, tolerant and pluralistic civilization of the Hellenistic world, towards a culture that was based on the rule of fixed authority, whether that of the Bible, or the writings of Ptolemy in astronomy and of Galen and Hippocrates in medicine. Only a thousand years later, with the advent of the Renaissance and the emergence of modern science, did Europe begin to free itself from the effects of Constantine's decision, yet the effects of his establishment of Christianity as a state religion remain with us, in many respects, today. Brilliantly wide-ranging and ambitious, this is a major work of history."

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