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The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason [Paperback]

Charles Freeman
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 8, 2005
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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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. He contends that as the Christian faith developed in the first four centuries it gradually triumphed over the reigning Hellenistic and Roman philosophies. Christianity's power culminated when Constantine declared it the official state religion in 312. Freeman points to Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, as the figure who showed Constantine that the bishopric could wield power over the state. From then until the Middle Ages, Freeman argues, the church ruled triumphant, successfully squelching any challenges to its religious and political authority. Yet Freeman (The Greek Achievement) fails to show that faith became totally dominant over reason. First, he asserts that Paul of Tarsus, whom many think of as the founder of Christianity, condemned the Hellenistic philosophy of his time. Freeman is wrong about this, for the rhetorical style and the social context of Paul's letters show just how dependent he was on the philosophy around him. Second, Freeman glosses over the tremendous influence of Clement of Alexandria's open embrace of philosophy as a way of understanding the Christian faith. Third, the creeds that the church developed in the fourth century depended deeply on philosophical language and categories in an effort to make the faith understandable to its followers. Finally, Augustine's notions of original sin and the two cities depended directly on Plato's philosophy; Augustine even admits in the Confessions that Cicero was his model. While Freeman tells a good story, his arguments fail to be convincing. 16 pages of illus. Not seen by PW, 1 map.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Freeman is a well-known scholar of ancient Greece and Rome, and in this provocatively titled work he directs his encyclopedic knowledge of the classical world at its relationship with early Christianity. Specifically, he's interested in the consequences for Greek rationalism when Constantine turns the faith into a religion of insiders, rather than outsiders; the closing of the Western mind is Rome's deliberate persecution of those whose God is the noble syllogism. His claim is not so much that Christians wouldn't listen to reason but that they weren't tolerant of reasoned dissent--in other words, that the classical tradition didn't simply waste away but was suffocated by a consolidated church and its ritual, which some would consider irrational superstition. In advancing this claim, his exploration of early Christian attitudes toward Jews, science, and sex are particularly illuminating, as is his perspective on Islam as preservers of Aristotle. Freeman is clearly a little mournful about the loss of logic until Thomas Aquinas, but the product of his frustration with the early church--this book--is simply too impressively erudite to dismiss as polemic or, indeed, to set down. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (February 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400033802
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400033805
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,609 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
592 of 621 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Yes, there was a Closing. March 24, 2004
Format:Hardcover
I am grateful for the care with which Amazon readers have reviewed my book whether they have agreed with my argument or not. The reviews are worth a reply.
My thesis is that Christianity was heavily politicised by the late Roman empire, certainly to the extent that it would have been unrecognisable to Jesus. Note the linking of the church to the empire's success in war, opulent church building and an ever narrowing definition of what beliefs one had to hold to be saved. (Hand in hand with this went an elaboration of the horrors of hell, a radical and unhappy development which can only have discouraged freedom of thought.) My core argument is that one result of the combination of the forces of authority (the empire) and faith (the church) was a stifling of a sophisticated tradition of intellectual thought which had stretched back over nearly a thousand years and which relied strongly on the use of the reasoning mind.
I did not depend on Gibbon. I do not agree with him that intellectual thought in the early Christian centuries was dead and I believe that the well established hierarchy of the church strengthened not undermined the empire. After all it was the church which survived the collapse of the western empire. Of course, Gibbon writes so eloquently that I could not resist quoting from him at times but my argument is developed independently of him and draws on both primary sources and recent scholarship.
On the relationship between Christianity and philosophy I argue that there were two major strands of Greek philosophy , those of Plato and Aristotle. The early church did not reject Greek philosophy but drew heavily on Platonism to the exclusion of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century Christianity was reinvigorated by the adoption of Aristotelianism , notably by Thomas Aquinas. It seems clear that Christianity needed injections of pagan philosophy to maintain its vitality and a new era in Christian intellectual life was now possible. I don't explore it in this book. Even so, when one compares the rich and broad intellectual achievements of the `pagan' Greek centuries with those of the Middle Ages, it is hard to make a comparison in favour of the latter. Where are the great names? (The critic who mentioned the ninth century philosopher Erigena should also have mentioned that he was condemned as a heretic.)
When one reads the great works of second and third century AD thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy and Plotinus, which are remarkable for their range and depth, one cannot but feel that much has been lost in the west by the fifth century. Something dramatic happened in the fourth century. In 313 Constantine brought the traditional policy of Roman toleration for different religious beliefs to its culmination by offering Christians (who had condemned the pagan gods as demons) a privileged place within the empire alongside other religions. By 381 the Christian emperor Theodosius when enforcing the Nicene creed condemns other Christians as `foolish madmen.. We decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics . . .they will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority , in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decided to inflict'.If this is not a `closing of the western mind' it is difficult to know what is. It goes hand in hand with a mass of texts which condemn rational thought and the violent suppression of Jewish and pagan sacred places. There is no precedent for such a powerful imposition of a religious ideology in the Greco-Roman world. The evidence of suppression is so overwhelming that the onus must be on those who argue otherwise to refute it.
Some readers have related my book to the present day- I leave it to them to do so if they wish -it is important to understand ANY age in which perspectives seem to narrow and religion and politics become intertwined as they certainly did in the fourth century. After all American Christianity was founded by those attempting to escape just such political straitjackets. Christianity has never been monolithic or static. In fact,as my book makes clear, one of my heroes is Gregory the Great who, I believe, brought back spirituality, moderation and compassion into the Christian tradition after the extremes of the fourth century. It is the sheer variety of Christianities which make the religion such an absorbing area of study.
I hope Amazon readers will continue to engage with my arguments whether they agree with them or not. Keep the western mind open and good reading! Charles Freeman.
N.B. Amazon insist I award my book some stars! I have chosen ''four' because since I wrote it I have come across a lot of new material which I think could improve its argument further.
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144 of 157 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective on Western thought November 2, 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is a book with an interesting perspective, pity it is too long. The basic thesis is that Christian faith pushed aside Greek rationality aside for more than a millennium, until Thomas Acquinas finally reconciled faith and rationality again.

The first one third of the book, the best, attempts to demonstrate how the Christian faith is a collection of beliefs from various sources. Only a small but obviously very important part of the Christian faith has come to us from Christ through the gospels. Paul was another major source for Christianity, for example in his hostility to sexuality and in particular homosexuality (about which Christ seems to have said little). A third source were the four oecumenical councils in the fourth century which settled on numerous detailed and often formal questions, such as the theory of the Holy Trinity. In many cases the Roman emperor had to intervene between squabbling rival factions within Christianity to take decisions in religious issues, subsequently ratified by the Church fathers, more on the basis of political expediency than on any other basis. The consequence of this pyramid of sources is that, although the main principles had been formulated by Christ - most notably, love thy neighbour -, Paul and the early Church have added so much to this body, that Christ might not have recognised his own faith by the fourth century. And it gets worse.

Christianity moved in two directions. Firstly, following the proclamation by Constantine, turning Christianity into the State religion of the empire, the Church became materialistic, in contrast to its early roots which emphasized poverty and abstinence. In some ways this is reminiscent of what happened with communist parties, many of which probably started with the best intentions, but soon the party degenerated into an institution which was used by its leaders to gain wealth and prestige while at the same time the original beliefs became dogma to beat up heretics. Freeman does not focus on subsequent reactions to the materialism of the Church (from within the Catholic Church, starting in Cluny, and by Protestantism).

The second direction of Christianity, the move away from Greek rationalism to a belief in miracles and making science subservient to faith, gets most of Freeman's attention. Augustine comes in for most of the blame : he advocated an unquestioning acceptance of faith and believed that rationality - and therefore science - was a threat to the true faith. Augustine was perhaps the most influential figure in Christianity after Paul, so when we look at the Middle Ages and see the Church fighting science, people believing in superstitions, persecuting witches etc... more than one and a half millennium after Aristotle advocated rational explanations for every phenomenon, we have to blame Augustine to a large degree. Augustine - and the Church - borrowed heavily from Plato who believed that body and soul were separate worlds and that the soul was paramount. This implied that knowing about the material world, i.e. science was unimportant, if not dangerous.

Freeman cites the example of astronomy, where the last recorded observation by the Greeks was by the Proclus in AD 475, after which there are no recorded observations for over a thousand years, until Copernicus in 1543. A similar gap exists in many sciences.

Contrary to Plato's teachings, Aristotles' books had been lost in Europe until the renaissance and in fact came back to Europe through Islamic philosophers in Andalusian Spain. (A graphic illustration of this crucial period in Europe, the break between ignorant and superstitious Middle Ages and the rebirth of Greek rational thinking, when the Church was desperately trying to prevent the subversive translations of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers from spreading, can be seen in the film In the Name of the Rose.)

The Christian philosopher who finally reconciled rational thought and Christian faith, and whose theories were largely accepted by the Church itself, was Thomas Aquinas, as such perhaps the most influential person in the western world after Aristotle himself. According to Thomas, rationality was not to be feared, because it would strengthen faith. This meant that after more than 1000 years of hostility to science, the Church suddenly accepted science and rationality. It is ironic though that only a few hundred years later, many scientific discoveries would undermine established Christian dogma and indeed threaten if not the faith, then at least the Church, but by then this movement had become unstoppable.

Given the huge impact on Western history and culture of the Church's attitude to science, I think this book paints a very interesting perspective. I do not think this book is blaming the Church of today; it merely illustrates that until Thomas, Christian faith for over a thousand years had been Platonic, with an emphasis on the soul and a rejection of rationality, but the Church itself quickly embraced Aristotle's rationality following publication by Thomas of his Summa Theologiae.

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58 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just rehashed Gibbon November 18, 2003
Format:Hardcover
I must disagree with the other reviewer in comparing this book to Gibbon. Rather than asserting that Christianity contributed to the end of the Roman empire, Freeman suggests that Christianity may in fact have preserved it well beyond its sell-by date. It is beyond any reasonable historical doubt that the average citizen of medieval Europe was far more restricted in what their society would allow them to believe and indeed to think about - with the penalties for error being corporal on earth and eternal in the fires of hell.

It is certainly true that from a technological point of view, invention did continue throughout the middle ages, but free intellectual & scientific progress was certainly stunted by the church's insistence on reliance on scripture as the only valid source of knowledge, supported by an atrophied smattering of classical texts. Ironically of course the church integrated the very same old masters (esp Ptolemy, Galen and Aristotle) that would have espoused a practical and experimentalist scientific tradition completely at odds with the church's view of reality.

Freeman, while clearly an admirer of the classical world (most of his other books have that focus), is far from a church-basher, though once you've read the book you mightn't feel like being so kind. Gregory of Tours and Ambrose of Milan, two pivotal figures of the early medieval church, receive treatments that are fairly balanced (though it is clear that any admiration Freeman has for Ambrose are along the same lines as Machiavelli might have had for Stalin).

A really excellent book, especially if want a thorough, thought-provoking, erudite but not overly academic treastise on the late Roman/Early medieval period.

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars What I didn't learn in Catholic School
I liked this book so much that I bought it for a friend. Some will find the book controversial. They are the ones who would profit most by reading it.
Published 1 month ago by Patricia Mulvenna
5.0 out of 5 stars Captures the essence of the history
This is a book to re-read. I have recommended it to others, and I have suggested that those unfamiliar with this subject should read the Introduction and Chapter 1 ("Thomas... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Roger Green
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable Read
It has always amazed me that so few people have ever questioned why a Dark Age, riddled with superstition and persecution and injustice, and not a golden age of brotherly love,... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Janice H. Kasten
5.0 out of 5 stars He says, "It's a '5' star."
He says, "It's a '5' star."
It was a gift for someone who appreciated to own it rather than library-borrow it. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Regina King
4.0 out of 5 stars I am a late bloomer!
I've always loved history, but it's been only in the last decade or so, that I've also taken up the history of the Christian religion. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Elson F. Alvarez
3.0 out of 5 stars The Closing of the Greco-Roman pagan mind?
I read Charles Freeman's book few years back and I was impressed with the scope of explanation and narration of this history by Freeman who professed to be agnostic. Read more
Published 4 months ago by R. Underhill
3.0 out of 5 stars The Title Doesn't Accurately Describe the Book
I will second the review of Douglas Wood. I found much too little discussion of the open nature of intellectual discovery prior to Christianity, and much too little discussion of... Read more
Published 9 months ago by C. Naylor
4.0 out of 5 stars The dethroning of empiricism over eleven centuries
The book traces the history of how the pursuit of empirical reason, which was one of the most fruitful characteristics of the Greek world, was, between the time of St Paul and the... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Ralph Blumenau
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable, informative and important book on the intellectual...
Dr. Freeman's thorough classical knowledge is among the reasons this is a fine book. It is an enormously well-informed account of the intellectual (or non-intellectual) foundations... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Lewis Dodgson
4.0 out of 5 stars Orthodoxy Exchanged for Reason
The Closing of the Western Mind is a very well written book about the rise and development of the Christian Church in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and how the rise of... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Lionel S. Taylor
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