Book Review: The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman

10-24-06, 8:58 am

Book Review: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason Charles Freeman, Vintage, 2005.

This book is a great introduction to the origins of Christian thought. Today with so many competing versions of Christianity, ranging from traditional Orthodox and Catholic views to liberal socially conscious Protestantism and right wing evangelical fundamentalists, it is helpful to have a guide such as this which explains how the original Christianity of the ancient world came about. Freeman will do a credible job of tracing this history from Roman times to the High Middle Ages.

In his introduction he tells us that he will be dealing with 'a significant turning point' in western civilization. The point he has in mind is that time in the 4th and 5th centuries AD 'when the tradition of rational thought established by the Greeks was stifled.' It would take the West a thousand years to recover.

The Greek rational tradition was firmly established by the 5th century BC-- its two greatest founders were Plato and his student Aristotle. Unfortunately, Freeman confuses modern day empiricism with rationality and thus misapprehends the significance of Plato, following in the footsteps of his master Socrates, in the establishment of the rational method in Greece. Plato’s thought was not 'an alternative to rational thought' but one of the most extreme examples of it, subjecting all beliefs to the test of logical argument whenever possible.

Be that as it may, Freeman thinks that the Greek rational tradition, today’s term would be 'scientific', was deliberately squashed by the Roman government from the time of Constantine with the aid of the official Church. The wide-open intellectual environment of the Roman Empire, both religiously and philosophically came to end in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the 'official' state religion. The 'official' version became the only legal version and thus was the 'orthodox' version. 'The imposition of orthodoxy,' Freeman writes, ' went hand in hand with a stifling of any form of independent reasoning.' The rule I would formulate here is that the more any belief system deviates from the original intentions of its founders the more intolerant and anti-rational it becomes. I am not sure this holds in all cases.

Christianity was from the outset anti-rational. Freeman says, 'It had been the Apostle Paul [actually an interloper, not one of the original 12, who never knew Jesus in the flesh-tr] who declared war on the Greek rational tradition through his attacks on ‘the wisdom of the wise’ and ‘the empty logic of the philosophers’....' When Christianity became the official creed it closed down any contrary thinking thus dooming the West to a thousand years of backwardness. A good example of this mind closing is given by Freeman when he discusses the dispute between 'St.' Ambrose and the pagan Roman Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. To my way of thinking the pagan Symmachus had an open modern mind while Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and teacher of 'St.' Augustine, was a bigot (unfortunately also an all too modern religious mind set.)

In the late 4th century the seat of the Western Empire was at Milan and there were still many pagans (believers in the old traditional religion) who wished to be free to continue their form of religion. The Christian authorities were determined to repress all forms of religion save their own. One of the major symbols of the traditional religion was the Altar of Peace which adorned the Senate in Rome. The Christians had it removed. In 383 AD Symmachus and other senators petitioned the Emperor to have it restored. Ambrose (a major power behind the throne) was opposed and the petition failed. The mind sets of the two sides are clearly expressed in the following written exchange:

Symmachus: 'What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.'

Ambrose: 'What you are ignorant of, we know from the word of God. And what you try to infer, we have established as truth from the very wisdom of God.'

The truth, however, should be able to triumph without the aid of the rack and the stake. I pointed out above that Paul had no personal knowledge of Jesus in the flesh. Freeman asserted that the intolerance of the Christians (their rejection of logic and science) stems from Paul. What is worse, when, for political reasons, the Roman state adopted the religion and forced it upon everyone its motive was to control the minds of the population for the benefit of the Empire, the actual teachings of Jesus were no more suited to the ends desired by the Romans than they are to those of the Bush administration and its evangelical base. Paul, according to Freeman, distanced himself from the original 12 disciples (who distrusted his claims) and ended up, as we know, creating a theology that appealed to the Greco-Roman world and was rejected by the Jewish community from which Jesus came. In order to do this the real historical Jesus and his teachings (peace not war, forgiveness not vengeance, love and respect not hated and contempt-- i.e., Martin Luther King not Jerry Falwell or Pat Robinson) had to be replaced with an unreal Christ beyond history. Thus, Freeman writes, 'Paul makes a point of stressing that faith in Christ does not involve any kind of identification with Jesus in his life on earth but has validity only in his death and resurrection.' Thus the burden of actually having to follow the particular ethical path that Jesus the human trod is removed. (See my article 'Who is John Stott' in PA archives). Since the claims made for Jesus as the Christ are simply impossible to accept from the point of view of reason, reason is dumped and replaced by 'faith.' Freeman gives the following quote from 'the fourth-century ascetic Anthony:' 'Faith arises from the disposition of the soul... those who are equipped with the faith have no need of verbal argument.' Experience shows that 'verbal argument' has no effect on true believers of whatever faith!

It is also interesting to note, as Freeman does, that Anthony is claimed not to have learned 'to read or write, the point being made by his biographer that academic achievement was not important for a 'man of God' and could even be despised.' Freeman is incorrect, I think, in holding that the personal commitment Christians made to Christ (becoming 'a single body with Christ... achieving a full identification with Christ through his death and then rising with him from the dead') was 'something new in antiquity.'

This very belief was characteristic of the devotees of the Egyptian god Osiris whose worship in the cult of Isis and Osiris was widespread throughout the Roman Empire and whose popularity may explain why Christianity proved so popular to the Greco-Roman population. Mary idolatry, still rampant with some forms of Christianity, may have stemmed from this cult connection as well. Freeman points out that Isis was the patron goddess of mariners and her symbol was the rose. Mary replaced her as the patron of sailors and her symbol was also the rose. He also says 'representations of Isis with her baby son Horus on her knee seem to provide the iconic background for those of Mary and the baby Jesus.' The Greek rational tradition demanded that people think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Christianity introduced a different conception of moral responsibility. It introduced the idea of 'don't think, just follow orders.' Freeman quotes a long extract from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience in which a Jesuit explains the value of living the monastic life (every religion has something similar to this, as well as extremist political groups of the left and right).

The Jesuit explains that if you obey the orders of your religious Superior, no matter what they are, you can do no wrong! 'The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received.... The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account....' Nice. Not even God respects the Geneva Conventions, why should Rummy or Bush? We have to agree with Freeman when he declares that, 'Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete.' The book clearly demonstrates that religion in the West has been used to deprecate and reject reason (unless the Church can misuse it in its own interests). It also demonstrates that the modern world, the progressive part at any rate, represents a return to the Greek outlook. When Freeman, in reference to the teachings of the Church says, 'The ancient Greek tradition that one should be free to speculate without fear and be encouraged to take individual moral responsibility for one's views was rejected,' we can today assert that now in the 21st. Century, despite the tragic history of 'real existing socialism' in the past century, no genuine Marxist committed to people's democracy would agree with the Church on this matter and would rather identify with the Greeks.

The most important internal reason for the collapse of the socialist block, I think, may have been the lack of real participatory democracy and citizen involvement. Traditional Christianity as well as fundamentalism may likewise now be facing this malaise which is also characteristic of American democracy under the Bush administration.

What Freeman writes about the Church can be extended to these other groups as well. 'Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity,' he points out, 'which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. 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.' Reading Freeman's well written and interesting book will give you a great background and a deep historical understanding of how Christianity came to dominate the Western world for a thousand years, what that has cost in terms of intellectual degradation, and how, if the peoples of the West are to better their condition in the new century they must regain the intellectual confidence so characteristic of Greek civilization.

I maintain that the Marxist tradition, freed from the failed authoritarian models of the last century, is the best contemporary intellectual tool to achieve this end. But it is important to note that the Greeks were not the only people to have a rational outlook. Similar thinkers can be found in the 'classical' periods of other cultures, such as Ancient Egypt, China, India and the Islamic culture of the Middle Ages, to name but four, and the hope of a progressive future for all the world's peoples rests on a blending of the best progressive tendencies in all cultures.

--Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at