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The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason Paperback – February 8, 2005

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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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (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: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (114 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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736 of 770 people found the following review helpful By Charles Freeman on 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.
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163 of 182 people found the following review helpful By maximusone on 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.
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76 of 85 people found the following review helpful By giraudtheunwilling on 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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