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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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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 alternate Paperback edition.
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 alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
(Not a very new wisecrack, but I just happened to hear it again in a lecture by a public speaking coach.)
Key words of the book are faith and reason, the pair of opposites in the subtitle. These opposites don't attract. Faith has other opposites: disbelief comes to mind. Is there a place for faith when reason rules? Or for reason when faith rules? Historically, reason has rarely been strong (and has its own inborn ambiguities, contradictions, and tendencies for self-destruction). Faith is strong when minds are closed. The word has a large palette of meaning. In some views, `faith' seems to be venerable and deserving of respect in itself, whatever its contents. One could just as well take the opposite stand and reject `faith' as a mental attitude altogether, unless it is purely meant in the sense of confidence or trust or conviction.
However, in a political and historical context, the necessary test for the nature of faith and openness of mind is tolerance. Alas, there has not been much of that commodity in history. Following the history of the Christian faith and its churches is in many respects a sad affair.
The concept of this book is broader than the title suggests. The title seems to imply an argument for a specific development or observation, while the book is actually a much larger treatise on Christian history.
Before the Western mind is closed, we are explained at length how open the Greek mind had been. Aristotle is seen as the man with the empirical mind, the one who is convinced that theory has to survive practical tests. Plato is the idealist who does not think that he needs to wait for practical verification or falsification. (Freeman is moving on Popperian tracks here.)
We are given a crash course in Greek and Roman history. We also get introductions into Greek philosophy and science, and into the origins of Christianity with Jesus, Paul, and the early communities.
Freeman nails the turning point from reason to faith with Paul, whose writings show strong aversion to reason. He opens the book with an epigram by St. Augustine: curiosity is a disease...
The question that the book would seem to try to answer is: how much closing happened in the church and what damage was done?
The author might have taken some time to explain why he decided to use the term `Western'. The term is not as clear as it may seem. In a simple way, `Western' could mean all that is to the west of Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius. With Islam, it already stops working geographically, apart from the aspect of anachronism. Or is he thinking of the Western part of the Roman empire? Is it meant to refer to the coming schism of the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholic Church? Wouldn't a Western mind have to exist before it could be closed?
The book, in my opinion, could start with chapter 9, the one on Paul, without major problems to its structure. Chapters 1 to 8 could be summarized in an introduction. (I am given to armchair editing lately.)
The book is too short for a good coverage of all its subjects, but too long for a crisp argument of its main thesis, that the rise of faith caused a decline of reason. This is easily said and looks plausible. Paul is clear enough about his rejection of philosophy throughout his letters. A practical and plausible demonstration of the consequences would have been useful. Otherwise I can't quite ignore the counterargument that not so much faith closed the mind, but the collapse of the empire did.
I am not saying that the book is not worth the time and effort. It is a valuable introduction to an important period. But I think it could have been done better. This is mainly a matter of management of material and of economics of argument.
How did the shift from reason to faith happen? In a nutshell, the 4th century was critical: Christianity became state sponsored during the reign of emperor Constantine, but this happened in the `east', not the `west'. At the same time, Christianity was internally much stressed by factional disputes about the nature of God and Jesus. The emperor did not appreciate the strife and got involved in definitions. (Julian's observation about the fierceness of Christians against each other comes to mind.)
In a general way, all scripture interpretation was burdened by the multiplicity of sources and positions. Without state authority, no consensus on meaning was possible, unless convincing recourse to revelation from high up was possible. Without consensus, the movement was not helpful to the state. This was the entry ticket to a privileged church living in wealth. Next step was the church assuming authority over the state.
The issues and conflicts that might have torn Christianity apart were not reconcilable on a peaceful rational basis. Out goes reason, in comes authority. Faith looks like obedience.
I am paraphrasing. The arguments are plausible.
In the end, I don't think he makes a compelling case that the Western Mind closed after all. It morphed, struggled, evolved a bit. Sure, the Romans and Greeks had philosophy, but they also had paganism. Aquinas struggled with the tension of logic and revelation. The fruit of that struggle was the Enlightenment and the Age of Discovery. When did the mind close?
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