A vigorous study of the death and rebirth of empirical thought in
the Western tradition. English classicist Freeman (The Greek
Achievement, 1999, etc.) charts two great strains of thought in
antiquity. The first, exemplified by the work of Greek thinkers and
artists such as Euripides and Aristotle, allowed that some things
in the universe may well be unknowable, but that shouldn't stop
humans from asking about them; the second, the province of
Christian thinkers such as Jerome and Augustine, held that only God
can know the unknowable, and humans have no business nosing around
in such matters. The first Freeman dubs "reason," the second
"faith," and even if the two often blended in the work of thinkers
like Plato and Aquinas, they were often opposed to each other. With
the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman world, Freeman
observes, "the principles of empirical observation or logic were
overruled in the conviction that all knowledge comes from God and
even, in the writings of Augustine, that the human mind, burdened
with Adam's original sin, is incapable of thinking for itself." He
notes at least part of the reason for the triumph of unquestioning
faith was the inability of early Christian communities to agree on
terms by which they could rationally explore the divine; part,
however, was purely political: namely, the dawning awareness on the
part of Constantine and other emperors that any dissension among
the various Christian churches posed a source of jeopardy to their
supposedly divinely sanctioned rule. (Thus, in due course, the
doctrine of papal infallibility.) The strained competition between
faith and reason played out over the centuries, Freeman shows,
until by the end of the fourth century "the freedom to explore the
nature of God was becoming restricted to the point of extinction,"
essentially crushing the Greek tradition until its revival, a
millennium later, in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lucid,
accessible contribution to intellectual history, and a worthy
companion to Elaine Pagels's recent Beyond Belief (p. 290). (Kirkus
The conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 368 AD brought a transformation to Christianity and to western civilization, the effects of which we still feel today. Previously, the Roman empire had absorbed and sustained the Greek intellectual tradition which, in the astronomy of Ptolemy, the medicine of Galen and the philosophy of Plotinus, reached new heights. Constantine turned Rome from the relatively open, tolerant and pluralistic civilisation of the Hellenistic world, towards a culture that was based on the rule of fixed authority. The century after Constantine's conversion saw the development of an alliance between church and state which stifled freedom of thought and the tradition of Greek rationalism which was intrinsic to it.
The churches enjoyed enormous patronage and exemptions from tax, and in return allowed the emperors to take on the definition and enforcement of an increasingly narrow religious orthodoxy.
This book explores how the European mind was closed by the revolution of the fourth century. It looks at the rise of the 'divine' monarch, the struggle as Christianity painfully separated itself from Judaism, the conflict between faith and reason, and the problems in finding any kind of rational basis for Christian theology. In these centuries, a turning-point for Western civilisation, we see the development of Christian anti-Semitism, the origins of the opposition of religion and science and the roots of Christianity's discomfort with sex, issues which haunt the Christian churches to this day. The Closing of the Western Mind is a major work of history. Wide-ranging and ambitious, its central theme is the relationship between the two wellsprings of our civilisation, the Judaeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman, and how the tensions between them have created the culture in which we continue to live, think and believe.'An elegant story, engagingly told.
Freeman has a talent for narrative history and for encapsulating the more arcane disputes of ancient historians and theologians.' Mary Beard, Independent
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