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

BOOK: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason

Table of Contents

Title Page





Terminology and Sources




4 - CHANGING POLITICAL CONTEXTS Alexander and the Coming of the Hellenistic Monarchies


6 - “ALL NATIONS LOOK TO THE MAJESTY OF ROME” The Roman Empire at Its Height

7 - THE EMPIRE IN CRISIS, THE EMPIRE IN RECOVERY Political Transformations in the Third Century



10 - “A CROWD THAT LURKS IN CORNERS, SHUNNING THE LIGHT” The First Christian Communities


Emperors and the Making of Christian Doctrine

13 “ENRICHED BY THE GIFTS OF MATRONS” Bishops and Society in the Fourth Century

14 - SIX EMPERORS AND A BISHOP Ambrose of Milan

15 - INTERLUDE Quintus Aurelius Symmachus and the Defence of Paganism




19 - “WE HONOUR THE PRIVILEGE OF SILENCE WHICH IS WITHOUT PERIL” The Death of the Greek Empirical Tradition




Modern Works Cited in the Text and Notes

About the Author


Copyright Page

For Hilary



Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.


There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.


Acclaim for Charles Freeman’s
The Closing of the Western Mind

“A fascinating account.” —
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Engrossingly readable and very thoughtful. . . . Freeman draws our attention to myriad small but significant phenomena. . . . His fine book is both a searching look at the past and a salutary and cautionary reminder for us in our difficult present.” —
The New York Sun

“One of the best books to date on the development of Christianity. . . . Beautifully written and impressively annotated, this is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the roots of Christianity and its implications for our modern worldview. . . . Essential.” —

“Engaging. . . . Refreshing. . . . A memorable account. . . . The author is always interesting and well informed. Freeman’s study moves with ease between political and intellectual history. . . . The cumulative effect is impressive.” —
The Times Literary Supplement

“A fine book for a popular audience that enjoys history, clear writing, and subject matter that reflects our own time.” —
Houston Chronicle

“The narrative is clear and fluent, the nomenclature is studiously precise . . . and the theological conflicts of the fourth century are analyzed with . . . subtlety.” —
History Today

“Ambitious, groundbreaking. . . . In the tradition of . . . Karen Armstrong’s
A History of God
. . . a scholarly history that is accessible, passionate and energetic.” —
Hartford Advocate

“Freeman has a talent for narrative history and for encapsulating the more arcane disputes of ancient historians and theologians.... He manages not only to make these disputes interesting, but also to show why they mattered so much. It is a coup that few books on the early church pull off.” —
The Independent

“Engaging and clearly written.” —
The World and I

“[A] lucid account of an intellectual and social transformation that continues to shape the way Christianity is experienced and understood.” —
The Dallas Morning News


This book deals with a significant turning point in western cultural and intellectual history, when the tradition of rational thought established by the Greeks was stifled in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. This “closing of the Western mind” did not extend to the Arab world, where translated Greek texts continued to inspire advances in astronomy, medicine and science, and so its roots must be found in developments in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. This book explores those developments.

Before setting out my argument, it is important to define what is meant by a tradition of rational thought. The Greeks were the first to distinguish, assess and use the distinct branch of intellectual activity we know as reasoning. By the fifth century they had grasped the principle of the deductive proof, which enabled them to make complex and irrefutable mathematical proofs. They also set out the principles of inductive reasoning, the formulation of “truths” from empirical evidence. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) used this method to make significant advances in our understanding of the natural world. These “truths,” however, are always provisional. If the sun rises every day of our existence, we might assume that it will always rise, but there is no certainty of this. The Greeks recognized this as well as grasping that theories must always be the servants of facts. Describing what he has observed about the generation of bees, Aristotle notes that “the facts have not been sufficiently ascertained, and if they are ever ascertained, then we must trust perception rather than theories.” Implicit in this is the thinking of cause and effect. By the fifth century we find the historian Herodotus attempting to relate what he could observe about the Nile floods with their possible causes, and this approach became rooted in the rational tradition. It was the path to a fuller understanding of the natural world and offered the possibility of effective prediction. Yet one should not idealize. In practice it is impossible to disassociate observation from the influences of the wider world. Women were seen by Greek culture to be inferior to men, and “empirical” observations could all too easily be shaped or interpreted to sustain this, as they certainly were in medicine. The astronomer Ptolemy believed the earth was at the centre of the universe, and all his observations of the planets were interpreted so as not to conflict with this model.

A successful rational tradition needs the support and understanding of the society in which it is based, and in many parts of the Greek world, this is what it received. If truth is to be effectively advanced, any finding must be open to challenge, and this means that even the greatest thinkers must never be made into figures of authority. Aristotle’s colleague Theophrastus successfully queried instances of what Aristotle claimed was spontaneous generation by noticing tiny seeds Aristotle had missed. If a tradition of rational thought is to make progress, it is essential that it builds in tolerance. No authority can dictate in advance what can or cannot be believed, or there is no possibility of progress. From the philosophical point of view, it is perhaps as important that it accept the limits of what it can achieve, in those areas of knowledge where there are no basic axioms (as there are in a mathematical model, for instance) or empirical evidence from which rational thought can progress. E. R. Dodds, in his famous study
The Greeks and the Irrational,
notes that “honest distinction between what is knowable and what is not appears again and again in fifth-century [B.C.] thought, and is surely one of its chief glories.” In short, one cannot pronounce that a statement is true unless it can be supported by logic or empirical evidence. It followed that nothing of certainty could be said, for instance, about the gods. The problem is too complex and life is too short proclaimed the philosopher Protagoras in the fifth century. Despite these words of caution, Dodds’ work reminds us that irrationality flourished in the Greek world; but perhaps one can put up with 999 irrational minds if the thousandth is an Aristotle or an Archimedes (or a Copernicus or a Newton, or, in inductive logic, a Darwin). It takes only one independent and effective rational mind to change the paradigms of understanding for the rest of humankind.

The conventional wisdom is that Greek science and mathematics petered out in the Hellenistic period (323–31 B.C.), but recently scholars have shown greater appreciation of the achievements of such leading figures of the second century A.D. as Galen and Ptolemy. Galen’s work on logic is being recognized so that, in the accolade of Geoffrey Lloyd, “Galen is probably unique among practising physicians in any age and culture for his professionalism also as a logician . . . conversely he is also remarkable among practising logicians for his ability in, and experience of, medical practice.” The ingenuity of Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations (forced on him as they were by his misconception of the universe!) was extraordinary, but one is reminded, by a recent new translation of his
that he also tackled the problem of how to represent the globe on a flat surface, introduced “minutes” and “seconds” to divide up degrees and established the notion of grids of coordinates for mapping. So even in the Roman empire we are dealing with a living tradition which is making important and influential scientific advances.

There was an alternative approach to rational thought, that taken by Plato (c. 429–347 B.C.). Plato believed in the reality of a world of Forms, Forms of everything from “the God” to a table, which was eternal and unchanging in contrast to the transient world here below. This world could be grasped, after an arduous intellectual journey of which only a few were capable, by means of reason. So “real” were the Forms that even the observations of the senses must be discarded if they conflicted with a Form as it was eventually discovered. “We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what is in the sky, if we intend to get a real grasp of astronomy,” as Plato put it in
The Republic.
This was, of course, a challenge to the principle that facts should prevail over theories. The problem was that it was impossible to find axioms, unassailable first principles, from which one could progress to a Form such as that of Beauty or “the Good,” and the Platonic journey, while offering the lure of an ultimate certainty, never seemed, in practice, to be able to present a Form in terms with which all could agree.

The argument of this book is that the Greek intellectual tradition did not simply lose vigour and disappear. (Its survival and continued progress in the Arab world is testimony to that.) Rather, in the fourth and fifth century A.D. it was destroyed by the political and religious forces which made up the highly authoritarian government of the late Roman empire. There had been premonitions of this destruction in earlier Christian theology. It had been the Apostle Paul who declared war on the Greek rational tradition through his attacks on “the wisdom of the wise” and “the empty logic of the philosophers,” words which were to be quoted and requoted in the centuries to come. Then came the absorption of Platonism by the early Christian theologians. It was assumed that Christian dogma could be found through the same process as Plato had advocated, in other words, through reason, and would have the same certainty as the Forms. However, as with other aspects of Platonism, it proved impossible to find secure axioms from which to start the rational argument. Scriptural texts conflicted with each other, different theological traditions had taken root in different parts of the empire, theologians disagreed whether they should discard pagan Greek philosophy or exploit it. The result, inevitably, was doctrinal confusion. Augustine was to note the existence of over eighty heresies (for which read “alternative ways of dealing with the fundamental issues of Christian doctrine”). When Constantine gave toleration to the churches in the early fourth century, he found to his dismay that Christian communities were torn by dispute. He himself did not help matters by declaring tax exemptions for Christian clergy and offering the churches immense patronage, which meant that getting the “right” version of Christian doctrine gave access not only to heaven but to vast resources on earth. By the middle of the fourth century, disputes over doctrine had degenerated into bitterness and even violence as rival bishops struggled to earn the emperor’s favour and the most lucrative bishoprics. At a time of major barbarian attacks, the threat to order was so marked that it was the emperors who increasingly defined and enforced an orthodoxy, using hand-picked church councils to give themselves some theological legitimacy.

So one finds a combination of factors behind “the closing of the Western mind”: the attack on Greek philosophy by Paul, the adoption of Platonism by Christian theologians and the enforcement of orthodoxy by emperors desperate to keep good order. The imposition of orthodoxy went hand in hand with a stifling of any form of independent reasoning. By the fifth century, not only has rational thought been suppressed, but there has been a substitution for it of “mystery, magic and authority,” a substitution which drew heavily on irrational elements of pagan society that had never been extinguished. Pope Gregory the Great warned those with a rational turn of mind that, by looking for cause and effect in the natural world, they were ignoring the cause of all things, the will of God. This was a vital shift of perspective, and in effect a denial of the impressive intellectual advances made by the Greek philosophers.

Some who have found this argument too damning have stressed how it was Christians who preserved the great works of the Greek philosophers by copying them from decaying papyri, or parchment. The historian is indeed deeply indebted to the monks, the Byzantine civil servants and the Arab philosophers who preserved ancient texts, but the recording of earlier authorities is not the same as maintaining a tradition of rational thought. This can be done only if these authorities are then used as inspiration for further intellectual progress or as a bulwark against which to react. This happened in the Arab world (where, for instance, even the findings of a giant such as Galen were challenged and improved on) but not in the Byzantine empire or the Christian west. The Athenian philosopher Proclus made the last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient Greek world in A.D. 475. It was not until the sixteenth century that Copernicus—inspired by the surviving works of Ptolemy but aware that they would make more sense, and in fact would be simpler, if the sun was placed at the centre of the universe—set in hand the renewal of the scientific tradition. The struggle between religion and science had now entered a new phase, one which is beyond the scope of this book. What cannot be doubted is how effectively the rational tradition had been eradicated in the fourth and fifth centuries. The “closing of the Western mind” has been ignored for all too long. I hope this book reinvigorates debate on this turning point in European history.

I have acknowledged the many works I have drawn on for this book in the notes. In addition, my agent, Bill Hamilton, has been a consistent support during the writing of this book, and my editor at Heinemann, Ravi Mirchandani, has played a vital role in helping to set its tone and to clarify its central argument. Josine Meijer gathered the pictures together with great efficiency, and the text was meticulously copy-edited by Caroline Knight. I would also like to thank my editor at Knopf, Carol Janeway, for the enthusiasm with which she has taken on this book for the United States market. For the preparation of this book for the United States market, I am especially grateful to Serena Lehman and Ellen Feldman at Knopf, proofreaders Chuck Antony and Patrice Silverstein and indexer Max Franke.

This book is dedicated to my wife, Hilary, with my love. While I have been dealing with the complex and often stressful relationships between Christianity and pagan society in the fourth and fifth centuries, she, in her work as a psychotherapist, has been dealing with similar tensions in the minds of her clients. So our concerns have often overlapped. A tribute from Helmut Koester to his wife that I came across when reading this distinguished Swiss theologian’s work seemed particularly appropriate: “It is therefore fitting that I should express here my indebtedness to her for all the patient and helpful listening to the progress of my work and for her indulgence with respect to all sorts of things around the house that I should have done rather than working on this manuscript.” With the closing of this book, such duties can be evaded no longer!

Charles Freeman
April 2003

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