Book Review and Commentary
The Closing of the Western Mind: The Fall of Reason and the Rise of Faith by Charles Freeman
Twenty-five centuries ago, Greek philosophers created a new way of seeing the world: a secular way of seeing, founded on observation, logic, and the search for rational explanation without resort to gods or spirits. This new vision was a significant leap from the weighty superstition of their predecessors and tremendous strides were made in science and medicine in subsequent centuries. For reasons that Charles Freeman attempts to elucidate in The Closing of the Western Mind, that immense progress and prodigious achievement was undone — virtually erased — by the rise of Christianity and its domination of Western culture, not to be restored again until the Renaissance.
A Brief Summary of the Book
The book begins with a survey of the ideas and methods that distinguished Greek thinkers from their predecessors: their rejection of myth in explanations, their recognition that there can be conflicts between reason and observation, and their struggle to develop methods of reasoning and explanation that provided some degree of certainty. Freeman cites the accomplishments of the most important Greek thinkers from Archimedes to Zeno.
Freeman next covers Alexander’s conquests and levels some well-deserved criticism at Alexander’s ruthlessness, brutality, and lack of administrative skills. Following this, he addresses the rise of Rome and introduces numerous Romans of note, briefly describing the evolution of the Roman State from the Republic to the early Empire. He touches on late Stoicism, the later influence of Plato, Neoplatonism, contemporaneous views of God, such as Platonist, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic, winding up with the economic and security crisis of the late Empire.
Finally, Freeman gets to where he wants to go — Christianity. A short survey of the life, teachings, and fate of Jesus is followed by Freeman’s initial treatment of one of the villains of his book — the Apostle Paul. Freeman traces the evolution of Christian theology from Paul’s epistles and the Gospels through the emergence of early Christian communities and their practices. He mentions some of the persecutions but emphasizes the role of Roman Emperors, beginning with Constantine, in the formation of Christian doctrine and the role of state patronage in the ascent to power of the Roman Catholic Church.
Freeman also deals with Paganism as practiced by Romans and briefly covers some of the more popular religions of the time, but also addresses the emerging Christian theology, and the role of Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Chrysostom, the Nicene Creed, and Trinitarianism.
Freeman next mixes it up covering Emperors, Bishops, edicts, Roman legislation, church historians, responses to edicts, Pagans who try to maintain their religion, the Church fathers (again, Ambrose, Augustine, etc.), the decline of the Empire, barbarians, the rise of orthodoxy, schismatics, heresies, persecutions, more Augustine and Ambrose, the rise to power of the bishops, the ascetics, the virginization of Mary, the birth of anti-Semitism, Gregory the Great, Justinian, and others.
Finally, Freeman presents his views (he does not opine much until late in the book) on the death of the Greek philosophical traditions and its rediscovery seven centuries later by Thomas Aquinas.
Freeman’s Thesis and His Data
The subtitle of the book states Freeman’s main thesis but the vast majority of the book is presentation of information without much opining; though he does continually draw conclusions, and conclusions require interpretations of course, but he allows his documentation to speak for itself most of the time. He offers a very reasoned and temperate indictment near the end of the book.
Freeman sees the death of the Greek rational tradition as a direct result of a handful (a very large handful) of men who played crucial roles in the emergence, creation, and ascendancy of what came to be the Catholic Church. He presents hundreds of examples from works by the key figures in Church history. He lets these figures, in their own words, condemn, denounce, and repudiate rationality and empirical methods. Their pronouncements declare even curiosity a dangerous behavior. Freeman has collected enough examples of these condemnations to bring a compelling weight to his claims. The sheer number of quotations and the standing of those quoted (that is, their commonly recognized and unchallenged importance in early Church history), lends substantial credibility to his thesis.
Freeman recognizes Constantine’s role as the most pivotal, but lays substantial blame on numerous figures who were crucial in the initial transition and formation of Church dogma. As theologizers, enforcers and propagandists, Ambrose, Athanasius, and Augustine, to name a few, get their due credit. Freeman also attributes much of the mischief of Christianity to Paul. He quotes from Paul’s epistles, citing Paul’s condemnation of sexuality, “filthy enjoyments …”; his condemnation of knowledge, “the wisdom of the world is foolishness…”; his attacks on philosophers, “the more stupid they grew…”; and his inimical views on marriage, “better to marry than to burn.”
Freeman, if I have not misunderstood him, sees the forced acceptance by Constantine of the Nicene Creed, and the later obligatory acceptance of the strikingly unintelligible concept of the Trinity (Athanasius’s handiwork), to have established exceedingly unfortunate precedents for illogic in Church doctrine.
Freeman sees what follows historically as a descent into the realm of pathological superstition (my words not his); that the light slowly faded as the crafters of theology crushed the opposing forces of rationality. In the process, Christian voices of dissent, some for rationality even, and Pagan philosophy and religion, were obliterated by the power of the new Church. A power derived from the lavish expenditures of the Roman State once patronage was established and wielded by fanatical individuals.
As bleak as this picture is, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Freeman sees the Dominican monk, Thomas Aquinas, as the savior of the Greek tradition. In the 13th century Aquinas, an aficionado of Aristotle, “Christianized” several of Aristotle’s works. The Church subsequently, amicably received these works. The door was opened for Aristotle, but works by other Greeks and some Muslims had already appeared on the ‘radar screen’ by way of Muslim libraries taken during the re-conquest of Spain. By giving a nod to Aristotle, the Church had inadvertently allowed the Greek tradition, once banished, to return.
My first impression was that Freeman may have you working with too much data perhaps for one book. He offers about as much documentation as one could possibly squeeze into a four-hundred-page book. As the accumulation of damning evidence builds, one gets the sense of a tragic novel unfolding — a tragedy about Western Civilization. The last chapter, not including the Epilogue, about Aquinas feels artificial; like a Hollywood ending, stuck on so that the audience could go home feeling good.
The evidence Freeman marshals is compelling and I have seen much of it before, but Freeman has brought it all together into a synthesis that is greater than the sum of its parts: a tragedy about how faith, fanaticism, and power brought an end to the vital Western tradition of rationality. My own sense of it is that the preference for faith over reason is a kind of malady afflicting the West, created by Christian dogma; one that took a millennium long struggle to overcome, but only partially. At the same time, one must recognize that faith has brought solace to many, but the solace of faith may only be a cure for an ailment induced by illusory theological claims.
The quotes of Paul’s I cited above have, I think, done tremendous damage to the cause of rationality and played an essential role in a two thousand year long program of thought control. People demonstrate they can reason all the time, but they have been taught to turn it off when it comes to religion. It is much easier to scare people than to enlighten them, and the danger of faith is that it can make Truth out of anything. It is not a process that requires logic, reason, or discrimination of arguments and evidence. It is far better suited to manipulating people. Arguably, faith is the greatest tool of control and manipulation ever invented.
As to the evidence that Freeman marshals, it is more than enough to substantiate his claims I think. The mere use of the word heresy by an institution or persons of power, to me implies unambiguously, institutionalized oppression. In the case of the Church, the evidence suggests totalitarian dimensions.
Mystery, fear, awe, ignorance, claims of transcendent truths, are the tools cults use to manipulate people. It is no wonder those educated in Greek methods at the time were so alarmed by what they saw happening all around them. No Greek other than in jest perhaps, would ever have claimed their intellectual opponent was actually a demon in disguise — an act profoundly contrary to the rationalist tradition. Yet such claims were common by Church authorities. In fact, you can find televangelists still doing it; it is a time honored tradition that is still practiced. To be on the receiving end of such accusations must have bewildered and frightened educated and philosophically minded people of the time. The facts I think, point to the Church as having instituted a program whose tools were oppression, fear-mongering, and severe coercion, in a largely successful attempt to destroy all competing world-views, whether they were non-orthodox Christian, Pagan religious, or secular Pagan.
Freeman asks the question: was Paul the founder of Christianity? This is not a new question and I did not feel that Freeman offered any original insights, but he does delve into the issue deeply. Many scholars have answered this question in the affirmative. Paul not only did not know Jesus, he seems not to have understood his consciousness. He created something remote from the teachings of Jesus and arguably a huge misdirection. Some scholars have claimed that Paul “hijacked” Christianity. There is certainly compelling evidence for this conclusion.
According to Freeman, Paul knew little of the “spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world…”. In addition, he had no more than a “rudimentary knowledge of Greek literature and philosophy” and that he was, “openly mocked by sophisticated and skeptical thinkers” in Athens. These claims appear completely plausible and several eminent scholars have said the same thing. One can see the plausibility here. After all, Paul was a mere man. He seems to have had an abrasive personality, probably no less ego than most, and he tended to turn people off. After his rejection in Athens, he probably felt a deep animosity towards the philosophers who had one-upped him. It is a pity that his emotional venting recorded in his letters became part of the foundation of a worldwide religion.
It strikes me as profoundly tragic that Western Civilization would shortly embrace as the received view the attitude towards Greek Philosophy of a man who knew next to nothing about it and perhaps condemned it for vain and intellectually dishonest reasons. The consequences are nothing short of spectacularly catastrophic. His words, taken as “gospel” (literally), created a foundation of mistrust of rational methods that has affected millions of people. It has led to millions who will not believe highly compelling scientific evidence, but do not doubt the most extravagant metaphysical claims. The old saw comes to mind, “always wrong, but never in doubt.”
The book contains numerous historical accounts of acts by Christian zealots that are sad and even disturbing. The story of Origen, that he may have mutilated himself to suppress his sexual desires is tragic. Hemingway’s first story as a reporter had him dispatched to a hospital where a young man had castrated himself to control his “evil” sexual thoughts. That was a turning point for Hemingway’s views on religion. For me it raises the question: what right do adults have to indoctrinate children with dubious and often harmful ideas from which they may never escape psychologically? It is true that so much of what each of us believes, what makes up our consciousness, is dumped into our minds before we can possibly defend ourselves intellectually.
Finally for Paul, his imputation that “faith” alone makes one worthy of salvation, and another who is without it, deserving of hell and eternal punishment, has taken a toll on human compassion and perhaps abridged as much as Jesus may have inspired. One consequence of this is that “heathens” have often been treated with indifferent brutality. Paul does speak of “faith, hope, and charity”, but considering the opinions he expressed in his epistles about those who did not take to his message, perhaps he was doing what politicians, religious leaders, and all manner of hypocrites have done for thousands of years — simply paying lip service to lofty culturally values.
Moving on to Augustine, some of his ideas seem so bizarre that one is inclined to think he was in need of psychotherapy (as well as many of the early Church authorities). Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, asked Augustine how he could possibly believe God would send an unbaptized baby to hell (just one of many far-fetched claims by Augustine). The mystery for me is how anyone at all accepted Augustine’s arguments about such things. I find this perhaps more remarkable than almost any of the other bizarre theological points made from the period. There is in it an intention implied that suggests to me a morally bankrupt and opportunistic attempt to merely frighten people into submission and obedience.
Augustine’s explanation of why some people are slaves no doubt has been responsible for immeasurable suffering. Augustine writes, “The primary cause of slavery, then is sin …”
Regarding Constantine, one gets the impression that he and the Church authorities (Ambrose, Athanasius, and others), had all made a pact with the devil so to speak. Constantine was largely ignorant of Christian doctrine and evidently had little interest in it. It is reported by Freeman that there is no evidence Constantine ever attended church. He apparently made a political decision to give state patronage to the Christians, but Freeman does not explain why, if the decision was political, he chose the Christians, since Pagans were still the majority, and by a large margin. Why, if this was a political calculation, would Constantine choose the Christians? Freeman suggests a few reasons but does not, as I recall, offer a forceful argument. The purported events at the Malvian Bridge (where Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius with divine assistance, it is claimed) are not consistent with Constantine’s subsequent behavior nor elementary facts related to the event and clearly suggest myth making.
Later Emperors, with the notable exception of Julian, had evidently internalized Christian doctrine; their brutality and drive to eliminate Pagans is hard to explain otherwise. It is interesting to note that the period of Pagan persecution was, according to historical evidence and the opinions of many scholars, vastly greater than the Christian persecutions under Nero, Diocletian, and others. Yet the ordinary person without historical training has little or no knowledge of such history. Truly, the victors control history at the popular level.
There are others whose careers and writings are as unsettling as Paul’s: John Chrysostom’s anti-Semitism and irrational diatribes; Athanasius’s crimes, his Machiavellianism, and reputed commission of murder; Ambrose’s public display of joy over the horrible fate of Arius, all speak for themselves.
My final comment is this. It is astonishing that so many of what appear to be acutely bad ideas could become integral parts of a doctrine that claimed descent from Jesus. I have held the opinion my entire adult life that the concepts of hell and eternal punishment are perhaps the worst ideas born out of the human mind. The enduring legacy of suffering and fear, particularly fear of death in the West, due to these doctrines, is one of history’s silent tragedies.
Thomas Parslow is the editor of The Leftist Review.
 Bishop Shelly Spong makes this point in Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism.
 Freeman, The Closing, p113
 Ibid, p114
 Ibid, p114
 Bart Ehrman et.al.
 Galations 5:6
 City of God, 19:15; The Closing, p206
 The Closing, p175