66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2003
I really liked this book. Written from the perspective of a historian (rather than, say, a theologian), it traces the radical change in outlook of western culture between the fall of the Roman Empire and the replacement of much of its former authority by new church structures. Among the most interesting elements is his treatment of how the Emperors (both Roman and Byzantian) used the church for their own political ends, but were in turn used by the church - a relationship that approached symbiosis, but again not without its traumas and conflicts as well.
The author also does an excellent, and in my view very fair, appraisal of the early church philosophers and movements. He neither idolizes nor vilifies such early bastions of Christianity as Augustine, and even the crisis over the Arian heresies (to modern eyes both tragic and farcial) are treated carefully. Overall the book doesn't paint the prettiest of pictures of the early church, and certainly exposes how many of the dogmas that one would think (if you have a Catholic or Othodox background at least) have been eternal but in fact owe most of their existnace to 3rd or 4th century politics than they do any divine revelation.
Top marks from me, and a very fulfilling read for anyone interested in late classical or early medieval history, as well as *everyone* interested in Christian theology.
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 19 September 2002
This is a deeply interesting book that is detailed, well researched by very readable. It deals with the often deeply negative (and occaisionally positive) effect that Christianity had upon thought and ideas in the the late Roman Empire (hence the title) and much of Western thought to the present day, The author does this through examining what key figours had to say including Ambrose, Jerome (a serioudsly strange man in my view) and Augustin. Of particular interest is the often hidden/forgotten views of the late paganists and, so-called, heretics. Paganism took a lot longer to die out than early Christian historians would have us believe. Well worth reading for beleivers and non believers alike.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The book traces the history of how the pursuit of empirical reason, which was one of the most fruitful characteristics of the Greek world, was, between the time of St Paul and the end of the fourth century (where Freeman effectively ends his account) first attacked and then closed down by Christianity. That theme is sometimes obscured by acres of narrative material which, interesting and well-told though it is, has no relevance at all to the theme promised by the title.
The Western Mind (here meaning the Mind of Europe and Asia Minor) was not exactly "closed" during that period, and Freeman's title talks about the CLOSING, not the CLOSED, Western Mind. For most of the period the Western Mind was open to some subtle and sophisticated thinking and, much as the Church tried to prevent it, to vigorous argument and dissent. True, these were rarely empirical or about this world, but, entirely and fruitlessly unempirically, concerned themselves with such questions as the nature of Christ, over which the Western Mind ties itself into knots by trying to reconcile differing biblical texts and the doctrine of the Trinity, none of them resting on any verifiable data. Freeman explains that, coupled with the fear of eternal punishment for "error", that accounted for a level of bitterness in debate that was unknown in the philosophical debates in the Greek world. It meant that, while the minds of individual theologians were often closed, you could hardly say that of "the Western Mind" collectively until the end of the fourth century, by which time the Church had effectively suppressed all heresies. It is only in the 12th and 13th centuries - after the end of the book - that new heresies arose.
Freeman shows that empirical reasoning was, even in the Greek world, challenged by Plato (and surely he was also one of the architects of the Western Mind, both in pagan Antiquity and in Christianity!). Plato not only denigrated empirical knowledge as against the "knowledge" of eternal truths acquired by abstract reasoning of which only an elite (the Guardians) was capable, but also justified the imposition of such truths on the non-elite by the Guardians. Freeman describes the Hellenist rulers, claiming divine descent, as fundamentally unGreek, and he debunks the popular notion that Alexander the Great (whom he really savages) was personally interested in promoting Greek ideas which he scarcely understood. All the same, the pragmatic Greek spirit of enquiry endured and still made progress during the Hellenistic period.
Although this progress slowed down during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, it did not come to a halt. There is Galen (ca. 129 to ca. 200 AD) in medicine and Ptolemy (ca. 90 to 168) in astronomy. There was no ideological intolerance: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, Neo-Platonism all flourished side by side. And until 66 AD the Romans tolerated and respected all the different religions and cults in their Empire - but they also expected these religions to respect the religions of Rome: it is the refusal of the Jews to do that which eventually so exasperated the Romans that they became intolerant towards Judaism themselves, as some Roman emperors, for the same reason, would become intolerant of Christianity.
The relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy varies. Paul attacked Greek philosophy: Christianity is "foolishness to the Greeks". On the other hand, later Christians became neo-Platonists, valuing many of Plato's metaphysical ideas - and also his view that the Guardians - here read the bishops - can impose truths which only they fully understand. When Cyprian insisted that only the bishops are the guardians of true belief and that resistance to what they say is sinful rebellion, he tried (unsuccessfully, of course, to close off within the Church the discussions which had been the life-blood of Greek civilization. When Christianity became the religion of the State, it would not take long before the Christian state, too, tried to close down freedom of debate, partly because the bitterness of theological disputes was felt to threaten the unity of the state. Here the influence of Ambrose, the commanding Bishop of Milan, over the Emperor Theodosius I in 380/81 was decisive. Absolute obedience to superiors and a denial of thinking for oneself was also enjoined on monks.
The contempt for ancient Greek philosophy was shown most symbolically by the Emperor Justinian's closure of Plato's Academy in 529. Already in the 3rd century Tertullian had written of "the wretched Aristotle" and by the middle of the 5th century, "with the exception of two works of logic, he vanishes from the western world". And when Pope Gregory I formulated the Seven Deadly Sins in 590, he denoted the deadliest of them to be Pride, by which, so Freeman tells us, "he meant intellectual independence". And in his fine penultimate chapter, he shows equal contempt affecting secular knowledge. Augustine (354 to 430) specifically denigrated the need to understand the physical laws governing the universe: "it is enough for Christians to believe that the only cause of all created things ... is the goodness of the Creator." And that intellectual climate prevailed until the 12th century.
The Arabs had more respect for the Greek philosophy and science than had the Christians and it was through them and the Christian Averroists that they - and particularly Aristotle - re-entered and re-opened the Western Mind. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas took up the challenge to integrate this rediscovered knowledge into Christian thought and "unwittingly laid the foundations of the scientific revolution that was to transform western thought." That story is told in the book's short final chapter entitled "Thomas Aquinas and the Restoration of Reason".
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 3 August 2011
Charles Freeman has written a very interesting book about the movement away from philosophical speculation to a theological dominance based entirely upon the notion of faith. Indeed, this book is subtitled 'The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason'. The ancient Greek era of philosophy is thought to run from around 585BCE to 529CE - the later date being the time of the banning of the teaching of Greek philosophy in Athens, by the Christian Roman emperor Justinian. Between this time and around 1450CE - the date of the European Renassiance - thought based upon logical structure - be it idealist or empiricist - was abandoned for a purely religious way of viewing the world.
The paperback (2003) edition contains 470 numbered pages, and includes an Introduction, an Epilogue and 20 chapters. A sample of chapters include:
Chapter 1 - Thomas Aquinas and 'The Triumph of Faith'.
Chapter 5 - Absorbing the East, Rome and the Integration of Greek Culture.
Chapter 10 - 'A Crown that lurks in corners, shunning light': The First Christian Communitiies.
Chapter 15 - Interlude: Quintus Aurelius Symmachus and the Defence of Paganism.
Chapter 20 - Thomas Aquinus and the Restoration of Reason.
Greek thought, and the culture that emerged from it, was as superior as today's modern culture in the West. Around a thousand years of faith based thinking led to a rupture between European culture and its Greek roots. The Renassiance and the later Enlightenment re-introduced the philosophical, political and medical knowledge of ancient Greece which had, ironically, been preserved within the Islamic scholarship tradition. This is a very good book of history and philosophical perspective. The points made are thought provoking and vital, as they address the development of an entire culture. Superb.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2011
A phenomenal book which deserves to be much more widely read. Freeman gives a masterly account of how rational thought was virtually banished from western culture under the influence of Christianity in the early middle ages, to languish in exile for almost a thousand years.
The book starts with a detailed account of the sophisticated ethical systems developed by ancient classical philosophers and theologians.
Freeman's scholarship then places Jesus of Nazareth in historical context. The circumstances favouring the generation of a popular following are portrayed. The nature of the substantial, if idiosyncratic, contribution made by Paul, in developing early Christianity, is described in detail. Freeman goes on to relate events leading up to Constantine's use of Christianity to unify the Roman Empire, and explains
how the early Church became so entirely enmeshed with the State.
He provides a riveting account of the politics involved in the development of the early Christian creeds, and the arbritary influences on the choices and compromises which shaped them. Doctrinal consensus was as often the product of imperial impatience for unity as of genuine intellectual or spiritual agreement. The historical and political origins of various beliefs associated with Christianity - for example, the cult of the Virgin Mary, the rise of asceticism, the spread of anti-semitism - are also explored. We are helped to understand the political context of the growth of Papal authority, as Freeman describes how the Church gained influence and status in the West as the Emperors' power waned.
Freeman then examines Augustine's work on the development of Christian doctrine. Constructing a coherent account of Christian theology proved too difficult for even this great intellectual, whose writings became progressively more intense, and eventually less balanced. Increasingly, the favoured approach became to rely on 'faith' rather than reason to establish doctrinal orthodoxy. The classical discipline of rational thought was thereafter steadily abandoned. Ultimately, evidence-based reasoning - science - was considered sinful. Hence came, in Freeman's terms 'The Closing of the Western Mind' and 'The Fall of Reason'.
It would be several hundred years before, under the influence of Thomas Aquinas, common sense and rational thought were rehabilitated into theology - and the Western Mind, belatedly, began to slowly 'reopen'.
For a stupendous overview of the West's intellectual heritage, from Ancient Greece through to the Renaissance - and the damage done to it by the early Christian Church -this book is a must read blockbuster.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 13 December 2010
Very useful introduction to an emotionally sensitive period which lacks firm primary sources. Chapter on apostle, Paul, very interesting indeed. Good sense abounds throughout. Excellent primer for Robin Lane-Fox's 'The Unauthorised Version'. Well done!The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible
30 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2006
In the current climate, Charles Freeman is to be greatly applauded for providing what is possibly one of the most shocking and thought-provoking books around today. At a time when a later rational, progressive and tolerant civilisation is again confronted by the self-righteous, ugly, irrational and vicious face of faith it is indeed cautionary to read this account of how the open enquiring Classical mind of Greece and Rome was converted into the closed, aggressive and crass certitudes of early Christianity. It begs perhaps the most despairing question that any society can ask: is history repeating itself?
For a society like ours that has passed through the infernal, infantile and bestial beatitudes of Christianity into the tolerant openness of modern secularism, this book is indeed a warning from the past. The warning is clear: science and secularism is the way forward; faith and religion is the way to Hell.
Perhaps the saddest thing in this book is the letters from late-imperial pagan senators and philosophers writing to various emperors pleading for tolerance, equal opportunity, fair dealing and a level playing field in the face of the Christian triumphal mind-vice. They made the serious error of imagining that their Christian opponents were as decent and progressive and tolerant and open-minded as they were. That was a bad and extinction-causing mistake. Let us not now make the same mistake again.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 30 April 2011
This is a very readable history of the early christian church. What is really interesting is the account of how the politics of the declining Roman Empire allowed the small christian cult to become the single religion of the empire.
Religiouw fundamentalists will not like this book !
on 31 October 2014
I enjoyed Charles Freeman's book. However a good dose of Roman cynicism, as conveyed by Tom Holland in his best selling Rubicon, brought me back down to earth, and I thought: "Yes Charles, but it is all very esoteric."
on 19 March 2014
I loved this book. It put into elegant language thoughts that had been unorganized in my mind for a long time. I've recommended it to friends and fellow readers and I bought copies for my son and daughter.