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4.0 out of 5 stars The dethroning of empiricism over eleven centuries, 19 May 2012
This review is from: The Closing Of The Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Paperback)
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".
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