Review of The Closing of the Western Mind

by Charles Freeman

Alfred A. Knopf 2003  432 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

Classical Greek writers, an argumentative group if there ever was one, agreed on one thing: political justice could be achieved in the city-state through the use of unaided human reason.  This idea, one of the most important legacies of Greek culture to our own, was eradicated from Western culture by a pernicious force that solidified its stranglehold on political discourse in the fourth and fifth centuries, plunging Europe into the darkness of autocratic superstition for a thousand years: Christianity.

            As Charles Freeman’s excellent The Decline of the Western Mind argues, Christianity was an element in two of three events that destroyed the Greek intellectual tradition: “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.”

            For the Greeks, the goal of political order was virtue.  The reason people establish a political constitution is not to live, but live well.  However, “with the elaboration of Christian doctrine, faith came to mean acquiescence in the teachings of the churches—to be seen as a virtue in itself.”  Obedience to Christian institutional authority, not the free exercise of reason, was seen to be the highest achievement within a Europe whose centralized authority had disintegrated with the fall of the Roman Empire.

            Freeman traces with admirable clarity the origins of Greek ideas of political order, as well as Greek thinkers’ wide-ranging interests, from Plato’s quasi-mystical contemplative union with the Heaven of Ideas to Aristotle’s evenhanded empirical inquires into the nature of the physical world.  He retells the well-known story of Alexander’s triumph over the war-weakened Greek city-states, and the absorption of greater Greece into the militaristic majesty of the Roman Empire.

            The book’s greatest service to a popular audience, however, is the careful tracing of the development of Christian dogma, a process that took over four centuries.  Freeman demonstrates the diversity of beliefs that prevailed within Christian communities that spread from northern Africa, to the Middle East, to central Europe.  What we take to be the central tenets of Catholicism were neither widespread nor commonly held.  Such doctrines as the virginity of Mary and the curse of original sin are seen to have been creations of well-meaning, fervent believers, or the result of debased, inaccurate, and incomplete Latin translations from the Greek.

            In addition to the account of Christianity’s intellectual foundations, readers will be treated to a comparison between the rich and diverse mix of faiths that permeated Greek city-states and the cosmopolitan and largely broadminded Roman Empire, and Christianity’s intolerance for “pagan” belief systems, a zeal that helped Christianity fight against its perceived opponents, solidify its dogma and gain immense power and wealth throughout Europe.

There are two weaknesses in Freeman’s argument.  First, in Freeman’s attempt to show how institutionalized Christianity suppressed Greek thought, he fails to emphasize how strongly Platonism figures in Christianity’s Augustinian intellectual foundations, a connection that motivated Friedrich Nietzsche to call Christianity “Platonism for the masses.” 

Second, Freeman softens his critique of Christianity in the final pages of the book.  After marshalling an impressive and convincing argument, in the “Epilogue” Freeman seems to take some of it back.  He says “the point being made here is not that the Christians did not attempt to use reason but they could never reach agreed truths.” 

More pointedly, he claims that “it is simplistic to talk of the Greek tradition of rational thought being suppressed by Christians.  It makes more sense to argue that the suppression took place at the hands of a state supported by a church which it had itself politicized (and, in the process, removed from its roots in the Gospel teachings).”  Hence, he ends by saying that institutionalized Christianity was responsible for eliminating a Greek intellectual tradition, one that “was suppressed rather than simply faded away.”

This is a fine book for a popular audience that enjoys history, clear writing, and subject matter that reflects on our own time, where fundamentalist superstition of all types threatens the exercise of that which makes us human, reason.