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

by Charles Freeman

Paperback, 2005



Call number




Vintage (2005), Paperback, 480 pages


A radical and powerful reappraisal of the impact of Constantine s adoption of Christianity on the later Roman world, and on the subsequent development both of Christianity and of Western civilization. When the Emperor Contstantine converted to Christianity in 368 AD, he changed the course of European history in ways that continue to have repercussions to the present day. Adopting those aspects of the religion that suited his purposes, he turned Rome on a course from the relatively open, tolerant and pluralistic civilization of the Hellenistic world, towards a culture that was based on the rule of fixed authority, whether that of the Bible, or the writings of Ptolemy in astronomy and of Galen and Hippocrates in medicine. Only a thousand years later, with the advent of the Renaissance and the emergence of modern science, did Europe begin to free itself from the effects of Constantine's decision, yet the effects of his establishment of Christianity as a state religion remain with us, in many respects, today. Brilliantly wide-ranging and ambitious, this is a major work of history."… (more)

Media reviews

Each part of [his] argument is highly questionable, but Freeman tells an entertaining story, and on the way produces an excellent and readable account of the development of Christian doctrine. It is not easy to make an interesting or even comprehensible subject out of the angry controversies about
Show More
the Trinity that preoccupied early Christians. But he manages it.
Show Less
1 more
Freeman repeats an oft-told tale of the rise of Christianity and the supposed demise of philosophy in a book that is fascinating, frustrating and flawed. . . . While Freeman tells a good story, his arguments fail to be convincing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member peterwall
The Closing of the Western Mind is a long and detailed argument, which might be easier to follow if one began with the Epilogue. But Charles Freeman begins instead with a late 15th century fresco called "The Triumph of Faith," by Filippino Lippi, which depicts Thomas Aquinas, triumphant over
Show More
heretics and philosophy alike. The reference is somewhat ironic; Freeman returns to Aquinas in his final chapter, to observe his rehabilitation of Greek reason, through the integration of Aristotle into Christian theology, which was so successful "that he unwittingly laid the foundations of the scientific revolution that was to transform western thought." (Page 328.) And in his Epilogue, Freeman makes it clear that wants to explain why the legacy of Greek rational thought needed rehabilitation in the first place, but without making the "simplistic" argument that Christians just suppressed it. (Page 339.)

The journey to the closing of the Western mind proceeded by innumerable steps over several centuries, through processes more than just theological or intellectual. Political forces were at work, too, and Freeman argues that "[t]he important question to answer is why Christianity was different from other spiritual movements in the ancient world in insisting that Christians throughout the empire should adhere to a common authority." (Page 336.) He argues that the demand for orthodoxy was prompted by a need for social stability in the midst of the disintegrating Roman Empire, but was also carried along, to a lesser extent, by the problem of group identification, which was difficult in a cosmopolitan new religion that was open to all, without regard to traditional social markers like race or ethnicity.

During the first five centuries of Christianity, when the Greek ways of rational inquiry held greater sway, the continuous eruption of doctrinal disputes threatened the unity of the movement. Emperors, needing the assistance of the bishops to maintain order, called the famous councils—at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—to quell the riotous arguments and establish authoritative doctrines to which bishops would adhere in order to receive patronage. Ultimately, under Pope Gregory ("the Great"), in the sixth century, the doctrinal identity of the western church was consolidated and history was rewritten, to expunge "the political dimension to the making of Christian doctrine," as Freeman puts it. (Page 339.) Rather than recognized as evolving in a political, theological, philosophical, and social pressure-cooker, those consolidated Christian doctrines were posited as having existed for all time, producing the oddity that even the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—are said to have known the Trinity. (See page 313.) This rewritten history persists today, especially within the Catholic church, where the ancient "heresies" are understood not as simply on the losing side of history, but as having espoused obvious theological falsehoods, which were rooted out by people who were appointed by God to stamp out heresy, not by people who became authorities simply by virtue of being the political and historical victors. (And there the adage that history is written by the victors is fully true.)

So Freeman has dug into the recent scholarship to write a history of the formation of Christianity that has the refreshing virtue of reading the source material far more evenhandedly than church-aligned historians do. The historical players in this book do not come across like their craven and bastardized descendants in modern fundamentalism, who make a conscious effort to suppress any ideas that conflict with their beliefs simply because of the conflict. Instead, the people who laid the foundations for the doctrines that later became the fodder for fundamentalists come across in Freeman's argument as people who struggled to solve other kinds of problems, of a more immediate nature, like how to maintain social order and reconcile conflicting ideas within their scriptures. The suppression of the Greek ways and the silencing of rational debate appears not as the result of a conscious program, but rather as a corner that the western church painted itself into without really noticing until centuries later. But there is Thomas Aquinas, standing at the other end of the long bewilderment, rediscovering reason and, as Freeman puts it, unwittingly laying the foundation for the scientific revolution.

The book is not burdened by academic prose, but the reading is made difficult by the combination of a long narrative arc, stretching several centuries, and the great amount of supporting detail. As suggested above, reading the epilogue first might help, but the entire book needs to be read carefully and cohesively; if one pulls out a chapter here or there, the direction of the argument will be hard to perceive. This reviewer read several of the chapters more than once before proceeding to the next, in order to maintain a fuller sense of the argumentative direction, with all its attendant details. For the best experience, be sure to check the endnotes; they often include tangential commentary or additional quotations from source material that can be both entertaining and edifying. Freeman cites many other modern works and his notes and bibliography suggest that the fascinating pursuit to answer his central questions could easily be continued, and ought to be.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nbmars
Well-researched, important work on the rise of Christianity and the concomitant stifling of rational thought that accompanied it in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Freeman gives a detailed history on the sources and authories for the materials we now refer to as the Synoptic Gospels and New
Show More
Testament. Texts comprising the New Testament were selected from many competing texts on the basis of their conformity with evolving doctrine. The notion of direct revelation was rejected in favor of these select texts. Further, as Christianity spread, there was an increasing stress on institutional hierarchy. Power claims throughout Constantine's Empire were played out as doctrinal schisms, giving the claimants a divine authority. With the Emperor's favor of one doctrine over another, conforming bishops came to have access to vast wealth, prestige and influence and in turn, Constantine got support for his Empire. Heavenly truth was now intimately associated with earthly power. Gone were the Greek and Hebraic traditions in which there are many ways to the truth; Christian doctrine established that wisdom rests with God alone (and his favored interpreters).

By the end of the fourth century the silencing of debate extended beyond the spiritual and across the whole intellectual spectrum. Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, echoed St. Paul's condemnation of "the philosophers" by exhorting ""let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason..." Without any theory of note, Christianity in the fifth century lapsed into defining itself, much as Paul had done, largely in terms of its enemies (read: Jews, pagans, and heretical Christians).

In his Epilogue, Freeman remarks that "The troubles described in this book come not from the teachings of Jesus or from the nature of Christians themselves (though arguably one can trace them to Paul), but from the determination to make "certain" statements about God. ... If there is no external standard by which one can define God, then figures who have the authority to define him for others have to be created and this authority given idological support. This invariably means the suppression of freedom of independent thought." In other words, power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Freeman tells the story in a fascinating, detailed way, and doesn't lose our interest in spite of its scholarly tone. It is worth comparing this reading to "No God But God" by Reza Azlan for a very analogous exposition of the Muslim experience.

Show Less
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Explores the relationship of key strands of Christianity with the Roman state in the 4th century and the subsequent impact on Christianity and the Greco-Roman world of that relationship. Essentially the state enforced doctrinal unity for the sake of political unity as the Roman Empire crumbled. As
Show More
a consequence in the West but less so in the East much of the intellectual and religious heritage of the non Christian majority was destroyed or suppressed. Much of the tolerance and sexual freedoms were also suppressed. As a consequence "truth" became as the developing Catholic and Orthodox Church said rather than reason or practical observation and so intellectual progress in the west froze until essentially the Renaissance.

The interesting what if is the fate of a Christianity that is not embraced by the state. How does it survive the collapse of the west? Does the west collapse earlier? In which case what is the fate of the east one of the reasons it services is the Huns could live off the pickings of the West and so the EAST can buy time to make them allies. It does and they are the mainstay of its armies for several centuries.

This then leads to a what if re the rise and spread of Islam in this world of weak political areas that are a continuity with Greco-Roman culture. The franks for example accepted and adopted a lot of the roman way of life so without Christianity as the dominant force what would have evolved over the 200 years between the collapses and the arrival of Islam( if it arrives at all)
Show Less
LibraryThing member dougwood57
In a single volume Charles Freeman manages to cover the intellectual and theological development of the West and Christianity from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine. He tells this story in some detail and generally holds the reader's interest. Freeman explores the Synoptic Gospels (single
Show More
vision) of Matthew, Mark and Luke and contrasts them with the role of Paul in developing Christian theology. The arcane yet heated and sometimes violent debates over the divine nature of Jesus that led to the development of the Nicene Creed are also covered in detail.

Christianity slowly builds toward an orthodoxy. Augustine gifts a swift and muscular push to this orthodoxy as he firmly establishes the doctrines of Original Sin and predestination. Freeman's discussion of Augustine is the highlight of the book.

Finally in the penultimate chapter, Freeman directly addresses the impact of Christian orthodoxy on other Christian variants as well as the denigration of rational thought as represented by the Greeks and the pursuit of knowledge of the natural world. The book's title and the booknote on the back cover of the paperback, however, led this reader to expect that this brief exploration would be the subject of the the bulk of the book.

Instead Freeman primarily explores the development of Christian theology that ultimately led to Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The manner and mechanisms by which this orthodoxy shut off rational thought is given far too little space. I believe traditional history accords a significant role to the Vandals and Goths in the destruction of classical culture. Freeman does not explain to what extent if any, he believes the 'barbarian' invasions and the destruction of the Roman empire, which occurred in the same time period, also contributed to the closing of the Western mind.
Show Less
LibraryThing member billiecat
While I was attending a law school affiliated with the Catholic Church, a significant, and, in a way, frightening letter appeared in the school newspaper decrying the fact that there were classes being taught at the university where ideas and beliefs different from those put forth by the Vatican
Show More
were discussed and even taught. This was wrong, asserted the writer: about some things discussion and inquiry was appropriate, but where the Pope had issued an opinion on the subject, the university should simply state the Papal position and move on.

This incident tells me that Mr. Freeman's thesis - that the rise of orthodox Christianity stifled the exercise of reason - is spot on. Fortunately for academic freedom, the student letter-writer of my law school days was not in charge of curriculum, but his sentiments were shared by many in the student body who felt faith must be elevated above reason. And so this book has an important message.

Unfortunately, the dense scholarship of the book obscures for the average reader the central thesis. It is not an attack on Christianity or religion, rather it is an attack on a certain anti-intellectual strain in the Christian tradition that we see today in creationism and other religious phenomena. As such, the message is important, and Freeman provides ample scholarly support for it. My student letter-writer provides more concrete evidence in his own way.
Show Less
LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason
Charles Freeman
Nov 1, 2009 6:10 PM

Freeman writes about the development of orthodoxy in the early Christian church. His thesis is that orthodoxy could not be derived from the contradictory sources of the gospels by the
Show More
application of the deductive reasoning invented by the Greek philosophers. Orthodoxy was, rather, imposed by Roman authorities, particularly Constantine, eager to have the church serve as a stabilizing and integrative political force in the turmoil of 4th and 5th century. The use of argument, and rhetoric, to determine theological questions led to invective and distrust because there were no agreed on axioms, and the scriptures could yield passages to suit every argument. Greek deductive reasoning and empiricism were actively suppressed by the church and the Emperors to prevent arguments over the nature of God and Jesus from producing disparate cults, heresies, atrocities and civil unrest. Augustine was particularly determined as a bishop to condemn Donatists, a branch of Christianity with no different beliefs other than a suspicion of the authority of bishops who had sacrificed to pagan gods under prior persecutions. His writings suggest that civil society was a menace, rather than the proper sphere of activity for the Greek philosophers. The book begins with an analysis of a fresco, by Fra Lippi in 1480, of Thomas Aquinas crushing the heretics, including a bearded Greek philosopher, with the symbols of Roman imperial authority behind him. It ends with Aquinas, pointing out that Aquinas actually brought Aristotle into the tradition of Catholic theology. In the end, Aristotle’s syllogisms could not encompass or prove the nature of the Trinity and other mysteries of the faith.

The narrative was swift, interesting, learned and wide ranging in the scholarship of the later Roman empire.
In commenting on the respect for Greek art and philosophy shown by the Romans, Freeman notes the fad began with Nero, who visited Greece and took part in contests, chariot races, and music exhibitions in which “members of the audience pretend to be dead so they can be carried out while the emperor is playing”
On the increasing preoccupation of Medieval Christianity with sinfulness and internal battles with carnal appetites, it is noted that this is reflected in increasingly violent and degrading depictions of Christ’s suffering on the cross.
The search for empirical knowledge itself may be a form of heresy: “There is a certain heresy concerning earthquakes that they come not from God’s commands but from the very nature of the elements”. This disdain for empiricism might be echoed by Plato, in his search for ideals “We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what is in the sky”
The martyrs become patron saints, as the sick are used to fulfill the spiritual needs of the caregiver. Damian and Cosmos became patron saints of surgery by virtue of their brutal martyrdom of being cut apart; Appolonia is the patron saint of toothache because her teeth were knocked out in martyrdom, and St Margaret of Antioch, being delivered from the belly of a dragon by the sign of the cross, is the patron saint of childbirth.
Show Less
LibraryThing member datrappert
Scholarly but readable book that highlights an era when religion began to take over from reason. Hmmm--maybe that era has never really ended, at least not in some parts of the world (or some parts of our own country).
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
An excellent work of intellectual and cultural history. Focusing on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the western empire's decline following the reign of Constantine, this book heralds the impact of Constantine's adoption of Christianity over the following decades.


Original publication date


Physical description

480 p.; 8 inches


1400033802 / 9781400033805
Page: 0.2936 seconds