The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

The Closing of the Western Mind

The thesis of The Closing of the Western Mind is that prior to Christianity becoming dominant in the Western world, there was a reasonably well-developed system of empirical science, rational philosophy, and religious toleration and pluralism, and that Christianity developed in such a way as to actively suppress that, leading to the Dark Ages where intellectual inquiry and progress largely ceased.

I’m sure that’s not worded in a way that the author would fully endorse, but that’s roughly it anyway.

I found the book well-written, well-organized and at least moderately interesting from start to finish. I would guess this would be an easier read for non-specialists than most books by academics.

Alas, I know from experience that I retain shockingly little of what I read, so most of the specific facts in this book I’ll soon forget, if I haven’t already. But I should retain some of the general ideas.

I think the book functions quite well as a history of the classical Greek era, the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity. From the title I would have expected everything to relate more closely to the central argument about the deleterious intellectual effects of Christianity on Western society, but a lot of it relates only quite loosely to that. You could say it’s all background for that argument–the idea being that you have to know what that world was like to appreciate how Christianity changed it–but the author doesn’t explicitly get to the argument until quite late, and most of the book is an interesting and worthwhile general history of that historical period.

Certainly the tone of the book is consistently measured, moderate, and respectful, but I came away from it even more convinced that organized religions in general, and Christianity in particular, have been net negatives to human progress and human happiness, and to a great degree.

The parallels to the modern era are clear. Christianity’s overrunning and suppressing the “pagan” world was the equivalent of if Wahhabi Islam snuffed out the imperfect liberal democracies of the West–a fanatical bunch of anti-sex morons decide that they have a monopoly on the most important of truths and that all means are justified in seeing to it that no one may disagree.

According to the author, much of the impetus for these worst tendencies of Christianity were enabled by Constantine and the later Roman emperors for their own purposes. Constantine believed that a people united by such things as a common religion would be more cohesive and better able to fend off barbarian attacks and such, and he deemed Christianity to be the most promising candidate for that role. (The various pagan religions tended to be too mutually tolerant to insist on any such unity.)

He soon discovered that far from being unified, Christians were apt to spend decades and centuries bitterly squabbling over arcane theological disputes about how God and Jesus could be the same person and such. But at least–unlike the pagans–they agreed that only one position on each dispute could be right, so unity was just a matter of getting them all lined up on the same side of all these matters.

Rational argumentation wasn’t a promising method to achieve that (one, from Paul on, the Christians were very wary of rationality and sometimes explicitly denounced it; two, there wasn’t much for them to base their arguments on except their Scripture, and unfortunately that was such a hodgepodge of obscurity and contradiction that you could pick and choose passages to support whichever side you please in any dispute; and three, routinely both sides of the disputes were nonsensical anyway), so coercion came to be favored.

Basically the emperors’ position was “We don’t care what you decide about these things, but decide something and stick to it.” So they’d organize councils of church leaders, bully them into some consensus, and then throw the support of the state (with carrots like massive public subsidies, and sticks like murder and exile) behind all and only those members of the church hierarchy that went along with the new orthodoxy.

The author doesn’t present the earlier Church as any picnic–more like some goofy, ineffectual cult–but once it was picked out as the favorite of the state, once it became thoroughly intertwined with worldly regimes engaged in amoral power politics, things went rapidly downhill. (Again, a warning for the modern world.)

Even insofar as the Church adopted classical figures like Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy or whomever, they commandeered those of their conclusions they found most palatable, converted them into dogma, and jettisoned the attitudes and methodology (empiricism, tolerance, open discussion and debate, humility, etc.) that had led to those conclusions.

Like I say, there is a lot in this book that was new and interesting to me just as history, since this isn’t a period I’ve read a great deal about in the past.

For one thing, the picture it provides of the Roman Empire is a lot more chaotic than I would have thought. It appears that even centuries before the split between the Western and Eastern empires, there were routinely multiple emperors with rival claims, controlling different portions of the empire and fighting amongst themselves. More like regional war lords than any kind of stable, single political entity.

Rome itself was not as clearly supreme in the empire as I had thought. Even before the bulk of the action shifted to Constantinople, Rome was in something of a backwater area. Other cities, mostly in Greece, were at least as significant as centers of culture, education, religion, whatever.

Also, I had thought that prior to the schism with what were to become the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Pope had been the clear leader of the Church. But I gather that this supremacy wasn’t seriously asserted until several centuries into the game (and then retroactively justified as related to Peter’s connection with Rome). Until then, the Bishop of Rome was just one of many bishops of the Church.

The vast majority of this book I find persuasive, but I do have some quibbles with some things that relate more to my own field as a semi-professional philosopher.

Some of it may be not so much a substantive disagreement with the author as just a problem with his wording. I may well agree with what he’s trying to say, but maybe I’m taking certain things too literally, or interpreting them according to how I understand certain terms in a philosophical context, and so reading him as saying something he doesn’t intend.

The main issue is at times I think he veers toward–I don’t know that I would say “relativism,” but the kind of thing where people put “truth” in scare quotes.

The author’s position (and again I’m sure I’m over-simplifying) is that Christians (and Plato and others) are mistaken in thinking there can be truth (without the scare quotes) in areas like morality or theology, because unlike in areas like mathematics or science, there’s no deductive or empirical methodology available that can bring about consensus. Thus you either admit that and adopt an attitude of relativism and tolerance that everyone has their own “truths” about such things, or you compel consensus through violence and coercion. The former was the norm in the pagan world, and the latter was the norm once the Christians got the upper hand.

I don’t totally disagree, but I just find some of that philosophically shaky. I think it is literally nonsensical to believe something and not think it’s true (without scare quotes), or to believe something and think that it’s somehow only true in some watered down sense in which any contrary beliefs others hold are equally true. Relativism collapses into skepticism, I believe. In any given area, either there’s good old-fashion, objective, correspondence theory type truth, or there’s nothing.

But then I also maintain that moral skepticism is untenable, because every choice you make in life implicitly claims that that was better than the other options. Our existential situation requires us to make implicit moral claims insofar as we actualize one possible future rather than others. Thus moral skepticism–the assertion that there are no true moral claims–stands in contradiction to the life of any rational being capable of making choices (or really, compelled to make choices).

So moral relativism collapses into moral skepticism, and we have no choice but to make choices that are inconsistent with moral skepticism, so an assumption of moral realism is all that is left.

Furthermore, contrary to the author’s position, moral realism doesn’t logically entail some kind of dogmatism or a willingness to violently enforce one’s opinions (though he may be alleging more of a psychological than a logical connection).

I believe–with Plato, whom he frequently criticizes on this point–that moral statements can be literally true or false as much as any other declarative sentences can be. It doesn’t follow from this that I think I know precisely which ones are true or false, or how to find out, or that there’s a consensus about such things, or that there needs to be a consensus about such things, or that I have a right to compel others to believe whatever I happen to believe, etc.

To the contrary it seems to me that such truths are extraordinarily complicated and difficult to discern, and that nothing much can be expected of us but to do the best we can in ascertaining them. That’s a reason to be humble, not a reason to be dogmatic.

I think we should be rational and tolerant and open-minded and non-coercive toward others not because that somehow follows from a relativist or skeptical notion that there is no truth (it doesn’t), but because that’s precisely how we maximize our chances of getting a marginally better glimpse of the truth.

Morality is cooperative truth-seeking, not “truth”-imposing.


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