The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

Did Christianity destroy rational thought for 1000 years? Mary Beard revisits classical conflicts

Monday 25 November 2013 02:37
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In the late Thirties E R Dodds, professor of Greek at Oxford, had a chance but significant encounter in front of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. A young man, clearly not enjoying the experience of these classical masterpieces, came up and blurted, "I know it's an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn't move me one bit ... It's all so terribly rational."

This "stuck in my head and set me thinking", wrote Dodds. The end result was a book entitled The Greeks and the Irrational, one of the most influential works on the classical world published in the 20th century. Its main claim was that underneath the calm exterior of ancient Greek culture lay a seething mass of irrationality. Ancient Greece was wilder than monumental museum displays might suggest.

Fifty years later, Dodds's arguments still hold the field. Classicists remain more interested in the wild and Dionysiac aspects of classical culture than in its sedate, Apollonian side. Even those who work on the cutting edge of Greek science and philosophy are keen to stress how embedded such "rationality" was in myth and religion. If the Greeks were not in any crude sense "irrational", then their forms of "rationality" were very different from our own.

In Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind, ancient rationality strikes back. Parading a rather tenuous connection with Allen Bloom's famous Closing of the American Mind, Freeman points an accusing finger at early Christianity – the charge being that the authority of the church and its political supporters destroyed "the tradition of rational thought" that was "among the major achievements of the classical world".

Sometimes in the fourth or fifth centuries CE, he insists, faith won out over reason. It was a victory which determined the course of Western culture until, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas re-discovered Aristotle and restored the place of scientific research.

For most of Freeman's book, this argument takes a back seat. Overall, The Closing of the Western Mind is much less a cultural or religious manifesto than a straightforward narrative of the rise of Christianity through antiquity and the early middle ages, set against its classical background. It is an elegant story, engagingly told. Freeman has a talent for narrative history and for encapsulating the more arcane disputes of ancient historians and theologians.

He guides the reader through the complexities of the "historical Jesus", the composition of the Gospels and the nasty series of doctrinal and political showdowns that are usually sanitised under the name of "Church Councils", enlivening his story with some colourful vignettes of early Christian life and letters: saints who spent decades living on top of pillars; the lynching of Hypatia, one of that rare breed of female philosophers, by a Christian mob in the early fifth century; the craze for virginity (which he rather extravagantly imagines was a "threat to the survival of humanity itself").

His greatest triumph is perhaps his account of the interminable doctrinal controversy about the divinity of Jesus. Was he "of identical substance" to God Himself? Or only "of like substance"? Freeman manages not only to make this dispute interesting, but also to show why it mattered so much. It is a coup that few books on the early church pull off.

But what of his lead theory that the revolutionary impact of Christianity lay in its destruction of the classical tradition of rational thought? In some sense, this is not wrong.

Even the most fervent exponents of the irrationality of the classical world would accept that much of our own tradition of scientific enquiry finds its ancestor among the Greeks of the fifth century BCE, rather than in early Christian culture a millennium later. As Freeman points out, the Western tradition of astronomy is often said to go back to the correct prediction of an eclipse by the Greek scientist Thales in 585 BCE. The last recorded astronomical observation of antiquity was by the pagan philosopher Proclus in 475 CE. It was not until the 16th century that "these studies began to move forward again".

On the other hand, the sense in which Freeman is right depends on a highly selective vision. To make pagan antiquity a bastion of scientific rationality demands ignoring the Dodds effect and skating very lightly over a whole range of decidedly "irrational" features.

There is little mention here of all those pagan miracles no less unbelievable than the Christian variety, nor of the fantastic myths that antiquity devised for explaining how the world worked. And the horrible truth about Greek medicine would come as a nasty shock to anyone who had read Freeman's paean of praise (it was not based on any tradition of human dissection, but on a set of misogynistic prejudices about the structure and function of the body).

Conversely, as Freeman's own discussion hints, early Christians were positively overflowing with intellectual and rational argument. They deployed it on the nature of divinity, rather than the movement of the planets.

The real problem is in Freeman's stark opposition between the classical and Christian worlds. The truth is that we are only able to read most of the scientific triumphs of pagan antiquity because the hard-working monks of Christian monasteries chose to copy and study them. Thomas Aquinas may have "re-discovered" his Aristotle through Arab translations. But, by and large, we have Freeman's "irrational" Christians to thank for preserving classical "rationality" – and, for that matter, irrationality.

Mary Beard's new book 'The Parthenon' is published by Profile

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