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The Closing of the Western Mind – C. Freeman

November 15, 2015

TCOTWMSome say that this is ‘a bigoted attack on Christianity by an atheist.’ That is not so. The author has an interest in Christianity but is critical of its subversion by politics and empire. Christians have long debated whether the conversion of Constantine was a good thing (because it led toi the flourishing of Christianity as a major world religion) or a bad thing (because it made the teachings of Jesus almost unrecognisable in practice e.g. going to war instead of being pacifist.)

It seemed rather fitting that I read this book during a holiday to the Middle East where there was very little evidence of Christianity.

The book argues that far from suppressing Greek philosophy Christianity integrated the more authoritarian aspects of Platonism at the expense of the Aristotelian tradition until its rehabilitation by Aquinas.

Despite the seeming dogmatism of the title, the author mostly recounts what happened and who thought what and lets the reader come to his/her own conclusions.

If you want a fairly brief account of the various debates of the early fathers and the ecumenical councils then this a good book to read as it covers the ground in about half the number of pages of other books like ‘Fathers and heretics’. Of course, that means that some stuff invariably gets left out.

He’s a bit too hard on Paul. He may have been Jewish but he was also a Roman citizen with a certain urbanity about him. However, Paul made a virtue of ‘foolishness to shame the wise’ – maybe he was smarting from his unsuccessful encounter with the philosophers of athens. The author also sets Paul in opposition to Matthew about Judaism – law versus grace – something recent scholarship from E. P. Sanders onwards has shown to be false.

The author: My thesis is that Christianity was heavily politicised by the late Roman empire, certainly to the extent that it would have been unrecognisable to Jesus. Note the linking of the church to the empire’s success in war, opulent church building and an ever narrowing definition of what beliefs one had to hold to be saved. (Hand in hand with this went an elaboration of the horrors of hell, a radical and unhappy development which can only have discouraged freedom of thought.) My core argument is that one result of the combination of the forces of authority (the empire) and faith (the church) was a stifling of a sophisticated tradition of intellectual thought which had stretched back over nearly a thousand years and which relied strongly on the use of the reasoning mind.
I did not depend on Gibbon. I do not agree with him that intellectual thought in the early Christian centuries was dead and I believe that the well established hierarchy of the church strengthened not undermined the empire. After all it was the church which survived the collapse of the western empire. Of course, Gibbon writes so eloquently that I could not resist quoting from him at times but my argument is developed independently of him and draws on both primary sources and recent scholarship.
On the relationship between Christianity and philosophy I argue that there were two major strands of Greek philosophy , those of Plato and Aristotle. The early church did not reject Greek philosophy but drew heavily on Platonism to the exclusion of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century Christianity was reinvigorated by the adoption of Aristotelianism , notably by Thomas Aquinas. It seems clear that Christianity needed injections of pagan philosophy to maintain its vitality and a new era in Christian intellectual life was now possible. I don’t explore it in this book. Even so, when one compares the rich and broad intellectual achievements of the `pagan’ Greek centuries with those of the Middle Ages, it is hard to make a comparison in favour of the latter. Where are the great names? (The critic who mentioned the ninth century philosopher Erigena should also have mentioned that he was condemned as a heretic.)
When one reads the great works of second and third century AD thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy and Plotinus, which are remarkable for their range and depth, one cannot but feel that much has been lost in the west by the fifth century. Something dramatic happened in the fourth century. In 313 Constantine brought the traditional policy of Roman toleration for different religious beliefs to its culmination by offering Christians (who had condemned the pagan gods as demons) a privileged place within the empire alongside other religions. By 381 the Christian emperor Theodosius when enforcing the Nicene creed condemns other Christians as `foolish madmen.. We decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics . . .they will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority , in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decided to inflict’.If this is not a `closing of the western mind’ it is difficult to know what is. It goes hand in hand with a mass of texts which condemn rational thought and the violent suppression of Jewish and pagan sacred places. There is no precedent for such a powerful imposition of a religious ideology in the Greco-Roman world. The evidence of suppression is so overwhelming that the onus must be on those who argue otherwise to refute it.
Some readers have related my book to the present day- I leave it to them to do so if they wish -it is important to understand ANY age in which perspectives seem to narrow and religion and politics become intertwined as they certainly did in the fourth century. After all American Christianity was founded by those attempting to escape just such political straitjackets. Christianity has never been monolithic or static. In fact, as my book makes clear, one of my heroes is Gregory the Great who, I believe, brought back spirituality, moderation and compassion into the Christian tradition after the extremes of the fourth century. It is the sheer variety of Christianities which make the religion such an absorbing area of study.

Greek thought, and the culture that emerged from it, was as superior as today’s modern culture in the West. Around a thousand years of faith based thinking led to a rupture between European culture and its Greek roots. The Renassiance and the later Enlightenment re-introduced the philosophical, political and medical knowledge of ancient Greece which had, ironically, been preserved within the Islamic scholarship tradition.

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 emperors all noted that the Christian bishops fought like animals with one another.
Freeman often mentions the role of Platonism in this development, but perhaps not enough. Many early Christian sects were taken up with Plato’s idea of the mind being capable of discerning absolute truth as well as the neb-platonism of Plotinus that supported Paul by stressing the evils of the body, sexuality, nature, and science.
This development was made-to-order for the emperors. Freeman quotes a letter from Constantine to the church of Alexandria: “I have received from Divine Providence the supreme favor of being relieved of all error.” Freeman points out that the emperors had no use for the Jesus of the synoptic gospels who was ignominiously crucified by Roman authorities. They needed a divine Christ who could support their own pretensions to infallibility and unlimited power.

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”.The breadth of these ‘Homoean’ creeds offered the hope that a wider spectrum of opinion could accept them so that the Constantinian policy of consensus could be sustained. Yet for many this breadth was also their weakness.


The use of the word ‘like’ was to many simply blurring the issue. ‘The kingdom of God is “like” a grain of mustard seed,’ one witty bishop who knew his parables remarked, ‘but not much.’‘Like’, said another, ‘was a … figure seeming to look in the direction of all who passed by, a boot fitting either foot, a winnowing with every wind.’ A wide variety of alternative formulas were championed in these years.

“Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement,were recast as the dreaded sin of pride.Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought.The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation.”

“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 itself had politicized.”

“Because rationalism has in so many fields enriched humanity’s understanding of itself and improved human life, rationalists have every right to believe in further progress.”

“In a growing church, most Christians at any one time were converts, and there were many who had had a traditional training in philosophy, either before encountering Christianity or while waiting for baptism. Some kind of accommodation had to be made with Greek philosophy. The Christian Justin Martyr [c.100-c.165], a Platonist by training, was among the first to argue that Christianity could draw on both scriptures and Greek philosophy and could even appropriate philosophy for its own ends.”

“Plato had denigrated the natural world as inferior to the immaterial world of the Forms, and so the adoption of Platonism did nothing to undermine Paul’s condemnation of any philosophy that concerned itself with finding truth in the material world.”

Later, however, during Constantine’s reign, Arius [c.250-336] and his followers, using Platonism to understand the configuration of the Godhead, reasoned that Jesus, as God the Son, an incarnation of the divine Logos (the very materialization of a Platonic Form, so to speak), was created by the Father and in his incarnation subject to material and mental change and suffering, and therefore an ontologically distinct being, divine yet separate in substance, and thus in essence, from God the Father.

The Council of Nicaea, a gathering of eastern bishops brought together and controlled by Constantine [c.280-337] and held at the Imperial palace in 325, asserted against the “Arian heresy” that God the Father and God the Son were of the same substance, “consubstantial”, of one essence: in Greek, homoousios. Constantine, who led the council, represented himself a Christian emperor, and so it was, through Constantine, that with the Church’s urging, the sovereignty of the State usurped upon the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the Church.

“Latin theologians translated the Greek ‘ousia’ as ‘substantia’, but the Greeks translated ‘substantia’ as ‘hypostasis’, “personality.” So when the Latins talked of *un substantia*, the sense of one divine substance (within which might be found the distinct personalities of the Trinity), it appeared in Greek as if they were affirming that there was only one *hypostasis* for the three persons of the Trinity, in effect preaching what was to become heresy.”

Sabellianism is a heresy contrasting with Arianism. Sabellius [fl. c.217-c.220] had argued that the Son/Logos is merely a manifestation of God and of no distinct substance or personality. Arianism claims they are fully distinct. Arius accused the council at Nicaea of Sabellianism.

Although the heresy of Arianism was hoped to be avoided, the use of ‘homoousios’ at Nicaea seemed in its own way non-biblical, implying an inseparable unity in the Godhead even where the Bible spoke of a separable difference (thus Arius’ accusation of Sabellianism against Nicaea). Alternatives were later proposed, such as speaking more vaguely, using ‘homoiousios’ (of similar substance), or by speaking even less precisely and saying that the Son is “like” (‘homoios’) the Father. Homoeanism is the doctrine (later, heresy) which grew out of these alternatives.

Arguments for and against the Nicene interpretation continued, and in the later fourth century, the Cappadocian Fathers, such as Basil of Caesarea [d. 379], arguing for Nicaea, proposed the distinction, possibly suggested by a study of Plotinus [205-270], between essence (‘ousia’) and personality (‘hypostasis’): the Godhead is of a single substance or essence (‘homoousios’), yet of three distinct personalities (‘hypostaseis’). The case was made in pressing harmony with the biblical texts. The modern doctrine of the Trinity was formed.

“In January 381 [at Constantinople] Theodosius issued an imperial decree declaring the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox and expelling Homoeans and Arians from their churches.”

Theodosius called for a council and from it an Imperial edict was given: “We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of orthodox Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with ignominius names of heretics, and shall not presume to give to the conventicles the names of churches. They shall suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decide to inflict.”

With this edit, Homoeanism became, along with Arianism, a heresy. “In effect, the edict finally confirmed the emperor as the definer and enforcer of orthodoxy.” As a benefit, the orthodox clergy were exempt from taxes, “had access to wealth and patronage and the high status enjoyed by the state church, while “heretics” lost all of these.” Moreover, adhering to State defined orthodoxy became “a focus for loyalty to the empire.”

The configuration of the Godhead, the distribution of the divine substance, having been determined by ecclesiastical council and Imperial decree, a controversy arose about the configuration of the incarnate Son/Logos as an admixture of human and divine. (258-63) Yet another controversy arose, now concerning the doctrine of sin. Augustine [354-430] argued that Adam’s sin infused sin throughout the human race, corrupting our will. Pelagius [c.354-c.418] rose in objection, arguing for the freedom of our will.

Plato’s philosophy and that of the neo-Platonists had been applied by theologians since the second century, but Aristotle was not given his place in Western thought until the twelfth century, when the German Dominican, Albert the Great [c.1200-1280], “was the first to present Aristotle in full to Christian Europe. To Albert the scientific exploration of the world was of value in itself, and he claimed that its findings could never conflict with those arrived at through faith.” In 1248, Thomas Aquinas [c.1225-1274] became Albert’s pupil.

Aquinas in his writing lacks the emotional drama of Augustine. He doesn’t seem racked with guilt as Augustine was, and unlike Augustine, his personal life doesn’t seem to have played any persuasive, essential role in the conclusions he reaches in his theology. For Aquinas, reason is not corrupted by sin, as Augustine believed.

“[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

“Crucial to the establishment of authority in the early church was the emergence of the bishop and the consolidation of his position within a hierarchy of bishoprics based on the doctrine of apostolic succession. Ultimately this, and not reasoned argument, was where authority rested.”

The archaeologist finds signs of Christian iconoclasm everywhere: the cutting out of phalluses of Amun on Egyptian temples, the carving of crosses on pagan statues, the erasure of the inscriptions of gods’ names, bathhouses that have lost their function (bathing naked was condemned) and have a cross at the door or have been converted into churches, the breaking up or melting down of statues. The quality of what was destroyed can sometimes be gauged only by what little has survived…. The elimination of paganism was accompanied by a dampening-down of emotions, dance and song so effective that we still lower our voices when we enter a church.

One of the eighteen dissenting Italian bishops, Julian of Eclanum, who was forced into exile by the debate, set out the clearest and most powerful objection to Augustine’s position in a letter addressed to Augustine himself.

Babies, you say, carry the burden of another’s sin, not any of their own . . . Explain to me, then, who this person is who sends the innocent to punishment. You answer, God . . . God, you say, the very one who commends his love to us, who has loved us and not spared his son but handed him over to us, he judges us in this way; he persecutes new born children; he hands over babies to eternal flames because of their bad wills, when he knows that they have not so much formed a will, good or bad . . . It would show a just and reasonable sense of propriety to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from ‘religious feeling, from civilized standards, so far indeed from common sense, that you think your Lord capable of committing kinds of crime which are hardly found among barbarian tribes.

Augustine was a social conservative: he saw human beings as inevitably flawed, reforms as bringing illusory benefits and the maintenance of good order as a priority. The Christian could only act within the world as it exists, never change it for the better. The City of God proved to be the foundation document of Christian political thought, though it can hardly be said that its conservative hierarchical view of society fits easily with the Gospel teachings of Jesus.

To many, myself included, the Pelagian view that lust is a good thing, which may be put to bad use, is far more attractive than Augustine’s view that lust is a bad thing which may, in marriage, be put to a good use. If Pelagius had prevailed on this and more generally on original sin, a British theologian would have been at the centre of western theology, and western attitudes to sexuality, and to much else besides, might have been very different.

Edward Gibbon made the point that if one wanted to know just how vicious debates were in these councils, one turned not to opponents of Christianity but to ‘one of the most pious and eloquent bishops of the age, a saint and a doctor of the church’, Gregory of Nazianzus. A member of the Anglican commission on liturgy, the late Michael Vesey, is said to have compared preparing liturgical texts for the Anglican Synod with ‘trying to do embroidery with a bunch of football hooligans’.

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