Friday, July 3, 2009

A Reply from Charles Freeman (of sorts)


Well, I did mention in my review of Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind (below) that he likes to respond to critics directly. Though I wasn't quite expecting a response by him within five days. Anyway, rather than reply in the "Comments" section of the review, I thought it was worth writing my reply as a separate post.

Charles writes:

Dear Tim,

I have been put onto your review through the grapevine. I won’t reply to it first because Closing came out in 2002, and was written in the two years before that so it is based on material mostly ten or more years old. I have written four more books since then. Secondly much of my thinking now will be in my Yale book on early Christianity - to 600 - which comes out in September and you will be able to review that.


Well, I'd be happy to review it (especially if Yale is good enough to send me a free copy), but I can't really see how the fact you have written some other books since then means you don't need to reply to a detailed review of this one. In one of your e-mails to James Hannam you noted that you've yet to see a comprehensive critique of your book. To write a comprehensive critique of it I would have to write something almost book length in itself, but my review weighs in at just under 5,000 words and, while far from comprehensive, it's the most detailed analysis of your arguments that I've seen so far. So simply noting that you've written some other books, which don't correct the flaws in this one that I can see, doesn't really absolve you of a proper reply to my analysis.

Nor does noting that you wrote it eight years ago, especially since you go on to say:

I have to say that despite extensive reading , I haven’t much changed my views.

Okay, so why point out that it was written some time ago and drew on works ten years or more old? If I had written a review of it eight or ten years ago I would have highlighted precisely the same strange omissions and critical flaws.

But now we get this rather strange cluster of comments:

The archaeological evidence for Christian destruction is now building up ( See Sauer’s book on The Archaeology of Religous Hatred, Tempus Books, 2003. Sauer is professor of Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh.His evidence ties in well with the literary evidence e.g. Martin of Deacon’s Life of Porphyry, which details P (the Bishop of Gaza’s) destruction, with imperial approval, of the pagan temple in Gaza.) Fergus Millar, surely a top name, has much on Theodosius’ activities against pagans and heretics in his A Greek Roman Empire, Power and Belief under Theodosius II, 408-450, University of California, 2006.

Sorry Charles, but I fail to see the relevance of any of this to anything I said in my review. Or to anything to do with reason and rational science and philosophy. Did I dispute that the post-Constantinian emperors and the Christians of the Fourth to Sixth Centuries did what they could to eliminate their pagan rivals? No, I didn't. More to the point, how does this "mounting evidence" of something no-one has ever disputed support your thesis? They destroyed temples and oppressed pagans? Yes, they did. And? What's that got to do with any supposed "closing of the western mind"?

As a humanist with a fondness for most aspects of the ancient and Medieval past, I'd certainly lament the destruction of pretty buildings. And the oppression of pagans by Christians is about the same as the oppression of Christians by pagans to me, since (i) I'm a non-believer and (ii) I avoid value judgements about the supposed sins of the distant past. But how "mounting evidence" that Christians closed down the irrational, superstituous cults of their religious rivals and no longer allowed painted priests to shake rattles and intone chants at incense-wreathed statues of Olympian gods somehow supports your thesis I really can't fathom. The fact that the Flamen Dialis in Rome could no longer wear his magical hat, no longer observed his strange taboos against touching raw meat or beans and no longer had to carefully guard against sleeping in a bed whose legs were smeared with clay (?!) may be sad if you're into that kind of thing, but I can't see what the death of such weird superstitions have to do with any argument about rationality.

Some people make a lot of Edward Grant but it is Grant who quotes (in his Science and Religion 400 BC - AD 1550, Johns Hopkins, 2004, p.145 ) the view that ‘Bede’s ‘ establishment of the port” is the only original formulation of nature to be made in the west for some eight centuries’.

And Grant is right (though he was quoting Duhem there). He makes similar remarks in several of his books about the centuries that he refers to as "Europe at its nadir". Again, my response is "Yes. And?" No-one is arguing there was no Dark Age in the west or that this "nadir" didn't see science, mathematics and philosophy collapse to the lowest imaginable level of sophistication. What is being disputed is your claim that this "nadir" was caused by a rejection of reason and the rational tradition. That claim - central to your thesis but very poorly and selectively supported - is complete garbage. From Justin Martyr to Clement to John of Damascus to Agustine, there was a tradition that argued for the preservation of that very tradition. So, despite the other traditon that you highlight at such length in your book, there was a strong western traditon of rationality that led Boethius to enshrine dialectic in general and Aristotle's books of logic in particular at the heart of what was to become the Medieval syllalbus. The "nadir" was caused by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the collapse of civilisation in the west. Having wave after wave of Lombards, Avars and Vikings sweeping through your study tends to make reading Aristotle's Posterior Analytics a bit difficult. Especially if all copies have been lost for centuries.

So that means while Europe rode out the centuries long storm of invasion, collapse, disintergration, disruption and eventual recovery, there were always a few people keeping the seeds of the rebirth of the Twelfth Century nutured. The western mind did not "close" to that tradition. On the contrary it preserved it, both in the west and (something else ignored in your book) in the academies of Alexandria and Constantinople in the east.

My feeling is that since 2000, when I first started on this subject, the debate has come more my way than yours, but clearly debates will and should continue.

If those irrelevant examples are your idea of evidence that brings the debate your way then I can only conclude you simply don't understand why I find your thesis unconvincing.


2). You can download Richard Schlagel’s review of Closing in the Review of Metaphysics from Amazon. com. He is a Professor at George Washington University, who is well known as a historian of science and he has written extensively on this period.He liked it and it seems you must have missed it.

I don't think I said you didn't get any favourable reviews. And I can't download Schlagel's review actually - Amazon says it's due to "geographical restrictions", which I assume means it's only available to those in the US for copyright reasons.


3) I don’t know of any savagely condemnatory reviews from professional academics

Mark Edwards wrote a pithy and scathing review in History Today which was the kind of tartly barbed and succinct smack-down you'd expect from a don of Christ Church, Oxford. Professor Robert Markus of the University of Nottingham wasn't exactly complimentary in The Tablet. Professor Mary Beard of the Classics Department at Cambridge and Classics editor of the TLS took you to task for your romanticisation of the Greeks and Romans as rationalists. And while he's too gentlemanly to be "savage", David Lindberg's round dismissal of your thesis in the latest edition of his magisterial The Beginnings of Western Science carries the full weight of that great scholar's stature. They are some rather well-informed and fairly heavy duty scholars that have weighed your arguments and found them wanting. And for much the same reasons I have.


- there was a negative one from Bowersock in the Los Angeles Times


Yes, that one is worth reading as well.


I enjoy the rough and tumble of debate but must bring this one to a close especially as I am sure you will start it again when you have read the Yale book!

Good reading ,

Charles Freeman.

Well, I can't say I saw much evidence of any "debate" in this response, since you didn't manage to touch on a single one of my criticisms of your selective evidence, strange silences and weird (seeming) ignorance of whole areas of relevant material. But yes, I will be reviewing your new work and if it contains the same kind of sloppy/slippery pseudo argument as Closing you can be sure I'll have my flensing knives well-honed and ready.


Best regards from one amateur to another,

Tim O'Neill

63 comments:

Charles Freeman said...

Dear Tim, As I said from the beginning that I was not replying to your review, your response doesn't seem very relevant!
From my point of view, Closing is old hat because so much new material has come out in the last few years that it seems pointless to go on arguing about the old one. We have all simply moved on and as I would argue that my general thesis is strengthened rather than undermined by what has come out since then, that is the only point i wanted to make. I don't think it is wise to review books which were written ten years ago - I can hardly be responsible for the fact that Closing is still in all the book stores and selling quite well.
I think you underestimate the generosity of the academic community. Any healthy history department likes new ideas and is prepared to listen to them - people are valued rather than condemned for putting forward alternatives as it leads to a higher level of debate and excitement overall. That is certainly my own impression here and in the States and in the way i have been treated. History must live and it must involve challenging conventional views and being prepared to have some people shoot them down and some people enthuse about them. I have gained new life from all the debating and discussion I have had over Closing but I really have to leave it behind and move on to other projects.
I am surprised that it is till a live issue after all these years!

Bjørn Are said...

One reason for this is that you still keep to your views in that book;-)

Another is that other amateurs are accepting it as fact, using you as a source for church history in books publised this summer.

A third is that I can't see you answer any argument?

A fourth is that you are dead wrong...

I have the Sauer book by my side as I write this, and I can't see what his rather conventional conclusions has to do with your thesis at all.

Destructions of monuments to pagan temples/irrationality is of course intolerant, though hardly evidence for anti-rationality.

theswain said...

Tim, well done again. I was preparing to undertake such a response to Freeman, but you have beat me to the punch. A few points:

1) Schlegel is hardly a historian of science. He is a philosopher and holds a university position as a philosopher. His book From Myth to Modern Mind is if anything a history of ideas and outlook, and deliberate polemic, than history. Interestingly, there are few reviews of this book in academic circles.

2) It is interesting to cite someone talking about Bede, since Bede is absent from Closing.....

3) The ideas contained in Closing are not new. They've been around since Gibbon, whose work from the 18th century continues to influence historiography of Late Antiquity. It is somewhat less than new than even Gibbon to call Christianity superstitious, focused on "revelation" rather than reason, and that the "Dark Ages" were ended by a "renaissance" or even a series of "renaissances". In short, nothing new in the book, no new claim, just more of the same.

3) Certainly nothing new has come out in the last ten years that substantiates the thesis. It is well known that fourth century Christianity when once in power treated pagan temples and property as Christian churches and property had been treated previously...and often destructively on both sides. But to reiterate Tim, the presence of pagan temples and pagan destruction of Christians, Christian churches, and taking Christian property isn't evidence of tolerance or rationalism anymore than the Christian reaction is evidence of intolerance and irrationalism. Freeman's conclusion is a non sequitur.

4) I'm not sure what the whining about reviewing a book "10" years old is. For one thing, it isn't 10 years old--Freeman may have started on it ten years ago, but the book only appeared 7 years ago and was reissued 4 years ago. Further, since Freeman yet holds those ideas, claims that new evidence confirms those ideas, and that those ideas form the basis of his new book, not yet out for review, the criticism seems hollow to me. Further, if Freeman is quite as familiar with the practices of historians as he intimates in the above comment, then he should know that historians review ideas contained in older works all the time...whether reviewing new books where older material is referred to, or in review essays, or in the back and forth of debating a particular issue. That someone reviewed an 8 year old book in a blog isn't a negative.

5) It is beside the point whether bookstores continue to carry the work and whether it sells well: such is not an indication of either quality or a true and accurate historical accounting of things. It indicates merely that the book sells.

6) People are valued when challenges to old paradigm are based in evidence and sound argumentation. Freeman's book is neither, in my view. Well written, yes, but full of omissions of facts, written with an a priori assumption in mind, and major leaps in logic. I wonder how many academics who are so welcoming have actually read the book or actually work in Late Antiquity, Patristics, or Early Medieval periods...the periods in question in the book. (I, in fact, do some work in those fields).

theswain said...

Part II
) To Tim, I'd add that the "decline" of Rome (rather than the Fall) really begins in the second century, and that includes intellectually. There are simply few great intellectuals working in that period and if we compare 100 to 400 with the following period of 400 to 700, we find that the latter period has great minds working whose effects are still being felt, and I'm not talking about their contributions to religion. The "decline" is not simply caused by war and shifting of populations, though I'd say the civil wars from 174 to 284 had as much to do with the decline of intellectual thought as the Germanic migrations. But at the same time, esp. under Diocletian there was certainly a decline of openness, trade not just in goods but in ideas, and so on. Subsequent centuries simply continued the trend that had already begun in the second century, and even earlier.

In addition to those factors there was depopulation, deurbanization, and disease. None of these things had anything to do with Christianity of course and would have happened even if Christianity had never existed.

Well, this is but a comment...not a paper or a book. Enough. Tim, drop me a note, I have a proposal for you.

Charles Freeman said...

Every area of history has a wide range of views according to the ways individual historians interpret the sources. There is an implication in these responses (‘you are dead wrong’) that there is a right way, yours, against which all others must be judged. This is not how any healthy historical debate works. One of the things I have always enjoyed about being a historian is that debates are never dead and there are always new ways of looking of issues being put forward.
I have not read anything which convinces me that the western mind , in both east and west ,did not close. The evidence for the closure in the east is very strong, not only through the legislation which banned ways of thinking but in the massive decline in the numbers of works published and the narrowness of their range. The top scholars of Byzantium such as Averil Cameron ( I think I quoted Cameron on the subject - she is about as top as you can get) and Cyril Mango accept this.
Rational debate is open because there are criteria by which arguments are judged and people accept this and concentrate on the quality of the argument- different views are respected . One feature of the rise of irrationality in the late fourth century was the massive destruction of pagan shrines and,through the legislation of Theodosius in the early 390s, of all forms of paganism. The documentation is thorough as most of the laws survive in the Theodosian Code of 438 ( see further Fergus Millar’s work). When I was writing Closing I did very little work on the Code and it is only recently that I became aware ( largely prompted by Millar and other scholars) just how often it was specified that the books of pagans and heretics should be burned. Open argument was not possible any more, and this was as true for Christians as for pagans.
I hope you can realise why I see no reason to change my views on this subject. I am not asking you to change yours!
As the fruits of my work in this area from my recent researches are expressed in my new history of Christianity, I think I can ask you to hang on for just two more months until it comes out. (You did manage to hang on for seven years before you tackled Closing!) It has obviously a completely different scope from Closing but you may find something to get your teeth into.
I was having lunch with two of my children and I told them that I was being called an amateur historian. As it is now 36 years ,almost to the day, that I achieved my postgraduate teaching certificate from Cambridge with a distinction in the teaching of history and have earned my living as a historian ever since, they thought this a great joke. They grew up with me as a teacher and had never known a life in which dad was not involved in some historical project or another. By coincidence they are coming out to Sydney for a wedding at the end of August and they have promised that if anyone asks what their dad does, they will say he is an amateur historian. That’s obviously how you describe the job of someone like me in your part of the world!
Perhaps you will learn to relax and enjoy history as a subject of value in itself for its diversity and intellectual challenge and not judge the work of other historians by whether it fits with your take on things.No one is asking you to change your mind(s), rather that you should not feel you have to be some gatekeeper of an absolute truth. I think you will have a lot more intellectual fun!
(P>S. just seen latest comment - Closing has never been reissued - I have not touched the text since making a few changes for the US edition which came out in 2003.

theswain said...

Closing was reissued. I didn't say it was a new edition. At least in the US, Closing was published in Han 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf and again in 2005 by Vintage. Different ISBNs even.

Anonymous said...

"No one is asking you to change your mind(s)"

Good, because if that was your goal then I am sorry to say you have fallen short of the mark.

"...rather that you should not feel you have to be some gatekeeper of an absolute truth. I think you will have a lot more intellectual fun!"

Oh? But watching Tim pop your bubble is MY idea of "intellectual fun".

Charles Freeman, amateur historian extraordinaire. said...

From Charles Freeman.
On the last comment. Goodness, I didn't know Tim was as influential as all that! I will see how the sales tumble in the next few months and academics everywhere scorn me!
To earlier posts.
Once a book is with the publishers , they do with it as they like- I was never consulted about any reissue of Closing or asked whether I wanted to change anything. The only contact I have with my publishers is the odd royalty cheque (very welcome to a freelance) or letter sent to me by someone who has read it. I haven’t read through Closing in full since 2002 when Knopf in New York said I could change anything I wanted from the original UK text. The contrast is with the second edition of my Egypt Greece and Rome. OUP accumulated a series of comments and suggestions from universities which had been using the book which were forwarded to me. They then gave me a new contract and I spent six months hard rewriting.
I have debated Closing at book fairs, with reviewers on line ( e.g. James Hannam) and at four universities where I was the main invited guest speaker. There have been over 120 reviews some of which I responded to as well. Believe it or not the theologians of the School of Divinity in Cambridge held their noses long enough to invite Richard Rubinstein ( he of Aristotle’s Children) and myself to lead a joint seminar on fourth century theology and politics there. One has to call a halt somewhere or one would never be able to move on to new things. Tim is quite entitled to review any book he likes, he just can’t expect me to drop other projects, reread the full text for the first time for many years and then respond. That was my point. He should have got in much earlier!
( Second comment on its way.

Charles Freeman. said...

Second instalment.

I read Tim’s review and decided not to respond to it for these reasons. The only reason I decided to intervene here was to let readers of his blog know that my work could be discussed in a more updated form, that there were not two Charles Freemans. Above all, as someone who has worked with two university presses, I wanted to correct the absurd suggestion that they allow popular non-academic authors in to allow them, the presses, to make money. I think it is the textbooks which usually do that. OUP have certainly made enough money from Egypt, Greece ad Rome and I hope it has been ploughed into supporting other of their projects.
I was trained intensively by my agent on how to write a proposal which will actually sell a book. It works as I have never had a period without a book signed up but I think people don’t realise that a good proposal is a professional art form in itself and one needs training from a good agent to do it. Publishers are very tough and the contracts really have to be fought for ( It has, for instance, become almost impossible for UK authors to find publishers in the States at the moment.)
Yale have asked me to comment on proposals in my field from academic authors. Some of the ideas were interesting but in every case they were presented so badly that they never got through . One simply could not see a book in them. (Of course, each proposal had comments from other readers and then was presented to Yale’s academic board for a yes or no so I was only one voice.) University professors ( and yes, one of them was from a professor) seem to think that if they put their name to a vague idea , a university press will just sign them up. Most simply have no idea how a publisher works, even a university one. I really would not have believed it until I actually saw the proposals and sometimes quite absurdly optimistic covering letters from agents. That is one reason why so few get accepted.

Charles Freeman. said...

Third instalment.

I also think that many readers do not know how writers work. Only about five per cent (and I am not among them) make enough money from writing to live on , so we do lots of other things. When I am working on a book, I like to work intensively on it. I lived and breathed Closing for two years. Then when it is finished one turns off and HAS ( for financial reasons) to concentrate on what is ever next. Of course one has to deal with the publicity but readers seldom realise how completely writers can shut out a book when they have finished it. As I have said I have not even read Closing all the way through since 2002!
To give an example, which may be of help to my fellow amateurs. I handed in my Christianity book last October ,when it was passed as fit to publish by the Yale bord. I have, of course, made some adjustments, rethought some sections , and read the proofs but it has been marginal to my life since then. It will become central to my life again in September /October when it is published.
Meanwhile since last October I have taken four academic study tours to the Mediterranean, Rome, Classical Greece (twice), and central Italy. I had to go and set up the Italy trip by visiting all the hotels we were to use and sort out the itinerary. I came back a week ago from Turkey where I have been setting up a tour of classical sites for next year. Altogether I have had ninety ‘ students’- the oldest aged 88 - to get round this year - I didn’t lose one! I have also had an historical introduction to Tuscany published in the Blue Guide. (I am Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.) In between these trips, I have written a guide to 50 sites of the ancient Mediterranean. I did the final corrections of this this week and it will also be out in October.
It is how we have to live as a freelance (but goodness it’s more fun than being enclosed in a university department). I will have to reread Christianity to refresh my memory as it is- you can see why I can’t start again with Closing.
I am only writing all this as some readers and commentators clearly don’t know what an academic writer’s life ( even one who is an amateur) consists of. I hope it is helpful.
Your fellow blogger James Hannam has a book coming out. It may, like the vast majority of books, sink without trace within two or three months (some of mine have certainly done that and it is very depressing!) However, if it does get noticed and if it is original and challenges conventional wisdoms (as he claims- I am not sure what he means by conventional wisdom as he seems to support people like Grant and Lindberg who appear to be the conventional wisdom), he will get scathing reviews as well as good ones. There will be bound to be someone who gathers just the scathing reviews and tells the world that James is just an amateur who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Join the club, James and, as I have already told him, good luck! Above, all don’t ever lose your cool with the reviewers who dislike your work. Life is too short and there’s always the next book which might be the best seller!

Burnum said...

I haven't read the book, but if I understand correctly Charles Freeman argues that the rise of Christianity strangled Rationalism and Religious tolerance?

Herodotusismyhero said...

Watching this debate with interest. It is good when a historian tells it how it is, even if people don't always like his work. To Burnum. I think Freeman is more subtle that just that, he makes the point in Closing of the Western Mind that it was when politics became entangled with religion that the assault on reasoned thought took place. Reviewers who simply saw it as an attack on Christianity missed the point. Actually, I think he makes his case much clearer in his more recent book AD 381. It's shorter and if you like his approach you can always go back to his Closing- the book Tim reviews here.
For good or bad reasons, Freeman seems to be talked about and it is interesting that even the established historians seem to feel they have to confront him and even invite him to universities to debate with them.
Hope the debate keeps going but it sounds as if Freeman has had his say and has other things to get on with! I am glad he doesn't back away when he gets criticised, nor does he seem to get very offended. Perhaps critical reviews just flow off his back.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to read about how a historian actually works. This debate has been worth it for this alone. One never hears what it is really like behind the scenes and just how competitive it is.Thanks.
Who is James Hannam? What is his book about?

theswain said...

Tim,

You are most generous to give Charles Freeman such a platform. His recent comments seem mostly directed to my comments, so I'll respond, but much more briefly.

It was I in commenting on your first post who called Freeman an "amateur" historian. And so he is though he has taken some umbrage at it. A post-graduate certificate in teaching doesn't make one a professional historian anymore than a high school history teacher is a professional historian. Nothing wrong in being an amateur, who are most often able to look at subjects in ways that professionals don't or can't. I suppose perhaps we could drop the "amateur" and call him a "freelance" historian, perhaps that would suit him better. But I meant no offense, though apparently some offense has been taken.

To his most recent set of comments:
First installment: Almost the whole of this lengthy comment is immaterial. Freeman whined about your review of a book 10 years old" when in point of fact it isn't ten years old. He may have started on it, or even finished the first drafts in 1999, but that doesn't make it available to the public for 10 years. And it doesn't matter that he didn't touch it for the Vintage 2005 release. The plain fact of the matter is that a claim that the book is 10 years old is false on multiple counts, and add to those counts all the reasons why a book released for awhile may need further comment, well, Freeman has no reason to complain of the book's review here.

The only other comment in the first installment worth comment is the last one: Tim, nor anyone else, expects Freeman to drop everything. He chose to respond to your review, no one forced him. He refused in his comments to engage in anything substantive regarding his views or his work, and again it is entirely immaterial whether he has undertaken new projects or not. He has stated that he continues to hold the same views. The characterization of Tim in that final comment of the First Installment is inaccurate as well as unfair (and borders on the ad hominem).

Re: the second installment, again, the vast majority is more smoke screen. Freeman seems unaware that Yale University Press describes itself as a publisher of TRADE and Academic Books and anyone who merely peruses their catalog (or that of OUP) can spot many a good book by a non-professional, many sought because of the desire to sell books, as anyone who has not just worked with but worked at academic presses of that caliber could have informed Freeman. They are businesses, not charities and if they can marry saleability with good scholarship all the better. He isn't the only one who knows a bit of something about the publishing business.

The third installment is all entirely immaterial. If he holds the same views, it doesn't matter that he's undertaken and even published new books. He should be able to discuss those views in a comment if he chooses. He may choose not to as he wishes, but trumping up excuses does little to endear his books to this reader. So that third installment is all entirely beside the point.

I look forward to the new book, I'll likely read that one too. I hope it is better in terms of thesis than Closing was. Before responding see my next comment.

theswain said...

To Burnum:

Yes, that's essentially the thesis. Freeman utterly fails to prove that thesis.

Still, the book is worth reading. There is quite a lot of good research there, and he does a very fine job of describing and analyzing the Arian controversy. But none of that goes to prove the thesis that the late pagans of the Roman Empire were wonderful rationalists and the Christians killed all that and that nothing good existed until Aquinas.

So if you can ignore the thesis and read it for some good information, and even better take note of the works referenced and go read those, you'll do fine with it.

Historyblogwatcher said...

To Anonymous re James Hannam: You can google ‘James Hannam’ to find out more about him. He’s a Brit who runs a conservative Christian blogsite and has a book coming out called God’s Philosophers which I assume is the one Charles Freeman is referring to. It says it is about the way in which the church founded modern science - quite a challenging subject.
If like me you spend too much time browsing history and religion websites, you will find he comes up quite a lot. He tends to involve himself in all kinds of debates. I have seen him make what appear to be authoritative statements as if he is some kind of world expert which get shot down by his opponents. (In some of the subjects I know something about, I think rightly so -he’s quite rigid and often very dated in his historical knowledge.) Freeman took him on when he reviewed Freeman’s book on his blog.
As Hannam is quite confrontational , I expect he will get much of the same in return when his book comes out next month. For instance, he and the fellow bloggers on his site, have often ridiculed the fellow British philosopher A.C. Grayling,complete with funny pictures. Grayling will probably think they are small fry not worth replying to, but if he chooses to he may well decide to demolish Hannam in a review in one of the many papers he writes for.
Incidentally I found Closing of the Western Mind rather long and rambling ( I think you picked this up in your review, Tim) and felt Freeman could have focussed more directly on his argument. As Herodotusismyhero points out, he has a much more recent book “AD 381”. It is just out in the States. It concentrates on the role of the emperor Theodosius in crushing freedom of thought. I really preferred it to Closing of the Western Mind because he focussed on one central issue and his case comes across much more strongly. He does also bring in a lot of new material published since Closing of the Western Mind.Tim mentioned it but it seems strange he didn’t concentrate his review on it rather than the dated CWM.

Phil Brook said...

Charles Freeman makes it quite clear, perhaps at too great a length , why he is not responding to the review. After all it is standard practice to advise authors to completely ignore critical reviews. He responded for a completely different reason - that he was being portrayed as an amateur historian - that is going to the core of who he is. One can hardly blame him for that.
He mentioned his Egypt, Greece and Rome. This has given him a high reputation in the United States as it is one of the standard texts at university level in courses on western civilzation. It has been around since the late 1990s, long before he wrote Closing of the Western Mind, and overall has probably had far higher sales. That is probably the book on which his PROFESSIONAL reputation will rest. (See the Amazon.com reviews).

Burnum said...

I think the idea that Christianity was somehow responsible for the decline is bollocks. I would argue the decline of Scientific discovery and Reasoned thought can be, albeit rather simplistically, too the lack of a central government and Infrastructure.

It's ludicrous too argue that the early Christians went out of their way too destroy scientific achievements or that Polytheistic Romans and Greeks somehow more rational. Wasn't Galen ostracized because he thought it was blood and not Pneuma that flowed through the veins? Let's not even get on the subject of the trial of Socrates and the persecution of Philosophers in the Roman Republic and under Augustus.

theswain said...

Herodotusismyhero: Couple points: First, Freeman does explicitly attribute it to Christianity in his book.

Second, religion and politics have *always* been mixed together in Western civilization: a mere perusal of the society of ancient Athens and Rome, esp under the Empire will reveal that fact very quickly and very easily. To say that Freeman's thesis is that rationality ended when religion and politics became bed partners is to say that the ancient Greeks and Romans whom Freeman upholds as rationalists were not the rationalists he claims, and so once again, the edifice falls apart.

Burnum said...

Greek philosophy was on it's very last legs long before the rise of the Christian Church, anyway.

Phil Brook said...

Surely the issue here is that Tim has read just one book of Freeman's on the grounds of which he believes he is an amateur and Freeman is arguing that in thirty or whatever years he has done lots of other 'professional' history things, some of which he lists.I know Amazon reviews don't count for much but it is worth trawling his name through Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk ( or access Freeman Closing of the Western Mind and then see the references in 'Customers also bought ' to his other books) Quite a lot of other things come up. Perhaps they are still not enough for Tim to call him a professional but if Freeman earns his living solely through history things, I can see why he thinks he is.Perhaps it just terminology we are arguing over here.
I don't know what he means by calling himself Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. I once used a Blue Guide in Italy and it was very erudite.I wonder whether these are the same Blue Guides- worth a look.

Humphrey said...

'For instance, he and the fellow bloggers on his site, have often ridiculed the fellow British philosopher A.C. Grayling,complete with funny pictures.'

That's my bad i'm afraid; although in my defence it was meant to be much in the spirit of the kind of rubbish that Grayling writes for the Guardian.

As for whether the don is capable of demolishing Mr Hannam I would suggest having a look at the following article (and comments).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jan/29/buntingonscienceandhistory

My money is on the guy from Kent.

Historyblogwatcher said...

James Hannam’s website Quodlibeta, which I access from time to time in my surveys of blogs (see further below), seems closely linked to this one and their Forum has been speculating on who I might be after my comments here on James Hannam . I am independent of any group (and reading blogs is a way of wasting my time) but I suppose ‘Greyling fanboy’ (sic) is the best of their guesses. Grayling’s books are quite well known in the States and he has a good following among those of us with an interest in what I might call liberal atheism. On Hannam’s website he is apparently that ‘odious Oxford humanist.’ Well ,we all have our ways of describing our opponents but, as a fan of Grayling, I suppose I was a bit pissed off by that which is why I wrote what I did (A good enough explanation if you read this, James Hannam?).
As my contribution made clear, I am not an unadulterated fan of what Freeman has written, and even agreed with some of Tim’s review - Freeman might well have been harsher on the practices of the Roman empire and he underestimated the amount of irrationalism in the Greek world - he certainly could have coordinated his argument better. Like most people I would have liked to see Freeman respond. But I was surprised that no one in this ‘debate’ has taken up on his AD 381- it has been out longer in Britain than it has been in the States but it is his most recent book. It has had some good reviews in the US (some of them are on his publisher Overlook' s' blog site) and I thought Tim would have wanted to nail it before it had the success of Closing of the Western Mind. (At first sight it does not seem to be selling nearly as well and has only 5 reviews on Amazon US compared to 64 of Closing but I liked it and would be happy to see more reviews. What about it Tim?)
I look at James Hannam's blog from time to time -I actually came across his reference to this debate there and was surprised to find Freeman refer back to him, especially as he had been very critical of Freeman. Hannam is good enough to link to attacks on him which is praiseworthy especially as some of them are very effective. I just think sometimes he rushes into debates where he is less knowledgable (he’s not that great on philosophical analysis, for instance and,in areas where I know something , his history seems dated -which would be fine if he didn't give the appearance ( is t just that a he has a particularly British tone?) of posing as an authority) and then gets mauled. I don’t need to repeat my own assessment because he can easily be tracked down on a google search (e.g his recent contribution to a Religion and Science debate in the British Guardian) . I hope that his book eventually comes out in the States but he is vulnerable to responses from people he (or allows his fellow contributors to Quodlibeta to) lay(s) into especially when,like Grayling, they have a platform from which to attack him. If I had a book about to come out, I would be more careful not to put my head above the parapet like that because you get people reviewing it for the wrong reasons ( e.g. to retaliate). No doubt I will see the reviews on his blog.

theswain said...

Phil:

Determining that a professional historian is someone who earns their money through "history" is akin to saying that someone like Averil Cameron is as professional as the gift shop employees at any historical attraction in the world. Both make their living from history, talking about history, etc. I'm not willing to make such a claim. The professional historian is not simply one whose finances come from "history".

Nor would I say having a post graduate certificate to teach on top of an undergraduate degree in history makes one a professional historian. Perhaps if that postgraduate degree were in history, that might be different.

Does writing books about history make one a professional historian? That gets us into a grey area. So let me lay a few examples of why I at least classify Freeman as an amateur rather than a professional.

First, there is a decided lack of primary references in Freeman's work, and those that are there are cited from someone else's work or translations. The professional history is steeped in the original, primary texts of the period in their original languages. My impression after reading several of Freeman's books is that he isn't.

Second, related to the above, is that a professional wouldn't overlook important primary evidence, especially evidence that would prove the central thesis. By Freeman's own testimony, he had to be told this by a professional scholar (Fergus Millar telling him about the importance of the Theodosian code). A professional scholar working in Late Antiquity would not have missed such an obvious and important text.

Third, and speaking of missing texts, Freeman often overlooks evidence contrary to his thesis. Some has been mentioned in Tim's review and in comments on the blog. That classifies him as an amateur, for a professional would not get away with that.

Fourth, Freeman makes a number of historical errors...and this is true not just of Closing, but his other books as well. Don't believe me? Fine, but just go see what other historians in professional reviews or at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review have to say. They are all surprising errors of fact (not simply debating interpretations) that a professional would and should not make.

Fifth, responding to popular reception....while there are times when some scholars do feel the need to respond to reviews of their work, they do so in the journals and other review organs. The professional does not do so at Amazon.com, blog entries, or other places for the simply reason that the professional is more interested in how his peers receive his work, rather than anyone else. Freeman's responses here and in other places bear testimony to a concern with public reception and perception rather than professional reception.

Sixth, Freeman's claim that he can't be bothered to chat about this decade old book because he's on to other projects is a sure sign of amateur status. The professional continually evaluates and reevaluates his previous work and often builds on it or comes back to related questions. To illustrate, I recently attended a conference session to address the 20th anniversary of an important book by Walter Goffart. Goffart did not decline to discuss and talk about his 20+ year old work with controversial ideas reevaluating an entire field. He instead addressed his critics in a professional and well thought out fashion. That's the way professionals act; amateurs by their nature are able to flit from one topic to another and pay little if any heed to previously published work.

Well those are a few reasons why I'd classify Freeman as an amateur. There are others. Writing guidebooks, being asked an opinion about a proposal all indicate that Freeman is respected, but respect is not equivalent to professionalism.

Now I'm not saying his books shouldn't be read, or even used, or that he isn't talented and that he tells a good story. But it should all be couched that at best his books are introductory and need to come with errata sheets.

Humphrey said...

To be fair, James Hannam didn't describe Mr Grayling as an 'odious oxbridge humanist'; I did. Believe me that is small beer compared to the screeds he writes for the Guradian (e.g 'sticky fingers'). Of course, if you disagree with anything I have written about him then feel free to comment.

Bjørn Are said...

Historyblogwatcher:

In what way does James H's history seem "dated"? I am very curious. Please give an example or two.

It would also be nice if you could provide a link or two to a more up to date history in James's field.

You really got me interested!

theswain said...

Historyblogwatcher:

On A. D. 381, I haven't mentioned much in my comments (can't speak for Tim whom I don't know other than as the blogger here) because I haven't read it yet. But given the snippets I have read, I have to say it is based on a one huge unproven assumption: that Christian thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries didn't use reason. Even the most casual reader in the history of ideas in the Greco-Roman world become quickly aware in reading Christian patristic literature that the raging debates of "theology" in the fourth century for example were all rooted and resulted from applying Greek philosophy to Christianity: i. e. were attempts at a new intellectual synthesis. And again, just going from the summaries and comments about the book I've seen which isn't fair on my part, it seems that once again Freeman has made Theodosius exceptional in some way whereas he wasn't, not even in his authoritarianism.

Should Freeman want either this book or his new one reviewed in a blind process by the journal I edit, he can have Yale send them directly to our book review editor...I don't see the book reviews until they come into to me for blues. I shan't be holding my breath though.

Oh, and to Phil again: One way to illustrate what I mean is to compare something like say Ramsay MacMullen's "Christianity and Paganism from the Fourth to Eighth Centuries" with Freeman's Closing or A. D. 381...MacMullen's book is by Yale Univ Press and you'll quickly see the difference between amateur and professional historian.

Tim O'Neill said...

Well, I've been away for the weekend and so will try to respond to parts of the 27 comments here.


Charles Freeman said...
Dear Tim, As I said from the beginning that I was not replying to your review, your response doesn't seem very relevant!


I understand that you've decided you aren't going to respond to my review Charles. That's your perogative. I'm simply saying that I find the reasons you've given for choosing that to be rather flimsy.

Closing is old hat because so much new material has come out in the last few years that it seems pointless to go on arguing about the old one. We have all simply moved on and as I would argue that my general thesis is strengthened rather than undermined by what has come out since then, that is the only point i wanted to make.

A book should be able to stand on its own merits, regardless of when it it written or reviewed. You say that you still stand by the thesis of Closing and that your more recent works only strengthen its arguments. So why you aren't prepared to defend those arguments is something of a mystery.

I am surprised that it is till a live issue after all these years!

I chose to read and review Closing because I kept finding it referred to, largely by militant anti-Christians on atheist internet fora or on kooky pseudo historical websites like www.jesusneverexisted.com. It's a "live issue" because your book has been seized upon by some zealots with highly dubious agendas and taken as a scholarly vindication of some views that have little or no scholarly support.

I have not read anything which convinces me that the western mind , in both east and west ,did not close.

Then you need to explain why, even in the centuries of the nadir of the Dark Ages, the works of Aristotle and other logicians preserved by Boethius, were copied and read and used or why, when the turmoil of that period receded, lost works were eagerly sought out, translated and expanded on. You depict Aquinas' embrace of reason as though it sprang fully formed out of nothing. In fact, it was part of a long tradition of reason and rationally-based inquiry that didn't get a chance to blossom again until the Twelfth Century.

In other words, the western mind did NOT "close" at all. It remained open to reason all through even this darkest period. Your whole thesis ignores all this because to acknowledge it would expose your whole thesis as nonsense.

The evidence for the closure in the east is very strong, not only through the legislation which banned ways of thinking but in the massive decline in the numbers of works published and the narrowness of their range.

The narrowness of the range of scientific work in the east was simply a continuation of the tradition of Roman science as it had been since the Second Century - mainly commentators and encyclopaedists. So things were pretty much business as usual in the east. Again, no "closing", though without the collapse of civilisation and hordes of barbarians, rather more activity than in the west.

One feature of the rise of irrationality in the late fourth century was the massive destruction of pagan shrines and,through the legislation of Theodosius in the early 390s, of all forms of paganism.

That makes zero sense. What on earth has the destruction of shrines and legislation against the public practice of paganism got to do with the acceptance of Greek science and philosophy? We know that Greek science and philosophy continued to be studied and that Christian scholars were happy to make use of the "gold of the Egyptians". The nasty things Theodosius II did to his religious rivals is totally irrelevant to your argument, yet you wave it around as though it has some significance. It doesn't.

Tim O'Neill said...

Part II
Charles Freeman said ...
When I was writing Closing I did very little work on the Code and it is only recently that I became aware ( largely prompted by Millar and other scholars) just how often it was specified that the books of pagans and heretics should be burned.


The only books that the Code says should be burned are works by "heretics". I recently had this debate with someone and went over the Code in detail - there are no orders to burn pagan works and, more importantly, certainly nothing condemning science or philosophy or ordering books on those subjects to be destroyed. Your constant false conflation of "pagan" with "Greek philosophy/science" is another of your sloppy arguments.

Historyblogwatcher said...
As Herodotusismyhero points out, he has a much more recent book “AD 381”. .... I really preferred it to Closing of the Western Mind because he focussed on one central issue and his case comes across much more strongly. He does also bring in a lot of new material published since Closing of the Western Mind.Tim mentioned it but it seems strange he didn’t concentrate his review on it rather than the dated CWM.


As I said above, I read and reviewed Closing because I kept coming across references to it and wanted to see if it was as solid and scholarly as its advocates claimed. I'd be happy to read and review 381 if Yale sends me a copy. But I fail to see how it would change the fact that Freeman's thesis in Closing rests on his ignoring key evidence and assuming things that are simply wrong. I have no argument with the idea that emperors like Theodosius et al tried to maintain control over religious thought, but the idea that this caused a "closing of the western mind" is simply wrong. Greek science and philosophy continued to be studied and taught throughout this period, without restriction.

Phil Brook said...
He responded for a completely different reason - that he was being portrayed as an amateur historian - that is going to the core of who he is. One can hardly blame him for that.


I said he's an amateur because he is. He is not a lecturer and/or researcher at an accredited university and he does not published peer-reviewed works within the academic sphere. If he wants to take that statement of objective fact as an insult, that's his business.

Surely the issue here is that Tim has read just one book of Freeman's on the grounds of which he believes he is an amateur ...

No, I state that's he's an amateur because he is an amateur. See above.

Historyblogwatcher said...
James Hannam’s website Quodlibeta, which I access from time to time in my surveys of blogs (see further below), seems closely linked to this one ...


James and Co. link to my blog because I'm interested in ancient and Medieval science and philosophy and so are they. But we have very different perspectives in most other respects. If you look at my comments on their blog you'll find most of them are critiques of their comments on atheist writers, many of which I find fascile and often petty.

As for James Hannam's arguments and his upcoming book, I'm sure he can stick up for himself. I will be reviewing his book here as soon as it comes out. And anyone who knows me will know that review will be no more or less stringent than my review of Freeman's book or any other work I cover here.

intrigued said...

I was intrigued by the description of Grayling as ' an odious Oxford humanist.' I can understand how a Christian website such as Quodlibeta - as it appears- I don't know it - to be - using 'humanist' as a term of abuse but Oxford? Perhaps it is Britspeak for 'elitist, alchoholic and lazy' as in Brideshead Revisited. Or perhaps the writer means that he is the 'odious Oxford humanist' to distinguish him from all the less odious ones.
Clarify for the non-Brits, please

Critical Thinker said...

I once heard Charles Freeman speak on Closing of the Western Mind at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He is a good clear speaker and is very laid back when answering questions. He comes across as someone who really does believe that rational thought was crushed at the end of the Roman empire and cares about it.
Actually I think it is rather a case of sic transit gloria mundi. A few years ago, educated people ( I don’t mean ‘professional’ historians) talked about him a lot, he had a crescendo of reviews on Amazon.com -they are still there, of course, - not so much in Britain, though- and Closing seems to have sold all over the world. I am not surprised he was asked over to the States.
Having heard him speak, I kept an eye on what he was writing. He had a book out on Venice which seems to have flopped - though according to what he says here it seems to have launched him onto a new career as a travel guide!
When AD 381 came out here in Britain. It got a rave full page review by John Carey in the Sunday Times. John Carey is often seen as the top literary critic in the UK although he is more literature than religion. It must have been one of the highpoints of Freeman’s career - any writer would give their back teeth to get such an accolade because Carey can be tough if he doesn’t like a book. I looked it up on Amazon .co.uk and it reached 32 on their list that day. It went down again, of course, as time passed but the Times kept it on their ‘recommended books to read’ list and it was top of some of the religious history lists for a few weeks. However, it seems then to have faded - unike Closing of the Western mind it just failed to sustain itself . History blog watcher suggests that it has not done that well in the States either.
So Charles Freeman’s glory days may be over though he seems to have enough to keep himself busy. He is certainly resilient - you cut off one head and he grows another -and do take the chance to listen to him if he comes to speak anywhere near you. Actually I think some of the reviews here have been a bit unfair. It was good of Charles Freeman to respond even if not in the way people wanted but I think he allowed himself to get sidetracked on whether he was a professional historian or not. I would classify him as an intellectual ( though using that word is a kiss of death among us philistine Brits). The amazing thing is not that the top historians of late antiquity.e.g. Bowersock, agree with him but they feel threatened enough by his ideas to review him! That’s a pretty good achievement if you are just an ‘amateur’ historian.
He is going to have a tough time with his Christianity book if his ideas on Christianity and rational thought have stayed the same, as he suggests they have. There will be thousands in the Christian right, especially in the States ,who will line up to rubbish him. I have to say good luck to him but I think he will hold his own!

herodotusismyhero said...

Freeman's thesis in AD 381 is that there was actually very lively Christian debate using lots of Greek philosophy in the fourth century but it was the legislation of Theodosius from 381 onwards, including that of the 390s against paganism which killed debate. He gives the emperors a much higher profile than he does in Closing of the Western Mind. He suggests that putting the legislative programme of the 380s and 390s together as a whole, it was the most sweeping attempt to change religious beliefs since Akhenaten's declaration of the sole God Aten in thirteenth century BC Egypt. As none of Freeman's critics actually seem to have read AD 381, why not read it before you give a comment. I agree with historyblogwatcher on this one.I get the feeling that Freeman has done much more reading around the subject and he certainly has a lot of books from after 2000 in his Bibliography. He may not change your mind but I think you ought to read the book properly before you comment on it.

The Schlagel Review said...

Somebody said they found it difficult to find the Schlagel review of Closing of the Western Mind. It can be found online and this is the conclusion.

'The equivocal nature of scriptural writings, defying rational agreement, led to "the rise of faith and fall of reason," culminating in the closing of the western mind, Freeman's bold thesis. Instead of a considered evolution of Christian doctrine, beliefs were justified by faith and sanctioned by authority. Greek learning was largely ignored for the adoption of inexplicable religious beliefs entailing arbitrary distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy. Some clerics, such as Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, even maintained, as Freeman states, "that ultimately the nature of God is a mystery and that the proper response to questions about his nature should be silence" (p. 309). But he then asks: "If God is essentially unknowable, what implications does this have for the authority of the Church so far as doctrine is concerned?" (p. 312)
Following the eventual renewal of papal authority, church decrees taught as the revealed word of God interpreted by the Apostolic succession were frozen into Christian dogma. Thomas Aquinas's brilliant synthesis of Christianity with Aristotelianism displayed a renewed confidence in reason augmented by the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and especially the scientific revolution. Yet despite Freeman's depiction of Christianity as a manmade artifact of history (being replaced today by developments in science and technology), he does not denigrate religion, claiming that "we do have a spiritual and emotional nature, and without it rational thought in itself would be arid" (pp. 338-9), although how they should be integrated is not discussed.
This needed, emended history of early Christianity is clearly written, a pleasure to read, and documented by a vast range and depth of scholarship. It is certainly one of the best accounts available for anyone seeking a factual understanding of the actual origins of Christian doctrine in their historical setting.--Richard H. Schlagel, The George Washington University.

critical thinker said...

I mentioned in my contribution- not published yet as I write this- about John Carey's review of Freeman's AD 381. You will find it if you access timesonline and then put 'Charles Freeman John Carey' into the search engine. It gives a pretty good account of what the book is about.

Anonymous said...

Tim and The Swain,etc. Surely one of the basic points here is tactics. Your aim seems to discredit the view put forward by Freeman that Christianity, the emperors ,whatever, crushed a tradition of rational thought. Freeman claims to have had 120 reviews of Closing of the Western Mind. If your, Tim, is number 121 it is hardly likely to be noticed. If, however, you concentrate on a more recent book of his, which seems to have much the same thesis and has relatively few reviews, yours is more likely to stand out. Nothing you say on Closing of the Western Mind now is going to change the fact that it has been a very successful book over seven years which, rightly or wrongly, has got Freeman a lot of publicity and accolades. You might just stop a bit of this but it is very late in the day and he has had a largely clear run outside the higher level of scholarship.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anonymous said...

Surely one of the basic points here is tactics. Your aim seems to discredit the view put forward by Freeman that Christianity, the emperors ,whatever, crushed a tradition of rational thought.


Ummm, no. My aim was purely to review a book I'd seen referred to. So that's the book I reviewed. Perhaps if I read some of Freeman's other books I might review them as well.

Nothing you say on Closing of the Western Mind now is going to change the fact that it has been a very successful book over seven years which, rightly or wrongly, has got Freeman a lot of publicity and accolades.

Okay. Since my aim was simply to read the book and review it and since that's what I've done, I think I'm reasonably comfortable with the fact I achieved my aim. Why people think I need to read everything else Freeman wrote is something I'm having trouble fathoming.

You might just stop a bit of this but it is very late in the day and he has had a largely clear run outside the higher level of scholarship.

Since my aim was simply to read his book and review it, I don't see this as a problem.

Humphrey said...

While we are on the subject, could someone reccomend a good book on the period covered by CWM? (I have seen Ramsay MacMullen's "Christianity and Paganism from the Fourth to Eighth Centuries" mentioned).

@intrigued - 'Oxford' in 'Odious Oxford Humanist' wasn't intended as an insult (although it would have been if I had attended Cambridge instead of St Andrews). I think it was partly a trivial exercise in aliteration but also because he taught at Oxford with Freddie Ayer. Humanist isn't automatically a term of abuse either.

Phil Brook said...

Tim and The Swain- two points in response.
1) Your idea of history is impossibly narrow.You can ring fence it like that. Historians nowadays have to know all about other subjects - you can’t be a medievalist,for instance, without being qualified to assess the vast amount of new archaeological evidence which is changing the whole way we see the period 400-1000. (Yes, I know that archaeology is a related discipline but it does have very different ways of proceeding from document based research and you need a different kind of training to assess an archaeological report as well as hands-on knowledge of the surviving materials- I know, I once worked as an archaeologist and it’s tricky stuff - I cut my teeth as an eighteen year old trying to reassemble Etruscan pottery!)) Also in your field, Tim, you will appreciate how much good work is being done on the economic interpretation of archaeological evidence (McCormick) which again needs some understanding of how economies work to assess.
Similarly, every subject from theology to literature benefits from a historical perspective. You need to read something of the late Pierre Bourdieu on how subject disciplines create hierarchies and rituals into which only the sanctified are allowed. He could not have found a better example of what he was attacking than TheSwain on being ‘a professional historian’.
I don't know any historian I respect who doesn't range widely outside his specialist field.
2) There is no reason why Tim should not choose to select just one book from Freeman’s ouevre and review it. But I don’t think he should make WIDER comments about Freeman AS A HISTORIAN unless he has read more of him. It might well be that Freeman is a real professional, even by your standards, in the earlier periods on which he has written books. You or nobody else seems to have found out where he trained,what in, whether he has Master’s degrees and you haven’t even bothered to read his latest work (AD 381). Like others reading this blog, I can’t understand why when it is out there.
Tim: “ I've read every review of the book that I can get my hands on and delayed writing my review until I could do so.”
As a part-time reviewer myself, I know that the most respected reviews are those written WITHOUT having read any others- you would have spent your time better reading another book of Freeman’s rather than trawling around to find out what other people had written about the book you consider yourself qualified to review from your own expertise. We might then have had the benefit of your thoughts on two books by Freeman rather than just one.
Perhaps you really will be the first person to review James Hannam's book- I shall respect what you say about it all the more if you are - and I see no reason to doubt that you will review it as rigorously as you have done Freeman's.( I need to trust you because I know next to nothing about medieval science!)
Incidentally I looked up Freeman’s book A New History of Early Christianity in the Yale Catalogue. (The Fall 2009 edition on their US website, p. 77). He seems to have got praise from his historical scholarship from someone at an actual university (Glasgow). I don't know who this person is but please don't reply that the views of whoever he is don't count because he is not a professional historian ('only' a professor of philosophy ,for instance! ).

intrigued said...

Humphrey- OK, I will try and find your whole article. One thing I have learnt about educated Brits is that they trade all kinds of insults between universities which none of us outsiders understand. E.g. how many understand exactly what you mean by saying that it WOULD have been an insult if you had been at Cambridge but it is NOT an insult because you were at St. Andrews.
Someone said something about James Hannam having a particularly British tone-I know what he (?) meant. it does make lots of what you British academics write seem rather obscure and elitist- even arrogant- to the rest of us- as if we have to join a Brits only club to understand. It is a pity as I admire a lot of British academic work in the humanities ( and we wow their acting) but I sometimes feel that they would be even more respected if they didn't give the impression that they are the only ones with high standards.

Tim O'Neill said...

Phil Brook said...

Tim and The Swain- two points in response.
1) Your idea of history is impossibly narrow.You can ring fence it like that.


I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. What "fence" am I ringing around anything?

Historians nowadays have to know all about other subjects

As a guy trained in Medieval literature as much as Medieval history, you hardly have to explain this to me. I still have no idea what on earth you're talking about.

There is no reason why Tim should not choose to select just one book from Freeman’s ouevre and review it. But I don’t think he should make WIDER comments about Freeman AS A HISTORIAN unless he has read more of him.

Obviously my comments were about Freeman as a historian and writer of this particular book. If he's more objective and less sloppy in other books, then hooray for Freeman. But I was reviewing this one and in this one he is biased, selective and sloppy and so his conclusion is deeply flawed and, ultimately, wrong.

As a part-time reviewer myself, I know that the most respected reviews are those written WITHOUT having read any others- you would have spent your time better reading another book of Freeman’s rather than trawling around to find out what other people had written about the book you consider yourself qualified to review from your own expertise.

I'm getting very tired of this nonsense about how I can't comment on any of Freeman's works unless I've read all of them or more than one of them. This is total bullshit. I set out to read and review this book on its own merits. I did so. And found it sadly wanting.

Deal with it.

We might then have had the benefit of your thoughts on two books by Freeman rather than just one.

Sorry, but I have many, many books I would like to read and review and I usually barely have the time to read the books I want read. Having read The Closing of the Western Mind I've found Freeman to be sadly lacking in several important respects. I can't say I'm exactly champing at the bit to read any of his other stuff. Though I probably will give his new one a read to see if he's managed to master the trick of objectivity. I don't hold out great hope if Closing is any indication.

historyblogwatcher said...

In response to yours, Bjorn Are. I am glad I got you interested. I wasn’t really wanting to say more on this blog, but how could I resist the request.
If one reads James Hannam’s blogs one hardly knows what his ‘field’ is as he seems to take on everything. Good luck to him if that is how he wants to spend his time. Which of the many fields he claims to be an expert in do you want an up-to-date history on? I notice he had a Ph D in sixteenth century science so THAT is presumably his field ( these are the standards set by Tim’s site- never wander outside what you have a PhD on) but his new book seems to be altogether on an earlier period even back to the first millennium AD. As the context in which ‘science’ - a very difficult concept to use in any case - was very different in the sixteenth century from what it was earlier - he will presumably be subject to the same criticism that Tim has of Freeman, and may well make of Hannam, that he is a non-specialist in the subject he has chosen . Still one wishes him well because bringing out a book for the first time is a big moment and God’s Philosophers deserves to be read on its own merits as I hope it will be. My worry ,as already expressed, is that Hannam is known for his particular biases, has stirred up many opponents and so it will NOT be reviewed on its own merits. This will not prevent some Christian websites presenting it as one of the greatest works of scholarship of all time.
I made it clear that anyone genuinely interested in James Hannam’s views can find them on line. If you are being lazy about doing your own research, you can go on to the Why Evolution is True website by one of my intellectual heroes Jerry Coyne. Coyne takes on Hannam for misrepresenting his (Coyne’s) views and concludes that he had bigger fish to fry. There is a link from there to the butterfliesandwheels.com website where Hannam’s views on science and religion are subject to a detailed and well argued refutation to which he seems unable to provide any effective kind of answer.
I remember browsing a debate on the ‘fall ‘ of the Roman empire. Anyone who knows anything about this subject, knows that one has to make complex assessments of the effectivenessof the ‘barbarians’,the economic and political strength of the empire, tactics of specific emperors and soldiers, and so on and so on. Its a horrendously difficult area. Who should pop up out of nowhere but the expert on sixteenth century science, one James Hannam, who provided in a single paragraph the authoritative explanation of the fall! I am sorry but I can’t remember what it was.
It’s up to him how he spends his time, but I don’t think he does himself any favours especially if he wants to be respected as an academic as presumably he does. Why not concentrate on just one field and make oneself a respected authority on it?

theswain said...

Humphrey:

There are many, depending on what you're interested in.

MacMullen's books I highly recommend. The _Paganism and Christianity_ is but one good one. Others of his you might try are:

Christianizing the Roman Empire

Voting About God in Early Church Councils

Paganism in the Roman Empire

Paganism and Christianity 100-425 CE

More general history, but still good to have a handle on are:

Averil Cameron:

The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 393-565 (Routledge History of the Ancient World)

The Later Roman Empire

I'd also recommend the New Cambridge Ancient History v. 12 that covers the late Roman period to the end of Constantine's reign and the next volume

Richard Fletcher's _The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity_

An oldie but a goodie is Cochrane _Christianity and Classical Culture_

Robert Wilkin's _The Christian's as the Romans Saw Them_ followed by his _The Spirit of Early Christian Thought_

_The Rise of Christianity_ by Rodney Stark prob preceded by W. H. C. Frend's history of the same title.

Peter Brown's _World of Late Antiquity_ followed by his _The Cult of Saints_ and his biography of Augustine are good. And I haven't read it yet, believe it or not, but thinking about using it for a course is Brown's _Power and Persuastion in Late Antiquity_ so I'll be reading in the next few weeks.

Drake's _Constantine and the Bishops_

A collection of texts worthwhile to read: Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice ed. by Valantasis

Last I'll mention another I haven't read yet, it just came out a couple months ago and is on my pile: _The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire_ by Cliff Ando

That should get you started. I'd also recommend cribbing from Freeman's bibliography.

A final note: I also recommend reading the primary sources, so for each book you read, read a primary source. Most of the key ones for this period appear in translation either for free on the Net or in fairly inexpensive books by Penguin and other publishers.

theswain said...

Anon and Phil:

No, my intent is not to discredit. My original intent was simply to respond to Tim's original review. The remainder has been reactions to specific comments here.

As for Freeman's thesis: while my intent is not to discredit, I would say that the thesis is wrong, and anyone who has read beyond the surface level in the period will see it right away. Rather than be threatened by his ideas, people like Bowersock who are professionals in the field who have found the book wanting do so because they've been asked to review it, not because they feel challenged by it. You'll find that for the most part, few of the reviews of Closing came out in professional journals.

To Phil directly: no, I'm not drawing the line narrowly. I am a professional medievalist. I edit a journal in my field that is interdisciplinary so I am constantly reading and commenting on materials that deal with literature, linguistics, archeology, history, art and art history, numismatics etc. I am editing an encyclopedia for the period, and likewise am spreading across disciplines. I am not an archaeologist, yet for another journal in my field, I read and report on archeology for the periods and areas covered by the journal. When I teach courses, I always bring in art, artifacts, and other disciplines. And I don't just teach in my field, I often teach far outside the medieval period. In my own publications I bring in archeology and other fields to bolster my own findings using the tools of my field.

But let's be clear here. No matter how often I teach ancient history, or how good a book I write on New Kingdom Egypt is, I will never be recognized as a professional Egyptologist: not unless I learn the languages, do the archeology, and steep myself in the primary literature and inscriptions and demonstrate a command of the primary sources and languages and history and artifacts to professional Egyptologists. Then I might be so recognized by some.

As I pointed out, Freeman, intelligent, good writer, undergrad degree in history, does not display a command of Late Antiquity that a professional should. He's an amateur historian.

You invoke Bourdieu, but let's think of it another way. Your plumber may be fascinated by the human body and read books on brain surgery and watched live surgery and be able to tell you all sorts of fascinating things about brain surgery and the way the brain works. But I'll bet any amount of money you choose that if you had a tumor on the brain that needed an operation, you wouldn't be asking your plumber to do it or even to assist. You'd go to a brain surgeon.

Freeman can tell the average, inexpert reader on Late Antiquity a great deal of fascinating stuff, and even in some cases do a better job of unraveling complex material and present it in a very understandable way to the average reader. But that ability doesn't make him a professional any more than your plumber's knowledge about brain surgery makes him a brain surgeon.

Tim, I apologize, but some readers here seem to be painting you with a brush they should only be directing at me.

Bjørn Are said...

Historyblogwatcher:

I appreciate your reply, even if I didn't understand how it answered any of my questions.

I've read Coyne and that other place you linked to, and can't see they do it either.

So, sorry to repeat my questions, but could you please tell me in what way does James H's history seem "dated"? I can't see you have given any examples yet.

It would also still be nice if you could provide a link (or a title to a book) or two to a more up to date history in James's field.

If not, I can't quite take you seriously.

Tim O'Neill said...

Gents,

As fascintating as James Hannam's ideas, biases and credentials may be, that subject isn't really on topic. Considering we are now up to 45 comments on my post, perhaps we could keep the discussion to Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind and my review.

Though it's interesting that "historyblogwatcher" mentioned butterfliesandwheels.com because a particularly bad article on that site entitled "The Barbarians' Raw Deal" by Christopher Orlet which peddles some laughable pseudo history about the fall of the Roman Empire is going to form the basis of a future article on my blog about some of the myths on that subject.

Anyone wanting to discuss James Hannam or his writing should go to http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/ or to its discussion forum at http://jameshannam.proboards.com . Or they can wait until I review Hannam's upcoming book. Those who have got their knickers in a twist about me pointing out Freeman's amateur status will be happy to learn I will do the same about Hannam's in that reveiw. Whether Hannam's book is as amateurish as Freeman's remains to be seen.

Humphrey said...

Thanks 'theswain'!. Much obliged.

"The Barbarians' Raw Deal" by Christopher Orlet which peddles some laughable pseudo history about the fall of the Roman Empire."

Ha yes. I came across that one a couple of months ago. I think partly it's the responsibility of amateurs with some training as historians to take rubbish like this apart; or rather communicate the work of professionals in the field to a wider audience. See for example the work of amatuer historian Ken McVay at the Nizkor project which has been useful for combating holocaust denial.

Booklist comments said...

Reading in Late Antiquity

Thanks The Swain for good reading list. MacMullen and Brown are always worth reading - I once attended a series of Brown’s lectures and he speaks as beautifully as he writes. He does have the second edition of his The Rise of Western Christendom out and there is also Judith Herrin’s The Formation of Christendom which is more on her speciality , the east.
Cameron is probably dated now but see her Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire which is looking more at the Christian texts of the period.
Robin Lane Fox , the Oxford ( and I use that term in a neutral sense of the location where this distinguished scholar has lectured for many years!) classical historian, has his Pagans and Christians . It is years old but no one else gives such a good picture as the Christian/ pagan debate on the ground.
Drake on Constantine and the Bishops is a magisterial book, full and thoughtful analysis of Constantine’s main speeches ,etc.
As a general introduction Peter Garnsey and Caroline Humfress, The Evolution of the Late Antique World has lots of material not easily found elsewhere. Good introductory essays on the main themes.
More academic studies. 1) Gregory Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World, looks at the dfferent philosophical groups including the Christian ones.
2)The best reviewed and most authoritative study relevant to this theme is Edward Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. He covers all the main themes , Hypatia, the Closing of the Schools in Athens, with a fine introduction to academic life in the period. He must be the starting point. Actually I would say he comes somewhere between Freeman and his critics but one for you to review Tim?
I can’t share the enthusaism of some for Rodney Stark. His The Rise of Christianity ( in which he argued ,among other things, that Christianity grew forty per cent decade by decade) was not backed by sufficient historical evidence to make its case and he failed to understand that one cannot speak of Christianity tout court in the early centuries. Do you include the Marcionites ( said to be the largest Christian denomination in some cities despite being declared heretics in the second century) or the Donatists? His failure to raise these points severely weakened the impact of his thesis. Don’t even go near his The Victory of Reason. How a scholar could show off his ignorance of what he was writing about quite so openly is a mystery. Even a first year undergraduate in classical studies would have done better - or would have been thrown off his course if he hadn’t. Christianity may, or may not, have preserved reason, but Stark provides no evidence either way and his knowledge of the medieval world is equally faulty. I once was talking to an academic colleague and Stark’s name came up. ‘He is a good friend of mine and he is a really nice person’, said my colleague. I put on my most neutral tone and asked what he thought of The Victory of Reason. ‘Oh, absolutely dreadful’ he said. Be warned.
One reason why Freeman has sold well is that there are no other books I know of which deal with this period at the readable popular level with the same themes. I know it is not easy to persuade presses to take books but if one of those who complain about Freeman could write a book at the same level which dealt with the continuity of thought, survival of rationalism, etc, between 300 and 600 AD then Freeman would not hold the central place he does in the POPULAR market.
Overall, I am not quite so dismissive about Freeman as some here. He does have intellectual energy which is invigorating for those of us who have to trawl through too many arid 'professional' works of scholarship that the university presses still pour out! Professionalism is all very well but it doesn't always stimulate the brain!

Endre said...

Hmmm. Fluid prose and intellectual energy or no, I've always found that the (not necessarily here) sometime voiced opinion that popular history should be given more leeway for overcreative interpretation and unexplainable lacunae of work and sources that should have been central to the thesis in order to make the text more interesting and support the main thesis a really bad idea. Popular history should ultimately be held to the same standards as "professional" history. The research can be hidden in footnotes and references, but the long and the short of it is that popular history really simply should be good historical research published in an accessible manner. The writer can be providing original material and his own interpretations or he can be summarizising the current consensus (such as it is) but the kind of errors Tim have pointed out in the review are not easily forgiveable - if the work is to be regarded as a work of history. It is thus somewhat disturbing that the criticisms are not really handled in this debate. A discussion about the validity of a review should be about whether or not its praise or criticism is valid.

theswain said...

Hey Booklist:

All excellent books that I should have included here. I considered adding Judith Herrin's, but it takes us into the ninth century and not much on the fourth. Still a very good read. And I completely spaced on the Fox book....a must in my view.

Re: Stark, I didn't recommend his Victory of Reason for all the reasons you outline. And I agree that his Rise has its problems. He isn't a classical historian or even a classicist, but a sociologist with interests in the ancient world. What I like about his _Rise_ is the sociological model he posits for the growth of the Christian cult, a unique way of looking at it that really has a great deal of explanatory power. For better history, I'd go with Frend, and I should have mentioned Brown's book too. Another lacuna!

Re: Watts, yes, a great book. But I think that someone new to the field and the issues ought to start with some other materials first, so I chose not to mention him.

In other news, I've taken a few moments and cribbed some web sites that might be helpful:

http://www.sc.edu/ltantsoc/#ref

The website for the Late Antiquity Society. Dated though as the society has long since moved and no one has kept up the page. Still links to many good sites and literature there.

http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/orb/lt-atest.htm
Steve Muhlberger's introduction to Late Antiquity housed on the ORB site

http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/orb/bibind.htm

Orb's bibliography

http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/texts/wola.bibliography.html

A bibliography by James O'Donnell, goes with his site which is also good

http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/orb/interact.htm

A somewhat recent bibliography from the Late Antiquity list on the Pagan/Christian debate of the period

http://www.academici.com/blog.aspx?bid=4961

A bib focusing more on the Roman Emperor cult in the period, but still some good resources.

Booklist comments said...

Well, I see looking back that Freeman refused to comment and is entitled to do so. I am surprised that he went so far as to get in touch at all because it is quite a convention in academic circles to pretend not to notice critical reviews at all - and very few academics choose to get waylaid into lengthy debates over what they may have written some years ago .In fact, I think they would be thought of as fairly neurotic if they did.
However, I am writing again because I may have been misleading when I said that Watts was somewhere between Freeman and his critics. He obviously does not address Freeman and his writing is very nuanced. One of his themes is that pagan philosophy did survive but it had to adapt to a more aggressive Christianity - though again one of the strengths of his book is that Watts contrasts Alexandria with Athens and so provides a fuller picture of what went on. This is one of those books that one cannot summarise but the Bryn Mawr review is good. If you are genuinely interested in the actual issues , rather than just discrediting Freeman,you could not do better than Watts. I hope this is helpful.

Booklist comments said...

Endre. I wish being a professional historian , as defined by this website, was some guarantee of quality. Often I feel that publishers, even university presses, put more resources into working on the books that will bring them a return, than the more academic ones. I have read many 'professional' books which seem hardly to have been edited it all - so much for professional history equals quality. (The biggest problem really is not so much inaccuracy but leaden writing)
Actually faced with books such as The Victory of Reason, Gavin Menzies on China and Graham Hancock on Egypt, Freeman is really quite high on the list! I wouldn't waste my energies on trying to work out exactly really where he was 'right' and 'wrong' especially as, in this area , the sources are difficult to assess and you would never get a consensus among historians on the qualities of his book anyway. I always tell students that they will become better historians from reading as widely as possible and not try to find a Bible for each subject they are studying. They will learn how to discriminate much better and might even develop their own thoughts!.

Anonymous said...

If Booklist Comments is right, and he seems to be an academic who knows this field well, there is one brilliant but too little known book, Watts on Athens and Alexandria, which deserves to be more widely known and one, The Victory of Reason, which deserves to be rubbished. ( I looked up Victory of Reason on amazon.com and it had endless reviews praising its scholarship but then when you trawl more widely you find that scholars share Booklist Comments opinion- one professor called it the worst book by a social scientist he had ever read !)
I am sure you are overburdened with choice, Tim, but now that this subject seems to be winding down, can I suggest you put this pair on your 'To review' list.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anonymous said...
I am sure you are overburdened with choice, Tim, but now that this subject seems to be winding down, can I suggest you put this pair on your 'To review' list.


The length of time I spent reading, annotating and analysing Freeman's book and then going back and reading up on all the reasons I believed his thesis was completely flawed means that I haven't posted as many reviews here as I would have liked lately. In the meantime I have read Dan Jones' Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and Peter Ackroyd's biography Chaucer and his Medieval historical novel The Clerkenwell Tales.

Those three works are all inter-related enough for them to make for a nice combined review. But then again I've just finished fellow Sydneysider Christopher Kelly's The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the End of Rome, which is so superb it needs a review as well.

Having read relevant chapters of Watts, I've added his book to my Amazon.com wishlist and will be reading it ASAP. His chapter on the closing of the revived neo-Platonic "Academy" in Athens totally undermines Freeman's thesis by showing that it was wholly politically motivated and had nothing to do with any "closing of the mind." This seems an excellent book and one to be read and referred to if not reviewed.

Stark's book, on the other hand, looks like crap and I have no interest in it at all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tim. I shall look forward to the next reviews. Do you think this one wounded its target and all the work you put into it was worthwhile?

Tim O'Neill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim O'Neill said...

Thanks, Tim. I shall look forward to the next reviews.

Good to hear.

Do you think this one wounded its target and all the work you put into it was worthwhile?

My only aim with my review was to analyse Freeman's book. Nothing more. The way Freeman's other books and various irrelevant elements came into the discussion was very strange. What is notable is the fact that neither Freeman nor his fans were able to tackle a single aspect of my critique. And that's over 50+ comments.

All I hope is that the next time someone cites Freeman as some kind of pseudo authority for this "closing of the western mind" bullshit someone else will be able to link to my analysis in response.

And if anyone pops their head over the Freeman parapet and tries to defend his crap, please let me know. I'll be primed and ready to kick the living shit out if it.

Bjørn Are said...

I have also read Watts and he is highly recommended.

Serious, balanced and learned - and with few axes to grind - illuminating stuff even for an Alexandria buff like me.

Phil Brook said...

Tim. Just back into this debate.
Think about it from the point of view of those reading your blog. They will be more interested in you using your expertise, which no one denies, to discuss new books just out especially those like Hannam’s which might not get reviewed elsewhere. I am sure I am not the only one that thinks it strange that you don’t start with Freeman’s view on these issues as they are now. You seem to assume that Freeman has had enormous and continuing influence with Closing of the Western Mind which I doubt. What are all these books and websites that cite it- are any of them respected ones that people take note of? Most people will have read it among other books on the period and will be aware that it is one point of view among many.
Your last contribution also suggests, well, that’s how it reads, perhaps I am wrong, that your main aim is to campaign against Freeman and his ‘fans’. I wonder whether you see yourself as an objective ‘professional’ academic website or a campaigning platform for one particular point of view? I would be interested in your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Tim wrote 'The way Freeman's other books and various irrelevant elements came into the discussion was very strange. '
Tim, your review has come up under 'Charles Freeman., Closing of the Western Mind' on a Google Search so anyone anywhere in the world who has a Google Alert on this book will have been directed to it. No wonder there was a range of comments. As always in such debates many of them are strictly irrelevant to the issue in hand. Freeman himself seems to have opted out early on.

Carl Anderson said...

Everything has gone to hell since they started allowing priests to touch beans!

Ignorance said...

I must say that the priestly touching of peas has been quite beneficial to science, though.

Carl Anderson said...

Ach. they were Mendeling with forces beyond their ken! ;)

Anonymous said...

"Your last contribution also suggests, well, that’s how it reads, perhaps I am wrong, that your main aim is to campaign against Freeman and his ‘fans’. I wonder whether you see yourself as an objective ‘professional’ academic website or a campaigning platform for one particular point of view? I would be interested in your thoughts."

He seemed pretty objective to me. Freeman's argumentation was absolute tripe and he simply stated that anyone attempting to push these ideas forward without any improvement insofar as quality is going to end up getting more of the same.