Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman

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

(Pimlico 2003, Vintage 2002) 470 pages
Verdict?: Fundamentally flawed 2/5

At one point late in the process of working my way through Freeman's dense and exasperating book something struck me about the works he was using to support his argument, so I stopped reading and turned to his bibliography. It is a respectable 16 pages of excellent scholarly works on topics as wide-ranging as the origins of Christianity to ancient Greek astronomy and from Neo-platonism to the conversion of the Empire. But the books that were remarkable by their absence were precisely the ones I was looking for. Here was a weighty, closely-argued tome that was trying to explain the death of reason and its consequent absence in the early Middle Ages (at least, apparently, until the age of Aquinas in the Thirteenth Century) and yet nowhere in his bibliography could I find anything on early Medieval philosophy, Medieval science or Medieval thought generally. Given the excellent recent work done on the continuity between Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Late Antique and Medieval thinking by giants in the field like David C. Lindberg and the even more important (and relevant) work done on Medieval attitudes to reason by Edward Grant, this gaping hole in Freeman's bibliography was astounding.

But it did explain many things about the book itself, because Freeman's work is, like his bibliography, full of weird absences, strange gaps and unexplained holes. His writing is fluid and his argument is smooth, so it is hardly surprising that most of his readers are blissfully unaware of these odd lacunae. Indeed, Freeman carries even readers who are aware of what he is not telling us along so fluently that it required me to stop several times and say to myself "But hang on a minute, what about ... ?" And that's because I am fairly familiar with the material he covers already. So it is hardly surprising that non-specialist reviewers accept his thesis without so much as blinking and that most general readers have been even more readily convinced. At several key points in his argument I felt like someone watching a stage magician at work - you know what he is showing you is not the whole story, but the illusion is so smooth it's easy to blink and miss the deception.

Roman "Tolerance"

Several times before on this blog I've reviewed works that cover the beginning of the Dark Ages, though in this one the barbarians so central to writers like Wickham and O'Donnell (below) barely get a mention. The barbarism that Freeman laments is a specific one and it's certainly not the Goths and Vandals who are responsible for the vandalism:

The argument of this book is that the Greek intellectual tradition did not simply lose vigor and disappear. (Its survival and continued progress in the Arab world is testimony to that). Rather in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, it was destroyed by the political and religious forces which made up the highly authoritarian government of the late Roman empire.
(Freeman, "Introduction to the Pimlico Edition", xvii)

Consequently the bulk of his 450+ pages is a reasonable summary of the development of Classical natural philosophy, its basis in reason, how it fared in the Hellenistic and Roman periods and the rise and development of Christianity from a Jewish sect to an Imperial state religion. On the whole this summary of history is judicious enough and covers a broad range of topics and centuries in enough detail to avoid being glib and rapidly enough to avoid getting bogged down.

The points where his narrative jars for anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the subject matter is where Freeman skips around something that might not suit his picture of Classical and Roman thinking as generally free, untrammelled and superbly rational and later thinking as restricted, oppressed, constrained and (finally) strangled. Freeman makes ancient medicine sound as though it bordered on the rigour of its modern equivalent, for example. Yet it was as riddled with silliness, superstition, astrology, mysticism, false assumptions and quack cures as anything in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was a highly irrational ancient taboo about corpses that prevented any genuine examination of human anatomy - with the exception of one short window in which human dissection was allowed in Ptolemaic Egypt, anatomical knowledge came from guesswork, observations of screaming patients during surgery and the dissection of apes, dogs and pigs. Not surprisingly, this rather irrational way of working did not exactly yield much useful information. And ironically, this taboo was overcome and true dissections were carried out again in the Middle Ages.

Similarly, Freeman makes much of the supposed religious tolerance of earlier Roman imperial authorities and contrasts this with the increasingly intolerant attitudes of Constantine and his successors to the purple:

(T)here clearly existed a wide range of spiritual possibilities, any one of which could be followed without any sense of impropriety and, even though there existed some degree of competition between the different movements for adherents, none excluded other beliefs.
(Freeman, p. 75)

This bucolic image is very pretty and highly appealing. And, as a marked rhetorical contrast to the later Imperial campaigns for religious orthodoxy that Freeman describes in detail, it works very neatly. Unfortunately, it's also total nonsense.

Despite what Freeman would like to pretend or have his readers believe, the intolerance of the post-Constantinian emperors of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries had deep Roman and Classical roots. The Romans were tolerant enough of various cults, but only so long as they met certain criteria. Obviously the worship of their version of the Olympian gods was fine and this cult formed the centre of their regime for centuries. And the gods of their conquered peoples were also acceptable so long as they conformed more or less to the Roman model of religion. So the worship of the Celtic god Grannos or Grannus as an equivalent of Apollo was acceptable and tolerated, but the Celtic practice of human sacrifice was not. This means toga-wearing priests of Grannos continued to present offerings to their god at Aquae Granni (now Aachen) in the wake of the Roman conquest of Gaul, but the British druids experienced something very different to Freeman's idealised Roman "tolerance" when Suetonius Paulinus and his troops descended on their cult centre on the island of Anglesey and massacred them and their families.

And the other examples of the intolerance of the Romans well before the villains of Freeman's version of the story are many and, to be frank, often pretty ugly. Contrary to his claim that any cult could be "followed without any sense of impropriety", various mystery religions, especially those of Isis and Cybele, were sneered at as sects for foreigners, the nouveau riche and freed slaves and, occasionally, restricted or expelled from Rome and other cities. Other cults were actively destroyed in hysterical fear campaigns that were clear precursors of the heresy scares and witch hunts of later periods. Bacchanalian sects were actively and brutally persecuted and eliminated by the Roman Senate in the Second Century BC in savage persecutions that prefigured the later persecution of Christians. And while Judaism officially enjoyed the status of religio licita by merit of its antiquity, the virulent anti-Semitism in the Roman Empire had a religious rather than a purely ethnic edge.

The persecution of Christians poses a particular problem for Freeman, since it's a part of his story that he cannot simply skip around as he does when ignoring the uglier, less-tolerant aspects of his supposedly highly tolerant Empire. He handles this by downplaying the persecutions as much as possible, emphasising that many of the later traditions about the persecutions were fanciful and framing them as reasonable responses to fairly legitimate concerns about a dissident element. Interestingly, he does not take a similar tack in his far longer, far more detailed and far more condemnatory account of later Christian oppression of pagans. As one of Freeman's more informed reviewers notes:

Rome in any case oppressed the Christians – a fact that is only mentioned here and there in the book, though measures of reprisal against the pagans after Constantine’s accession furnish a theme for several chapters. If it is a crime to raze a temple, it must surely be a greater crime to throw the congregation to the lions, and of the half-dozen philosophers who triumphed over the ashes of the martyrs in the first three Christian centuries, Porphyry was the only one to be punished by the burning of his books.
(Mark Edwards, History Today, Vol. 52, December 2002, p. 60)

The "tolerance" that Freeman presents seems tolerant only because Freeman does not bother to tell the whole story. This is a consistent failing throughout his book, particularly at the very points on which his broader thesis rests. This pattern is so consistent, in fact, that it begins to look very much like the work of someone who had fallen into the amateur's trap of assuming their own conclusion and only presenting the information that supports it.

A Cloud of Critics, Compilers and Commentators

Freeman's account of reason in the Classical world contains some similar omissions and curious elisions. In his detailed overview of ancient and Medieval science, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, David C. Lindberg moves from the significant contribution of the Classical Greek natural philosophers and mathematicians to a much briefer chapter entitled "Roman and Early Medieval Science". Over 26 pages Lindberg gives a reasonable summary of science and reason in the period from the early First Century BC to the age of the Venerable Bede (d. AD 735). And he is able to make the summary of eight centuries in such a short space because, to be blunt, not much happened in this period. With the notable exceptions of Ptolemy and Galen, this was a period of commentators and encyclopaedists and was certainly not a period of reason being fruitfully applied to the world in an unfettered and tolerant intellectual idyll, with remarkable and innovative results. If anything, the Roman era saw science increasingly become a slightly eccentric hobby and saw the thinkers of the previous age solidify into largely unquestioned or even unexamined "authorities".

This is not exactly remarkable and there are many periods of history where similar things have happened in certain areas of intellectual inquiry. But it does not really fit with Freeman's thesis. He needs the slow down and stagnation of the application of reason to the world to come much later - during and after the reigns of the villains of his story: the post-Constantinian emperors and their Christian cultural quislings. So he puts a brave front on this period and has his story glide on in smooth prose as though there is no problem at all:

This period has often been derided for its lack of intellectual energy. In the magnificently sardonic words of Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

"The name of Poet was all but forgotten, that of Orator usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste."

Yet .... the quality of intellectual life remained high and in recent years scholars have shown increasing respect for the achievements of the Greeks under the Roman Empire.
(Freeman, p. 60)

This should be a crucial point in Freeman's argument, since his thesis actually substantially stands or falls on Gibbon's assessment (which is supported by Lindberg and other very recent historians of ancient and Medieval science and reason) being wrong. If he wants his argument that "the Greek intellectual tradition did not simply lose vigour and disappear .... it was destroyed" to be sustained, he needs to show that this perceived loss of vigour in the Roman period never, in fact, happened. And Freeman is more than capable of supporting points in his argument; often for whole chapters at a time with many quotes, examples and citations of modern authorities.

So it's very odd that here, at a point where you would expect some close and detailed argument, we get ... well, nothing much. He makes the point that recent scholars have "
have shown increasing respect for the achievements of the Greeks under the Roman Empire", but that is the last we hear of these recent scholars. We never hear what this "increasing respect" is based on either. After meandering for a few pages describing the reigns and gardens of Hellenophile emperors like Nero and Hadrian, Freeman finally returns to the "achievements" he mentioned. But instead of a long list of overlooked advances and significant contributions that have not been appreciated, what we get is, well, Galen and Ptolemy. And the algebraist, Diophantus. But that is pretty much it.

This is not really really sufficient to disable Gibbon's claim of "a cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators" darkening the face of learning. As Lindberg's analysis illustrates, apart from Galen and Ptolemy, the landscape of Roman era science was made up almost entirely of popularisers and commentators like Varro, Lucretius, Pliny, Macrobius and Martianus Capella. And this tradition led directly into early Medieval successors like Cassiodorus, Isiodore and Bede. The fact is, the Greek intellectual tradition did "lose its vigour" and did so well before Freeman's villains even enter stage left.

Of course, most of Freeman's readers and reviewers are not familiar enough with the material to notice what he has done here and the flow of his narrative moves on so smoothly and engagingly that they do not actually get time to ponder it before he gets into the stuff he finds really juicy and which forms the bulk of his book.

Wicked Emperors and Fundamentalist Bishops

The next part of the work is a section which Freeman serves up with some relish. The central 200 or so pages of his book is a lengthy and (generally) accurate summary of the origins and rise of Christianity, the conversion first of the emperors and then of their Empire and the complex and (literally) Byzantine theological disputes that led the Emperors of the Eastern Empire to become increasingly dogmatic, hard-line and intolerant of dissent. Freeman argues that intolerance of contrary or even alternative ideas became built into the institution of Empire and, as such, was passed on to the post-Roman west, killing the tolerance and rationally-based inquiry of the former ages in the process.

If Freeman had never bothered with that argument and instead written a book about the intersection of Fourth to Sixth Century Christian theology with Imperial politics this central section would have stood alone nicely. Richard E. Rubenstein's When Jesus Became God already covers the same ground a little more engagingly and even-handedly and Judith Herrin's The Formation of Christendom is more far detailed and more perceptive, but the market could probably sustain another perspective on the same topic. But Freeman's account is entangled with his wider thesis and, as a result, it contains some oddities and some more of his strange gaps and silences.

One of the more peculiar elements in it is his constant emphasis on the idea that Arian Christology was somehow more widely accepted and more reasonable than its rival position and his depiction of what was to become orthodox Nicean Christology as imposed against broad resistance. This seems to fit with a general theme regarding Constantine as a bully and a machiavel (which is not, in itself, unreasonable), but to the point where it becomes highly strained.

Similarly, all indications that Constantine may have been motivated by any genuine religious zeal - however unsophisticated - is downplayed or ignored. It is highly odd that Freeman makes a great deal of the fact that Constantine did not get baptised when he converted and only received that sacrament on his deathbed. I can't think of any objective historian who notes this who does not then quickly also comment that this was common practice at the time and is not an indicator of any lack of conviction or piety. So the fact that Freeman completely fails to make this simple observation is not just odd, but slightly suspicious. I find it hard to believe someone who has researched the period as carefully as Freeman clearly has could be unaware that this was common practice, so it seems he did not bother to mention it because doing so casts Constantine in a light that suits his thesis. Once again, Freeman fails to prove himself an objective historian and veers off, despite his pretensions and protests to the contrary, into the territory of the polemicist.

Similarly we get strange omissions in his brief account of the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria. As I have discussed before, Hypatia's death was not a martyrdom for the sake of science, reason or paganism, but was actually a grubby tit-for-tat killing in the brutal arena of Alexandria's savage civic politics. But it suits Freeman's thesis to completely ignore these facts and simply present the astronomer and mathematician being torn apart by a mob of crazed Christian ascetics. He does not say that this vignette illustrates his thesis, but by only telling part of the story he does not actually have to - his careful editing of the details does the job for him.

God and Reason in the Middle Ages

These smaller omissions and skewing of the picture aside, the major flaw in this part of the book is related to the problems and gaps in the earlier section. Just as Freeman skims over the fact that the Greek intellectual tradition did lose its vigour long before the increasingly Christian and rigidly intolerant emperors of the Fourth to Sixth Centuries, he also ignores the fact that for every Church father, patriarch and bishop who denigrated reason, philosophy and learning in this period, there were others who defended them.

It certainly is not hard to find early Christian authorities who disparage natural philosophy, discourage the contemplation of science and scold the faithful for trusting reason over revelation and faith. And Freeman's work reads like a depressing roll call of Patristic fundamentalism and wilful ignorance. Of Tertullian he writes:

How could one have answered his most famous statement, 'The Son of God died, it must needs be certain because it is impossible'? Like many Latin Christians, he taunted the Greek philosophers: 'Wretched Aristotle who taught them [the heretics and philosophers] dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing ... self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them ... what is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?'
(Freeman, p. 279)

But what Freeman fails to mention is that Tertullian himself was trained in dialectic and that he used it in his own work. Here Tertullian is decrying not so much "dialectic", but its use by heretics. Of course, Tertullian was certainly no great fan of unfettered speculation and rational analysis over revelation and faith, but he was not quite the close-minded, anti-intellectual philistine Freeman depicts here either.

More importantly, Freeman gives a great deal of attention to sentiments like that of Tertullian while almost completely ignoring another, far greater and far more significant development that was emerging around the same time. Because while some Christians certainly were steadfastly turning their backs on reason and rejecting the legacy of the Classical Greek scientific tradition, others were doing precisely the opposite. And the key point here is that those who opposed the rejection of reason and Greek learning won the debate over those like Tertullian and John Chrysostom who would have preferred to abandon the Greek rational heritage completely. The fact that Freeman utterly fails to acknowledge this is telling, but it seems he has done so because it undermines his whole thesis.

Justin Martyr argued that reason and the learning of the Greek philosophers were not incompatible with the theology of a revealed religion as early as the Second Century AD and this idea, adapted from the Jewish scholar Philo, was taken up and amplified by Clement of Alexandria:

We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them, being, as it were, a stepping stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ.
(Clement, Miscellanies, VI, 8)

This idea that reason and philosophy were stepping stones to the same truths revealed in Christianity became a consistent theme amongst a continuous strand of Patristic tradition - one which was diametrically opposed to that which advocated the rejection of "pagan learning". Even Origen called philosophy "the ancillary of Christianity", but the idea that the universe was the rational product of a rational God and so could be apprehended by the reason of the Greeks was argued most influentially by John of Damascus:

Nothing is more estimable than knowledge, for knowledge is the light of the rational soul. The opposite, which is ignorance, is darkness. Just as the absence of light is darkness, so is the absence of knowledge a darkness of the reason. Now, ignorance is proper to irrational beings, while knowledge is proper to those who are rational.
(John of Damascus, Writings, trans. Frederick H. Chase, p. 7)

Freeman does pay some scant and fleeting attention to this important alternative strand of Christian thought (pp. 143-44), but, remarkably, he seems to miss (or choose to ignore) its significance for the very subject he is discussing. After even quoting Augustine's famous and highly influential comment about making use of the knowledge of the pagans the way the Israelites carried off the gold of the Egyptians, he notes darkly, "In the west however, there continued to be a strong distrust of pagan philosophy." (p. 144). Bizarrely, Freeman depicts Augustine as an integral part of "a defensive tradition inherited from Paul, largely in terms of its enemies .... as Augustine was to put it 'heretics, Jews and pagans'" and goes on to describe a consequent "intense concentration on the other world at the expense of this one" and centuries where "there was no sign of any renaissance of independent thought" (pp. 331-32).

In fact, Augustine's championing Clement's idea of utilising pagan learning to rationally examine a rational universe was vastly influential in the west. Both Cassiodorus and Boethius made this central to their program of preserving Greek learning, which is why Boethius gave a priority to the translation of Aristotle's works on logic, since logic and dialectic were central to this way of examining all forms of truth. With the decline of literacy in Greek which began in the Third Century, Boethius realised that he needed to translate key works into Latin to preserve them for western scholars. The fact that he chose five of Aristotle's logical works as well as similar works and commentaries by Porphyry, Cicero and Marius Victorinus was enormously significant. As Edward Grant notes:

By his monumental achievement, Boethius guaranteed that logic, the most visible symbol of reason and rationality, remained alive at the lowest ebb of European civilisation between the fifth and tenth centuries .... As Jonathan Barnes has expressed it, 'Boethius' labours gave logic half a millennium of life: what logician could say as much as that for his work? what logician could desire to say more?'"
(Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, p. 41)

So what does Freeman say about Boethius and his enshrining of reason at the very core of the Medieval scholarly curriculum? Absolutely nothing. Incredibly, Boethius does not even appear in his extensive 26 page index.

Of course the real reason for the centuries-long hiatus in intellectual development between the Fifth Century and the Tenth was the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the subsequent centuries of chaos, fragmentation, invasion and then slow recovery. By carefully avoiding key elements in the story, Freeman creates an illusion by which this hiatus was substantially caused by a rejection of reason by Christendom, where in fact reason was preserved so that as soon as the west emerged from that period of social, political and economic turmoil one of the first things its scholars did was go in search of the books of reason and inquiry that had been lost in the wreck.

And they found them amongst the Muslims of Spain and Sicily because Sixth Century Christians had taken them to Persia where they had been absorbed by Arabs who also embraced a concept parallel to that of Augustine's "gold of the Egyptians" argument. There was no "closing of the Western mind" at all. It is just that for several long centuries western minds had other things to think about, like surviving the next Avar or Viking incursion or getting through the next winter.

Polemics and Defensiveness

Freeman bills himself as "a freelance academic", which seems to be a slightly cute way of saying he is an amateur historian. He is certainly a lot more defensive than most professional academics. His introduction to the Pimlico edition of his book is a long apologia and defence against the idea he was attacking Christianity. He has posted not one but two lengthy comments along the same lines on, one of which (rather pretentiously) is actually a review of his own book! An unfavourable online review by James Hannam was met with two long e-mails explaining (not terribly successfully) what Hannam got wrong. And if all that was not enough, the foreword to his next book,
AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, contains yet another dismissal of criticisms of The Closing of the Western Mind.

In responding to one of his less enthusiastic critics Freeman notes, "I think Professor Taliaferro is being a bit harsh in calling my book polemical", but as I have shown, Freeman's curious omissions, glossing over of significant points and odd silences certainly leave his work wide open to that charge. A soberly objective account it certainly is not. Regardless of Freeman's intentions, however, others with polemical axes to grind have seized his book with relish.

A sampling of some of his fans on gives us the flavour of his work's reception:

"While it has been clear since Gibbon that the closing of the Western mind did not merely coincide with but was intimately bound up in the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, it is not trivially clear why this should be. With precision and erudition, Freeman investigates this question."

"This book argues that religion, in particular Christianity, led to the rejection of reason and plunged human civilization from the height of the Roman Empire into the Dark Ages for over 1,000 years."

"According to Freeman, because the Christian bishops at the time acquired political power as a result of church-state union, once the Roman Empire began to collapse its culture of free inquiry was crushed and replaced with 2 centuries of dogmatism and repression. More commonly known as The Dark Ages. "

"Previously I had not directly blamed Christianity for the Dark Ages even though there is a clear chronological correlation between the two. It had seemed to me that the Dark ages were more of a result of corruption of the Roman Empire. However, this book shows that the corruption originated with Christianity as instigated by Constantine.

The start of the Dark Ages can be dated to 415 when a mob of Christian monks murdered the mathematician Hypatia. There was no mathematics for a 1000 years until the time of Galileo (also a victim of Christianity). The bottom line is that we lost 1000 years of science. Imagine where we would be today if quantum mechanics had been developed 1000 years ago. "

And there are scores of others in the same vein, all drawing the same polemical and (in cases) slightly hysterical and totally erroneous conclusion from Freeman's book: the Dark Ages were not caused by the total collapse of the Roman Empire, they were caused by Constantine and the Church closing everyone's minds and killing rational inquiry. If this was not what Freeman was trying to argue then he needs to explain why it is consistently the conclusion so many of his readers have drawn.

Overall his book is very odd. For whole stretches, sometimes for several chapters at a time, it is sober, even-handed and well-judged. And it is always elegantly written and smooth to read. But where it jars is when he passes over something relevant that he leaves untouched or skips over a point that he notes too briefly and too lightly and then moves quickly back to his theme. Nonsensical errors - such as his ludicrous claim that Proclus made the last recorded astronomical observation for centuries and astronomy would not progress again for over 1100 years - are few, but his omissions and elisions serve to make it seem he has argued his case when he has not at all. Few of his reviewers and general readers have enough of a detailed grasp of the relevant material, however, to notice when he is quietly slipping the white rabbit into the top hat.

Good history books are meant to give us a better understanding of their subjects. This one ends up giving its readers a highly distorted impression and seems to be doing so deliberately. I'll let others decide if that is "polemics", but I can only conclude this is not a good history book.


Anonymous said...

Ouch, talk about unmasking OZ!

I wonder how long it will take
Freeman to find and subsequently throw a temper tantrum about this review?

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

A fine, thorough and well-argued review. If only a tenth of the reviews on places like could be as would mean one could actually trust their star ratings.

Anonymous said...

It is some years since I read The Closing of the Western Mind and although i found this review interesting ( and it seems remarkable that this book is still making waves), you seem unaware of the vast amount of material on the revival of Greek intellectual life in the second century, underpinned by the massive extensions of city building programmes in the east. I agree with you that there were some brilliant Christian philosopher/theologians and it seems that it was the emperors rather than the church which brought them to a standstill.
When I read Closing w.m. some years ago i looked up reviews of it and Freeman actually got quite strong support from historians of science including specialists in this period. Not being a historian of science myself I am not qualified to judge these but he certainly is not an outcast in academic circles - which is why, I suppose, Yale have signed him up for new book on Christianity. ( I assume they have academic advisers who have to approve these things so someone must like him.)

Tim O'Neill said...

you seem unaware of the vast amount of material on the revival of Greek intellectual life in the second century, underpinned by the massive extensions of city building programmes in the east.

I'm not sure what "city building programmes" have to do with the pursuit of science, but I'm unaware of any "revival" of Greek science in this period. As I note in my review, with the exception of Ptolemy and Galen, we see not much except encyclopaedists and commentators. So "city building programmes" or not, what we clearly see and what historians of science note is a a dwindling of science and reason well before Freeman's villains take the stage.

That alone sinks Freeman's theory.

I agree with you that there were some brilliant Christian philosopher/theologians and it seems that it was the emperors rather than the church which brought them to a standstill.

But the point is that rational inquiry was not "brought to a standstill" - it was preserved. The hiatus in the west was due to the fall of the Western Empire, not any "closing of the western mind". And we know this because in the half of the Empire that didn't fall, things continued intellectually much as they always had. Freeman neglects to note this - it's another of his strange silences.

When I read Closing w.m. some years ago i looked up reviews of it and Freeman actually got quite strong support from historians of science including specialists in this period

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. The few that I read which were by specialists in the relevant period were savagely condemnatory and for the reasons I've noted in my review. The rest were by non-specialist reviewers, but even some of them noted a whiff of polemic about Freeman's work. And none of the reviews I've been able to find are by "historians of science". Since I've studied ancient and medieval science history for some years, I'm pretty certain I would have noticed these reviews; in fact, I would have leapt on them.

So where are they and who are they by? And where are the ones by "historians of science"?

he certainly is not an outcast in academic circles

He isn't in "academic circles". He's an amateur.

which is why, I suppose, Yale have signed him up for new book on Christianity.

I've heard of his new book but I don't know if it's being peer reviewed or is simply one of Yale's money-spinner popularisations. Closing clealry wasn't peer reviewed, and it shows.

theswain said...

Well done and well argued. I have the same impressions, this was a book written from an a priori position and easily proven wrong not just in its central thesis, but many of the details throughout. I can only say, well said!

Freeman is an interesting chap. While "an amateur" which is true, he is intelligent and a good writer over all. He's written widely on historical subjects, having his undergrad in history if I recall, but isn't a specialist in any of the fields he mentions.

He does frequent academic circles, often asked to speak at small British conferences and such. He's an entertaining writer and speaker, so always a good time to hear, but that should not be taken as endorsement of his views.

Re: Yale Press...Yale Press is a business. It needs to sell books. By selling books they can then sign and publish scholars whose work is important but whose books will not make them money. It again should not be taken as a sign of his scholarly credentials, acceptance, or respect of those of us working in the fields on which he touches.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thorough review, Tim. Can't see myself working through the book from this review. Good to hear something about Freeman from The Swain- he crops up from time to time in blogs ,etc, but it is hard to find out much about him- someone once told me that there were two Charles Freemans, both historians , one writing on twentieth century subjects and this one on the ancient world so one could get confused- what kinds of conferences does this one speak at, TheSwain- history or religion?
Not sure, Tim, what you mean about him being an amateur - presumably he makes some sort of money from history or do you mean that he is not a trained historian or not respected by academic historians.Perhaps you have picked up more about him from all the research you have clearly done for this review.Look forward to hearing more if you have anything you can share as he clearly has some sort of following and people may be being misled into thinking that he is more respected, e.g. by Yale publications, than he really is.

Tim O'Neill said...

Not sure, Tim, what you mean about him being an amateur - presumably he makes some sort of money from history or do you mean that he is not a trained historian or not respected by academic historians.

I mean that he's not a professional historian - ie someone with a teaching and/or research position at an accredited university. There's nothing wrong with being an amateur and many do excellent work (hell - I'M an amateur!).

But professional historians have the advantage of working within the the structures and requirements of peer review, both formal and informal. Which means they have to work to make their arguments water-tight or they either don't see print or they damage their careers.

I can't imagine a qualified peer review reader with a relevant background allowing some of Freeman's more glaring omissions and silences through. But a "freelance academic" (I think I'm going to steal that nifty appellation) doesn't have to worry about that level of stringency.

Humphrey said...

Hi Tim, great review as always:

‘And none of the reviews I've been able to find are by "historians of science".’

It isn’t a review I’m afraid, but in the latest edition of David Lindburg’s ‘The Beginnings of Western Science’ he does mention ‘The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason’. Having described the efforts of Dickson White and others to depict the futility of medieval science and the anti-intellectual qualities of Christianity, he says:

‘Finally, to demonstrate that such views are alive and well I quote Charles Freemen in his ‘Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2003) : By the fifth century of the Christian era, he argues ‘not only has rational thought been suppressed, but there appears to have been a substitution for it of ‘mystery, magic and authority’. It is little wonder, given this kind of scholarly backing, that the ignorance and degradation of the Middle Ages has become an article of faith among the general public, achieving the status of invulnerability merely by virtue of endless repititon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks ,Tim, for the info on professional historians. I read somewhere that university publishers only take one per cent of the projects submitted to them , so I am not sure how people like Freeman get away with it. I will be interested to hear from The Swain or anyone else who knows of him and how he manages to keep going in such a competitive field. Surely university presses can't be quite that slack - or perhaps they can! Yale can't have read the reviews from professionals that you managed to dig out!
I think I have read reviews by Freeman on Amazon so he is certainly ready to keep in the public eye -perhaps that helps.

Charles Freeman said...

From Charles Freeman
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.
I have to say that despite extensive reading , I haven’t much changed my views. 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. 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’. 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.
Small points in reply to comments.
1) I am the same Charles Freeman who wrote on modern history in the 1980s - unless there is another Charles Freeman I don’t know of .
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.
3) I don’t know of any savagely condemnatory reviews from professional academics- there was a negative one from Bowersock in the Los Angeles Times and James O’Donnell made a fool of himself by criticising the book on the title alone and then admitting that he had not read it! Perhaps my publisher did not pass them on! Any writer who does temper tantrums when he/she got a critical review would’t last long!We all get a range of fors and againsts and live with that as a fact of life (though in my own experience most books get hardly any reviews at all! -one of mine only had one review).
4) I was asked as their guest speaker at the Roundtable Conferences (a faculty grouping of scientists and theologians) at Harvard, MIT and Amherst last year. John Polkinghorne was their guest the year before. I haven’t experienced the academic disaproval you suggest. In fact, I have had more contacts with professional academics since Closing came out than I had before and people like Paul Cartledge,Professor of Greek History at Cambridge,openly endorse my work.
5) Yale approached me on the basis of Closing to write on early Christianity. My proposal had to be passed by their academic advisory board, then the text went through two academic readers, one of whom has gone public to endorse the book, and then have the final manuscript passed by the academic board before it could be published. I don’t know who is going to make any money - my advance for two years work was £17,500. I went through as tough a precedure ,and for even less money ,with Oxford University Press for my Egypt, Greece and Rome. Your commentator who mentioned the difficulty in getting published by academic presses is absolutely right.
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.

Michael said...

I just came across this excellent review.

One thing Mr. Freeman might like to correct: Richard H. Schlagel is a philosopher, not a historian of science. And it is not at all surprising that he would like this book. His latest book is published by Prometheus Press. Look him up on Amazon. 'Nuff said.

Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...


Could you please cite some examples of this? I understand the Romans suffered from a certain cultural chauvinism which lead them to believe their culture and religion was superior to others, I was unaware that there was outright persecution of Judaism under pagan Roman rule that was similar to say, the pogroms that occurred when Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

Tim O'Neill said...

Mamiel writes:

I was unaware that there was outright persecution of Judaism under pagan Roman rule that was similar to say, the pogroms that occurred when Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

Roman anti-Semitism flared into occasional pogroms, especially in cities with high Jewish populations such as Alexandria, where thousands were massacred in a pogrom in 38 AD, with their elders crucified as part of celebrations of the emperor's birthday. Tiberius had 4,000 Jews deported from Rome and exiled to Sardinia in 19 AD. Josephus records another pogrom in Alexandria in 68 AD and claims "50,000" Jews died. And Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome again in 59 AD.

Kristofer said...

Don't you mean 49 AD?

Tim O'Neill said...

Don't you mean 49 AD?

Ooops - yes. It would have been hard for him to do anything much in 59 AD, considering he died four years earlier.

Kristofer said...

If I do recall he did in 54 AD , thus making that five years ago :)

Unknown said...

One factor that as far as I can tell that's been glanced is the status of women.

Regine Pernoud wrote on the status of women in the Roman Empire. The book opens with a discussion of how women had virtually no legal status in pagan Rome, with girl babies being routinely murdered at birth. (p.19) Daughters were rarely given a first name but usually were called by a feminine form of the family name. When Christian virgins such as Agnes and Cecilia asserted their personalities and their chosen vocations of being Brides of Christ, preferring death to unchastity or faithlessness, there was a backlash. In addition, she goes into detail on cases of women in Medieval Europe overseeing armies and/or being heirs to lands such as Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Which the Roman Empire was behind on that end.