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