Closing of the Western Mind

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* Book: The Closing of the Western Mind. The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason. Charles Freeman.



Michel Bauwens, 2003:

This book addresses an important question: Does christian monotheism represent progress when compared to the 'paganism' that it replaced. This in the general context of the decline of the Roman Empire at the hand of nomadic 'barbarians' and the onset of what for a long time was called the 'Dark Ages'

The book starts with the history of the Greek city states and the emergence of a distinct and self-aware rationality. When this system reached its limits in the Hellenistic Era, despite the absolutism and the adventurism of Alexander the Great, it created kingdoms where science and the arts could drive, despite the setback to the original egalitarianism (of male citizens).

C.H. then describes the rise of Rome, based on a system combining a military culture with expanded citizenship for conquered people (something the Greeks never achieved) and the gradual adoption of the Greek intellectual culture, as exemplified in the figure of Cicero. The story continues with the fall of the Republic, and Freeman insists, against Gibbon, that the Roman Empire remained at a high intellectual level, despite the emperor worship and its sometimes extreme manifestations. Freeman notes the general rise of pagan monotheism and the existence of a specific non-Jewish 'one god' cult.

The third century saw increasing invastions, both in the West (the Alemani) amd the East (by the Sassanides, who succeeded the Parths), met by a successfull reorganization under a Tetrarchy led by Diocletus. By that time, the Emperor had become completely divinized and removed from popular contact. All citizens had become Romans and thus it became more difficult to tolerate the Christians, who refused allegiance to the Roman State. The first empire-wide persecution started in 260-1 (before this date, all depended on the governors). - Before examining the turnaround by Constantine, why is it that the Jesus movement became so resilient and enduring ? The author describes at length the contradictions between Paul and the Gospel writers (both amongst and between themselves), as they were groping to produce a theology. The Apostles initially operate within Judaism though against the mainstream, but both lose influence after the destruction of the Temple; Paul, who abolishes the Jewish law, opens to Gentiles but is implacably hostile to the Greco-Roman world. But moving to that world it becomes possible to divinise Jesus, as "John" is doing in the last gospel which also contains the seed of later anti-Semitism because of the charge of deicide. The focus on the authority of written texts as vehicles of truth was completely alien to the Greco-Roman world and their flexible use of 'myths'.

The rift-driven Churches gradually turned to canonical texts, and their exclusive interpretation by the Bishops, to establish a strong doctrinal authority. Faith, defined as believing the credo, acts as a filter for acceptance. Middle Platonism and its elitary positioning was then used for intellectual respectability. - After the conversion of Constantine, which Freeman shows to be wholly political, every council was called by the Emperor, and its decisions upheld by decree. Freeman then describes the slow ascendancy, rife with internal struggles, of the 'official' Church, with the pathological hate of sex, the systematic elimination of paganism (especially after Justininan), up to the division of the Empire between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, in 395. Until that time, Rome was just one of the bishopsrics. Dominant had been Alexandria, Antioich, and Constantinople. It is only after the split that Rome would slowy become dominant.

In the West, the Augustine interpretation would become the orthodoxy and faith in the mysteries would totally dominate reason, while 'popular' christianity was becoming magical.