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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Closing of the Western Mind

I listed this book recently in a post about what I was reading and now I've finished it. The central thesis of the book is that Christianity by the fifth century, served to impede the advancement of science and eason and only began to break out of its lethargy during the time of Thomas Acquinas in the 13th century. Simply put, Christianity was a major contributor to the dark ages, more so than Christian historians would like to admit and most Christians understand.

I'll admit that I was skeptical of this position even before reading the book and had attributed the dark ages more to the collapse of the Roman empire and the resulting power and cultural vacuum it created than anything else. After reading the book I can see that the author had some valid points. His basic argument goes like this chronologically.

  • By 700 BC the Greeks began to develop the idea of reason as a primary tool in understanding the world. These ideas were coalesced by Aristotle anad his philosophy on how to live a balanced life.

  • Plato took a slightly different direction through his ideas on Forms had the effect of discouraging observation of the natural world and the use of reason as the means to knowledge. It also denigrated the natural realm in favor of the perfect heavenly realm.

  • The ideas of both Aristotle and Plato were incorporated into the Roman empire beginning around 200 BC. Because Rome was essentially a federation of conquered nations the empire allowed a plurality of religious systems to exist although after Julius Caesar also included the cult of the emperor which demanded nominal allegiance.

  • Christianity was founded by the Apostle Paul who wove elements of Platonism and Greek thought into his teachings. Jesus was a historical figure, a wise teacher, but was not divine nor did he preach salvation, damnation, or anything supernatural. Particularly, Paul wove into Christianity the idea that human wisdom was corrupt and that God's wisdom was foolishness to the wise. This idea coupled with the belief that incorrect beliefs lead to eternal punishment, was later decisive in persuading Christians to abandon Greek thought and promoted the idea of knowledge being the purview of first those in apostolic succession and much later the bishop (the Pope) in Rome.

  • Christianity was also unique to the Roman empire for its exclusivity by not encouraging the practice of multiple religions. However, local practices became incorporated into the church leading to the creation of saints (martyrs) with powers similar to those of local deities and worship of the virgin Mary.

  • By 300 AD Constantine saw that the exclusive and hierarchical structure of the church could be used to keep "good order" in society and so allowed it to flourish freely. He wrongly thought that doctrinal differences could be ironed out through councils (like Nicea in 325 AD). However, he and his successors were wrong and the arguments between bishops became rancorous and personal. This was the case because the doctrinal points in question (e.g. the Trinity and the nature of the atonement) are inherently unknowable and subject to interpretation from texts (the New Testament) which never had the questions in mind and are therefore contradictory. This led to scores of heresies and heretics being found on all sides. Augustine lists 83 such hereies in the early fifth century.

  • With the official stance of Christianity secured came imperial funding and perks that institutionalized the church and served to drive the debate on various doctrinal questions.

  • As the church became more rigid in its structure it incorporated certain teaching including Plato in philosophy, Galen in medicine, and Ptolemy in cosmology. These became entwined in Christian doctrine particularly through Augustine to the exclusion of Aristolean logic and other Greek learning. In short, Christianity became narrow by not allowing the free flow of ideas inherent in the Greek and Roman pagan cultures. Christianity suppressed reason by stressing authority over debate.

  • The split between the western and eastern churches further served to isolate the west from Greek thought and certain Greek texts were left to be preserved by the Arabs as the west became exclusively Latin.

  • Because Christianity emphasized the foolishness of the world's wisdom the church became the clearinghouse for knowledge as other forms of knowledge were frowned upon.

  • The end result was that reason, observation, and speculation were inhibited by the church in favor of orthodoxy. Thomas Acquinas with his incorporation of Aristotle into Christianity signalled the turning of the tide.

  • While I certainly don't agree with all of the above points, especially his almost obsessivley negative view of Paul and his secular view of Jesus, his argument does make a certain amount of sense. I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the fall of Rome and its consequences although he notes that the "barbarians" had largely been converted to Christianity by the time the empire dissolved. He also only develops his argument overtly in the second to last chapter and the epilogue. Much of the rest of the book is straight history (although with a little interpretation that serves his purposes to be sure).

    I found especially interesting his discussion of the development of patron saints of various illnesses from pagan forerunners. As a protestant this always confused me and so to see an historical explanation was welcome. I also tend to accept his view that Constantine and other emperors were first politicians, only nominally Christian, who used Christianity for means other than personal salvation.

    I would recommend this book for those wanting to look at the history of the early church although I would caution that the author's viewpoints are ultimately quite liberal.


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