It is Called the Dark Ages For a Reason
In his book The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman gives a meticulously detailed look into what happened after a significant event occurred when Emperor Constantine declared a policy of toleration for Christianity in the Roman Empire. It was prior to this event, and a short time afterward, that a culture of reason and free inquiry existed in the Ancient world which was influenced by the Greeks.
With the fall of Alexander the Great, the Romans acquired Greece. Upon doing so, Greek ideas and culture were adopted by the Romans in which the Roman Republic and Empire not only absorbed but also expanded upon Greece’s intellectual tradition in terms of science, art and philosophy. The result was one of the most advanced civilizations for it’s time.
As Mr. Freeman points out, Emperor Constantine and his successors thought that by institutionalizing Christianity with the Roman state the religion would act as a unifying force in conjunction with other favored polytheistic faiths at times when the empire was threatened by hostile forces, both internal and external, as well as be an effective means of social control. He also says because the Christian bishops at the time acquired political power as a result of church-state union, once the Roman Empire began to collapse and the pagan religions started falling out of favor, Rome’s culture of free inquiry was crushed and replaced with 2 centuries of dogmatism and repression. More commonly known as The Dark Ages.
However, Charles Freeman states in the latter part of his book that the reason why the church acted in this manner was to maintain order in the region due to the turmoil within the Roman Empire. Since the church was the strongest political authority then its leadership felt that suppressing Rome’s intellectual culture was the best way to prevent chaos as it saw it. I disagree with this conclusion as Freeman’s example of bishops such as Ambrose of Milan clearly demonstrate that the bishops of the Christian church wanted to hold on to their power at all costs. Once attained they moved to minimize competition via the force of law exploiting its ties with the Roman monarchy.
However, the author makes a vivid link between philosophical, political and cultural shifts while providing many historical details. He also makes a compelling connection between the writings of many notable religious figures and how their influences resulted in Christianity subverting reason and free inquiry then like it is doing now. Three theologians that stick out in my mind are Paul of Tarsus who had an avowed hatred of reason, knowledge and philosophy; Athanasius of Alexandria who laid the foundation of Christianity’s hatred of human life with his guilt-ridden writings condemning human existence; John Chrysostom who spoke out against material wealth and was anti-Jewish; and Augustine of Hippo who provided a rationale for the persecution of heresy.
Fortunately, the church’s rule came to an end with the backlash resulting from it’s iron-fisted rule in which the result was the Renaissances of the 12th and 14th centuries. At the same time, Thomas Aquinas was able to justify utilizing reason with faith for the Catholic Church thanks to his teacher, Albertus Magnus (i.e. Albert the Great), giving him a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which Aquinas adopted for his book Summa Theologica. By doing so, Aquinas also exposed the conflict between reason and faith that many theologians and philosophers were not consciously aware of until he wrote about it.
I have a background in religion and love philosophy. And what I found fascinating about this book are the details that took place then and how they are repeating themselves today. Especially with how religious sects (like Christianity) are trying to hinder scientific inquiry about the existence of God and evolution while religions of all beliefs are in conflict with each other today just like they have been many times in the past. We are seeing the remnants of religion’s actions then even more so today. Because of acquiring power and control (of any kind), religions in all parts of the world, act in a manner detrimental to man’s ability to think.
The question that people should ask is “why” when any country or culture dumps reason and inquiry (i.e. Aristotelianism) for faith and force (i.e. Platonism). Charles Freeman provides answers to this and many other philosophical questions in this well researched, lucid, and excellent book that delves into a period of human history that many theologians and historians would rather forget.