The Closing of the Western Mind

by Charles Freeman

Rationalism was the greatest contribution of ancient Greek civilization to Western civilization. It led directly to logic, advanced mathematics, science, and technology. But the peak period of Greek progress was during the Golden Age, roughly 400 BC to 300 BC. Progress slowed after that, and during Roman times the pace of progress was glacial. 

Then came Christianity and, later, the collapse of the Roman empire. Europe went into the Dark Ages and rationalism was forgotten. Only after about 1100 AD did rationalism resume its advance. 

This book attempts to blame the christian church for the lapse of rationalism. But in fact, it is mostly a detailed intellectual history of the church during Roman times. This is certainly worthy history, but the title is misleading. The focus of the book is the history of the church, not the closing of the Western mind. The author delves into all the subtle arguments. The discussion of ferocious battles over trivial details (Was Jesus half-human, half-God? Exclusively god? Was Jesus subordinate to God the Father, or were they co-equal? and on and on in this vein) is of interest only to those interesed in the church, not rationalism. Indeed, very little of the book explicitly addresses the relationship between early church thinking and rationalism. 

The author finally gets around to discussing rationalism in the last 40 pages of the book — and he blows it! After marshalling hundreds of pages of endless details of who said what, he does little more than assert that all this intellectual strum und drang led the church to outlaw rational discussion of theology. Exhausted by centuries of ferocious conflict, the Western church decided to settle the matter once and for all by making the Pope the sole authority on doctrine. That was that, according to Mr. Freeman.

Yet the Church continued to hold grand conferences to resolve difficult issues. The five Lateran Councils, the councils at Lyon, Vienne, Constance, Florence, and Trent, all were called to resolve problems that the Pope alone could not legitimately decide. 

But more important is his error in claiming that the Church stamped out rationalism in the West. Now, it’s true that the Church made little effort to preserve the works of Aristotle and the Greek scientists, but that was a matter of benign neglect rather than deliberate oppression. 

The true reason for the collapse of rationalism was the economic  and population collapse of the Dark Ages. With far fewer people, all of them poorer, there simply weren’t enough resources left to preserve the entirety of classical literature. The vast majority of people could barely feed themselves. Literacy dwindled because there weren’t enough excess people to teach. I maintain that, given the horrific economic circumstances during the Dark Ages, the church did yeoman’s work preserving literacy and what classical literature it did manage to save. 

But the best refutation of Mr. Freeman’s thesis is the undeniable fact that, once the Western economies started to recover, it was churchmen who led the recovery of classical learning. They founded the universities, they funded the students, they brought Aristotle back from Arabic sources, they integrated Aristotle into theology, and ultimately it was churchmen such as the Oxford Calculators and Copernicus who revived science.

I am not attempting to glorify the church; it has plenty of skeletons in its closets. But I don’t think that it deserves the blame for the fading of rationalism during the Dark Ages.