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The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  1,907 ratings  ·  113 reviews
A radical and powerful reappraisal of the impact of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity on the later Roman world, and on the subsequent development both of Christianity and of Western civilization.

When the Emperor Contstantine converted to Christianity in 368 AD, he changed the course of European history in ways that continue to have repercussions to the present day. Ad
Paperback, 432 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Vintage Books (first published August 28th 2002)
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Apr 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those with fingernails

This book had been languishing on my shelf ever since I bought it in 2005. I think it was one of those broccoli books (which is really a misnomer since I freaking love broccoli)...books that you buy because they look like they'd be good for you rather than hedonistic romps. The Western Mind! Faith, Reason! It sounds like a mini-education!

It is - and the book was an absolute pleasure to read, hard to put down. Freeman seems to be some kind of "freelance" historian - like a Barbara Tuchman, I gues
May 07, 2011 rated it did not like it
This book is a horrible travesty of historical reporting, but let me quote theologian David Bentley Hart who says it so well and with an appropriate amount of snark.

"Freeman's is the old familiar story that Christianity is somehow to be blamed for a sudden retrogression in Western civilization that set back the cause of human progress by, say, a thousand years. Along the way, Freeman provides a few damning passages from the church fathers (always out of context and without any mention of the pl
Erik Graff
Sep 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Christians
Recommended to Erik by: Jim DeVoto
Shelves: history
I was loaned this book by an old friend who at that time was a professor of the classics at Loyola University Chicago. Raised a Catholic in St. Louis and having gone to school at Holy Cross and Loyola as a student, first, of astronomy and then of the classics, he was--and is--not very sympathetic to Christianity. Indeed, he is downright hostile. The Closing of the Western Mind, a learned screed against the Church with an intentional reference to Bloom's infamous best seller of similar title, ple ...more
Markham Anderson
Jan 22, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: aborted
I actually stopped reading this halfway through. It was not for religious offense; I don't take that sort of offense.

Writing like this troubles me because the people I observe reading and acclaiming it are those who consider themselves intelligent, and yet it appears to me that they let themselves be completely persuaded by the writing, which I find insufficiently cogent.

As with Cahill's book, I was enrapt with the relation of the history, but I found the analysis so distasteful. The author repe
Lynn Weber
Aug 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This was an incredible history of the transition from the classical world to the medieval world, centering in particular on the rise of Christianity within the context of an increasingly brittle, and thus authoritarian, Roman empire. One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read. In one poignant passage, Freeman talks about the first astronomical observations recorded in Greece in 585 BCE by Thales---the accurate prediction of an eclipse. The last astronomical observations in the classical wor ...more
May 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Freeman’s main thesis revolves around the politization of Christianity in the late Roman empire and how monotheism eventually became an imperial tool. Regarding Constantine, he writes: “Outside Eusebius’ Life, there is virtually no evidence that suggests that Constantine knew anything much about Christ or even of the requirements for Christian living. His main concern may rather have been to ensure that the growing Christian communities supported his imperial rule, but, shrewd political leader t ...more
Oct 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A meticulously constructed discussion of how the rise of orthodox Christianity as a means of imposing social control in the crumbling Roman Empire led to the suppression of the classical tradition of rational and empirical inquiry, supplanting reason with faith. The result was a centuries long retreat from scientific discovery in Western culture, the effects of which we still feel today in the inability of many segments of the population to process scientific knowledge in favor of revealed belie ...more
Oct 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Late Antiquity History Buffs, Christians, Athiests
While I'm not completely convinced of the author's central argument--that the rise of Christianity and the waning of Greek intellectual tradition were not merely coincident, but that the former has a causal relationship with the latter--I have to say that this is an absolutely riveting history of early Christianity.

One thing I found particularly interesting is how much of what I'd considered fundamental tenets of Christianity had no basis in scripture but rather are the work of a small handful o
Apr 01, 2008 rated it it was ok
My rating notwithstanding, this is a pretty good book. What it's not, though, is a book about how Christianity stifled intellectual thought in the western world. It's more a history of the development of orthodox Christianity (in a Nicene sense). And it's a good one. Just not what I was praying for. ...more
Sep 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Best sentence of this 430 page book: "History suggests that conflicts between religions tend to be more destructive than those between scientists!" ...more
Margot Tesch
May 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow. This was a bit of a marathon read. I left and came back to it several times. It was tough going but presented such fascinating arguments that I couldn't abandon it.
It begins with a wonderful summary and timeline of the early philosophers. Then it traces the development fo the christian ideology / theology and how the political and other religious influences played a part. Christians have been arguing since Christ about what it means to be a Christian and from my own personal experience as a
Ray Francis
Jan 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Christianity in 4th and 5th centuries had big problems: riven within by doctrinal disputes, disagreements about what implementing the Christian message meant, and on the outside political domination and interference from the Roman and Byzantine emperors. The famous councils of the time (such as Ephesus, Nicea, Chalcedon) tried to address these issues, but did so poorly. As the empire's grip on the Western part of the continent weakened, the stresses between what eventually became the Orthodox ch ...more
Rob Atkinson
Jul 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
I found this more of a duty than a pleasure to read, but it does lay out the intellectual climate in the waning days of the Roman Empire more completely than any of the more general histories of the period I've read (such as the excellent "How Rome Fell: Death of an Empire" by Adrian Goldsworthy). It's essential reading for those who are interested in the end of the Classical tradition and the birth of the Medieval mindset in those turbulent days, and the role that the Empire's official adoption ...more
Stephie Iris Williams
This book is about how the dark ages came upon Europe with rise of Christendom; it is also about much more. Thomas Aquinas bookends the book, but it begins in earnest with the beginnings of Greek philosophy. After covering the development of Greek philosophy the book discusses the Hellenistic period which arose after Alexander the Great. This period runs from about 300 BC to 200 BCE. Within this period the Romans came to power, Christianity was founded with its the Jewish background, and its gro ...more
Mike Clinton
Jan 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Freeman does a fine job of balancing the history of ideas and institutions with human stories of the events that influenced them. He has a thesis composed of several elements woven together to historicize the emergence of Christian thought during the transitional period between the late classical and the early medieval eras. He examines how the configuration of power, ideas, and historical actors produced a culture that privileged faith and renounced empirical rational thought, effectively dista ...more
Loved this. The author does a great job of tracing the threads of classical philosophy and inquiry from their Greek foundations and seeing how they grew and were co-opted, altered, and suppressed throughout the political and religious turmoil of the late Roman empire and the early Middle Ages. The path is not a straightforward one; in the epilogue, he comments, "It is simplistic to talk of the Greek tradition of rational thought being suppressed by Christians." Rather, he stresses the way the Ch ...more
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Freeman tries to determine why in the early days of the Christian church the Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed. The author discusses early church fathers (Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, for example) and their attempts to consolidate church doctrine (which at the time was varied and messy) which led to the discarding of rational thought and discourse. It was not until a thousand years later when Thomas Aquinas showed up that the veil of unintellectual thinking was lifted.
Why a
Konstantin Yegupov
Jul 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The only downside is that the book is a bit too long.
Arturo Castillo
Apr 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Isahia 29:14
"... for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent menshall be hid."


1 Corinthans 1:19
_For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”_

Wisdom or Sophia was how any science was known in biblical times. Add ambitious Christian fundamentalists and there you have it. The conflict between faith and reason or the closing of the Western mind. Beautiful book!
Greg Minshall
Mar 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i liked this book a lot. however, the author doesn't, to my mind, prove his thesis, which is that the adoption of Christianity in Europe and around the Mediterranean during the first 5 or so centuries of the current era caused "the closing of the western mind". however, the author definitely provided evidence pointing in that direction (and no evidence that i saw that would contradict that assertion).

i think the main lesson i derived from this book is about how rational thinking (the scientific
Feb 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Many books dealing with Catholic Church history present the lineage of the Church and the internal conflicts, largely revolving around doctrine and organization, of its members. Little attention is paid to the larger political climate in which these conflicts are set. The Closing of the Western Mind looks at the history through this missing political dimension and provides a fuller explanation as to the "whys" in Church history.

While the title is somewhat cynical, the body of the text is less so
James Lindsay
Sep 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
So I gave this book five stars, which is a little bit inaccurate, but I can't give it the score I want of 4.5 stars. I'm taking away from the otherwise perfect rating I would give this book for the overwhelmingly dry nature of the reading, particularly through the first third or so. Indeed, I almost didn't make it past that part. The middle third is quite good, though, and the last third is entertaining but repetitive, documenting the apparently incessant squabbling that characterizes the format ...more
Jun 22, 2008 rated it liked it
The oft-addressed description of Constantine I's toleration, and part-time aggrandizement, of paganism stands out as the shiniest gold in The Closing of the Western Mind, the insinuation being that the first Christian Emperor of Rome publicly embraced his monotheism as an astute but insincere political expedient.

It remains a fact that he never abdicated the title of Pontifex Maximus, the spritual head of the polytheistic cult of the empire, nor did he decorate Constantinople with any particularl
May 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Presents a detailed account of the early church, with a focus on the centuries when the Roman empire turned to Christianity (and effectively committed suicide).

I didn't find any surprises because I already knew some of this at a summary level: how the early church fathers abandoned debates about reality and chose all sorts of essentially un-resolvable (and thus anti-intellectual) debates; how these bishops relied on state power to push their own viewpoints and have their opponents declared as h
Jul 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Finally finished this. I'll have to blog a longer review, but the short answer is that I found it completely fascinating, and made me even more interested in reading about the history of the early Christian church.

Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, St. Paul, St. Augustine... what a fun bunch of fellows. It's bizarre that the personal biases (authoritarianism, hostility towards sex/procreation, profound distrust of human knowledge) of one man (St. Paul) had such a huge effect on the development of Weste
Jul 25, 2011 added it
How the Christian tradition formed over the centuries, driven by Greek philosophy, politics, and personalities of Christian bishops more so than by the words and actions of an historical Jesus. Much of the content of this book is probably well-known to most graduates of reputable seminaries, but completely unknown to most Christian laypersons. Freeman focuses in particular on how the Greek pre-scientific traditions of logic and reason were co-opted and inverted by Christianity as bishops gained ...more
Sep 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating account of the beginnings of Christianity. Thoroughly documented and footnoted, it's real eye-opener. Not an easy read but worth the work to achieve a clearer picture of how the basic beliefs of Christianity were established, often at the behest of the political authority. I recommend it strongly to students of religious history and anyone who feels they already have a full understanding of the genesis (forgive the pun) of their belief system. Additionally, it's a fine caut ...more
Sep 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a thorough and fascinating history that is admittedly offered in the service of a particular argument. Charles Freeman has some ideas and his effort is here expended to prosecute (and defend) these ideas; as such, the book may not convince every reader, but it is certainly a welcome provocation for inquiring minds. Happily, he confidently delves into the abstruse theological debates of Christian antiquity – God, as it turns out, is in the details. There is dense scholarship here, which i ...more
May 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
A great examination of how contemporary Christian doctrine (of most kinds) was shaped by the politics and mores surrounding the variety early Greek christians and the waning Roman Empire. Reason and philosophy and inquiry, which were hallmarks of civilization, were actively discouraged for over 1000 years until the Renaissance.
Sep 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is a nice rehash of Edward Gibbon's views on Christianity in "The Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire". It begins with the open-minded pagan Greeks, but within just over a hundred pages has moved on to Constantine the Great granting state toleration to Christianity and from there rapidly to the Christian book burners under Theodosius II where it spends its remaining 250 pages arguing about theological niceties until roughly the the time of Charlemagne.

What does it get right? It is at
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Charles Freeman is a freelance academic historian with wide interests in the history of European culture and thought. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Egypt, Greece and Rome, Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. He has followed this up with The Greek Achievement (Penguin 1999), The Legacy of Ancient Egypt (Facts on File, 1997) and The Closing of the Western Mind, a study of the rela ...more

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“In his play Antigone, Sophocles summed it up: Wonders are many and none more wonderful than man . . . In the meshes of his woven nets, cunning of mind, ingenious man . . . He snares the lighthearted birds and the tribes of savage beasts, and the creatures of the deep seas . . . He puts the halter round the horse’s neck And rings the nostrils of the angry bull. He has devised himself a shelter against the rigours of frost and the pelting rains. Speech and science he has taught himself, and artfully formed laws for harmonious civic life . . . Only against death he fights in vain. But clear intelligence—a force beyond measure— moves to work both good and ill . . . When he obeys the laws and honors justice, the city stands proud . . . But man swerves from side to side, and when the laws are broken, and set at naught, he is like a person without a city, beyond human boundary, a horror, a pollution to be avoided.29 The” 2 likes
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