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The classics, Christianity and the closing mind

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason; Charles Freeman; Alfred A. Knopf: 436 pp., $30

November 09, 2003|Glen Bowersock | Glen Bowersock is a professor of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

In 1987, a noted philosopher at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom, published a book called "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students." The author deplored what he saw as a drift in academe from immersion in the great classics of Western thought into a chic, relativist culture in which everything was equally important and interesting. His apocalyptic vision of intellectual rot in the collective American psyche emerged from his own deep learning in the school of Leo Strauss, recently represented as the godfather of today's militant neoconservatives. The supposed filiation from Strauss to Rumsfeld is grossly unfair to the memory of the discerning scholar known to anyone who has ever actually read Strauss' work, but there is no doubt that the self-appointed guardians of the Western tradition who once sat at his feet have had a remarkable influence.

Bloom's view that neglect of the Western cultural tradition, steeped in Greek democracy and philosophy, was shutting down the American mind resonated with classical scholars as well as historical theorists. The historian of ancient warfare Victor Hanson and his classicist colleague John Heath in 1998 asked the profession, and the world at large, "Who Killed Homer?" The book's subtitle gave its agenda: "The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom." Smug professors ensconced in research positions were held accountable for an imagined loss of contact with Greek genius. Although no one had ever disputed the greatness of the Greek legacy in art, literature and thought, Hanson and Heath seemed disappointed that their own generation had awakened to the reality of slavery in the Greek world, its oppression of women, its indifference to human rights. Critics pointed out what their appeal for a return to the Greek ideal would really mean. We have learned from the mistakes of the Greeks as well as from their achievements. Strauss knew that, even if his epigones did not.

The closing of a collective mind is a serious if ultimately unprovable allegation. It presupposes a kind of rupture in history that is as hard to credit as to document. The world's most famous exponent of decline and fall, Edward Gibbon, lived long enough, as he wrote his immortal work on the Roman Empire over the course of more than 12 years, to discover that its title was a misnomer. Although he had originally not intended to do so, he found it necessary to carry his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" all the way up to the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Charles Freeman has contributed a new work about intellectual closing, historical rupture and the loss of inherited classical tradition and wisdom. It is hardly comprehensible, at least in the United States, that anyone could have written a work entitled "The Closing of the Western Mind" without the least reference to Bloom's notorious book. It is not as if the closing of a collective mind were a trope of historical debate, and in Freeman's case the supposed loss of Western values in late antiquity is not that different from Bloom's supposed loss of Western values in the 1980s. For Freeman, Christianity is to blame, and for Bloom, relativist multiculturalism is to blame, but even so the two emit similar sounds.

The case against Christianity, as encapsulated in Freeman's subtitle, "The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason," is scarcely new and not far removed from Gibbon's assault on barbarism and Christianity as undermining the classical world. Gibbon faulted Christianity with considerably greater enthusiasm -- and inevitably a much larger corpus of documentation -- than he did barbarism. Freeman's silence on the parallel between his title and Bloom's is nothing compared with his neglect of Gibbon, who is cited a few times in the text but does not appear in his bibliography of modern works.

"The Closing of the Western Mind" is essentially a potted history of the ancient world, in which Christianity is introduced as a corrupting influence on Greek and Roman culture. Freeman writes fluently and summarizes his various authorities more or less accurately, but his argumentation is superficial. To assert, as he does in his Introduction, that Christian orthodoxy stifled independent reasoning would imply that Socrates had not been tried for impiety in the golden age of Athens or that books had not been burned in the reign of Augustus. It is certainly unfair to late Neoplatonism.

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