The classics, Christianity and the closing mind

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.

To assume that scientific progress is impossible in an ecclesiastical state is naive. Galileo alone is a sufficient counter-example from a far more oppressive regime. The union of church and state that arrived with Constantine surely altered the pagan culture that preceded it but did not wipe it out. In a recent book on pagan monotheism in antiquity, Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede have even argued that Christianity could take root only because late paganism had already abandoned its earlier polytheism. The force of traditional classical culture in late antiquity has been repeatedly described in the new assessments of the age that have followed the seminal book of Peter Brown, "The World of Late Antiquity," in 1971. Freeman seems more oblivious than disparaging of Brown's view of late antiquity as a new beginning rather than a decline, a fall, or even a closing.

But curiously, Freeman's book, undistinguished though it is, fits neatly if unconsciously into a current of revisionist thinking about late antiquity that is a response to the prevailing view of the last centuries of the ancient world: In that view, the 4th to 7th centuries are seen as an age of creative transition to the Byzantine Empire, the Medieval West and the Islamic Near East. The old categories of historical periodization thus dissolve; the sharp break between antiquity and the Middle Ages disappears and restructuring replaces collapse.

A thoughtful revolt against this interpretation began some years ago in Europe, with the publication of an influential study by Aldo Schiavone in 1996, "La storia spezzata" ("Broken History," now available in English as "The End of the Past," the 13th volume in a series I edit for the Harvard University Press called "Revealing Antiquity"). Freeman does not know this book, even though it was the first serious attempt in several decades to reinstate the idea of the collapse of the ancient world.

Schiavone, following a Marxist tradition of ancient history in Italy that has its roots in the writings of Santo Mazzarino, looked at the economy of late antiquity and from that perspective detected unmistakable signs of weakness and collapse. For him, it is the failure of productivity and trade that brought the ancient world down. The disappearance of the slave economy led to a rupture in historical time that allows Schiavone to pose the question of why we had to wait so long for modernity to begin.

His argument is more cogent for the Medieval West than the Byzantine East, but his emphasis on economics is undoubtedly salutary, since the rosier view of late antiquity has concentrated largely on culture and spirituality. Schiavone's implicit reaction to contemporary historians soon became explicit in a hard-hitting article published in Studi Storici by Andrea Giardina in 1999, "The Explosion of Late Antiquity." Here the whole concept of transition and restructuring was scrutinized. Giardina objected to a tendency to denigrate institutions and economic life in order to present marginal cultures as somehow typical of an age. The popularity of late antique studies seemed to him to have gone too far.

The debate continues vigorously. Last year, in his "Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity," Jairus Banaji challenged the notion of historical rupture ("broken history") precisely on economic grounds, through a new assessment of late-antique agriculture in relation to the adoption of gold as a fixed standard of value. At the same time, Michael McCormick, in his "Origins of the European Economy," gave us a wide-ranging economic study which, although beginning with a firm acknowledgment that the ancient world came to a recognizable end, suggests that the evidence for trade and commerce from late antiquity into the Middle Ages shows a continuity that explains the emerging European economy.

Freeman's book is a pale reflection of discussions of which he is mostly unaware. His approach to the problem of the end of the ancient world is simplistic. Christianity may have had something to do with this problem, but not so much as even Gibbon supposed. Schiavone's question about the causes for a delay in the arrival of modernity implicitly demonstrates that modernity managed to arrive without the annihilation of Christianity. That is presumably why he does not blame the Christian state for the historical rupture he sees.

After all, long before the establishment of the Christian church, classical antiquity was characterized by states that proclaimed and imposed their religion. Constantine sitting among the bishops at the Council of Nicaea was not all that different from Caesar Augustus in the highest priestly office of Roman paganism (pontifex maximus), nor were the state-sponsored festivals of the gods of Athens all that different from the civic celebration of martyrs.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World