A vigorous study of the death and rebirth of empirical thought in the Western tradition.
English classicist Freeman (The Greek Achievement, 1999, etc.) charts two great strains of thought in antiquity. The first, exemplified by the work of Greek thinkers and artists such as Euripides and Aristotle, allowed that some things in the universe may well be unknowable, but that shouldn’t stop humans from asking about them; the second, the province of Christian thinkers such as Jerome and Augustine, held that only God can know the unknowable, and humans have no business nosing around in such matters. The first Freeman dubs “reason,” the second “faith,” and even if the two often blended in the work of thinkers like Plato and Aquinas, they were often opposed to each other. With the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman world, Freeman observes, “the principles of empirical observation or logic were overruled in the conviction that all knowledge comes from God and even, in the writings of Augustine, that the human mind, burdened with Adam’s original sin, is incapable of thinking for itself.” He notes at least part of the reason for the triumph of unquestioning faith was the inability of early Christian communities to agree on terms by which they could rationally explore the divine; part, however, was purely political: namely, the dawning awareness on the part of Constantine and other emperors that any dissension among the various Christian churches posed a source of jeopardy to their supposedly divinely sanctioned rule. (Thus, in due course, the doctrine of papal infallibility.) The strained competition between faith and reason played out over the centuries, Freeman shows, until by the end of the fourth century “the freedom to explore the nature of God was becoming restricted to the point of extinction,” essentially crushing the Greek tradition until its revival, a millennium later, in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.
A lucid, accessible contribution to intellectual history, and a worthy companion to Elaine Pagels’s recent Beyond Belief (p. 290).