"What purpose does knowledge serve - for as to knowledge of natural causes, what blessing is there for me if I should know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the scientists' rave about?" That was Lactantius in the fourth century, and this is Philastrius of Brescia:
"There is a certain heresy concerning earthquakes that they come not from God's command, but, it is thought, from the very nature of the elementsI."
These examples, taken from near the end of Charles Freeman's absorbing book, illustrate well his main argument. That between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, the rise of Christianity, especially in the West, gradually stifled independent thought - in science and philosophy in particular - replacing them with miracles, magic and martyrs. In the early 14th century, nearly 2,000 years after Hippocrates had declared that epilepsy was a natural illness, John of Gaddesdon recommended as a cure the reading of the gospels over the epileptic, while simultaneously placing on him the hair of a white dog. Suffering was regarded as a Christian condition, even to be welcomed as a test of faith. The soul was of greater value than the body.
There is scarcely a shortage of scholarship relating to late antiquity and the transition to the Middle Ages, but Freeman is to be congratulated on a broad-brush approach that throws the main issue into sharp focus: how and why the world went backwards, so quickly and so completely. The closing of the western mind, in the 4th-6th centuries, is every bit as important, and as engrossing, as its opening up in the 9th, 12th and 15th-century renaissances.
The reason for this backward move is, as Freeman describes it, obvious enough - the alliance between church and state in the wake of Constantine's "conversion" (arguably, not a real conversion at all, but a piece of realpolitik that suited the circumstances). The churches managed to insinuate themselves into the very fabric of the state and were awarded enormous privileges, notably freedom from taxation, in return for which they went along with imperial and monarchical political initiatives which were always going to restrict freedom of thought. It suited them too.
In the course of his narrative, Freeman gives us some timely reassessments of well-known and, for the most part, well-loved figures, such as Saints Paul and Augustine. In the case of the former, Freeman argues that it was Paul's "insecurities and abrasive personality" that were responsible for the way he advanced Christianity. He was not an intellectual, seemed hardly aware of Greek achievements, and was convinced that inward faith, rather than the outward observance of ritual, was the true path to salvation. This was an idea that reached its highest expression in Augustine who talks of God actually being inside a person's being.
None of these descriptions is new, as such, but Freeman's wholly admirable aim, successfully realised, is to show how untenable - even absurd - such a position is. The history of the early church, or at least of early Christian theology (and maybe all theology), is really the history of intuition. When salted with common sense, intuition is fine, as far as it goes. But too often intuition is left to run amok and we end up admiring cleverness for its own sake, rather than for where it leads.
Freeman charts meticulously the gradual changeover in attitudes in the Roman empire as the early centuries pass. For example, "pagan" at one stage did not simply mean someone who disbelieved in Christ, but also implied that they were uncultured, people who lived in the country - hicks, or idiots, as the Greeks had it. Many statues erected under Constantine showed The Good Shepherd, because this image was equally acceptable to pagans and Christians.
Constantine was a tolerant man, at least to begin with. However, once the church had acquired so many privileges (joined the establishment, if you like), once it had something concrete to lose, then any heresy threatened not only orthodox belief systems, but the livelihood of the bishops. Money talks, even for the devout.
Freeman's achievement is really what, in the old Fleet Street, was called a "scoop of insight". He has forced us to look afresh at an era of the past that we thought we knew, and he has shown that, viewed in this new light, our opinions of many familiar or half-familiar faces - Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom - need revising. It is perhaps too strong to call them the villains of the piece, but Freeman nails their role in what happened. "Gregory distrusted secular learning and for him the deadliest of the seven deadly sins was pride, by which he meant intellectual independence."
There is a deep irony here. Major thinkers of the Catholic church, in the 4th and 5th centuries, succeeded in removing the appetite for secular learning. Yet it was the monks and priests in the Catholic schools of Paris and Bologna who, from the 12th century on, rescued much of the Greek and Roman achievements from obscurity. We can now see that, in a sense, the church was putting right the wrong it had inflicted on Europe 800 years earlier.
The conventional wisdom has it that Europe slid into the darkness of the early Middle Ages thanks to the decline of the Roman empire, and the repeated invasions of the Barbarians. Charles Freeman has added a new level of understanding to the process by fixing the self-serving machinations of the church with his beady eye. Well, that is what eyes are for. The book is a triumph.
Peter Watson is author of A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind .
The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason
Author - Charles Freeman
ISBN - 0 434 00853 2
Publisher - Heinemann
Price - £25.00
Pages - 470