Judaism exerted its influence not only by means of its own doctrines, but also by spawning Christianity, the worship of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was a Jew who, according to later Christian belief, was the Son of God come to earth to die for the sins of man, thereby presenting to those who worshipped him a second chance at the paradise that Adam and Eve lost. Every aspect of Christian belief is faith-based: That there is a God, a super spirit that exists without bodily means; that He created the universe from nothing; that He had a son, Jesus, who was delivered by virgin birth; that the stories of Adam and Eve, paradise, and the gestation of human “sin” were actual historic events; that Jesus resurrected after death and ascended to heaven, the latter a spiritual, non-bodily place where reside non-bodily spirits; and so on.
Despite their differences—regarding the divinity of Jesus, for example, or the scriptural status of the New Testament—Judaism and Christianity had this in common against the Greeks: Both held that reality is sundered into natural and supernatural components (with the supernatural governing the natural); knowledge is gained not by observation-based reasoning, but by faith in a transcendent world; man is not a rational but an irrational being, dominated by sinful desires; the good is not man’s use of his rational faculty, but his unquestioning obedience to God; political authority should ultimately be wielded by a priesthood that best comprehends God’s will.
This shared fundamental philosophy of supernaturalism and faith drove both Jews and Christians, in differing forms, to war against the secular Greek philosophy that went on to dominate the Roman Empire. The Greeks, after all, having been conquered by the Romans militarily, had responded by conquering the Romans culturally. “The Greeks had faced the same problem [as the Jews] with Rome,” explains Johnson. “They had solved it by submitting physically and taking the Romans over intellectually. Culturally, the Roman empire was Greek, especially in the East.”39
The desperate Jewish revolts against Roman rule, notably in 66–70 AD and 132–135 AD, also reflected this cultural struggle between religion and the secularism of the Greeks. Johnson notes that the revolts “should be seen not just as risings by a colonized people, inspired by religious nationalism, but as a racial and cultural conflict between Jews and Greeks . . . xenophobia and anti-Hellenism . . . was . . . a characteristic of Jewish literature from the second century BC onwards. . . .”40
But the Christians, unlike the Jews, did not wage military war against Rome; they waged philosophic war against the Greek foundations of the Roman Empire. The essence of the war regarded method: faith versus reason.
The Apostle Paul, for example wrote: “The more they [the Greeks] called themselves philosophers, the more stupid they grew . . . they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened.”41 Tertullian, an influential theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, succinctly stated: “Wretched Aristotle, who taught [the heretics and philosophers] logic . . . what is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?”42 Given the cognitive gulf between reason and faith, Tertullian correctly answered his question: “nothing”—but chose faith. One Christian monk argued that the ten categories of Aristotle’s logic—“heresies,” he called them—corresponded to the ten horns of the dragon in the Book of Revelation. Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, preached: “Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words.”43
When, in the 4th century AD, the new religion became dominant in the empire, Christians put such beliefs into practice.
In 529 AD, for example, the emperor Justinian I, ruling the eastern Roman Empire from Constantinople, declared that Greek philosophy was “inherently subversive of Christian belief”44 and permanently closed the pagan schools of philosophy. This included Plato’s Academy in Athens, which for nine hundred years had educated many of the leading Greco-Roman minds. To further enforce his ban, Justinian forbade pagans to teach. “Greek philosophy,” Durant observes, “after eleven centuries of history, had come to an end.”45
In Alexandria in 415 AD, the brilliant Greek mathematician, Hypatia, was savagely murdered and her body torn to pieces by a Christian mob, including monks led by a member of the local bishop’s staff.46 Wrote mathematics historian Morris Kline: “The fate of Hypatia symbolizes the end of the era of Greek mathematics.”47
Centuries earlier the brilliant Greek writer Sappho, circa 630–570 BC (known as “The Poetess” in counterpart to Homer, called by educated Greeks “The Poet”) had composed roughly twelve thousand lines of often exquisitely beautiful verse, generally themed around romantic love. Six hundred lines survive. What happened to the rest? Much of it was destroyed by Christians. “In the year 1073 of our era the poetry of Sappho . . . was publicly burned by ecclesiastical authorities in Constantinople and Rome.”48
The Catholic Church required its adherents to accept a specific religious doctrine. Because this dogma was based on faith, not facts, reason was out as a means of adjudicating theological disputes. For example, the Church decreed that Jesus was God; but Arius (250–336 AD), presbyter of Alexandria, argued that Jesus was a creation of God—divine, but not identical to God the Father. How could one side or the other prove itself right? Given that each side started from the nonobservable claim that there exist spiritual beings independent of bodily means—ghosts—there were no facts to appeal to—merely competing arbitrary faith-based beliefs. American philosopher Ayn Rand states: “When men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion [or] communication . . . are possible. . . . [M]ysticism reduces mankind [to] a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.”49 Inevitably, the Church condemned Arius and his supporters as heretics, and the dispute devolved into massive violence where “over three thousand Christians . . . died at the hands of fellow Christians.”50
A Catholic thinker with sufficient temerity to question any tenet of the Church’s orthodoxy ran the risk of being charged with heresy. For example, the Church condemned as heretical several conclusions of John Scotus Erigena (810–877 AD)—Europe’s sole original philosopher for a full six hundred years—and burned one of his books so efficiently that not a single copy has survived.51 Likewise, the Church hounded Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the most brilliant European mind since Aristotle, throughout his life. Church officials condemned several of his conclusions, burned some of his writings, and finally sentenced him to perpetual silence. Abelard, the premier teacher and lecturer of his age, was forbidden to communicate in any form. A consummate master of Aristotelian logic, Abelard had infuriated Church watchdogs by his refusal to leave critically unexamined any faith-based belief. Durant makes the point eloquently: “What disturbed the Church more than any specific heresy in Abelard was his assumption that there were no mysteries in the faith, that all dogmas should be capable of rational explanation.”52 Even Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), centuries later to be designated the Church’s official philosopher, was in his era suppressed by Church censors. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, banned as heretical 219 propositions taught at the University of Paris, including several of Aquinas’s.53
A heretic is a member of a religion who challenges some tenet of its orthodoxy. After Christianity came to power in the 4th century AD, the number of heretics it suppressed—in many cases murdered—is incalculable, as are the intellectual advances not reached by relatively rational heretics due to such repression and murder. Men of reason, as taught by their first teacher, Aristotle, demand observable facts in support of the ideas they accept. But religion is not based on facts; it is based on faith—and it cannot withstand rational inquiry. Therefore, when fervently religious men hold cultural and political authority, they conduct relentless war against the thinkers who challenge their dogmas.
W. T. Jones writes: “Because of the indifference and downright hostility of the Christians . . . almost the whole body of ancient literature and learning was lost.”54 Aristotle’s writings—and more, his method—were largely lost in the West of the early Middle Ages. Worse, their loss went largely unlamented. To medieval Christians, “ascertaining the facts was of less concern [than to Aristotle and to modern science]. It was overwhelmingly more important to them to know what was required for salvation. About things that did not touch one’s faith—about . . . the cure for leprosy, for instance—it did not matter a great deal whether or not one went wrong.”55
As the classical scholar Charles Freeman points out, “The Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed rather than . . . faded away.”56 Fundamentally, Christians rejected Aristotle’s method of observation-based rationality. Consequently, they rejected rational philosophy, the arts, science, mathematics, and education. The Dark Ages ensued.
Christianity was the first cause and prime mover of the European Dark Age. Educational researcher Andrew Coulson explains:
Greece’s greatest thinkers studied and taught every subject imaginable. . . . Aristotle spent years making observations and writing essays in such fields as anatomy, biology, physics, and meteorology. Christianity replaced this search for worldly knowledge with a search to know God, and as a tool in that effort observation of the world was thought vastly inferior to the study of scripture. . . . With the . . . loss of interest in the physical world, there began a long decline in scientific knowledge. . . . [As one example:] What limited medical wisdom had been accumulated by Greek and Roman physicians was supplanted by utter mysticism. [Saint] Augustine . . . believed that diseases were caused by demons, a great step backward from the work of the Greek physician Hippocrates. . . .57
A related claim advanced by Edward Gibbon and other historians, that Christianity bears significant responsibility for Rome’s fall, is largely true. The Christians egregiously devalued existence in the here and now for existence in the hereafter. By the time Rome fell in the 5th century AD, Christian rejection of this life in the form of asceticism had proliferated throughout the empire. Worldly success cannot and does not proceed from an otherworldly philosophy.
Saint Jerome (340s–420 AD) is representative of the age. Although a scholar and prolific writer, he was “wracked by guilt and desire,” and ventured into the desert to seek spiritual cleansing through self-mortification. This was standard for ascetics, who believed that salvation could be gained in part by tormenting the flesh. Jerome, seeking escape from carnal desires, allowed his skin to be scorched by the burning sun, and foreswore food and drink until he shook from malnutrition and dehydration.58 Contrast the Christian attitude of loathing the body with the Greek glorification of it. Durant makes the point vividly. Discussing their love of sports, he states: “Here under the rubric of athletics we find the real religion of the Greeks—the worship of health, beauty, and strength.”59
Nor was Jerome alone. Such irrational, self-destructive behavior was common among Christians of the time. Anthony, an Egyptian Christian, did not bother to learn to read or write because, according to Christianity, academic achievements, by a man of God, should be despised. He gave away all of his possessions, committed his unmarried sister to a convent, and, over a period of decades, ventured ever deeper into the desert, seeking solitary communion with God. Freeman explains that the custom for Syrian ascetics was to mount pillars “in the hope of coming to heaven. Some would stay up there for decades, with their lower limbs festering through inactivity.” Texts were written to glorify the lives of such “holy men.” The popularity of these manuals led many to follow in the footsteps of the ascetics: “Eventually so many took to the desert that it was said to be as busy as a city.” In the actual cities, “women refused to marry”—and “some married couples stayed together but gave up sex. Others renounced their property and built monasteries for others or even ran their own.”60
The monastic movement, explains Jones, began in the 5th century AD as a “determined effort to return to the original otherworldliness of the Church.”61 In the monastery, withdrawal from the world and from self-seeking required men to obey their superiors unquestioningly. Sin, the monks believed, was based in freely choosing what was forbidden by God. But if a man simply obeyed one who was of superior rank in God’s Church, then the possibility of wrongful choice was obviated, and moral security thereby attained. As Freeman observes: “Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete.”62
The unifying themes of these phenomena are devaluation of earthly goods, renunciation of bodily pleasure, and withdrawal from worldly life. A flourishing worldly civilization requires a philosophy that upholds the value of worldly life. During the centuries of Greek intellectual domination, such philosophy was operative. Christianity replaced it with its antipode, and doomed the empire to collapse from within.
Because of Christianity’s advocacy of faith and its hostility to reason, by the 8th century “literacy was a rarity even among the ruling classes.”63 Economist Angus Maddison points out that the Church’s war against the mind had dire practical consequences. He argues that Europe registered zero economic growth for the full millennium between 500 and 1500 AD—and that, in 1500, on the cusp of the early modern world, Europe’s average annual per capita income held steady at a miserable $215.64 Abysmal, grinding poverty was the hallmark of an age that rejected reason and science, as was a tragically low life expectancy that failed to rise out of the twenties.65 Jones sadly observes: “This destruction was so great and the rate of recovery was so slow that even by the ninth century Europe was still immeasurably behind the classical world in every department of life. . . . This, then, was truly a ‘dark’ age.”66
Alaric and the Visigoths—who sacked Rome in 410 AD—were Christians, as was Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, who plundered the Eternal City in 455. Pagan barbarians who devastated other portions of the empire quickly converted to Christianity; for example, the Frankish king Clovis and his troops did so in the 490s. Those who precipitated and presided over the long European Dark Age were Christians, with their attendant philosophic hostility toward Greek rationalism.67
Regarding employment of reason, the best religion can offer is theology. Theology is formal, deductive thinking about God and other faith-based beliefs. Theologians start with a faith-based definition of God or angels or demons or the like, then tease out or rigorously deduce from that definition the things such beings can or cannot do. An element of noncontradictory thinking is present, but facts are utterly absent. Theology is rigorous thinking about fantasy premises—and as such is, at best, a tragic waste of human brainpower. Thomas Aquinas, for example, a great Aristotle scholar and philosopher—and a (relative) supporter of science—nevertheless devoted enormous time and energy to theology, and was by all accounts history’s foremost expert regarding angels; nobody ever matched his “knowledge” of “angelology.”68 In effect, for medieval Christians, it did not much matter if one went wrong regarding the cure for leprosy—but knowledge of angels was important.
The most difficult matter to calculate regarding any irrational endeavor are the foregone benefits, the creative advances not brought into existence because of it. Men can directly perceive what exists, but cannot perceive what has never been created. We have examined both the advances wrought by the Greeks in numerous cognitive fields and the centuries-long Dark Age collapse wrought by Christianity’s suppression of that rationalism. But, given that perspective, men can only wonder in heartbroken despair about the great minds murdered or intimidated into silent inactivity, and the advances therefore not made in literature, the arts, philosophy, science, and medicine. Consider how much more advanced mankind might be today, were it not for virtually a full millennium of religious oppression. What would be the state of the world if the effort that went into understanding what does not exist had instead gone toward understanding what does?
Further highlighting this tragic story is the religion of Islam.
- Aristotle Versus Religion (1 of 7)
- The Greeks Give Birth to Western Civilization – Aristotle Versus Religion (2 of 7)
- The Seminal Intellectual Achievements of Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (3 of 7)
- The Birth of Monotheistic Religion – Aristotle Versus Religion (4 of 7)
- Christianity’s War against the Mind – Aristotle Versus Religion (5 of 7)
- Muslims Embrace and Then Repudiate Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (6 of 7)
- The Enduring Positive Legacy of Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (7 of 7)
37. Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage,” p. 302.
38. Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 29.
39. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 119.
40. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 133.
41. Quoted in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 120.
42. Quoted in Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 273.
43. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 315–16.
44. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, 2003), p. 59.
45. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, “The Age of Faith” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 123.
46. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 15 and 171, n. 47; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 268; Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 122–23; Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 68–72.
47. Morris Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 1 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 181; quoted in Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 268 and 391, n. 34.
48. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 155.
49. Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: New American Library, 1982), pp. 95–96.
50. William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age (New York: Little, Brown, 1993), pp. 7–8.
51. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, “The Medieval Mind” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), p. 173.
52. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 945; Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 88–126.
53. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 958. See also this entire chapter, tellingly titled, “The Adventure of Reason,” pp. 949–83.
54. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 141.
55. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 169–70.
56. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 340.
57. Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 59.
58. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 236–37.
59. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 211.
60. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 238–39.
61. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 146.
62. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 250.
63. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 141–42; Coulson, Market Education, pp. 58–60.
64. Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 4–7.
65. Samuel Preston, “Human Mortality Throughout History and Prehistory,” in Julian Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pp. 30–31.
66. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 140, 142.
67. Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 9, 27, 40, and 91; Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 142; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 192, 195, 197, and 382, n. 55; Manchester, World Lit Only by Fire, p. 4.
68. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 239–41.
From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.