Enlightenment How?

A sprawling history of ideas fails to illuminate
“The School of Athens,” by Raphael (Wikimedia Commons)

The twelfth-century French philosopher Peter Abelard devotes a section of his treatise on ethics to the influence of demons. Demonic suggestions, which Abelard compares to the effects of medicine or drugs, appear as feelings that push us to do the wrong thing. The key idea of Abelard’s book, which he titled Know Thyself, is that to decide whether an action is right or wrong, we have to look at the intention of the person doing it. Other philosophers thought that something else—the results of your action, or your desire to carry it out—determines whether your action is right or wrong. This is where demons come in: a demon might be able to influence these factors, and in that case, it seems like the demon would be responsible for what you do. But Abelard thinks that even the most powerful demon can’t control your intention. You are responsible for whatever you intentionally choose to do, even if demonic influence is at work.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see Abelard as an innovator in ethics. His focus on intention, and his conviction that all humans have a grasp of moral law, would be echoed centuries later by renowned German philosopher Immanuel Kant. But Abelard was not trying to found a new system of morality. The advances in his work are in service of a traditional project. Abelard’s emphasis on inner life was probably inspired by the Greek Fathers, and Know Thyself aims in the end at a theologically defensible account of sin.

Despite this, Abelard is one of the countercultural heroes of Charles Freeman’s sprawling and ultimately disappointing intellectual history The Reopening of the Western Mind. Freeman tells us that Abelard doubted “conventional thinking” and “showed that individualism is possible.” Though the book often suggests that the concept of intellectual progress did not exist in medieval Europe, Abelard, at least, understood how “knowledge is not static.” Freeman connects these insights to Abelard’s skill at logic, a discipline not known for championing individualism, to say the least. Logic textbook in hand, Abelard “followed where the argument led,” even if this meant roads not traveled by orthodoxy.

But logic was a standard and early part of medieval higher education. So why did logical training cause Abelard, but not others, to defy convention? For Freeman, the main reasons seem to be Abelard’s “flamboyant” personality and boundless self-confidence. His discussion of Abelard displays two typical shortcomings of the book: the use of psychological speculation as explanation and a failure to deeply consider the problems that drove intellectual development.

Despite Abelard’s best efforts, the reopening Freeman describes was slow. (The closing, which Freeman attributes to the dominance of Platonist Christianity, was recounted in an earlier volume.) Each of the book’s thirty-two chapters focuses on an episode in the vast period from 500 to 1700 CE, with little attempt at a single unified narrative. Though the level of detail varies, the focus is on the familiar. Freeman spends a few dozen pages on the first five hundred years, while giving long summaries of works like the Divine Comedy and Hamlet. Many chapters fall between these extremes, reporting on one or two volumes of secondary material. Even when the secondary sources are excellent, these parts of the book often fall into potted summary.

His discussion of Abelard displays two typical shortcomings of the book: the use of psychological speculation as explanation and a failure to deeply consider the problems that drove intellectual development.

At the outset, Freeman tries to distance himself from what he calls “traditional Eurocentric” history. While proclaiming that “Western civilization” has no precise definition, he very much assumes one in practice: his story is about European Christians. Jewish and Islamic authors occasionally figure as external influences, but never as main characters. So Freeman makes many of the assumptions of so-called “traditional” history books, even if he scrupulously avoids stating or defending them.

Although the focus is on Christendom, Freeman thinks intellectual progress was frequently driven by a return to pagan sources. The book puts to the test his thesis that it is “impossible to overstate” the benefits of reading the classics. Montaigne was “of course, infused with classical learning” and, we learn in the next paragraph, “had, of course, absorbed the immense resources offered by the classical tradition.” Later on, Milton’s radical ideas are credited to his “mastery of the classical languages,” and the polymath Leibniz is mainly praised as “the best-read philosopher of them all.” The surest way to open your mind is to open a book—preferably one in ancient Greek, which is more “sophisticated” and “subtle” than other languages (nonetheless, only English-language works appear in the bibliography).

Freeman is aware that reading old books is no guarantee of originality. He even admits that dependence on tradition can prevent new thinking. Especially in the first half of the book, this is mostly blamed on the followers of Plato, who is painted as elitist and authoritarian, as well as on Augustine, who is the book’s main villain. Augustine here appears as an outsider from the world of sophisticated Greek thought, whose “inner feelings” led him to see God as an absolute, punitive ruler over sinful humans. He is blamed for everything from the First Crusade to anti-scientific attitudes in the seventeenth century. By contrast, Aristotle wanted to resolve disputes through rational discussion, and is said to support “popular involvement in government.”

But as the book progresses, the narrative of a perpetual struggle between conservative Platonists and avant-garde Aristotelians becomes hard to sustain. One chapter celebrates the Italian Renaissance’s unabashed Platonism, and Plato is later cited as an inspiration for discoveries by Galileo and Copernicus. Too much deference to Aristotle, meanwhile, cinched the “straitjacket” of the medieval university system. The book’s most engaging subjects, such as Montaigne or the sixteenth-century naturalist Conrad Gessner—who “always tells us what a newly discovered plant smells like”—don’t fit into either tradition.

To explain why intellectual changes happened the way they did, Freeman sometimes looks beyond the pages to consider European culture and society. This usually results in missed opportunities. Throughout the narrative, freedom in classical Greece, and its legacy in classical texts, is contrasted with the “authoritarian” Church. We might expect, then, a detailed discussion of the underpinnings of Athenian democracy. Freeman offers only the paradoxical claim that Athens subscribed to “the concept of isonomia, equal rights for all,” while also depending on slave labor and restricting those rights to propertied men. Athens did have an unusual legal and economic framework: Solon’s reforms abolished some forms of feudal dependence, allowing peasant farmers to own land and become citizens. But citizenship for property owners does not mean equal rights for all. It is not surprising, then, that at the height of Athenian democracy, only a small minority of the population were citizens.

To explain why intellectual changes happened the way they did, Freeman sometimes looks beyond the pages to consider European culture and society. This usually results in missed opportunities.

Skipping ahead to the Middle Ages, we read that the Franciscans and Dominicans gained power because compared to the Church establishment, they were quicker to adapt to the rapid economic growth of cities. While these mendicant orders had an initial invigorating effect, they apparently got “out of hand,” producing the leaders of the Inquisition and eventually Savonarola, the fanatical ascetic who served as “moral dictator” of Florence before his arrest and execution. Moreover, these friars did much of the teaching in the medieval university system, a system Freeman finds conservative and anti-scientific. But he has little interest in explaining the opposing tendencies he finds among the Franciscans and Dominicans, or in drawing connections to economic and institutional developments.

Freeman’s lengthy discussion of art and architecture in the Italian Renaissance mentions their patronage by the pope and wealthy families like the Medici. But he never considers what might have motivated this spending. Why, for example, didn’t the Medici just reinvest profits in their financial empire? Part of the answer is that spending on art and architecture increased both their political power in Florence and the legitimacy of their business ventures abroad. This raises further questions, such as why the public display of magnificent art was so politically potent in Florence. But here and elsewhere, Freeman is content to merely describe cultural high points, rather than consider what made them possible.

At one point, Freeman alludes to Renaissance city-states’ comparative openness to the education of women, including in mathematics and science. But he does not explore why, aside from a vague reference to “courtly culture.” What he may have in mind is that Renaissance courts often let women and men mingle, and in this context, educated women could add to the prestige of a household. Educating women may also have been thought to benefit the city-state at large, in line with Plato’s suggestions in the Republic, even if their proper role was still usually seen as domestic. Freeman, in any case, does not discuss female public intellectuals of the time, such as Christine de Pizan, Isotta Nogarola, or Lucrezia Marinella. Medieval women appear rarely, and only as romantics (Heloise) or mystics (Catherine of Siena). The first mention of a woman’s ideas—Elizabeth of Bohemia’s objections to Descartes in the 1640s—comes more than seven hundred pages into the book.

An exception to the general lack of attention to social and political history comes in a welcome chapter on Britain’s seventeenth-century Glorious Revolution. The chapter juxtaposes historian Christopher Hill’s pessimistic take, according to which Cromwell’s Protectorate and the 1689 revolution failed to displace the traditional ruling class, with Steven Pincus’s recent defense of the idea that the revolution dramatically altered English society. Freeman argues that the truth is somewhere in the middle: the century’s events yielded greater social mobility, although the franchise would be restricted to a sliver of the population until 1832. Unfortunately, this sort of reflection on the work of earlier historians is rare in The Reopening of the Western Mind.

Freeman also has little interest in earlier debates on what it might mean for a society to open its mind. Strikingly, the issue is barely discussed until the book’s final paragraph, which praises “tolerance,” glossed as a preference for science over institutional religion, and openness “to more profound thinking about the human condition.” Though he warns that these “values” are again in danger, it’s obvious to Freeman that modern liberal democracies have, in general, put them into practice satisfactorily. For the most part, the book is content to describe developments in art, science, and philosophy without focusing on these values at all.

For example, Freeman never faces up to Rousseau’s worry that intellectual and technical advancement does not always yield happier or better human beings. Italian city-states abounded in what Freeman calls “cultural riches,” but these remained (along with other riches) in the hands of a small elite. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, despite their brilliance, had no problem with this arrangement. When da Vinci sketched an ideal city, he placed aristocrats on an elevated platform, blocking out the sun from the common folk beneath. Freeman, while admitting that the city-states he admires were inegalitarian, seems to think their cultural achievements more than made up for it.

European colonialism, discussed in one chapter, boosted economic growth and technological development, and also funded opulent art and architecture. Aside from an oblique reference to “new global markets,” however, Freeman mainly focuses on how colonial conquests provided learning experiences for Europeans. They came to look “beyond classical texts,” “learn about other civilizations” and discover “new flora and fauna.” For Freeman, this spurred the Scientific Revolution. Colonialism even led Europeans to ponder “what it meant to be a human being,” a delicate reference to debates about whether some non-European people are human at all. The results of these debates do not inspire confidence in European progress: trade in slaves across the Atlantic peaked during the Enlightenment, well after the triumphant conclusion of Freeman’s narrative. “Such,” he muses, “are the paradoxes of the history of the western mind.” But these hypocrisies can’t be dismissed as mere paradoxes: a more nuanced intellectual history would have confronted them directly.

The Reopening of the Western Mind
The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment

Charles Freeman
$50 | 816 pp.

Aaron Wells is a postdoctoral researcher at Paderborn University, Germany. He is editing scientific and philosophical manuscripts by Emilie Du Châtelet (1706–1749).

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