The Darkening Age

By Catherine Nixey

What was it that made the Dark Ages so dark? Assuming that they were dark, a point not all historians allow. And by asking who, or what, made them dark I mean who switched off the lights of learning?

Christianity, or the Church, has long come in for much of the blame. Edward Gibbon saw in the fall of the Roman Empire the triumph of barbarism and religion, and the revolution in modern thought largely defined itself as being a liberation from the yoke of scholastic (church) learning.

This isn’t totally fair. What seems to have happened is more of a general economic collapse leading to a significant downgrade in various forms of higher culture that were, at the time, elite luxuries. In his excellent history of philosophy from ancient times to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb looks at the fall of philosophy and concludes that “Nobody had killed the Greek inheritance; it had simply been allowed to waste away.”

I don’t think Catherine Nixey would entirely disagree with this, but The Darkening Age nevertheless sets itself the task of describing, as the subtitle puts it, “the Christian destruction of the Classical world.” This was mainly accomplished by a narrowing of the Classical mind. With the triumph of Christianity came an intolerance for other forms of faith, philosophy, art, and culture. Theatres closed, poetry stopped being written, statues and temples were torn down, and philosophical inquiry was made illegal, all in the name of God and saving souls.

Nixey says little to direct our attention to parallels with our own time. For example, there’s only a quick link drawn between the desecration of a statue of Athena at Palmyra with the further destruction of the same ancient city in recent years by the Islamic State. It is an embarassing but meaningful connection. If you think tolerance is a virtue, monotheism should make you a little nervous.

Review first published online May 14, 2018. For a more scholarly take on the same subject I’d recommend Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind and A.D. 381.

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