Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Christopher Dawson and the Byzantine blindspot


Christopher Dawson - 1889-1970. Once very famous Roman Catholic historian of ideas, now all-but forgotten. Admired by Tolkien, C.S Lewis (who knew him) and TS Eliot.

See Sanctifying the World: The Augustianian mind of Christopher Dawson by Bradley J Birzer.

Excerpts from Progress and Religion, 1929 pp 157-166.

Dawson in italics - my comments [in square brackets].


It cannot be too strongly insisted that the victory of the Church in the 4th century was not... the natural culmination of the religious evolution of the ancient world, It was, on the contrary, a violent interruption of that process which forced European civilization out of its old orbit into a path which it would never have followed by its own momentum.

It is true that the classical culture and the religion of the city state ... were losing their vitality, and that nothing could have arrested the movement of orientalization which ultimately conquered the Roman world. But this movement found its normal expression either in the undiluted form which is represented by the different Gnostic and Manichaean sects, or in a bastard Hellenic syncretism.

[So, 'a bastard Hellenic syncretism', or 'orientalism' is how Dawson characterizes the millennium of the Byzantine continuation of the Christian Roman Empire! The coherence of Byzantium - as I see it by far the most coherent Christian society which ever existed on earth - is dismissed as a weird or exotic (yet centuries-long) suspension of crudely-mixed Judueo-Christian an Greek elements in asolvent of 'orientalism'.]


...the Byzantine culture does not simply represent the fusion of the Hellensitic-Roman tradition with Christianity. It contains a third element of oriental origin which is, in fact, the preponderant influence in Byzantine civilization. It is to be seen in the social and political organization of the Empire which borrowed from Sassanian Persia all the external forms of the oriental sacred monarchy.

The rigid hierarchy of the Byzantine state which centres in the Sacred Palace and the quasi-divine person of the Holy Emperor is neither Roman nor Christian, but purely oriental.

[This is just name-calling! For Dawson, 'Oriental' is clearly a bad thing in and of itself, and 'rigid' added as a meaningless adjective to 'hierarchy'; 'quasi-divine' as a sniping and inaccurate characterization of the concept of the Emperor. The ideal Emperor was actually conceived as an Apostle, God's representative on earth, and an intermediary with Christ Pantocrator (that is Christ as active and Heavenly ruler of all, ruling Earth via his intermediary). But actual Emperors were judged against this ideal, and deposed when their behaviour showed they were not the real Emperor and a mistake had been made in choosing them. Anyway, Dawson doesn't like this kind of thing, and he needs to distinguish The West from it. But in doing so he is actually taking a pro-modernizing stance. Because 'orientalism' is the ideal of unity, fusion or harmony of church and state - and in attacking this, Dawson introduces - not just as a pragmatic reality but as an alternative ideal - a distinction between the realm of God - the Church, or City of God; and the secular realm of the state - politics, military and economic activity. In other words, functional specialization: modernity. Once begun, unstoppable.]


And the same influence is to be seen in Byzantine religion in its tendency to neglect the historical and dynamic elements in the Christian tradition, and to become absorbed in theological speculations regarding the nature of the Godhead.

This tendency reaches its climax in the writings of the so called Dionysius the Aeropagite, which probably date from the close of the 5th century, and have exerted and incalculable influence on the religious life of the Byzantine world. Here we may see the most extreme assertion of the Divine Transcendence and the negation of all finite modes of being.

In fact, Byzantine 'theological speculations' were mostly reactive to heresy and criticism from Western Christianity - and were not core to Christian life. Byzantine Holiness was not 'absorbed' in theological speculations, its purpose was for the human spirit to be 'absorbed' with (in communion with) the Godhead itself: so that man becomes Saint, who lives partly in Heaven in communion with God, partly on this earth to learn, teach, and act as intermediary. The 'neglect' of historical and dynamic elements actually meant that for Byzantium at its best, Christianity was a living presence in daily life, which tried to create (by ritual, arts, ascetic practices, devotions, prayer) model itself upon and emulate Heavenly life. A moment-by-moment earthly copy of the permanent Heavenly ideal. Naturally, historical and 'dynamic' elements were subordinated to this timeless task (not 'neglected'). Dawson accepts the modern secular revisionist history that Dionysius is the work of a late author ('Pseudo' Dionysius) - when for many centuries the ancients accepted the identity of the originator of these teachings as the disciple of St Paul. I believe the ancients.


Thus abstract mysticism [of Dionysius] is linked up with a fixed ritual and ceremonial order which is its earthly and sensible counterpart...

Again this harping on Byzantium as fixed, ritual, ceremonial!... yet ultimate reality is fixed, surely? So why should not earthly copies be fixed? If the Byzantine fixity was unreal then the Empire could not have endured as it did! And why does Dawson, a pre-Vatican II ultramontane Roman Catholic, criticize Byzantium for its use of devotional ritual and ceremony? In seeking to distinguish, positively, Western from Eastern Christianity - he has drifted into anti-Catholic sentiment.


...the moral ideal of the Byzantine world found its expression in the uncompromizing other-worldliness of the monks of the desert which represents the extreme development of the oriental spirit of asceticism and world-denial within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.

[But elsewhere, and rightly, Dawson is unstinting in his praise of the Irish, later Scottish and Northumbrian ascetic monks and hermits who maintained the last Western outpost of Christianity in the remote 'deserts' of the British Isles. St Boniface - who Dawson regards as perhaps the most important figure in the whole of European Christian History - was a Lindisfarne product of this non-Latin tradition. What were these if not example of uncompromizing other-worldliness of precisely the type that Dawson brands as 'oriental'? The 'Celtic Christian' church of Anglo Saxon times was precisely Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox - albiet not 'Greek'!) in all its distinctive respects. The whole Synod of Whitby dispute was a prefiguring of the Great Schism in terms of the Latin Christians (Pope as supreme bishop, a church led by priests) versus Byzantine Christian (Emperor as supreme authority, the bishop of Rome as having precedence but not authority over other Patriarchs, and led by monks)]


Nevertheless, even this radically oriental version of Christianity did not satisfy the Eastern world. With the coming of Islam it reverted to a simpler type of religion (etc)  

The drawn-out and bitter conquest of the Byzantine Empire by Islam is represented as having happened merely because the 'orientals' were not 'satisfied' by Eastern Orthodoxy, and wanted something 'simpler'... I wonder why so many Byzantines bothered fighting to the death to resist something that supposedly satisfied them more than what they had? And why so many of the conquered over the next centuries, even until now, continued to practice Byzantine Christianity despite its entailing subordinate status?]


In the Roman West, in spite of its lower standard of civilization, the conditions were more favourable to the development of an original and creative Christian culture.

[This is true: Western Catholic Christianity is indeed much more original and creative than Eastern Orthodoxy, and thus much more satisfying to creative geniuses. Unfortunately, being creative and original does not imply or entail its being more true, or more Holy. Indeed, if ancient Christianity during its first millennium had as much Christian truth as was available in the fallen world; then everything that came since - no matter how original and creative - has been deviation from that truth.]


In his Byzantine blindspot, Dawson is typical of most historians.

Indeed, I believe that our whole understanding of the modern world, the nature of civilization, and the human condition is distorted and perverted by a vast and pervasive Byzantine blindspot.


Constaninople was the second Rome, the capital of the Byzantine Empire was the Christian Roman Empire.

The core, essence, and highest manifestation of Christian Rome was Byzantium; of which the Latin West was - spiritually speaking - a pale and fragmented outgrowth. Rome was (in its variants and descendents), the only model and pattern of Christian civilization we can ever know.

As Rome dies over the centuries, so civilization-as-such dies, and is not replaced.

Rome or nothing or something altogether alien and unChristian - these are the only civilizational alternatives.


The Third Rome was Moscow - and Orthodox Russia was the lineal descendent of Byzantium: the Tsar (in ideal) was the continuation of the Byzantine Emperor. The Russion revolution a century ago was therefore the end of Rome as a cohesive spiritual-political organization; the fragmented Holy Roman Empire in the West ended about at the same time. It was the end of Rome which marked the qualitative rift with the Christian past - the Great War was only a mechanism. The twentieth century was then unleashed in all its various horrors. The end times began. 



dearieme said...

It would be a pity to underrate the role of the British/Welsh churchmen in the survival of Christianity on the Atlantic edge of Europe.

bgc said...

@D - I should be clear that Dawson does not under-rate them at all; but he seemingly does not recognize that they were cut from the same cloth as Byzantine ascetics and hermits. 'Celtic' Christianity = the British Isles version of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Or, if you prefer, at that time (before the Great Schism) Western Latin Christianity included an ascetic, eremitic and monastically-focused tradition which was later suppressed or withered.

I see the same blindspot in Kenneth Clark's Civilization, where he remarks wonderingly at the way Irish Christianity was based on monks, monasteries and abbots (in contrast to the Latin Christianity based around priests, cathedrals and bishops) - but fails to recognize that this pattern always was and still is characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy.

JP said...

"The rigid hierarchy of the Byzantine state which centres in the Sacred Palace and the quasi-divine person of the Holy Emperor is neither Roman nor Christian, but purely oriental."

A hierarchical state centered on the imperial palace in Rome, where the quasi-divine emperor ruled, was precisely characteristic of imperial Rome!

"even this radically oriental version of Christianity did not satisfy the Eastern world. With the coming of Islam it reverted to a simpler type of religion"

It appears that the author accepts the canard that many people in the East "voluntarily" converted to Islam, and as a result Islam's advance was largely "peaceful".

bgc said...

@JP - Dawson is a very considerable scholar, or else I would not bother trying to refute him on this matter.

But aside from his many strengths, I regard him as representative in his weaknessess of reactionaries on the Western Catholic intellectual tradition - who are *never* coherent, in my opinion, because they fail to see that the Western reasons for the Great Schism are precisely the roots of that modernity which they oppose; and so they get themselves into all sorts of tangles.

The fact is that Eastern Christianity is based on the ideal of not-changing - which is reactionary; while the Western Catholic church is built on the ideal of change, but at the same time trying to claim it does not change - which is paradoxical and the change-orientation leads incrementally to progressivism full-blown.

The Filioque dispute was theologically arcane, but was really about the principle of changing the settled creed (in response to recently dicovered philosophical considerations). The East was utterly appalled at the idea of changing the creed for any reason: and they were right, as proven by the fact that the Filioque was the thinnest of ends of what turned out to be a massive wedge of change when anything and evrything is now up for reconsideration.

None of this has *direct* implications about modern denominations - I donot believe that modern Eastern Othrodoxy is intrinsically superior to Roman Catholicism, nor that Catholicism is intrinsically superior to Protestantism, nor do I believe that recent 'reformations' like Mormonism are necessarily inferior to the old Christian denominations: I think that (in these end times) local and specific factors do and ought to dominate such theoretical considerations.

But, when it comes to history, we have to take sides in light of what emerged from the decisions (which retrospectively clarifies what those decisions entailed); and I think Dawson picked the wrong side!

JRRT Reader said...

@ bgc --Apart from Tolstoy and Chopin, I believe that Lord Clark's otherwise good series overlooks Eastern Europe. It could be the case that he wasn't familiar enough with Orthodoxy or Eastern Europe to draw the connection.

bgc said...

@JP - I should clarify that Dawson's other writing makes clear enough that he did not accept the canard you suggest - I think he blundered into the above nonsense in trying to explain how it was that the 'bastard' orientalism that he regarded as Byzantium nonetheless lasted 1000 years...

bonald said...

If I remember correctly, "Progress and Religion" was an early work, and Dawson warmed up to Byzantium somewhat by the time he wrote "The Making of Europe". (He also grew in sympathy for Islam.) Like you, Bruce, what bothers me about the quoted passages is not that he criticizes Orthodox civilization, but that he does so on distinctly progressive grounds. My conclusion when I first read "Progress and Religion" was that even the best Englishmen are stained with Whiggery and simply cannot question the assumption that "progress", "creativity", and "freedom" are necessarily good. Dawson and Toynbee were the English answers to Spengler, and you can really tell the difference. Since I've met you, I've had to revise that judgement (although I still think it holds as a general rule). Despite your unsoundness on birth control, you are a genuine reactionary.

bgc said...

@Bonald. Why thank you sir!

wrt birth control, I think the traditional prohibition is correct in general (maybe you persuaded me!); however, I don't accept the details and specifics of the Roman Catholic discussion of the issue; indeed I regard it as an exampe of the 'legalism' which I find unacceptable.

Ingemar said...

Dr. Charlton,

I can't tell if you're Catholic or Orthodox.

bgc said...

Well, I attend three (carefully selected) Anglican churches, if that is what you mean: one evangelical protestant, one Anglo Catholic, and one traditional 'middle way'. But I would not be surprised if I need to change denomination, sooner or later.

dearieme said...

"he seemingly does not recognize that they were cut from the same cloth as Byzantine ascetics and hermits. 'Celtic' Christianity = the British Isles version of Eastern Orthodoxy."

His blind spot is odd: the Dark Ages history I've read lately emphasises that "Celtic" Christianity differed from Rome partly be being much more conservative: it was Rome that had fannied around with the date of Easter, for example, not the Irish and British churchmen.

Drew Craft said...

It may just be an intellectual blind spot of the period (just as we surely have such spots in different areas). I found it very amusing when I realized that a list of arguments that Chesterton made for Roman Catholicism versus Protestantism could easily be converted into the same arguments for Eastern Orthodox versus Roman Catholicism.

bgc said...

@dc - I expect you are right; indeed the blind spot extends to when the Eastern Empire landmass became cut-off from the West and accessible only via pirate-ridden waters.

But it is rather bizarre that Roman Catholicism is sometimes regarded as the epitome of 'tradition' when the West's division from the East was precisely because the Pope/ Magisterium wished to be able change tradition in response to 'modern' scholarship - and the process has continued ever since: e.g. the corrupt nightmare of Vatican II and its sequel.

buckyinky said...

I just finished reading the somewhat lengthy, though very interesting, introduction to Vladimir Solovyev's Russia and the Universal Church, and so far in my reading, he seems to be addressing the Byzantine phenomenon head-on, with eyes wide open, while also being critical of, if not its very foundations, something very near to its foundations. He presents a different picture of the heresies plaguing Christianity in the first millenium than you do, with Monophysitism and Monothelitism, culminating in the Iconoclastic heresy being particular problems resident to Byzantium. Byzantium's begrudging appeals to Rome repeatedly to fend off these heresies is the only thing that kept them from taking entirely over the Eastern Christian empire.

Once these heresies were ultimately quashed, Byzantium finding no practical purpose to Rome's authority, it found it easier to isolate itself further Rome, eventually into full schism.

Even with its formal condemnations of heresy, Solovyev accuses the Byzantines of "professed orthodoxy and practical heresy." He writes,

The dualism of Nestorius, condemned in theology, became the very foundation of Byzantine life. Or again, the religious ideal was reduced to bare contemplation, that is, to the absorption of the human spirit in the Godhead, an obviously Monophysite ideal. The moral life, on the other hand, was robbed of its practical force by the inculcation of the supreme ideal of passive obedience and blind submission to power; that is to say, of an ideal of quietism which was in reality the denial of human will and energy, the heresy of the Monothelites. Finally, an exaggerated asceticism attempted to suppress the bodily nature of man and to shatter the living image of the divine incarnation — a logical though unconscious application of the Iconoclastic heresy.

Overall, he presents a picture of the idea of a fully Christian society in Byzantium as something that never even fully got off the ground in the first place but found greater success in the Frankish emperors, though ultimately failing there also.

Perhaps it's immature of me to bring this up after only having read the introduction and not the whole book (which I plan still to do), but I wonder at least whether you have read much of Solovyev's work, and if so, whether you have any thoughts relating to his take on Byzantium and Christianity in the Eastern Empire.

bgc said...

@bi - I haven't read this work, but I am not sure (for all his brilliance) about the authority of Solovyev to overthrow what I have learned. It sounds, from the excerpts, that he takes the usual stance of explaining how chaotic and reactive was Byzantium - and yet its basic structure lasted for centuries. What needs to be explained is how and why it lasted, not its imperfections and failure to live up to the incredibly high ideal it set itself. Even its decline and decadence under the Paleologus dynasty lasted nearly 200 years (of cultural flourishing). And even though they knew they were doomed (as are all earthly things) they never 'gave up' and descended into self-loathing as our civilization has done, but fought to the very last.

Ingemar said...

Have you heard of the British Orthodox Church?

They were founded in the mid-19th century by a French Catholic priest-turned Syriac Orthodox but their relations were not normalized with the Oriental (not Eastern) Orthodox Church until their primate, Metropolitan Seraphim of Glastonbury formally submitted the church under the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Website is If yo have gobs of free time you can watch Met. Seraphims videos explaining theology. He pretty much shares your conclusion that early British Christianity was Eastern before it was Roman.

buckyinky said...

That's interesting, thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps Solovyev would agree with you that Byzantium set for itself high ideals, and even that it was in a sense a great civilization, but would disagree with you that the ideal was a fully Christian one.

buckyinky said...

Also, for what it's worth, the entire work can be found online here in pdf format.

Gabe Ruth said...

Leadership by monks instead of priests... this is an important distinction that should be elaborated. Because of their close (and appropriate) involvement with worldly affairs, priests can't be relied upon to hold the line on theology. The modern imagines monks isolated from the world loosing touch with human concerns, thinking that would lead to an inhumane attitude towards their fellow man. But this disregard for the transient is certainly a feature, not a bug.

Have you ever heard of Aleksandr Dugin? His geo-political ideas strike me as mostly nuts, but he has some interesting things to say about what happened in 1054 here, and where the front line of the battle is here.

bgc said...

For readers who know nothing about Byzantium, or want to see an accurate and clear account of it in one hour, I have just watched an enjoyable couple of illustrated lectures by Eugen Weber in a series called The Western Tradition - The Byzantine Empire (parts 15 and 16)

bgc said...

@GR - thanks for these. Seems interesting.

As far as I understand him I think I agree that what is going on in Russia now is humanity's fate in the balance - whether Holy Russia is reborn, or whether Russia lapses finally to Leftism.

From Fr Seraphim Rose (and his circle, e.g. Archishop Averky) I get the teaching that the end times may be delayed (for a while) if Russia is reborn in this way, as has been prophesied variously.

Because such prophecies may not be fulfilled if human will otherwise; but it seems this is not yet decided, still hangs in the balance.

Gabe Ruth said...

After your mention of legalism I have to link to this (and since I mentioned Dugin earlier).

Bonald, I think the zeal of the convert saved Dr. Charlton from that particular English tendency.