Friday, 30 July 2010

Why the Byzantine ideal?

Given that I regard theocracy as the inevitable ultimate state of human civilization - of course chance has a huge role to play, but theocracy is the strongest, most cohesive social form over the long term - then the question arises of which theocracy.

The correct answer is, of course, that theocracy which is true: or at least true-est given human imperfection.

But how do we recognize truth?


*One* way that we might expect to recognize truth might be in contemplating our response to that kind of society as actually established, at some point in human history.

It was this consideration which (as I recall) first pointed me towards Eastern Orthodoxy, because of all the theocracies in history of which I knew, the Byzantine was that which exerted by-far the greatest appeal to me, at a gut level.

I will try to describe my thought processes.


Obviously, non-Christian theocracies have negative appeal. That leaves a variety of Roman Catholic and Protestant theocracies.

There have been RC theocracies in Europe until quite recently: for example Ireland and Spain approached that ideal - and there was of course the European Middle Ages.

I must admit that (although I have tried) I find it very difficult to be attracted to the recent RC-dominated societies of Ireland or Spain; and about the Middle Ages I have a strong reservation which I find hard to pin-down.

There seems to be a thin-ness or a flat-ness about this kind of theocracy - a kind of literalness. A legalism - which portrays life in abstract, philosophical, logical terms - and somehow leaves out the human spirit.

And, at its height, Western Catholic monasticism does not seem to know exactly what it is trying to achieve (either on earth or in heaven) - so there is a greyness and gruel about it, in my mind, that I cannot rid myself-of (despite effort): epitomized by what I experience as the chill of Gregorian chant.

I assume this is down to the intrinsic division of Church (Pope) and State (Monarch, dictator or secular republic), and the mutilation of the human spirit which this entails.


There have been many Protestant theocracies too - the 17th century puritan republic in England, or the New England puritan theocracies.

While hugely admirable in so many ways (and as a young man my spontaneous sympathies were always with the Roundheads against the Cavaliers), the monochrome *dryness* of these societies is what comes through for me.

There is precious little spirituality - in the sense of approaching or communing with God, and a heck of a lot of rule-following, transgression-detecting and -punishing. Life and worship are alike extremely *secular* in nature: no mystery, no magic; only an austere poetry and the release of communal activity and resistance.

Protestant theocracies seem to me dull; I feel sure that life would (after the first overwhelming flush of conversion) seem alienated, meaningless, superficial, routine, mundane: a hope-less drudgery in this world, awaiting rescue in the next.


While I would probably, in practice - given my personality and socialization - hate living in Byzantium, or in Holy Russia (its nearest equivalent); there is a gut level appeal to these societies for me - a wholeness, a colour, a richness, an integration of all aspects of life (aimed at as ideal, whether or not being achieved at a particular time) that I find massively attractive.

(Leaving aside uncomfortable aspects such as ancient cruelties, slavery, and the vital presence of a eunuch imperial and ecclesial bureaucracy...)

In Byzantium I have an image of gorgeousness and colour, of daily (more than daily) ritual, of pervasive devotion and awe-inspiring worship, of heavenly music and art, of self-confidence and religious ambition, of community, of decisiveness, of courage beyond our imagination, of extraordinary asceticism in pursuit of sainthood, of great wisdom in spirituality.


Having made these harsh criticisms of RC and Protestant theocracies, I hasten to add that there were huge compensations of many and varied kinds, including individuals who reached the highest levels of human achievement (Michaelangelo and Rembrandt; Verdi and Bach; Medieval cathedrals and Milton; Galileo and Newton; Aquinas and Adam Smith - and on and on).

I just wish to emphasize that they do not overcome my sense of repulsion and fear at the thought of such societies.


In sum, I believe that Byzantium succeeded - at times and for many of its community - in being a foretaste of heaven on earth and preparation for heaven after death.

And the Eastern Roman civilization was destroyed after a millennium - but not by suicidal self-hatred, nor by hedonistic decadence, nor by lack of will to defend that which it most valued: it was simply overwhelmed, step by step, over several centuries, by ill-chance and superior force.

No civilization is proof against the vicissitudes of the world.


If actual theocracies can be taken as at least indicative of the ideal theocracies which they attempt to embody, then it is only the Byzantine Christian variety which has any genuine, spontaneous appeal for me. (I cannot answer for others.)

For what it is worth, I therefore see Byzantium - in its contrasts with Protestant and Roman Catholic theocracies - as a validation, a token validation, of Orthodoxy.


Anonymous said...

This is all very subjective, of course, but personally I would far rather live in Franco's Spain or De Valera's Ireland than in Byzantium at any point in its history, although I certainly wouldn't mind visiting. And I certainly think that I would rather live in 15th Century Florence than 15th Century Russia. As rich as the history of Byzantium is, I guess I remain a "Man of the West".


Bruce Charlton said...

I agree that the 'transitional societies' - the generation or two between a traditional society and a degenerate society - is often the most appealing from a lifestyle perspective. Including the best of both worlds, in a sense.

My example would probably be Emersonian early 19th Century New England between the static puritan theocracy and the rapidly-growing chaos of the post-Civil War era.

An era of (apparently) delirious freedom and possibility.

But these are un-sustainable transitional societies, en route from one ethos, one kind of organization - to another.

To qualify as a candidate for sustainability, a society would need to maintain its core characteristics for at least three generations/ c. 75 years.

F said...

I have studied, with some care, the history of Imperial China, thanks in large part to the superb multi-volume book "The Cambridge History of China". In a profoundly important way, the political system that was developed by the Song: a meritocracy that was committed to the ideals of "humane treatment of the people" and rigorous self-control along with a disdain for organized religion (namely Buddhism and Taoism) - was remarkably successful by any standard you care to apply. It was a far from perfect system and I could go on at some length about its weaknesses but - it worked, and it worked for a very long time (combined with the Ming and Manchu dynasties: roughly 900 years). Sadly, the knowledge of this important "experiment" in society has been lost from memory, erased by the obvious failure of Chinese society in the late Manchu period.

I bring this up because I think the Imperial/Confucian system is a viable long-term alternative to theocracy.

Bruce Charlton said...

Good point - but my opinion is that monotheistic theocracy has demonstrated much greater self-confidence, resolve, and desire for expansion, than an ancient pagan society such as China.

a Finn said...

I approach this from a slightly different perspective. It is always the social relationships, small scale and local that produces something in larger scale, even if it in some cases would at first seem that the larger scale was produced almost from thin air.

Because Christianity is based on community and congregation, I am contemplating joining to one of the conservative Christian groups in Finland. I want the group to be such that it demands a lot from it's members, and thus from me, in general and to a good community cause. Demands also repel lukewarm, half-hearted and free riding people, and thus strenghtens the social bonds of the community and the satisfaction of members.