Sunday 25 December 2011

Some misconceptions about motivations


I regard the Eastern Roman Empire as a kind of ideal society - in the sense that it seems to have been the most devout Christian society and with the fullest, deepest, highest kind of Christianity.

Byzantium seems to 'prove' or at least confirm that divine monarchy is the proper form of government, Empire the proper form of organization, that Christianity ought to permeate the whole life (and not be encapsulated away from the state), and that Christianity can reach its highest deveopment when led by the ascetic monsatic ideal; when productive of Saints and Elders.


Would it be true to say that I want to impose such an Empire on England, Britain, the West? To install a monarch, a Tsar, and re-organise life to emulate Constantinople?

And do I revere Byzantium because I personally crave to live somewhere of that sort?


Well, no and no.

The Byzantine ideal serves to show what can be done, how humans can be very different from now - how a society can be devoted to Christian ideals and richly civilised, yet tough enough to survive for centuries against strong and hostile forces.

Perhaps most impressively (for me, living here and now) a society which never lost faith in itself, never became self-loathing and suicidal; and which courageously chose to die rather than submit.


But Byzantium emerged from the Roman Empire when it became Christian; it became a fusion of Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures with the Revelation; but it was not designed.

Spiritually, Eastern Orthodoxy was a completion of paganism, not a replacement.


But I am a product of modernity, hence cowardly and shallow and a lover of comfort and distraction. I would find it extremely hard to live under an Orthodox monarchy - in fact I would probably get sick and die in a few weeks.

So my motivations about such potential futures are - of course - abstract and fantasy-like.

If human society ought to be Christian rather than anti-Christian, devoted to salvation rather than peace and prosperity, a divine monarchy rather than a democracy, other-worldly instead of this worldly: honouring of Love rather than kindness, Courage rather than career, Authority rather than anarchy - and so on, then we would need something very different from what we have. 


But I don't really think much about it - legitimate Christian reactionary politics is not about imposing a blueprint; it is about pursuing spiritual goals, making choices, and seeing what emerges from these choices.

Even if successful (which is highly improbable), even before corruption took its toll; likely as not we would not get what we bargained for; because what would be Good for us would, no doubt, be considerably different from what we consciously wanted.

Byzantium happened because the people deserved it, by their holiness; we do not deserve it, we could not create or sustain it - and it will not happen.

If Westerners, en masse, were to repent and reform, then - maybe - in a hundred years or more we might get somewhere near Byzantium...



Jonathan said...

Dear Prof. Charlton,

I see wisdom in your statement that legitimate Christian reactionary politics is about pursuing spiritual goals and seeing what emerges from these choices. At the same time, I've come to think that one of the markers of evil utopian ideologies (Communism, Modernist Leftism) is that they know what they don't want, but rarely have a description of what their utopia will look like; rather, they simply assume that some vague perfect world will ensue after all inequality/oppression is eliminated.

I think that the fact that Byzantium existed, and we can actually describe it (but don't mistake it for the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth), is crucial in distinguishing the Orthodox view from those shell-game utopias. Unlike the modern anti-discrimination anti-capitalism anti-colonialist, we have a clear vision of what we do want. Or do you think the lack of a clear goal is not the red flag I'm suggesting it is?

Changing the topic, I am nearly finished reading the biography of Father Seraphim you recommended, as well as several of his own books, and I'm ready for another recommendation. Can you please tell me a good book or two for learning about Byzantium? Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan -

Moscow was the third Rome, or the second Constantinople - and the heir of Byzantium - so the measure of similarities and differences between Constantinople and Christian Russia before Peter the Great, give some idea of the degree of precision with which the nature of a devout Orthodox monarchy could be predicted.

They were very different in worldly terms, yet spiritually perhaps essentially the same - dominated by ascetic monasticism with a network of Holy Elders, desert-dwelling hermits, and wonder-working Saints at the pinnacle.

A good starting book for Byzantium might be Judith Herren's Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire.

But the best idea would be to go to a good university library, take down a couple of dozen relevant books from the shelves, and spend one or two half days browsing them.

Jonathan said...

Thank you. I will do both.

I did not know that about Moscow, though I suppose it makes sense in retrospect.

S. Brady said...

' The Byzantine ideal serves to show what can be done, how humans can be very different from now-how a society can be devoted to Christian ideals and richly civilised, yet tough enough to survive for centuries against strong and hostile forces. '

This is interesting. I have always assumed that emergence of civilization inevitably leads to dysgenics and decadence which is ultimately responsible for its downfall. If the Byzantine Empire offers a way out of this sad conclusion, I would certainly like to study it in greater detail. Was religion the main reason the Byzantine empire was able to counteract these developments and survive for along time? Unlike the modern west, the upper classes did seem quite religious-but is there evidence that they had a high fertility rate?

Brandon said...

Hi Dr. Charlton,

a merry Christmas to you.

Have you ever read the popular history of Byzantium titled:"Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization" by Lars Brownworth? If so what did you think of it?

Bruce Charlton said...

@S Brady - my understanding is that 'dysgenics' by social class is a phenomenon only of the past 200 years (approx) - that is what Greg Clark (UC Davis) has found/ confirmed in his recent study of surnames in England through the past 1000 years. Until 200 years ago surnmaes of rich families had the most descendents but after that time it was the opposite.

This is my current understanding: In the old days (pre 1800 approx) the childhood mortality rate among the poor was so high that their fertility made almost no difference; so long as fertility among the rich was higher than replacement then the usual pattern of fertility continued.

And before contraception/ widespread abortion etc then the fertility rate of all classes was above replacement.

So the 'dysgenic' phenomenon has two phases: reduced mortality among the poor, followed by reduced fertility among the modern non-poor (remembering that everybody in modern societies is non-poor).

The only above-fertility groups now are non-modern - with the exception of US Mormons (at least until recently).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brandon - I havent read that one - I have read mostly old books (from principle) and then wahetever new books happened to be in the avaiable libraries - and this one wasn't. But I like the sound of its argument.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S Brady - civilization survival is what CS Lewis called a Second Thing (contrasted with Christianity which is a First Thing). So the 800-1000 year survival (according to definitions) of the Eastern Roman Empire was not (I think) driven by their sense of civilizational superiority (although they certainly did have that) but by a much deeper sense of divine destiny - that they inhabited a replica or glimpse of Heaven on Earth and should fight for this.

The Eastern Orthodox view of spiritual history therefore regards the fall and loss of Constantiniple as equivalent to the drowning of Numenor - after which things have been at a lower level - and the Russian Orthodox monarchy as a kind of Gondor.

I suppose the modern West would be something like the civilization of the Black Numemoreans - the Corsairs of Umbar, perhaps?

Nah - it doesn't work, the comparison breaks down...

Valkea said...

Charlton: "Empire the proper form of organization"

- I have failed to find that in the Bible. The closest to that is in the first book of Moses, where Josef as an outsider inside the Egyptian empire uses the empire, and is not assimilated into it. Other than that, Rome is the meaning of the infamous number 666, God destroyed Babylon with multiculturalism and multiethnicism, Assyria was cursed by the prophets, in Revelation in the end of times evil Empire is named Babylon (to metaphorically describe it), etc. Jesus says "Give to the emperor what is his." Jesus shut out the empire (Rome) and it's businesses, and built local communities and congregations.

Other than that, Byzantine is a testament to the endurance Christianity bestows, but Christianity has in practice died from that area. Britain is still an empire, it has just turned inside and is in it's last stages, and, naturally, Christianity has almost totally died. It is debated among Britons (who care about Britain) whether Britain has already died or will it die later. Empires' first allow nations to pick raisins from buns, but at later stages the rotten an toxic remains are always forcefeeded to the natives.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Valkea - ""Charlton: "Empire the proper form of organization"

- I have failed to find that in the Bible. "

But *all* of Christianity in the Bible takes place in the Roman Empire, which then became Christian.

And of course I don't mean that ALL Empires are Christian Empires! - the British Empire was not, although probably it should have been.

The question is to what extent Christianity can survive outside of Empire and the expansion of Empire - it can do, but probably only at a low-ish level.

This view does - however - depend on a *particular* understanding of the relation of a place like Anglo Saxon England to Empire - the relation may be spiritual rather than material.

Ariston said...

Perhaps most impressively (for me, living here and now) a society which never lost faith in itself, never became self-loathing and suicidal; and which courageously chose to die rather than submit.

This is demonstrably false. Many Byzantine noble families were openly consorting with the Turk during the long Paleologan decline. In many ways, the word "decadent" best describes the "final" 1261-1453 empire, whatever its cultural achievements, it was politically moribund and often insane. (The chance the Byzantines blew to split up the Ottomans by siding hard with the European claimant to the Ottoman throne and rebuilding the navy in the early 1400s is a glaring example. Instead, they hoped for reclaiming Anatolia.) By the end, significant portions of Byzantine society had lost faith in their model, and the fairly rapid collapse of the richer, better defended parts of the Empire in the wake of the fall of Constantinople flows from this demoralization.

Bruce Charlton said...

@"Ariston" says demonstrably false?

Sir Steven Runciman says:

"But to Byzantium it gave a sense of unity, of self-respect and of divine purpose that sustained the Empire to the last. (…)

"No form of government can survive for very long without the general approval of the public. (…) The ordinary man and woman in Byzantium believed their Empire to be God’s holy empire on earth, with the holy Emperor as representative of God before the people and the representative of the people before God.

"For eleven centuries (…) the theocratic constitution of the Christian Roman Empire was essentially unchanged.

"No other constitution in all the history of the Christian era has endured for so long."

Nergol said...

Democracy is, of course, pleasant to live under (as long as you are not a powerless minority, which tend to do badly under them), but is corrosive to Christian teaching, moral fortitude of any kind, and human self-control. One does not even have to be a Christian to see that. Read Socrates's description of the degenerated, out-of-control civil society of democracies in Plato's Republic. That was written 250 years ago. Plus ca change...

Democracy teaches us that man is capable of making his own moral law. Christians, of course, know that this is nonsense. But slowly, over time, the people in a democracy come to realize that being their own sovereign in a legal sense can make them their own sovereign in a moral sense. Why should they be moral? Who will make them be so? Who will even tell them that it's wrong? Politicians in a democracy cower before the people, and tell them anything they want to hear as long as it brings the politician more power. Want to hear that wrong is right, truth is false, and night is day? A politician in a democracy will tell you all that and more. Want to hear that there's no such thing as consequences for your wicked or foolish decisions? You'll hear that, too.

So democracies have a predictable trajectory (which Plato told us all about). They start, and rise for a time as people cling to the old virtues. Then they start to decay both financially and morally, as the people figure out that they can vote themselves rich, and can also vote themselves virtuous whether they deserve it or not. Finally they collapse, as a weak and libertine people find themselves bankrupt and lacking the fortitude to deal with their problems. Finally, a strong man on a white horse shows up, and a poor and dissipated people beg him to make things right.

Anyhow, the west is bankrupt and gave up having children. Which will cause its collapse first - running out of money, or running out of young people? I suppose we shall see. I hear neighing in the distance.