19 October 2009

'A Continual Returning to the Great Figures of the Past'—Assessing Byzantium

The ever-amiable and always entertaining science teacher at my daughter’s school has just sent me a review from the Acton Institute website of the new Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, ed. Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack (Oxford: Oxford U, 2009), which promises to be a wonderful resource on the East Roman empire and its magnificent culture. But despite the book’s obvious mission to rescue Byzantium from the ignorance and prejudice that have plagued Western understanding of the empire in the past, one still finds statements like the following: ‘Writing in the Handbook’s summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not “credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature.”’

It was fortuitous my having come across this review hot on the heels of finishing Fr Andrew Louth’s impressive Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), which I reviewed here. Fr Louth has helped me incalculably in articulating a critique of assumptions like Mango’s. Specifically, Fr Louth questions the whole unspoken assumption here that there can be any sort of quantifiable ‘advance’ in philosophy, political theory, or literature, analogous to what we observe in the history of science. It’s an Enlightenment assumption based on a false analogy between the sciences and the humanities, and one that’s almost calculated to make the Byzantines—who would find such an assumption incomprehensible—look ‘backward’ and ‘rigid’. Fr Louth writes:

The humanities . . . are characterized by a continual returning to the great figures of the past. Philosophers continue to discuss Plato, for instance; the problems that he raised are not problems that admit of the kind of solution which would enable us to leave them behind and pass on to other problems. The notion of advance is much less easy to sustain [than in the sciences]. (p. 67)

Fr Louth’s argument that tradition is the proper ‘method’ in the humanities strikes me as an eloquent vindication of Byzantine culture. It is unfortunate too that ingrained attitudes like the one Mango expresses have resulted in a situation where examples of Byzantine philosophy, political theory, and literature are not easily accessible to most readers, often being confined to expensive scholarly editions or left untranslated altogether.


Gina said...

Yes, it would be nice not to have to justify an interest in the eastern Middle Ages! I was disappointed to come across a similar phrase in Norman Cantor's otherwise good Civilization of the Middle Ages. I wonder if it can all be so simple as to be pinned on Edward Gibbon. Or just the vanity of medievalists, who not long ago were having to justify themselves for an interest in the western Middle Ages, too.

The Hermit said...

Gibbon more or less single handedly slandered a thousand years of the history of the East, and colored the understanding of Byzantium in negative for pretty much the entire English speaking world. There are, however, other anti-Byzantine hostilities in the West; German historians can never forget their 'Holy Roman Empire' was a farce created to rival the existing imperial power structure, nor can Italians (particularly, the Venetians) forget that they wholesale plundered the empire, gutted it of its resources, and then rang their hands in mock helplessness while the Turks went picnicking on the imperial City.

However, it is nice to see stuff like this coming out. I have the Oxford History of Byzantium that Mango edited, and it is quite nice (expensive, but nice). In a similar vein, I much enjoyed Lars Brownworth's series of podcasts on selected Byzantine emperors. One gets the impression that he thinks Orthodoxy killed the empire (which, to a pragmatist, might be true), but otherwise, his lectures were interesting and entertaining.