Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton

Tuesday, April 18, 2006  

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet “mean” may be so emphatically applied . . . The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.

— W. E. H. Lecky, A History of European Morals, 1869.

The conventional posture of our politics is firmly against prejudice. This because the rigid Rationalism that undergirds our politics has made war on prejudice. It is an oppression of the mind that can, and usually does, issue in more tangible and grinding oppression. To escape oppression, this conventional argument runs, is the object of a decent politics; it is an ineluctable element of progress.

But in fact prejudice — that is, prejudgment — is a neutral thing, which can indeed issue in oppression, but can also issue in liberation. To cultivate in men a prejudice against some abiding error, or against some recurrent evil, is to free them from oppression, not set the yoke of it upon them. It is well that we have a prejudice against, say, the evil of polygamy; and it is no piece of progress that some of our favored innovations have put us on the road to renovation of it.

Moreover, few prejudices are more oppressive than the one which holds that, because of Rationalism’s antipathy for prejudice, it has no prejudices itself. The above quotation, from the right-wing Rationalist Lecky, is as stunning a prejudice as can be imagined. To condemn a vast and bewildering and vibrant civilization, which endured for over a thousand years, to such contemptuous oblivion, based on some asserted “universal verdict of history,” is almost the very definition of oppressive prejudice.

As John Julius Norwich notes in the introduction his three-volume history of Byzantium, is it, even on the face of it, difficult to see how the story of “the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude” can be characterized as monotonous and uninteresting. We might as well say that depictions of the Italian mafia are monotonous and uninteresting; and if so, that Americans have developed a strange fascination with the monotonous and uninteresting.

But in addition to the kind of palace intrigues and webs of deceit that make episodes of 24 seem plausible, there is this: Byzantium was the legitimate inheritor of that Classical culture which is so wildly celebrated as heralding the arrival of the new rationalism of the Renaissance. Indeed, the roots of the explosion of creativity and learning that we call the Renaissance lie in part in the sudden influx of Greek scholars, theologians, philosophers, orators and suchlike, in Italy after Constantinople fell to the Turks.

Which brings us to my final point — the pressing relevance of the history of Eastern Roman Empire (the term Byzantine, of course, or all its mystery and romance, was originally reconceived with a kind of malice, to distinguish the “base and despicable” Greek Christians of the Later Roman Empire from the admirable Greeks and Romans of pagan antiquity) to our current ordeal. From August 20, 636 at the Yarmuk River near the Sea of Galilee to May 29, 1453, when Constantinople fell, the Byzantines stood against the protean might of Islam. 800 years. Have we even a bare fraction of such endurance?

It is truly an oppression of the mind — a crippling one if left uncorrected — to follow the base prejudice of the rationalists, and scorn the vivid and moving tale of the civilization built upon the Golden Horn.

posted by Paul Cella | 1:16 PM |
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