Sailing past Byzantium

To those who know nothing about the mediaeval, “byzantine” East of Christendom (and what do I know about anything?) a book by the respectable Oxford scholar, Averil Cameron, is worth mentioning. It is a short survey of developments in her academic field, entitled, Byzantine Matters (2014). It poses five basic questions on which our common assumptions are mostly wrong, and provides succinct directions for thinking again.

Mediaeval Greece, the Byzantine dynasties, and Orthodox Christianity: these are far from interchangeable concepts. Moreover, “Byzantine art” — the focus of enthusiasm in the anglosphere through the last century or so — is misunderstood. The term “Byzantine” itself — conceived from late antiquity as a deprecation — persists in the academy as an intelligence neutralizer. The vanity of “the West” gets in the way of appreciating a parallel Christian realm, which flourished for more than a thousand years, and never succumbed to the Arabs. (It finally succumbed to the Turks.) We disdain what amounts to an alternative universe of Christian witness and high culture, of great variety and depth, even more obtusely than we disdain our own Middle Ages.

We are narrowed and prejudiced by the attitudinizing of Edward Gibbon, and the inheritance (or disinheritance) of our Western “Enlightenment,” to view as backward a civilization in most ways superior to our “modern” own, from pride in the tinsel of technology. From AD 330 (the founding of Constantine’s capital) to 1453 (when it fell into Ottoman hands), we see only a continuous story of “decline.” But there were many declines over this vast period, and in the intervals between them, many recoveries.

I don’t review books in this space, any more than I provide a news service. I mention them only to advance some thought of my own, however unworthy. Today’s is on this matter of “decline” or “doom” — at a time when we casually accept that our own, Western, multi-century run is more or less finito. The idea of “Decline and Fall” is the verso of our progressivism. If we are not going up, we must be coming down, and since the evidence is plentiful for the latter, the idea seems too plausible to examine. (Why fight for a dying civilization? Take your pleasure now!)

What I like about this book is its elevation. Just as at the seminary where I sort-of teach, we try to supply students with “a map,” Dame Averil takes us aloft. Some things become visible from above, that cannot be discerned from ground level. With respect to Byzantine history, we are overdue for some bold revisionism, and could wish for a tremendous expansion of scholarly effort to publish many of the most prominent literary, artistic, and philosophical monuments.

But with respect to the world at large, and to the broad question of how things work in time, we have a model of still greater value. The very unfamiliarity of so much of the terrain — its comparative freshness — helps us see what, in the case of our own past, eludes us from over-familiarity.

We see that nothing in Byzantine history was necessary. None of the declines, defeats, disintegrations were inevitable; nor any of the rebounds, revivals, reconstructions. And yet, neither decline nor recovery was in any sense “a choice” — as we say, conventionally, about things like elections. What to human eyes seems pure bloody luck is always there, including centrally the presence or absence of men willing to run long odds; who take faith, when the world turns faithless, and will not agree to “steady as she sinks.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but in societies as in individuals nothing is determined; and the game ain’t over till the fat lady sings.