And where does Byzantium fit into this picture? The whole story of the “fall” of Rome and the coming of the Dark Ages becomes quite a bit more muddled if we but turn our gaze eastward, where we will see with little difficulty that the Roman Empire endured and light never vanished. Classical civilization did not really die when the Eternal City fell to the barbarians: It moved east with the Eastern Empire.
The Byzantines called themselves Roman—and for good reason—for a further thousand years. But when classical civilization retreated to the east, darkness did fall on Western Europe, and from the ruins of those former Roman provinces, a new thing emerged: a thing possessed of its own unity and integrity—unity and integrity that were, in turn, threatened with dissolution with the successive waves of revolution of the Modern Age.
That Christianity was integral to each of the eras of the West is evident to all but the most benighted; that it was the creative engine of all but the latter stages of our era (when true creativity was abandoned) is more controversial but still true. But that the same institutional manifestation of Christianity lies behind each is, it seems to me, an argument the author of a book like this—published by a secular publisher with no indication that it is written solely for Catholics who accept its central assumption—must lay out at some length. ~Paul Cella III
Via Paul Cella.
When I had first read somewhere that Mr. Cella had criticised Prof. Woods’ new book, I was intrigued. Fortunately, for those of us who do not subscribe to Touchstone, Mr. Cella provided an electronic copy of his review.
It seems quite clear to me that the universities and schoolmen were of decisive importance in the future development, both good and ill, of Catholic Europe, and the most notable technical and scientific thought from the late middle ages through early modernity came from Catholic countries or through the sponsorship of Catholic monarchs. Oddly enough, though I am obviously not a Catholic, I am more sympathetic to the idea of institutional continuity as a historical matter than Mr. Cella precisely because of the example of Byzantium. Many people would laugh if I told them that the Roman Empire fell on May 29, 1453, but I think that is a perfectly accurate statement, because the Byzantines called themselves Romans not in any pretentious, affected way (not even the Germans in the Holy Roman Empire maintained an idea that they were Romans) but as a statement of fact. Their state had been the empire of the Romans in 450 and so it was in 1450.
That there were changes and elaborations in the structures of the state and radical transformations of the culture over that millennium is in no way denied, just as I think Prof. Woods would not deny that the Papacy of Leo X was markedly changed from that of Pope Leo I. He would argue, I think, that in significant ways, in substantial ways, continuity outweighed change and that there was a conscious effort both in Rome and Constantinople to cultivate a sense of the eternal and unchanging so that these institutions changed fairly little. Perhaps Prof. Woods did not flesh out this point in his book, but Prof. Woods’ point does not have to be a confessional one or one made on an unproven assumption. If he takes the continuity of the Roman Catholic Church for granted, it is because it is very difficult to see where that continuity breaks down. I think it fair to say that the historian assumes change and must prove continuity, but in some cases the continuity simply stares us in the face and fills us with astonishment.
I am grateful to Mr. Cella for rising to the defense of Byzantium, and I would strongly agree that any account of the building of “Western,” much less Christian civilisation that omits or obscures the role of Byzantium is a partial and incomplete account. It depends a great deal on what we are willing to include as part of our civilisation and what we allow to belong to it. We Byzantinists do like to point out that if Justinian had never re-codified Roman law and reconquered Italy, the law school at Bologna and the revival of Roman law in western Europe, for example, would have been unthinkable, but there was something qualitatively different about the western medieval re-appropriation of things the Byzantines had possessed all along, and this substantially affected how those things were used.
The Byzantines had most of the Aristotelian texts that promoted the expansion of scientific learning in the west, and it is mostly the Byzantines whom we owe for transmitting the bulk of what we still have from Greek antiquity, but for various reasons (including, I think, a more thoroughly Christianised culture than prevailed hitherto in the west) they did not make terribly great use of them. The Byzantines devoted most of their energies to the study of divinity, as we might put it, and saw everything in terms of its importance for salvation and deification. Thus they retained as a culture that certain practical, “Roman” genius for building and engineering, but did not engage in the theoretical science and speculation more typically associated with their ancient Greek ancestors because of a basic lack of incentive. If for the scholastics theology was still the queen of the sciences, for Byzantines it was the only science of any ultimate importance and so the one on which most of the educated men spent most of their time. I think it fair to say that Byzantium was responsible for laying up much of the Deposit of Faith, and so I regard it, from a Christian perspective, as a superior civilisation in spite of its relative lack of technical and theoretical curiosity and experiment, while the Western church was responsible for laying the groundwork for later theoretical and scientific advances.