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Weaver: Misunderstanding Byzantium and Institutions

If Byzantium has left a lesson for the philosophic historian, that is probably to be read in its excessive institutionalization. To divinize an institution is to make it eventually an idol, and an idol always demands tribute. The Byzantines tended to worship the forms they had created, and the forms came to exact a toll that was ruinous.

Strange though the thought may at first appear, there are nations of the modern world which, in their bureaucratic and industrial organizations, seem to be falling into the Byzantine pattern.~ Richard Weaver, Proud “City of God”, National Review, 3/24, June 15, 1957 (reprinted in In Defense of Tradition)

This short book review of an unexceptional history of Byzantium almost fifty years ago is bound to misunderstand the subject of Byzantine history. One might even wonder why anyone would bother about this review, except that it reflects a serious misunderstanding not only of Byzantium but of states and institutions in general. Even though Prof. Weaver’s review latches onto the old and increasingly discredited stereotype of Byzantium as a rigid and highly institutionalised state, the chief problem lies not in this exaggeration of the realities of Byzantine society but in the odd political and aesthetic judgement passed on what is deemed to be typically Byzantine.

It might be fair to say that, for its time or in comparison with other states or proto-states in the Middle Ages, Byzantium was heavily institutionalised in that it had a regular bureaucracy and some provincial administration generally directed from the capital. It is also worth keeping in mind that the stereotypically complicated bureaucracy consisted of perhaps 1,000 functionaries for a state that comprised at least sizeable portions of the Balkans and all of Anatolia for most of its life–not exactly an overwhelming number.

What is striking to the student of Byzantium is how loose and decentralised most administration seems to have been for most of its history, given the theoretical insistence on the emperor’s absolute power. If anything, Byzantium was too little institutionalised and too reliant on the individual monarch. What is also striking to most any person who is only vaguely acquainted with Byzantine history is how relatively unobtrusive the state was outside of the capital and outside of the basic roles of taxation, defense and the administration of justice.

The Byzantines prided themselves on their sense of order, rank and hierarchy in Church and state, which they called taxis, and aimed through judicious decisions and good laws to establish a good order. Good order could not exist except through a sort of formalism, but it is a consistent mistake of interpreters to see in this formalism a hollowness, dessication or cultural deficiency.

Those who imagine that Byzantines worshipped, in any meaningful sense of the word, any of their forms, whether political or religious, would be sorely mistaken. It was the norm that Byzantines should show things their proper respect, whether in the veneration of icons or submission to the emperor. Worship was, of course, reserved to God alone. As students of church history know well, the Church was the leaven of Byzantine cultural life and served as the counterbalance to the state when certain emperors might presume to take on too much authority in matters of faith.

So much for the problems of detail. The real problem of interpretation with this review is that it views institutions mechanistically and regards the relative strength of institutionalisation as dangerous to a society. Institutions in general are those establishments of past generations that have generally come about to meet some need or serve some necessary purpose, either real or imagined. Institutions grow as part of the historical process–it is a matter for the discerning man to determine whether these are healthy growths or weeds choking the life of a people. The chief problem with modern, mainly government, institutions is that they serve no real, legitimate purpose and only perpetuate their own existence. It is incumbent on the present generation to demonstrate either why the institution definitely serves no legitimate purpose, or that it has gone off track. Otherwise, it is difficult to speak of “excessive institutionalisation.” One might as well speak of excessive development, or an organism flourishing too much.

Institutions only become the rigid and sterile enemies of growth when they, in a sense, cease acting like institutions, which is to incorporate and reconcile new changes into the existing structures. No reasonable person can suppose that the only state to survive the length of the medieval period, only to be destroyed by the persistent grinding of invasions and force of arms, lacked in this ability to adapt and incorporate changes. There were things that many of the Byzantines refused to change, because they regarded them as permanent things worth preserving at any temporal cost. The genius and beauty of Byzantium, as far as I am concerned, lay in its conviction that this adaptability changed nothing fundamental, and that, in spite of the numerous obvious changes of language, law and practice that the Roman Empire remained in its core unchanged and enduring. The Byzantine practice of economy did not diminish Byzantium’s endurance or character, but helped to preserve it.


It is an excellent example of one of the great truths of conservative wisdom (though it would be facile and anachronistic to speak of Byzantine “conservatism” in any sense like we mean it today) that to conserve is to be able to incorporate change. Institutions are the forms through which that change is mediated. As such, genuine institutions–be they church, corporation (in the old sense of the word), family and associations of various kinds, among others–can almost not receive too much respect.

To lack respect for vital and sane institutions, or to have respect for derelict and worthless ones, is to sabotage the health of the state and also subvert legitimate authority. By contrast, those who servilely follow individuals in certain offices at the expense of good institutions and fundamental laws are the worst kind of lackey. It is they who are engaged in idolatry.

This is just one, old, minor review in Prof. Weaver’s otherwise outstanding career, but it is a curious position for him to hold. It was encouraged, I suspect, by the contemporary scene, in which a so-called institutionalisation did appear as an agent of consolidation and cultural ruin. But to associate those features with sound institutions would be to describe two radically different things by the same name.