"THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK"
The alternative "History" of Europe
The Roman empire came to an end on October 29, 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Attaturk deposed the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet VI, and proclaimed the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Such a statement may come as a surprise to all those who think that the Roman empire fell in A.D. 476 to a rather dull Hun called Odoacar. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the world of Late Antiquity continues in the peoples of the universal Roman empire of the Eastern Mediterranean (in both its Christian and Islamic version) in a manner as if not more significant than it does in the West of Roman Catholicism and the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.
What can this purposely provocative statement mean to people at the end of the second millennium? I shall argue below that it may mean a great deal. For if the history of the medieval Eastern Mediterranean, and more specifically of the so-called "Byzantine" empire, can be said to be that of an alternative Europe, a rather alarming situation arises. How can the West accept the existence of an "alternative" to European history, a history which it has taken for granted, and with which it thinks itself so intimately acquainted? Furthermore, how can we explain certain radical differences between Eastern and Western Europe, with their respective capitals at New Rome (Constantinople) and Old, given that both appear to be rooted in the very same cultural milieu (the world of Antiquity) that the West has for so long - and so exclusively - called "Mother"? If there is an alternative history of Europe, is there an alternative way of interpreting Europe and her broader philosophical, political, social and cultural heritage? In other words, can the study of "Byzantium" constitute a pleasantly subversive activity on the threshold of the twenty-first century?
More specifically I want to address the following problems. (i) Firstly, what was "Byzantium" and in what sense can we speak of it as constituting an "alternative" history of Europe? (ii) Secondly, I shall argue that the distinction between Eastern and Western European "historical alternatives" is primarily due to radically different ways in which the continuity of the Late Antique and Christian Social Myth (with a capital M) was relevant to society in both these= regions. (iii) Finally - and most importantly - I would like to dwell on the wider implications of these questions. Can one actually write a history of "Byzantium" today, given that the methods of modern historical research are grounded in a philosophical tradition so greatly at odds with the thought-world of "Byzantium" as to constitute a diametrically opposed "field of understanding"? And if this the case, then what are the ramifications for the study of history per se?
(i) What was the "Byzantine" empire?
There is no consensus amongst historians as to how the Christian Roman, or East Roman or "Byzantine" empire, could be said to constitute a "continuity" from the world of Antiquity. But does the continuity debate mask another, more profound question: that of "legitimacy"? For if there are two alternative ways of regarding European history, can we speak of a "crisis of choice", a "crisis" (in the Greek sense of the word) that has influenced the approach taken by the Western historical tradition to New Rome, to "Byzantium"?
A popular American university text book on medieval history that circulated in the 1960's and 70's (Norman Cantor, Medieval History, the Life and Death of a Civilization, 1963) has this to say in the only paragraph in the book devoted to "Byzantium": The history of Byzantium is a study in disappointment. The empire centering on Constantinople had begun with all the advantages obtained from the inheritance of the political, economic, and intellectual life of the 4th- century Roman empire ... Byzantium added scarcely anything to this superb foundation. The Eastern Roman empire of the Middle Ages made no important contributions to philosophy, theology, science or literature. Its political institutions remained fundamentally unchanged from those which existed ... at the end of the 4th century; while the Byzantines continued to enjoy an active urban and commercial life they made no substantial advance in the technology of industry and trade as developed by the cities of the ancient world. Modern historians of the medieval Eastern Roman empire have strongly criticized the tendency of 19th-century scholars to write off Byzantium as the example of an atrophied civilization. Yet it is hard to find ... any contribution by way of either original ideas or institutions which the medieval Greek-speaking peoples made to civilization. (pp. 248-9).
Mr. Cantor's approach to the medieval Greek and Hellenised peoples is very much in the mainstream of that adopted by the Western historical tradition. Ironically, Cantor suggests a continuity between Late Antiquity and the empire of New Rome. But his is the static and sterile continuity of an outer shell, not of substance. This line of argument betrays some of the Western tradition's contexts of continuity involving notions of "innovation", "progress", and "the individual", notions on which the Western historical tradition is based. Cantor's argument with the "Byzantines" is that they did not build on Antiquity in any "original" way. Continuity, and thus "legitimacy", is clearly defined here in present-day cultural, political and social terms; in what - in other words - it means to us here and now. An Englishman today, for instance, feels no continuity with feudal modes of production or sleeping with his pigs since these offend his concepts of egalitarianism and individual dignity. But he feels great continuity with the feudal barons themselves, who forced poor king John to sign the Magna Carta.
This brings up the question of history per se. Keith Jenkins (Re-thinking History, Routlidge, 1991, p. 70) has argued persuasively that "all history is theoretical and all theories are positioned and positioning." History is a discourse between stances, between conceptual universes. There can be no "true" history, unless of course one begins from a totally ethical position whereby history can be judged only by an external imperative, God. Such an ethically based history, of course, is seen as biased, reactionary and "medieval". What I want to show here is that modern popular perceptions of objective history, of history as a science are just as absurd ... or perhaps just as valid. The question is, as Jenkins has stated, Who defines the goal posts? What is it that history has to say to US, not what is it that history has to say. What is the place of a multi-volume dissertation on Carolingian iron nails in the modern world? The very "objectivication" of history is in fact not a scientific breakthrough but part and parcel of the peculiar thought-world known as Western civilisation, and as such contrasts greatly with other thought-worlds. Whether we like it or not, the study of history, which must take place in the agora, in the forum, in the street and not in the ivory tower where it is useless involves a game of power and validity, of justification. If the West has been able to "justify" itself into predominance, then other cultures have to fall by the wayside, or the museum case. Justification involves continuity, and this is where the "Byzantium" controversy really heats up. It can become a useful historiographical tool in sorting out what on earth the Western thought-world is all about.
And so to "Byzantium" and continuity. We should first ask what "Byzantium" actually was, given that at no time in history was there ever a state that called itself "Byzantium". In fact there was no official name whatsoever for that polity. The term "Byzantium" was invented by 16th-century French humanists. (One is reminded of the primitive idea that if you give something a name, you effectively bring it under your control).
When the Latin Roman empire entered upon the world of the Eastern Mediterranean during last two centuries before Christ, it encountered a group of venerable cultures that may be described as the "Eastern Mediterranean Synthesis" or, more popularly, the Hellenistic world. Socially, culturally, religiously and even economically the East was far better prepared than the Western provinces of the Roman empire, with the possible exception of southern Italy, to withstand the shocks of political and material decline that accompanied profound social, economic and cultural changes in the period between the third and seventh century. The center of Roman power, meanwhile, had shifted to the East, a process that culminated in A.D.330 when the emperor Constantine the Great inaugurated the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman empire: Constantinople, or New Rome as it came to be known in following centuries.
The citizens of that empire, drawn from a broad ethnographic spectrum and, of course, incorporating a predominantly Hellenic or Hellenised element, never ceased to call their empire the "empire of the Romans" right up till 1453. Even after that date, they still called themselves "Romans". By doing so, they identified with older traditions and cultures of the East Mediterranean Synthesis that had been mobilised by Constantine's transfer of the senior capital. The name New Rome did not imply a nostalgic backwards glance at a Latin past, but a complete surgical transplant of the heart of the Roman empire to the epicentre of an Eastern future, both material and spiritual. This may not have been readily apparent in the fourth century, but that is not the point. In the study of history, it is what people of later generations thought had happened that is of far greater significance than what actually happened at any given moment, so much so that an event can be said to have happened in the manner that future generations perceived it. To understand "Byzantium", therefore, it is necessary to understand how continuity was perceived. Why should the West be able to perceive its continuity from Antiquity and thus its intrinsic meaning in the modern world --is so lurid a manner, only to deny this to the "Byzantines"? This brings us to the second part of this paper, which involves the Social Myth.
(ii) Interpreting the Social Myth : Essence and Energy.
How can it be said that the so-called Byzantine empire represents a valid continuity of the Romano-Hellenic world? What are our controls? Do we look at language and culture? Modes of production, ideologies and institutions? Religious life and worship? In nearly all these spheres, differences between the Antique world and "Byzantium" are apparent, superficially at least. Because they appear to be concrete the criteria just mentioned are important for the Western historical tradition. They constitute fundamental chapters in the history of CHANGE in time; they can be compartmentalised within a framework of empirical objectivity. To put it crudely, they provide the scholar with something to DO: a pottery typology, a discussion of architectural types, an analysis of institutional change or economic development. Historical continuity is examined in terms of the development of external forms, whether these be material or social. Periods of change tend to increase in importance in such an historical record, with apparently static intervening periods relegated to secondary status - long pauses between movements of the historical symphony.
I would argue, however, that there is a far more important control that should be considered in any discussion of continuity, a control that transcends simply mapping out periods of change and stasis, and that even can be said to transcend time itself. It is called the human being. The fundamental difference between human beings and the animals is the former's ability to contemplate on death, and thus imbue creation with meaning. In pre-modern societies, cultures translated their anxiety over death into a construct we may call God, religion or "Myth". Cyril Toumanoff defines Myth, with a capital M, as follows: By Myth is meant an all-inclusive world view, a total ideology, and one rooted in the depths of the human psyche, which may obtain in a given society. Like an iceberg, Myth consists of both the unconscious basis and, above the level of consciousness or articulation, ideology and social institutions which repose upon it. It is both the archetypal assumptions of the group unconscious about Man, Society, Divinity, Cosmos and their articulation in mythology, ritual, theology, political theory (The Social Myth: Introduction to Byzantinism. Rome, 1984 p. 9-10).
Toumanoff's definition of Myth is succinct, and well describes that of ancient societies, such as the pagan Roman empire of Late Antiquity. Myth was directed to society as a whole, and not to individuals. The Greek word "=EC=FD=E8=EF=F2" itself connotes parlance, speaking, and therefore must presuppose an audience. Thus it can only really be spoken about in terms of a "Social" Myth. Can we speak, then, of a continuity of this Social Myth in the Christian Roman empire, and if so how did it manifest itself in East and West over the centuries?
a) Greek East
The rise of Christianity represents the most dramatic change in the transition between the old and new order that took place in Europe and the Mediterranean from the third century to the seventh - at least it appears to be. For a very important point often overlooked by religious and social historians is that the Christian Social Myth of the Eastern Mediterranean represents a living continuum of the Social Myth of the world of Antiquity. It was a popular Myth in the most profound sense of the word, and this is reflected in the Church's recognition that the people, namely the Body of Christ, is the true abode of the Holy Spirit. The immanence of the divine that had characterised pagan religions was preserved and transformed in Christianity. Otherwise it would be very difficult to describe the astounding success of Christianity following the fourth century. For example, Christians who made attacks on pagan statues are often described by modern historians in such a manner that one would think they had come from the moon. In fact, their reaction to statues was grounded in their pagan pasts and memories. Just as the statue had been an object of veneration, now one had to disfigure it. Statue bashing is thus a pagan rather than a purely Christian phenomenon. No sense can be made of Early Christianity without the substratum of pagan "attitude" that helped mould it.
And so the Social Myth, of course, now adapted itself to Christianity. The emperor, for instance, became the Thirteenth Apostle, the Image of Christ. Beginning with Constantine's champion, the bishop Eusebius of Caesaria, the old Roman imperial ideal was assimilated to the teleology of the Christian Church. It was no coincidence that Octavian Augustus and Christ had been made manifest to the civilised world at the same time. And why is it, for instance, that only in the fourth century A.D., at a time when conversion to Christianity was on the increase, do we find the development of the veneration of the Theotokos, the Mother of God? Because the rapid influx of converts could not conceive of their new religion without a Mother figure. The theologians of the period placed her at the very pinnacle of creation, without, of course, taking her into the Trinity itself; to have done so would not have allowed her to be a human mother. At the same time, she had to be the mother of God since Christ was fully God and fully man, a point the Orthodox Fathers always stressed. This is the Myth, that "which never was but always is", to paraphrase Stephen of Byzantium.
The significant point to remember here is that Myth, as a human constant, does not necessarily distinguish between its manifestations, for all these manifestations have the notion of the divine as their starting point. The question is not: What Myth? but: How is Myth made manifest? In the long run, the incompatible manner of how Western and Eastern traditions make manifest the Social Myth may represent the most significant dividing line between them. This is a vast subject, so I shall confine myself briefly to a few specific examples to make my point.
The Greek Fathers stressed the Trinitarian concept of God as Three hypostases, or persons, in One essence. The unknowable divine essence of God therefore had to be differentiated from the knowable experience (=E5=EC=F0=E5=E9=F1=DF=E1) of divine existence through Father, Logos and Holy Spirit, which was expressed in terms of "being" or "energy" that allowed mankind to experience God here on earth and in material things. But the divine "energy" that the Greeks speak of is the Holy Spirit Itself and, being an hypostasis of the Trinity, is God Himself, in an "empirical" sense. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit constantly operates in the society of all Christians living and dead. It is a cosmic, and not just a personal event. The Church, therefore, is regarded not as an institution but as a Body, an organism, even a social construct.
The Eastern Church Fathers, most of them acquainted with Hellenic philosophical speculation, knew when to apply a Hellenic brake upon Semitic concepts of a transcendent God, but at the same time - and this is why they are Saints - they also knew when to put a Semitic brake on Hellenic concepts of an impersonal God of forms. This is the secret of Orthodoxy: that the Fathers always knew where to stop and where to start in their refashioning of the Social Myth in a Christian context. Once again, the immanence of the divine was preserved, an immanence at the very heart of the human soul. In fact, through theosis, or deification, the East taught that the body itself partook of the divine.
On this pattern, the Christian Roman state itself became a reflection and implement of the kingdom of heaven, it became a sacramental commonwealth. The epithet sacramental is best interpreted by looking at its Greek equivalent, =EC=F5=F3=F4=E1=E3=F9=E3=E9=EA=FC=F2. This can be translated as "involving initiation", or - more accurately - "being led into the mystery". Since the empire had been "exorcised" when Constantine the Great was called on by Christ to champion His Church, Rome entered upon a process of closer and closer union with God - parallel, in other words, to the process that humans undergo in =E8=DD=F9=F3=E9=F2, an Orthodox Christian notion that "God became man so that man can become God". It is important to note that Christ, quite independently of the Church, "converted" the emperor Constantine, and hence the state was sanctified by God, and was NOT simply a supplicant of the gods, as in pagan Rome.
Strictly speaking, then, the Christian Roman empire, or "Byzantium", was not a theocracy since, within a sacramental context, there was no FUNDAMENTAL concept of Church and State as separate institutions. Indeed, there even was no concept of the state as a geographical entity. The empire was a universal idea that transcended dimensions of time and space. Her capital, Constantinople, was jealously guarded for emotional rather than calculated political or economic reasons. The empire could - or even would - have survived politically and economically if she had given up Constantinople; indeed in logical terms the city was a tremendous burden following its re-capture from the Latins in 1261. But only in logical terms. For it was the New Jerusalem, the city given to the Romans by Christ in an act of dispensation to the single Christian emperor. Rome could not move again. This was the Social Myth.
An important aspect of the sacramental commonwealth was its predilection for absolute monarchy, another thing that does not go down well with the moderns. True, even in the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), just before the Christian period, there had been trends towards absolutism in court ceremonial and art, but it was the Christians who perfected that trend. No modern historian has really explained why this should have been the case, or why it should have persisted for over a millennium. Absolutism has often been passed off as one of those many "oriental" influences that transformed the East Roman empire into "Byzantium". Even in the writings of the most astute commentators, it would appear that being Christian, medieval, and Greek means that one was sufficiently warped to be absolutist as well. Ernest Barker, for instance, one of those most sympathetic to New Rome, apologetically states that: "The basileus, it is true, was an autocrator". He then proceeds to enumerate how, despite the emperor's autocracy, there were little cracks in the edifice which a good liberal Englishman could approve of.
Let us give the "Byzantine" view, then. The autocrator was the reflection of God, and thus there could only be one. In his person, the Social Myth of perfect justice, law, and piety for all his people was embodied. Precisely because he was appointed by God and acclaimed by God's people, he had nothing material to desire. He could afford to, and was obliged to execute affairs of state in the interests of the common weal. In contrast, oligarchy (what the Byzantines called "democracy") was seen as a disease, as the subordination of the common weal to individuals, namely to individual greed and exploitation of one's neighbour. In democracy, one imperative was replaced by many.
Such an attitude is almost universally attributed today to the "Byzantines'" regressive attitude to political, social and economic life. But in fact it is a manifestation of the Social Myth whereby the emperor as emperor was answerable to God for the good of his people. Absolute monarchy meant absolute altruism, something that even British monarchs such as St. Charles Martyr understood perfectly well - that is precisely why he lost his head to the ancestors of the Thatcherites.
b) Latin West
Since Christianity is a Western as well as an Eastern phenomenon, was the Western attitude to the Social Myth of Antiquity any different from that of the East? I think it was. The chasm that began to open up between East and West in the Late Antique and early Medieval periods reflects different ways in which the Social Myth continued to be a valid symbolic universe in both these regions. Whereas society in the East could easily transform the pagan into a Christian Social Myth, especially thanks to ancient and well-formulated religions and philosophies which preceded the incarnation of Christ, the situation in Western Europe was quite different.
It is far too often forgotten today that the most profound difference between medieval Eastern and Western Christendom was not in institutions or society, economics or culture but in basic metaphysical, or theological principles. Western theology, especially in Augustine and the medieval scholastic theologians, stressed the Trinitarian formula of "One in Three". Terrified of falling into Tritheism (namely mis-interpreting the Trinity as three Gods), Augustine and his successors tended to ignore the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, but also between the persons themselves and the single divine essence. Given that the essence cannot be known, then the persons become equally difficult to "know" or "experience", because persons came to be so closely identified with essence. God thus became a transcendent concept, an intellectually approachable entity and not a force immanent in material existence. The fate of the Western Christian tradition has been succinctly summarised by Alan Watts in his book Myth and Ritual in Christianity (New York, 1953), pp. 78-82. Christianity has been expounded by an ... hierarchy which has consistently degraded the myth to a science and a history ... The living God has become the abstract God. For when myth is confused with history, it ceases to apply to man's inner life ... The tragedy of Christian history is that it is a consistent failure to draw the life from the Christian myth and unlock its wisdom .... Myth is only "revelation" so long as it is a message from heaven - that is, from the timeless and non-historical world - expressing not what was true once, but what is true always. Thus the Incarnation is without effect or significance for human beings living today if it is mere history; it is a "salvic truth" only if it is perennial, a revelation of a timeless event going on within man always (Quoted in J. Campbell, Occidental Mythology, pp. 515-16).
Watts' interpretation is profound but as with so many Western historians of religion, he shows equally profound ignorance of the Eastern Christian tradition, to which these conclusions do not necessarily apply, as we have seen earlier on in this paper. The problem, however, does not involve theology alone, since Western Europe underwent a radically different process of "Romanisation" than did the East. Let me explain. The veneer of Latin Roman culture that had existed in places such as Gaul and Britain up till the beginning of the fifth century proved to be quite thin. Other areas to the north had never even encountered it. When Roman power collapsed in the West, many peoples in that region - with the exception of Latins in Italy - showed themselves neither able nor willing to maintain the Antique legacy. In this they differed greatly from their contemporaries in the East. North-West Europe fell back on earlier cultures, traditions, and of course Myths and religions. These, however, could only be seen as hostile and dangerous by the new Roman conqueror of the ensuing centuries: the Latin Papacy. While Christ in the East could easily slip into the guise of Orpheus, He could never be associated by the Latin Church with Woden. And so the Myths of the barbarians were treated by the Papacy in much the same manner as those of the South American Aztecs and Incas were by the Spanish missionaries. The destruction of the holy Saxon fetish of Irmisul by the Frankish agents of the Papacy in 772 remains a vivid image of the second submission of the West to the old Rome. See how the newly converted Pomeranian princes of the early 12th century are said to have described the situation (from the Life of Otto of Bamberg): In the primitive church ... the religion of the Christian faith began with the people and with common persons and spread to the middle classes and at length influenced the great princes of this world. Let us change the order of the primitive church and let it begin with us princes and, passing on from us to the middle classes by an easy progress, let the sanctifying influence of the divine religion enlighten the whole people and nation.
The triumph of the Papacy in Western Europe meant the triumph of a judicial universal hierarchy not only over the heathen, but also over indigenous churches such as the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon, where older Social Myths had more or less been maintained. The Papacy and the Latin Church did not, could not, operate within the bounds of a popular Social Myth, but only in terms of a universal institution working AGAINST the Myths of the converted. In the place of these Myths, new ones had to be created to justify the "legitimacy" of the Roman Papacy. This may explain that institution's long-standing obsession with primacy, supremacy and infallibility, ideas always regarded as quite ludicrous in the East since they had never existed in the tradition of the people. No fundamental, venerable and valid consensus on the continuity of Myth existed in the West, as it did generally speaking in the East. Nevertheless, the West in the centuries that followed the Renaissance needed to legitimise its self-perceived role as guardian of the legacy of Antique civilisation. In this context, it regarded the Social Myth of New Rome as even more dangerous than the old barbarous ways of the northern European heathen. This brings us to the third part of this talk.
(iii) The Ramifications
New Rome, or "Byzantium" constitutes a radically different continuum of the very same Antique tradition that the West claims as its own today. But precisely because New Rome shared so many common points of departure with Old Rome in terms of culture, religion and institutions, it is usually passed over or nodded at politely, but never considered a fundamental alternative to the Western mind-set and to the Western historical tradition.
The invention of the word "Byzantine" drew a line between the pagan and Christian manifestations of the Social Myth in the Eastern Mediterranean. The imposition of this word reflects the fact that Western humanists, amongst others, could not tolerate the idea that their cherished world of pagan Antiquity could have continued for a thousand years in the so-called absolutist and superstitious East. To admit this would be to perpetuate the "crisis of choice" between what could or could not be considered "legitimate" in terms of the West's concepts of continuity. But the context that the West has created for its continuity from Antiquity is nothing more than a reflection of its particular and peculiar priorities over time. For instance, almost everything that "Byzantium" was and stood for somehow falls short of the Western historical tradition's concepts of its own values and "continuity" from Antiquity in any given field. The "Byzantines" spoke Greek, but "Byzantine" Greek comes a poor second after the pristine Attic the West so admires. "Byzantines" avoided perspective and "naturalism" in their art, so "Byzantine" art comes second best after that of Antiquity, or of the Renaissance that thawed "Mother" out of the cryonics chamber of history. "Byzantines" believed in a form of absolute monarchy, to be done away with by the forces of democratic individualism supposedly pioneered by the Ancient Greeks. And, of course, in terms of theology, the "Byzantines" got it wrong all the time. The list goes on and on ad nauseam. It is no exaggeration to state that this attitude has been maintained for the modern Greeks as well, the "vilest cowards in the Levant" according to Voltaire.
The "Byzantine" East has been relegated by the Western historical tradition to an exotic dead end, to the world of Edward Said's "Orientalism". It is seen as some kind of hybrid, a mixture of East and West, neither one nor the other, mixtures being by definition imperfect versions of their respective components. The self-image, the conceptual universe of the Greek-speaking "Romans" was denied; we are told that it was a figment of their imagination. "Reality", however, can only be bound up in the field of personal experience as an on-going context and process. Who, then, can speak in absolute terms about what it meant to be a "Roman", a "=D1=F9=EC=E9=FC=F2"? Only the person who identified himself as a "=D1=F9=EC=E9=FC=F2" within a cultural and historical tradition. And yet the Western historical tradition categorically confers the epithet "Byzantine" on the man who described himself as a "Roman"! What has enabled the West to evaluate other societies and cultures in so arbitrary a manner? What makes the West so "legitimate" and "exclusive" in its own eyes?
I would suggest that the supposed legitimacy of modern Western historical, philosophical and scientific speculation is based on the rejection of the notion of God as a social reality, rather than as a purely personal conceptual system. No culture that believes in God, in the divine, in the mythical, can be said to be able to "compete" with the West, which has "killed God" by deifying objectivity and so-called Open Systems of intellectual speculation. This reaction against the notion of God, however, was the logical consequence of the failure of Western scholastic and systematic theology to differentiate sufficiently between God's essence on the one hand and His energy on the other, namely the failure to understand God as "Mythically" manifest in the material world. This led directly to a thoroughly transcendent concept of God, devoid of immanent being, and therefore devoid of meaning. It also led to atheism. Philosophers such as David Hume could write that all books of theology and metaphysics should be burnt. And almost two centuries later, the Logical Positivist A. J. Ayer could proclaim that: "It cannot be significantly stated that there is a non-empirical world of values, or that men have immortal souls or that there is a transcendent God" (Truth and Logic, 1946).
Such an attitude must also question the place of ethics in philosophical and social constructs, another point where East differs from West. Byzantine society worked within a mythological and conceptual framework in which ethics could be spoken of as empirical facets of being and not as secondary lapses of emotion. For ethics can only exist within the context of an "imperative" which conceptually at least must exist outside the object it holds sway over. In the West, however, the more God was exiled to the heavens by scholastic theologians and their successors, the more ethics - now a stringent moral code - came to be seen as either the only manifestation of a "Godly" life by those who still needed to have a God, or - on the other hand - as inapplicable to society by those who rejected Him. This led to an obsession with sin and propriety by the former, and an understandable backlash by the latter, to the development of the fundamentalist and the liberal respectively. Once again, in both cases, the immanence of God, of Myth was eliminated.
This immanence was not eliminated, however, in New Rome where the accommodation of the ancient Social Myth by Christianity reflected an ability, common in non-Western peoples, to see meaning rather than material existence as taking priority. If an idea MEANS something, then it can be said to EXIST in an empirical sense, namely in the sense of being experienced. The Western philosophical tradition, on the other hand, always puts material existence before meaning in its hierarchy of priorities, and thus can neither operate within nor understand societies that work within a construct of Social Myth.
And so the West was left with mere matter, a cluster of atoms that could have intrinsic meaning only if studied, examined, confounded, split apart and rationalised in search of objective Truth. Can this explain Western man's propensity for constant enrichment of empirical knowledge and for expansion, whatever the cost, something quite alien to other peoples? Is the irresistible urge to know about the most minute particle a reflection of the passion that drove on the Western explorer , the imperialist, the scientist and the capitalist?
The Western historical tradition, because of its materialist fetish, sees continuity in material, institutional or even ethnic terms. Archaeological research into pre-history, for example, generally argues that change in the material record signifies an interruption of continuity. So if we had no written evidence, two completely different burial assemblages of - let us say - the fourth century A.D. (a pagan one and a Christian one) could be interpreted as evidence for the burial customs of two alien peoples rather than those of a pagan father and his Christian son. The real continuity, however, is in the Social Myth, whatever manifestation that may take - and in the ability to work in that context, no matter how the externals of the Myth may change over time. Antiquity can be found today alive and well in a Greek village church far more than in some stuffy English university Classics department.
What has been said above was not meant to "revise" the historical record, but to ask the vital question of what the historical record actually is, given that we can talk in terms of "alternatives" that are at times diametrically opposed. Does this mean that we should revert to relativism? This is certainly an attractive solution to the problem. But relativism, far from being politically correct, becomes the tool of an exclusive Western historical tradition whereby everything can be accepted, simply because that supposedly superior tradition tells us that it can be. So should we instead be searching for Truth within the context of an "open" system of objective or fallibilistic speculation? Once again, however, we encounter a problem: is there any such thing as an "open" system? While the Western speculative tradition rejects "closed" speculative systems such as theology, it proclaims its superiority by "opening" the system, only to have created a new illusive god, objective Truth, that must essentially close the system again.
It has popularly been assumed that the tools of psychology, sociology, historical analysis, anthropology etc. can pry away facades to arrive at an objective understanding of historical phenomena, of the "deep underlying causes". What we forget is that "objectivity" itself represents an approach to history that is peculiar to the Western historical tradition. Therefore, any discussion that employs the criteria of "objectivity" is not in fact "objective". It simply interprets history within a culturally-philosophically determined framework. By employing what we think is objectivity, we emasculate our subject by examining it only in imposed contexts of form, purpose and empirical manifestation. Because of this, Western historical and philosophical thinking is a constant circle that never gets anywhere because it attempts to find a world of reality "out there" in a concrete sense, and not "in there", in the world of the human being and his or her social context, in the irrational, the downright ludicrous that often characterises our lives - in fact, that makes us HUMAN. As holistic beings, humankind can only be fully appreciated holistically. This means treating human myths, dreams, and the irrational in humankind as essential parts of human history. Myth can no longer be the exclusive reserve of the anthropologist, the psychologist or the historian of religion. Economic theories, for example, may be important but in a holistic approach can we study economics without taking vanity and greed into account? The human experience cannot be divided into academically approachable categories.
This problem is best analysed by regarding the question of art. It is often and justly stated that the greatest contribution made by Western civilisation to humankind is its art: music, poetry, literature and the plastic and representational arts. Quite often, academics have criticized "Byzantium" for not having developed these art forms, especially in the secular field. But even here the Western tradition manifests its tremendous ability to be inconsistent. Western art is not necessarily an indication of the superiority of Western society, but the repudiation of that society. Great art in the sense that we perceive it today can only be produced in societies that have no other way of expressing the divine, the transcendent yet immanent, the absolutely fundamental in human existence. Humankind in the West, divorced from the immanence of the divine, nevertheless strives, as humankind, towards it through art. For art is not a question of originality, it is a question of grasping constants. It is what the great seventh-century Palestinian theologian Maximos the Confessor taught as being the "natural will" in humankind. Art today, however, has been relegated to the world of leisure and individual expression. It is not a reality. Art in the Western sense, namely as an object to be intellectually regarded rather that being experienced as "real", is not so much in evidence in the non-Western world because there the Social Myth takes care of the inherent need of the human being for experience of the divine. This is why a Picasso is so fundamentally different from a Byzantine icon. The Greek Divine Liturgy, to employ another example, is a work of art, but it is even greater than a symphony by Beethoven because it is immediately "relevant" in a concrete way to its observer, or rather to its participant.
The secondary status of art in Western society is a symptom of that society's inability to maintain a Social Myth, an inability to regard the innate longings of humankind as being of greater importance than a social culture where only material existence is of any significance. Here we face a string of paradoxes: it appears that art, the greatest human expression of striving towards the divine operates in the context of the de-mythification of God. But art itself is the manifestation of a need for God, for Myth. Therefore a culture that rejects God but accepts art is ridiculous since God, or Myth as the entirety of human existence, is in essence art. Where, however, there is no social context for Myth, there can only be an individual one. Only then is art in the Western sense born, namely in the sense of the artist rather than art in general, and of the audience rather than the congregation. Art becomes transformed into vanity. In this respect, it makes strange bedfellows with crime, narcotics and pornography.
Everything discussed above leads one to pose the question: Is it possible to write a history of societies such as the "Byzantine" given that the methods of modern historical research are grounded in a philosophical tradition so greatly at odds with the thought-world of "Byzantium" as to constitute a diametrically opposed "field of understanding"? Can objective, rational history really make any sense of the irrational in humankind - whether in the past or now? Where are we to find a solution? I suggest that there is no solution to this problem. Indeed the "problem" only exists within the conceptual universe of the Western historical tradition, whose idea of history as an objectively approachable entity is patently silly. The difference between the East and West, between the Social Myth and the empirical, materialist ideal is nothing more than a reflection of certain diametrically opposed constants in human society and in individual humans themselves. One of these constants I shall call Promethean, the other Mystagogic. The Promethean is the "active" component, the left hemisphere of the brain, the masculine, Mammon, the Buddhist "yang" that eschews Myth. The Mystagogic is the "passive component", the right hemisphere of the brain, the feminine, Christ, the Buddhist "yin" that thrives on Myth - Myth with a capital M. The attempt, not the realisation but the ATTEMPT to reconcile these contradictions of our existence is what makes up "History", that ongoing process. The recent war in Bosnia, for instance, is a clash of living histories, each of them perfectly "valid" that can only be judged by, irony of ironies, the resort to ethics. Many moderns condemn religion as equal to fanaticism, but the trial of war criminals they advocate surely presupposes the existence of ethics, and for these to be binding on all humans, they must have their source in an "imperative", and "outer reality" which can only be termed, in human parlance, God. By refusing to acknowledge this fact, the Western historical tradition is not only incapable of coming to terms with humanity, but is obstructing the process by insisting on a supposedly objective and inquisitive approach to the most subjective plasm and paradoxical process that exist on this planet: the human being and the never-ending attempt to reconcile opposites, a reconciliation symbolically expressed in Christian terms by the Last Judgment namely the very Last Things.
Let us finish with some wise words from the Philokalia. "It is man's appointed task to make manifest in himself the great mystery of the divine intention to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God."
Contributed by Dr. David Turner, Lecturer in Byzantine Studies and Orthodox Theology at the Study in Greece Programme of Beaver College (Philadelphia) based in Athens, and on the Study in Greece and Turkey programme of Lake Forest College (illinois)