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David Turner,  Byzantium : The 'alternative' history of Europe

Em. Macron, Rediscovering the Path to Europe
Em. Macron, Rediscovering the Path to Europe

Page 10

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.[11] "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.[12] "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.[13] And, of course, in terms of theology, the "Byzantines" got it wrong all the time.[14] 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.[15] 

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 Ρωμηός? Only the person who identified himself as a Ρωμηὸς 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"![16] 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?  


[11] If Byzantine Greek is a “poor second” to Attic, what is not speaking Greek at all? The idea of a western ‘continuity’, just because of the modern western preference for Attic, is just ridiculous. Beyond this, more important of course is to note that Byzantine Greek is not a “poor second”; there exist differences between various authors, as is natural, but it would prove ignorance to say that Maximus is a poor second to Aristotle. Besides this, we don’t have only Attic Greek in Byzantium, but even Homeric, for example by Gregory the Theologian, whose language is not a poor second to anyone.

[12] In fact, this ‘avoidance’ of perspective and naturalism is the natural response of the Byzantines to express the union of history with eternity and is considered by many western scholars, as is Steven Runciman, a superior and not an inferior expression. We can also remember the excellent criticism of M. Merleau-Ponty on the 'natural' art of perspective. Byzantine icons are not and did not want to be works of a 'high-style' of art, aesthetic inspiration, naturalism, expressionism, etc., but just representations and paedagogical realizations as accurate as possible of the divine experience of Byzantine Christians. More on this subject, in Greek (toward the end of that page).

[13] We have seen above that Byzantine ‘absolute monarchy’ had not the character of a totalitarian state. It’s worth remembering also that ancient Greeks had democracy only for a short period of time. In Homer and until classical Athens, there had been kings, as happened also with Alexander and afterwards. It is true that Greek kings were of the type of Alexander, that is Homeric, (the type continued in Byzantium) and not cruel monarchs, yet they were kings. There was dispute, but not ‘democracy’. The West tends to identify Greece with the short period of classical Athens. We should also remember that this democratic Athens acted as an imperialist power in Greece, and internally managed even to execute Socrates and many other prominent members of the city for holding philosophical beliefs opposite to the leading majority.

[14] The opposite is also true here; Byzantines rejected western (papal) theology. Abandonment of faith, as happened in western societies, may be an indication that Byzantines were right – even if we don’t know details of their theological differences. Even now, Orthodox societies lose their faith precisely to the degree of their westernization.

[15] After many revolutions, finally those cowards came to 1821, the victorious war against the Turks and the Western monarchs, who were against the prospect of a free Greece, contrary to the philhellenic feelings of their own peoples. After four horrible centuries under the Turks, during which only their Church, their Byzantine social cohesion and faith saved themselves and their language, and after a surprising victory against an enemy much more powerful than them, impossible without the spiritual strength that their tradition gave them, some Greeks started to condemn the Byzantine period urging for an imitation of the Western opportunism, in particular the ‘enlightened’ one – Voltaire, Diderot, etc. This lack of historical perspective, forgetfulness of tradition, ungratefulness of the most disgusting sort, in truth stupidity to the point of lack of common sense, is a cowardice indeed, not the one Voltaire had in mind, but a cowardice also known as thirst for power.

[16] Maybe to stress his point, the author forgets that this sometime prevalent tradition was finally rejected by the West itself, with major historians as Runciman, Lemerle, etc. My sense is that a large and important part of the western intellectuals and even the learned common opinion, has reached up to a rather different view of Byzantium, to which belongs also Turner. To be precise, today it is difficult (if at all possible) to find a really important intellectual that rejects Byzantium, at least not in the absolute manner that this was happening before. On the contrary, admiration for Byzantium is firm and increases – Yeats, Runciman, Clement, Diehl, Toynbee, Nicol, Lemerle, Krumbacher, Norwich, Baynes, Finlay, Woodhouse, Browning, Sherrard, Pears, Ware, Bradford, and others. Therefore, when Turner points to Byzantium as to the alternative history of Europe, he doesn’t use a figure of speech, nor does he become a ‘utopian’, but he expresses a real and active historical force inside the West itself (cf. Aspects of Byzantium in Modern Popular Music). The prospect of this love for Byzantium can not be foreseen, yet for the moment the opposite force, towards consumerism, atheism, scientism, etc., creates masses and leads the 'societies' as masses. Our main problem is not differences between a superior and an inferior culture, but the modern West being essentially against any culture whatever. As for the alternative prospect, it may be difficult for it to assume leadership, yet it is the only viable prospect - if we accept that 1) Europe can not have any other religion than Christianity, 2) no society can have a real life without a religion, 3) Western (protestant or papal) Christianity has failed socially, having been rejected from the life of western societies. Byzantium, although not in the form of an empire, continues to various degrees in the Orthodox societies and in the feeling and thinking of many westerners, which means that an Orthodox Europe, the institutions of which will be influenced by faith, in the spontaneous and free manner that this was happening in the Byzantine empire, is not impossible. We can also recall the times of Constantine the Great, when Christians were only the one tenth of the Roman Empire, yet Constantine realised that Christianity was in any case the only force upon which the empire could be based and have a real future. What then seemed impossible, Constantine made it possible and real by just understanding that it was the only living and viable way.

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         Cf.  3 Posts on the fall of Byzantium, Yeats : Sailing to Byzantium
(1927), Byzantium (1930) * E, Aspects of Byzantium in Modern Popular Music * Berl, The West Owed Everything to Byzantium * Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire * Toynbee, The pulse of Ancient Rome was driven by a Greek heart * * Constantelos, Greek Orthodoxy - From Apostolic Times to the Present Day * Al. Schmemann, A History of the Orthodox Church * Valery, What is to Become of the European Spirit? * Nietzsche, The European Nihilism * Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism * Pope Benedict XVI, The Papal Science * J. O. y Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses  * CONSTANTINOPLE

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