The Sana’a Manuscripts: Early Koran?

The Sana’a manuscripts were discovered in the Grand Mosque of the city of Sana’s, Yemen, in 1972, by construction workers, who gathered up all the old, rotting pages, stuffed them into potato bags, and left them beneath some stairs. Nothing was done until 1981, when Professor Gerd R. Puin, the leading scholar of Arabic orthography and Koranic paleography, undertook a systematic study. In this interview, Professor Puin speaks of the discovery and his study.

He is interviewed here by Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr, the current head of Inarah, the foremost institute for the study of early Islam. Inarah publishes a yearly collection of work, of which the most recent edition is now available. Dr. Kerr’s work has appeared frequently in the pages of the Postil, including his recent article on the true meaning of “Mecca.”

This is a truly a fascinating interview…

Unfortunately for English readers, the majority of the important work being done on early Islam is in German and French. Perhaps, in the future, this will be rectified by way of good translations of this important work, which has entirely rewritten the history of the beginnings of Islam.

The featured image shows a leaf from the collection of fragments housed at Stanford University. This is “Sana’a1 Stanford ’07,” recto, which dates to before 671 AD.

The Original Islamic Hajj To Jerusalem

The Islamic claim to historicity is well known, but its true history is hidden in countless individual details, each of which requires individual investigation, as has been shown by Inârah’s researches. For Islam, the so-called “five pillars” (arkān al-Islām or arkān ad-dīn “the pillars of faith”) constitute the actual fundamental rituals of Islam, which are considered obligatory by the faithful and form the basis of Muslim life (cf. the so-called Gabriel Hadith). These are:

  1. The Shahāda, the creed of Islam (“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God”);
  2. Ṣalāt, daily ritual prayer towards Mecca (location of the Kaʿba), the qibla, which is to be performed at fixed times (awqāt) five times a day and which is also the supreme duty of all Muslims;
  3. The Zakāt, the obligatory giving of a certain portion of one’s possessions to the needy and other specified groups of people;
  4. The Ṣaum, the fast between dawn and sunset during the month of Ramaḍān;
  5. The Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of dhu l-ḥiǧǧah.

Something about the history of Islam’s development is made clear by the observation that none of these rites can basically be considered exclusively Islamic, which is confirmed by the fact that all these terms are borrowed from Aramaic (which in turn took the last four from Hebrew).

Thus, we have made a small step forward in deciphering the Islam’s path of development, namely the significant role of Aramaic (Syriac)-speaking Eastern Christianity, of which some groups, among other things, rejected the divinity of Christ, and which must be regarded as the actual substrate of Islam.

But here we are largely in the Late Antique Near East, east of the Euphrates, i.e., in Mesopotamia, far away from Mecca in the endless desert of the Ḥijāz, where according to later Islamic tradition the birthplace of a “Muḥammad,” and thus of Islam, is said to be located. After all, the second and fifth pillars of Islam listed above seemingly refer to this city. In the Qur’an itself, however, the word Mecca (Makka) is explicitly mentioned only once, in Sura 48:24: “And He it is Who hath withheld men’s hands from you, and hath withheld your hands from them, in the valley of Mecca, after He had made you victors over them. Allah is Seer of what ye do.”

It is often asserted, usually accompanied by claims to otherwise unknown phonetic changes, that the mention of Bakka in 3:96 also refers to this city: “Indeed, the first House (inna awwala baytin) established for mankind is surely the one at Bakka, blessed, and a guidance for (all creatures in).”

And according to most commentators, 14:37 is supposed to describe this location in more detail: “Our Lord! Lo! I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near unto Thy holy House (ʿinda baytika l-muḥarami), our Lord! that they may establish proper worship; so incline some hearts of men that they may yearn toward them, and provide Thou them with fruits in order that they may be thankful.”

The precise relationship of Mecca to Bakka remains unclear, and linking them together requires a leap of faith, especially since Mecca itself is only attested very late and then only in Islamic sources which are otherwise uncorrelated. The Qur’an only speaks of an unspecified valley.

Bakka, on the other hand, according to the Qur’an, is home to “the first house,” which in our opinion was not founded for the people, but by the people (lilnnāsi – li– then here as the so-called Lamed auctoris). If “the first house” means (the) temple, i.e., the supposed earthly dwelling place of God, which would then also be the “holy house,” it is conceivable that 14:37 actually refers to this, which could mean a valley known as Bakka.

Islamic orthopraxy, being itself relatively late, offers no support in this regard. Islamic tradition itself notes that the original direction of prayer was not towards Mecca, but northwards or towards Syria (aš-šam); Muhammad is said to have changed this only in Madīna, after the Jews there refused to convert. But in the Islamic sources, the creation of legends is widespread and, as usual, quite contradictory with many subsequent attempts at harmonisation.

Thus, Mecca as the (original) point of reference for Islamic prayer is clearly an invention of later tradition – it should be mentioned in passing here that qibla in the sense of “direction of prayer,” in the Qur’an only 2,142- 145, can probably be interpreted more meaningfully as Kabbalah in the older Jewish sense of this term, namely as “(previously) revealed scriptures” (esp. the Hebrew Bible, excluding the Torah).

As for the pilgrimage (to Mecca; cf. the Hebrew term ḥag, which is used in the biblical context for the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and from which Hajj ultimately derives), this is attested in the verse subsequent to the mention of Bakka, i.e. 3:97: “… And pilgrimage to the House (ḥiǧǧu l-bayti), is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither…”

The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca consists of various elements: on 8 Dhu l-Ḥiǧǧah in Mecca after entering the consecrated state of Ihram, the first Ṭawāf (the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaʿba) is performed; this is followed by the Sa’i, the run between the hills Safa and Marwa (aṣ-Ṣafā wal-Marwa); after this pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well, after which they go to the plains of Mount ʿArafāt to keep watch; then they spend a night on the plains of Muzdalifa, and a symbolic stoning of the devil is performed by lapidating three pillars. Afterwards, the pilgrims shave their heads, perform a sacrificial ritual and celebrate the three-day festival ʿīdu l- aḍḥā.

Julius Wellhausen postulated that the original Hajj was a ritual that only included the stations in the ʿArafāt plain, in Muzdalifa and in Mina, but had nothing to do with the Meccan sanctuary of the Kaʿba (Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin, 1897, 79-84). We will then leave the former out of consideration here; in the Qur’an, the Kaʿba (Arab. “Parthenon;” that is a shrine originally dedicated to the virgin mother of Dushara/Dionysus/ Bacchus) is mentioned only twice, 5:95 and 97 (“Allah has made the Kaʿba, the inviolable House, a place of prayer for mankind (l-kaʿbata l-bayta l-ḥarāma qiyāman lilnnāsi“), as well as the sacred month and the sacrificial animals and the animals with the neck ornaments.

This is so that you may know that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on earth, and that Allah knows all things”), whereby the reference to a specific place is not given. According to today’s understanding of the Meccan part of the rite, only Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa) can be located near Mecca, the course between these two hills being given by 2:158: “Lo! (the mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House (of Allah) or visiteth it, to go around them (as the pagan custom is). And he who doeth good of his own accord, (for him) lo! Allah is Responsive, Aware.” Again, there is no direct reference to Mecca here.

The conclusion so far, briefly summarised:

Mecca is mentioned once in the Qur’an (48:24), but not in relation to the Hajj. Another verse (3:96) mentions a “first house” located at Bakka, which is possibly also mentioned in 14:37 (does the one and only Allah inhabit more than one house?). A pilgrimage to the “house” is suggested in 3:97.

The run between Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa), which forms part of the Islamic Hajj, is conditionally prescribed in 2:158. From this patchwork of Qur’anic verses, the Islamic pilgrimage in and around Mecca emerged at some point, when cannot be ascertained hitherto. In the Semitic languages, the noun bayt “house” can also be used in the sense of a temple dedicated to a deity, often in a genitive compound (“in the house of the Lord,” bə-ḇêṯ-Yahweh, e.g. Psalm 134:1).

In biblical tradition, this term in the cultic sense actually always refers to the Jerusalem Temple; its use for an unknown, historically at best insignificant sanctuary far away in the Ḥijāz seems strange.

With regard to Jerusalem, however, in the Jewish Antiquities Flavius Josephus’ account of Alexander the Great at Jerusalem, where he is said to have sacrificed to Yahweh in the Temple according to the instructions of the High Priest (here, since our interest remains purely geographical, the historicity of the event is insignificant), we read XI.329 (ed. Whiston): “And when he understood that he was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations. It reached to a place called Sapha, which name, translated into Greek, signifies a ‘prospect’ (σκοπόν), for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and of the temple (τά τε γὰρ Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ τὸν ναὸν συνέβαινεν ἐκεῖθεν ἀφορᾶσθαι).”

This place is none other than Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (today the main site of the Hebrew University), one of the highest places in that city (cf. one of the Arabic names: ğabal al-mašārif). The Hebrew name har haṣ-ṣōfīm “Watchman’s Mountain” confirms Josephus’ indication. In postbiblical Hebrew, a ṣōf is a pilgrim who has seen Jerusalem, cf. another Arabic name ğabal almašhad “Witness Mountain” (cf. above on the ‘first pillar’). This mountain in Arabic rendering is then none other than aṣ-ṣafā.

In the biblical tradition (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1; the Targum to Song of Songs 4:6 etc.) the Temple Mount (har hab-báyiṯ is Mount Moriah (har ham-moriyyāh; where according to Genesis 22:2 the sacrifice of Isaac almost took place), i.e. in Arabic, Marwa. On the basis of these explanations, we have in Jerusalem the “house” (scil. of God – báy(i)t), undoubtedly in the monotheistic understanding “blessed and a guidance for the worlds” (Q3,96), on the Temple Mount, that is Moriah/Marwa as well as the second mountain Scopus/har haṣ-ṣōfīm/aṣṣafā. All that remains is Bakka (3:96) and a “barren valley” (or wadi 14:37) near to the “house of God” (bi-wādin ġayri ḏī zarʿin ʿinda baytika l-muḥarrami).

A valley named Bakka, however, is mentioned in the Bible, Psalm 84:7: “ 5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house (bêṯäḵā); in whose heart are the ways of them. 6 Who passing through the valley of Baca (bə-ʿämäq hab-bākkā – lit. “Valley of Weeping”) make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah. 9 Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”

To all appearances, in this conception rendered here by the Psalmist, the valley of ‘weeping’ or Bakka (from the root bkw, also the origin of Bacchus, see above) is not far from Jerusalem. In the Targum of this psalm verse, the valley of tears/ʿämäq hab-bākkā is rendered “valley of Gehenna”, also the Talmudic understanding, because those damned to hell are said to wail and shed copious tears due to their infernal fate (Eruvin 19a). The Gehenna Valley, where child burnt offerings were once made to Yahweh (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Jeremiah 19:2) was close to Jerusalem.

The historical site of the pre-exilic Moloch sacrifices (apparently the present-day wādī ar-rababi) was not, however, the same as that of Late Antique biblical exegesis, which called it the Kidron Valley (Hebrew naḥal qiḏron “the valley of darkness;” its upper course, significantly, in Arabic is wādī annār “the valley of fire”) or the Jehoshaphat Valley, according to Joel 3:1-3/4:1-3: “For behold, in those days and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people, and for mine heritage Israel: whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. And they have cast lots for my people, and have given the child for the harlot, and sold the girl for wine, that they might drink.”

This infernal valley is by definition barren and, moreover, adjacent to the Temple Mount (ʿinda baytika l- muḥarami), vividly illustrating the contrast between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘light’ and ‘bright’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘damned’. This Judeo-Christian exegetical tradition is carried on without exception by the Islamic tradition, the valley is here called wādī al-ğahannam “Hell Valley,” suspended over which at the end of times during the Last Judgement, will be aṣ-ṣirāṭ (“way, path, road,” here rather “bridge”) connecting the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, which in Islamic eschatology must be crossed by the deceased to reach Paradise.

This eschatological gangplank is said to be as thin as a hair, and underneath it is the abyss to hell: those who have no trust in God will falter and waver and thereupon fall thither, those however who trust God and are forgiven their transgressions shall cross unhindered. Wellhausen’s insightful suggestion to separate the Meccan parts of the Hajj rite from those taking place extra muros is thus seemingly accurate – the proto-Islamic pilgrimage clearly went to Jerusalem, which is actually hardly surprising. Here are located the “House (of God),” the barren valley of Bakka, as well as aṣ-ṣafā and al-marwa.

Not only is their geographical location in (post)biblical tradition assured, they also fulfil a significant function in sacramental economy that is entirely absent in Mecca. In later Islamic tradition, some Umayyad caliphs were accused of having diverted the Hajj from Mecca to Jerusalem – in the 7th century, however, one cannot yet speak of “Islam” in the proper sense – here we are probably dealing with a later memory of a past time in which pilgrimages were still made to Jerusalem, which was then considered heretical after the complete transfer of the sacred geography of the rite to Mecca.

What we have then is a memory of a time in which the Hajj was to Jerusalem, which naturally later was seen as heretical. Thus, it is clear that the roots and motifs that define the Hajj stem entirely from biblical tradition; only much later were they recast so as to fit in with emerging innovative Islamic orthopraxy.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The featured image shows, “Vallée de la bekaa, liban,” by Anne Baudequin.

The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History

The achievement of unity and perfection in human action begins with a struggle for these ideals in human thought. In The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History, a collection of essays that span four decades, Dr. Klaus Vondung explores examples of this struggle in different fields of human inquiry: striving for harmonious existential unity of talents and morals, intellect and emotion; seeking to make natural sciences consonant with the humanities and thereby moving toward a more universal, “perfect” science; and establishing unity in political structures and cultivating in this unity a homogenous society. Dr. Vondung has given special devotion to National Socialism as a context wherein he revisits its perverted motivation and the consequences of this despite noble ideals.

Dr. Vondung also explores the points of contact between apocalypticism and Hermetic speculation. Despite the independence of the religious and philosophical doctrines of Hermeticism, there are parallels to be found. Apocalypticism and Hermeticism originated in antiquity and yet each represents a tradition that still holds footing today. Dr. Vondung furthermore leads the reader to see the project of salvation found in both, even as each operates with a different scope.

Klaus Vondung is Professor Emeritus in German and Cultural Studies at the University of Siegen, Germany. He has taught at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, University of Florida, Gainesville, the University of Houston, Kansai University, Suita/Osaka, and Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya. He is permanent Honorary Guest professor at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou. In addition to numerous books and articles in German, two of which have recently been translated into English, The Apocalypse in Germany, and Paths to Salvation: The National Socialist Religion. He has edited two volumes in the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.

The Pursuit of Unity And Perfection In History is now available from St. Augustine’s Press.


Unity through Bildung: A German Dream Of Perfection

“Unity” is something people long for in many ways: they seek to bring their lives, their talents, emotions, beliefs, and actions into a state of existential unity; they strive for the social unification of different classes; they struggle for the political unity of a divided nation; they speculate about the unity of knowledge and faith, reason, and sensuality, matter, and spirit, essence, and existence. In all these cases, and in many more, “unity” is a symbolic equivalent for “perfection.” The state of unity is understood as perfect because it dissolves and abolishes differences, discrepancies and contradictions which are experienced as disturbing and deficient.

Despite this general frame of meaning, the symbol “unity” can stand for very different aims and imply a wide variety of contents, as I indicated in my first sentence. In what follows I want to discuss a particular meaning the symbol “unity” took on in Germany in close connection with the symbol Bildung. In order to analyze this connection, I have to first explain the German term Bildung, especially the meaning applied to it by the philosophy of idealism. On the basis of this clarification, which will also clarify the connection with the symbol “unity,” I will trace some major developments of the aspirations hidden behind these concepts. The time-span I have in view stretches from the decades around 1800 to World War I. The justification for dealing mainly with this period will become plausible in the course of my analysis. As the source for my analysis I shall use, apart from the philosophical texts in the beginning, works of literature. That there are material reasons for this choice will also be shown in due course.

I.

Bildung is an extremely complex and particularly “German” concept which makes it impossible to translate into foreign languages. Among the English terms the dictionary lists for Bildung are formation, education, constitution, cultivation, culture, personality development, learning, knowledge, good breeding, refinement. Bildung indeed can mean all this—and it most often means all this together—but it means still more, and this leads to the core of the problem.

Originally the term Bildung meant “form” or “formation” of material phenomena including the bodily appearance of human beings. From here the term’s usage was extended to man’s “inner personality” so that one can talk about the Bildung of a person also with respect to his talents, manners, morals, intellect, character, or soul. Bildung can mean a certain stage of personality development as well as the process that leads to it. Since this process can be influenced from outside as well as spring independently from an inborn potential, Bildung comprises both planned education and independent self-realization. (This understanding took advantage of the fact that the verb bilden can be transitive—etwas bilden—as well as reflexive—sich bilden). Transferred from the individual to society and history, Bildung can become synonymous with culture and the historical development of culture.

The genesis of this wide scope of figurative meaning goes back to German mysticism of the fourteenth century. The many possibilities of using the terms bilden and Bildung—transitive/reflexive, process/result, material form/spiritual content—made them suitable for the symbolic articulation of very complex matters. And German mysticism took the lead by giving them a new and particular spiritual significance: bilden and Bildung became symbols for man’s advance toward God. The twofold possibilities of usage mentioned above were preserved: the reflexive on the one hand in order to signify God’s activity in the movement: Gott bildet sich in des Menschen Seele—God reveals himself in man’s soul; the transitive on the other hand in order to signify man’s activity: Der Mensch bildet sich Gott ein—man makes God present in his soul, he ‘forms’ God in his soul. But also preserved was the double meaning that Bildung as the advance toward God signifies the process of this movement as well as its result, i.e., the unification with God in the unio mystica. The connection between the symbols Bildung and ‘unity’ which was established here had important consequences for the further development of the concept of Bildung.

It would be most interesting and certainly very important to follow this way step by step via Martin Luther, Jakob Böhme, Pietism, Leibniz and Herder, who all helped to modify and gradually change the meaning of these symbols. In the present context I have to confine myself to marking the final breakthrough of a fundamentally new meaning which found its explicit articulation in the philosophy of idealism. Here, as before, the aim of Bildung is a state of perfection: unity. But it is no longer unity with God. In the meantime, God had been driven out of the whole of reality. What remained was the immanent “world” and a man who had fallen out of God’s hand: the “individual” who found himself confronted with this “world” as an alien reality. At the same time, and in correlation with this development, man had emancipated himself from the old social order and had become an individual also in a social respect. The unity which now is striven for as the aim of Bildung is unity with the world in its appearance as nature and society. Through the process of Bildung, i.e., through appropriation (Aneignung) of the world, the individual seeks to find himself, to realize himself in perfection.

Fichte described the existential dimensions of this process: He defined the Ego as being real only in opposition to a Non-Ego, because the Ego can experience itself only in its restriction by a Non-Ego. The restriction, however, can be felt only insofar as the Ego “impinges” upon the Non-Ego, “attacks” its resistance. Thus the Ego becomes real, i.e., realizes itself, bildet sich, in a continuous process of appropriating the Non-Ego, i.e., the world. In a way similar to Fichte, Wilhelm von Humboldt saw the Bildung of the individual as “the connecting of our Ego with the world” by which the individual gains “perfect unity.”

Hegel outlined the universal and historical dimension of the process of Bildung: “The task,” he says in the introduction to the Phänomenologie des Geistes, “of leading the individual from his ungebildete standpoint to knowledge has to be defined in its general meaning, and the general individual, the independent spirit, must be viewed in its Bildung.” The independent spirit for its part achieves knowledge by passing through “the stages of Bildung of the general spirit.” And the general spirit forms itself, bildet sich, in the course of world history by appropriating the world it is confronted with in successive dialectical steps until it is unified and reconciled with itself.

The connection between the aims of individual and universal unity, which in Hegel’s complicated argument is almost obscured, is established more clearly in Humboldt’s words. At first he brings the aims of individual and universal Bildung close to each other by using in both cases the symbol “the Whole” (das Ganze) for the state of unity and perfection: “The true purpose of man is the highest and most proportional Bildung of his powers to a Whole.” On the universal scale the task is “to accomplish the Ausbildung of humanity as a Whole.” Then he draws the conclusion: “I feel that I am driven to a state of unity […]. I find it absurd to call this unity God, because this would mean throwing unity out of oneself unnecessarily. . . . Unity is humanity, and humanity is nothing else than I myself.” The triple identification of “unity”, “humanity” and “I myself,” together with the refusal to accept God as the realization of unity, reveals the “drive” to unity as the aspiration to become a God of the immanent world, i.e., a perfect being, who is unified with himself in perfection insofar and because he is unified with the world he has absorbed. Clemens Menze’s summary of Humboldt’s concept—“In his Bildung man deifies himself” —grasps the core of the new meaning which Bildung has assumed in many minds by the end of the eighteenth century, although not everyone put it in such precise terms as Friedrich Schlegel: “To become God, to be a human being, sich bilden, are notions that have the very same meaning.”

II.

There are two reasons why I now turn to an analysis of literature. The first reason is given by the sources. In Germany we have a particular species of novel which originated in the late eighteenth century, inspired by the new concept of Bildung, and which flourished throughout the nineteenth century. The concept of Bildung determined the form as well as the structure and content of these novels so strongly that a special term was coined for this literary species: Bildungsroman. Wilhelm Dilthey defined the general structure of a Bildungsroman as the story of a young man who enters life in the happy mood of dawn, who seeks friendship and love, has to struggle with the realities of life, grows to maturity after various experiences, finally finds himself and reaches fulfillment as a harmoniously developed personality. It can be mentioned in passing that Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes can be viewed as a philosophical Bildungsroman in which a “hero,” the “world spirit,”, struggles with the world he is confronted with and realizes himself (bildet sich) by appropriating it. There is, however, a considerable difference between the philosophical concept and a novel, and this difference marks the second reason for my turning to literary sources.

A novel, if it aspires to be good, cannot speculate about Bildung and unity in general terms and abstract notions (“deification through Bildung”—what does that mean in a concrete sense?). It has to represent the process and results of Bildung in a concrete person and in the course of a story. Because of that, literature reveals the existential dimensions of the concept of Bildung much better than philosophical speculation, and, what is even more important, it reveals the practical problems of the concept which a story about people and their concrete doings cannot conceal so easily. To be sure, the Bildungsroman tends toward the same aim of Bildung as in the concept’s philosophical manifestations: godlike unity and harmony of the individual with himself and the world. In Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795/96), we find the proclamation that man should be a “God of the earth” (although its meaning is not unambiguous there). But literature (again: if it is good) does not speculate but visualizes reality and represents experiences. And we have no experience of a man who became God. The dilemma between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality which become effective in the literary presentation of the process of Bildung, led to different solutions in the various Bildungsromane. This is what makes this genre so interesting for the analysis of Bildung.

The paradigm of the German Bildungsroman, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), provides an excellent example of this dilemma. The hero of the novel, Wilhelm, develops his personality in the course of his conflicts and struggles with the world. He makes an advance toward a state of perfection, but this state is not visualized. Schiller’s judgment was correct: “He refuses to give us the direct satisfaction that we demand, and he promises a higher and higher satisfaction, but we have to postpone this into the distant future.” Considering Schiller’s own tendency toward philosophical speculation, this judgment sounds rather critical. As a matter of fact, many interpreters found a certain weakness in this lack of absolute fulfillment, if not even an element of resignation. My own opinion is different. I think Goethe was conscious of the problem the individual encounters if he tries to deify himself. He saved his novel from derailment and kept it in a delicate balance. The pivot of this balance was the renunciation of the central aspiration of the concept of Bildung, the decision, as Camus called it, “to refuse to be a god.” Ultimately Wilhelm owes his maturity not to his own activities of self-realization. “Basically,” Goethe remarked to Eckermann, “the entire novel attempts to say no more than this: that despite all his foolishness and confusion, man, guided by a hand from above, can achieve happiness in the end.” And in a discussion with Boisserée, Goethe sharply condemned the “madness and rage of attempting to reduce everything to the single individual and to be a God of one’s own right.” Instead of deifying himself, Wilhelm accepts the conditio humana, and this means: integration into a world and society which are not experienced as absolutely alien and hostile. This can be criticized as resigned and passive only if the self-deified individual is the criterion for judgment. I want to stress that integration into the world and society does not necessarily lead to passivity. For Wilhelm it means action indeed, although not in the sense of appropriation or conquest. At the end of the novel the aim of Bildung is defined as “being active in a dignified way,” “without wanting to dominate.”

In opposition to Goethe’s Bildungsroman, Novalis presented quite different a solution in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1799). He criticized in Goethe the fact that Wilhelm Meister is made to adjust himself to reality. Novalis, on his part, adhered to the ultimate aim of Bildung: “All Bildung leads to something which can only be called freedom, certainly not meant to denote a mere name, but to designate the creative principle of all being. This freedom is mastery. The master exercises free power according to his intention […].” However, Novalis could not visualize this aim in a story about the development of a realistic person in everyday life, since obviously God-like mastery cannot be achieved in ordinary reality. He transferred his story into the legendary scenery of the Middle Ages, which was supposed (the novel is fragmentary) to gradually change into a second reality of dreams and fairy tales. The aim of unity and perfection, which again implied appropriation and domination of the world, was to be achieved through the magic of poetry.

Novalis’ novel represents one of the two extreme possibilities of falling out of the delicate balance which Goethe had tried to establish between the aspiration for perfect Bildung and the opposing forces of reality: If the attempt is made to visualize the state of perfection, the connection with reality is lost. The result is, at best, a fairy-tale of paradise, or at worst, if the poetic abilities are weaker than in Novalis’ case, bloodless abstraction. The other extreme results from the experience that self-deification must fail: If this experience cannot be endured, then the world, and with it the individual, is hurled back into alienation and meaninglessness, ending in nihilistic despair. (An example for this possibility will be shown later on.) Between these extremes we find all sorts of variations and compromises. In what follows I want to interpret some of these variations as they were represented in the course of the nineteenth century. Because of the peculiar tension between Bildung and reality, above all material and social reality, it will be interesting to view the different representations of the striving after unity and perfection with special regard to a particular aspect: Goethe and Novalis had shown, each in his own way, that the question of whether or not one should try to dominate reality, and how this could be brought about, becomes a central issue of Bildung when the process and results of Bildung have to be visualized in a work of literature. This problem remained constant as long as such literary attempts were made. Therefore, it will be of special interest to investigate how different authors solved this problem under the changing circumstances of material and social reality.

The featured image shows, “Berlin, Opernhaus und Unter den Linden” (“Berlin, The Opera House and Under den Linden), by Eduard Gaertner, painted in 1845.

How To Dismantle Scientism

This article was written in 1946. It’s relevance has only grown over the decades.

If a man were to say to me, “I refuse to use my eyesight except through a microscope,” I might think that the man is queer or crazy, and I would certainly try to avoid his company. Imagine taking a walk with a man who keeps one eye closed, and the other, permanently fixed to a microscope!

Such a man is worse than blind, for a blind man who cannot see the stars, talks about them, and eagerly seeks to learn; but the man tied to the microscope neither sees nor seeks. The blind man knows that he is blind and acts accordingly, but the man with the microscope thinks that he is the only one who sees, and if you dare to mention the sky before him, he says, “But where is the sky!”, meaning, of course, that the sky could not exist unless it could be placed in his range of vision.

Now if you take this clumsy and most unlikely illustration and translate it from the order of sense to the order of intelligence, you get one of the most common intellectual types today, the type of a mind that will not apply its intelligence except through the scientific method.

This type of mind is apt to undermine common sense, on the ground that future scientific discovery might disprove any certainty. It discredits philosophy, because the objects of philosophy (God, the spiritual soul, cause, substance, etc.) cannot be weighed or measured, can neither be reduced to a mathematical formula, nor observed in a test tube. And finally, this type of mind discards all revelation, on the ground that religion is not a channel of knowledge and that its value is purely emotional and unintellectual. This is the attitude of mind that is gradually being recognized as a cultural danger by educators and social thinkers, and is coming to be called “scientism”. Scientism is not the same as science, but is rather an abuse of the scientific method and of scientific authority.

Here are some instances to illustrate what I mean by the term “scientism”: Physicists are now being consulted, not only on the development of atomic energy, but also on the morality of dropping atomic bombs.Professional experts must now tell us, not only whether children may be exposed safely to gamma rays, but even, whether children may be exposed to sun light.

Experts must decide whether mothers should be allowed to hug their babies. Einstein is teaching, on the grounds of mathematical physics, that God is not personal. Whitehead describes the attitudes of God in terms of quantum physics. Bergson builds biology into a false metaphysical religion. Bridgman moves over from the specialized field of high-pressure physics, to define democracy, investigate the foundations of morality, and pronounce on the freedom of the will!

I propose to study in this article some aspects of scientism, this cultural disease, which I hold responsible to a large extent for the alarming number of infidels and atheists in modern universities, and for the rise of dangerous beliefs and practices, the absurdities of which could be detected by a child, but not by the involved mind of the “scientific expert” and of those who worship authority. I hope to suggest that the remedy lies in restoring philosophy to its rightful place in education.

Philosophy has been called “the Queen of the Sciences”, and indeed, the realm of the sciences left without philosophy is like the kingdom in a state of anarchy. Philosophy defends the fundamental certitudes of common sense, establishes the grounds of morality, prepares the mind for revelation, and restores order in the house of science. Let the reader then be prepared to become more philosophically minded, if this article is to make its point.

To begin with, let us observe the place of knowledge in the life of man. Knowledge is the most characteristic activity of man. A man could, without knowledge, fall down from a balcony like a fainting acrobat; but no man could, without knowledge, climb up a balcony like Romeo. When the fainting acrobat falls down, we call that an act of man, because it is a man and not a stone or a log that is falling under the pull of gravity; but when Romeo climbs up, we call that, not only an act of man, but also a human act.

Knowledge must be present in every human act: in every art or profession, in humor and in prayer, in virtue and in vice. Man cannot even commit a sin without knowledge. Even man’s beatitude is defined in terms of knowledge, for “this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). If, therefore, knowledge plays such a tremendous role in the life of man, and if the consummation of this life in the beatific vision consists in the knowledge of all truth, would it not be extremely strange if God had restricted the privilege of knowing to that very small fraction of mankind who constitute the class of scholars and scientists?

As a matter of fact, by far the greater part of our knowledge belongs to the order of common sense. Even the expert scientist could not live one single day in this world, were he to depend exclusively on his expert knowledge in this special field. And besides, both science and philosophy presuppose the great mass of common sense knowledge, and could not proceed without it. If a student comes to a biology laboratory not knowing how to distinguish between a living and a non-living thing, what would stop him from observing the properties of life in a piece of chalk?

Also, both science and philosophy use the same knowledge-seeking faculties as we use in acquiring our common-sense knowledge; and therefore, if these faculties were discredited as they function normally in common sense, it is difficult to see how they could be trusted as they function artificially in other fields. A philosopher who cannot distinguish by common sense between his head and his headache, would never acquire that distinction by studying the abstract attributes of substance and accident.

Common sense knowledge has some remarkable qualities which are easily lost when knowledge gets to be artificially methodical. To mention just one quality, common-sense knowledge is somehow complete and integral; that is to say, that in common sense, the complete man knows in a certain manner the whole of reality. Common-sense knowledge is undivided and unclassified, it is knowledge about God and about the world, about men, animals, plants, seas, lands, time, space, institutions and objects of all kinds.

Certain knowledge is mixed with knowledge that is only probable, and knowledge which comes through the senses is not distinguished from knowledge which comes through the intellect. A soldier on the front line, does not say, “Let me abstract from the noises I hear and the sights I see, and reflect on the principle of causality” nor, on the other hand, does he say, “Indeed, I hear all kinds of sounds, and see all kinds of shapes and colors, but I must not make any further inferences.”

Common sense is also knowledge within a perspective. Only God, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, can afford to know too much about too many things, without much reference to a purpose. The man on the front line knows all reality, but only as relating to the thing at stake, his very life. And the man of common sense is constantly on the front line, the line that divides time from eternity; consequently, he must know all things as they relate to the maintenance of his life in this world, and the salvation of his soul in the next. You cannot teach the man of common sense until you get him interested, and you can get him interested only by relating all things to the ultimate purpose of his existence.

But common-sense knowledge has its limitations, as the man of common sense very well knows. By mere common sense, no airplace can be constructed, and no medical operation can be performed. When the man of common sense needs to build a bridge, he does not go to another man of common sense; instead, he uses his common sense and goes to an engineer. It must be evident, therefore, that if we would have many of the things we consider desirable, common-sense knowledge would no longer be sufficient, and scientific knowledge becomes necessary.

But the discipline that is required for the acquisition of scientific knowledge makes that wholeness, that completeness of common-sense knowledge, impossible on the scientific plane. No man can possess technical scientific knowledge about everything; and therefore, every one must specialize in that part of knowledge needed for his profession, or for his function in society. Further, in contrast with the spontaneity of common sense and the directness with which it envisages its objectives, we find that science requires intricate and roundabout processes for its attainment. This makes it quite possible for man to lose every perspective of relevance, and to proceed along blind alleys of knowledge and research that lead nowhere. And yet all this is unavoidable and follows from the very nature of science.

It would be absurd to ask a medical student to justify in terms of ultimate human purposes every single action or assignment required in his general training for his profession. Hence we have another danger of specialized training; namely, when man is trained to know a part of reality, and to deal even with this part in a manner that is systematically artifical, this man develops more as a function than as a person .

Hence, it is that science and technology carry the danger of depersonalizing social relations. But man insists on being a person and on being treated as such; and as a person, he insists on his right of somehow knowing all reality and being concerned about his destiny as a complete man. Therefore, once his common-sense perspective gets to be distorted by the artificial mold which frames his mind in a special field, he tends to raise his special and partial science up to the dignity of a universal science.

“All reality is made up of material atoms or quantums of energy,” says the physicist. “Reality is a mysterious life force, elan vital ,” retorts the biologist, who would see all things from the window of biology. All history is made by economic forces (Marx), or by sexual energy (Freud). These and similar monisms, represent some of the grave dangers of scientism.

And then we have what is perhaps the greatest danger of scientism, namely, the philosophy of positivism. The primary interest of the special sciences is not the contemplative understanding and appreciation of reality, but the control of the visible world for practical purposes. In order to harness the powers of nature, all the knowledge needed is knowledge of certain accidential aspects of material things. Such an accident as the quantity of the thing, is all that remains of reality when the real thing is replaced by a measure and is introduced into a mathematical formula.

Of course any child could tell you that the quantity of a thing is not its complete reality, but the scientific expert tends to identify the quantity with the whole thing. Hence we get those quantitative ghosts called by such names as, energy, mass, atomic number, wave length, intelligence quotient, etc., floating around the scientific graveyards where the objects of common sense are deeply buried, and parading in the garbs of the real and substantial entities.

When this tendency of the sciences is built up into a complete philosophy, a world view, which denies the substance of things, denies the reality of causes, and admits only those surface accidents or appearances of material things which can be measured and made subject to the scientific method, when this thing happens, we get that most negative of all philosophies, namely, ironically enough, the philosophy of “positivism.” Now neither God nor the spiritual soul of man can be made subject to measurement or to test-tube analysis. Therefore, the positivist rejects on principle, all metaphysics and all religion.

But now, having seen some of the dangers of scientism, let us proceed to study the nature of science. This will lead us to determine whether philosophy is a science. The Greeks and the scholastics considered philosophy the science par excellence , but to the modern mind, this view cannot be taken for granted; it has to be justified.

What is a science, and how does scientific knowledge differ from the knowledge of common sense? The most superficial observation reveals to us that what we call sciences possess a certain form and order, i.e., they are organized bodies of knowledge and not random collections of facts. Now this order of the sciences is not imposed on them externally like the alphabetical order of a dictionary. It is an order which mirrors and reveals the order of real things.

The sciences have order because they put things together as things flow from common origins, principles, or causes. Science begins as soon as things begin to be systematically and methodically explained, and the more explained things are, the more orderly they appear to be. Man, therefore, can be said to have sciences, because he asks questions and seeks explanations of things that fall within his experience. And man is a great “question-asker.” As a matter of fact, man is the only question-asker in the whole universe. You could almost define man by this property, which flows from his very essence.

Now here is the reason why man asks questions. The human mind is made for a reality which is absolute, necessary, and simple, and which contains the sufficient reason for its being. This reality is, of course, God. Once the mind sees God, our intelligence is so thoroughly satisfied that it can raise no further questions, because no problem or mystery remain, either in God Himself, or in anything He caused. But when the human mind is confronted with a contingent reality which does not possess within itself a sufficient reason for its existence, the mind immediately tries to explain this reality, and explaining a thing means reducing it ultimately to a cause or principle which does not need to be explained.

To put what we have just said in more philosophic terms, we could say that the mind knows with absolute certainty that there must be a sufficient reason for everything that is. If we didn’t know that, we would never seek the “why” of a growing tree or of a falling apple. Every single science in the world owes its existence to this thirst for explanation, which all men share. This thirst for explanation is in our intellects and not in our senses. Animals never ask questions and never attain science. The stream of sense experience received in my skin from a flowing river does not raise any questions, but the notion of movement abstracted by my mind raises the problem of change, and starts the mind along the track of science.

The number of the sciences could be very large, because in addition to the great variety of objects that could be studied scientifically, there is a great variety of aspects from which to study things. A chair, for example, could be studied in physics, in chemistry, and in economics; and man may be studied in anatomy and in politics. In each case, the material object is one, but the formal object different.

But this variety of the sciences forms a natural hierarchy. For example, biology is superior to bacteriology, physics to metallurgy, astronomy to navigation, and economics to banking. What determines this hierarchy? The principle of explanation, in which the very essence of science consists. The superior sciences come closer to giving an ultimate explanation.

In every case mentioned so far, the superior science explains the principle of the inferior science, and defines its basic concepts. Hence, the inferior science of each pair presupposes the superior science, and depends upon it for being a science at all. Metallurgy presupposes the ordinary laws of general physics (such as the laws of heat and light, the principle of specific gravity, the laws of magnetism, etc.). If one were to stop and give a sufficient explanation of every term occuring in the science of metallurgy, one would have to include the greater part of general physics in every chapter on metallurgy; but, of course, physics is ordinarily taken for granted.

The hierarchy of the sciences is, therefore, a hierarchy of explanation. But along with this mark, others follow, stemming from it and depending upon it. The superior science is in every case a greater general interest and is valuable as knowledge in itself and for itself, while the inferior science is primarily of practical interest, and is valued on that account. No one studies metallurgy in order to become better educated.

Close to the top of this hierarchy, we find such sciences as physics, biology, and mathematics. Yet none of these sciences is ultimate, not even in their respective orders of knowledge. No book on geometry, for example, discusses the nature of quantity, continuity, shape, dimension, point, number, measure, space, etc. Geometry takes all these concepts for granted, just as it also presupposes its axioms and the general method of demonstration. The same could be said about physics and biology with regard to their basic notions and principles, such as the notion of matter, change, mass, energy, entropy, atom, field of force, life, generation, etc.

All these sciences, in so far as they are sciences, that is, in so far as they possess any explanatory value, presuppose the superior philosophic sciences of logic, cosmology, rational psychology and ethics. And these philosophic sciences, in turn, presuppose ontology or general metaphysics. Ontology is the absolute summit of natural knowledge; it is the one science which does not presuppose any other. Ontology studies all things under the most important aspects of all things. What ontology studies about being is more important than anything said about that being in any other science.

Is there any approach to reality more important than to study a thing in so far as it is one, true, good, and beautiful ? Supposing you take a society and remove from it all institutions and persons concerned with the attainment and expression of truth, goodness, and beauty, how much of that society is worth having? Or, let us take the history of man and remove from it the stories of its philosophers, scientists, poets, artists, saints and mystics; how much of what is left of that history is worth studying? As ontology studies all these attributes of being, it studies things in so far as they reflect the perfections of God; for God alone is supremely one, true, good, and beautiful.

Ontology thus establishes the highways on which the mind constantly travels from the world to God, and from God to the world. Moreover, ontology raises, formulates, and answers, all the most basic problems which torment the minds of men in all ages, and which underlie all great literature. Such problems as the problem of being and of change, the problem of evil, and the problem of knowledge, are solved in ontology as well as is possible for the human mind.

But then, have we any right to call ontology a science? According to modern usage, when we say science, we understand primarily something like physics, bacteriology, or perhaps even sociology. It should be clear however, from our discussion, that the notion of science applies primarily to ontology, secondarily, to the other philosophic sciences, and only in a very weak sense, to the special sciences. But since the discussion has been a little general so far, I would like to illustrate by a concrete example, the contrast between the philosophic and scientific outlooks (using the word “scientific” in accordance with modern usage).

Let us suppose that a philosopher and a scientist were to witness together the death of a man; the scientist would ask, “Why did this man die?”, and he would seek an explanation in such things as poison or heart failure. On the other hand, the philosopher perceives immediately a more fundamental problem: he would like to know, not the accidental reason why this man died, but rather why anybody should die at all.

The investigations of the scientist might contribute to the sciences and arts of medicine, pharmacy, and perhaps even chemistry; the reasonings of the philosopher, on the other hand, lead to a better understanding of a composite, material being, in contrast with a simple being, and therefore, to a deeper understanding of God and of man. Science goes hand in hand with the practical arts and artcrafts, with medicine, farming, engineering, industry, etc.; while philosophy associates with religion, poetry, and the contemplative arts.

Put in the language of philosophy, this difference between philosophy and the sciences can be expressed in the following terms: philosophy seeks the ultimate explanation, while science is satisfied with the proximate causes of things.

Now as far as the mind is concerned, proximate explanation is really no explanation at all. It explains only for practical purposes. To know that water can be decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen is useful information in case you are interested in manufacturing either of the two gases, but it certainly fails to explain the mystery of chemical union. And besides, the problems of science presuppose those of metaphysics.

Man would not seek the precise cause of malaria unless he knew that things like malaria must have a cause. For obviously the scientist does not try to determine whether malaria has a cause, but rather what the cause is. The scientist obviously knows that a contingent thing like malaria must have a cause, although he does not develop the notion of a “contingent being” and the notion of a cause, nor does he care, as a scientist, to reason out all the implications of what he implicitly asserts with regard to these notions. Were the scientist to stop and reflect on these matters, he would move out of the field of science and into the field of philosophy.

Philosophy, therefore, not only has the title to be called science, but has it in the highest degree: it is, as already intimated, the queen among the sciences. Beginning with ontology, and running down the hierarchy of sciences, we would get something like the following arrangement:

I. Ontology (or general metaphysics) of which the most important part is Theology.

II. The Philosophic Sciences (the sciences of special metaphysics): Logic, Cosmology, Rational Psychology, Ethics.

III. The Mathematical Sciences and the General Sciences of Observation and Experimentation: Arithmetic, Geometry, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Biology, Politics, Economics.

IV. All the practical arts and sciences whose primary purpose is not the understanding or the explanation of reality but some practical utility. Their number is very great.They correspond with the variety of crafts and professions, especially those which are intricate enough to require the development of a science or perhaps many sciences. E.g. , all the sciences of medicine, engineering, farming, pharmacy, navigation, metallurgy, banking, jurisprudence, electrical engineering, etc.

One glance at this table reveals the root reason of scientism. The lowest order in this hierarchy of the sciences is the foundation of our material civilization: it builds our machines, runs our hospitals, and fights our wars. In order to maintain our culture we are bound to devote a great part of our time and attention to the cultivation of these lower sciences.This trend has been crowding out of existence those sciences of the highest two orders, which guarantee cultural unity and a balanced perspective.

The general science of the third order, like physics and economics, came to be regarded as the core of liberal education, but these sciences are ordered primarily to the practical interest and not to the speculative. Physics, biology, and economics are not innocent crafts like carpentry and masonry, which require the development of special skills, without distorting the truths of common sense. The latter are sciences of a kind, without being sciences to the limit. And when the mind is made to perform on the plane of science, it must either be led to final and correct answers, or find false substitutes in sophistry and ideological error.

We must restore philosophy, religion and common sense as valid means of knowledge, or else we are going to die from the sickness of scientism. It is nice to have a nose on one’s face, but when you see a nose swelling and about to efface the remaining features, you know that there is disease and danger. Culturally speaking, scientism is such a pathological inflation of science, at the expense of all other forms of human knowledge.

As for common sense, little can be done for it deliberately. As soon as common sense becomes reflective or methodical, it becomes something else; that is, it becomes either philosophy or science. Common sense cannot formulate or defend its convictions against the attacks of false philosophies and false religions, and therefore, unless the fundamental certitudes of common sense are developed and defended by good philosophy, false doctrines are bound to arise.

And as for revelation, it is foundationally in God, under His disposition; and, as long as we do not confuse ourselves by perverse use of our natural faculties, God can talk to us and lead us to the saving truth. Our own responsibility consists in using our natural powers according to the purposes intended by God, and God gave us intelligence, primarily, so that we may know Him and love Him, and, secondarily, in order that we may rule the material universe. We are putting a tremendous effort towards the attainment of the second of these objectives, but if we are to be faithful to the first objective, we must restore philosophy to its place in liberal education.

Of course, this advice cannot be given except to those who know where to find the one sound tradition of philosophic truth. This tradition is protected, and will always be secure, only in the shadow of the Catholic Church. Here is another confirmation of Christ’s promises, where he says: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things will be added unto you.

Here is another temporal problem, which shall never be solved by those who do not care to discover the kingdom of God, as it exists in this world. If the place of philosophy is usurped by the confusion of all the false doctrines and perverse opinions of all times, then certainly that kind of philosophy will offer no remedy to the confusion of scientism.

They say, “You want to bring philosophy back to the modern man; but he already suffers from the complexity and diversity of his interests. Wouldn’t philosophy add just one more item to this complexity?” This is like saying about a man trying to find his way around in a crowded dark room, “Why crowd him further with a lamp?”

For that is precisely what philosophy contributes to the complexity of modern civilization: a lighted candle in a crowded dark room.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.

The featured image shows, “Fiat lux” (“Let there be light”), from the sketchbook of Francisco de Holanda, dated 1545.

Light of Reason, Light of Faith

In this excerpt from Light of Reason, Light of Faith – Father Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai, a native of Cameroon, has written a fresh, exciting new study of the lifelong engagement of Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, with the German Enlightenment and its contemporary manifestations and heirs. Contemporary European disdain for organized religion and the rise in secularism on that continent has deep roots in the German Enlightenment. To understand contemporary Europe, one must return to this crucial epoch in its history, to those who shaped the European mind of this era, and to a study of the ideas they espoused and propagated. These ideas, for good or for ill, have taken hold in other parts of the modern world, being incarnated in many minds and institutions in contemporary society and threatening to enthrone a disfigured rationality without faith or a sense of Transcendence.

Father Maurice masterfully positions Ratzinger correctly in the history of ideas, and exhibits why Ratzinger will be remembered as one of its main players. Pure rationalists and true believers are equally indebted to him.

Light of Reason, Light of Faith is forthcoming from St. Augustine’s Press.


The Peculiarities Of The Aufklärung

The Aufklärung, as the German strand of the pan-European Enlightenment movement, marked a conclusively irrevocable change in the political, religious, and social life of the old continent. Europe was taken over by the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality, which translates into individual freedom, religious toleration, and the equality of citizens before the law. Europe witnessed the flowering of culture and polite society in the eighteenth century. As a philosophical system, the Aufklärung marked “the attempt to establish the authority of reason in all walks of life, whether in the state, the church, the universities, or society at large.” The Aufklärung also reflected an optimism in the belief in social progress. But this optimism regarding human potential was not blind, for even in the positivism and optimism that characterized the Aufklärung, Europe was still conscious of the potentials of debasement rooted in the human heart. As Nicholas Till points out:

“The philosophers and the Aufklärer were certainly believers in progress; but while one eye of the Enlightenment was always focused gladly on the bright future, the other eye was trained uneasily on the recent past. For the Enlightenment had been born in the shadow of the disintegration of social order which had occurred throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, following what seemed like an almost total collapse of political and religious authority. Civil war on a scale hitherto unknown had riven nations and overthrown established political powers; religious doubt had come to assail those not possessed and consumed by the new fanaticisms; status and property no longer offered security and certainty. The unrest of the mid-seventeenth century forced a fundamental reappraisal of the principles of social order, which led people to ask whether the traditional bounds could ever again be adequate.”

Given this atmosphere of socio-political and economic uncertainties, the Aufklärung as a pan-European movement sought to offer new interpretations of human nature, of society and of the moral life, in an otherwise uncertain Europe. One can therefore read two sides regarding the Aufklärung coin: on the one hand, the awareness that the medieval social order which saw a harmony between throne and altar was no longer sustainable became a position held by large sectors of the intelligentsia class. On the other hand, there was an eagerness or optimism to forge a new basis for the social order that had to emerge from the ruins of the collapsed medieval order. Thus, both pessimism and optimism characterized the emergence of the Aufklärung spirit across Europe.

Added to this sense of social change as a contributory factor to the development of the Aufklärung was the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe. In the medieval period, Till writes:

Most people had been borne into a predetermined social position that defined them throughout their life, and placed them within a network of hierarchies and institutions understood to be part of the divine, unchanging order: a person was inseparable from his or her role in society; he or she was a peasant, an artisan, a knight, and not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation; and the medieval person’s role carried with it a number of pre-ordained obligations such as those of kinship or feudal duty. Binding this multiplicity of institutions and hierarchies together was the authority and power of the Church…. The stability of medieval society was undermined from within by the dynamics of economic growth—the opening-up of markets, the widening circulation of commodities, the accumulation of wealth by a new class that derived its power from money rather than status. This in turn forced into being another class without status obligations, which sold its labor in exchange for a wage. Thus, the demands of economic activity gave rise to some of the basic ideals of the Enlightenment itself: individual freedom, legal equality, religious toleration.

One can therefore make the case that the Aufklärung was a rejection of socio-economic determinism. People were eager to move upward in the social strata of society. People felt hard work had to be rewarded and the sense of a privileged economic class eschewed. And with free markets came newfound wealth for the masses, and with wealth came the desire for power, in this case, political power, which inevitably meant the discarding of monarchical and royal power, in what one might consider a clash of irreconcilable wills. The emerging socio-political order that came into being with material prosperity was articulated via the language of equality, and sustained by the spirit of freedom, liberty, and fraternity amongst the emerging business class.

Underlying all of Europe in terms of characterizing the Aufklärung was what Ernst Cassirer described as the libido sciendi, that is, the lust for knowledge, which, as Cassirer claims, “theological dogmatism had outlawed and branded as intellectual pride.” The eighteenth century saw the search for knowledge as a prerogative of the soul, and the Aufklärer largely felt that it was his duty to defend this right of every person to knowledge, without any censors. A proof of this was the emergence of the Encyclopedia, championed by the French thinker Diderot, which Diderot saw not only as a source of a body of knowledge, but more importantly as a tool meant to change the way people thought about all of reality. And this is quite understandable, for it would have been meaningless to champion the usage of reason without allowing for an unbridled access to all knowledge, especially in the broad sense of reason that the concept took in the mind of the Aufklärer.

Notwithstanding these pan-European orientations, the Aufklärung had its own peculiar German character that distinguished it from its French and English counterparts, some of which we can identify to be the following.

The Aufklärung’s Alertness To Christianity As A Religious-Cultural Phenomenon

Firstly, unlike the French Enlightenment, the Aufklärung cannot be assessed as specifically an anti-religious or anti-Christian movement:

The Church was much more than its institutions and doctrines, and it was impossible for reformers to conceive of their culture as divorced from its religious context. There persisted the belief in the possibility of a harmony between the civil and religious authority—the concordia sacerdotii et imperii—in which the sum was greater than its parts. This is evident, first of all, in the reformer’s interest in ecclesiastical and religious history.

Thus, the Aufklärung showed a keen interest in the religious dimension of the German society, albeit with a critical and reformist orientation.

In this sense, “the theologians of the Aufklärung were concerned to reformulate Christian doctrines upon the basis of premises more justifiable upon rational grounds, either by reducing them, reinterpreting them, or eliminating them.” In other words, the Aufklärung, particularly in its initial stages of the eighteenth century, was not representative of an adversarial and confrontational relationship between faith and reason, philosophy and theology, Church and State, even if it tended to subordinate faith to reason, theology to philosophy, and called for a healthy autonomy in the intertwining relationship between Church and State. Alister McGrath explains that the reason for such a benevolent attitude toward faith and hence toward the Church was owed to the conviction that “God is the ontological principle or being which determines what exists, and the structure of existence.” Aufklärung thinkers therefore saw reason, faith, and the institutional Church through a harmonious lens, albeit maintaining that revelation, faith, and the practices of faith as put forth by the Church had to be judged on the basis of reason, which occupies the first place in the grand scheme of things.

The bottom line at this point, in terms of the relationship between Christianity and the Aufklärung, on the part of the latter is that “truth is not something which can be regarded as mediated to man from outside (for example, on the basis of a recognized authority), but something which arises within man on account of its conformity with his rationality.” McGrath thus concludes based on this subsequent parting of ways between faith and reason, that, even with Kant, Hegel, and perhaps Heidegger, “it will therefore be evident that there was an inherent tendency within the Aufklärung to regard the concept of supernatural revelation with suspicion.” How so? I think because of the sense of the historical vis-à-vis revelation that eventually emerges with the Aufklärung. And at the center of this dialectics between history and revelation stands the question of the historical verifiability of religious truth claims.

The Aufklärung And The Sense Of The Historical-Religious Experience

In effect, as the spirit of the Aufklärung further developed the disconnecting of reason from faith it raised the question of whether the concept of divine revelation was historically defensible, especially under the claims of autonomous rationality. In this light, and as McGrath points out, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) applied the Aufklärung insights to the nature of truth and history, with very astonishing results for the claims of Christian faith. In effect, the Aufklärer called into question the historicity and accuracy of the life of Christ as presented in the Scriptures. They argued for the insufficiency of the events recorded in Scripture, particularly the New Testament, even if they were eyewitness accounts. As McGrath points out, “The origins of the ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ may be seen in the Aufklärung conviction that the gospels contained material concerning Jesus which was unacceptable (because it was immoral, or supernatural) and which thus required correction in the light of modern thought.” The real Jesus was clearly different from the Jesus of the gospels. As McGrath maintains, the Aufklärer “attempted to evolve methods of internal and external criticism by which an historical re-evaluation of dogma might proceed, leading ultimately to the exclusion of doctrines which were considered to be irrational or morally indefensible.” An example of such a doctrine will be the divinity of Christ, which was often reinterpreted in purely moral terms. And even when other truths of revelation such as the Incarnation of Logos in Christ were accepted, they were represented as a recognition of the fact that spiritual truths can take palpable and historical forms. Thus, one must note the distinction between the concept acceptable to the Aufklärer, and the content that was subjected to a radical historical criticism. A good example of this is Kant’s treatment of the Gestalt of Jesus in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in which the supernatural claims of Christianity were rationalized and reduced to categories of rationality.

Albert Schweitzer offers a trenchant analysis of the salient points in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Given that this reading of the figure of Jesus and the Church marks the monumental shift of the assumptions and presuppositions of hitherto unquestionable orthodox Christological dogmas, and granted that these positions are largely engaged by Ratzinger albeit with the intent of rebuttals, we can state the salient points here as captured and enunciated by Reimarus. With Reimarus, we find a rational presentation of Jesus as a Jewish prophet within the Jewish messianic history of expectation of the breaking forth of the kingdom of God, in the life of Israel. From the extant fragments or writings of Reimarus, Schweitzer points out that for Reimarus’ historical reading, the starting point was the content of the preaching of Jesus, which is markedly different from the teachings or preaching of the apostles. Jesus preaching might be synthesized in this proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This “kingdom of God” must be understood in a completely Jewish sense, given that neither John nor Jesus himself bothered to explain it in their preaching. The assumption is that their audience knew what it meant. Jesus is therefore an eschatological preacher of the kingdom of God. Owing to this “kingdom” character of Jesus’ preaching, the assumption was that under the leadership of Jesus, the promised Messiah was about to be brought in—messianism understood here in the political sense.

Albert Schweitzer offers a trenchant analysis of the salient points in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Given that this reading of the figure of Jesus and the Church marks the monumental shift of the assumptions and presuppositions of hitherto unquestionable orthodox Christological dogmas, and granted that these positions are largely engaged by Ratzinger albeit with the intent of rebuttals, we can state the salient points here as captured and enunciated by Reimarus. With Reimarus, we find a rational presentation of Jesus as a Jewish prophet within the Jewish messianic history of expectation of the breaking forth of the kingdom of God, in the life of Israel. From the extant fragments or writings of Reimarus, Schweitzer points out that for Reimarus’ historical reading, the starting point was the content of the preaching of Jesus, which is markedly different from the teachings or preaching of the apostles. Jesus preaching might be synthesized in this proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This “kingdom of God” must be understood in a completely Jewish sense, given that neither John nor Jesus himself bothered to explain it in their preaching. The assumption is that their audience knew what it meant. Jesus is therefore an eschatological preacher of the kingdom of God. Owing to this “kingdom” character of Jesus’ preaching, the assumption was that under the leadership of Jesus, the promised Messiah was about to be brought in—messianism understood here in the political sense.

Put differently, Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. His was an ardent desire to bring about the eschatological reality of the kingdom of God, and this is the spectrum through which one has to read the events in Jerusalem that culminated with his death. Jesus wanted to forcefully bring about the messianic prophecy of Zechariah in Jerusalem. The cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a glaring pointer to Jesus’ realization and acknowledgment that God had not aided him as he had hoped. The cry shows that Jesus had not intended to die, but to politically liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. With Jesus’ death, all the sensual hopes of messianism on his part and on the part of his disciples came to an unexpected end. In order to earn a living—given that they had abandoned their trades when they accepted to follow Jesus—the disciples took on the second strand of Jewish messianism in a supernatural sense. They offered a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ death, hence, the necessity of the Resurrection motif. Armed with this spiritual messianism explainable thanks to the Resurrection, the Parousia became the next logical step.

In this sense, the second coming of Jesus offered the disciples the content which they could preach to a gullible first-century Palestinian audience. The Parousia was therefore a creation of the early Church to explain away the failure of Jesus to bring about the kingdom of God, a failure of Jesus the eschatological prophet. The Parousia was a product meant to sustain hope, rather than a teaching of Jesus. Owing this, Christianity is therefore built on a false premise. Christianity is a fraud because it is a creation by Jesus’ disciples for the sole purpose of ensuring their usefulness, after the mistaken and failed project of their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. To put it more precisely, “inasmuch as the non-fulfilment of its eschatology is not admitted, our Christianity rests upon a fraud.” In sum, Jesus is a failed prophet whose understanding of Jewish messianism landed him into a premature and unexpected death, over and against his wishes and expectations.

This is certainly not the place to evaluate these claims and positions advanced by Reimarus, as spelled out by Schweitzer. But it suffices to say that while one must certainly acknowledge, to Reimarus’ credit, a strong sense for the historical and a keen attention to exegesis, it must be stated, as Schweitzer does, that overall, Reimarus saw eschatology from a wrong perspective, namely, the political. Reimarus can only read Jesus as the son of David, nothing more. And not only that, Reimarus’ assumption that the eschatology was earthly and political is not only restrictive, but in pursuing this narrow reading of eschatology, Reimarus largely ignored the account of other New Testament texts such as the Gospel of John. And such a reductionist reading of Jesus does injustice both to any historical reading of the figure of Jesus and the Christological confession erected on such a history.

On this basis, therefore, McGrath points out, the Aufklärung poses three Christological challenges: Firstly, the traditional two natures of Christ were called into question, following the naturalistic and rationalistic logic of the Aufklärung. Modern reason could jettison this “relic” of the early Church without much controversy. Secondly, if following the logic of the Aufklärung, Christ’s significance had to be conceived in purely naturalistic terms, how would the Church represent the unicity of Christ? The Aufklärung generally presented Christ as a moralist, a teacher of the good life whose superiority over other moral teachers is based upon the supremely moral character of Christ’s teachings. As McGrath points out, “there seemed to be no way in which his uniqueness could be established without resorting to a discredited supernaturalism.” Such a view during the Aufklärung of Christ as an ethics teacher would naturally be a concern to someone of a spiritual and intellectual temperament like Joseph Ratzinger. Thirdly, another Christological challenge of the Aufklärung vis-à-vis the Christian faith has to do with the certainty of our knowledge of Christ. How can we be sure about the Christ of the gospels when, following the dialectics of history, one cannot ascertain with objective certainty that what we read in the Scriptures is true?

The Aufklärung And The Duel Between Divine And Human Rational Supremacy

McGrath maintains that “the ultimate foundation of the theology of the Aufklärung may be regarded as the doctrine that the natural faculty of human reason is qualitatively similar to (although quantitatively weaker than) the divine reason.” The world of the Aufklärung is in essence a rational cosmos in which the human being works out his or her own moral perfection by conforming the self to the moral structures of the cosmos. Moral activity is therefore the highest destiny of the human being, and reason is the only practical guide to this destiny. This rationality of the Aufklärung is best summarized in these three propositions: firstly, all reality is rational; secondly, the human being has the necessary epistemological capabilities to unearth the rational Ordnung of reality; and thirdly, the human being is adept at acting upon this cognition of reality in order to achieve his or her rational destiny by acting morally. In this light, the human being is capable of attaining morality without any external assistance, and revelation and the authority of God was perceived to be such an extrinsic assistance. In other words, unaided reason was capable of bringing about a just and moral society. In this world-view, religious faith as a source and sustainer of morality was no longer essential, for one could be moral or ethical without being religious.

Such a view of the Aufklärung naturally runs contrary to the Christian orthodoxy that, over the years of observation, reflection, and pondering the actions of the human being vis-à-vis the moral law, had come to discern in revelation the woundedness of human nature in the doctrine of original sin. While not rejecting the value of human rationality in discerning and arriving at moral truths, Christianity recognized as well the place of God’s revelation in the moral landscape. The orthodox position, following Augustine, has been that on account of original sin, the human intellect is blinded and the will is weakened, so much so that the human being cannot function as an autonomous moral agent. As fallen creatures, therefore, God’s moral law in historical revelation purifies and strengthens reason’s natural reflections and discernments. In the eyes of the Aufklärung, this doctrine of original sin certainly posed a conceptual obstacle to moral perfection and even smacked of Manichean dualism. The doctrine clearly had become obsolete and warranted abandonment. Therefore, in order to counteract doctrines like original sin, the science of the development of dogma emerged from the Aufklärung movement. In this sense, it was not sufficient to simply believe what the Church teaches as doctrine. A critical understanding of the formulation and historical evolution of a given doctrine was as essential as the doctrine itself.

The featured image shows, “Garnisonkirche und Breite Brücke mit Blick auf das Stadtschloss” (“Garrison Church and Wide Bridge, with View to the City Palace”), Potsdam, by Carl Hasenpflug, painted in 1827.

Mathematics And Morality

Nothing could be more distinctive of the age in which we live than the overpowering prominence of mathematics. All through the Catholic centuries, arithmetic and geometry constituted all the mathematics that an educated Christian was asked to learn. Even these two subjects were treated from a more contemplative point of view, which made them far more harmonious with other liberal studies. Arithmetic consisted in the study of the properties of numbers; geometry in the study of shapes and figures. When not overdone, and when counterbalanced by the proper correctives from the other types of knowledge, geometry and arithmetic, as they used to be taught, cultivated a few desirable virtues of the mind like clarity and precision, and sharpened the mind for the perception of harmony, rhythm, and pattern in the study of nature and of Holy Scripture. But even then, many saints and sages warned against the excessive preoccupation with such studies, and especially against the seductive clarity of mathematics; for it is not enough for the mind to be accurate and clear; we are bound to ask “accurate and clear about what?” Since in mathematics accuracy and clarity are achieved at the price of the reality and the goodness of the object, it is a danger of the mathematical mind to continue to sacrifice reality and goodness for the sake of clarity in every other field in which man must seek and find the truth.

But in our time, education is overwhelmed by mathematics and on more than one score. For, while a contemplative interest in the properties of shapes and numbers is almost completely extinct, an illiberal and utterly inhuman form of mathematics dominates the years of learning of our boys and girls, almost completely from the very first year of the primary school to the very last year of college. In place of arithmetic and geometry, whose relation to reality is definite and understandable, there is now an indefinite confusion of branches which go by the name of mathematics, the nature of whose objects nobody understands! Such topics as topology, non-Eudidean geometry, Boolean algebra, transfinite numbers, projective geometry; not to speak of other more recognizable subjects like algebra, trigonometry, integral calculus, vector analysis and the theory of equations. These new subjects are not only more confusing but much more difficult to acquire, and therefore much less likely to leave the mind at leisure for other liberal studies. But the predominance of mathematics today is not restricted to those courses which go by its name, because mathematics, in some form or other, in matter or in method, has crept into every other corner of the curriculum. According to the modern positivistic conception, mathematics and not wisdom is considered as the prototype of science. In subjects ranging from physics to education, covering every field of human learning, there is an evident tendency to assimilate all knowledge to mathematical knowledge and to resolve all realities into mathematical formulas. This trend reaches its apex in the development of symbolic logic, in which guise mathematics invades even the field of philosophy, to distort all the basic conceptions of the mind, and to deflect all the activities of thought from attaining their fulfillment in true wisdom which consists in knowledge about God, by keeping them whirling endlessly around the nihilistic circle of sheer mathematical emptiness.

Now in an attempt to determine the influence of mathematics on the mind of a Christian, it would be folly to ignore the fact that after twenty centuries of Christian living, it is impossible to name one single patron saint for mathematics. There are Catholics indeed who occupied themselves considerably with mathematics and as far as we know kept the faith; but I know of no mathematician whose faith burned so brilliantly as to earn him a place among the stars of sanctity. Nor is this a mere coincidence, for any one of us can look into his own mind to find that there is no other kind of human knowledge or human experience which offers less in terms of value for the Christian message than mathematics. Almost all that one needs in the way of mathematics in order to learn all of Holy Scripture and all the Doctors of the Church, does not exceed the ability to count up to a thousand and to distinguish between a vertical and a horizontal line. Whatever it is you talk about in mathematics, it is never anything you can carry over to your meditations, or employ in your prayers; it gives you no courage in your moments of despair, and no consolation in your loneliness.

In the field of philosophy, mathematics has always been fertile grounds for sophistry. There is hardly any other intellectual interest which has contributed more to confuse men about fundamental truths regarding God, man, and the universe, than mathematics. Just to mention the names of Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Whitehead and Russell, would suffice to convince one even slightly acquainted with the history of thought about the great number of minds that were deceived by the mirage of mathematics, and misled to accept fraudulent substitutes for the saving truth. I believe that an unprejudiced consideration of the nature of mathematics and of the nature of its objects would reveal clearly that all these charges leveled against the mathematical mind are rooted in the very nature and essence of things.

But what kind of a science is mathematics? Is it a practical science which envisages the achievement of a good, or a speculative science which envisages the attainment of truth? A practical science, like medicine or ethics, would be eliminated by the elimination of the corresponding good. For example, if men were indifferent to health and its opposite there would be no criterion for distinguishing between a right prescription and a wrong one, and consequently, medicine would cease to be a science. In a similar way, if men per absurdum were suddenly to become neutral to the attainment of happiness or its opposite, that would be the end of ethics. But what good, if ceasing, would determine the end of mathematics? None whatever, for the simple reason that mathematics prescinds from all good and all value. Mathematics talks the language of a speculative science. It utters propositions which must be either true or false. Now a proposition is true or false depending on whether it is or is not in conformity with reality. Just as a practical science envisages a good to be achieved, which good functions as the criterion for right and wrong precepts in that science, so a speculative science considers some part or aspect of reality, which stands as the measure of truth and falsehood in that science. If there were no stars there would be no astronomy; and theology would be sheer nonsense if God did not exist. But what part of reality would destroy mathematics by being eliminated? What does the mathematician talk about? Is the object of mathematics a creature or a creator? Is it a substance or an accident? Is it something actual or merely potential? Is it changing or changeless? Temporal or eternal? Material or spiritual? Tangible or intangible? If one were to compose an inventory of all the subsisting realities of the whole universe, including God, the angels, men, animals, plants and minerals, would the objects of mathematics be on this list?

Am I asking too many questions? Well, here are a few answers whose reasons will either be supplied later, or be left to the reader to discover for himself. Mathematics is a speculative science whose value can only be in the practical order. It has no speculative value, because it does not convey any essential knowledge about any subsisting reality. It is not contemplative knowledge and therefore not essentially good for man, because it occupies the intellect with objects which the will cannot love. It is knowledge which does not proceed from understanding nor does it resolve in wisdom. It does not proceed from understanding, because the mathematical expression of any reality, never conveys any understanding of it. It may however convey the means for the control of that reality. You are not one inch closer to the penetration of the mystery of light and color when you know the number of Angstroms in each of the colors of the spectrum; nor about the nature, cause, or purpose of gravity when you resolve its laws into mathematical formulas. And it does not resolve in wisdom, because neither is mathematics concerned with the First Cause, nor does it lead to the First Cause. The manner by which mathematics deals with its objects abstracts completely from any dependence upon God, and as a matter of fact, attributes to these objects a species of eternity and turns them into quasi divinities completely independent in themselves. This explains the autonomous nature of mathematics, according to which, left to itself, it never leads to anything non-mathematical. A mathematician might be led to think about God by an accidental non-mathematical reason, but never from the very needs of mathematics.

As for the object of mathematics, it is not a physical entity but a mental entity; it is not real but ideal. There is nowhere in the world, outside of the mind of a mathematician, a point without dimensions, a line without width or thickness, or a square root of minus one. But these fictions of the mind are founded on reality, and their foundation consists of the accident of quantity and its properties and relations. Arithmetic is founded on discontinuous quantities or multitudes; geometry on continuous quantities or magnitudes; while algebra is founded on abstract quantity considered generically, prescinding from whether it is number or magnitude and therefore potentially capable both of an arithmetical as well as of a geometrical interpretation. Other mathematical objects, more distantly removed from this real foundation of mathematics, are rooted in these simpler elements and in the relations which hold among them. Having experienced the three dimensions of bodies in space and having represented these three dimensions by the three variables of an algebraical equation, nothing prevents the mind from creating the fiction of a space corresponding to an algebraical equation of four variables – hence four-dimensional space.

But what do we know about this accident of quantity, on which is founded, proximately or remotely every object of mathematics? We learn from philosophy that quantity is an accident of material substances, and that in contrast with the accident of quality, quantity manifests the material and not the formal aspect of these substances. Therefore the real foundation of mathematics is found in the material aspect of material things. Further, an accident when conceived as an accident always brings you back to its substance; but in mathematics the accident of quantity is conceived as if it were a substance. Further, a material substance concretely considered, has a nature through which this substance moves to the attainment of an end, but the mathematician considers quantity as a substantialized material accident devoid of any principle of change and abstracted from any movement to attain an end. The concrete material substance manifests itself through its sensible qualities by means of which it is known, but the object of mathematics, without being a spiritual substance like an angel, prescinds from all sensible qualities and can be known only by the intellect and not by the senses. Hence we have the apparent paradox that while the only foundation for the mathematical object is the material aspect of material things, still mathematics represents its object such as matter could neither be nor be known. For matter is nothing but a principle of change, while mathematics prescinds from change; and matter can only be known through the senses while mathematics prescinds from sensibility.

The object of mathematics is therefore an accident parading as a substance, a material reality pretending to be immaterial, an ideal entity which poses for something real. At the basis of all these antinomies is the fact that mathematics arises only when an intellectual mind, directs the light of its spiritual intelligence, not for the purpose of contemplating being, but for the purpose of controlling potency. The mathematical object is the shadow that matter casts on spirit. For when spirit knows spirit, there is not even the foundation for mathematics; when material cognition (sensation) knows material things, the objects of mathematics cannot arise; even when a spiritual being knows matter contemplatively it understands a material substance through its form and its qualities. It is only when a spiritual being concerns itself with matter and for the purpose of sheer control that mathematics finally finds its grounds.

But how about the truth in mathematics? If the objects of mathematics are mental entities (entia rationis) what is it that determines the truth or falsehood of a mathematical proposition? What reality stands as the measure to the judgment of the mind? In the classical branches, arithmetic and geometry, the foundation in reality was close enough to preclude any statements that are not justified by the real properties of multitudes and magnitudes. But as mathematics branches out and develops into newer mathematics, and higher mathematics, and purer mathematics, that control becomes less and less until finally the mind remains its own measure. Consistency and not conformity becomes the touchstone of validity.

Apart from mathematics, there used to be three other distinct types of knowledge: physical, logical, and ethical. All three led ultimately to God – the physical sciences under the aspect of Ultimate Cause; the logical sciences by way of the Prime Truth; and the ethical sciences by way of the Supreme Good. But in mathematics, the mind reigns supreme, lord of all it surveys. The mind finds in itself a sufficient cause for the kind of being the mathematical entity enjoys. It is the only ultimate measure for the truth of its judgments. It prescinds completely from the aspect of goodness. Of all the intellectual pursuits, mathematics alone does not lead to God.

It is like the web of a spider, it proceeds from the very substance of the spider and ends up being its own jail. It gets more involved and more intricate the more it is extended, and finally, when the web is intricate enough, the new threads do not have to measure up to any real independent distances of walls or furniture, for when the new-thrown thread fails to meet a point of support, it sticks on another thread of the same fabric.

From the spider of mathematics, may God deliver us.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.

The featured image shows a “Portrait of Luca Pacioli,” attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari, painted before 1516.

Why Write History?

As we know, history is one of the oldest sciences in the world. But the benefits of it are far from obvious and have been constantly questioned over the centuries. How was the question of the purpose of writing history, and the tasks of a historian, answered in the past?

Moses, who began compiling sacred history, did not use the concept of “history” itself – there was no need for it. For Moses, the story of creation, humanity, and the people of Israel was not some useful knowledge, but a proclamation to Israel of Israel’s purpose. God, leading the people out of Egypt, gives history to man as a vow of salvation.

Nevertheless, the emergence of history as scientific knowledge is usually associated with ancient tradition, and Herodotus is traditionally considered the first historian (5th century BC). Herodotus saw himself as a collector of “information” about “great and surprisingly worthy deeds” so that they “over time would not go into oblivion.” Herodotus (in his work The Histories, although this name is most likely later, for earlier the work was called The Muses) for the first time appears as an “historian” – an observer and narrator about the events that took place. The goal is not soteriological, but antiquarian.

But it is Thucydides (5th century BC) who introduces a more “scientific” task – he is engaged in “investigation.” In his Peloponnesian War he writes: “As for the events of this war, I set myself the task of describing them, receiving information not by questioning the first person I met and not at my personal discretion, but to depict, on the one hand, only those events, at which I myself happened to be present, and on the other – to analyze the messages of others with all possible accuracy. A thorough verification of the information was not easy, because the witnesses of individual events gave different coverage of the same facts, depending on their location to one of the warring parties or the strength of memory. My research, in the absence of everything fabulous in it, may seem unattractive. But if anyone wants to investigate the reliability of the past and the possibility of future events (which may someday be repeated by the property of human nature in the same or similar form), then it will be enough for me if he considers my research useful. My work was created as an eternal property, and not for momentary success with listeners.”

In other words, the benefits of history are pragmatic, avoiding mistakes in the future. It is also worth making a reservation here: history for ancient and later authors is not some kind of historical process, but a text, a story about events. Later, ancient authors were engaged in similar “investigations” (collection and analysis of information). For example, Aristotle (4th century BC) wrote The History of Animals, which became the basis for the creation of philosophical works on fauna: On the Parts of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals.

A step forward was made by the historian Polybius (2nd century BC), the author of The Histories. He believed that “knowledge of the past, rather than any other knowledge, can benefit people,” since “lessons learned from history most likely lead to enlightenment and prepare for engaging in public affairs,” and “the story of the trials of other people is the most intelligible, or the only mentor teaching us to courageously endure the vicissitudes of fate.”

It was Polybius who spoke about the “lessons of history,” which for him had a universal meaning and concerned every person. In addition, “diligent study of history, enriching us with this kind of experience, can beautify our leisure and provide us with entertainment.” Polybius thus not only raised history to the pedestal of human knowledge, but also gave it moral and entertainment value. The famous phrase of Cicero “history is the teacher of life” was already a repetition of Polybius’s thought. Subsequent ancient historians in different ways repeated what Polybius, Herodotus, and Thucydides said.

The first Christian historians interpreted their writings in an ancient context. Eusebius (4th century AD) wrote about “instructive lessons of history.” However, Sozomen (1st half of the 5th century AD) posed a more significant task: “Since for the reliability of history one must take special care of the truth, it seemed to me necessary to investigate these written monuments as much as possible… The narrator, as has been said, should do everything to serve the truth.” It is important to take into account that in Sozomen’s view truth was of divine origin, and history itself, in his words, is “not a human matter.”

Thus, already early Church historians were gradually beginning to bring their tasks closer to those that were characteristic of Moses. These principles were most clearly formulated by the blessed Theodoret of Cyrus (5th century): “Painters, depicting ancient events on panels and walls, of course, give pleasure to the viewers about what happened long ago; they keep that happening fresh in memory for a long time. But historians, instead of panels used books, and instead of paints – use the color of words, to make the memory of the past even stronger and firmer, because the painter’s art is worn down by time. Therefore, everything that has not yet been included in the history of the Church, I will try to describe: for indifference to the glory of famous deeds and oblivion of the most useful legends, I consider criminal.” He considered writing history to be a spiritual duty and a heroic deed.

The Christian West right up to the Renaissance retained the ancient understanding of history. However, from the end of the 17th century, with the emergence of science in Europe in the modern sense, an idea of the world historical process was formulated, which had its own clear and invariable laws.

Thus, there were the French Catholic Bishop Bossuet (Discourse on Universal History, 1681) and the Italian scientist Vico (Principles of a New Science Concerning the Nature of Nations, 1725) for whom the laws of history were a divine institution, like the laws of nature, and were associated with ethical norms. One way or another, for the first time, it became possible to talk about the “meaning of history,” with attempts to deduce it in the manner of a mathematical formula. Now history had begun to be understood rationally – and man became its hostage, a cog in a grandiose mechanism.

The Age of Enlightenment made its own adjustments here: it began to look at history as a self-developing process. Agnostic Lessing (The Education of the Human Race, 1780) spoke of historical progress and stages of religious and social development (by which he understood paganism, Judaism and Christianity).

Thus, history became an all-embracing process in which all of humanity participates, said the pantheist Herder (Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, 1784-1791). The Napoleonic Wars that followed seemed to confirm this thesis.

Another inevitable conclusion from this idea was the thought of the pantheist Condorcet (Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Advances of the Human Mind, 1794): “If a person can, with almost complete certainty, predict the phenomena whose laws he knows, if even when they are unknown to him, he can, on the basis of past experience, predict, with a high probability, future events. Then why consider the desire to draw, with some plausibility. a picture of the future fate of the human race, based on the results of its history, as a chimerical enterprise?”

Historical science was already beginning to turn into an ideology and predict a happy future. True, Condorcet himself was sitting in a Jacobin prison, while he was writing his work, waiting for the guillotine.

After Hegel, who most clearly formulated the idea of a single historical process, the “philosophy of history,” which became the foundation of political ideology, blossomed in magnificent color. It was understood both in the materialistic “formational” aspect (Marx, Braudel) and in the idealistic “civilizational” one (Danilevsky, Spengler, Toynbee). More often, the first model was adopted by the Left (socialists and liberals), and the second – by the Right.

Later, the liberal “anti-philosophy” of history (Popper) was formulated, which generally denied any meaning in history and placed technical progress at the forefront. The circle of development of European thought was closed, and man was completely lost in the heap of “laws” and the whirlwind of “processes.” Historians, inspired by philosophers, and then experiencing some disappointment from the abundance of groundless schemes, went into “pure science” – into the study of small plots (so-called microhistory) or individual texts (postmodernism).

Perhaps the most profound criticism of the “philosophy of history” belongs to the outstanding theologian of the twentieth century, Archpriest Georges Florovsky. It was the identification of history with nature, in his opinion, that became the starting point of European utopianism.

Father Georges fundamentally opposed the idea of historical progress and human responsibility for history, a certain faceless “cosmic process” and personal “moral creativity.” Instead, history is to be understood as “the mystery of salvation and the tragedy of sin.” It has no other meaning. The historian is complicit in this dilemma because his work should be evidence of it. Proclaiming a “return to the fathers” in theology, Father Georges was faithful to them in his understanding of history and the tasks of a historian.

Following Moses, theologians of the 5th and 20th centuries spoke of history as an event centered on the communication of God and man, feat and salvation. Thus, human history rises above the laws of nature, goes beyond its inherent cyclicality and strict subordination to circumstances, gives each human action the status of unique and unconditionally significance. “If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). In this understanding, human history cannot be calculated, put into a mathematical formula, but only in this understanding does it acquire its true soteriological meaning.

Fedor Gaida is Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Lomonosov Moscow State University. His research interests include, the political history of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century; Russian liberalism; power and society in a revolutionary era; Church and Revolution.

The Russian version of this article appeared in Provoslavie.

The image shows “Saint Matthew,” 13th-century Byzantine manuscript illumination.

Who Are Angels? What Are Demons?

Professor Peter Kreeft is our favorite philosopher, here at the Postil. And this lecture on angels and demons is truly one of his best. So, we thought we would share it with you. We are sure you will love his clarity and his profound, yet down-to-earth explanations, not to mention his subtle humor.

The image shows, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” by Pieter Bruegel, painted in 1562.

The Making of the Christian Mind

Courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, we are so very pleased to offer this excerpt from James Patrick’s The Making of the Christian Mind. The Adventure of the Paraclete, which is the first in a three-volume study of the creation of the Christian mind.

Dr. James Patrick has spent his life teaching, and in this book he seeks to tell on a larger scale the story of the Christian mind as it developed according to what he refers to as the “adventure” of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Christian mind moved from faithful intuition to writing and composing original ideas of concrete truths, and this in turn led to inspired foundations upon which a new kind of world became possible. Patrick does not wish the reader to think the Christian mind has ever intended to create utopia on earth or to proselytize, rather that the dynamic Christian intellect indicates a human heart made new and from this newness still spring horizons of hope and culture.

The Christian mind is, says Patrick, not only inspired and moved by the restless Paraclete, but revolves around the event of Jesus Christ. Christian history is therefore best understood not simply as chronology of events but as the vision of “the new heart in time,” one that strives to be like that of the one who sent the Spirit into history.


“Matthew: The Making Of The New Heart”

Matthew was the Gospel. When early Christian writers turned to a source of Jesus’ words and deeds it was to Matthew, or what became Matthew, that they turned. And within Matthew, their pattern of quotation suggests, they turned first to chapters five through seven, containing the Beatitudes and the dominical transformation of the law from the propositions of the Mosaic law as these were understood by the observant Jew to an interior, life-forming participation of the heart in the will of the Father. Jesus sat down, opened his mouth, and taught them. Thus began the Sermon on the Mount. Luke knows something of this text (6:20–49), but neither Mark nor John contains obvious parallels. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5–6 as he transforms the Mosaic law held a hope for the regeneration of the human heart greater than the virtuous life Aristotle had taught in his Ethics and Cicero in his On Duties.

The opening verses, the eight Beatitudes, are at the center of the moral vocabulary of Christian mankind, although on any showing they are challenging at first sight. They are not prescriptive but descriptive, proposing no course of action but promising beatitude or blessedness to those possessing the right state of soul or, as in the seventh and eighth, able to bear persecution. In this way they are truly kerygma or preaching, a proclamation describing the blessedness that accompanies those on the Christian way. The Greek makarios is sometimes translated “happy,” but “blessed” is better, for happiness is a subjective state of contentment or well-being, while blessedness is the state of being fulfilled by God at his will and in his presence. Blessedness is not a virtue, not a natural virtue that the best efforts of man can achieve at least episodically, or even a supernatural virtue given silently at baptism, but a gift following upon that supernatural infusion of grace, life lived in the Christian way, the steady result of day by day, charity-inspired cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They are echoed in what Paul knows as the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22).

In this Matthean text Jesus does not tell the disciples how to seek blessedness; he does not, as elsewhere, urge repentance. The Beatitudes are gifts, and they are proleptic, looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. Blessedness will come at Pentecost, when hearts will burn within and the question will be “Brethren, what shall we do?” Jesus is waiting: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). But now, on the threshold of the last day, is the time to prepare the disciples for the new life that is coming, to give them words that they will remember when Jesus’ first great promise, “I will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Counselor,” is fulfilled.

This is the life prophesied by Jeremiah: Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and the House of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt. [. . .] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:31–34). And Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (11:19). When Peter stood up at Pentecost he declared the descent of the Spirit to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18, Joel 2:28–32). In that Day they all will possess the Prophetic Spirit. But the new way must possess the mind as well as the heart; the gift will be fulfilled in those who have been taught: “Go, baptize, teach.”

The best of the Greeks and Romans had known that the good all men seek is not some possession extrinsic to the self but a state of soul. Aristotle’s Ethics, with a spirit echoed in Justin’s day by the stoic Epictetus, begins by asking what it is that all men seek for its own sake, not as an instrument leading to something greater such as wealth or wisdom, which we may desire because they promise happiness. Rather, happiness itself, eudaimonia, is what all men desire for its own sake. But quickly Aristotle turns to the observation that happiness is not possible without goodness.

So the Philosopher does not, as Epicurus would later, propose happiness as the complement of pleasure, but as the best state of the soul in the righteous man. And this, famously, is to be achieved not through the appropriation of theoria, not through the exercise of intellect, but through the practice of the moral virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and courage—and that not in a world-pleasing way, but as a good man might practice them. The means was the natural capacity of the self-commanding man to become virtuous. Aristotle’s Ethics is the high summary of the best of Hellenism’s moral proposals. Yet it neither elevated the eye of the soul above the realm of nature, which Aristotle would have considered impossible, nor purified the will.

When after Pentecost Christians looked at the world around them, they saw the ravages of the flaw that would be called original sin, ignorance and that deformation of the will called concupiscence, which five centuries of the best of Greek and Roman moral advice had not been able to repair. Against this was set the moral proposals and the moral power of Jesus. Christ came not only with good advice but with the ability to change hearts. And first came the revolutionary ideas found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the prophetic descriptions of the Christian life called the Beatitudes or blessedness, a reward attached to each, and then the transformation of the law from divinely given rule to the very form of the redeemed heart.

Given the classical expectation regarding happiness and virtue, Aristotle’s eudaimonia or good-spiritedness as the result of natural virtue, Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes disappoint; many would find them puzzling, some would find them impossible, for the heart of natural man does not reach out to embrace poverty of spirit and mourning, to say nothing of persecution. Yet the Beatitudes are signposts along the royal road that leads citizens of a fallen world to the vision of God, to sonship, and to citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, a description of the realm of Our Father that stands contrasted with the kingdom of the earth.

Humility, sorrow for one’s sins, gentleness, desire for God, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemaking, acceptance of persecution for Jesus’ sake; Jesus is describing God-given dispositions of the heart that may or may not always be evident to the world in actions. Indeed to the degree that any Beatitude excites public notice, it is in danger of betraying its divine purpose; humility and piety displayed already have their reward (Matt. 6:1). Later, in the series of dominical sayings beginning with “You have heard it said but I tell you,” there will be specific teaching that tells the blessed heart how to live in the world (Matt. 5:21–7:29).

The Beatitudes have been the subject of commentary by great teachers, but generations lacking scholarly insight have also understood his words as they walked in the way. Jesus, who knew what was in mankind (John 2:25), begins with the counsel that one who would be blessed will be humble, which means seeing oneself as one really is: a creature, clay in the Potter’s hands, helpless in the one thing that matters most despite possessing many impressive competencies, reliance upon which as justifying before God is always deceptive (Isa. 29:16, Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21). “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” God is forever ordering the moral universe by putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble (Luke 1:52).

Jesus reminds his followers to seek the lowest place, assuring them that the order of this world is not the order of the kingdom of heaven; there many of the first shall be last and the last first (Mark 9:35). He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:10). “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts [. . .] and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:31– 32). God’s opposition to the proud is a lesson humankind must repeatedly learn, rooted in the very nature of God, in whose sight a lie cannot stand, and who while summary of power and majesty, expresses his life in Trinitarian self-giving, the divine Son humbling himself for our sakes, “who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). To fail of humility and to cultivate pride is to fail to see things as they are; a broken and contrite heart God does not despise (Ps. 51:17).

This was the great lesson given Job, a good man, whom God never accuses of sins, but a man “wise in his own conceits” (37:24), clinging in the most subtle and unrealistic way to his own rightness before God, redeemed only when, having had his ignorance and littleness demonstrated by the Almighty most dramatically (38–41), he falls silent before the gift of the vision of God: “Now my eye sees Thee” (42:5). So, the Beatitudes open by declaring blessed one who is ptōxoi in spirit, a word for which the least dramatic definition is “poor in spirit,” but connoting a deeper range of meanings that include “crushed, beggarly, mean or low.”

The reference is clearly not to lack of this world’s goods, but to that abandonment of self which opens upon the faith of the elect. There was a reason for Saul’s having changed his name from that of the great king to Paul, which resonated with the Greek word for mean, of no account. The central psychological mystery of the religion Jesus taught is the necessity for that reordering of the soul that sees one’s self in the order of reality as of no account in the light of God’s glory, as deserving his wrath in the light of his justice.

The self-deception called pride is the natural defense of every man from this truth. Enjoying justly some human esteem, avoiding public shame, capable of good deeds—God never accused Job of moral failure— mankind will find it easy to ignore that fact that our decency is fragile, our self-interest perfect, our thirst for something other than the righteousness of God ever-present. There is a sweetness in reality, always hard for the sin-encased soul to see, and perhaps especially hard to see in an age when self-esteem is considered a cardinal virtue. But it is the locating of one’s self rightly in God’s just order that is a sign of blessedness, and this awareness of who we are is the basis of every other Beatitude and the ground of every gratitude. The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The interior greatness of every human action on earth is rooted in the acknowledged littleness of every man before the glory and majesty of God. This humility, this poverty of spirit, has as its companion the reality of sorrow for sin and sinfulness (5:5). “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” Christians are never encouraged to ruminate on past failures; we are ever to be putting behind us the past with its failure and looking to the future, “forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).

But for the burden of our actual sins, forgiven but perhaps still bearing the debt of undischarged penance, our weakness and instability in the face of temptation, not despair but holy sorrow is the medicine for the soul. The great spiritual writers seem inhumane when they counsel against light-mindedness and denounce hilarity as being inappropriate to the pilgrim, but life is in the end no laughing matter. To have holy sorrow is to begin to hate that to which we have been attracted. This is the happy sorrow that is blessed. God, we are promised, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4), but to enjoy that supernatural friendship there first must be tears of sorrow.

The word translated meek (praus) in the third Beatitude is equally well, or better, translated “gentle.” Jesus will say, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 29:11). And again Jesus quotes Isaiah: “Your king comes to you, gentle, seated upon an ass, and upon the foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:5, Is. 62:11). It is these, the meek, the gentle, who, contrary to the claims of power, will inherit the earth when it is God’s earth again. The adjective used in Matthew 5 occurs only four times in the New Testament, but as the abstract noun “gentleness” Paul includes it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

To be gentle is to refrain from using power rightly possessed to achieve a purpose that, while it may be just, reads out the moral requirement of the second commandment, love your neighbor as you love yourself, by imposing one’s own just will without mercy. Jesus assures his followers that it is not the grasping and aggressive but the gentle who will inherit the earth. The divine ground of Christian gentleness is the Lord’s willingness to show us just so much of himself as we can bear, to enwrap his power in his humility. He did not cling to his divine nature in a way that prevented his display of that divine gentleness that is the unvarying companion of his majestic justice. The images of Jesus with the woman at the well, calling little children to himself, not condemning Peter and the twelve when they cannot watch for one hour, and washing his disciples’ feet, have always engaged the Christian heart.

Gentleness is the choice of reserve rather than rashness; in its most common form it is the gentleness of politeness, standing aside for another, not claiming the highest place, that will find fruit in the gentled civilization founded upon the Beatitudes. What inheriting the earth means is surely that these will inherit the new creation when Christ returns, but it may also means that even now the gentle will know the good life of the soul as it belongs to this present age.

The fourth Beatitude describes the blessed soul as one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus is not speaking of the desire to be righteous as the Pharisees on a certain day might have understood righteousness, but of the desire to be in communion with God, to be right-hearted in relation to the creator and redeemer, which disposition has itself a justifying power. This is the desire, itself a gift of grace, that shapes life in Christ.

Whether the words belong to the playwright Robert Bolt or to a contemporary account, we are told that when Saint Thomas More mounted the scaffold he tipped the executioner with the words, “Do your work quickly for you send me to God,” to which the cleric standing by replied, “Are you so certain Sir Thomas?” More replied, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to him.” Those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied. This blessed hunger, this holy restlessness, made ever memorable by Augustine’s words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” is the gift to every person who will listen, for we will in the end achieve what we have desired.

If our wills are formed to the neglect of God who is reality, the end may be darkness and waste. But for those who can grasp just one of the rays of glory that God has scattered across the world, who can long for something other than themselves, there is the promise of satisfaction, of the fullness of which the world offers a thousand intimations.

This hunger for God leads through the trials of life to our sharing in the great banquet that every Eucharist foreshadows. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The Christian call to mercy is founded in God’s own mercy to us. That mercy, rooted in his justice, began in his will never to abandon his rebellious creation but rather to heal it through long ages. In the fullness of time his plan was perfected in the merciful gift of his Son who brought regenerating life with water and the spirit, giving those he called the white robe of justification at baptism (Tim. 1:4–7, Rev. 7:9).

At the sixteenth-century Council of Trent when, Luther’s advocacy of justification by faith alone having raised the issue, the question arose as to whether, having been made righteous once and perfectly through the gift of baptism, the wayfarer at life’s end, having marred the robe of baptismal purity, required and would be offered a second justification by the merits of Christ’s passion, the conciliar conclusion was in the negative. Christians are assured that, while called to be perfect, “If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–10).

For our post-baptismal sinfulness the Church offers the repentant the mercy of true forgiveness, sealed by the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19, John 20:19–23). And for the still imperfect heart, marked with holy sorrow and freed of any note of rebellion, there is the merciful fire of purgatory, a state imagined differently in different ages but one whose end is certain: the fruition of life in the vision of God. This is the ultimate mercy promised by the fifth Beatitude: the merciful will obtain mercy. This greatest mercy, this perfecting love, rooted in God’s own mercy, is the hope of Christians, shining down the days of every life and inspiring the gentling of the world by those who have been shown mercy. The apostle James writes, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13).

Since Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the necessary purification of the elect by fire, it has ever been the teaching of the Church that those faithful in whom love exists but which has not found full fruition will by the mercy of Christ be perfected in holiness after death (1 Cor. 3:10–15). But pure in heart we all then will be. This mercy is then the ever present background for the making of the pure heart which has as its purpose and reward the renewal of that conversation which sin interrupted in the garden. This is the mercy of the love that will not let us go until we are fit for the innumerable company of angels, the spirits of just men made perfect, and God who is the judge of all (Heb. 12:22). “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The creation of the clean heart is ever the master-work of the apostolic mission, a work which while it begins with the proclamation of the Gospel is effective in the sacraments, with the elect, God’s chosen, being perfected by the means to holiness Jesus purchased with his death, when the Holy Spirit came with his regenerating gift of baptism and with forgiveness and communion that light the Christian way.

The heart sees; it has an eye which, sin-clouded, cannot behold its maker. Purity of heart is a way, a praxis, that requires more than emptying the soul of evil like the demon-cleansed house in Matthew 12:43–45 that soon was to be filled with demons more vicious than the first. Purity of heart requires that the house of the soul be filled with the light of grace by the Holy Spirit; the human heart cannot be purified of sin without being filled by God, and then, the eye of the soul wiped clean, we will see. Peacemakers, says the seventh Beatitude, are the sons of God, whose will is that peace of the kingdom that Augustine calls the order of tranquility.

The rhetoric of the world has as its underlying purpose incitement to strife, to emulation, to aggression, to self-pity, grievance, and ultimately to perpetual warfare. God’s sons, his children, bring peace into the world by bearing rather than striking, by walking the extra mile when one has already walked as far as justice requires, by giving more than is just. The presence of evil in the world is never mitigated until it is borne. Those who enjoy the blessings of the first seven Beatitudes will be rewarded with citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and inevitably will be persecuted by that mystery of evil called the world.

For the first three centuries, and even now, faithfulness might mean death. But presently in the West that persecution will not often be with rack and rope; it cannot be resisted with any violence, only with patience and finally suffering, but it will nonetheless be real. Christians living through modernity know what it is, if not to be reviled publicly, to be held in gentle contempt and on a certain day to be thought an enemy of all that is best by one’s neighbor. Less obvious is the persecution inherent in the world that while it assaults the senses allures with the enchantment of technology’s transcendence over nature, offering comforts that often seem to render restraint and discipline pointless.

This new war with the world does not threaten with the executioner’s fire and lions, but with the subtle luring of the soul into self-willed pusillanimity. Bearing the cross and denying oneself in a culture whose ignorance of the true dimensions of life makes such actions meaningless, may seem harder to bear than the inquisitor’s fire. Yet living a life that bears witness when one can never know the world is listening makes Christians part of that great company who, beginning with the prophets whom Israel despised and persecuted, have been a light in this world, and who have ever been rewarded with the presence of God.

Jesus’ description of the gift of blessedness to the soul is followed by the images of salt and light that establish the character of Christian witness in the world. Christ’s followers are the salt of the world, and in that sense a gift to it, but if the salt has lost its savor, “What is there left to give taste to it?” It is Christian witness that lifts up the world in hope. This witness is a light that is not to be put under a barrel but lifted high, set on a lampstand so that the Christian way can shine brightly before men who see its good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

Having described the blessedness that belongs to the kingdom, its consequences for believers, persecution, and the necessity of their witness in the world, Jesus turns to the question raised persistently by the charge of the Pharisees that he and his disciples have no regard for the Law of Moses. His disciples pluck grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1); he eats with sinners, and without ritual purification (Matt. 15:1). So, Jesus will assure the Pharisees of every age: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” until the holy ones who are the citizens of the kingdom are called and fulfilled.

And then the warning and the promise to teachers: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so shall be called least in the kingdom, but who obeys them and teaches them shall be called great” (Matt. 5:13). And the new standard: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, those whose whole work is fulfilling the propositions of the law while leaving the heart in shadow, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And how is this to be achieved? By entering perfectly into the love of the Lord through the door to that interior castle, the will. Hardly a new idea: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.”

But what Jesus does not reveal in this place is the fact that this new law will require a new heart which can only be formed by his Pentecostal gift his death will bring. Six times the phrase “You have heard it said” is repeated, to be followed by “But I tell you.” What has been said by men of old is the Law of Moses. What Jesus teaches those listening is the new law of the heart that places moral weight not in good deeds, although these will follow, but in the renewed will. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, the working of the world upon us is to be borne; what makes the man is that expression of the heart that forms our words and actions (Matt. 15:11).

The renewal Christ commands surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees for it will make men and women of a flawed and fallen world citizens fit for eternal life in the kingdom of the new heart. The first contrast between what has been said and the new law teaches that the death and destruction that characterize life and history begin with contempt, anger, and insult, which can only be amended by the willingness to ask forgiveness, perhaps even when just grounds for anger are present. Be reconciled to your brother before you offer your sacrifice. Litigiousness and contentiousness unlamented lead to prison from which you will not escape until justice has been fully served (5:25–26). It is not enough to refrain from adultery; one must reject from the heart the desire for the pleasurable possession of one not yours but another’s, for the settled desire is as good as the deed done (27).

There is then the new law of language: abjure hyperbolic claims that presume a power you do not have. Jerusalem is not yours but is the city of the great king; you cannot make one hair of your head white or black (5:33–36). And do not take refuge in ambiguity; let your pledged word be sealed with a yes or no (37). This means that in the kingdom of the new heart the duty of the rhetor and the author, of every man as he speaks and writes, is to be ever obedient to the reality of the thing, whether it be an object or an idea or an emotion. And as for revenge, give it up, putting it away with the willingness to bear something, to do more than the importunate or the would-be oppressor asks. And this turns upon the extension of the second great commandment to include not only the neighbor, but the neighbor who wishes you harm (5:43–48). “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” had been at the heart of justice as the Old Covenant commended it. It was a principle of Greek morality that revenge was the justifying motive of morality, but among Jesus’ followers, something is to be borne.

Of the six contrasts through which Jesus teaches, the most shocking to his hearers was surely the abrogating of divorce, which had been allowed, as Jesus would tell his disciple in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but which now was to be done away with in obedience to God’s will as expressed in the primordial unity of man and woman in the Garden; “It was not so in the beginning” (19:8). This renewed vision of marriage would be developed by Saint Paul with the analogy of the relation of husband and wife to the indissoluble union between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:25). But in the context of Matthew 5, Jesus only teaches that, assuming the divine justice of the Edenic disposition to be true, putting a wife away inevitably sends her into another household and to another husband, if not into the street, and by doing so makes both her and the head of the household into which she may have been taken adulterers. Jesus’ teaching on divorce would be put forward fully in chapter 19:3–12, where divorce would be seen as a violation of God’s will that “the two shall become one” (5).

The disciples answered for fallen mankind: “If it is this way between a man and woman, better not marry.” This might have been said of the entire body of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If it is this way; forego revenge, love your enemies, abjure contempt and insult, walk the second mile, achieve purity of heart, who can bear it? But the divine teaching of Matthew 5 does not consist of moral maxims addressed to the world but to citizens of the kingdom of the new hearts that Pentecost will bring. These six recastings of the law in Matthew 5 offer the clear outlines of the new way of life that marks the kingdom. They are redolent of the nobility of the faith and presuppose the humility the giver of the new law displayed on the night he was betrayed (John 13:1–17).

Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside was the foundation, laying down the principles of the way that would blossom from his words after his sacrifice made the new heart a possibility and a reality through the gift of the indwelling Advocate and Comforter at Pentecost. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Spirit comes with power to confirm memory and to lead into all truth, to comfort, to convict, and to convert, and to give the peace the world cannot give, and finally, our work done, to bring us to himself.

The Holy Spirit redefines the meaning of life and of history. Sin is now not simply a violation of the law but failure to believe Christ’s words and to accept the gifts that make for holiness. Righteousness is rightness of the heart formed by faith and by participation in Christ through his sacramental gifts so as to become a new creature. Mankind is made for the holiness that pleases God, enabling the sons of Adam at last to enter the conversation that was forestalled when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.

The entire Pentecostal faith, with its promise of forgiveness and the reward of communion introduced the waiting world to the great adventure that gave every man the possibility of becoming a new creature. Thus it would be that when Christians began to write they would turn to this text, to Matthew 5 and 6, to discover the foundations of the kingdom of the new heart. Other Matthean texts would be cited by writers of the post-apostolic age, the apocalypse of chapters twenty-four and twenty-five would find a permanent place in Christian faith, and the Gospel parables have never ceased to form Christian conscience and imagination: the wicked servant who, having been mercifully forgiven his debt, grasps his fellow servant by the throat demanding payment of the small debt owed him (18:20–35); the householder who gave those who had labored little as much as those who had labored long because it was his to be gracious as he chose (20:1–16); the king who gave a wedding feast to which many refused to come, and one who did was cast out as not being properly attired (22:1–14); and the parable of the talents.

These would always engage and teach, but it was the words of Chapters 5 and 6 that rippled out from a mountainside in Galilee to make a new world. The teaching of the new way issued in a new piety, with prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice; things not to be done in order to be seen by men or to earn their approval, but privately and without calculation (6:1–15). Jesus’ followers do not need to storm heaven with many words, for they do not like the prophets of Baal need to arouse God with their shouts. Christian prayer is made in the knowledge that Our Father in heaven knows what we and every other creature needs this day, for the new heart beats within its living relationship to the ever-providential God who made it.

The first petition of the great prayer recognizes with praise that God’s name, that is his being, is holy, asking that his will, reigning gloriously in heaven, may soon be perfected in the Church and in the world. The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” have been variously understood because the word for “daily” may be understood to mean “supersubstantial” rather than daily in the ordinary sense, so that the prayer for daily bread refers as well to Eucharistic bread.

There follows the petition that our debts or transgressions may be forgiven as we forgive others, a reference to both the fifth Beatitude above and to 6:14–15 below. “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you.” Always considered the first Gospel, Matthew, with the Beatitudes and Jesus’ perfecting of the law, “You have heard it said of old, but I tell you,” laid the foundation for the life of the new heart that his sacrifice would bring to the world, accomplishing in the elect the perfect virtue that the philosophers and Pharisees had foreseen but which the fallen could never accomplish apart from the cross of Christ and the regenerating Pentecostal gift he bought.

When Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee to teach, his words made a new world.

The image shows, “Sermon on the Mount,” by Ivan Makarov, painted in 1889.

What Is Byzantine?

On May 11, 330 AD, on the European coast of the Bosporus, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great solemnly founded the new capital of the empire – Constantinople (or, to be precise, and use its official name at that time – New Rome). The emperor did not create a new state: Byzantium in the exact sense of the word was not the successor of the Roman Empire, it was itself – Rome. The word “Byzantium” appeared only in the West during the Renaissance. The Byzantines called themselves Romans; their country they called the Roman Empire. Constantine’s intentions corresponded to this name. New Rome was erected at a major crossroads of major trade routes and was originally planned as the greatest of cities. Built in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was the tallest architectural structure on the earth for over a thousand years, and its beauty was compared to Heaven.

Until the middle of the 12th century, New Rome was the main trading hub of the planet. Before the destruction by the crusaders in 1204, it was also the most populated city in Europe. Later, especially in the last century and a half, centers of greater importance, in the economic sense, appeared on the globe. But even in our time, the strategic importance of this place would be difficult to overestimate.

Possessing the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, meant owning the entire Near and Middle East; and this is the heart of Eurasia and the entire Old World. In the 19th century, the British Empire was the real master of the straits, protecting this place from Russia even at the cost of an open military conflict (the Crimean War of 1853-1856, and the possibility of war in 1836 or 1878). For Russia, it was not just a matter of “historical heritage,” but the ability to control its southern borders and main flow of trade.

After 1945, the keys to the straits were in the hands of the United States, and the deployment of American nuclear weapons in this region, as we know, immediately caused the appearance of Soviet missiles in Cuba and provoked the Cuban missile crisis. The USSR agreed to retreat only after the US nuclear potential in Turkey was phased out. Nowadays, the issues of Turkey’s entry into the European Union and its foreign policy in Asia are the primary problems for the West.

They Only Dreamed Of Peace

New Rome received a rich legacy. However, this also became its main “headache.” In the modern world there were too many applicants for the appropriation of this inheritance. It is difficult to recall even one long period of calm on the Byzantine borders; the empire was in mortal danger at least once each century.

Until the 7th century, the Romans along the perimeter of all their borders fought the most difficult wars with the Persians, Goths, Vandals, Slavs and Avars, and ultimately the confrontation ended in favor of New Rome. This happened very often: young and fresh peoples who fought with the empire went into historical oblivion, and the empire itself, ancient and almost defeated, licked its wounds and continued to live. Then, the former enemies were replaced by the Arabs from the south, the Lombards from the west, the Bulgarians from the north, and the Khazars from the east, and a new centuries-old confrontation began. As the new opponents weakened, they were replaced in the north by the Rus, Hungarians, Pechenegs, Polovtsians, in the east by the Seljuk Turks, in the west by the Normans.

In the fight against enemies, the empire used force, honed over centuries of diplomacy, intelligence, military cunning, and sometimes the services of allies. The last resort was double-edged and extremely dangerous. The crusaders who fought with the Seljuks were extremely burdensome and dangerous allies for the empire – and this alliance ended with the first fall of Constantinople: the city, which had successfully fought off any attacks and sieges for almost a thousand years, was brutally ravaged by its “friends.”

Its further existence, even after the liberation from the crusaders, was only a shadow of the previous glory. But just at this time, the last and most cruel enemy appeared – the Ottoman Turks, who surpassed all previous enemies in their military qualities. The Europeans really got ahead of the Ottomans in military affairs only in the 18th century – and the Russians were the first to do this; and the first commander who dared to appear in the inner regions of the Sultan empire was Count Peter Rumyantsev, for which he received the honorary name the Transdanubian.

Irrepressible Subjects

The internal state of the Roman Empire was also never calm. Its state territory was extremely heterogeneous. At one time, the Roman Empire maintained unity through superior military, commercial and cultural potential. The legal system (the famous Roman law, finally codified in Byzantium) was the most perfect in the world. For several centuries (since the time of Spartacus) Rome, within which more than a quarter of all mankind lived, was not threatened by a single serious danger.

Wars were fought on distant borders – in Germany, Armenia, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Rather, internal decay, a crisis in the army and a weakening of trade led to disintegration. Only from the end of the 4th century did the situation on the borders become critical. The need to repel barbaric invasions, from different directions, inevitably led to the division of power in a huge empire among several peoples. However, this also had negative consequences – internal confrontation among these people, further weakening of ties, and the desire to “privatize” their piece of imperial territory. As a result, by the 5th century, the final division of the Roman Empire became a fact, but did not alleviate the situation.

The eastern half of the Roman Empire was more populated and Christianized (by the time of Constantine the Great, Christians, despite persecution, already comprised more than 10% of the population), but in itself did not constitute an organic whole. An amazing ethnic diversity reigned in the state: Greeks, Syrians, Copts, Arabs, Armenians, Illyrians lived here; soon there were Slavs, Germans, Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, Turks, Italians and many other nationalities, from whom only the confession of true faith and submission to the imperial power were required. Its richest provinces – Egypt and Syria – were geographically too remote from the capital, fenced off by mountain ranges and deserts. Maritime communication with them, as trade declined and piracy flourished, became more and more difficult.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of the population in Egypt and Syria were adherents of the Monophysite heresy. After the victory of Orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a powerful uprising broke out in these provinces, which was suppressed with great difficulty. Less than 200 years later, the Monophysites greeted the Arab “liberators” with joy and subsequently converted to Islam relatively painlessly.

The western and central provinces of the empire, primarily the Balkans, but also Asia Minor, for many centuries experienced a massive influx of barbarian tribes – Germans, Slavs, and Turks. Emperor Justinian the Great in the 6th century tried to push the state boundaries in the west and restore the Roman Empire within its “natural borders,” but this led to colossal efforts and costs. Then, a century later, Byzantium was forced to shrink to the limits of its “state core,” mainly inhabited by Greeks and Hellenized Slavs. This area included the west of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, the Balkans, and southern Italy. The further struggle for existence was mainly taking place in this territory.

The People And The Army Are One

Constant struggle required constant maintenance of defenses. The Roman Empire was forced to revive the peasant militia and the heavily armed cavalry army, characteristic of ancient Rome of the republican period, to re-create and maintain a powerful navy at the state’s expense.

Defense had always been the main expense of the treasury and the main burden for the taxpayer. The state always ensured that the peasants retained their combat capability; and, therefore, in every possible way strengthened the community, preventing its disintegration. The state struggled with the excessive concentration of wealth, including land, in private hands. Government price regulation was a very important part pf policy. The powerful state apparatus, of course, gave rise to the omnipotence of officials and large-scale corruption. Active emperors fought against abuse; inept emperors brought about troubles.

Of course, weakened social stratification and limited competition slowed down the pace of economic development, but the fact of the matter is the empire had more important tasks to look after. It was not to ensure a good life that the Byzantines equipped their armed forces with all sorts of technical innovations and many types of weapons, the most famous of which was “Greek fire,” invented in the 7th century, which gave more than one victory to the Romans.

The army of the empire retained its fighting spirit until the second half of the 12th century, when it gave way to foreign mercenaries. The Treasury began to spend less, and the risk of falling into the hands of the enemy increased immeasurably. Let us recall the classic expression of one of the recognized experts on the issue – Napoleon Bonaparte: the people who do not want to feed their army will feed someone else’s. From that time on, the empire began to depend on Western “friends,” who immediately showed just how friendly they could be.

Autocracy As Necessity

The circumstances of Byzantine life strengthened the conscious need for the autocratic power of the emperor. But too much depended on his personality, character, abilities. That is why the empire developed a flexible system of transferring supreme power. In specific circumstances, power could be transferred not only to the son, but also to the nephew, son-in-law, brother-in-law, husband, adopted successor, even to the emperor’s own father or mother. The transfer of power was consolidated by the decision of the Senate and the army, popular approval, church wedding (from the 10th century, the practice of imperial chrismation was also introduced, borrowed from the West).

As a result, imperial dynasties rarely saw centenaries; only the most talented among them – the Macedonian dynasty managed to hold out for almost two centuries – from 867 to 1056. A person of low origin, who was promoted thanks to one or another talent (for example, Leo I, the butcher from Dacia; Justin I, a commoner from Dalmatia and the uncle of Justinian the Great; or the son of an Armenian peasant. Basil the Macedonian, the founder of that very Macedonian dynasty) could also be on the throne.

The tradition of co-government was highly developed (co-rulers sat on the Byzantine throne for about two hundred years). Power had to be firmly held – in the entire Byzantine history, there were about forty successful coups d’état; usually they ended with the death of the defeated ruler, or his removal to a monastery. Only half of the emperors died on the throne.

Empire As A Katechon

The very existence of the empire was for Byzantium more a duty and a debt than an advantage or a rational choice. The ancient world, the only direct heir of which was the Empire of the Romans, became the historical past. However, its cultural and political heritage became the foundation of Byzantium.

Since the time of Constantine, the empire had also been a stronghold of the Christian faith. The state political doctrine was based on the idea of ​​the empire as a “katechon” – the keeper of the true faith. The barbarian Germans, who filled the entire western part of the Roman oecumene, adopted Christianity, but in the Arian heretical version. The only major “acquisitions” of the Ecumenical Church in the West, until the 8th century, were the Franks.

Having accepted the Nicene Creed, the Frankish king Clovis immediately received the spiritual and political support of the Roman Patriarch-Pope and the Byzantine emperor. From this began the growth of the power of the Franks in western Europe: Clovis was granted the title of Byzantine patrician, and his distant heir Charlemagne, three centuries later, wanted to be called the emperor of the West.

The Byzantine mission of that period could well compete with the Western one. Missionaries of the Church of Constantinople preached in the area of ​​Central and Eastern Europe – from Bohemia to Novgorod and Khazaria; the English and Irish local Churches maintained close contacts with the Byzantine Church. However, papal Rome quite early became jealous of competitors and expelled them by force; and soon the mission itself in the papal West acquired an openly aggressive character and predominantly political task. The first large-scale action, after the fall of Rome from Orthodoxy, was the papal blessing of William the Conqueror to march to England in 1066. After that, many representatives of the Orthodox Anglo-Saxon nobility were forced to emigrate to Constantinople.

Within the Byzantine Empire itself, there were heated debates on religious grounds; and among the people, now in power, heretical trends arose. Under the influence of Islam, the emperors began iconoclastic persecutions in the 8th century, which provoked resistance from the Orthodox people. In the 13th century, out of a desire to strengthen relations with the Catholic world, the government went to union, but again did not receive support. All attempts to “reform” Orthodoxy on the basis of opportunistic considerations, or to bring it to conform to “earthly standards” have failed. The new union in the 15th century, concluded under the threat of the Ottoman conquest, could no longer ensure even political success. Such a union became history’s bitter grin at the vain ambitions of the rulers.

What Is The Advantage Of The West?

When and in what ways did the West begin to gain the upper hand? As always, in economics and technology. In the field of culture and law, science and education, literature and art, Byzantium, until the 12th century easily competed or far outstripped its western neighbors. The powerful cultural influence of Byzantium was felt in the West and East far beyond its borders – in Arab Spain and Norman Britain, and in Catholic Italy it dominated until the Renaissance. However, due to the very conditions of existence of the empire, it could not boast of any special socio-economic success.

In addition, Italy and Southern France were initially more favorable for agricultural activities than the Balkans and Asia Minor. In the 12th-14th centuries in Western Europe there was a rapid economic upturn – the kind that did not exist since ancient times and will not be seen again until the 18th century. It was the heyday of feudalism, papacy and chivalry. It was at this time that a special feudal structure of Western European society, with its estate-corporate rights and contractual relations, arose and took root (the modern West came out of this).

Western influence on the Byzantine emperors from the Komnenian dynasty in the 12th century was strongest – they copied Western military art, Western fashion, and for a long time acted as allies of the crusaders. The Byzantine fleet, so burdensome for the treasury, was dissolved. Its place was taken by flotillas of the Venetians and the Genoese. The emperors cherished the hope of overcoming the not-so-long-ago falling away of papal Rome. However, strengthened Rome by now recognized only complete submission to its will. The West marveled at the imperial brilliance and, in justification of its aggressiveness, loudly resented the duplicity and depravity of the Greeks.

Did the Greeks drown in debauchery? Sin coexisted with grace. The horrors of palaces and city squares were interspersed with the genuine sanctity of the monasteries and the sincere piety of the laity. This is evidenced by the lives of the saints, liturgical texts, lofty and unmatched Byzantine art. But the temptations were very strong.

After the defeat of 1204 in Byzantium, the pro-Western trend only intensified – young people went to study in Italy; and among the intelligentsia there was a craving for the pagan Hellenic tradition. Philosophical rationalism and European scholasticism (based on the same pagan scholarship) began to be viewed in this environment as higher and more refined teachings than patristic ascetic theology. Intellect prevailed over Revelation, individualism over Christian exploit. Later, these tendencies, together with the Greeks who moved to the West, would greatly contribute to the development of the Western European Renaissance.

Historical Scale

The empire survived the fight against the crusaders. On the Asian coast of the Bosporus, opposite the defeated Constantinople, the Romans retained their territory and proclaimed a new emperor. Half a century later, the capital was liberated and held out for another 200 years. However, the territory of the revived empire was practically reduced to the greatest city, several islands in the Aegean Sea and small territories in Greece. But even without this epilogue, the Empire of the Romans existed for almost a whole millennium.

In this case, one can even ignore the fact that Byzantium directly continued ancient Roman statehood, and considered the foundation of Rome in 753 BC to be its birth. Even without these reservations, there is no other such example in world history. Empires have existed for years (Napoleon’s Empire: 1804–1814), for decades (German Empire: 1871–1918), at best for centuries. The Han Empire in China existed for four centuries; the Ottoman Empire and the Arab Caliphate a little more, but by the end of their life cycle they became only a part of the story of empires. The West-based Holy Roman Empire of the German nation was also a fiction for most of its existence.

There are not so many countries in the world that claimed imperial status and then continuously existed for a thousand years. Finally, Byzantium and its historical predecessor – ancient Rome – also demonstrated a “world record” for survival – any state on earth withstood, at best, one or two global alien invasions – Byzantium withstood many more. Only Russia can be compared with Byzantium.

Why Did Byzantium Fall?

Her successors have answered this question in different ways. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Pskov elder Philotheus believed that Byzantium, having accepted the union, had betrayed Orthodoxy, and this was the reason for its death. However, he argued that the death of Byzantium was conditional: the status of the Orthodox Empire was transferred to the only remaining sovereign Orthodox state – Moscow.

In this, according to Philotheus, there was no merit of the Russians themselves, such was God’s will. However, the fate of the world now depended on the Russians – if Orthodoxy falls in Russia, then the world will soon end with it. Thus, Philotheus warned Moscow about its great historical and religious responsibility. The Palaeologus coat of arms inherited by Russia – the double-headed eagle – is a symbol of such responsibility, a heavy cross of the imperial burden.

The elder’s younger contemporary Ivan Timofeev, a professional warrior, pointed to other reasons for the fall of the empire: the emperors, trusting in flattering and irresponsible advisers, despised military affairs and lost their combat readiness. Peter the Great also spoke about the sad Byzantine example of the loss of fighting spirit, which became the cause of the death of the great empire, in a solemn speech delivered in the presence of the Senate, Synod and generals in the Trinity Cathedral of St. Petersburg on October 22, 1721, on the day of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, when he became king and received the imperial title.

As we can see, all three – the elder, the warrior and the newly proclaimed emperor – had in mind similar things, only in different aspects. The power of the Empire of the Romans rested on a strong power, a strong army and the loyalty of its subjects. But all of them had to have a firm and true faith as the foundation. And in this sense, the empire, or rather all the people who made it up, always balanced between Eternity and death.

The constant relevance of this choice is an amazing and unique aspect of Byzantine history. In other words, this story in all its light and dark sides is a vivid testimony to the correctness of the saying from the rite of the Triumph of Orthodoxy: “This is the apostolic faith, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the Orthodox faith, confirm this universal faith!”

Fedor Gaida is Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Lomonosov Moscow State University. His research interests include, the political history of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century; Russian liberalism; power and society in a revolutionary era; Church and Revolution.

The image shows, “The Anastasis,” a wall painting from the Parekklesion of the Chora Monastery, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 1321.

The Russian version of this article appeared in Provoslavie.