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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that the disgraceful year 2020 is finally gone, with its endless stream of deaths and grievance, we can properly look at what it brought us (Covid, lockdown, unemployment, etc.) and also what it stole from us. I firmly believe that like health and food, culture too is an essential nourishment for our lives, and any time we are deprived of it, we feel miserable and sick.
In Italy two great cultural events had been set for 2020 that were either cancelled or went unnoticed: the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, and the introduction of Dante Day (Dante Dì), the official day to celebrate the immortal creator of the Divine Comedy. Yes, you read that right – until last year, in Italy, there was no official day to celebrate Italy’s greatest poet, and arguably one the greatest poet of all time.
The official dates were the 6th of April to celebrate the anniversary of Raphael, and the 25th of March to remember Dante. Now, these dates were very interesting because both men, by a surprising coincidence, have a connection to Good Friday. According to Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, Raphael was born on the night of Good Friday March 28, 1483 and died on Good Friday April 6, 1520. What an amazing coincidence for a man whose family name was Santi (Saints), which was then latinized into Sancti, and from this to the current Sanzio. And of course, almost all scholars agree that Dante began his fictitious travel into the Three Realms on Good Friday March 25 of the jubilee year 1300. Luckily enough, the official Italian committee discarded the death date of the bard on September 14 because it did not fit properly into the school time calendar. Sometimes obtuse bureaucracy helps!
As for the Raphael celebration, the best painting exhibition ever, collecting the greatest works of the master from museums all over the world, was organized in Rome at the Quirinal Palace. But, alas, it opened just few days before the first Covid outburst and was then sadly shut down a couple of weeks later in the midst of the first terrible stint of the pandemic in Italy. There will not be a second chance for this gorgeous Raphael show.
For Dante Day plenty of cultural events were planned involving scholars, school students, TV actors and ordinary citizens. Readings from the Divine Comedy should have taken place in the most iconic Italian piazze, where schools were invited to feature exhibitions on Dante, and TV was expected to provide huge coverage of the widespread festivities.
All these events were simply obliterated by the surging of the pandemic. In the only event downsized permitted, single citizens were invited to recite, from their windows or balconies, a few tercets of “Paolo and Francesca,” all together at 6:00 PM on March 25. I did that, and posted the recording to social media – and found out that the anniversary was not that popular among my connections. Never mind, next year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante and luckily enough Covid 19 will give us a break by September 14.
But it is not only the sheer coincidence of calendar dates that links these two undisputed geniuses – men of different centuries, genuine children of their time and culture, with very different characters. But both also contributed immensely to elevate our poor humanity towards the perception and appreciation of divinity.
Raphael is unanimously considered the peak of Renaissance painting, capable of shifting Leonardo’s sfumato technique into astonishingly natural and beautiful reality. If ever the Italian Renaissance has meant grace, beauty, harmony, naturality, Raphael is the true and complete achievement of it. Just imagine, from the moment he died in 1520 until the Impressionist revolution in the mid-19th century, his work was the inspiration and touchstone for all painting academies in all countries of the western world. His cycle of Madonna and child Jesus simply set forever the iconographic standard for this holy representation, and you can find a copy of one of them in almost any Italian Christian home. But Raphael is also the creator of the Stanze di Raffaello (the Raphael Rooms), where he mastered his refined art into a theological and compositional complexity that attained unequalled heights in the history of art.
Raphael was a good Christian, and this must not be taken for grant, even in the pope-ruled Rome of the early 16th century. The story goes that on Good Friday 1520, sensing his end, Raphael asked that his last masterpiece, The Transfiguration, be brought into his room and hung on the wall in front of him. There is no doubt about the reason – looking at the beautiful radiant Christ, he was already savouring the glory of his encounter with Him. When you survey the entirety of western Christian figurative production, it is hard to find as glorious and serene an image of the defeat of death, of which The Transfiguration is both a pledge and promise.
I do not know Raphael’s biography so well as to appraise the depth of his religious feeling and belief. However, it is unquestionable that the Holy Spirit guided his hand and heart in the short span of his life.
Unveiling the presence of divinity in Dante is a much easier job, starting from the very title of his masterpiece The Comedy soon after labelled as Divine by his great contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio, partially because of the theme of the composition but mostly for the unrivalled poetic heights the work accomplished. Some passages warmed our youthful reading (“Paolo and Francesca,” “the voyage of Ulysses,” “Count Ugolino,” and the “Hymn to the Virgin”), others led and transformed our mature-years through a more Christian and mediated reading of Purgatory and Paradise canticles.
And we really do not care if, in praising the institution of Dante Day, the complete host of Italian intelligentsia saluted “The Father of the Italian Language,” “The very first Italian,” and “The founder of European identity.” For us he will be forever the poet who amazingly translated the truths of our faith into exultations of the heart and tears of love: “l’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.” The work of Dante is always so divinely inspired and filled with poetical miracles that he deserves to stay on the calendar regardless of a questionable civil beatification. In this terrible pandemic times we all, we believers first, should start back from where he commenced his journey: “Miserere di me”.
God is a loving Father and an excellent Teacher; He can use many different ways to show us the path to paradise. Among them all, the human longing for beauty sublimely initiates our earthly journey to the glory of celestial infinity. Bless Him for spreading our road with so many friendly and inspiring companions!
Maurizio Mandelli is a businessman by trade and enthusiastic amateur scholar of local history and the arts. He has published two books (War of the Spanish Succession in Lombardy and The Italian Campaign of Napoleon III). He is a regular contributor to local magazines on religion, ethics, society, history and the arts.
The image shows, “The Transfiguration,” by Raphael, painted ca. 1518-1520.
Dr. Maspero is a priest, theologian and physicist who embarks on a study of the Trinity – the Christian triune God – and in a single narrative pieces together the classical metaphysics, revealed truths and Patristic apologetic theology that directed the development of Trinitarian dogma.A highlight of this work is Dr. Maspero’s reliance on Mary, Theotokos, in his presentation of Trinitarian theology, the person who first opened herself to this manner of thinking. We encourage our readers to read this important book.
“The Trinitarian Conception Of Man And The World”
The Trinity And The World
Thus far, we have seen how the revelation of the Trinity has challenged man’s thought, which through faith has been opened up toward a unity that is not solitude, but communion – a unity that is a trinity, not in a paradoxical sense, but as the foundation and source of all other unity. Classical philosophy could not comprehend it and therefore assumed a model of unity taken empirically from nature. Christian doctrine had to replace this model with that of the unity of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the question of the one and the triune, the relationship between God and the world is at stake. Theology has had to learn how not to reduce the Trinity to the categories of thought derived from natural observation, and instead to modify its own conceptual instruments so as to take account of the unimaginable Truth encountered in Christ. When this was accomplished, it became possible to go back and reread the world, beginning with its constitutive relationship with the Trinity itself.
To do this, however, it is necessary to think about being in an analogical sense because the world is not the Trinity. What is true for God does not necessarily apply to man. That is why, as has been seen repeatedly, to speak about the Triune God we must eliminate any linguistic references to movement, time or ontological distinction. In fact, the heresies indicate critical moments of this process, moments that served as stimuli for further investigation and favored a purification of theological thought.
Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite, a mysterious author of the fifth or sixth century, described the process of this development as three-fold. The first phase is constituted by the affirmation of some perfection of God or by the application to Him of a certain concept like procession or generation. This phase must be followed immediately by a second phase, which is a negation insofar as that reality is not present in God with the limits found in nature. This culminates in a final phase that acknowledges the eminence of God, in which He is recognized as the source of all partial realizations of that reality, though it is perfectly possessed by God and lies beyond any human conception. For example, if we affirm that God is great, we must simultaneously deny that He is ‘great’ in the material sense of the word, so as to then conclude that He is great inasmuch as He is the eternal source of every greatness. So, in a seemingly paradoxical way, we can also say that God is small because being small can be understood as perfection––here we might think of the possibility of nearness or being inside, something that smallness implies even at the material level. God is the source of every perfection so that one can purify smallness in such a way as to recognize God as its origin. That is why the divine attributes coincide with one another just as the rays of the sun converge and are unified in their source. God is, then, both small and great, and yet remains without contradiction.
The task of theology, therefore, consists in the development of thought that does not explain or reduce the Mystery but causes it to emerge in a formulation that is increasingly less inadequate. This happens when one is able to show a certain aspect of God as the source of perfections found in nature, and of those perfections recognized by philosophy and the other human sciences. That is why the essence of theology demands harmony with the other disciplines.
The work of the theologian must simultaneously maintain the presence of two extremes: a) The being of God belongs to a different ontological sphere from that of the world, a sphere that we can know only in part through what God has willed to reveal about Himself, but which we do not possess and experience directly; b) Creation reflects the perfections of its Creator, and man reflects this perfection to the utmost because he is created in the image and likeness of the Trinity itself.
Therefore, we must be very cautious when we attribute to God realities that have a specific realization on the natural level. For example, if being a father at the created level is impossible without the presence of a wife and mother, this does not mean that in God there must be a bride. At the same time, we must also bear in mind that the transition from God to the world cannot be equivocal, for what we have come to know in God through revelation is inevitably reflected as perfection in creation. A further example may clarify this: It is said that God does not have relations, rather is three eternal relations. We humans, on the other hand, have relations but we do not identify ourselves with our relations. Yet, for a human person, perfection should be found in his or her relations precisely because God is the source of every perfection. Hence, the father of a family will become himself much more fully by giving himself completely to his children, and therefore growing in his identification with his relation of fatherhood rather than through the achievement of extraordinary professional success if this distances him from his relations. Work is good when it serves fundamental relations but is negative when it distances one from them, regardless of any economic prosperity.
Persons And Relation
This vision is linked to the personal dimension which is the key to the formulation of the unity and trinity of God. One of the peaks of Trinitarian reflection has been the work done to achieve an adequate definition of the word “person” that can be applied analogically to both man and God.
We can see how in antiquity this concept was linked to multiplicity and imperfection, and so could not be applied to God. The early Fathers, such as Justin, were still affected by this difficulty when they stated that the Son is a person because He manifests Himself and enters into relation with man and creation whereas the Father cannot be a person.
Boethius (†525) offers the initial definition: Individual substance of a rational nature (De duabus naturis, 3). The fundamental element of his definition of person is substance which takes account of individuality. Here, he reflects the original identification of ousia and hypostasis, with an apparent equivalence of the latter to substance. Later, theological reflection understood that it was necessary to distinguish hypostasis from ousia in God. At the human level, however, there is evidently still equivalence, for every human person is a distinct substance with respect to other human persons. In Boethius’ definition, if distinction is bound to substantiality, then the dimension of communion is brought back to the rational nature in that it is precisely the reason and the word that allow for the possibility of entering into relation.
In the twelfth century, Richard of St. Victor (†1173) exposed the limits of the Boethian definition. Though correct when applied to man, it breaks down when applied to God who is three Persons but not three substances. This is why Richard formulated a new definition: incommunicable existence proper to the divine nature (De Trinitate, IV, 22). So as to overcome the problem of Boethius’ definition, he replaces substance with existence, referring this term, according to its etymology (ex–sistentia), to the being from (ex) another. Thus, the existence of the Father would consist of his not being from anyone, that of the Son would consist of being from the Father, and that of the Holy Spirit of being from the two first divine Persons. In this way, the noun used––existence––makes direct reference to communion and relation whereas the adjective incommunicable guarantees the distinction. This definition was a clear step forward, but it also had an obvious limit. It could be applied only to God because the existence of human persons is not like that of God in Whom each Person is exclusively distinct by His relation of origin in the other Persons of the Trinity, yet still identified with the single substance. The additional specification unique to the divine nature was necessary to avoid every possible misunderstanding. The definition, then, cannot be applied to man but only to the Trinity.
Ultimately, it is Thomas Aquinas who offers a definition that can be applied to both the creature and the Creator. He modifies Boethius’ definition in the following way: The person is the subsistent of a rational nature (ST I, 29, a. 3, ad 3). Substance is replaced by the present participle of the verb to subsist, a verb that means ‘to have one’s own being in oneself’. This is why the definition is appropriate to the divine Persons, who are identified with the one substance that is Being itself, and therefore have no accidents. In this way, Thomas expresses what Boethius intended, though without using the term substance, which cannot be said of God in the plural. Furthermore, the use of the verb in its present participle refers directly to the subject of an action that in God is eternal. Obviously, when we speak about man, the dimension of eternity is not present, even though the definition applies to him perfectly.
Thus, Aquinas’ theology succeeded in finding a formulation that is extended analogically to different levels of being, thus displaying the continuity between God and His image. Clearly, the divine Persons have subsistence in a perfect way to the extent of being identified with their relation of origin. Therefore, with respect to the Trinity, Aquinas’ definition can be combined with another, which applies only to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The divine Person, is, in fact, relation inasmuch as it is subsistent (ST I, 29, a. 4, ad 3). If on the level of creation relation is an accident, in God it obviously is not, and is instead identified with the fullness of Being. This step forward is possible because relation is a pure reference to another reality that does not of itself modify the substance. So the Father is Fatherhood and in Him there is nothing else: The first Person does not give merely something to the other two, but gives Himself and is identified with the divine substance precisely in being the eternal source of this gift of Himself, of the gift of His divinity. So, too, is the Son none other than Sonship. Therefore, He is the divine substance received as a gift from the Father and given back to Him. And in this total giving back the gift of Himself the second Person is the image of the first. Lastly, the Holy Spirit is pure Spiration, that is, divine substance in being the eternal Gift that the Father and Son exchange between themselves.
Within man, the relationship between substance and relation is different than what it is with God. Whereas in the Trinity the Person refers directly to the relation and only indirectly to the substance, for us person points to substance in the first place and then, only indirectly, to relation. This is due to the imperfection of man who is called to become divinized by the Holy Spirit that he might grow in the image and likeness of God. This is something that anyone might experience by contemplating the saints, who were gradually identified with their relation to God and who gave their lives in love. This is demonstrated through the same bond of ultimate love that a person shows by giving his life for his friends, as Christ indicated in his farewell discourse during the Last Supper as the meaning of his life and the Paschal Mystery (John 15:13). This is not something merely moral. Instead, it is a journey towards full identity with the incarnate Son who came into the world to draw man into the Most Blessed Trinity and so bestow upon him eternal life. Man does not lose himself in giving himself, opening himself and allowing himself to enter into relation with the other, even if this means allowing himself to be wounded to stay true to that relation. For Being, the source of every being and every life, is relation.
Fatherhood And Sonship
The fundamental importance of the relational dimension was also grasped by the phenomenological research of the last century, and in unexpected areas of inquiry. For example, in an explicitly non-Christian context, psychoanalysis traces psychological pathologies back to an origin in wounds at the level of a person’s fundamental relations. In order to understand man, one must begin from the fact of his being son.
It is essential, therefore, to know the Father and the Son and contemplate them more fully. The Trinity is not an abstract reality, a complex theological doctrine far removed from us. Rather, it is the source of our very being as well as our deepest aspirations. We are from the Trinity and for the Trinity. The bosom of the Father is our home and the ultimate source of our identity, for from Him stems all fatherhood in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:14–15).
In fact, the Father is the divine Person who is the origin and source of everything. The Son and the Spirit have their origin from Him in eternity, and that is why creation, which is the work of the whole Trinity, also has its ultimate origin in the plan of the Father. He is Origin without origin. According to the Athanasian creed, He was neither made by anyone, nor created, nor generated. Inasmuch as He is the source of fullness, the first Person is the true foundation of divine unity. One could say that calling God one because He is triune is tantamount to saying that God is one because He is Father. In fact, being Father implies the existence of a Son and the being bound to Him by Love. It is here that one sees the ontological newness represented by the personal and relational dimension, known to us only through revelation.
The fatherhood of the first Person is absolute in the sense that He is infinitely Father. That is why he is fully involved in the generation of the Son. He never existed without the Son. He did not become a Father, He is Father, pure and eternal relation to the Son and His Love. Moreover, he is so fully Father that he alone generates an Only Begotten Son who, in turn, is perfectly identified with His very same divinity, with the divine substance.
The Son is fully Son: In Him there exists only the eternal receiving of Himself from the Father and the eternal orientation toward the Father. The second Person is pure being from and being for the Father, according to a beautiful expression of J. Ratzinger (Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004, pp. 186–189). The Son is always perfectly and continually generated in eternity, without this implying imperfection or movement from potency to act but only fullness and depth of relation with the Father. The very use of the passive to indicate being generated is due to the limitations of our language, for in itself the Son’s being generated is active and not passive. In God, to receive is not something “to which one is subjected”, but the welcoming of a gift, a welcoming that constitutes the Giving as such. The language of gift helps because even among humans accepting a present is an active process. The same can be said for call and answer. Thus, the Father is Father because He generates the Son, but is also the Father because the Son accepts the Gift and, in a way that we are unable to express adequately, it is precisely the Son who makes the first Person Father. Hence, their relationship is an eternal gift of self, which, on the part of the Father, possesses the characteristics of origin and source while, on the part of the Son, it is an eternal giving back of the Gift.
Hence, the Son is also called the image of the Father (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3). Just as the Father gives of Himself, so also the Son is His image precisely in the giving-back of Himself to the Father. He does not keep the Gift but gives of His own self to the Father in return. Though He is Life, He does live alone. Rather, He places Himself back in the hands of the source of Life.
This is also expressed in the name the Word, which is attributed to the second Person. Yet this name adds the reference to the purely spiritual dimension of the generation. This procession is analogous to the cognitive act of man because man too when he knows something has within himself, in his interior, an image of the known object. When man knows himself, the image that he forms of himself is intimate to the man himself and in an imperfect way is that man. Obviously, in God, the thought He has of Himself in knowing Himself is not only a concept. This thought is God Himself because here the act of knowing is utterly perfect. The Son is, then, the Thought of the Father. Clearly, this is only an analogy inasmuch as in man the concept that he forms is accidental and linked to the need to know, whereas in the Trinity it is the fruit of a perfect act of pure cognitive fertility.
Insistence on the Gift of Self is essential in understanding the significance of the new reality that has been revealed. There is no longer any sense in the image of God standing on high and determining all things by necessity. In that case, the identity of all that has its origin from Him would be an imposition and hence a mark of inferiority. Thus, in Christian reflection, it proved difficult initially to express the perfect divinity of the second divine Person. The Father and the Son are indeed God, the one and the same God, in eternal and reciprocal self-giving. The Father is not Father alone but rather in relation to the Son, and the Son is Himself in relation to the Father. Their identities are relational.
At this point, one can glimpse a reflection of the development of man and of his becoming aware of himself as son. When a child is small, he normally perceives only the perfection of his own parents, a perfection that is his first notion of the image of God. This happens because the world of the young is limited to the security of the home and family. However, he develops little by little and enters into relation with the external world. At the same time, he recognizes both his own limitations and the limitations of his parents, from whom his own limitations often derive. In this phase, one’s own identity is often perceived as an imposition and generally receives adolescent rejection, accompanied by the need to appear different. In a certain sense, the fundamental relationship with parents is understood in a dialectical sense, because a person does not manage to accept his own limitations. The simple fact of the matter is that when a person enters the world he does not choose his father or his mother. In this sense, the relation is not totally free. However, with the onset of the adolescent crisis, combined with external confrontation, the child can gradually discover, beyond the limitations, the positive side of his family baggage, of his heritage, and can actually freely choose his own parents in accepting their limitations. This kind of forgiveness of one’s father makes relation free and reciprocal; and from this gift, which is the essence of forgiveness, is also born the true identity of the son who, in accepting the limitations of his father, also accepts his own limitations and recognizes himself as a gift. The son is thus ready to become a father, that is, ready to give back to another the gift that he has received. And the same is true for a daughter.
Clearly, there are neither limits nor temporal sequence in the Trinity, but the relation of Father and Son is an eternal and reciprocal Gift of Self that is reflected in the image and likeness of the creature. For this reason, man becomes all the more easily son– –that is, he overcomes the crisis of adolescent identity––the more he realizes that his father truly gives of himself, that he accepts his limitations and loves the world, despite the difficulties.
The image shows, “Holy Trinity With The Virgin And The Saints,” by Corrado Giaquinto, painted in 1755.
Today’s skeptics, who seem to reject something traditional just because it’s traditional, cannot sit still during the holy season of Christmas without mocking the notion that Christ would have been born on December 25th. If it were just the unbelievers who engaged in this mockery, it would be expected, since unbelievers, by their very nature, are not expected to believe. More troubling is the fact that, like evolution and all other modern atheistic fantasies, this one has seeped through the all-too narrow wall separating Catholics from the rest of the world. The anti-Christmas myth, which makes a myth out of Christmas, is being foisted on Catholic children as fact. To benefit these, and any Christian who respects piety, history, Scripture, and Tradition, we present our defense of Christmas.
Since there is no date for the Nativity recorded in Holy Scripture, we rely on the testimony of the Church Fathers and of history to get an answer to the question, “When did Christmas take place?”
First, let us see the essential significance of the Savior’s birth at the time usually attributed to it. The winter solstice, the astronomical event which recurs every year, is traditionally said to be the birthday of the Messias. To elucidate the meaning of this fact, we will turn to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+ 385 or 386): “On this day, which the Lord hath made, darkness decreases, light increases, and night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when He shows Himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance, of our Savior’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: “Know, oh man! that under the things which I show thee, mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height, by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day, stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward, its duration shall be shortened until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger and his position higher in the heavens: Learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.” (Homily On the Nativity)
Saint Augustine, a Western Father, concurs with Gregory, the Easterner: “Let us, my brethren, rejoice, this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of Him Who is the invisible Creator of the sun. He chose this day whereon to be born, as He chose the Mother of whom to be born, and He made both the day and the Mother. The day He chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator, having willed to be born in time, His birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of creation.” (Sermon On the Nativity of Our Lord iii) Similar sentiments are echoed by St. Ambrose, St. Leo, St. Maximus of Turin, and St. Cyprian.
To further the beauty of this mysterious agreement between grace and nature, Catholic commentators have shown this to be a marvellous fulfilment of the utterance of St. John the Baptist, the Voice who heralded the Word: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Literally fulfilled by the ending of the Precursor’s mission and the beginning of the Savior’s, this passage had its spiritual fulfillment in the celebration of John’s feast on the 24th of June, three days after the summer solstice. As St. Augustine put it: “John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases.” (Sermon In Natali Domini xi). adoration-of-the-shepherds-el-greco
Lest anyone find all this Astronomy to reek of paganism, we remind him that in Genesis, it is recorded: “And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: To shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. ” Further, the Magi, those holy men from the East, who came to greet the Expectation of the Nations, were led thence by a star.
“But,” you may say, “the winter solstice is on the 21st of December, not the 25th.” Correct. But if, from the time of the Council of Nicea (325) to that of Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar (1582), there was a 10 day discrepancy between the calendar and the actual astronomical pattern governing it, then it is entirely possible that a four-day discrepancy had occurred between our Lord’s birth and the Council. We illustrate this possibility as follows: The calendar that many of the Greek schismatics still follow (the Julian calendar), is presently fourteen days off from the Gregorian. This additional four day discrepancy from Gregory’s time has happened over about 400 years.
But now for the meat of the issue: when did it happen? According to St. John Chrysostom, the foundation for the Nativity occurring on the 25th of December is a strong one. In a Christmas Sermon, he shows that the Western Chruches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept the Feast on that day. This fact bears great weight to the Doctor, who adds that the Romans, having full access to the census taken by Augustus Caesar (Luke 2, 1) — which was in the public archives of the city of Rome — were well versed in their history on this point. A second argument he adduces thusly: The priest Zachary offered incense in the month of Tisri, the seventh of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding with the end of our September or the beginning of our October. (This he most likely knew from details of the temple rites which were transmitted to him by a living tradition, supported by Holy Scripture.) At that same time, St. Luke tells us that Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist. Since, according to the Bible, Our Blessed Lady conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (the end of March: when we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation), then she gave birth nine months later: the end of December.
Having no reason to doubt the great Chrysostom, or any of the other Fathers mentioned; in fact, seeing objections issued only by heretics and cynics, we agree with the learned Doctor and conclude that, by God’s Providence, His Church has correctly commemorated the Feast of His Nativity.
Further, as the continuity of the Old Testament with the New Testament was preserved in two of the principal feasts of the New: Easter corresponding to the Pasch and Pentecost to Pentecost (same name in both dispensations), it would have been unlikely for the Birth of the Eternal God into our world not to have had a corresponding feast in the Old Testament. Until the time of the Machabees, when the temple was re-dedicated after its desecration by the Greek Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes (see 1 Machabees 4). One hundred and sixty-seven years before Jesus, the commemoration was instituted according to what was written: “And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.” (I Macc. 4, 59) To this day, Jews celebrate the twenty-fifth of Casleu (or Kislev, as they say) as the first night of Hannukah. This year (5757 in the Jewish calendar), 25 Casleu was on December 12. Even though the two calendars are not in sync, Christmas and Hannukah are always in close vicinity. With the Festival of Lights instituted less than two centuries before Our Lord’s advent, the Old Testament calendar joined nature in welcoming the Light of the world on his birthday.
As for the objection, “Jesus couldn’t have been born in the winter, since the shepherds were watching their flocks, which they couldn’t have done in winter”: This is really no objection. Palestine has a very mild climate, and December 25 is early enough in winter for the flocks and the shepherds to be out. The superior of our monastery, Brother Francis Maluf, grew up 30 miles from Beirut, which has the same climate as Bethlehem, both being near the Mediterranean coast, and he has personally testified to this fact.
American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.
King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.
It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days.That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.
Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.
In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”
At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.
The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.
A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.”
The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism.
Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love, whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.
He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:
“Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.”
These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.
Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.
It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.
Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.
None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.
The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.
However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Hebrew 2:14-15.
This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.
Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.
What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”
That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable: “He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”
In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.
It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.
As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:9–13).
If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:
“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (I Corinthians 4:4–5).
Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.
There are many approved prophesies of a great future monarch and holy pope, and also of a future ecumenical council. The prophesies of Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser (1613-1658), which speak of seven ages of the Church, has this council taking place in the sixth age. I believe that we are in the fifth age written of by that holy priest. How far off the sixth age is, I do not pretend to know, but I want to bring to the attention of any readers who are tempted to believe that the coming of the Antichrist is imminent that such a timeline is not at all likely. Before the Antichrist, there will be a time of spiritual prosperity for the Church, and this is the sixth age mentioned by Venerable Bartholomew.
We pray for the speeding coming of that great ecumenical council that will “define the true sense of Holy Scripture.”
The Message Of Fatima And The Future Of The Church
On October 13, 1917, at Fatima, Portugal, Our Lady worked the greatest public miracle since the Resurrection, the Miracle of the Sun, to prove that her Fatima message was urgent and true. In that message She warned that, if her requests were not heeded, Russia would spread its errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church, and that several entire nations would be annihilated.
The principal error that took hold in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution, a few weeks after the Miracle of the Sun, was not communism, but evolutionism – since it was the “scientific fact” of molecules-to-man evolution that made confident atheists and communists of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and their numerous disciples and stooges.
On the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun, October 13, 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade, through her approved apparition in Akita, Japan, from a statute that had wept human tears 101 times, Our Lady warned that the Miracle of the Sun was a foretaste of a fiery divine judgment that would be unleashed upon the world, killing most of the earth’s population, unless mankind repented and turned back to God.
Given that we have only grown worse since Our Lady of Akita’s warning, we may well have reached the point where a divine chastisement and the annihilation of nations are inevitable. But we have our Blessed Mother’s solemn promise that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, that the Holy Father will consecrate Russia to Her, that Russia will be converted, and that a period of peace will be granted to the world. So, let us hasten her Triumph, by living our consecration to Jesus through Mary in every thought, word and action – in every moment of our lives!
As we observe the multiplication of errors against faith and morals on every side, it is tempting to lose heart and to doubt that there will ever be an era of peace, a restoration of the Faith all over the world, and the social reign of Christ the King. But this would be tragic, because God who does “nothing without telling His servants the prophets,” has repeatedly foretold a future era of peace and a final Ecumenical Council that will put an end to all heresies. Moreover, in light of a number of authentic prophecies that speak of a future Ecumenical Council that will “define the true sense of Holy Scripture,” it seems virtually certain that the overwhelming support in Scripture and Tradition for creation in six days will lead to a solemn definition of “day” in Genesis 1 as a 24-hour day.
In his book Trial, Tribulation, and Triumph, researcher Desmond Birch cites a number of holy men and women of recent centuries who prophesied an Ecumenical Council during the future era of peace that will define the sense of Scripture on certain important, unresolved questions. In particular, he mentions the seventeenth century founder of an institute for priests, Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser; Sr. Jeanne le Royer, a French nun and mystic of the eighteenth century; and a nineteenth century French nun known as the Ecstatic of Tours.
Before presenting the prophecies of a final Ecumenical Council during the Era of Peace, Birch cites the work of Scripture scholar Fr. Kramer whose analysis of the Book of Revelation argues that “the seven thunders” of chapters eleven and twelve of the Apocalypse refer to the declarations of an Ecumenical Council during the Era of Peace, before the appearance of the final Antichrist. According to Kramer:
The Seven Thunders may then be declarations of an ecumenical council clearing up all that was left unfinished by the magisterial office of the Church, before God will permit Satan to exert his supreme efforts to destroy her from without. The Seven Thunders will strengthen the faithful and loyal clergy in their belief and practices, expel all who are addicted to corrupt lives and superstitions and manifest the unwavering stand of the Church on the then prevailing maxims of the world… Through the Seven Thunders, God gave him (St. John) a special revelation of great importance, indicating what would immediately precede the coming of Antichrist, but it was to remain a secret to the Church.
Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser was a holy priest of the seventeenth century, founder of an Institute for the formation of priests approved by Pope Innocent XI in 1680. Holzhauser accurately predicted the execution of Charles I of England and the persecution of the Catholic Church in England for 120 years. (Prohibition of Mass under penalty of death lasted from 1658 until 1778.) The documents for his cause of canonization attribute miracles of healing to him. In one of his works, Venerable Holzhauser divided the history of the Church into seven periods and situated the seventeenth century Church in the fifth of these periods. He wrote:
During the fifth period, we saw only calamities and devastation; oppression of Catholics by tyrants and heretics; execution of Kings, and conspiracies to set up republics…. Are we not to fear, during this period, that the Mohammedans will come again, working out their sinister schemes against the Latin Church?… During this period men will abuse the freedom of conscience conceded to them… there will be laxity in divine and human precepts. Discipline will suffer. The holy canons will be completely disregarded, and the clergy will not respect the laws of the Church. Everyone will be carried away and led to believe and to do what he fancies, according to the manner of the flesh… But, by the hand of God Almighty, there occurs so wondrous a change during the sixth period that no one can humanly visualize it .
The sixth period of the Church will begin with the powerful Monarch and the holy Pontiff . . . and it will last until the revelation of Antichrist. In this period, God will console His Holy Church for the affliction and great tribulation she has endured during the fifth period. All nations will become Catholic. Vocations will be abundant as never before, and all men will seek only the Kingdom of God and His justice. Men will live in peace, and this will be granted because people will make their peace with God. They will live under the protection of the Great Monarch and his successors.
All nations will come to worship God in the true Catholic and Roman faith. There will be many Saints and Doctors on earth. Peace will reign over the whole earth because God will bind Satan for a number of years until the days of the Son of Perdition. No one will be able to pervert the Word of God since, during the sixth period, there will be an Ecumenical Council which will be the greatest of all councils. By the grace of God, by the power of the Great Monarch, by the authority of the Holy Pontiff, and by the union of all the most devout princes, atheism and every heresy will be banished from the earth. The Council will define the true sense of Holy Scripture, and this will be believed and accepted by everyone (emphasis added).
It is difficult for twenty-first century readers to imagine how unbelievable Venerable Holzhauser’s predictions of the rise of republics must have seemed to seventeenth century Catholics in nations where Christian monarchies had existed for many centuries. In our proud and unwavering faith in progress, we fail to consider that the restoration of monarchies in the future is no less likely today than the prophesied rise of republics in the seventeenth century. Moreover, Venerable Bartholomew was not the only authentic Catholic prophet to predict a future Ecumenical Council in similar terms.
Why would the six days of creation be among the passages of Holy Scripture whose “true sense” will be defined once and for all during the Era of Peace?
The answer emerges where Venerable Holzhauser remarks that “atheism and every heresy will be banished from the Earth.” Given the intimate connection between the denial of the six days of creation and the acceptance of evolution – in dogma and in morals, as well as in natural science – the definition of “day” in Genesis One as a 24-hour day would irrevocably seal the Church’s condemnation of that error.
Like Venerable Holzhauser, Sister Jeanne le Royer foretold a great Council of pastors after a time of great trial and tribulation: “I see in God a large assembly of pastors who will uphold the rights of the church and of her Head. They will restore the former disciplines. I see, in particular, two servants of the Lord who will distinguish themselves in this glorious struggle and who, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, will fill with ardent zeal the hearts of this illustrious assembly .”
Similarly, the Ecstatic of Tours predicted: “The Council will meet again after the victory. But, this time, men will be obliged to obey; There will be only one flock and one shepherd. All men will acknowledge the Pope as the Universal Father, the King of all peoples. Thus, mankind will be regenerated .”
Since the Ecstatic of Tours had lived during the first Vatican Council, which was interrupted by strife between French and Italian forces, it was logical for her to see the future council as a continuation of the work of Vatican I. On the other hand, as a “pastoral council,” which did not define doctrine or condemn errors, Vatican II could not complete the work of Vatican I, which was a Council in the traditional sense, defining doctrine and condemning errors in faith and morals. Thus, the Ecstatic’s prophetic announcement of a council “after the victory” of the Church points to a future Council that will complete the unfinished work of the First Vatican Council.
In light of the promises of Our Lady of Fatima, it is interesting to note that prophets of the Russian Orthodox Church have also predicted a future Ecumenical Council. St. Seraphim of Sarov who predicted the Bolshevik Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar more than one hundred years in advance also foretold a final Ecumenical Council before the rise of Antichrist and the end of the world.
He prophesied that its aim would be: “…to unite and reunite all the holy Churches of Christ against the growing anti-Christian tendency under a single Head, Christ the Life-Giver, and under a single Protecting Veil of His Most Pure Mother, and to deliver to a final curse against the whole of Masonry and all the parties similar to it (under whatever names they may appear), the leaders of whom have one common aim: under the pretext of complete egalitarian earthly prosperity, and with the aid of people who have been made fanatical by them, to create anarchy in all states and to destroy Christianity throughout the world.”
It is significant that St. Seraphim recognized that the Orthodox Churches have not been able to have an Ecumenical Council since their separation from the Church of old Rome. Thus, he regards this future Council as “the eighth” because it will involve the Bishops of the whole world, as did the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium when the Patriarch of Constantinople remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome.
This is a remarkable admission by one who is probably the most revered modern saint of the Russian Orthodox Church—an admission that it is impossible to have a truly Ecumenical Council without the participation of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, we know that this event will only become possible after the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the Pope and the Bishops in union with him , the act that will spark the conversion of Russia and her return to full communion with the Catholic Church.
It is worth reflecting on the agenda that St. Seraphim identifies as the common aim of all of the enemies of Christianity: “under the pretext of complete egalitarian earthly prosperity, and with the aid of the people who have been made fanatical by them, to create anarchy in all states and to destroy Christianity throughout the world.” Is that not the very goal that we see being pursued throughout the world by corporate globalists like Bill Gates and George Soros, in concert with the United Nations, Communist China, and secular humanist regimes?
Democracy no longer appears in the 21st-century in the guise of the Greek philosophical discussion about the best form of government. If for the Greeks the very possibility of democracy was the result of a long history of “disenchantment” (Weber, Gauchet), for postmodern man democracy is burdened by a set of historical presuppositions (religious, moral and ideological) from which he can no longer be unlinked.
However, after the ideological overdose of the century of European civil war and the conflict between secular religions, supposedly settled in three crucial episodes (1918-1945-1989), democracy seems to suffer, in the 21st-century, an “abstinence syndrome” that places it in a state of indefiniteness and again disenchantment with post-totalitarian emptiness. This horror vacui largely conditions the current state of affairs.
The emergence of democracy in the course of Western history cannot be separated from what the Austrian Hellenist Fritz Schachermeyr called the Greek “untying” (Entbindung). According to this renowned scholar, Eastern cultures reached a state of Verhaltenheit, that is, a relatively static or immobile civilization, defined by a rigid setting within a traditional system of rites or beliefs. They are, in short, examples of “stopped civilizations” (Toynbee). The intimate essence of these civilizations is characterized by Schachermeyr with the word Bindung, “ties,” where everything is fixed by a marked “consciousness” (a key element, as will be seen later) of the natural and necessary character of this characterization.
According to Schachermeyr, the novelty offered by the Greco-Roman civilization is that it begins to “untie” (entbinden) the old “ties.” Although Schachermeyr does not explain what this dynamic consists of, it cannot but be the progressive desacralization, demanded by critical reason, which enters history to definitively close the phase of the primitive mentality of humanity (Lévy-Bruhl), at least for a significant portion of said humanity, which will progressively expand with the successive unfoldment of the Greek spirit. By virtue of this new spirit, a new cultural and anthropological atmosphere is inaugurated, in which democracy comes to be engendered.
This humus is marked, fundamentally, by the following elements: The autonomy of the individual, the self-government of the city, and philosophy. This substrate projects a mentality sharply tending towards individualism and relativism. As Jean Gebserexplains, we move from the impersonality of the aperspective world to an awareness of the individual self that defines the perspectival world. Now, as this philosopher of the transformations of consciousness also emphasized, in the progressive evolution of the successive states of consciousness of humanity, the definitive burial of previous states does not take place, but rather their distorted transformation in the current aspect of the human. In other words, the primitive mentality of the tribe (the archaic and original structure) continues to operate in the rational state of individualized humanity. And this is of decisive relevance for understanding the evolution of democracy.
Ever since the Hellenic civilization was imposed, there has been a directionality in history much more marked than before. The principle of Entbindung (or, breaking of ties) resurfaces, renewed and reinforced; and, each time, by way of a setback, there is a return to the state of Bindung, or ties. It is not strictly a linear version of time, but of cycles which proceed in a spiral (Vico), with advances and retreats. In any case, in this inherent tendency towards desacralization, from the sacred kingdom of the gods, we pass to the government of heroes, to reach the self-government of men.
The Hellenic phenomenon thus represents an essential fracture in history. Jaspers spoke of the so-called “time-axis” to refer to the period from 600 to 200 BC, in which a series of peoples achieved a new consciousness of spiritual emancipation. However, it was in Greece, to a much greater degree, that the decisive element appears: The self-conscious individual, who creates an autonomous society, governed by rules subject to change. Hence, without direct or indirect Greek influence, outcomes as characteristic of the rational spirit as democracy are not found outside Greece.
What must be understood is that the true breaking point does not occur between democracy and other forms of government, but between a (magical-mythical) mentality closed to the very possibility of politics and a mentality that frees that space to conquer it – for politics. If the political (as essence) is not born from the consequence of that hiatus, it can at least be said that the consciousness of the political is born there. The free interrogation about society and its rules that political thought supposes is impossible in societies founded on myth and rite (Philippe Nemo). In fact, we do not find in them political theories but “myths of sovereignty.”
René Girard’s mimetic theory also allows us to understand that this absence of the political in the magical-mythical universe is not an accidental fact but something deeply embedded in the way of life associated with the structure of “violence and the sacred.” The mythical order is a global order, indistinctly cosmic and social, and in it the political does not emerge as an autonomous space but as a subsidiary of the all-encompassing sacred universe.
However, in the field of human behavior and politics, logos interferes from a certain moment, with the spontaneous forces of life, to create new forms, new doctrines and new styles of thought or behavior, new “ties,” as it were, replacing those already destroyed by its impact. In other words, the aperspective continues to subtly infiltrate the new perspectival mentality. The “new ties” cannot really resurrect the old structures of the magical mentality, although they do reflect the nostalgia for unity and order lost as a consequence of the crisis produced by the disorientation and confusion of the relativistic disorder generated by critical reason.
From this point of view, movements such as the Socratic or Platonic reaction are manifestations of this will to reinvent the traditional order with rational schemes. Plato’s political pharmacology collects the Egyptian medicinal art (Jan Assmann), and his claims point to a reactionary nostalgia for sacred unity, although with a foundation consistent with the desacralizing unleashing: Political philosophy, from then on, will be a rational and not mythical medicine. Plato is the first anti-democratic philosopher to propose an ideal rational republic. In it the king is no longer a god but a philosopher. The new “rational tie” thus slows down the tendency of democracy towards dissolution.
The thesis that I here defend is that democracy continues to live today under the influence of a new “tie” created from the ideological sedimentation of some of its own presuppositions, producing a new form of Verhaltenheit, which requires a model of rigid framework, which democratic principles (converted into sacred dogmas) must impose. Unlike reactionaries like Plato (or Rousseau), the new tie of our times is not anti-progressive, nor does it pretend to chain itself to a traditional community lost in the original past. On the contrary, its chains point towards a city in the clouds, the only paradise in which democratic man aspires to establish his definitive residence.
Our democracies, in effect, seek to surpass themselves in a purely self-referential framework. Hence, the everlasting call to “deepen” democracy. Every democracy always seems little democracy to the recalcitrant democrat. You can never go any further than democracy. It is the Plus Ultra of democratic religion. The problems are solved with more democracy and they are because of the fact that there is not enough democracy. It seems that man is always disappointed when looking in the mirror of the gods.
Today, we live under the splint of a new ideological-religious “tie” that takes different forms, all of which coincide in their essential and common tendency to subjection and mooring: The tyranny of consensus, the religion of human rights, the moralism of the Empire of the Good, the imposition of technocratic knowledge, political correctness, the Manichean demonization of the political adversary, the End of History. After all, what the Greeks called democracy presupposed accepting the desacralizing heritage of a critical skepticism that freed the political space from the control of the gods.
Today, other gods have appropriated the agora. Christopher Dawson described in his posthumous book (The Gods of Revolution) the process of the expulsion of Christianity by the culture generated by Christianity, and its replacement by a humanistic and rationalistic idolatry. “The archaic would always be here, haunting us. Behind the reign of the individual, behind secularism, the pre-eminence of the economy, democracy, the spirit of free examination, the monsters would only be waiting for the opportunity to dominate men again and to be worshiped by them ”(Pierre Pachet, “D’un archaïsme tout à fait contemporain“, Les cahiers de l’Est, 1, 1991).
Vilfedo Pareto’s sociology, with its well-known theory of residues and derivations, did not stop insisting on the necessary analysis of that archaic background of the human psyche, always ready to continue connecting with an irrational universe of gods and myths. For Pareto, this imaginary space operated in modernity with presumably rational entities that in practice violated the most elementary rules of logic, behaving like the deities fighting for or against the Greeks in the Iliad. Among these entities (in addition to abstract ideas, such as, freedom or equality) was also democracy, alienated in its theoretical structure by the presence of a mythological drive born in democracy’s own bosom and thus difficult to eradicate.
On the other hand, part of the problem evidently lies in knowing whether people can live for a long time in what Claude Lefort called “democratic indeterminacy,” resulting from the new scenario established by the reality of the “place empty of power” (lieu vide du pouvoir) – that is, if a political community can subsist without projecting outside of this reality, deifying it as a sacred incarnation of itself in the form of unitary sovereignty – or, without exhibiting and conjuring up a phantasmagoric incarnation of the other or of evil in the form of a scapegoat (Poliakov’s diabolical causality).
The political carries, as a founding genetic stain, the weight of this beneficent/malefic ambivalence that reappears under different guises in the course of the “rational” history of humanity (thus, for example, with sacred monarchy in feudal society). The progress of politics (and, particularly, of democracy) is based on the substitution of competition for war; or, if you prefer, sacrifice for envy. “Bullets or ballots” the Americans used to say. Bertrand Russell affirmed with force that “envy is the basis of democracy.” And he added: “The democratic movement in the Greek states must have been inspired almost entirely by this passion. And the same can be said of modern democracy.” In any case, as with the pharmacy, everything is a question of dosage; and politics disappears when the unit or the division becomes absolute.
We no longer live “in” democracy but “under” democratism (Freund), a “political myth” (in the sense of Raoul Girardet), born of moral and religious dogmas hardly compatible with the onto-theopolitical emptiness operated by the Greek revolution. The place empty of power has been occupied by a new religion. Is democratism the hidden enemy of democracy?
Understanding democratism requires summarizing the history of democracy in its historical and sociological aspects. Thus, it is the history of democratization, or democratic imperialism, that is, the extension of the democratic-egalitarian ethos outside its natural political space. By going out of its habitat, like any empire, democracy weakens in its own terrain. By assuming a social profile (Tocqueville’s democratic condition), moral or religious, democracy is depoliticized. On the other hand, the state political form, in turn expansive by definition as a consequence of war (Jouvenel’s law of political concurrence), ended up merging with democracy in an apparently predictable embrace. In effect, the state tends to dissolve hierarchies and to standardize from above by a power apparatus that ends up escaping the control of the monarchs.
The relationship of the state with the political is equivocal. In its attempt to neutralize politics, the state ends up politicizing everything (totalitarianism). This is undoubtedly one of the causes of democratic imperialism or democratism. The modern state promotes, after 1789, the democratic politicization of all subpolitical and prepolitical spaces. By politicizing life that is not strictly political, the state depoliticizes directly political life. Hence, the current dissolution of the boundaries between the public and the private. By neutralizing conflicts, the state deactivates political initiatives and the vigor of civic virtues in public life, devitalizing democratic life in its popular or community aspect.
By conquering the moral mantle of religious legitimacy, democracy becomes hyper-legitimate and naturally tends towards Manichaeism, thus fueling its own mythology of sovereign unity (Rousseau’s general will). J.L. Talmon had demonstrated the constitutive duality of the modern democratic concept in his penetrating study of the origins of totalitarian democracy. In this way, mythological democracy threatens with its own weapons the axiological pluralism that presumably grounds it.
The democratic historical fruit thus contaminates the root of the democratic philosophical tree. On the other hand, the ideological sanctification that accompanies democratism erodes the agonistic-conflictive dimension of political democracy. If democracy does not guarantee peaceful concurrence (Aron) within it, political concurrence will occur outside of democracy. In order to save the purity of ideological orthodoxy – through recourse to Manichaeism that transforms the political adversary into absolute evil – democracy abdicates its popular legitimacy to expel the people into outer darkness.
Also, at this point, democracy chooses to “tie itself” to its ideological descendants, forgetting that it was born because of an”untying” from its magical ancestors. There is in ideology a dark form of regression to the necromancer’s sleight of hand. Like the sorcerer, the ideologue aspires to ontologically extirpate evil. Hence his obsession with closing the era of politics in the name of secular messianism. Unlike the hygienic puritanism of the ideological discourse, political realism understands that it is always necessary to coexist and (if necessary) to make a pact with evil in the search for a compromise that guarantees external security and internal harmony (the purpose of politics as Julien Freund recalled).
Politics, the art of the possible to avoid the worst, ends up yielding today to the dreamlike universe of idealistic utopias that populate ideological discourses. And the withdrawal from politics is also the withdrawal of democracy as a form of government.
To the depoliticizing panorama that emerged as a consequence of the hegemony of ideological discourse (certainly presented in its postmodern version of “weak thinking”) is added the concomitant factor of globalization. The unification of the world is a historical fact in principle alien to democracy as such, but it has not hesitated to accept it, first as a “fellow-traveler” and later as an inseparable friend (democracy allied to the universalism of human rights). Politics is said to make strange bedfellows; but the assertion is valid as a description of the unspeakably opportunistic wiles of professional politicians, though not at all applicable to theoretical principles that are difficult to reconcile.
As the unsuspecting Emmanuel Todd recently put it with a provocative aphorism of his own making, “if a lot of xenophobia destroys democracy, a little xenophobia can bring it back.” In the idea of democracy, the historian and demographer added, there is always an element of “founding xenophobia.” By forgetting that man is a “dependent rational animal” (Alasdair MacIntyre), the atomistic angelism of postmodern mysticism destroys the roots (Simone Weil) that define the human condition.
In this way, by dissolving the ties of belonging to national political communities, the instances of collective action associated with the democratic ethos are weakened, thus facilitating the task of the new global power occupied by the globalist elites that lead supranational instances. By submitting to these vagrant elites, the national political class discredits the popular legitimacy on which the democratic mandate of political representation continues to be based. The foreign friends of democracy prostitute democracy. Maybe democracy should look for new friends.
The last aspect of democratism, as the enemy of democracy, can be found in the cultural field. Here, too, a new idol has been erected, although in reality it may be an unwanted child of Christianity, as Chesterton suggested. Political correctness has, despite its deceptive appearance, very little of politics. However, the consequences for political democracy are very dire. In its ideological defense of victims, political correctness promotes the censorship and demonization of the adversary. In this way, it sponsors denunciation, ideological exile, and silences any form of dissent through the imposition of a taboo strictly controlled by the new well-thought-out courts of the “Empire of the Good” (Philippe Muray). Automatically, the irreverence that nurtures the democratic moral disposition (the anaideia of the cynics) ends up being ruined in front of the new censors of soft totalitarianism.
Soft McCarthyism does not, for the moment, build new concentration camps for dissidents, but it justifies civil death and thought police, by way of the educational Big Mother and the multicultural Big Other. Victimist ideologies (third wave feminism, anti-racism, animalism, etc.) represent the vanguard of this new liberticidal witch-hunt led by the latest version of the “Revolution of the Saints” (Michael Walzer). The porno-calvinist ideocracy seems, in the long run, little compatible with political democracy.
In sum, the monism of postmodern democratic ideology seems difficult to reconcile with the pluralism inherent in democracy as a form of government. The disappearance of political otherness as a consequence of the fall of communism has increased the polarization of this opposition. It is still striking that liberal democracy adopts the eschatological dress of its main enemy up till then (Marxism) and dresses in the messianic cloak of the end of History (Fukuyama). The mystique of democratism, however, is gradually extinguished by the absence of its enemies.
Hence the efforts of neo-puritan ideologues to imagine spectral representations of evil encoding and recoding reality through mass media. Democratic theology voluntarily adopts the Manichaeism of Islamist fundamentalism (Axes of Good and Evil). Its deleterious effects are manifested in the internal dynamics of democracy as a pluralistic form of government. As Chantal Mouffe has written, “agonistic” democracy (democracy as pacification of political conflict) has been replaced by democracy of consensus and extreme antagonism (democracy as moral and religious ideology).
Today neither bullets nor ballots serve to revive dying democracy. By moralizing itself, democracy is depoliticized. The exacerbation of this conflict can end democracy, and can eliminate it also. Montesquieu seems to have seen it clearly: “Beware of a city where the noise of any conflict is not heard because tyranny will not be far behind.” Tocqueville’s prophecies pointed in the same direction. The two bodies of the king (Kantorowicz) are expressed today as two bodies of democracy: The mystical body (democratic ideology) and the physical body (political democracy). Political democracy also seems to die by the same cry as monarchs: Democracy is dead! Long live democracy!
The place is not empty of power today. In place of the totalitarian Egocrat, we have the democratic ideocrat-technocrat. The two entrances to the democratic castle seem impenetrable to criticism. The ideocrat is also a holy monarch. To this is added the validity (increasingly threatened by its frank lack of realism) of statism, that is, of depoliticizing politicization. The political neutralization caused by the state necessarily generates a form of impolitical democracy.
Transformed into pure and simple administration from the cradle to the grave, the antipolitical democratic-state holds presumed citizens in the position of simple subjects (when not suspects), reduced by multiple mechanisms (the control of education, culture, taxation) to an infantilism incompatible with the presumed coming of age of democratic life and the civic virtues necessary to nurture it. Thinkers like Sloterdijk, with his proposal for voluntary taxation as a banner of civic responsibility, have drawn attention to this paradox.
On the other hand, the so-called “democratization” (or Tocquevillian democratic condition) has accelerated the process of standardization and leveling in the spiritual field, impoverishing the pluralism that political democracy feeds on. In this sociological undifferentiation (driven by technology, mainstream culture, spiritual Americanization and globalism) ideocracy also finds its anthropological basis.
To this must be added the growing distance between globalized political elites and the people they claim to represent democratically. It is known that democracy does not escape the iron law of the oligarchy (Michels) but its application in the democratic context (illusion of identity between representatives and the represented) implies a much higher cost for its legitimacy than in the case of other forms of government. “Universal suffrage does not pretend that the interests of the majority triumph, but rather that the majority believe it,” wrote the Colombian, Nicolas Gómez Dávila.
The problem today is that most have stopped believing it. And the masks also fall on the other side of the costume ball. The political elite no longer hide their contempt for the people, their traditions and identity, which are hardly comparable with the emancipatory rhythm of the alleged progress that they intend to promote. That the popular acquires a pejorative meaning (populism) in a democratic context is an unequivocal indication of the identity crisis of the democracies of the 21st-century. Populism is today, above all, a symptom of the degenerative disease of undemocratic democracy. By clinging to ideological legitimacy, democracy disregards its popular legitimacy.
In short, today the rebellion of the masses (Ortega y Gasset) and the rebellion of the elites (Lasch) converge. But 1945 and 1989 represent two fateful dates for the ideological substratum of “political illusion” (Ellul). With them “religious democracy” has lost its flock even though it retains its clergy. Other ideologies of substitution (feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, animalism, transhumanism) aspire to fill this void and articulate their proposals with the same totalitarian grammar of the maternal state. The democracy that has come to us has already traveled through religious space, depoliticizing itself along the way – but today it is a dead faith. By becoming the demiurge of the life of the people, it has devitalized their natural and community sources.
Real suicide (the leading cause of unnatural death in the West) and demographic suicide represent the two faces of silenced death in the democratic paradise. The parallels with the world of real socialism begin to be disturbing and remind us of certain authors who have already proclaimed that socialism failed in the East because it triumphed in the West (Augusto Del Noce). However, the dreams of reason produce monsters; and socialism only wins in the tricky world built by the fallacies that inhabit the nirvana of postmodern ideologues. There is no more opium from the intellectuals (Aron), but the ambitions of the new well-thought-out clerics continue to nurture democratic hyper-legitimacy.
Plato’s observation is still valid: Democracy is an irresistible force of change that tends to instability. His Eros leads to his Thanatos. Democracy can survive as long as the agony of the conflict continues – but its overcoming in consensus-mode represents its death certificate. The perpetual peace promised by ideologies is disguised in the messianic garb of final reconciliation. Although our liberal democracies may boast, in the face of bloodthirsty totalitarianisms, that they have not fulfilled these promises in the death camps, they cannot deny that their aspirations lead politics directly to the graveyard.
Democratic disease requires, in the pharmacological vision linked to politics as medicinal knowledge, a remedy. Faced with the civilizing crisis caused by the utopian and futuristic politics of ideologies, there is only room for the skeptical response of political realism. It is what the Italian sociologist Carlo Gambescia calls “sad liberalism.”
Political democracy can only survive by returning to its first desecration root that today demands the proclamation of ideological atheism. A deeply religious spirit like Simone Weil’s had no qualms about speaking of “purifying atheism.” Oakeshott also contrasted the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism. To regain effective political will, it is necessary to promote a re-secularization of European public life.
Pierre Bayle claimed that demons prefer idolatry to atheism. “If it is merely a question of organizing an earthly paradise, there are plenty of priests. The devil is enough,” wrote Gómez Dávila. “Demons squat on our adaodoned altars,” said Ernst Jünger. Democratic soteriology has ended up directing politics from the world of men to the heaven of the gods. This Promethean impulse of the “Black Mass” (John Gray), a political demonology, supported by the legitimizing mantle of a mystical discourse (Saint-Simon‘s “new Christianity”, Pierre Lerroux’s “religious democracy”), nests in the “ myth of the new man ”studied by Dalmacio Negro.
Cultivated by philosophical modernity and disputed in a regime of mimetic rivalry (Girard) by modern ideologies that promote collective intramundane self-salvation, this myth removes democracy from the land that men tread on, to elevate them to the false condition of angels. “Qui fait l’ange fait la bête,” (“He who becomes an angel becomes a beast”), Pascal said. Democratic theology is an anthropotheism that bestializes man in the name of his divinization.
The remnants of secularist criticism (actually a confused symbiosis of moralism and materialism) preach the pressing need for a definitive expulsion of the merchants who pollute the public space. Necessary but not a sufficient measure. The reconquest of the agora requires above all the recovery of the public virtue of irreverence in the face of “democratic fundamentalism” (Gustavo Bueno).
Only the moral and intellectual force of sacrilegious skepticism will work the necessary miracle of the banishment of “the faith of demons” (Hadjad). Unable to “tie” to heaven by way of the desacralization generated by “Christian subversion” (Ellul), the spiritual forces of demons are chained to “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12). In this sense, the fight against the political religions of the princes of this world is inevitable. Democracy against demonocracy. There is more than a play on words in this opposition. Perhaps it contains the dramatic historical dilemma that is presented to the future of Western political societies.
There is no other medicine that cures the sick: Only wicked exorcists will save democracy from itself.
Domingo González Hernández holds a PhD in political philosophy from the Complutense University of Madrid. He is a professor at the University of Murcia. His recent book is René Girard, maestro cristiano de la sospecha(René Girard, Christian Teacher of Suspicion) He is also the Director of the podcast “La Caverna de Platón” for the newspaper La Razón. He has explored the political possibilities of Girardian mimetic theory in more than twenty studies and academic papers. His latest publication is “La monarquía sagrada y el origen de lo político: una hipótesis farmacológica” (“Sacred monarchy and the origin of politics: a pharmacological hypothesis”), Xiphias Gladius, 2020.
The image shows The Parthenon, a watercolor by Frederic Edwin Church, painted 1871.