Category: General

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, August 17, 2009

The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireThe Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack. Oxford University Press (2008)

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. Princeton University Press (2008)

Ask the average college student to identify the 1,100 year old empire that was, at various points in its history, the political, commercial, artistic and ecclesiastical center of Europe and, indeed, was responsible for the very survival and flourishing of what we know today as Europe and you’re not likely to get the correct answer: Byzantium.

The reasons for this are manifold but not least is that as Western Europe came into its own in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Byzantium gradually succumbed piecemeal to the constant conquering pressure of Ottomans and Arabs. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 (two years after the birth of the Genoese Christopher Columbus), Europe, now cut off from many land routes to Asian trade, was already looking West and South in anticipation of the age of exploration and colonization. Byzantium, and the Christian East, would fall under Muslim domination and dhimmitude for centuries and its history would fade away before the disinterest, or ignorance, of the West.

This “condemnation to oblivion” as the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, describe it, is “no longer quite so true as it once was.” New exhibitions of Byzantine art in Europe and America have been hugely successful in recent years and travel to cities with Byzantine landmarks and archeological sites in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans is easier than ever. Academic centers throughout western Europe and the United States host Byzantine Studies departments, scholarly journals proliferate, and a new generation of scholars has elevated the field from what once was a narrow specialty.

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is a useful, one volume reference work that would well serve both the scholar and general reader with an interest in Byzantine culture. The editors have prefaced the volume with a detailed assessment of the Discipline, the state of scholarly learning on everything from art history to weights and measures. Other sections examine Landscape, Land Use, and the Environment; Institutions and Relationships (including the economy); and The World Around Byzantium. Each of the nearly two dozen subheadings include concise chapters with references and suggestions for further readings.

For those interested in the economic life of Byzantium, the Handbook offers an account in Towns and Cities that describes agricultural, commercial and industrial activity, and charts a decline in these areas during periodic invasions by various waves of Slav, Avar, Persian and Ottoman peoples, or bouts of the plague. Where political and military fortunes turned favorable, as in the 8th and 9th centuries, economic life enjoyed a parallel revival. Regional cities became economic centers, places like Thessalonike, Thebes (silk textiles) and Corinth, where glass, pottery, metals and textiles were produced. In his chapter on the Economy, Alan Harvey relates how Constantinople, in the 12th Century, “was clearly a bustling city with a wide range of skilled craftsmen, merchants, artisans, petty traders. There was also a transient population of various nationalities, in addition to the more settled presence of Italian merchants.”

And, because it was a Christian empire, the Handbook has a lot to say about the Byzantine Church, its relations with the Empire, and its developing rivalry with Rome, especially as the papal reform movement took hold in the 11th century. The Emperor and Court chapter in the Handbook should also go some way toward a better understanding of “late ancient state formation,” a subject the editors say has received “remarkably little attention” by historians and political theorists.

Writing in the Handbook’s summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not “credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature.” Maybe the Byzantines had other ambitions. James Howard-Johnston asserts that the “ultimate rationale” of Byzantium’s existence was its “Christian imperial mission.”

That conviction, widely shared in a thoroughly Orthodox society, was the shaping influence on its foreign policy. It provides the basic, underlying reason for Byzantium’s tenacious longetivity, for its stubborn resistance in the opening confrontation with Islam, and, even more extraordinary, for the resilience shown in the last three and half centuries of decline.

For the general reader, perhaps a better place to begin to illuminate the “black hole” of Byzantine history is Judith Herrin’s fine book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. A senior research fellow in Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Herrin sets out to trace the period’s “most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it.” Her aim is to help the reader understand “how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what happened further to the east in Byzantium. The Muslim world is also an important element of this history, as is the love-hate relationship between Christendom and Islam.”

Byzantium’s ability to conquer, Herrin writes, and “above all, to defend itself and its magnificent capital was to shield the northwestern world of the Mediterranean during the chaotic but creative period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.” (more…)

Blog author: mcavedon
posted by on Monday, July 27, 2009

God is rational, and the universe is governed by unchanging natural laws instituted by Him. The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.” God is not arbitrary; the Bible also tells us that He is just and that He keeps promises to His people. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has established “ordinances of heaven and earth.” Since they come from a perfect lawgiver, we know that these laws do not change on a whim.

These beliefs were radical, and given historical trends in philosophy, they remain so. Pagans argued that truth exists, but that it is dependent on the will of the gods. Since these gods were capricious rulers of the universe, there were no unchanging laws that could be discovered by humans. In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico also argue that objective truth is unknowable. For them, this is because truth is only accessible to humans insofar as we agree with something we have manufactured and labeled as the truth. As Vico put it, “the norm of the truth is to have made it.” If pure naturalism is correct and there is no role for God, then Vico can reasonably argue “the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself.” After all, our ability to understand things as they truly are is difficult to argue in the absence of any reason to think that human reason itself is reliable.

Christianity offers just that reason by asserting two main points: that God has made the universe according to natural laws and that He has given humanity the means to understand them. As God asks Job, “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?” God gives understanding to the mind so that we may know Who has made the world and the universe as it is.

God intends for us to exercise our reason and seek to know reality. Jesus says that He is the Truth, and He promises His followers that “the truth will set you free.” The truth that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, purely scientific and rationalistic. It is the truth of the universe and of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this in Caritas in Veritate, where he writes, “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.”

Since truth is objective, reason can discern it. Reason is the universal nature of humans, regardless of our race, culture, language, class, or religion. We all have access to the truth. In a world where subjective truths compete, humanity can no longer find common ground and rise above struggles for power and influence. The truth about humanity and natural reality becomes “Nordic,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” or “chauvinist.” The idea that truth is subjective does not set us free. It pits us against each other and fails to let us seek the truth.

Caritas in Veritate points out the dire social consequences: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” If we are to seek true solidarity and the creation of a humane world, we must commit ourselves to pursuing the truth. Otherwise, humanity’s divisions will only grow.

By choosing instead to follow constructivism, fundamentalism, fideism, and the consensus view of the truth, we are enslaving ourselves to error and cutting off the truth that unites us. We are also rejecting the duty that God has given us to use the gift of reason to seek Him out. Since this sin only gives us error in place of the truth about us and the universe we inhabit, it results in suffering, tyranny, and conflict.

The truth will set us free in the measure that we are willing to seek it as God commands us to, and in the measure that we reject anything less than the full, universal, reasonable nature that it has.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Last week I took Friday afternoon off and did the yard work. I’d been listening to radio broadcasts about the vote in Congress on HR 2454 – what some of us call the “cap and tax” climate bill. You know, the one none of the members had read before the vote? Yes, I know, there’s more than one bill that they haven’t read prior to voting.

Yard work is good for my psyche. In two hours I can make a measurable and meaningful contribution to my property’s appearance. Few things in life are so neatly determinate; and the activity allows me to ponder other issues at the same time that I’m tilling and trimming.

My plan was to relax over the weekend in the run up to my birthday; and moving the yard work to Friday seemed appropriate. My modest Saturday agenda included helping to reduce the ironing pile by doing my half. My wife welcomed the help and suggested that I do the ironing first so I could also enjoy a Saturday morning ritual in doors — listening to “The Opera Show” on local FM station KUSC — and not having to use the pocket radio and earphones required when I’m outdoors.

During its season, KUSC hosts The Metropolitan broadcasts from New York, but the presentation last Saturday was a replay of the Los Angeles Opera Company’s April performance of Walter Braunfels’ The Birds, part of a series titled “Recovered Voices.” These are works by Jewish composers and musicians that were banned by the elected German Chancellor Adolph Hitler before and during the WWII era’s Holocaust and have been nearly forgotten.

Aristophanes’ play The Birds is a “comedy” written around 430 B.C. that pokes at the antics of Greek politics, specifically Athens’ leader Cleon, and at what was termed “the noble lie” at the time. The plot — VERY briefly described — follows the trek of two disgruntled humans who are lead by a raven and a crow toward a life among the birds which they are assured will be free from strife. You can imagine that there’s a bit of Plato’s philosopher-king tossed in for good measure. And with characters named “a sycophant” you can imagine how in the Germany of the 1930s a man with Braunfels’ talent might see some sardonic fun in using this plot to frame a libretto for his very solid musical creation.

Only minutes into my ironing the iron gave out: not enough heat and not enough steam. On the drive to the local Target — my wife went along — I continued to listen to Braunfels’ haunting music. Our beeline to the shelf and through the checkout line took only minutes, but on the way my eye caught an item in that area where picture frames are marketed. It was a 24″ x 36″ framed poster of Barack Obama and the text “Yes, We Can…” at the top. There was more text — the entire ‘yes we can’ speech. No, Really!

I asked my wife, “Did Dayton Hudson get TARP money?”

As we walked out to the car a guy with arms and legs full of tattoos was escorting a scantly dressed woman equally decorated and pierced into the store. I made a remark to my wife. She responded, “You don’t get out enough.”

At home I unpacked the new iron and began the process of dismantling the protections made mandatory by the same kind of folks who hadn’t bothered to read HR 2454. First the plastic tie that loops through the holes in the plug tips. You have to cut it away. As I untwisted the wire that bound the cord I noticed and took time to read the attached white label.

Warning: The power cord on this product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.

I learned to iron when I was in sixth grade after my mom went to work to earn the extra money that paid for my brother and I to have orthodontic braces: a gift for which I will be eternally grateful. Her lessons and my vast experience in ironing has paid off in unnamed ways. It was the era when what today we’d call Chinos or Khaki trousers replaced Levi’s for a time. It was also the era before clothes dryers; and one of the devices to make pressing your pants easier were metal stretchers that gave the air dried pants a rough crease to perfect. Ironing can refine one’s eye for detail.

As I listened to Braunfels’ melodies and maneuvered the iron around the yoke of each shirt in a process developed over time but yielding to modification for the short sleeved “polo” shirts on the pile I allowed myself to be drawn to those days in the early 60′s when the Ivy League style predominated and the button at the back of the collar just above that centered pleat prevailed. There was also a buckle on the back of the trousers, above the pockets and just below the belt loops. I also thought about things like why women’s blouses button the opposite way from men’s shirts. I wondered if a “Kingston Trio” CD wouldn’t be more appropriate than Braunfels’ opera on the radio.

It just may be for me that ironing is right in there with yard work. A time for reflection that also allows bona fide, measurable results relatively quickly and without malice toward another. I’m not sure that people reflect so much on things these days. That vote on HR 2454 last week seems to confirm my hunch.

Simple, mundane tasks can direct us. And while I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject I have a sneaking suspicion that something was lost and ordered liberty may have began to unravel with the introduction of the inherent lie of “permanent press.” That wrinkled look of wash and wear may excuse ironing, but what’s replaced that saved time? Certainly not paying more attention to who’s being elected or what Target is hawking in their stores.

Walter Braunfels might have had some advice for us about what posters of a political leader for sale in a store can portend but he died in 1954. But there are clues as in stories like The Birds.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

For Father’s Day last Sunday, I asked for and was given Mark Levin’s book Liberty and Tyranny. It’s only 205 pages if you don’t count the footnotes, but it’s Wednesday and I’ve only read 47 pages and the Epilogue, and the type is big and pages only 6” x 9”.

I’m not a fast reader. Dennis Prager admits to reading lots of things out loud and I have a tendency to do the same thing, especially if I want to clearly understand what I’m reading. It took me forever to read Brothers Karamazov or as my daughter calls it, “Brothers K”. And I have plenty of things I’m half way through. I do have other stuff on my plate.

So it’s amazing to me that with all the hope and change being discussed and voted on in Congress these days, that the laws being proposed and voted on — laws, some of which we can down load in massive pdf files — have been read and inwardly digested by the elected representatives who will vote on our behalf. I’ve looked at some of them and spent some time trying to figure out all they portend. Energy, Bailouts, Banking Regulation, Healthcare, Union Elections.

I’m not a fast reader. But some of these proposed laws are over a thousand pages long. And some of these lawmakers sound like people who’ve never read a book, even out loud.

So I ask any of you to give me some help on this. The Waxman-Markey bill is over 800 pages. It contemplates jacuzzi settings and prohibits the illumination of art work. Notwithstanding the amount of time it takes to read the proposal, what kind of person would take the time to compose such a dictate? How many jacuzzis are there? More or less than illuminated paintings?

And how did the Founders manage to get a country going with a document we can still read over a cup of coffee — either silently or out loud?

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, June 18, 2009

Evidently, the Obama campaign’s success has attracted imitators. From the People’s Weekly World:

CHICAGO — The Communist Party USA has established a new Religion Commission to strengthen its work among religious people and organizations. In its leadership are activists representing various religious traditions from around the country. Tim Yeager, a Chicago trade unionist and a member of the Episcopal Church, serves as its chair.

“We want to reach out to religious people and communities, to find ways of improving our coalition work with them, and to welcome people of faith into the party,” Yeager said.

I hesitate to say that “reaching out to religious people” is ever a bad thing, but… if this means a renewed effort to demonstrate some kind of compatibility between Marxism and Christianity, then we’ve seen this movie before. It was called liberation theology and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pretty well settled the question back in 1984 and 1986 (at least as far as Catholics are concerned) in documents promulgated by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The CDF carefully distinguished genuinely Christian forms of ‘liberation theology’ from objectionable versions, but it explained clearly that and why the categories of Marxist analysis and Christian theology are fundamentally incompatible.

The CPUSA recognizes the delicacy of the situation: “Yeager acknowledged that relations between some Marxist parties and religious institutions in other parts of the world have been marked by conflict.” Yes, such as Russia, Hungary, Albania, Lithuania, Cuba, China, Korea, and Vietnam, for starters. Although “marked by conflict” doesn’t seem quite to capture the phenomenon of churches and religious believers systematically targeted for annihilation by totalitarian states informed by an atheist ideology that views faith in Jesus Christ as delusional and a dangerous obstacle to progress.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Thursday, June 4, 2009

My essay on the Constitution, judicial activism and the “living document” trope is here at The American Spectator. Here’s one passage:

This brings us to the central irony. The very people most inclined to gush about our “living Constitution” treat it like a Mr. Potato Head:

Ooh, states rights. Let’s pop that off and replace it with a metastasizing Commerce Clause. Oh, and look here in my pocket. A constitutional right to redefine the age-old institution of marriage. Oh and let’s tack this one on, too — a constitutional right to kill a half born baby and throw whatever’s left in the garbage. If anyone complains, we’ll call it “the constitutional right to privacy.”

It’s time to pause and take the living-document metaphor seriously. Living things have an internal logic, have functional constraints. They aren’t endlessly malleable. You can’t replace grandpa’s liver with a second heart just because you think livers are passé — unless you intend to kill grandpa.

From Philip Jenkins at Foreign Policy:

Ironically, after centuries of rebelling against religious authority, the coming of Islam is also reviving political issues most thought extinct in Europe, including debates about the limits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to proselytize. And in all these areas, controversies that originate in a Muslim context inexorably expand or limit the rights of Christians, too. If Muslim preachers who denounce gays must be silenced, then so must charismatic Christians. At the same time, any laws that limit blasphemous assaults on the image of Mohammed must take account of the sensibilities of those who venerate Jesus.

The result has been a rediscovery of the continent’s Christian roots, even among those who have long disregarded it, and a renewed sense of European cultural Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony.

A few weeks back, I posted a version of the famed Richard John Neuhaus/Rockford Institute break-up incident. The story there was that the break-up happened because Neuhaus overspent the Institute’s budget on conferences after having been ordered to cancel them. That version of the story came from John Howard, who used to run the Rockford Institute a number of years ago. Howard’s version was new to me. I’d mainly heard the rumblings about ideological discontent and jumped at the chance to shed a little light on a longtime mystery.

Joseph Bottum, who now runs First Things, offers more discussion about the incident on page 69 of the June/July issue of the magazine. He reiterates the story of ideological animus, but does provide some reinforcement to the budget/conference planning story I mentioned before. However, according to Bottum there was a conference Neuhaus was ordered to cancel, but he refused because the planning was too far along and he had raised adequate earmarked funds. So, Howard’s story is that Neuhaus went beyond his mandate and the Neuhaus story is that Rockford crawfished on a deal!

I was thrilled to see the discussion continued at FT, but I have one small objection. Dr. Howard is presented in the short piece as bringing Neuhaus in for some “knocks” on the occasion of his death. That part isn’t really fair. In the conversation I had with Howard (who is probably an octogenarian), he was very complimentary of Father Neuhaus and clearly respected his body of work. I asked him to tell me the story and he did. Tone doesn’t come across in the typed word many times. That applies here. Dr. Howard was clearly proud of having been associated with Father Neuhaus and of having hired him.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, May 29, 2009

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) web site has a new page devoted to Catholic teaching on the economy. It is essentially a reorganization of existing resources, and it does helpfully provide access to the various bishops’ statements over the course of the last couple decades, as well as Vatican sources such as the Catechism and encyclicals.

Here is not the place to revisit the whole question of the USCCB and its economic proposals and statements. Suffice it to say that, in my view, its approach has been moving in a positive direction since the release of the problematic 1987 document, Economic Justice for All. There is more focus on principles: the Catholic Framework for Economic Life (1996), and the related Ten Principles with Reflection Questions push the conscientious Catholic in the right direction, without specifying policy stands that are contingent and debatable.

Phil Lawler over at Catholic Culture has written a brief and insightful piece that addresses a question frequently asked, “Is Catholic Social Teaching Inherently Liberal?” It is worth a read. Excerpt:

The Church clearly teaches that the moral duty of all believers to help those in need, to exercise the “preferential option for the poor.” But is it self-evident that the effort to fight poverty should be waged through impersonal government programs, supported by mandatory taxation, rather than by the freewill offerings of charitable donors? Is it self-evident that the federal government should supervise these anti-poverty programs, although the principle of subsidiarity would seem to militate in favor of local solutions to local problems and individual approaches to needy individuals? Is there a prima facie case for allowing the Church’s own charitable efforts to be subsumed into the tax-subsidized programs, so that “Catholic Charities” is for all practical purposes a government agency?

These questions are rarely raised when parish “justice and peace” committees meet. The conservative Catholics who make make these arguments are generally not members of those committees; they are already too busy with their work on the pro-life committees! So liberal Catholics eventually come to take it for granted that what seems so obvious to them must be equally obvious to their fellow Catholics. They are genuinely surprised to learn that some faithful Catholics are not enthralled by the promise of an Obama presidency, even apart from issues involving the dignity of life.