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…)

I don’t much like the term Calvinism. I think it is historically unhelpful, and in general prefer to use something like Reformed theology or speak about the Reformed confessions, depending on the particular context.

And I don’t much like the term capitalism, preferring instead to discuss the market economy, or perhaps, in light of the results below, free enterprise.

But while popular and intellectual usage certainly prefers the use of the former term (even if it often is caricatured or has negative connotations), it doesn’t look like the public responds too well to the latter. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a multi-year publicity campaign, but won’t be using terms like capitalism or protectionism.

BusinessWeek reports (HT: First Thoughts via The Corner) that the Chamber did some study of how particular terms are received by the public, and the results of the focus groups showed that, as Chamber spokeswoman Tita Freeman puts it, “‘Capitalism’ was universally problematic,” and was often associated with greed and oppression.

It’s true of course that particular words and terms shouldn’t simply be ceded because of potentially negative public regard. It may be that capitalism isn’t an irredeemable term (although many would contend it is an irredeemable system!).

One of Sam Gregg‘s favorite paragraphs from the encyclical Centesimus Annus discusses this terminological issue. Paragraph 42 reads, in part,

Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

Public relations campaigns aren’t typically the place where nuanced terminological arguments can be made. And so there’s some strong rhetorical support for the Chamber’s decision to talk about free enterprise rather than capitalism, but this may also reflect some deeper wisdom about the usefulness of particular terms.

This week Radio Free Acton continues its discussion on healthcare reform. Dr. Donald P. Condit and Dr. Kevin Schmiesing are back, along with host Marc VanderMaas, to talk about alternatives to the current health care proposal and ideas for reforming the system in ways that will both increase the availability of care for all who need it and make economic sense.

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Blog author: rsirico
Thursday, August 13, 2009
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The Acton Institute, and I personally, have lost one of our most enduring and earliest friends in the peaceful (and I am told, beautiful – if such a word can be used) death of Karen Laub-Novak, wife of our long-time collaborator and mentor Michael Novak.

During the time I lived in Washington, D.C., some 25 years ago, the Novak dinner table became a veritable salon of the free society. As Michael would be mixing up his magical Manhattans (where I learned to make them), Karen and I would be busy in the kitchen churning out Italian dishes: antipasti, pollo caccitore, broccolini in padella – all served into the midst of sparkling conversations and debates around that table. Here were the likes of Clare Booth Luce holding formidable court against Bill Bennett, Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb; Bob and Mary Ellen Bork would be conversing with the late Jack and Joan Kemp or Charles and Robyn Krauthammer.

Karen, an artist of note, had a natural ability in such an intellectually charged atmosphere to exude an infallible and gracious hospitality, making anyone who visited her domain feel fully at home.

A bit of beauty has gone out of the world in Karen’s passing. RIP.

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, that event visibly marked the collapse of a Communist ideology that had oppressed, tortured and killed millions for decades. But now, 20 years later, Communist authorities are once again taking aim at an old target — the Christian Church. Samuel Gregg looks at the alarming persecution of Roman Catholics in Vietnam in his commentary, “Corruption, Communism, and Catholicism in Vietnam.”

Gregg articulates the horrifying reasons for the continued persecution that Catholics in Vietnam are subject to:

Some of the reasons for this treatment of Vietnam’s Catholic Church are historical. Vietnam’s rulers are acutely aware that Catholics were among the most committed anti-Communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Many Vietnamese also identified Catholicism with French colonial rule.

This background, however, is of marginal significance in explaining the violent crackdown presently being experienced by Catholics throughout Vietnam. Put simply, it’s about government corruption.

Catholic clergy and lay Catholics are not the only target, but the property of the Catholic Church is also emerging as another target for the government:

In late 2008, for example, Vinh Long provincial officials announced their intention to “appropriate” the land of a convent of nuns which also functioned as an orphanage in order to build a hotel. More recently, land in Hanoi that the government itself acknowledges has been owned by a Catholic monastery since 1928 was simply given over by the state for residential construction.

In an era where religious tolerance is becoming more widely accepted it is disheartening to see corrupt governments still persecuting the faithful.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
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Chester E. Finn Jr. served with William J. Bennett [The Book of Virtues et al] in The Department of Education under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988 — that point in Reagan’s presidency when the talk of shutting down the Department had been abandoned.

Bennett has often quipped about his tenure while SecEd as one where he stood at the ship’s wheel turning it from starboard to port all the while not realizing that the cables connecting the wheel with the rudder had been removed. It’s a good way to explain how massive amounts of money get spent in the bureaucrat’s effort both at State and Federal levels to educate kids with a consistent result that kids emerge from public schools in great numbers functionally illiterate.

And we’re talking here about a lot of money. K-12 public education spending in the U.S. with the Obama stimulus added in will total $667 Billion this year or $13,340.00 per public school enrolled child.

Those nearly two million kids who are home schooled and win spelling bee championships are likely wincing at that number since their parents get back virtually nothing of what they pay to the tax man.

Lately we’ve used test scores to validate and measure the public school failure, and those who still head large bureaucracies have tried to tweak their systems with new plans. Bush tried “no child left behind” and Obama’s Chicago friend Arne Duncan is touting “Race to the Top.”

Just off vacation where one hopes to get refreshed, Chester Finn from his pinnacles at Hoover Institute and Fordham Foundation has published a piece at National Review Online that has me confused. He’s a friend on a lot of issues but after reading “A Constitutional Moment for American Education” I’m thinking that Checker, a welcomed nickname, has been to one too many teacher’s conferences.

First let me explain that I’m seeing almost everything government does these days through the dark glass of Obama’s attempted seizure of American social and industrial institutions. He’s trying to nationalize us. So yesterday when I was informed shortly after reading Finn’s piece at NRO that a part of the Obama Health Industry takeover included S224 the “Education Begins at Home” scheme, my heart skipped a beat. Here’s why.

The Obama “health” plan provides “Grants to States for Quality Home Visitation Programs for Families with Young Children and Families Expecting Children” [p. 840] and provides for “coordination and collaboration with other home visitation programs and other child and family services, health services, income supports and other related assistance.” Do you see the dots I’m connecting? In California such a home visitation service already exists, financed by Rob Reiner’s [Meatball] cigarette tax money. It’s cradle to grave control.

Finn’s essay is meant as a reflection of what spurred on the Founding Fathers from the days of The Articles of Confederation to passage of The Constitution — a period he describes as “political invention combined with …. nurturing” which he overlays on the conundrum American education finds itself in today. So far okay, right?

But here it gets interesting because Finn sees traditional K-12 “local control” as obsolete and frail, ill suited to urban mobility, mired in parochial assessments. At the same time he sees a President’s education mottos and marketing schemes doomed to fail because they inevitably are only trying to “make the old system work better” — and I agree with that part.

Yet Finn wants us to take characteristics that drove our Founders toward Constitution which he lists as Imagination, Statesmanship, Courage and Adaptation and apply them to a scheme of National Standards and Measures and the replacement of school “districts” with an array of “virtual or national operators.”

And he inserts into the “adaptation” paragraph a nod to Judicial power that in my opinion is one of our major problems — a concession to opinions from appointees rather than a reliance on representatives for whom we vote. Almost all proposed laws these days are passed by Congress and legislatures with vague directives from those rocket scientists to “let the courts sort it out.” Our law making is a mess and one of the reasons that few of the Congress who voted last spring on a law to penalize executives who were to receive bonus money during the bailout debacle were bothered that The Constitution forbid “ex post facto” laws. These people don’t read the bills they vote on; they don’t read The Constitution. They can’t pass a civic literacy test.

So, where goes Federalism in Finn’s suggestions? Is Checker so blind as to not see that the failures of the education system in America are the failures of the public, state run education systems?

Those Founders who managed to put our country together included John Adams who had been taught at home and with neighbor children under the guidance of divinity graduates until he went off to Harvard and sat for the bar. Most in the country were taught at home and in urban areas at parochial schools up until that time when modernity grabbed hold of our lives — until that time when The Enlightenment took hold of education and under the guidance of progressive liberals made it “public.”

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright reminds us that politicians generally gain their inspiration from the false notion that they can lead us to Utopia with promises of scientific advance and wider education. But Wright reminds us that “the utopian dream is in fact a parody of the Christian vision.” We will not be made perfect by hard work and study; but only with God’s grace.

Professor James Tooley‘s new book The Beautiful Tree is reviewed at NRO by Dan Lips. It’s a story of an emerging new kind of school in places like India and Africa and the developing world where desperately poor citizens recognize the value of an education and on their own have created a private market for it separate of the state. And it’s working.

Just another instance where elites in The United States of America have something to learn from the natives.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
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As promised, the Summer 2009 issue of The City is now available online.

In addition to my review of Blind Spot, this issue includes a host of noteworthy items, including Wilfred McClay’s essay, “The Soul & The City,” and a review by HBU provost Paul Bonicelli of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo. Bonicelli, formerly an assistant administrator for USAID, discusses how his own experience as a “foreign aid official” coheres with Moyo’s depiction of the state of affairs in international development.

“I saw the same people doing the same things over and over again,” writes Bonicelli, “heard the same mythical references to the power of aid to transform a society, and of course observed the same people and institutions ignoring the history of aid-giving–all things are made new once the cycle begins again with new tranches of money because a new program or leader is now in place.”

This issue of The City, which is available in hardcopy via a complimentary subscription, is the first to be fully available in digital format. This is worth consideration because this is a publication that I used as an example in a post exploring the state of magazines and print journals in the digital age. At that time editor Ben Domenech sent me a note discussing the journal’s desire to appear in full form online.

While searching for the right venue the editors seem to have settled, at least for now, on Zmags, which uses a browsable form that imitates the print version as well as providing the option for a full PDF download.

A Caritas in Veritate Reader

In response to the ongoing interest in Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, the Acton Institute is readying the publication of Caritas in Veritate — A Reader.

This encyclical, in all of its remarkable depth, will no doubt be the subject of thoughtful analysis for a long time to come. Later this summer, Acton will gather the best of its own commentary on Caritas and selected articles from other observers in a single volume that will be available in hard copy and in a digital format. We trust that this Reader will serve as a guide to understanding the encyclical and the thinking of Pope Benedict on important social questions. We’ll update you with information on how to purchase or download the Reader as we get closer to the publication date.

Headline Bistro, a news service of the Knights of Columbus, published a new roundup of commentary on Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate encyclical. I am joined in “Catholic Thinkers Reflect on Caritas in Veritate” by Michael Novak, Kirk Doran and Carl Anderson. Here’s the introduction and the article, which was written by Elizabeth Hansen:

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI released his much-anticipated social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. While it addressed the global economic crisis and the need for reform in business practices, the document was marked overall by its underlying premise of fostering true, integral development of the human person: a goal achieved by practicing charity in truth. Three Catholic economists and social thinkers shared their reflections on Caritas in Veritate via email correspondence with Headline Bistro.

Balance: In a word, that is what Michael Novak, Father Robert Sirico and Kirk Doran would name as the strength of Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical released one month ago today.

From discussing the pros and cons of development aid to a treatment on the theological principle of gratuitousness, the span of Caritas in Veritate is wide. The document’s suggestion of reform of the U.N. – “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth,” the English translation said – grabbed headlines in the mainstream press, while Catholics noted Benedict’s insistence that true development involves the whole human person, on a spiritual as well as economic level.

Indeed, anything beyond a superficial read of the encyclical reveals its depth, which is what makes Pope Benedict’s ability to balance numerous perspectives and proposals on the technical end – even more, to transcend them – all the more impressive. (more…)

The Bible Answer Man is in the middle of an extended, two day interview of Jay Richards, about Jay’s new book, Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. It’s the most in-depth discussion of the book I’ve encountered on the internet, and Hank Hanegraaff’s introduction alone makes it worth a listen. Yesterday’s interview is here. Today’s interview will stream here.