Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

A 9th grader recently asked a great question as we recently wrapped up our study of the Roman empire.  “Suppose that we could freeze Augustus (a great political genius) at the peak of his abilities and power and have him live forever. Would Rome still have eventually collapsed?”  The question immediately grabbed me, for it touches not just on Augustus, not just on Rome itself, but on the idea of decline and death in general.

We can look at this question in a number of ways:

  • We can imagine Augustus as a hypothetically perfect ruler who never makes mistakes.  But other Roman mortals would make mistakes, and these would eventually bring Rome down.
  • Or we can see neither Augustus or his fellow Romans as perfect.  But led continually by Augustus at his peak, the Romans would always be able, at minimum, to tread water and never sink, despite whatever mistakes and sins they commit.
  • Or we can see the question as a musing on the whether or not decline has any purpose in a grand theological sense.  Supposing the near-perfection of Augustus and his fellow Romans, would God still “want” Rome’s decline?

I will speculate on this third option in hopes that it will cover the first two.

When we speak of God “wanting” something we immediately enter the delicate waters of His sovereignty and our free will.  Without commenting on this too much, we can safely say that God uses sin and evil to accomplish His purposes — and His main purpose is to save mankind at all times and places from their sins.  Many, for example, turn to God in the midst of suffering.  Does this mean that God wants us to suffer?  Again, it depends — He could prevent it, but often chooses not to because He knows suffering is always a key ingredient in Christian discipleship. The suffering we experience may be a direct result of our sin, the sins of others, or perhaps have no direct connection to sin at all (i.e. the Book of Job). In this latter case, God asks that we submit to a mystery we cannot understand.  The history of God’s people gives volumes of evidence for all of these. Might we say the same holds true, then, of nations and empires?

In the Greek world there existed Nemesis, who punished pride, and Tyche, who distributed blessings and “misfortune” throughout for purposes unknown to men.  In other words, suffering in the Greek cosmos might result from sin and it might not.  The Medievals pick up on this notion and see “Lady Fortune” as one of God’s agents in the world to work His purposes.  A person’s rise and fall might have something to do with their virtues or sins respectively, and thus teach him some lesson.  Or it might have another, unseen purpose, and the “lesson” from these events may or may not have anything to do with a person’s sin at all.  Perhaps a person’s rise and fall was just something they, or the people as a whole, needed to experience, either to prevent them from falling into pride (God disperses the people at the Tower of Babel not so much because of their existing pride but to prevent their future pride — the division of languages is a mercy), or for some other unknown reason.

Nebuchadnezzar’s famous dream in Daniel 2 touches on the same question.  God gives Nebuchadnezzar a vision of the rise of fall of many kingdoms, and Daniel tells us that,

“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue,awesome in appearance.  The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay.  While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.”

This dream strikes me not as one of judgment (unlike in Daniel 4), nor one of warning (as was the dream Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh).  Rather, Daniel just describes simply the way things will be.  And the purpose of this rising and falling is not so much to judge sin, but to shine the proper attention on the everlasting kingdom to come.   Babylon’s fall is simply part of God’s plan to redeem mankind, and one not connected directly to their sin.  Can we extrapolate this idea to other nations not mentioned?  Indeed, surely any nation or kingdom could be judged at any time for their sins, but such is not God’s way, it seems.  We must be careful in wishing too much for God’s justice, lest we get it. Perhaps the mystery of His sovereignty is a safer place to reside.

Regarding the student’s question then, I think we can answer in the negative.  Even if Augustus ruled perfectly and Romans lived more or less righteous lives, God works in ways to prevent us from getting too attached to any particular earthly order.  Understanding the redemptive power and purpose of suffering then, forms a necessary foundation for understanding History itself.

When we lose this perspective on life death becomes something to cheat — death grows more menacing than even God intended, for He means suffering and death prepare us for new and fuller life, not as a mere termination of life itself.  But this truth stands in jeopardy today.  We see young people delaying marriage, we see abortion perhaps largely because of fears and suffering that come with raising a child,* and we see the expansion of legal suicide — death without suffering.  Refusal to accept our finitude, then, brings more death, not less.

Such are the lessons of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.


*The traditional marriage ceremony clearly stands as a death-new life ritual, especially for the bride.  She, the spotless sacrifice (she wears white) gets led to the altar.  She walks down the aisle, led by the father, to the altar.  “Mary Smith” is “sacrificed,” but she arises again to new life as “Mary Jones.”   The Christological implications of His Church as the bride are obvious.  We too must die so that we can become new creations, and we too receive a new name.  “I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it,” (Rev. 2:17).

Similarly, anyone who has been a parent can testify to the death of an old way of life that arrives with our bundles of joy.  And of course, it is the woman again who images for us most profoundly the death-new life ritual as she gives of her body for her children.

Gender roles are not absolute in every sense.  But when we alter the genders involved in marriage we obscure a gift of revelation from God, we destroy an image of salvation.  Perhaps too, not having this truth as the foundation for marriage has led to the rise of divorces.  Modern notions of marriage make it about personal fulfillment — the marriage will enhance and fulfill you as the individual.  But in reality marriage is instead about imaging and living death-new life in Christ. Marriage involves a kind of death to an old way of life (for both husband and wife), which leads to new life and new creation.  But unless a seed dies, it cannot bear fruit.  Again, it should not surprise us if failure to understand what God’s purpose for us in marriage leads to failure and frustration in marriages everywhere.  Marriage should kill part of our old lives, and we should not panic when we see this taking place.


Hillaire Belloc’s “Europe and the Faith”

This is one Belloc’s most famous works, and should be read by students of Medieval history, though it is far too polemical to serve as ‘the’ text for the period.

To understand the book we should understand a bit about Belloc himself.  Born of an English mother and a French father, Belloc moved easily in both societies but perhaps felt at home in neither.  He served in the French army, but got his education in England.  His strong and unwavering Catholicism definitely made him enemies, especially in England.  He may have felt some alienation, but he loved good fights, and had no trouble finding them.

One must also glimpse the context of when he wrote this book for it to make sense.  I have not read a lot of his histories but he seemed to me have an eternal hatred against 1) The prevailing Whig interpretation of history, which saw history as one long climb out of the darkness in the wake of Rome towards the glorious & inevitable light of Victorian English society, and 2) The then-current Darwin influenced racial interpretations of European history, which saw all things good in Europe, from its “energy,” to its representative governments coming from the all-holy Nordic-Teutonic racial stock.  When he published this book W.W. I had done much to undermine the first premise,  but tragically the second was still gaining steam (Belloc gets high marks for his early and strident criticism of Nazi ideology even before they came into power).

The book makes several different arguments, all around a central theme, that of the essential unity of Europe.

He first mentions that one cannot understand European history without understanding the importance of Christian belief and the theology and history of the Church.  He takes as a type the example of the encounter between Henry II and St. Thomas Beckett.  To one outside this understanding Beckett’s attempt to try and stop Henry II from having legal jurisdiction over priests seems obstructionist and archaic at best.  Those inside see that Beckett may not have chosen the best issue to plant his flag, but he fought ultimately for the freedom and independence of the Church from the state.  Without a free Church, no people can be free in a spiritual or political sense.  If you miss this, you cannot make heads or tails of Beckett or Henry II.

Europe’s history begins, not with Rome’s fall, but from the Roman conquest of Gaul.  Nearly every historian will claim that Europe grew from seeds planted by Rome.  Belloc goes much further and argues for a great deal of continuity between the late Empire and the early Middle Ages.  And this is no mere difference of degree, but of overall perspective and purpose.  He argues that the pseudo-racial theory of hardy German barbarians sweeping down from the north to end Rome has no basis in fact whatsoever.  In denying a cataclysmic end to Rome from without, we can find more Roman, and not barbarian influence, in the society that succeeded Rome, and thus more continuity in the European experience.

True, Rome incorporated barbarians into their army, and towards the end accelerated their progressivism and made many with barbarian ancestry high ranking officials and generals.  Alaric of the famous 410 sack of Rome was one such man.  He did not come to destroy Rome so much as claim his rightful place in it.  The Battle of Adrianople in 378 stands as another such case.  Many different types of Alaric’s throughout the waning phase of Rome fought each other, but for supremacy to rule what they held dear.  None of them dreamt of destroying the empire’s unity, otherwise what would they rule over?

Radagaisus’ invasion, contemporary with Alaric’s turn on Rome, helps Belloc’s point as well.  For here we have a large truly barbarian force decisively beaten by the Roman army at a time when Romans were supposed to be “soft” and “decadent.”  Rome did not fall due to barbarian invasions.

This early section is the clearest and perhaps strongest of the book, but then I think he goes too far.  Perhaps carried away by the fight and the truths he latches onto, he buys into the idea that we cannot really speak of a decisive “fall” of Rome at all.  Instead we should envision and steady, gradual transition from one way of life to another, like easing into a hot-tub.  His theory couldn’t have credence if it had no truth to it, and Belloc cites some linguistic and administrative evidence to back it up.  But  to my mind he goes too far, for a great deal of different evidence shows a large drop off in other kinds of measures of health and well-being, like travel, trade, navigation, writing, etc.  We need not conclude that if Rome did not fall to barbarians, that it had no fall at all.

Belloc then moves on to discuss certain key aspects of the medieval church, specifically their fight against central authority.  They sought spiritual unity, not political unity, for no man can serve two masters.  He also points out that the Christianity developed in such a way to become to very essence of Europe.  We might speak of Stoicism, but not Christism. Christianity for medievals formed not “a way of life,” but the essence of life, with the Church’s life inseparable from that of any individual.

Belloc never lived to see Vatican II, and that may have been a blessing.  He was an old-school absolute Catholic in every respect, so he had no love for the Reformation, which he holds responsible for destroying the 1500 year unity of the continent.

First, his argument:

1. The medieval synthesis faced enormous challenges from within and without.  From without, the Black Plague, the march of Islam, etc. all put enormous pressure upon society.  From within, the natural waxing and waning of any civilization’s ethos was in a waning period, and thus medieval society found itself unable to deal with these challenges.  Belloc writes, “The spiritual hunger of the time was not fed.  [Society’s] extravagance was not exposed to solvent of laughter or the flame of sufficient indignation.”

Belloc admits that the 15th century had many problems, and many from different quarters talked of the need for reform.

2. But he believes that the Reformation had nothing particularly positive to offer.  Protestantism had an essentially negative and narrowing character, as each sect picked its pet doctrines and blew them out of their natural proportion.

3. The Reformation would have petered out had it not been for England.  Before England, nearly everywhere the Reformation took hold stool outside the old Roman empire (Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland), and thus outside the essential Roman unity of Europe, which the Reformation could not challenge.  England’s defection not only meant that a powerful independent country could lend support to the cause, but most crucially, it broke the pattern of those within Rome’s ancient reach maintaining fidelity to unity, which gave legitimacy to the Reformation as a whole.  Again, without this, he believes the Reformation would have gone the way of Arianism.

4. The Reformation sprang from some noble motives, but ended up severing the soul of Europe. In breaking the spiritual unity, they altered the place of the individual, with terrible results.  Belloc writes,

The grand effect of the Reformation was isolation of the soul.  This was its fruit.  In the first place and underlying all, the isolation of the soul releases in society a furious new accession of force.  The breakup of any stable system in physics, as in society, makes actual a prodigious reserve of potential energy.

This isolation produced a society that swayed from one desperate void-filling attempt to another.  They went from

  • Worship of absolute civil governments, which began in Protestant areas and found its way into France
  • A desperate pursuit of knowledge (i.e. Scientific Revolution)
  • A flight first to reason (Englightenment), then to emotion (Romanticism), which having exhausted itself, left us only to pursue money and material gain (unbridled capitalism in the Industrial Revolution, which Belloc regards as a great evil).
What can we make of Belloc’s arguments?
  • Belloc has much to praise about the Renaissance, stating that the era continued much of the great things medievals started.  But during the Renaissance many of the things Belloc deplores had their origin, like the banking empire of the Catholic (nominally?) D’Medici’s, or the exaltation of the political sphere in Machiavelli.
  • Surely also the Church’s political maneuvering during the Middle Ages contributed to the problem of spiritual sterility in the 15th century.  They played a tight game of fostering political disunity while trying to enhance overall spiritual unity.  But this put them in the position of helping to create the monster that destroyed them, for in the end the political disunity they fostered became a tool for the Reformation to use to their advantage.  It also made the Catholic Church part of the troubled system.  Not standing outside it, they could offer no solution.
  • He asserts that the Reformation had an almost exclusively negative character, but misses the positive aspects of some reformers, notably Luther.  Clearly the Reformation also produced some great culture, Bach, Rembrandt, etc.
  • To accept a Refomation = Bad, Renaissance = Good argument, one must believe in the basic continuity between the Medieval & Renaissance eras.  But I think that more discontinuity presents itself, that the Renaissance began at least the aesthetic narrowing of Europe that the early Reformation built upon.
  • To his great credit, Belloc admits the ultimate spiritual sterility of even the greatest Catholic humanist voices, like that of Erasmus.  Whether justified or no, the Reformation filled a spiritual vacuum that the Catholic church could not fill in the state it was in.
  • Finally, the Catholic church did its fair share of pushing Luther out of the fold.  They helped create the Reformation.  One could go farther and claim that the Reformation gave the Church a needed kick in the seat of their pants to get their own house in order.  The Catholic revival of the mid-late 16th century (which produced such great witnesses as St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, among others) might not have happened without the Reformation.
So all in all, I do not believe that the Reformation deserves the treatment Belloc gives it.  But I agree with him that the Reformation exacerbated some key negative trends within Europe at the time, and that the lasting fruit of the Reformation is a mixed bag.  It did not heal Europe’s wounds — in some cases it opened them further, and did contribute (without being the only contributor) to many of our modern problems.  One can assert the necessity of the Reformation, but I would not want to make it into a golden age that “rescued” the Church and Europe.  Also, when thinking about Europe Belloc leaves the East out of the discussion entirely, and so gives no credence at all to the possibility of a third path in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Fast forward to today, and I can’t help wondering what Belloc would think of the European Union. Would he applaud it as the beginning of the healing of the harms began (in his view) during the Reformation?  I think not, and I imagine his reaction going something like,
  • Europe has recognized what Napoleon also saw, that every war in Europe had the quality of a civil war. So, kudos to them for seeing the problem.
  • But — they look for a cure in all the wrong places.  First, they have tried to impose unity in an administrative, “top-down” style where the people have little direct say in important policies.  Such an approach is bound to fail.
  • Second, they fail to recognize that from ca. 500 AD on, Europe had spiritual unity but never administrative and political unity.  Thus, they try to give Europe what it never had at the expense of what held them together in the first place.  Their focus almost exclusively on trade, currency, monetary policy, etc. shows their blindness to the true problems they face.

Belloc states in his famous conclusion to the book,

Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.

A Theology of Time

Very few would place Bach anywhere outside of one of the top musical masters in history.  He has universal praise and admiration for his talent, innovation, and inspiration.  Personally for me, Bach stands at the top, with Beethoven a very close second.  I have yet to read a full-fledged Bach biography, but those that I have glanced at so far turned me off by phrases like, “A man of great musical genius and simple faith,” or “His outstanding musical ability contrasts with his unadorned faith,” or some other such sentiment.

Certainly having a “simple” faith should be praised, if by the term one means something akin to purity of trust, or as Aquinas might have used the term, i.e. “unclouded.”  But I doubt that the authors intend this meaning of the word. Instead I get the impression that they mean something like, “Bach poured his genius into his music while rubber-stamping his faith.” Jaroslav Peikan’s Bach Among the Theologians dispels these notions once and for all, and shows Bach to have thought deeply about theological concerns, which he expressed not in letters, memoirs, or treatises but in his music.

Pelikan first sets the context of Bach’s music within the Reformation as a whole.  Living on this side of the Reformation many may take certain things about worship for granted.  Before the Reformation, churches had musicians, “striving for perfection in the true style of this music, a a performance far removed from subjective expression and concert effectiveness” that often centered around Gregorian chant.  The dissolution of this heritage opened up new possibilities for good and evil.  Granted, Pelikan admits that Protestant worship music might tend to take on a “performance” character, and hence the horrifying “worship leader” stereotype, which must be one of the worst inheritances of the Reformation. On the other hand, we had the introduction of congregational singing and participation in the service.  And while I do think that the Reformation should have kept the baby and at least some of the bathwater from their medieval past, the changes allowed Bach to develop music along a “concert-like” character and forge a whole new style of church music.

But Pelikan does not start his work here.  Instead he contextualizes Bach’s work within the Church calendar as a whole.  Luther himself kept many so-called Catholic “trappings,” with the Church calendar as a whole. Of course the vast majority of Bach’s works were commissioned for worship settings, and the church calendar dictated at least something of the tone and style of Bach’s work.  Here we can make two conclusions, one rather obvious, and the other less so:

  • Artists in the modern era often talk of the need for them to be free to create what they wish.  I think this idea would have struck people in earlier eras as rather odd.  The artist had a job like anyone else. We should not assume that strictures such as “commissions,” and “orders” restrict creativity. Unquestionably, the west’s greatest artists (Machiavelli, Bach, Rembrandt, etc.) did their best work under such so-called “limitations.”
  • “The liturgical year is the context in which the Church commemorates, day by day, all history.”  Pelikan reminds us that the Church calendar doesn’t merely provide a convenience, it expresses a theology of time.*  The major festivals of the church with one exception (Trinity Sunday, the latest addition to the calendar) celebrate not doctrines, but events.  The cycle of four seasons integrate our experience with that of creation as a whole.  This formed the subtle, sometimes unseen backdrop to Bach’s work.  Since much of Bach’s work, then, got commissioned to commemorate events, the possibility of more emotional and experiential content in his music.

Bach never wavered from his staunchly confessional Lutheran perspective.  He appears not to have thought much about ever joining a different church.  Some might use this to support the “simple faith” thesis of Bach, but Pelikan shows that Bach interacted with many different prevailing ideas of his time and yet was captured by none of them. Bach admired Frederick the Great and Enlightenment rationalism, with its emphasis on balance and symmetry, and muted sensibility.  We see this influence in his Well Tempered Clavier, and The Art of the Fugue to great effect (Pelikan also points out the geometrical symmetry of some of his cantatas).  This is the kind of Bach music that gives you a contented sense of completion.

But unlike other somewhat contemporary artists (perhaps like Vivaldi, for example), Bach’s range extended far beyond “rationalist” confines.  To the dismay of some of his Lutheran patrons, Bach admired some aspects of the emerging Pietist movement, which stressed the importance of subjective religious experience. Pietists occupied almost the opposite point on the spectrum from the rationalists, yet Bach felt comfortable here too.  He could see that just as reason has a place in God’s economy, so too does subjective emotional experience.  Bach applied his understanding in his St. Matthew’s Passion, where he emphasizes the suffering of Jesus the individual.

In emphasizing such “subjective” emotions, Bach went against some of his staunchest Lutheran supporters (which undercuts whoever sees Bach as a mere tool of his patrons).  But in St. John’s Passion Bach picks up on that gospel’s different perspective.  In John’s narrative the resurrection receives far more attention, and the resurrection is not just Christ’s victory, but that of all mankind.  So he makes St. John’s Passion more magisterial and universal in scope.  In these different emphases Bach paid heed to the differences in the texts themselves. Matthew’s gospel has the most Old Testament references so might be described as the gospel that gets the most context, hence, the most particularity.  John wrote his gospel much later after the fall of Jerusalem, and so his account gives us more universal, grand themes.  Again we see Bach not merely as a musician in a vacuum, but using music to express theology (as I suppose all music does in one way or another).

And finally, the wilder, unhinged Bach of the B Minor Mass . . . 

Pelikan reminds us that we will not see the modern view of the artist as the man freed from all limits in Bach no matter how hard we look, however.  Yes, he innovated and tweaked sensibilities.  Yes, he refused to let one particular theological perspective bind him  But his “sacred” works (Pelikan recognizes that with Bach the line between his “sacred” and “secular” works is very thin indeed) all answered to the liturgy of the Church and its measurement of time.  If the four seasons of the year give us different perspectives and priorities, so too the Church calendar gives time itself a context.  In rooting us to all of time and mapping it out for us, the Church reminds us that God has something to say about all of our experience in His world. God’s limitations, then, are much broader, wider, and deeper than any freedoms we might imagine we grant ourselves.  No matter how hard we may try, none of us can break free from the limitations of time itself.


*This gives us a hint as to why controversies in the church surrounding say, when Easter should be celebrated seem arcane and irrelevant to us, but had much greater importance to them.

“Decline in History: The European Experience.”

The back cover of this book by James K. Thompson proclaims that, “there are few comparative studies available” of theories of decline,” whereas “growth” gets all the attention.  This seems false to me. Hollywood can’t go more than a few weeks without making a movie about huge disasters and the end of all things.  Americans, at least, seem to be continually questioning themselves and pondering our place in the cosmos.  Historians too, going back to Thucydides at least, seem in general more drawn to decline than growth.  And admittedly for me, the title Decline in History: The European Experience in itself got me to look at the book in the first place.  It seems that I, like everyone else, have decline on the brain.

Thompson sets out to first examine two basic approaches to decline taken in the 20th century, and then see via synthesis whether or not he can come up his own grand theory.  In past centuries theories of decline had their roots in the actions of men, and here I don’t mean “mankind” generally but men as political leaders most particularly.  Not much else got examined.  In the early 20th century Spengler and Toynbee changed this standard approach and saw the actions of people in general against a back drop of a process of growth and decay that had either the dread inevitability of death about it (Spengler) or the great likelihood of human actions adding up to eventual failure (Toynbee).

Enter into the arena the Fernand Braudel, a patient, meticulous genius who rebelled utterly from the standard way of viewing decline.  He looked at everything but people and instead focused on climate, the soil, geographical positioning, and observed slight changes over time.*  So, Portugal was doomed not so much by what it did as by the fact that their forests could never keep up with their shipbuilding, thus leading to an inevitable overextension in their soil.  The Mediterranean itself never had high quality soil.  So while (perhaps following Toynbee) this initially presented a great challenge and brought out an inspired response from those who lived there, no amount of human ingenuity could fundamentally change nature.  The receding tide of Mediterranean dominance was written under the soles of their feet.

Other 20th century historians followed Braudel armed with a Marxist approach that focused on social class, such as Michael Mann.  Success in any civilization raises the standard of living for the middle class.  This middle class then aspires to join the aristocracy, or at least emulate their habits.  This results in exploitation of the lower classes and with that, an attendant social and political decay.  Thus for Braudel and Mann, success, exploitation, and decline all go together, whether in the soil or in the mass of humanity.

Thompson attempts to glean from these approaches (with a few others thrown in as well) and come up with his own approach.  I liked his broad spectrum approach, and some of his examples show give great illumination into what happens with decline across different civilizations.

Historically rises in power, and shifts in power, tend to have two main characteristics.  One is proximity to the coast, for coastal regions will lead to fruitful contact with other civilizations.  The second factor in significant and sustained growth lies in the coastal region’s proximity to another great power of different aspect, allowing for progress arising out of a dynamic synergy.  So Greece’s proximity to Egypt presaged a shift from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean.  Venice’s location on Italy’s northeastern coast gave them beneficial interaction with Byzantium.  So Venice’s decline in power might have less to do with Venice and more to do with the Moslem conquest of Byzantium by 1453.  Now the possibility of fruitful interaction ended, and the “center of gravity” shifted away from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic.  This gave Portugal the early advantage in the next growth cycle.

But for Thompson growth and decline involve more than geographic position.  Portugal’s quick rise had something to do with geography, but also to the dominance of the aristocracy with a high-born and heroic ideal.  As De Tocqueville states, aristocratic societies will eagerly jump into the fray when competition, honor, and glory beckon.  They are bred for that sort of thing, and perhaps this explains (along with their geography) why   Thompson then suggests that perhaps Portugal held onto their empire for longer than we might expect due to the tenacity of the peasant class seeping into the Portuguese ethos.  But it was this lack of a strong merchant middle-class that meant that they could not really implement their enormous gains and diffuse them into the whole of society.  Imagine one getting first to Thanksgiving dinner, gorging oneself, but lacking proper digestion.  Everything would sit in the belly with none of the nourishment passed to the body, immobilizing the unfortunate eager diner.

Thompson shows himself torn between the deterministic Braudel/Mann and the more fluid Jonathan Israel, who focused on politics.  It does appear, however, that he has little time for theories of growth and decline that focus on individual rulers.  He offers a lengthy summary of Charles Diehl’s work on Byzantium, whose “traditional interpretation” focuses mainly on the influence of their emperors.  Thompson prefers other sociological factors, namely,

A transitional state, between Antiquity and the medieval world, one too whose quixotic obsession with preserving the imperial ideal [agreeing with Toynbee’s spiritual analysis of Byzantium] caused it to clash continuously with new economic, social, and political developments, thus, not altogether surprisingly, can be seen to have experienced the type of decline associated with both types of civilization.

Based on Thompson’s brief summary, I think I would have more sympathy with Diehl than he.  But Diehl himself suggests an interesting point of confluence between the political and sociological perspectives when he argues that at a certain point, Byzantium issues lay beyond the help of any one ruler.  Eventually concrete sets in that requires a catastrophe to loosen.  I like this approach of synthesizing different approaches, but few historians have the necessary nimbleness of mind, personality, and the patience of research to achieve this.  Perhaps that leaves us layman needing to seek out different writers with different strengths and different points of view.

*I have tried (feebly) to read Braudel and failed on multiple occasions.  How he gathered his research, how he had the patience to do so, is beyond me.  I do think, however, that while his methods have much to commend them, writing history without focusing on people seems too clever by half.