An Image of the East

[This review first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Chronicles.]

It is a cliché among Byzantinists that too few people in the world, especially in the West, know anything about Byzantium, so there is no doubt that more works of “popular synthesis” that make this Christian successor to the Roman Empire in the East accessible to a broader audience are greatly needed.  Colin Wells sets out to provide one with Sailing From Byzantium, his overview of the rich legacy of Byzantium to the Latin West and the Islamic and Slavic worlds.  Wells has studied with the great Byzantinist Speros Vryonis and has a more or less solid grasp of the sweep of Byzantine history.  As a general introduction to the Byzantine inheritance that might inspire the general reader to learn more, Wells’ book is mostly acceptable, but, on a number of important topics, his explanations and descriptions are not always reliable or entirely accurate.  Most importantly, on vitally significant religious questions, Wells shows that he is not interested in taking the sages of Byzantium standing in God’s holy light as the “singing-masters” of his soul.  This alienation from the Byzantine religious imagination that interwove rational discourse, rhetoric, and spirituality severely undermines some of his statements about the nature of the phenomena he is describing.

Wells has divided the book into three sections, one for each neighboring “civilization” Byzantium influenced: the West, the Islamic world, and the Slavs.  He does best when he discusses the intricacies of Byzantine-Latin intellectual connections in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries in the first part, as he traces the personal and scholarly links between such figures as the 14th-century anti-Hesychast Barlaam and Petrarch, or between Manuel Chrysoloras and the numerous Florentine humanists who began learning their Greek from him, or between the reformist friar Savonarola and Maxim the Greek.  Those familiar with the general outlines of Renaissance Italy and Western Europe’s debt to Byzantine exiles for reintroducing the Greek language to the West will appreciate this section, though, admittedly, it is the best-known part of the story of Byzantium’s legacy.

Wells does what he can in the section on the Islamic world, correctly noting the role of Syrian Christian scholars in introducing their Muslim rulers to Greek science and mathematics.  He also tells the familiar story of the conflicts between Islam and philosophy.  One such conflict occurred in the ninth century, when the Muslim rationalism of the Muta’zila briefly peaked and then suffered obliteration at the hands of the adherents of the far more widespread and common form of Islam, to which the Muta’zila had always been an elite and scholarly exception.  However, Wells inaccurately equates the significantly different mysticism of the Muslim theologian Ghazali with that of the later Byzantine theologian and saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359), quite falsely claiming that Palamas “rejected the idea that reason can say anything meaningful about God at all,” when the core of what is sometimes called Palamism is the belief that rational demonstration in theology is possible precisely because God has revealed Himself to men through His energies.  In his overbearing enthusiasm for “humanists” and rationalism, Wells has managed to impute to Gregory Palamas the extreme apophatic view about God that his opponent Barlaam held (i.e., that God is utterly unknowable).  When Wells holds up this same Barlaam as an important “rationalist” and an early conduit of Byzantine learning to Italy, it is all the more damaging to his account of the Hesychast controversy (1338-51) discussed below.  Barlaam was such a conduit, but that does not give any reason for the simplistic divisions between antirational monks and rationalist “humanists” in Byzantium that Wells makes partly on account of Barlaam’s association with the early Italian humanists.

As this example shows, Wells fumbles most often when he attempts to describe or interpret specifically religious and doctrinal matters that arose over the course of the empire’s history.  Elsewhere, he repeats a standard but largely rejected canard that non-Chalcedonians (i.e., monophysites) “often” welcomed the Islamic invaders in the seventh century as “liberators,” when there is no evidence of this and, in fact, important evidence to the contrary.  (For example, the seventh-century Coptic bishop and chronicler John of Nikiu denounced the Chalcedonians for bringing ruin upon the Roman empire that non-Chalcedonians regarded as theirs and viewed the coming of Islam with dismay.)  In another place, Wells simply errs in his descriptions of major heresies when he says that Nestorianism emphasized the humanity, and mono-physi-tism, the divinity, of Christ, when the crucial difference among all Christological doctrines of the period was the nature of the relationship between two complete natures.  (More cringe-inducing is Wells’ off-hand comparison of Nestorianism and Arianism, when the two have essentially nothing in common and Nestorius himself was vehemently anti-Arian.)  Elsewhere, he alludes to the “monochrome, iconless Constantinople” of the iconoclastic period, evidently unaware that iconoclasts were not strictly devoted to aniconism and continued to accept symbolic, animal, and vegetal art in churches.  (Figural images—especially of Christ—and the veneration of such images were offensive to the iconoclasts, not church art per se.  Unfortunately, these are common enough mistakes in such cursory explanations of Byzantine religion, but they are all the more unsatisfactory in a popular work where the intended audience can be expected to know little about the topic.

Most vexed and troubling is his treatment of Hesychasm in the first and third parts.  Built on the ancient monastic spiritual practice of constant prayer, Hes-ychasm is the cultivation of stillness (hes-ychia), and commonly refers to the mystical theology associated with the spiritual experience and knowledge of the Hes-ychasts.  The word also refers to the doctrines most closely associated with St. Gregory Palamas that concern the distinction between the energies and essence of God and the emphasis on the uncreated nature of God’s light as perceived at the Transfiguration of Christ and in the experiences of the saints.  Wells’ treatment of Hesychasm forms a dominant theme throughout the book and constitutes a major part of his explanation of the introduction of Byzantine “humanism” into Italy and Byzantine spirituality into the Slavic world.  While Wells does recognize the significance of the phenomenon, his interpretation of Hesychasm itself will leave many Palaeologan-era scholars and Orthodox theologians baffled and frustrated.  By way of emphasizing how important Hesy-chasm was as an “engine” of the intellectual ferment of the second Byzantine “renaissance,” Wells restates the untenably stark opposition between rationalistic humanists and obscurantist monks that has so plagued most studies of Hes-ychasm, in particular, and Byzantine religion, in general.

Insofar as Sailing From Byzantium seeks to make Byzantium appear relevant and interesting to a wider audience by showing the debt that at least three civilizations owe to the Byzantines, it is a commendable effort.  At the same time, it relates Byzantium to the audience in terms of its afterlife, the survival of its influence in later centuries, which tends to reinforce conventional views of Byzantium as the bridge back to Greek antiquity, as the means of transmission of the classical heritage to the early modern world, or as the conveyor of Christianity to the Slavs.  While these things are all part of the story, Byzantium was more than this: a civilization in its own right that should be able to capture the popular imagination without being made immediately relevant to the audience.  To the extent that Wells’ volume repeats the stereotypes that work to reduce Byzantium to a medium or transmitter, it makes the Byzantines appear to be the rather ossified and artificial civilization that their detractors have made them out to be, rather than the dynamic, adaptive, and creative people that they were.


[Sailing From Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World, by Colin Wells (New York: Delacorte Press) 368 pp., $14.00]

Daniel Larison

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and columnist for The American Conservative.

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