Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Presentism

n. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

 I saw this mosaic in the Haga Sophia. I had taken my copy of the ‘Alexiad’ with me so I could wave it about enthusiastically and mis-identify Anna Comnena’s nephew as her grandfather. I was feeling kind of drunk on history. This mosaic was made, I am informed by the interwebz, between 1118 and 1122. At that time, if you were someone old enough to have seen the Battle of Manzikert – the event we think of as the beginning of the end of the Eastern Empire - you would be pushing seventy.

When Constaninople fell to the Turks, this mosaic would have been older than James Watt’s first steam engine is to us. It would have been older than the Liberty Bell. It would have been older than the gardens planted by William of Orange to remind him of home when he reluctantly came across the Channel to be king of England. The making of that mural was separated about as far in time from Constantine XI as people living today are from the people who hung, drew, and quartered an octogenarian Catholic priest in Herefordshire with the full blessing of the government.

All of Whig history, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until now – the whole reign of the cult of progress – could fit into the time between when this mosaic was made and the fall of Constantinople.

I am not sure exactly where to go from here. 

I could just mention that all that span of time that suddenly awed me was occupied by a struggle to keep Islam out of Europe, a struggle that had begun an awfully long time before – since the first siege of Constaninople by the Arabs was in 674  – and would extend an awfully long time into the future. And I could say how incredible the presumption of our present day seem to me, that a conflict so deep and ancient, suddenly exacerbated and supercharged by the shrinking of the world by technology, is all the fault of Thomas Herzl or George W. Bush and would not have happened if we mayfly moderns had done something differently.  That it was, more broadly perhaps, all the fault of ‘Western Imperialism’ and that everyone would just get along if it wasn’t for perfidious us.

Or, I could try to enunciate the deeper and more inchoate lesson I felt this sense of awe had for me. For I am sure that there were big differences between the society John II Comnenos lived in and the society Constantine XI Paleologos lived in: they would have sounded funny to one another, no doubt, and dressed oddly in each other’s eyes. But those differences would be negligible, really, compared to things that united them. I doubt there was more change in the liturgy when they worshipped, 300 years apart, than I have seen in my lifetime. It is very easy for us to find fault with their philosophy and the way their society was organised: but these things endured.  While all our mad utopian experiments and fads and this Liberal Democracy that was supposed to be the end of history fit into this span of time that is not so very long. Maybe we are not as smart as we think we are. Maybe we should be a bit humbler before our ancestors. Maybe we should think twice before tearing down institutions that have endured for millennia. Maybe we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that ‘sovereignty derives from the people’ is what almost all of both sides of Christo-Islamic civilisation considered it for thousands of years: a heresy that leads to ruin.
These guys. YES.

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