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Human Dignity: Byzantine Political Philosophy Revisited
Rev John H Erickson, Dean
Paper presented at the Tenth Annual Educational Forum of the American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture, Tampa FL, March 3-5, 2005.
For several centuries, going back to the revolutions of the 18th century if not beyond, democratic societies of the West have acknowledged a manifold debt to classical Greek antiquity whether in the realm political theory or in political institutions, including the word and concept of democracy itself. These societies have seldom acknowledged any debt to the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages. Rather, Byzantium - whether in its thought or in its institutions – often is presented as the very antithesis of what classical Greek antiquity stood for, or, by extension, what modern societies should stand for. Byzantine thought is characterized as lacking creativity, at best devoted to preservation or sterile imitation of classical forms but with no grasp of the classical spirit. Byzantine institutions are seen as hopelessly tainted by oriental despotism.
Such views, on the one hand, fail to see the continuity of Hellenic culture. Though certainly different in many ways, the Athens of Pericles and the Constantinople of Justinian are not polar opposites! At the same time, such views fail to take into account the way in which classical Greek thought, including political thought, not only was taken over but also was transformed by its engagement with Christianity. The Christian Hellenism of the Fathers of Church, as applied in various ways in late antiquity and Byzantium, addressed the most fundamental issues raised in classical thought and life, but it did so from a radically new perspective.
The famous dictum of the Sophist Protagoras, "Man is the measure of all things," reflects the underlying anthropocentric perspective of classical antiquity. Social institutions of whatever sort were basically this-worldly, utilitarian means for maintaining stability in the face of change, disintegration and formlessness. With the coming of Christianity, and in the course of its encounter with Greek thought, this gives way to a new theocentric perspective. The worth or timê of a human being is no longer relative, always being measured in comparison to others in society. Rather, each and every human being is unique, irreplaceable and of inestimable worth, because each one, created in the image and likeness of God, is loved and valued by God. And just as each one is created by God and for God, ultimately – at the Last Day - each one will be judged by God. In this eschatological perspective, human beings – and also human history – take on new meaning. History is no longer the eternal, ceaselessly repetitive but ultimately static struggle of form against mutability, of order against chaos. Like individual human beings, history is marked by a beginning (in creation) and an end (in ultimate judgment). Its true significance can be grasped only when finite human preoccupations give way to divine infinity.
This shift in perspective needs to be taken into account when assessing Byzantine political institutions and Byzantine political philosophy. The Byzantine Empire was hardly a democracy whether in the modern sense of that word or in the ancient. In general, treatises on politics – not to mention actual institutions – favored monarchy untempered whether by oligarchy or democracy. But the rationale for monarchy was no longer simply that it enhanced the well-being of the state by maintaining order and stability in the face of change. Monarchy was valued because, in principle, it upheld the dignity and acknowledged the worth of each human person while at the same time holding each human person responsible for his or her actions.
The brilliance of classical Greek political thought is evident its critical analysis of various forms of government (which of course are not limited to democracy). But its enduring importance lies in its concern for placing politics within a broader philosophical and ethical context. What is the meaning of life? How should human beings live? What is the nature of a good and happy life? In the realm of politics, such questions lead to others: What is the proper relationship between the self and society, the personal good and the public good, the individual and the state?
Answers to these questions varied. As in Plato's dialogues, multiple voices can be heard. In the background, we hear the primordial drone of the Eumenides and their insistence on enforcement of inalterable nomos. But by the fifth century B.C. we meet, in the Sophists, a rising current of skepticism, rationalism and individualism. According to them, far from being inalterable, law can be changed according to the interests of the state, whether this state be founded by the establishment of a multilateral social contract or by the strong will and clever words of a single individual. What counts is success, measured by human will and need, and obtained through opportune adaptation to circumstances. Such a state, of course, could lend itself very easily to various forms of totalitarianism – including what might be termed "democratic totalitarianism." Subordination of the interests of individual citizens (not to mention the interests of aliens, slaves, women and other non-citizens) is particularly conspicuous in oligarchic Sparta. It appears in a more philosophical guise in the communism of Plato's Republic. But we should not forget that "the radical democracy of Periclean Athens likewise presupposed the voluntary devotion, at all cost, of the individual citizen to the interests of the state" and that it ignored altogether the interests and the very humanity of the non-citizen
At one end of the ancient Greek political spectrum, we find totalitarianism. At the other, we find the anarchism of the Cynics, who taught that the wise man is self-sufficient and does not need a state. Is there a middle way? In certain respects, Aristotle provided one when he taught that the state is a product of nature and based on reason. The state is a natural consequence of man's social nature, not an arbitrary imposition. But neither is it an organic entity analogous to the individual human being, as Plato had suggested. Rather, the state is "a composite thing, in the same sense as any other of the things that are wholes but consist of many parts." It is a "collection of citizens," whose collective needs - presumed to reflect individual needs – are to be pursued in accordance with reason. It is where human need for political community and human desire for autonomy are reconciled.
How, practically speaking, can this reconciliation be accomplished most effectively? Put somewhat differently, what kind of constitution should the state have? Unlike many of the politicians of his age, Aristotle took a pragmatic approach to this question rather than an ideological one: Whatever works best, seems to have been his answer. Whatever is likely to endure longest in the face of the forces of decay and disintegration that inevitably plague this phenomenal world. At times Aristotle seems to favor a mixed constitution combining oligarchic and democratic elements. But he also agrees with Plato in his appreciation of the rule of the "best man." If a true philosopher-king can be found, someone preeminent in virtue, by all means he should rule, "since such a man will naturally be as a god among men."
By the mid-fourth century, the defects both of oligarchy and of democracy had become painfully obvious to thinking Greeks. The overweening ambitions of successive demagogues and the impotent rivalries of the city-states were undermining the very foundations of civilization. For Isocrates, disillusioned Athenian democrat that he was, the only hope lay in monarchy – which at the time was most conspicuously embodied in Philip of Macedon. Needed was someone who could successfully implement Isocrates' dream of the union of all Greeks, someone who could combine thought and action, someone who exhibited both the sagacity of a philosopher-king and the know-how and practical expertise that the Sophists had prized.
For Isocrates, monarchy represented the "last best hope" for Greek civilization. After his death, the value of monarchy seemed to be confirmed by the establishment of a new world order, initially by Alexander the Great and thereafter by the Roman Empire. For Isocrates' innumerable successors and imitators, from the Hellenistic period to the final centuries of Byzantium, the superiority of monarchy over any other form of government became axiomatic. In his Discourses on Kingship, Dio Chrysostom (late 1st - early 2nd century AD) offers a collection of observations that already by his day had become commonplace. For example, he quotes Homer: "One must be chief." Nature confirms this, as we see with swarms of bees, which always have one king. As Zeus is the first and best and most powerful of the gods, who alone governs the universe, so also the king must imitate his administration. Like Zeus the king deserves the honorific titles of Father, Protector of Cities, Guardian of the Race. Imitating the greatest of gods, the king must act as benefactor, guardian and savior to his subjects. He must act as a sea captain who cares day and night for the safety of his passengers. He must perform his duties willingly and regularly, as does the sun throughout the ages. He must be to his subjects what a physician is to the sick, a good shepherd and not a butcher, a skilled charioteer directing the course of state affairs, etc.
Christian writers, beginning with Eusebius of Caesarea in the early 4th century, took over this Hellenistic conception of kingship, with its emphasis on theomimetic rule, with only superficial changes. Here are some of the elaborate parallelisms that he develops in the course of his oration on the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine's imperial rule:
The only begotten Word of God reigns, from ages which had no beginning, to infinite and endless ages, the partner of His Father's kingdom. And our emperor ever beloved by him, who derives the source of imperial authority from above, and is strong in the power of his sacred title, has controlled the empire of the world for a long period of years. Again, just as that Preserver of the universe orders the whole heaven and earth, and the celestial kingdom, consistently with His Father's will. Even so our emperor whom He loves, by bringing those whom he rules on earth to the only begotten and saving Word renders them fit subjects for His kingdom. And as He who is the common Saviour of mankind, by His invisible and divine power as a good shepherd, drives far away from His flock, like savage beasts, those apostate spirits which once flew through the airy tracts above this earth, and fastened on the souls of men; so this His friend, graced by His heavenly favour with victory over all his foes, subdues and chastens the open adversaries of truth in accordance with the usages of war.... Lastly, invested as he is with a semblance of divine sovereignty, he directs his gaze above, and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God. And this conformity is granted by the universal Sovereign to man alone of the creatures of this earth: for He only is the author of sovereign power, who decrees that all should be subject to the rule of one. And surely monarchy far transcends every other constitution and form of government: for that democratic equality of power, which is its opposite, may rather be described as anarchy and disorder....
After Eusebius, the legacy of Isocrates passes most notably to Synesius and then to Agapetus, deacon of the Great Church of Constantinople in the sixth century, who offers 72 "heads" or chapters of advice and counsel to Justinian, the reigning emperor. Agapetus' work will set the model and supply much of the content for subsequent "mirror for princes" literature in both East and West. Over a dozen Byzantine works relating to kingship draw directly or indirectly on Agapetus, and echoes of his work can be found far more widely – for example, in Muscovite Russia. In the West during the Renaissance, Agapetus' Exposition of Advice and Counsel appeared in twenty or more print editions, and it influenced in various ways a multitude of original works on the subject of the godly prince.
Agapetus' popularity requires little explanation. His work is noteworthy not for its originality but for the way in which presents in popular form a collection of commonplaces. But – as is so often the case with such works – the commonplaces that Agapetus presents derive from various sources and could be appropriated and applied in a variety of ways. His main source is Isocrates' Letter to Diocles, prince of Cyprus. But he also draws on the Greek Fathers of the Church and other writers who put their own spin on the ideas of Isocrates and subsequent Hellenistic exponents of monarchy. It is impossible right now to enter into a detailed analysis of Agapetus' sources, but a few observations may be in order.
Much of Agapetus' practical advice comes straight out of Isocrates. The basileus must watch his words and his temper; he must not listen to flatterers, but take advice from good friends; he must not employ evil-doers in the management of affairs; he must not act in haste; he must be just to friend and foe; he must inspire love and fear; he must be fearless in battle; he must be a true philosopher; he must be the father of his subjects and do good, as the benefactor of all men; he must be the steady pilot, etc. But in his discussion of the divine source and theomimetic character of kingly rule, Agapetus shows some of the ways in which Hellenistic political theory was being subtly transformed through its engagement with Christianity.
Consider, for example, chapter 21:
In the nature of his body the king is on a level with all other men, but in the authority attached to his dignity he is like God who rules over all; for he has no man on earth who is higher than he. Therefore, like God, he must never by angry, yet as a mortal man he must never be lifted up in conceit; for if he be honored by being in the divine image, he is also involved in the earthly image whereby he is taught his equality with other men.
In the authority of his office the king is indeed like God. On earth he images God's universal authority, and in his behavior he certainly should imitate God in various ways. But this does not mean that the king is God or a god. In his creaturely origin he is no different from any other human being. And here we must note an important point. Unlike classical Greek religion and thought, where (according to Hesiod) "the gods and mortal men have the same origin," Christianity postulates a radical difference between Creator and created, between God and man. The radical monotheism of Christianity allows no possibility of an intermediate political "space" between the gods and men that could be filled by demigods - or by kings. The king therefore must view his subjects in a new light. If the king truly honors God, from whom he has received not only earthly dominion but also his very being, then he must honor his fellow human beings, who also are created by God. Agapetus develops this theme in chapter 61:
Having received the scepter of kingship from God, take thought how you may please Him who gave it; and having been honored above all men by Him, hasten to honor Him more than all other men. And this He regards as the highest honor you can render – that you look upon those whom He has fashioned as if they were [God] Himself, [and fulfill the measure of your well-doing as if it were the payment of debts.]
The king may be superior to his subjects in many earthly ways, but this superiority is not the result of noble descent that would somehow set him apart from others, as though he in a unique way was sprung from a divine source. As Agapetus points out in chapter 4, "Let no man feel conceit about nobility of birth. All men alike have clay for their first ancestor – both those who boast themselves in purple and fine linen, and those who are afflicted by poverty and sickness; both those who are crowned with a diadem, and those who are attendants in the palace...."
The king, like all men, has clay for his first ancestor. He is a creature, not God. If he rules over all on earth, he does so neither by right of succession nor by right of conquest but precisely because he has been chosen by God and given the scepter by God (also cap. 1). Agapetus' emphasis on divine election – an emphasis shared by virtually every patristic and Byzantine writer on the subject of kingship – may seem at first glance to encourage absolutism, but in fact – in its practical application – it serves to limit and regulate the ruler's conduct in various ways.
How, first of all, is divine election expressed? Agapetus does not address this issue, but many others did. God elects, but he does so through human means. Reflecting the Roman imperial heritage of Byzantium, the imperial dignity remained in principle elective. Of course no actual elections were held, with a slate of candidates and a counting of votes. But the emperor was presumed to rule with the willing consent of his subjects. To the last days of the empire, acclamation – by the army, senate and leading popular elements – remained part of the ritual accompanying the installation of an emperor. And from the late fifth century, another important element was added: coronation at the hands of the patriarch. None of these formal steps in the making of an emperor was meant to be "democratic." They were meant to be tangible expressions of divine election. But neither could they be lightly discarded without undermining legitimacy of imperial authority.
In principle the power of the divinely elected emperor was unrestricted and absolute. He was legislature, judicature and executive all rolled into one. But in fact the emperor's power was not absolute, because he was expected – indeed obliged – to act in certain ways and not to act in certain other ways.
First of all, the emperor was supposed to imitate God by whose grace he ruled. And here a question may be asked: what aspects or qualities of divinity – what kind of god - was the ruler supposed to imitate? In Hellenistic treatments of kingship this most often means divine dominion over all, divine might that is potent to subdue adversaries, divine "eyesight" that is aware of everything going on, divine foresight that anticipates dangers and perils before they can cause any harm, etc. Christian writers like Agapetus appropriate these themes and many others, but to an extent unmatched in their Hellenistic sources they emphasize the importance of such qualities as mercy, forbearance, disinterested love, and - above all – philanthropia – love for humankind.
As Fr. Demetrios Constantelos has demonstrated in his classic study of Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare, the concept and practice of philanthropia was by no means unknown in classical Greek antiquity, but it did not hold the central position that it was to have in Byzantium. As he observes, "philanthropia in the ancient Greek world was mostly anthropocentric." But in Christianity philanthropia "became eminently theocentric." Its principle "was the love of God rather than the love of man." This shift had important consequences. To quote Constantelos once more,
As the evidence indicates, one can clearly discern that in the early Christian societies of both the East and the West philanthropia had assumed an integrated and far-reaching meaning. The term was used to describe man's love for the totality of humanity. Its application was directed to even the humblest among men. Philanthropia appropriated the meaning of selfless love and willing sacrifice. It was extended to the underprivileged, as it proclaimed freedom, equality, and brotherhood, transcending sex, race, and national boundaries. Thus, conclusively, philanthropia was not limited to equals, allies, and relatives, nor to citizens and civilized men, as was most often the case in ancient Greece.
How was this philanthropy expressed? In part, as Fr. Constantelos has shown, through the establishment of various charitable institutions. But in the case of the imperial authority it also was expressed in the form of legislation intended to protect what today we would call human rights. This included measures to avoid imposition of the death penalty as far as possible without endangering public welfare, measures to improve the legal position of women (for example, in cases of child custody, inheritance, and property ownership); measures to protect poor peasant farmers against the encroachments of rich landowners, measures to recognize slaves as persons rather than mere property (for example, by according to them the right to marry and enjoy the legal benefits of lawful marriage), This list could be expanded. The Byzantine Empire was hardly a democracy, but it was concerned about human dignity – and this concern was significantly more encompassing than, for example, that of Periclean Athens, where rights were in effect limited to a narrow body of citizenry.
The God-imitating emperor was expected to act in certain ways – above all to practice philanthropy. He also was expected not to act in certain ways. Among other things, he was expected not to act in ways that might cause him to be labeled a tyrant – i.e., he was expected not to be capricious or arbitrary or harsh in the exercise of his authority. He also was expected not to act in ways contrary to the law – whether the received Roman civil law or the divinely established moral law. To be sure, the emperor was the supreme legislator, the source of law, even law animate – nomos empsychos – as Hellenistic writers had described him. But his free submission to the law was deemed to be mark of true imperial power. Thus a 10th-century legal compendium can speak of the imperial power as "an authority bound by the law."
Imperial absolutism in Byzantium thus was tempered by imperial self-restriction. But it was tempered in other ways as well, above all by the authority of the church. At the time Deacon Agapetus was directing his counsel on imperial monarchy to the Emperor Justinian, the emperor himself was setting forth a somewhat different conception of authority, one sometimes referred to as diarchy: Here is what Justinian says in his famous Sixth Novella:
The greatest gifts that God's heavenly philanthropia have bestowed upon men are the priesthood and the imperial authority – the hierosyne and the basileia - , of which the former serves divine matters, the latter presides and watches over human affairs, and both proceed from one and the principle and regulate human life. Hence, nothing should claim the emperors' care so much as the saintliness of the priests, since these constantly pray to God for them. For if the priesthood is in every way blameless and acceptable to God, and the basileia rules justly and properly over the state entrusted to it, good harmony will result, which will bestow whatever is beneficial upon the human race.
No "separation of church and state" is envisioned here, but rather the close and harmonious cooperation of ecclesiastical and civil authorities, a veritable symphonia. Both have the same source – God's heavenly philanthropy – and both have the same end in mind – the bestowal of whatever is beneficial upon the human race - , but they are not merged into a single authority. Each is accountable to God, but each also has to care for the other, and therefore each is accountable to the other. The imperial authority has to be concerned about religious matters, since the well-being of the empire depends upon maintaining God's favor – and in practice this concern could amount to blatant interference and domination in ecclesiastical matters, whether disciplinary or even doctrinal. But the ecclesiastical authority also had to be concerned about civil matters. Is the basileia ruling justly and properly – i.e., is the emperor behaving the way that a true servant and imitator of God should behave?
Imperial interference in doctrinal matters met resistance as early as the fourth century, in the course of the Arian controversy. St. Athanasius, for example, knew how to address the emperor in properly deferential terms, using all the polite vocabulary of Hellenistic kingship. But when the emperor Constantius became resolute in his support of the Arian heresy, Athanasius quickly changed his style of address: Constantius is now unholy, godless, heretical, worse than Pilate, a parricide, a forerunner of the Antichrist. "Do not meddle with Church affairs," Athanasius warns. "To you God has entrusted the basileia, to us the Church. Whoever takes away from your sovereignty would offend the providence of God. In the same way, if you subject the Church to yourself, you will be guilty of a grave misdeed. It is written, 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.' [Mt 22:21] As we are not allowed to rule the world, so you have not the power to swing the censer."
Such boldness of speech in the face of imperial interference in doctrinal matters was not forgotten in following centuries. Emperors deficient in orthodoxy could expect stiff opposition. And, following the final Triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclast heresy in the ninth century, ecclesiastical concern for imperial orthodoxy expands to include ethical and moral matters. The emperor must be orthodox in his faith. He also must act in accordance with the behavioral norms of the Orthodox Church or else face excommunication.
These developments in the relationship between basileia and hierosyne are reflected in imperial iconography – i.e., in the way in which emperors are depicted. Down to the time of the iconoclastic controversy, emperors most often were depicted in ways that emphasized their power – crowned with victory, for example, or astride a horse, trampling down enemies or hunting for big game. In the post-iconoclastic period, by contrast, emperors most often are depicted in ways that emphasize their piety and devotion to Christ – as donors, for example, offering to Christ a little model of the church they have built. But the most famous depiction from this period – a mosaic leading from the narthex of Haghia Sophia into the nave – is different. It is closely linked to the controversy attendant on Emperor Leo VI's attempt to enter into an uncanonical fourth marriage. Excommunicated, the emperor is compelled to beg for pardon – and that is precisely what this mosaic shows. To one side the emperor is prostrate before Christ, who is seated at the center of the composition, flanked at the higher zone by the Theotokos and the emperor's guardian angel, intercessors for the penitent.
An emperor prostrate in repentance! It is hard to imagine such a representation in Hellenistic times. It is equally hard to imagine anything comparable in Periclean Athens. But this mosaic does tell us a lot about how ancient Greek political philosophy was maintained and transformed within the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages. Here, as in the other imperial portrait mosaics that still survive in Haghia Sophia, all the trappings of monarchical rule are present – the crown and imperial vestments, for example. We are reminded that Byzantium did indeed preserve what ancient political philosophy had come to regard as the most viable form of government – the one best suited for sustaining the politeia as a stable, well-ordered society in which human need for community and human desire for freedom are reconciled. But the emperor is no longer at the center of the composition, depicted as a triumphant conqueror or omnipotent ruler or superhuman demigod as once would have been the case. At the center is Christ, the only true Son of God. An anthropocentric vision for the ordering of human society has given way to a theocentric one. Attention is directed to Him, the true ruler of all who also is the true philanthropos, uniting in himself justice and mercy, and indeed all the qualities most necessary in a ruler.
This remarkable mosaic illustrates another important aspect of Byzantine political philosophy. It is placed above the doors where Leo (and also his successors) would normally have entered the church, which was also the spot where the excommunicated Leo would have prostrated himself before the patriarch and metropolitans, beseeching readmission to the communion of the church. The mosaic would have reminded emperors that they had to account for their lives and actions not simply at the end of life, when they would appear before the judgment seat of Christ, but also in this life, before the spiritual authority, which along with their own imperial authority God had bestowed as a great gift to humankind. This mosaic suggests the way in which diarchy, rather than monarchy – not to mention democracy or any of the other forms of government discussed by ancient Greek political philosophers - had become the functional basis for the politeia.
One final point should be noted. The prostrate emperor wears a crown, but a halo also surrounds his head, indicating that his entreaties have been heard, that his penitence has been accepted. He could again resume the routines of monarchical rule because he had, as it were, internalized the values that Byzantine writers had come to ascribe to monarchy. And ultimately these were spiritual values. When one reads patristic and Byzantine literature on the subject of kingship, it is not always clear whether politics or spirituality is being discussed. This, for example, is what Synesius has to say in his treatise on the ideal king:
There are all kinds of opposites within us, and a certain medial force of nature runs through them which we call Mind (nous). That is what I desire to reign in the king's soul, destroying the mob rule (ochlokratia) and democracy (demokratia) of the passions. So from his hearth would this man be a king, using the natural beginning of authority, who, by taming and domesticating the unreasonable parts of the soul, has made them subservient to reason, marshalling their multitude under one intelligent leadership. Such a man as this is godly, whether he be a commoner or a king....
Certainly the king should be distinguished by his virtue, by making the passions subservient to reason. But as this passage suggests, the capacity for true kingship is not limited to one who wears a crown.
In the Haghia Sophia mosaic, Emperor Leo wears both crown and halo. According to the Byzantine conception of the well-ordered politeia, that is the way things should be. But ultimately, in the well-ordered politeia which is more important, crown or halo? To what extent should true virtue – which is possible only when irrational passions are subservient to reason - be expected in those who rule, be they monarchs or oligarchs or "we, the people"? The message of Greek political philosophy, as developed in antiquity and sustained in Byzantium, is that politics and ethics cannot be separated. Wherever Orthodox Christians are concerned about the public order, where they lend their support to the creation and maintenance of a just society, where they prize human dignity, seeing in every human person the image of God Himself, there echoes of the Byzantine symphonia of hierosyne and basileia can still be heard.