The Decline and Fall of the American Empire?

Gibbon famously wrote that Christianity was partly responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. By encouraging pacifism and other-worldliness, he argued, Christianity sapped Rome’s fighting spirit. Who knows? Correlation isn’t causation, after all, and anyway a Christian version of the empire survived another 1000 years in the east. But if the rise of Christianity explains Rome’s fall, what explains the apparent decline of the Pax Americana? Surely not the spread of Christian identity: the decline of American influence correlates with a decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians. This week, Yale publishes a book that attempts to explain what’s going on, Why Empires Fall: Rome, America, and the Future of the West. The authors are historians Peter Heather (King’s College, London) and political economist John Rappley (Cambridge). Looks fascinating. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Over the last three centuries, the West rose to dominate the planet. Then, around the start of the new millennium, history took a dramatic turn. Faced with economic stagnation and internal political division, the West has found itself in rapid decline compared to the global periphery it had previously colonized. This is not the first time we have seen such a rise and fall: the Roman Empire followed a similar arc, from dizzying power to disintegration.

Historian Peter Heather and political economist John Rapley explore the uncanny parallels, and productive differences between ancient Rome and the modern West, moving beyond the tropes of invading barbarians and civilizational decay to unearth new lessons. From 399 to 1999, they argue, through the unfolding of parallel, underlying imperial life cycles, both empires sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Has the era of Western global domination indeed reached its end? Heather and Rapley contemplate what comes next.

A New History of the Reformation

This new collection of essays from Oxford on the Protestant Reformation looks very interesting: The Oxford History of the Reformation. The editor is historian Peter Marshall (Warwick). The blurb from Oxford credits the Reformation for creating the pluralist world in which we live. That might be a bit of an overstatement. As Harold Berman and others showed, pluralism has been a big part of Western culture from at least the High Middle Ages. But there’s no denying, as the blub says, that the Reformation transformed pluralism into something even the Reformers didn’t expect. Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

The Reformation was a seismic event in history whose consequences are still unfolding in Europe and across the world.

Martin Luther’s protests against the marketing of indulgences in 1517 were part of a long-standing pattern of calls for reform in the Christian Church. But they rapidly took a radical and unexpected turn, engulfing first Germany, and then Europe, in furious arguments about how God’s will was to be ‘saved’.

However, these debates did not remain confined to a narrow sphere of theology. They came to reshape politics and international relations; social, cultural, and artistic developments; relations between the sexes; and the patterns and performances of everyday life. They were also the stimulus for Christianity’s transformation into a truly global religion, as agents of the Roman Catholic Church sought to compensate for losses in Europe with new conversions in Asia and the Americas.

Covering both Protestant and Catholic reform movements, in Europe and across the wider world, this compact volume tells the story of the Reformation from its immediate, explosive beginnings, through to its profound longer-term consequences and legacy for the modern world. The story is not one of an inevitable triumph of liberty over oppression, enlightenment over ignorance. Rather, it tells how a multitude of rival groups and individuals, with or without the support of political power, strove after visions of ‘reform’. And how, in spite of themselves, they laid the foundations for the plural and conflicted world we now inhabit.

Why American Rationalism Failed

At First Things today, I review The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, a new history of 19th-century American rationalists. The book offers interesting and sometimes amusing portraits of these men and women, one of whom turns out to be my great-granduncle, M.M. Mangasarian (left), who founded his own rationalist congregation in Chicago in 1900. Mangasarian had initial (and unusual) success, but his “Independent Religious Society” ultimately failed, for the same reason all the rationalist societies failed: an inability to resolve basic incoherencies in the movement. Plus, the religion of science is a hard sell for Americans, who tend to believe in transcendent reality, even if they are skeptical of organized religion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Inspired by the French positivist Auguste Comte and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and taking the eighteenth-century freethinker Thomas Paine as a kind of patron saint, a small group of Americans attempted to found a rationalist “religion” with science as its highest authority. They started congregations in cities like New York, Chicago, and Portland; they held meetings on Sunday mornings to compete with Christian rivals; they even wrote catechisms and ran Sunday Schools to indoctrinate new members. All confidently believed they were the vanguard of a new, secular religion that would displace Christianity and promote human progress.

But the new religion failed. The congregations attracted few followers; typically, as one British humorist wrote, these were churches “of three persons, but no God.” Most fizzled out or merged with larger groups like the Unitarians. Other than cranks who seemed as credulous as the believers they mocked, Americans had little interest in Comte’s wedding and funeral ceremonies or the relics of secular saints. (In 1905, after a long quest, a small group of freethinkers placed something they claimed to be a piece of Thomas Paine’s brain, sold to them for five pounds by an obscure London bookseller, in a monument in New Rochelle.)

Schmidt shows that rationalist congregations failed because organizers never resolved basic inconsistencies. Rationalism valued science and rejected metaphysics. Why, then, collect relics and meet weekly for thinly disguised worship services? Moreover, rationalism “made intellectual independence and the displacement of all religious authorities foundational to its platform.” Paine himself had railed against organized religion, famously declaring, “my own mind is my own church.” Similarly, although Emerson had prophesied a new religion with “science” for its “symbol,” he insisted on individual spiritual autonomy: “I go for Churches of one.” What, then, was the point of joining a new religion, even a rationalist one? People who share only a commitment to radical individualism and an opposition to religious orthodoxy are unlikely to form an enduring community.

You can read the whole review here.

Liturgy Matters

I thought I was reasonably well informed about the English Reformation, but a new book from Yale recounts an episode of which, I confess, I had never heard, the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, in which the people of Cornwall and Devon revolted when the government forbade Latin liturgies and required use of the new, English-language Book of Common Prayer. The government quickly put down the rebellion–but at the cost of 4000 lives. I’m not sure if the rebellion passed out of general knowledge, or if their antipathy to Catholicism led the Framers to pass over it, but I have never seen a reference to the Prayer Book Rebellion in the Framers’ frequent warnings about the dangers of establishment. Odd, because the rebellion seems a good example of such dangers–as well as the importance of liturgy to religious identity. Few things matter more to believers than the language they use to pray, as current controversies in the Catholic and other Christian churches reveal even today.

The book is A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549, by historian Mark Stoyle (University of Southampton). The publisher’s description follows:

The fascinating story of the so-called “Prayer Book Rebellion” of 1549 which saw the people of Devon and Cornwall rise up against the Crown

The Western Rising of 1549 was the most catastrophic event to occur in Devon and Cornwall between the Black Death and the Civil War. Beginning as an argument between two men and their vicar, the rebellion led to a siege of Exeter, savage battles with Crown forces, and the deaths of 4,000 local men and women. It represents the most determined attempt by ordinary English people to halt the religious reformation of the Tudor period.

Mark Stoyle tells the story of the so-called “Prayer Book Rebellion” in full. Correcting the accepted narrative in a number of places, Stoyle shows that the government in London saw the rebels as a real threat. He demonstrates the importance of regional identity and emphasizes that religion was at the heart of the uprising. This definitive account brings to life the stories of the thousands of men and women who acted to defend their faith almost five hundred years ago.

Of Montaigne and Liberal Tolerance

Following on Marc’s recent posts on skepticism and knowledge, here is an interesting-looking new book from Notre Dame Press: What Happened to Civility: The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project, by philosopher Ann Hartle (Emory). As Donald Frame once observed, Montaigne expressed skepticism about customs and culture (“Que sais-je?”), but never about the ultimate authority of the Church and its teachings about eternal life. In fact, accepting certain background assumptions about eternal truths may have allowed Montaigne space to tolerate diverse opinions about wordly things. In her new book, Hartle suggests that what she calls Montaigne’s project of “civility” depends on taking “sacred tradition” for granted. Perhaps, as a practical matter, liberal tolerance requires that a society accept certain assumptions without debate, so that doubt can be expressed on other subjects. What do I know? It’s worth thinking about.

Here is the publisher’s description:

What is civility, and why has it disappeared? Ann Hartle analyzes the origins of the modern project and the Essays of Michel de Montaigne to discuss why civility is failing in our own time.

In this bold book, Ann Hartle, one of the most important interpreters of sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, explores the modern notion of civility—the social bond that makes it possible for individuals to live in peace in the political and social structures of the Western world—and asks, why has it disappeared? Concerned with the deepening cultural divisions in our postmodern, post-Christian world, she traces their roots back to the Reformation and Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne’s philosophical project of drawing on ancient philosophy and Christianity to create a new social bond to reform the mores of his culture is perhaps the first act of self-conscious civility. After tracing Montaigne’s thought, Hartle returns to our modern society and argues that this framing of civility is a human, philosophical invention and that civility fails precisely because it is a human, philosophical invention. She concludes with a defense of the central importance of sacred tradition for civility and the need to protect and maintain that social bond by supporting nonpoliticized, nonideological, free institutions, including and especially universities and churches. What Happened to Civility is written for readers concerned about the deterioration of civility in our public life and the defense of freedom of religion. The book will also interest philosophers who seek a deeper understanding of modernity and its meaning, political scientists interested in the meaning of liberalism and the causes of its failure, and scholars working on Montaigne’s Essays.

A New Edition of a Classic Textbook

Next month, Eerdman’s will release a new edition of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, a textbook by one of the greatest living historians of Christianity, Mark Noll (Notre Dame – Emeritus). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada has been firmly established as the standard text on the Christian experience in North America. Now Noll has thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded his classic text to incorporate new materials and important themes, events, leaders, and changes of the last thirty years. Once again readers will benefit from his insights on the United States and Canada in this superb narrative survey of Christian churches, institutions, and cultural engagements from the colonial period through 2018.

On the Ghetto

The religious associations have largely disappeared, but in its original meaning ghetto referred to a segregated district in which European Jews were required to live–most notably in Italian cities like Venice, Padua, and Rome, where former ghettos have now become tourist attractions. Next month, Harvard releases Ghetto: The History of a Word, which traces the word’s evolving meaning across time. The author is historian Daniel Schwartz (George Washington University). Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

Just as European Jews were being emancipated and ghettos in their original form—compulsory, enclosed spaces designed to segregate—were being dismantled, use of the word ghetto surged in Europe and spread around the globe. Tracing the curious path of this loaded word from its first use in sixteenth-century Venice to the present turns out to be more than an adventure in linguistics.

Few words are as ideologically charged as ghetto. Its early uses centered on two cities: Venice, where it referred to the segregation of the Jews in 1516, and Rome, where the ghetto survived until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, long after it had ceased to exist elsewhere.

Ghetto: The History of a Word offers a fascinating account of the changing nuances of this slippery term, from its coinage to the present day. It details how the ghetto emerged as an ambivalent metaphor for “premodern” Judaism in the nineteenth century and how it was later revived to refer to everything from densely populated Jewish immigrant enclaves in modern cities to the hypersegregated holding pens of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. We see how this ever-evolving word traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, settled into New York’s Lower East Side and Chicago’s Near West Side, then came to be more closely associated with African Americans than with Jews.

Chronicling this sinuous transatlantic odyssey, Daniel B. Schwartz reveals how the history of ghettos is tied up with the struggle and argument over the meaning of a word. Paradoxically, the term ghetto came to loom larger in discourse about Jews when Jews were no longer required to live in legal ghettos. At a time when the Jewish associations have been largely eclipsed, Ghetto retrieves the history of a disturbingly resilient word.

Byzantine Law

Law and religion scholars in the West typically ignore Byzantium. That’s so for several reasons, including the fact that so much of the relevant material does not exist in contemporary translations, and the fact, sadly, that Westerners since Gibbon are accustomed to dismissing Byzantium as irrelevant, although the empire lasted 1000 years and offers many insights into Christian jurisprudence. A (relatively) new book from Cambridge coves one of the more important emperors and his legal influence: Leo VI and the Transformation of Byzantine Christian Identity: Writings of an Unexpected Emperor, by historian Meredith Riedel (Duke University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Byzantine emperor Leo VI (886–912), was not a general or even a soldier, like his predecessors, but a scholar, and it was the religious education he gained under the tutelage of the patriarch Photios that was to distinguish him as an unusual ruler. This book analyses Leo’s literary output, focusing on his deployment of ideological principles and religious obligations to distinguish the characteristics of the Christian oikoumene from the Islamic caliphate, primarily in his military manual known as the Taktika. It also examines in depth his 113 legislative Novels, with particular attention to their theological prolegomena, showing how the emperor’s religious sensibilities find expression in his reshaping of the legal code to bring it into closer accord with Byzantine canon law. Meredith L. D. Riedel argues that the impact of his religious faith transformed Byzantine cultural identity and influenced his successors, establishing the Macedonian dynasty as a ‘golden age’ in Byzantium.

Religious Freedom and Religious Exhaustion

Historians debate what caused the interest in religious toleration in late 17th-Century Britain. Did writers like Locke reflect an older Christian ethic, a new Enlightenment worldview, or simply the exhaustion that had resulted from a century and more of religious debate and violence? A forthcoming book from Manchester University Press, Reformation without End, by Robert Ingram (Ohio University) no doubt addresses these issues. The publisher’s description suggests the author believes the final factor was the most important:

This study provides a radical reassessment of the English Reformation. No one in eighteenth-century England thought that they were living during ‘the Enlightenment’; instead, they saw themselves as facing the religious, intellectual and political problems unleashed by the Reformation, which began in the sixteenth century. Moreover, they faced those problems in the aftermath of two bloody seventeenth-century political and religious revolutions. Reformation without end examines how the eighteenth-century English debated the causes and consequences of those revolutions and the thing they thought had caused them, the Reformation. It draws on a wide array of manuscript sources to show how authors crafted and pitched their works.

Eppur Si Muove

From Princeton, here is an interesting new translation of several contemporary accounts of Galileo Galilei, including a poem written in his honor by the future Pope Urban VIII: On the Life of Galileo: Vivani’s Historical Account and Other Early Biographies. I guess Urban later changed his mind. The translator and editor of the new volume is Stefano Gattei (California Institute of Technology). Here is the publisher’s description:

The first collection and translation into English of the earliest biographical accounts of Galileo’s life.

This unique critical edition presents key early biographical accounts of the life and work of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), written by his close contemporaries. Collected and translated into English for the first time and supplemented by an introduction and incisive annotations by Stefano Gattei, these documents paint an incomparable firsthand picture of Galileo and offer rare insights into the construction of his public image and the complex intertwining of science, religion, and politics in seventeenth-century Italy.

Here in its entirety is Vincenzo Viviani’s Historical Account, an extensive and influential biography of Galileo written in 1654 by his last and most devoted pupil. Viviani’s text is accompanied by his “Letter to Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici on the Application of Pendulum to Clocks” (1659), his 1674 description of Galileo’s later works, and the long inscriptions on the façade of Viviani’s Florentine palace (1702). The collection also includes the “Adulatio perniciosa,” a Latin poem written in 1620 by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini—who, as Pope Urban VIII, would become Galileo’s prosecutor—as well as descriptive accounts that emerged from the Roman court and contemporary European biographers.

Featuring the original texts in Italian, Latin, and French with their English translations on facing pages, this invaluable book shows how Galileo’s pupils, friends, and critics shaped the Galileo myth for centuries to come, and brings together in one volume the primary sources needed to understand the legendary scientist in his time.