The western mind

History has to be more than just a catalogue of events with dates, and kings, battles, revolutions, the rise and fall of civilisations and the ideas that inspire them. It has to be a story. The clue is in the name. Tom Holland has written a great story of western civilisation, (Dominion – the making of the western mind) stretching across centuries from antiquity through the Romans and the Greeks to the liberal democracies of the 21st century. It is a beautifully woven story with the characters, kings and emperors, dissenters and prophets, philosophers and generals, tyrants and bishops all stitched together in a wonderful tapestry.  All the twists and turns of the story the refining, realigning, reforming, and the waves of understanding bear down on the irresistible conclusion that it is Christianity, more than any other, that has made the western mind what it is. It has been the root of western civilisation, the structures the culture, the arts, the engineering, the science and the philosophy. The conclusion, that the western mind has been forged in Christianity, a world view different and distinct from any other, having at its core the outrageous and offensive idea that the God would become a slave and face, without protest, the most brutal and ignominious death, has all been said before, of course.  It is not new.

Larry Siedentop “The invention of the individual – the origins of western liberalism” and Theo Hobson “God created humanism- the Christian basis of secular values” amongst many others, I am sure, have made the same point but Tom Holland has set it out in what is a delightful read. He races through the centuries lacing the stories to together, yet providing enough time to pause and describe the scenes in a way that  you almost feel you are there: with Boniface on the banks of the river Bourne,  with the Dominicans at Chiaravalle, with the diggers on St George’s Hill, and watching the tortures, the hangings, the immolations and standing near enough to hear the terrible sluice of the guillotine.

Then there are the characters: Aristotle, Augustus, Paul, Constantine, Augustine, Gregory, Martin, Origen, all the way to Orban and Merkel.  Knowing who is likely to enter on the stage provides an interesting game. When will Martin Luther, or Voltaire or Freud appear? And you can indulge in a wry smile when you scent their appearance. In one chapter, Holland introduces us to Otto Dix who carried both a copy of the Bible and Nietzsche (The Gay Science) with him in the trenches and imagines him surveying the landscape “turned to mud and ash and littered with the mangled bodies of men” and how he would “shiver before the possibility that there might not be after all any redemption in sacrifice” with Nietzsche ringing in his ears “Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying god? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” After taking time to explore the work of this the bleakest of philosophers,  Holland leaves us at the end of the piece with just a hint of where it is going “Meanwhile, in basements stale with beer and sweat, men with strident voices were talking about Jews”  

Because it is such a wide subject and stretches across centuries it will no doubt be an easy target for criticism. There will be whole areas that will be ignored while others are laboured on. Even the fact that it is easy to read would inevitably lead to it being dubbed populist and not a serious work. Well, I am not a historian and cannot say, but he seems to me to have a wide grasp of history, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and a clear grasp of philosophy, and, he knows how to write. The style is appealing. The chapter headings with places and dates, the linking of themes and so much ground covered with a crisp economy of words.

The sharpest criticism seems to be over his instance that the western values came solely from Christianity and this is hotly contested, notably by AC Grayling.  The point made is that the virtues and values were not exclusively seen in the Christian world but were clearly existent in older societies, which predate Christianity. They are universal and that Christianity has no monopoly on them. From my point of view this is a sterile argument. If you believe that God created the world and human beings uniquely in his image, it is no surprise to find that people from any background culture or society wherever they may have lived, quite unrelated to any other civilisation, can still embody and express wisdom, kindness to strangers, a spirit of hospitality and a genuine respect for the other.  These attributes have still come from the creator God. The Christian position is that all of the wisdom, all of the virtues, all of the goodness , all of the truth and all of the life have been uniquely revealed in just one person – Jesus Christ.

Tom Holland keeps his own personal beliefs pretty close to his chest. He has sought to keep the writing of the story as impartial as possible, but recognises, at the end, that with Christianity, it is not possible to be neutral. “To claim as I most certainly do, that I have sought to evaluate fairly both the achievements and the crimes of Christian civilisation is not to stand outside its moral framework, but rather as Nietzsche would have been quick to point out – to stand within them.” This then is the thesis and it is hard to argue with.

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