Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils

In an earlier post I promised to talk about the content of this book.

Dr. MacMullen is interested in two phenomena that he seems to find underappreciated by writers on the later Roman Empire.

First is the huge amount of activity that took place under the rubric of "early church councils." It's easy to push this activity to one side because you are not particularly interested in the development of Christian doctrine; on the other hand, you might be primarily interested in doctrine and not all that concerned with the social or political context. One of the first things that Dr. MacMullen points out to his Martian visitor is that there was a tremendous amount of such activity from the third to the sixth century AD. He comes up with some speculative but not unreasonable numbers for meetings and attendees; he talks about how bishops, their retainers, their messengers and their letters and supporting dossiers of documents crossed the Roman world, at great trouble and to some extent on the basis of imperial subsidies (the Roman post service which expedited not just mail delivery but the travel of officials, which was notoriously expensive). The business of church councils, which it should be noted was not always on matters of correct belief and teaching (doctrine), was a significant dimension of the business of government.

The Martian visitor is impressed.

Second, this network of relationships had a dimension that MacMullen calls "democratic." Not because there was a government based on elections (though bishops were elected) and not because anyone believed the empire was or should be based on democratic principles (it was in theory an absolute, divinely ordained monarchy), but because the people, or large organized groups of people, usually gathered together in towns and cities, especially imperial capitals or large regional centers like Alexandria or Ephesus, exerted pressure on bishops, governors and emperors, and sometimes got their way. The people (the mass of them) had power.

Dr. MacMullen discusses two aspects of this "people power." The first is well known to anyone who knows late Roman history at all -- the factional assemblies that took place in streets, plazas, and the circus (the chariot-racing track) and demonstrated for or against doctrinal positions, local governors, or even the emperors themselves. The competition between Greens and Blues in 5th and 6th century Constantinople is particularly famous -- they were in theory fan clubs organized to support chariot teams, but though they were intensely interested in that subject, their activities went well beyond it. (See my short discussion here.) MacMullen reminds us that the most famous demonstrations and riots were not the sum-total of this "democratic" aspect of late Roman civic and imperial life.

The second "democratic" manifestation analyzed in this book is the conduct of councils themselves -- which conduct was modeled on that of the Roman senate, the imperial consistory, and town councils. Some attention has been directed this way in the past because we have the minutes of such bodies, but usually the councils have been seen as a degenerate form of institutions that were freer and worked better in the republican past. The feature particularly noted has been the chanting of attendees -- chanting that began with long passages of praise for the divine emperor, continued with praises for his wise policies, and then, kinda sneaked in there, complaints and petitions and even denunciations of officials. All these chants were written down and the number of repetitions of each carefully noted.

This seems like a slavish way to run a consultative or legislative body, and maybe it is so. However, MacMullen invites us to imagine how such demonstrations were organized, how they looked to those present (especially when one considers that chants could turn to violence, and that chants might threaten violence to people on the wrong side), how chanting defined parties, how chanting was used to manifest the power of the majority. MacMullen grants as he clearly must that his church councils were easily manipulated by the presiding officers and senior bishops (kind of like the US Senate today), but he argues that people power -- the power of a passionate mass -- sometimes won the day.

Thinking about this material can result in seeing the later Roman empire in a whole new way.

But is this democracy? Or is it mob rule, sometimes or maybe more often than not manipulated by managers behind the scene, a la the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I have my problems with the notion of mob rule, but I have to say that the democracy of the streets and the revolutionary assemblies of the early Christian empire has its resemblances to the democracy of the streets and assemblies of the French Revolution. (Modernity, where are you?) Yes, the revolutionary demonstrations were loud and violent and intolerant in both settings, and led to mass slaughter -- I'll take Canadian democracy, thanks -- but they did respond to the dissatisfactions of large, determined groups of people. Absolute power, accepted out loud by all, again is shown as fragile and chimerical and in need at times of (let's say) mob power.

This book has given me a lot to think about.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Modern conceits, man from Mars, baby in the well


I have just finished reading Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils and I haven't entirely made up my mind about it. I will say that I'm grateful to the book vendor at Kalamazoo who had it on display!

MacMullen's books are not your usual academic tome. Voting like others of his works is based on vast scholarship, but the presentation of his ideas has been boiled down to a mere 118 pages (notes not included). This is thanks to a concise, allusive prose that occasionally takes some work to figure out. But there is no bafflegab or shilly-shallying here. Did MacMullen ever study the Roman historian Tacitus? This is an opinionated work and MacMullen has no time -- being nearly 80 -- to appease unsympathetic critics.

MacMullen appears a classicist through and through but there are some touches that really mae the book seem alive and dust-free.

First let's look at the opening lines:
Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out--if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness -- we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay--and no one more detached can be imagined--might he not need to be told the most obvious things?
Well, no classicist or church historian that I'm aware of has begun an essay like that! The funny thing, though, I've been using the conceit of a visiting or observing Martian for decades for similar purposes, imitating the one person I know who's been doing it longer, my friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine. He uses it a little differently, to force himself and his listener to take the Yakuts and the Patagonians and the Mordovians to be roughly as worthy of attention as the Swiss, the Swedes and the Californians if you are generalizing about humanity as a whole. Recently I've breezed past blog entries where the visiting Martian has made a brief appearance lending perspective, and I have to wonder, is this becoming more common? If so, if people take the exercise in perspective seriously, good!

Another passage of MacMullen's leaves me with mixed feelings. Talking about the widespread interest in doctrinal disputes during the later Roman empire, he says (p.35-36):
Our sense of how absolutely wonderful we ourselves are in our modern world may lead us to discount the capacity of the capacity of the ancient: for example, the capacity to disseminate ideas so as to engage popular interest...Their understanding of such major realities...beyond their own back-door, or realities that counted -- was not like the modern sort confined to meretricious photo ops, celebrities, or babies stuck in wells. Hence my supposing more consequential communication in this period of the empire than generally in our own world today.
Oh, Tacitus redivivus, you burst the balloon of our self-regard!

But when I get beyond my admiration for this passage, I wonder about it. I understand MacMullen's disgust for what passes for "media coverage;" in an era where the US constitution is being gutted and the treasury plundered (with inevitable consequences for the non-American world), the coverage all too often goes to (in a current phrase) Missing White Women. But is the comparison valid? Maybe Dr. MacMullen should look past cable news to the places where people who are interested in consequential matters meet and discuss more easily than ever before.

Also, I find this passage a bit odd in that I think Dr. MacMullen's personal opinion of church controversies is not really all that high. But more on the content of the book later.

Finally, the remark about the baby in the well made me wonder, what about that baby in the well? My younger readers may never have heard of that baby (Midland, Texas, 1987) but she was real and she was rescued, and if this website is accurate, she's a healthy adult today.

Image: Marvin the Martian, one of those hostile, all-too-engaged-in-Earthly-affairs Martians.

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