Friday, July 9, 2021

East and West


Pope Leo IX stared down from the ramparts with horror.  On the battlefield before him lay an army of corpses.  Once vigorous men of war, they had marched under the papal banner at his command to this forsaken place in southern Italy, a town named Civitate.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

This post is the first in reviewing this second book from what is intended to be a four-part history of Christendom – from Pentecost to our day.  Strickland begins with a brief review of the events immediately prior to the Great Schism of 1054.  And he begins with this battle, taking place in the prior year.

The intent was to rid southern Italy of the Normans.  Never before had a Pope raised an army under his banner.  He came to this after failing to receive help from Byzantium – no surprise, given the low state of relations at the time.  He did receive a battalion from the emperor, Henry III.  Beyond this, he raised and financed his own army.

He had consecrated its violence by equating combat with martyrdom.  Dying beneath the papal banner had become, in his case at least, a path to salvation.

The Pope’s army greatly outnumbered the Normans, yet were beaten.  A Norman commander, Robert Guiscard, managed to outflank the papal forces.  They were destroyed, while their leader watched helplessly. 

The environment at the time included the Western Church just coming out of more than a century of scandal – the Vatican serving as a brothel, with nepotism and bribery rampant.  Michael Cerularius, in the East, claimed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch”; translated to Latin, this seemed to imply a universal jurisdiction, even over the pope.

The aftermath of the battle saw the townspeople of Civitate throw the pope through their gates and into the custody of the Normans.  It could have been worse – at least the Normans were Latinized Christians.  He remained in captivity for nine months.

One day, Cardinal Humbert would come to see him with a message.  Leo must dispatch a legation to Constantinople, in order to deal with this issue of the Ecumenical Patriarch.  Further, there was contempt in the East for the Latin liturgical practices. 

The Latins were wrong, according to the Eastern view, for introducing unleavened bread and in insisting that priests shave their beards and practice celibacy.  The parish priests of the East had been married, with children – this was recognized since the seventh century Council in Trullo.  But Western reformers, Humbert among them, sought to change this.

The terminally ill Leo would send Humbert and a delegation to confront Patriarch Michael.  It was hoped that this would convince Michael to change his views.  The alternative, on which he may or may not have reflected, was that it would result in the final straw to tear the Church in two.  As we know, and as was developed at the end of the first volume, this is precisely what occurred.

Strickland has previously developed the Eastern idea of symphony: the emperor, as head of the state, was expected to rule in harmony with the bishops.  Within this framework, he would issue laws, raise taxes, support the clergy, and suppress heresies.  The emperor was subject to divine law, but the bishops were subject to the emperor.  One ruler, one authority.  This was the vision of Eusebius.

This as opposed to the view of Augustine, with his vision of two cities and which carried influence in the West.  Augustine saw the wickedness and corruption of earthly rulers; he lived through the fall of Rome.  His statement that colorfully captures this sentiment:

For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Augustine’s city of God would not be disconnected from this world; it held a duty to judge society and be the source of its renewal. To do this, it must have authority outside of and apart from the emperor.

As has to be obvious, my Western mind is rather biased on this topic.  Given how history has played out, even in the East and even during the height of Eastern Christendom, it seems a false hope that those with the skills to rise to political authority also have the humility to rule with Christian charity. 

In fact, what we have seen come about is Eusebius’s vision turned on its head.  Today’s “emperor,” instead of humbling himself before the Church, now humbles the church to his cause.  Neither the vision of Eusebius nor the vision of Augustine have won the day (although Augustine’s did hold, not perfectly and sometimes poorly, in the West until the Reformation).


Yet this is one of the key points through which Strickland will compare and contrast East and West.  And, from what I have seen and given his background, he seems to view Eusebius’s vision more favorably for Christendom than the vision of Augustine. 

It isn’t like the Western Church – both before the Great Schism and leading up to the Reformation – always presented a good manifestation of the City of God.  Glass houses and thrown stones and all that…. Both East and West have fallen short.

In any case, my hope is that I keep a mind open enough to properly entertain Strickland’s arguments…


  1. Eusebius's political paradigm was put to the test when Emperor Leo the Isurian attempted to impose Iconoclasm upon the Eastern Church. The check upon the imperial power came from within the Church: the monastics. But also from the faithful, especially the elderly women worshipers at the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom. When a soldier under imperial orders tried to remove the icon of the Savior, these women knocked him off his ladder and trampled him with their canes and crutches. Their spiritual descendants do not appear as abundant in these post "pandemic" days of Church closings. Anyhow I should note that the Double Eagle is a recognized standard in the East: no one head, but the secular alongside the sacred. St. Augustine is more to be trusted than Eusebius on issues of political philosophy. The East has been characterized by a merger of sacred and secular: see the fate of philosophy in Islam. In the West, as Leo Strauss and others have pointed out, freedom to philosophize was a consequence of neither Church nor State having had a monopoly over power. De Tocqueville is worth reflecting upon regarding freedom of speech in France and America. The competition among aristocrats permitted a writer to attach himself to a nobleman, who protected his liberties, In America, however, nobody wants to call attention to deviation from herd opinion. Thinking, thus, displayed true diversity in monarchical France, but uniformity among American intellectuals, who self policed to avoid public ostracism. Decentralized power, possible in an aristocracy, but difficult to establish in a democratic society even with constitutional safeguards.

    1. I also find Augustine more trustworthy on political matters, and have found more value in the western governance during the medieval period than the Eastern governance.

  2. I learn so much by following this blog. Thanks BM for putting out your thoughts on all these books you are reading. You are putting in all the work, but I get a piece of your understanding for a just a little effort.

  3. Eusebius's political vision received its first major setback in the form of Leo the Isaurian's attempt to suppress the veneration of icons in the Eastern Empire. Charles Williams interpreted Leo's policy as one anticipating conflict with Islam and removing one theological practice that might weigh the Emperor down in apologetics with the image averse Moslems. Leo's Caesaro-Papal pretension was challenged by elements in the Church, especially the monastic communities, but also the laity. The elderly women who daily frequented the cathedral of the Holy Wisdom were quite infuriated when, by imperial order, a soldier attempted to remove the image of Christ Pantokrator from the church. They knocked him off his ladder and, story has it, trampled him to death. Today's Church goers are far less willing to oppose the secular power's suppression of accustomed worship in these post-"pandemic" times. It may be of interest to observe that the eastern standards even today portray a Double Eagle: secular and sacred aligned without a single head. However, despite being Orthodox, I would argue that Augustine's political vision is far more compelling than that of Eusebius. Leo Strauss, among others, pointed out that the freedom to philosophize in the West was to a large degree afforded by the tension between the sacred and the secular, with neither gaining monopoly privilege. In the East, the identity of Church and State made the status of such freedom very
    precarious. Classical philosophy in Islam, for instance, never recovered from Al Ghazali's censure, backed up by both Imams and caliphs. Decentralization of power seems critical today, but difficult to secure when State, Church, Academia, and Media speak with a single voice.
    De Tocqueville voiced concern about the security of dissent in America as opposed to aristocratic France. In France, it was possible for an artist or thinker to secure the protection of one of the multitude of aristocrats. In the United States, de Tocqueville observed, no such protection was forthcoming, despite constitutional guarantees, for few were bold enough to resist public opinion. Americans were self-policing in their thinking back then. They are probably more so today. Anyhow, is it still possible for a truly robust and vibrant civil society to check the ambitions of the State as the communities of the faithful did in Byzantium?