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The World Turned Upside Down: Tom Holland's "Dominion"

Matthew Rose at First Things

Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

After the Second World War, American intellectuals promoted a grand narrative about the origins and development of Western civilization. The purpose of this narrative was less academic than political. Its goal at home was to catechize a diverse country in an open-ended story that celebrated the contributions of different ethnicities and creeds. Its goal abroad was to equip the nation with a clear set of principles for ideological debate in the Cold War. The West appeared in this story as a synthesis of Greek rationality, Roman statecraft, and the moral teachings of what was called the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a generation of college students learned, these elements combined to produce an innovative world of democracy, science, capitalism, and religious tolerance. What made the story cohere, and what linked its chapters from Plato to NATO, was the ­growing recognition of the value of human freedom.

Authored originally by postwar liberals, this narrative came to be defended almost exclusively by conservatives, who saw their battle against collectivism as a new chapter in its glorious pages. Their cause was noble, and valiantly fought, but they did not succeed, for reasons that seem obvious in hindsight. The very ideals that inspired their secular scripture were the key to its deconstruction. Much of Western history, including many of the “Great Books,” fails to exemplify liberal notions of freedom and equality. Plato’s Republic, for example, seems to be a template for a dystopian autocracy, and Kant’s Critiques seem to disparage racial minorities. What, then, were liberals to do? Rather than reject freedom as the highest value, many began to revile the tradition they had been encouraged to praise.

Was the West’s hubris finally exposed? Or was its supremacy ensured by self-critique? Tom Holland’s book Dominion casts this old debate in a new light. By going deep into our cultural history, and showing its moral transformation over three millennia, Holland proposes to show that progressives and conservatives are bred from the same moral matrix. They are the children of the most subversive revolution in human history, whose legacy is the ongoing disruption of settled patterns of life. That revolution is Christianity, and in Holland’s graceful telling, the West remains so saturated by Christian values that it still merits the name “Christendom.” Dominion has won early praise from Catholic reviewers, who were delighted to see a celebrated author and translator defend the Christian roots of our culture. But Dominion should be read with both appreciation and scrutiny, for the conclusion of its epic story risks being unintelligible to its protagonists.

When did the world become modern? Holland gives an arresting answer. Modernity began with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, we view human beings as individuals defined by their abilities to reason and to choose, capacities that endow them with moral equality. Holland tells us there was nothing natural or inevitable about this perspective; it is the result of a metaphysical earthquake, two millennia ago, that slowly altered our perception of human life. The idea that God died on an instrument of torture, that the Eternal could be revealed through humility and suffering, did not change human history overnight. But it suggested the possibility, dimly understood at first, that the world might be utterly different than it had seemed to be. Perhaps it is not the victors but the victims who are closest to the divine.

The central character in Holland’s story is St. Paul, whose genius was to see that the God revealed in Christ turned the world upside down. Paul questioned what pagan antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are fated to exploit the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are determined by our social status. His vision of a community of believers, drawn from all nations and lands, was disruptive. Paul discovered a ground of human identity, and a depth of motivation, that no pagan thinker could fathom. Human beings are individuals, equal before God, called to act out of love. Paul proclaimed an ethics of universal agape, Holland claims, though he failed to follow through its subversive logic. When confronted by entrenched ideas about gender, sex, and authority, he compromised, counseling wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters.

Dominion presents Western culture as the legacy of the Paul of love and the Paul of law. It features profiles of thinkers, saints, and reformers who lived out that Pauline tension, and in so doing shaped the modern mind. Holland’s book is aimed at a popular audience, and it covers ground that will be familiar to some readers. But its pacing and style are engaging, and its pages are filled with colorful details and vivid portraits. It also brazenly flouts intellectual orthodoxies. As histories go, Holland’s is unapologetically Idealist. It places exceptional human actors and their moral beliefs at the driving center of history. Holland is thus positioned to make his most provocative claim: that Western political history bears witness to the growing power of Paul’s ethics of love. For this ethic—with its belief in human equality, its suspicion of worldly power, and its hope for universal brotherhood—dominates our moral imaginations.

Holland argues that early Christians did to Paul’s teaching what Paul had done to his vision of Christ. They “diluted” its most radical implications, tempering Paul’s ethics with a sober acknowledgment of social necessities. For Holland, this was a happy betrayal, since it enabled Christians to undertake the civilizational project that we now call the West. His portraits situate their subjects against this culture-building background. We meet ­Irenaeus and Origen, theologians who forged concepts with which Christians could explain their beliefs and examine the natural world. We meet Gregory the Great and Gregory VII, popes who secured the freedom of the Church and exposed the secularity of the state. We meet Alcuin and Abelard, teachers who standardized language and pedagogical methods for an increasingly literate elite. We meet Martin of Tours and Elizabeth of Hungary, saints who provided humanitarian ideals to young Christian nations. We meet Gratian and Cajetan, commentators who codified systems of law that ensured the equal legal rights of the baptized.

Holland sees the early and medieval Church fostering the characteristic attitude of Western society. He calls that attitude reformatio, a mindset that seeks continuous reform. He traces it to the dynamism inherent in Paul’s hope to see all people inwardly freed from superstition and cleansed of sin. ­Holland emphasizes the Christian roots of this moralistic mindset. Whereas antiquity was fearful of what the ­Romans called “new things,” Paul bred a suspicion of “old things.” He saw human beings as tempted to revert to habits and worldviews inherited from the past. The Christian ambition for never-ending reformatio altered the practices, manners, and traditions of medieval Europe. As Holland concedes, it spawned obvious ­excesses—fanaticism, intolerance, and utopianism. But the project of reformatio gave the West a distinct social attitude, whose most revolutionary possibilities were yet to be seen at the dawn of a new age.

As Holland looks to modernity, he observes the work of reformatio turning first against the institutional Church and then against the Christian faith itself. In Holland’s telling, the roots of the secular Enlightenment are not found in modern science or in a rediscovery of pagan humanism. They are found in Christian moral teaching, whose emphasis on individual conscience and human equality had nurtured a distrust of human authority. Holland’s claim, distilled to its essence, is that Western Christianity incubated moral ideals that undermined its own doctrinal basis. And so in a final Pauline paradox, it was the Christian past, and Christian traditions, from which the enslaved needed to be liberated. Holland’s survey of post-Enlightenment thought focuses overwhelmingly on Protestantism and the politics of northwestern Europe (his Europe is Germanic, not Latin). His sympathies seem to lie with dissenting Protestant movements, such as the Quakers, whose earnest activism embodied a powerful modern expression of Christian love.

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