Cosmopolitanism through the ages
9 January 2009
One of the reasons that Christianity has held a near-universal appeal is that it was formulated during an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan period of human history; Christianity is as much a creation of pagan Rome as of Christ and His Apostles, if not more so. There have been many charismatic religious visionaries and leaders through the ages, and only a handful have successfully founded new religions that went on to play a significant role in human history. In each case, the conditions of success were unique to the time and the place of the inception of the incipient faith. With Rome, the universal empire of the western world, there was peace, unity of political control, a network of roads and shipping, literacy, and a vast population ripe for spiritual exploitation.
Any religion formulated under the social conditions of the Roman Empire would have had a certain worldly outlook, a cosmopolitanism and universality, and a familiarity that still feels fresh two thousand years later. The writers of antiquity speak to us directly as though to contemporaries, to an extent that archaic and medieval literature cannot speak to us, and so the most successful religion of late antiquity speaks directly to men and women of the modern world. The religious traditions of archaic Greece as, for example, related in Homer, or even those of medieval Europe, though the latter constituted the immediate predecessor of our civilization today, are far more distant and foreign than the religious traditions of the Roman world.
In his widely quoted State of the Nation address of 25 April 2005, Vladimir Putin said that, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I heard a commentator at the time make the case that it was the most cosmopolitan institutions of the Soviet Union that suffered the most from the Soviet collapse. Large political entities like the Soviet Union tend to support certain types of cultural expression that are seen to reflect positively on the state (say, the Bolshoi Ballet, for example). In this sense, Putin was right. But the Soviet Union, on the whole, suppressed far more cultural expression than it supported.
There is a connection here with classical antiquity. In 1511 the monk Philotheus wrote in a letter to Tsar Vasily III, “Hear me, pious Tsar, all Christian kingdoms have converged in thine alone. Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, a fourth there shall not be.” Thus Moscow is the Third Rome, and the vanguard for Orthodox Christendom.
Samuel Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, identified a region of Orthodox civilization, the core state of which is Russia. To a certain extent, then, Huntington and Putin are on the same page. Orthodox civilization apparently is thought to deserve its own sphere of influence. However, it would be a stretch to suppose that the Soviet Union represented the interests of Orthodox civilization. On an explicit ideological level, it allied itself not with a regional interest, but with the vanguard of international communism.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union may have been the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, the greatest geopolitical tragedy of Western history was the collapse of Roman power in the West. We live with the consequences of it still. The Middle Ages looked backward to a lost Golden Age, while the beginning of the modern period in the renaissance looked back to classical antiquity as its model of a civilization to emulate.
Even with the loss of the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire, the eventual emergence of Christendom in Western Europe created a culture that extended (as has been said by others) from Iceland to Sicily. And while the unity of Christendom came at a certain cultural cost, there were serious scholars of the Middle Ages, all churchmen, who studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic in order to read the ancient books of these traditions.
Today new cosmopolitan institutions have emerged. For example, the English language, as well as international science and scholarship. The critics of American hegemony will say that the use of the English language is a form of imperialism. The political left, in particular, has worked itself into a real lather over apparent ambitions for an American Empire.
Despite the gains of clarity in political science over the past hundred years, the terminology of the discipline is so vague as to virtually guarantee the people will be talking at cross purposes. Part of this is because the vocabulary of political science includes everyone’s favorite propaganda terms — “glittering generalities” as they are sometimes called. Think of terms like “democracy”, “revolution”, and “empire”. They mean a great many things, and are used in a great many ways by a great many individuals.
What I have here been calling cosmopolitanism could as well be called imperialism, or even cultural imperialism. Certainly the Roman Empire practiced imperialism. This imperialism had consequences both good and bad, both intended and unintended. There was the Pax Romana, of course, and there was the establishment of Christianity that I mentioned in the first paragraph above. I let the reader decide which of these development was good or bad, but obviously the first was intended and the second unintended. What exactly is the idea of imperialism, and how does it differ from cosmopolitanism?
Is the cosmopolitanism of today imperialism? Is there an American Empire? If so, in what sense is there an American Empire? In what ways does an American Empire resemble, and in what sense does it not resemble, the Roman Empire? This is, in a way, a fun question to ask for the images that it allows us to entertain. For example, US military missions do not end in a triumphal procession in Washington DC. Maybe they should. This would be a perfect example of what I have called symbolic efficacy. Imagine David Patraeus in a chariot (with a slave whispering in his ear, “Remember, thou art mortal too”) leading a spectacular procession through the wide boulevards of Washington DC, past the White House and the Congress, past the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, leading tens of thousands of marching soldiers and, after them, thousands of prisoners and booty brought back from his campaign.
The lesson from today’s considerations? The past furnishes a vision at least as often as the future. Perhaps the past gives us a vision more often than does the future. The past has the advantage of being concrete. The Roman Empire is with us still because, like the coliseum itself in Rome, the Roman Empire itself dominates Western history, and because of its position astride the commanding heights of Western history, it has served as a vision, and it will continue to serve as a vision, of what a state can aspire to. We feel its loss still.
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