Image by Gerd Altmann

Eternal resurrection

James Orr reviews Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

Full disclosure: Christianity usually buries its undertakers. Long after confident predictions of its demise by sociologists, and notwithstanding its accelerating demographic collapse in North America and the north-western edges of Eurasia, across vast swathes of Africa, Asia, and South America it has grown faster in recent decades than any religion in human history. So too on the battlefield of ideas, where the faith resurrects itself again and again, as if in a recurring metaphorical performance of its founding miracle.

Few would have expected at the high meridian of the New Atheism just over a decade ago that a strain of unease would emerge among Christianity’s fashionable detractors that the many and various assaults on its moral vision would leave us wondering how to negotiate a public square emptied of the virtues of humility, grace, forgiveness, and charity.

For however implausible the metaphysical assumptions underpinning it might be (a claim that, to understate the matter, the haranguing of the New Atheists did little to sustain), Christianity remains almost unmatched in its capacity to supply existential significance to any human being regardless of culture, colour and class, or to anchor our reflexive commitments to the transcendent dignity of the human person and the absolute metaphysical equality between human persons.

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
by Tom Holland,Little, Brown, £25

Four years in the making and hurtling at breakneck speed across a panorama of 20 centuries, Tom Holland’s Dominion distils vast constellations of historical and intellectual change into a startlingly simple genealogy of the moral universe of modernity. On every page of this book he urges his readers to consider that the emergence of Christianity, a superstition so wild and uncivilised to the Roman mind that it could not recognise it as a rival until it was too late, has shaped and reshaped the moral imagination and impulses of the West so comprehensively that the fiercest moral rejections of it serve only tacitly to affirm it.

It is a mark, perhaps, of how thoroughly Western thought has abandoned Christianity for the sunlit uplands of its various earthly utopias that such a thesis should surprise (and doubtless irritate) so many of us. And yet Nietzsche was surely correct to predict, in a mischievous reversal of a famous Platonic allegory, that long after the death of God “there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown”.

Holland would be the first to admit that variations of this story have been recounted before, albeit not in prose as purple and pungent as his. Carl Becker and Norman Cohn dissected modernity’s utopianisms to find Christian millenarianism buried within them; Karl Löwith and John Gray convincingly interpreted progressivism as a secularised Christian providentialism; Carl Schmitt plausibly insisted that every secular theory of sovereignty was a disguised form of Christian political theology.

One central achievement is the forcefulness with which it illuminates the moral horror of cultures unleavened by Christianity’s influence

More recently, John Milbank has demonstrated the extent to which secularism emerged from the carcass of Christian Platonism; Larry Siedentop has argued that seemingly contemporary moral intuitions regarding equality and the dignity of the individual emerge from the hinterland of Christian theology; and Harold Berman and Rémi Brague have persuasively charted the extent of Christianity’s impact on Western jurisprudence.

Yet for all the intellectual voices in support of Holland’s animating idea — one, it should be said, that he expresses with more rhetorical verve and literary power than any of them — much stands in its way. Consider, for example, the very labels we moderns invoke to periodise, and thereby narrate, our past. After all, everyone knows that the collapse of Rome and the emergence of Christendom marked the beginning of the “Dark Ages”; that the happy dawn in which pagan wisdom underwent a “Renaissance” banished the gloom and barbarism of a “Middle Ages” sandwiched between the glories of Greece and Rome and their later recovery; that the “Enlightenment” ushered in a new dawn of reason after the darkness of an age wholly bereft of it; and so on.

One of the central achievements of the early chapters of this book is the forcefulness with which it illuminates by contrast the moral horror of cultures unleavened by Christianity’s influence: the casual, routinised brutality towards the marginalised; the limitless public appetite for spectacles of human degradation; or the unimaginably vast infrastructure of slavery underpinning every single pagan achievement.

For a writer with Holland’s gifts, ancient history is the perfect medium. The evidence is almost always scarce and scattered, ranging from dented coins to ruined temples, from papyri fragments to epitaphs in indecipherable scripts. Bringing antiquity alive requires a special blend of disciplined speculation and imaginative flair, while illuminating its unutterably strange thought-world depends on the kind of viscerally vivid narrative that has become Holland’s hallmark.

Still, as the narrative moves into modernity, it presses him away from his natural habitat (to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time he has worked on a historical period later than the early middle ages). The problem for the modern historian is not that there is too little evidence but that there is too much; the challenge is therefore less that of an imaginative detective and more that of an intrepid explorer mapping out a seemingly boundless territory of primary materials. That may be why in the later parts of the book some of the passages seem unduly compressed and the dizzying array of historical connections more tenuously drawn.

Occasionally Holland overlooks Christianity’s remarkable capacity, especially in the earliest phases of its history, to “despoil the Egyptians” (a phrase usually attributed to Clement of Alexandria) — that is, to sift and absorb entire strands of thought from the cultures into which it seeped. Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome were careful to incorporate the four cardinal virtues elaborated by Plato and Cicero on which so many of paganism’s moral codes had hinged (indeed Jerome was once horrified by a dream in which Christ had accused him of being more Ciceronian than Christian).

It is not hard to see why Holland is drawn to the diagnosis of “wokeness” as an ersatz form of puritanism

The theoretical architecture of natural law and natural rights, which Aquinas, Suárez and Grotius would develop with extraordinary sophistication, would not have existed but for its earlier development and preservation in Stoicism; scholastic conceptions of virtue and vice would not be possible had it not been for the sudden rediscovery of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the twelfth century; and Christianity’s metaphysical conception of goodness would be unrecognisable if all of Plato’s influences were removed.

Historians of early Christianity argue long into the night over the merits of Adolf von Harnack’s “Hellenisation Thesis”, but it is as hard to expunge Christianity’s debt to the Hellenic as it is its debt to the Hebraic, and it is difficult too to deny that the astonishingly rapid expansion and enduring influence of Christianity owed much to Paul’s gift for synthesising those twin engines of the Western imagination.

Tom Holland: Does his thesis amount to an argument for Christianity?

A final minor cavil: it is not hard to see why Holland is drawn to the diagnosis of “wokeness” as an ersatz form of puritanism, a view that has begun to acquire currency elsewhere. The original sins of “whiteness” and “toxic masculinity” redeemable only, and only ever partly, through ritualised self-abasement before kangaroo courts of the pure; the shrill policing of language and tone; the heresy hunts; the pale-faced teenage mystics intoning prophecies of doom; the ceaselessly expanding labyrinths of jargon that swallow up the unwary and reinforce the grip of a gnostic elite: all such phenomena confront us inevitably with the thought that we have been here before, but this time without any of the countervailing benefits of grace and forgiveness, healing and restoration, and the objective demands of natural justice.

Nevertheless, this kind of genealogy forgets that “wokeness” actually originates from Marxism’s insistence that the proletariat snap out of false consciousness, the pliant stupor into which capitalists have anaesthetised it (the notion of “raising awareness” shares the same pedigree). And one can also trace the influence of Marxism in the woke vogue for collectivised, meaningless abstractions. Where once societies were carved up into the “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie”, we are now invited to apply the victim/oppressor dichotomy to “communities” confected from various sets of contingent physiological characteristics and their cruel oppressors (that is, everyone not born with the relevant characteristics).

Does Holland’s thesis amount to an argument for Christianity? C.S. Lewis once pointed out (plausibly enough) that Christ did not leave it open to his followers to treat him merely as an inspired moral teacher. And, as a logical matter, all historical arguments of this sort must fail, for what makes a belief true has nothing to do with the conduct of those who believe it to be true. The claim that the moral intuitions of today are in Christianity’s debt might convince the Nietzschean as a causal historical claim; but it will hardly convince him that Christianity is anything other than a consoling folk-story told by the weak to restrain the strong, any more than it would persuade the Marxist to deny that it is an opiate administered by the strong to anaesthetise the weak. Still, to the extent that this remarkable book does convince us that the moral grammar of self-consciously secular progressives would be unintelligible in a world in which Jesus of Nazareth had never existed, it raises an unsettling question for those among Christianity’s cultured despisers who dare to read it: what moral grammar would they prefer?

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