BMCR 1991.07.01

Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse

, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse. Sather Classical Lectures; v. 55. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. xv, 261 pages. ISBN 0520071603.

No previous published Sathers have dealt with a subject so exclusively Christian and so exclusively Late Antique. The closest any has come is Albrecht Dihle’s important volume on the theory of the will in classical antiquity, where a central part of the story is played on late antique turf; and others, notably Dodds’s Greeks and the Irrational, have strayed into these territories. But the point is worth making to show how far afield, from the point of view of northern California, Cameron has strayed, and to explain in turn the chief limitation of this volume.

The theme of the lectures is an ambitious one: to describe within the world of classical antiquity the emergence of certain elements of a specifically Christian discourse. No comparably ambitious book on this theme has appeared since Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture on the eve of the Second World War. The form and apparently the content of the original six Sather lectures have been reproduced and the book has a disarmingly unpretentious air; rarely are ‘lectures’ reproduced on the page so successfully as these. One is forced to recognize the distinctive ethos of the lecture hall, to accept the suggestiveness appropriate to the genre and to leave exhaustive treatment for other books, other articles.

The lectures were given in 1986 and must be read with two other Cameron productions in mind: first, the daring (as it then seemed) review of Foucault on ancient sex in JRS 76 (1986), 266-71, at the outset of her distinguished tenure as editor of that journal—her recent laying down the reins is deeply to be regretted—and second, the organization of the papers eventually published as History as Text (reviewed in BMCR 1.2). After two decades of unusually fecund and enlightening publication, culminating in the long-considered Procopius and the Sixth Century of 1985, it would seem that she was momentarily caught in the whirlwind of argument spread through all departments of the humanities by the theoreticians and their allies. This volume is an attempt to regroup, to think large thoughts, and to do synthetic history of literature in a meta-Foucaultian mode. It has its merits.

For the topic is important. The place of Christianity in western culture remains a radically open question, surprisingly resistant to attempts at resolution by partisans of any stripe, and surprisingly still incapable of diminishing partisanship. Though old denominational quarrels show themselves in scholarly writing less often than before, there is still a strong undercurrent of unease and partisanship running through even some of the best modern work on late antiquity. Cameron’s decision to bring the question forward and to make an eirenic attempt at giving it some context and some illumination is courageous and praiseworthy. (For what it is worth, the book gives no slightest hint of what C.’s personal views might be: such even-handedness is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.) Her view, baldly stated, is that Christianity was not in the end so radically distinct from the societies in which it grew and the official Christianity that emerged in the early Byzantine empire showed on many points continuity with the secular traditions on which that society drew. The points of difference that Cameron selects to emphasize are subtle but at the same time relatively unsurprising.

But as with so many explicitly theoretical discussions, even ones purportedly engaged in more practical scholarship or criticism, the utility of the discussion is limited to the quarrels of the moment.

What is illuminated is not the ‘past’ that we have constructed so lovingly (or not so lovingly), but the theoretical issues of the moment. This is most clear in the remarkable ways in which the field of this book are limited. Following Foucault, Cameron is interested in the emergence of Christianity’s distinctive ‘totalizing discourse’. Now this interest, already explicit in the introductory lecture, has the effect of begging the question that the series seems to pose. It focuses on a very limited segment of Christian discourse, and one whose importance is much greater from the Renaissance to the present (or nearly the present) than it ever was in late antiquity. The discourse Cameron is interested in is high, aristocratic, and power-hungry. One is tempted to sigh and yawn at the same time. Yes, Christianity, like all successful social and cultural movements, produced that kind of discourse. But not only that kind of discourse, and when it produces that kind of discourse it is becoming as flat, stale, and uninteresting as every other producer of such discourse. (One side effect of this preoccupation is that the book rarely quotes texts, and certainly pays no attention to the material forms of Christian discourse—I do not recall a single reference to a manuscript anywhere in the book, and Skeat and Turner on book production are missing from the bibliography. Instead we have high mandarin literary criticism, hovering over the texts at a safe distance, emitting judgements and observations with clean hands.) The results are thin. The short concluding ‘Envoi’, after many brave pages claiming to a new and fresh view of late antiquity, brings us right back to the threshold of the dark ages: ‘By the late sixth and seventh centuries in the Eastern Empire one can perceive, together with the enormous political and military difficulties of that period, an encroaching scholasticism and a closing in of intellectual horizons. As the city of Constantinople shrank, the recourse to religious images and the eager embracing of the mysticism of a ps.-Dionysius may seem understandable.’ Those sentences could have been written a hundred years ago. What makes them new is that they are followed by eleven more lines of text, brave hand-waving that says little (the bald assertion that ‘Christian discourse had a liberating as well as a totalizing effect’ seems poorly exemplified, if at all, by the 200+ pages that precede it) and leaves the reader disappointed.

I mentioned Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture at the outset: a comparison must regrettably (for all that Cochrane is dated in details) stand in favor of the older book. There was in that book a strength of philosophical grasp, an ambitious reach, and an unfailing sense for the specific, evocative text that gave it perhaps more force of conviction than it deserved. In some ways it was a twin birth with The Roman Revolution of the same year (and Cochrane thanks Syme in his acknowledgements) and equally marked an epoch: it was just about the first British classical book to take a serious interest in late antiquity. If we have had to wait fifty years for the first Sathers to do the same, we cannot say that this one marks an epoch in the same way, nor will it last as long.

For in the end, Cameron is writing for the benefit of Christianity’s cultured despisers and learned defenders (who share, be it noted, a common construction of ‘Christianity’ and have done so ever since the eighteenth century) a history of how Christianity became powerful, self-satisfied, and boring. You may well imagine that this is a hard story to put much punch into.

One remarkable side effect of this concentration is that a dizzying variety of exciting topics, so far seriously understudied for this period, get dismissed in the briefest of mentions. A partial catalogue: biblical discourse/interpretation and the way a biblical ‘canon’ of texts supplanted the traditional classical canon (expressly set aside at pp. 6-7, with ‘pagan’ v. Christian allegory tossed aside at 65n65); baptismal creeds, of great interest because they were memorized texts (often expressly prohibited from being written down) impressed on all neophytes seeking baptism (dismissed at 49n13 with ref. to standard works); the tension between the oral and the written (an Ong-Stock-Goody footnote at 83n115); the distinctive position of Christianity as a religion relying on texts and the way later ‘pagan’ communities scrambled to catch up (brief mention on 110); and the fascinating interaction of textual and oral in liturgical performance (skimmed at 199 and 203-4). To my taste, those are the areas in which Christianity, the high-tech religion of late antiquity, was doing interesting and novel things with texts. One example: in the fifth century, the bishop Sidonius Apollinaris was going into church one Sunday to say Mass when some joker snatched from his hand the libellus which he expected to use for the central episcopal prayers of the service. The congregation was amazed and delighted that the bishop carried off the service ex tempore without a hitch in spite of the loss of the libellus. Now a bishop who needs a ‘missalette’ is no longer quite the same inspired holy man in whom the spirit dwells who apparently presided over service in the earliest church, but neither is he the post-Tridentine priest from the sixteenth century to just yesterday, who had a huge missal prescribing for him his every word and gesture. The transformation of Christianity by texts, the transformation of texts by Christianity, and the interplay of Christian and non-Christian ‘textual communities’ (Brian Stock’s phrase) are places to look for the development of a distinctive and lastingly influential Christian discourse. (I would also point out that the odd chapter entitled ‘Stories People Want’ could have been much enriched by reference to the disciplines and methods of the folklorists.)

But it is easy to be seduced by the arguments from the battlefield: theory, for or against? To arms! Take sides! To refrain from ‘doing theory’, at least a bit of it, seems to be to side with the troglodytes. But Cameron’s strength has always been scholarly and erudite: she knows things, she uncovers things, she makes connections, and she brings to life lost moments. To have come along in her wake, a few years younger, has been to watch Constantinople of the sixth century seem to bloom miraculously before one’s eyes. The richness and variety and texture of that place and that time that may be found in Cameron’s works are a treasure, and it is the further aggrandisement of that treasure that one has come most to expect of her works.

But no previous published Sathers have dealt with a Byzantine topic, and this one does so only in fits and starts (though see p. 228 for the way in which the ‘implicit reader’ may indeed be the Byzantinist in search of origins). One wonders where the censorship took place? Was it the inner censor of the author, invited to the august but classical visiting chair, and feeling that there must be deference to the tastes of the hosts? Or was there some back-and-forth between Berkeley and London, with the suggestion, implicit verging on explicit, that really, Marian cult in sixth-century Constantinople is not quite the stuff of which Sathers are made? In either case, the result was unfortunate: for something like Marian cult in sixth-century Constantinople is the volume in which, at that moment in the 1980s, Cameron was ready to bring down fire from the heavens again. Instead, we have warmed over Foucault, and begorra, but he’s been in and out of the oven a lot lately. I make a tastier Noodleroni (anchovy paste my secret ingredient) than the sort of thing we get nowadays, and not only here.

There are some odd points of inconcinnity to the volume as well.

Sixteen illustrations, mainly b/w photographs of Old Masters limning apposite themes, are scattered without explanation and with a grave Zen-like irrelevance through the volume. The one such picture that I recall seeing mentioned (at p. 195) is not reproduced. The effect is elegant (and perhaps there were slides to succor the audience’s attention span) but still disconcerting. As with Cameron’s Procopius, also produced in this country by Berkeley, the index was evidently produced by a ‘professional indexer’, that is by an amateur, and is correspondingly of little use (and both books find different, but equally incoherent, ways of indexing the second Council of Constantinople of 553, an event Cameron interprets elsewhere with matchless skill).

It is unfair to leave the work of so eminent a scholar on such a note. I will accordingly mention three articles of Cameron’s that demonstrate her unparallelled erudition and the rich interest of her work. Sather volumes are often good for stopping doors or catching dust (I once used a volume as a back-support in my car for a year or so, until guilt overtook me); these articles are probably unfamiliar to most classicists, but they make engrossing reading, and say more on the topic than this whole volume:

‘The Theotokos in Sixth-Century Constantinople: A City Finds Its Symbol’, Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 29 (1978), 79-108; ‘Byzantine Africa: The Literary Evidence’, in J. Humphrey, ed., Excavations at Carthage VIII (Ann Arbor, 1982), 29-62; ‘Eustathius’s Life of the Patriarch Eutychius and the Fifth Ecumenical Council’, in J. Chrysostomides, ed., Kathegetria: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey for Her 80th Birthday (Camberley, Eng., 1988), 225-47.

There is a lesson here for the scholar and the theoretician alike. If there’s a war on, it’s because all sides have lost their heads. Those of us who were not called by the almighty, or his advisers, the tenure committee, to think high-wire thoughts need not either disdain such thoughts or clamber up there to engage in unsuccessful imitation. Dryasdusts need to read, listen, ruminate, and be enlightened. It is precisely the most pedantic of bead counters who needs to hear what is being said up on the high wire, and think hard and carefully about how to adjust techniques of bead counting accordingly. All the more so, scholars of the range and imagination and energy of Cameron do well to consider the issues; but in the end, there is a wisdom in knowing where our calling lies.