Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils

In an earlier post I promised to talk about the content of this book.

Dr. MacMullen is interested in two phenomena that he seems to find underappreciated by writers on the later Roman Empire.

First is the huge amount of activity that took place under the rubric of "early church councils." It's easy to push this activity to one side because you are not particularly interested in the development of Christian doctrine; on the other hand, you might be primarily interested in doctrine and not all that concerned with the social or political context. One of the first things that Dr. MacMullen points out to his Martian visitor is that there was a tremendous amount of such activity from the third to the sixth century AD. He comes up with some speculative but not unreasonable numbers for meetings and attendees; he talks about how bishops, their retainers, their messengers and their letters and supporting dossiers of documents crossed the Roman world, at great trouble and to some extent on the basis of imperial subsidies (the Roman post service which expedited not just mail delivery but the travel of officials, which was notoriously expensive). The business of church councils, which it should be noted was not always on matters of correct belief and teaching (doctrine), was a significant dimension of the business of government.

The Martian visitor is impressed.

Second, this network of relationships had a dimension that MacMullen calls "democratic." Not because there was a government based on elections (though bishops were elected) and not because anyone believed the empire was or should be based on democratic principles (it was in theory an absolute, divinely ordained monarchy), but because the people, or large organized groups of people, usually gathered together in towns and cities, especially imperial capitals or large regional centers like Alexandria or Ephesus, exerted pressure on bishops, governors and emperors, and sometimes got their way. The people (the mass of them) had power.

Dr. MacMullen discusses two aspects of this "people power." The first is well known to anyone who knows late Roman history at all -- the factional assemblies that took place in streets, plazas, and the circus (the chariot-racing track) and demonstrated for or against doctrinal positions, local governors, or even the emperors themselves. The competition between Greens and Blues in 5th and 6th century Constantinople is particularly famous -- they were in theory fan clubs organized to support chariot teams, but though they were intensely interested in that subject, their activities went well beyond it. (See my short discussion here.) MacMullen reminds us that the most famous demonstrations and riots were not the sum-total of this "democratic" aspect of late Roman civic and imperial life.

The second "democratic" manifestation analyzed in this book is the conduct of councils themselves -- which conduct was modeled on that of the Roman senate, the imperial consistory, and town councils. Some attention has been directed this way in the past because we have the minutes of such bodies, but usually the councils have been seen as a degenerate form of institutions that were freer and worked better in the republican past. The feature particularly noted has been the chanting of attendees -- chanting that began with long passages of praise for the divine emperor, continued with praises for his wise policies, and then, kinda sneaked in there, complaints and petitions and even denunciations of officials. All these chants were written down and the number of repetitions of each carefully noted.

This seems like a slavish way to run a consultative or legislative body, and maybe it is so. However, MacMullen invites us to imagine how such demonstrations were organized, how they looked to those present (especially when one considers that chants could turn to violence, and that chants might threaten violence to people on the wrong side), how chanting defined parties, how chanting was used to manifest the power of the majority. MacMullen grants as he clearly must that his church councils were easily manipulated by the presiding officers and senior bishops (kind of like the US Senate today), but he argues that people power -- the power of a passionate mass -- sometimes won the day.

Thinking about this material can result in seeing the later Roman empire in a whole new way.

But is this democracy? Or is it mob rule, sometimes or maybe more often than not manipulated by managers behind the scene, a la the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I have my problems with the notion of mob rule, but I have to say that the democracy of the streets and the revolutionary assemblies of the early Christian empire has its resemblances to the democracy of the streets and assemblies of the French Revolution. (Modernity, where are you?) Yes, the revolutionary demonstrations were loud and violent and intolerant in both settings, and led to mass slaughter -- I'll take Canadian democracy, thanks -- but they did respond to the dissatisfactions of large, determined groups of people. Absolute power, accepted out loud by all, again is shown as fragile and chimerical and in need at times of (let's say) mob power.

This book has given me a lot to think about.

Update, September 2011:  Everything old is new again.

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