Tom Holland: Dominion

For me, Tom Holland’s Dominion was the book to look forward to in 2019. The reason was that I had had an epiphany similar to the one that moved him to begin a work focused on Christianity. Holland, known for his highly-readable books on ancient and medieval topics, had long thought of himself as a product of ancient Greece and Rome, but came in time to feel their brutality repellent: “the values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.” Clearly he was not simply a product of antiquity, but also of something else. The piece in which he describes the realisation that Christianity represented an immense and crucial part of his own formation – and more generally of the formation of the world we live in today – is recommended reading in its own right. (This five-minute video gives a compact overview of some of the central ideas.)

Holland’s insights in that piece were particularly important to me because I had recently had a realisation along the same lines. The beneficiary of an entirely secular upbringing, I had almost literally not read a single page of the Bible, but a passing comment from a friend one day caused me to feel an absence in my education: he mentioned his ‘favourite book’ of the Bible. Although his upbringing was no less secular than my own, I was so far from having a favourite book of the Bible I couldn’t even give you the most basic account of any of them. Surely I, aspiring to be an educated person, at least ought to have some idea what was in there. So before long I was turning the pages of the New Testament, and reading this: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy… Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The effect was rather like a lightning bolt. Why? Well, like Holland, I have spent a certain amount of time studying the ancient world, and the lines above brought one thought home to me with considerable force: you won’t read that in Thucydides’ History or in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. What I was reading presented a fundamentally different ethos: such sentiments are in a very real way alien to ancient Greece and Rome. It’s not the case that thoughts along these lines were absolutely absent from the ancient world – one thinks, for example, of Socrates’ arguments in the Gorgias that it is better to suffer than to perform an injustice – but such talk was peculiar and unusual, fundamentally antinomian: recall the exasperation of Socrates’ opponents as he makes those arguments, and how his ideas are said to be characteristic of someone whispering in a corner with a few boys. The idea that all people, even the weakest and lowliest, have an inherent dignity and worth, is not one you come across often – if at all – when reading the ancient classics.

I think that helps explain, for example, why we read in Aristotle of people who argued against slavery, but we don’t read anywhere of a successful abolitionist movement – and certainly not of a civil war fought by non-slaves over the question! (That Christianity played such an explicit role in 17th-19th century abolition movements, as well as in the civil rights movement in the 60’s – and don’t forget Nelson Mandela, who appears towards the end of Holland’s book – does not suggest its irrelevance in this regard.) Another conspicuous feature of our own time also seems to be best explained by means of Christianity: the guilt over past empires that forms a cornerstone of the contemporary Western Zeitgeist. I can’t think of anything similar in antiquity.

I thought about writing a blog post about all this, but I soon learned of Holland’s impending book, and I knew he would do a better job than I ever would. He did not disappoint.

The central theme of Dominion is this: a very great part of what has formed our world – of what makes us us – is Christianity. More than that, much of what makes our world good in the way that we think it is good, is Christianity.

The book was not at all what I had expected. I had thought that Holland would confine himself to the ancient world, bringing out in detail the foreignness, the otherness, of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, so as to bring out whatever the unique contribution of Christianity might be. What I found was quite different: Holland has written a narrative history of Western Christianity, or more specifically an episodic history of its influence upon us, starting with its ancient pre-Christian roots in Judaism and Greece, and reaching all the way to the protests that followed the election of Donald Trump. The result is more effective than anything I had imagined, because it allows him to show in real detail how certain aspects of the modern era that one might think novel are in fact only the more recent form of impulses whose roots go back two millennia (and which, as I think it through, are often not to be found at all in pre-Christian antiquity; I discuss a few examples below). The cumulative effect is utterly convincing. It has also given me a great deal to think about: this is not likely to be a book I read only once.

A work as rich and wide-ranging as Dominion cannot be properly discussed in a few thousand words, but I want to treat the points that struck me as particularly important. One aspect of Christianity that has been lost to us is a sense of its initial strangeness, the way in which it inverted conceptions that defined the world in which it emerged. Nothing would seem less god-like to the Greeks or Romans than getting crucified, nor anything more bizarre than undergoing this for the sake of others. The gods were supposed to be overpoweringly strong, and were so far from being inclined to sacrifice themselves for others that there were numerous tales of the rapes certain of them had committed. Of course, it wasn’t just the crucifixion, but the teachings that preceded it that were a departure from contemporary sensibilities: “Woe to you who are rich!” “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Such words carry within them the basis for revolution, so that each Christian order carried within itself the seeds of its own overthrow. That is, whatever order comes to hold sway, however revolutionary it might have seemed at first, will eventually come to be associated with the rich, with those who are ‘first,’ simply by virtue of its success. It thus finds itself in danger, if it is a Christian order, of running afoul of its own first principles, of inviting revolution, or at least reform. The most remarkable such instance involves the behaviour of people who believe themselves to be entirely beyond Christianity in the West, who proceed in a manner that is deeply Christian: those who claim to be ‘woke’ (the name itself suggests an awakening of the sort long associated with a certain religion) focus on those who they believe most oppressed, such as women or homosexuals or trans-people, and create a reverse-hierarchy, in which the last are first, and the first last. This instinct to raise up those at the bottom would have seemed bizarre to an ancient Greek or Roman, to such a degree that I can’t think of any precursor to it in those ancient societies (if anyone can help me out here, do let me know).

In Dominion we encounter numerous examples of other revolutions that occur as the dominant state of affairs in each era come to be seen as falling short of the ideals to which the whole society, being Christian, has long professed. Perhaps the most eye-opening for me came in chapter nine, in the case of the 11th century ‘reformation’ (i.e., reformatio). I had not previously been aware of this episode, but Holland sees in it the birth of the secular as a realm distinct from the religious. A drive for the renewed purity of the Church – for example by demanding celibacy of priests, and by driving out the influence of temporal monarchs upon the papacy – as well as a power-grab on the part of that same papacy, produced a significant result: “for too long the rival dimensions of earthly appetites and commitment to Christ, of corruption and purity, of saecularia and religio, had been intermixed. Such pollution could not be permitted to continue.” Of course such a development does not come out of thin air. It can legitimately claim to be a further development of earlier Christian thought (e.g., Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man), and also to have a basis in scripture (“give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).

It also lays a foundation for what is to come. Although Martin Luther denounced Gregory VII, author of that 11th century reformatio, still, one result of the 16th century Reformation was, as Holland tells us, “not to dissolve the great division between the realms of the profane and the sacred that had characterised Christendom since the age of Gregory VII, but to entrench it.” I happen to have been doing a little reading on the Reformation lately, and it seems to me that Holland could have pressed his case at this point rather more strongly than he does: that we find here the conceptual basis of modern democratic freedom seems to me rather difficult to deny. Sweeping away the institutional authorities who had long claimed to be necessary to salvation, Luther points instead to the inner relationship of each individual with God, with a concomitant emphasis on freedom and individual conscience. This soon leads to one of history’s great statements of individual conscience, as Luther defies both pope and emperor – “here I stand, I can do nothing else!” – and also to Calvin’s view that people should be free to both join and leave the church. It also produces Luther’s famous statement on rights and duties: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Certainly these word pose a threat to the medieval conception of society, according to which people have quite different rights and duties according to their station, but they also point to the future, for they suggest a society of formal equals, without room for the many exceptions to that equality that had characterised the ancient republics.

It is certainly not self-evident that all men are created equal – except, perhaps, for those who have grown up in a society that has been marinated in such ideas for a couple centuries. Accordingly, in the lands which accepted some form of the Reformation, after a few generations have passed, we start to see experiments in democracy in various forms. What a coincidence! (Those who accept the Steven Pinker history of the Enlightenment, according to which it springs forth full-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ thigh, with very little debt indeed to the preceding millennium, need to come up with something to say about this astonishing coincidence.)

And of course, even as he is a founding figure of the modern protestant world – i.e., northern Europe and the English-speaking world – Luther is also trying to clear away what he considers the medieval deformations of his faith, going back past them to Augustine, and through Augustine, to St. Paul. That is, by going back to the Christian basics, he laid the conceptual basis of modern liberal democratic republics, whose character has proved very different from ancient republics like Rome or Athens. (As an aside, one thought I had while reading Holland was of the towering importance of Augustine, not simply as an important church father, but also as a keystone in the foundation of modern freedom.)

As I suggested above, one great merit of Holland’s grand-narrative approach is that he can bring earlier chapters to bear on later history, bringing home to the reader just how deeply based in Christian precedent certain later episodes are. So, for example, when he arrives at the sans-culottes in the French Revolution, he reminds us, “they were certainly not the first to call for the poor to inherit the earth. So too had the radicals among the Pelagians, who had dreamed of a world in which every man and woman would be equal; so too had the Taborites, who had built a town on communist principles, and mockingly crowned the corpse of a king with straw; so too had the Diggers, who had denounced property as an offence against God.” Anyone who has followed Holland to this point has read about the Pelagians, Taborites and Diggers in some detail, and can accordingly appreciate that an old pattern is recurring. Or consider Holland on Robespierre’s belief that human rights were eternal and universal, without any debt to Christian history: “there hung over this a familiar irony. The ambition of eliminating hereditary crimes and absurdities, of purifying humanity, of bringing them from vice to virtue, was redolent not just of Luther, but of Gregory VII. The vision of a universal sovereignty, one founded amid the humbling of kings and the marshalling of lawyers, stood recognisably in a line of descent from that of Europe’s primal revolutionaries.”

It may seem, on the basis of my account so far, that Dominion is a triumphal work, which seeks to whitewash the various forms of barbarity that Christians have perpetrated over and over again in the course of history. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Holland does not shy away from such realities, drawing attention repeatedly to the darker things done in the name of Christianity. He even notes that although the Nazis represented an utterly anti-Christian movement, they were nevertheless moved also by impulses that had first appeared long before: “the dream of a new order planted on the ruins of the old; of a reign of the saints that would last for a thousand years; of a day of judgement, when the unjust would be sorted from the just, and condemned to a lake of fire: this, from the earliest days of the Church, had always haunted the imaginings of the faithful.”

While reading, I found myself thinking about the negative side, and I now wonder if Christian moral universalism isn’t a sort of double-edged sword. This goes to the heart of what is so good about Christianity and what makes it so dangerous. One way to grasp what is unique here is to consider Luther’s two sentences about the freedom and duties of a Christian (above) in relation to the ancient world. As I try to think of parallels in antiquity, I’m inclined to think that strictly speaking, there are none: the Greeks and Romans don’t seem to have been as inclined as the moderns to hold forth on the universal rights of man. Still, perhaps Pericles’ lofty claims in the Funeral Oration about the justice and equality between Athenian citizens will do: what Pericles says applies to male Athenian citizens, not to women, not to slaves, not to subjects of the empire, and so on. There is no subsequent history in Athens (or in Rome) in which the implied exclusions are gradually included, and take their place alongside the original Athenian citizens as equals. In the modern era, the matter is different. The obvious example is the US Declaration of Independence, with its claim that all men are created equal: notoriously, the slave-holding signatories must have intended an implicit exclusion of at least some black men, women didn’t have the vote, etc. In this case, however, subsequent history did gradually involve the inclusion of those who had been left out, realising the full potential of the original universal claim about equality. I think something similar is true of Luther’s words about the freedom of a Christian: these are radically universal statements with immense potential implications that could easily lead to places he wasn’t planning to go (e.g., the Declaration of Independence itself, which inter alia founds a republic). Subsequent events burst the banks of his intentions, driving towards an ever more universal form of equality and dignity for all. So that’s the good side of what I’m calling Christian moral universalism.

There’s another side, however: once you have what you believe to be right for all people, you can’t leave other people alone, even in other countries (or perhaps in more recent decades: you can’t grasp that not everybody believes the same thing as you). There was a sort of tolerance in the ancient polytheistic world: it was understood that different states had different gods and different customs, and these were not the focus of inter-state relations or of conflicts between states. In the 19th century, however, if your local customs included slavery, you might soon find that the British were prepared to expend considerable effort and money to change your customs (Holland tells of the bewilderment of the Ottomans in 1840 as the British did just this). What lay behind this was a universal moral imperative that applied to all people; the ancient world knew nothing at all like it. The desire to eliminate slavery was also a significant motivation for the expansion of the British Empire into Africa. This universal moral imperative also finds expression as the imperative to convert others to Christianity becomes part of the story in times of conquest in the Christian era (e.g., the Spanish in the New World, or the Teutonic Knights in eastern Europe), something unheard of in the ancient world. Towards the end of the book, Holland also looks at the Iraq war, in which many in the West simply took for granted that their own values really were universal, and thus held by all. (This proved not to be entirely true.) These, at any rate, are my preliminary thoughts on all this.

I found the sections on Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and the 20th century to be particularly interesting because they caused me to see thinkers and episodes that I had encountered before in a new light. The Christian basis of Marxism is not anything new, but Holland’s pages on Marx really are wonderful; only with great effort have I refrained from quoting them at length. And in the end, he does provide what for me was a major new insight: “the measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.” The treatment of Darwin showed me that I really need to spend time thinking about the horrible challenge posed by Darwinism to ethical life: whereas on the earlier understanding man was made in God’s image, giving an inherent dignity even to the lowest and the weakest, on a Darwinian understanding, the weak have to die, and it is good (for the species) if they do (Darwin himself noticed this). And Nietzsche is fascinating all over again for the light he sheds on Christianity: he is a determined anti-Christian who understands the religion well, and does not pretend that nothing bad will happen as it is abandoned. I was reading Walter Kaufmann a little while ago, who does a good job of rehabilitating Nietzsche from the connections often made between him and the Nazis; I think Holland has pushed the pendulum back somewhat in the other direction for me.

Dominion was not my first book by Tom Holland, but my estimation of him increased immeasurably as I read it. Yes, he can still write history that reads like fiction, yes, he can make you almost feel like you’re present at certain key historical moments, but in comparison with what I’d read before, this book is an achievement of a different order. This is history of a genuinely intellectual kind, with deeply-considered reflections on the development of ideas in history of the sort that can seem at first to admit of superficial objections, but which prove upon consideration to be fully thought-through (in keeping with the book’s focus, I have decided to be charitable and to refrain from going through any examples of such objections). Holland describes himself as a “popular historian,” and while it is true that he is often not working from primary sources in this book, still what he has produced is of greater value than so much of what comes out of academia today, with its endless proliferation of minute inquiries. The fact that Holland has presented thought of this standard in such an accessible form is an important part of the achievement here: because his prose is such a pleasure to read, his thoughts will have maximum reach.

It took me until the fourth-last sentence to find something which seems to me really to strike the wrong note. Christians have often behaved badly, Holland says, “yet the standards by which the stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change.” Certainly Holland has convincingly shown that even the most cutting-edge left-wing activity today is deeply informed by an unconscious Christian understanding – the same pattern of raising up the weak is playing out again – and the word ‘quickly’ ensures that he is strictly correct in what he says here. Still, the last part of that sentence is something I’ve begun to think about in recent months: as the West becomes dechristianised, it may be running on fumes, so to speak, as far as its most fundamental values are concerned. The moral universe of the future could be a very different place, a much more brutal place.

Sometimes I wonder if I see hints of what is to come. Consider, for example, the manner in which it has become acceptable in some left-wing circles to talk of ‘whiteness’ and white people. This constitutes an absolute abandonment of the legacy of Martin Luther King – or rather, the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King – whose approach to the issue of racial justice, being thoroughly and consciously Christian, appealed to a universal morality, a common humanity, and accordingly did not invite or allow the denigration of anyone on account of their race. ‘Whiteness,’ or rather, the readiness of certain people to speak of it as they do, could contain the seed of great future evils. Or maybe the appearance of sexual slavery in eastern Europe in recent decades gives us a glimpse of a more brutal future. I also think of Les Kolakowski’s suggestion that the fact that the Enlightenment and Christianity are going down together shows that the hope of a building an ethical order on reason alone was always futile. These, however, are large matters, for another time.

Whatever the future may hold, I have become convinced in recent years that an immense, objective change in the moral landscape began two millennia ago: the differences between ancient Greece and Rome, and what follows them, are too great to deny (which is not, of course, to say that those differences have a divine origin). Holland shows just how deeply this change continues to affect us. Given how little so many of us know about these things today, Dominion is likely greatly to deepen the understanding of most of its readers.

Finally, for those too lazy to read a book, there are now a few YouTube videos available which feature Holland talking about the substance of his book. These are well worth your time, insightful whether you read the book or not. For example, watch about three and a half minutes of this from 22:15 on the subject of the development of the notion of conscience in Christianity, of the notion that God’s law is written on the human heart, and how helpful this is for the possibility of progress, of recognising that things can be improved. This one is also good, as is this one (scroll to the bottom for the podcast). This podcast as well. [Oct. 20th] The last 15 minutes or so of this is also on topic.

[Dec. 22nd] This is also worth a listen. I also recommend this online lecture, and this, and this. Really, it’s hard to go wrong listening to Tom Holland speak on this subject, even if you have read the book.