Constantine the Great

So I am reading an old book (19th century) on Constantine entitled "The Age of Constantine the Great" written by a german fellow named Jacob Burckhardt. It is an intriguing read, but one thing struck me that has in recent times steered me away from wanting to study more history: the extent to which historical research looks to me to be more and more like modern day political opinions. In other words: the truth is out there somewhere, but you ain't gonna find nuthin but biased opinions.

Burckhardt judges Constantine as harshly as I have ever heard anyone judge him. Evangelicals, it seems, have almost made their belief in his false conversion a foundational statement of faith and sometimes I am surprised it hasn't arisen in some modern rendition of a post-modern Nicene creed. Burkhardt, summarily dismisses account after account (because they are biased) and then accepts other accounts (because they are somehow not biased) and this is done, it seemed to me, when something sinister could be chosen over something...umm...well...nice. As if we somehow have this divine ability to stand in uber-righteous wisdom and judgement over a man whose been dead for centuries. Where do we think we get the right to do that when we aren't even supposed to judge our neighbor, whom I am guessing we might know a bit more about than Constantine...perhaps not, in which case you ought to ask: why not?

While the world today argues and wrestles over the motivations and intentions of a man LIVING in Washington DC, it floors me to see pretty much the same thing happening to a man who lived 1,700 years ago in the Roman Empire. Actually it is laughable to read people - like Burkhardt - write things such as: "Clearly Constantine was thinking ____________" or "Obviously Constantine would not have done this because he actually believed it"

Furthermore, we hear time and time again that Constantine did this evil thing and Constantine did that evil thing, but I sometimes wonder if Constantine might have told us a slightly different story if he had had the chance? (I might add, you really have to dig to find the list of the many very good things he did - what major news story does THAT remind us of today?)Do we REALLY know that he killed members of his family? Or does our inbred tabloid-esque sense of cynicism just yearn for it to be so? Is there really evidence? Or does it perhaps amount to little more than a conspiracy theory - even perhaps a plausible one? I simply don't know, and am willing to admit such.

The naive always believe the less naive are cynical, and the cynical always believe the less cynical are niave.

It's all fine and good (I suppose) if you want to stand in judgement of someone, but as for my part I will not say that Constantine could not have been a real Christian - I mean, what does that really mean anyway? While I've never been accused of murdering a family member, I'm not sure my life stands out as being anymore Christian than Constantine's...and you don't even want to see my heart. You'd have me labelled and stamped: hellbound.

In a way, reading some history books is a little like watching the evening news sometimes. Spin. Spin. Spin. And so, I will offer Mr. Burckhardt the same courtesy he felt he could offer to Eusebius: dismissal for his bias.


Anonymous said…
I started reading a book my priest gave me called 'The Rise of Christianity' by Rodney Stark. He's non-religious (whatever that means) and takes a sociological look at how the number of Christians in 300 AD could be less than 10% of the Empire and 50 years later be almost 60% of the Empire. As my priest said, 'he has interesting hypothesis'.

But Stark dismissed the early fathers/writers as well. He pretty much came out and said, 'I don't need Augustine, Eusebius, mass conversions (Acts) or miracles to figure out what happened; I can do it all by numbers!' That kind of western arrogance --the kind that says that we can look back 2000 years and know what 'really' happened because our science will cut through the biased people of the time-- is laughable. I put the book down after a few chapters. If this dude is so arrogant and unteachable that he refuses to learn by those who were there, then he probably doens't have much to teach me.

Based on your post, seems like this has been going around for a while. :)
fdj said…
It is astounding to me that we think that we can in any way operate cognitively without bias today.

Attach the term "science" to anything and suddenly we assume the bias is in no way at play. As someone who works in science, let me just come right out of the closet and say: GUESS AGAIN.
Anonymous said…
For some exciting reading that will restore your interest in historians, try anything by the late great Steven Runciman. His first volume on the Crusades (and at least the 3rd volume's summary of them) is something worth reading for the current mideast interest. Also the Fall of Constantinople book is great. He just didn't write dull. Very much a friend of the Eastern CHurch, too. --- Bob Koch
Anonymous said…
I too would highly recommend Runciman's "The Fall of Constantinople.", an excellent, though heart-breaking read. Sadly most historians have fallen a long way from the standard set by Leopold Ranke, considered by most to be the father of modern historical writing (and the author of one of the first historical studies of Serbia). Trying to do sociological studies on past societies is ridiculous to the point of self-parody. Sociologists can't make heads or tails of data from today's society, much less two millenia ago when records are scanty at best. As far as I'm concerned sociology isn't really a science anyhow. In it's purest form history is not a science either. History cannot prove a hypothesis, or even tell us what will happen tomorrow. History is simply the telling of a story, with the important difference that the story is true. While it is impossible for any historian to tell the story "as it really was", the minimum standard of historical scholarship should be a slavish adherence to the available information, keen judgement as to the value of the sources, and, as much as possible, an emptying of the self-will, of personal ambition, bias, and prejudice. Many of my favorite historical authors are rather colored in their views, but are at least intellectually honest enough to state as much up front, and make very clear the point at which they venture from their reconstruction of history to their opinion of history.
fdj said…
Just grabbed a couple of his books at the library and found thi sarticle online:

Thank you Bob and Rade!
fdj said…
Also stumbled upon this quote from Runciman:

"Unlike Christianity, which preached a peace that it never achieved, Islam unashamedly came with a sword"

Ummm...I don't think they make "historians" like this anymore.
Anonymous said…
Great quote! I've wish listed it. Thanks for the suggestions as well.
Anonymous said…
Amen, amen and amen on Runciman! I've just finished re-reading the Crusades volumes. I found him very simpatico with the Eastern church. I am planning to start his "Fall of Constantinople" soon. He also published a little-known and long out-of-print history of the First Bulgarian Empire, which should be good, though I've never been able to find an affordable copy. Now, about Burckhardt--he is a big name in historiography. I remember having to read his "Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" in graduate school. This work more or less set the stage for all subsequent Renaissance studies, and framed the context by which the West views that era. So yeah, he's to blame for that, too! Thanks for the warning about his "Constantine." I'll give it a pass.

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