Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Orthodox Political Theory and Practice

We saw in the last post what developed in the West apart from the Orthodox Faith, the Faith of the Apostles and their right-believing successors.  Let us now look at some of the general marks of Orthodox politics. 

First, authority is established from above, by God, through His anointed kings, and not from below, by the Devil, through the amorphous, unstable ‘people’.  From this truth is developed the unbreakable oneness of ‘Altar, Throne, and Cottage’ (from Fr Andrew Phillips), i.e., the bishops, kings, and people, within the Orthodox Church. 

The ideal of symphonia, the close co-operation of the clergy and the political rulers, guides the nation’s affairs.  The salvation of all the people, high-born, low-born, and clergy alike, is their highest goal (see St-King Edgar and St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the West, e.g.).  Competition for worldly greatness is curtailed as men and women of all classes strive instead for union with the uncreated Light of God.  Unlike the after-Schism West, where rulers cling to power until they die, many in the Orthodox countries gladly renounce it so they can draw closer to God.  Two ensamples:

In the East:

Holy Empress and Wonderworker Theophano (893)
She was born to noble parents in Constantinople. Beautiful and pious, she was chosen by the Emperor Basil (867-886) to be the bride of his son Leo VI the Wise. When Leo ascended the throne, the Empress showed no attraction to the honors and pleasures of the royal life, but devoted her days to prayer and almsgiving. She fulfilled all the duties of her Imperial station while living a life of austerity whenever out of the world's sight. Beneath her rich garments she wore coarse haircloth, and kept fasts and vigils as if she were living the monastic life. She was humble and respectful to all, and would address even her servants as 'Master' or 'Mistress.' At night, after her servants had left her alone, she would leave her fine bed and sleep on a mat on the floor, rising often during the night to pray.
After her daughter Eudocia died in 892, she wished to leave the world and enter a monastery, but her spiritual father St Euthymius (August 5) would not give his blessing. Nonetheless, her time in the world was not long: only three years later she died, before she had reached the age of thirty. Immediately after her funeral in the Church of the Holy Apostles, her holy relics became the source of many miracles and healings, and are venerated to this day in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.

Source:  http://www.abbamoses.com/months/december.html, entry for 16 Dec.

In the West:

Peter Urseolus Jan 10
928-987. Born in Venice in Italy, at the age of twenty Peter became Admiral of the Venetian fleet. In 976 he became Doge of Venice. After two years, he disappeared from Venice to become a monk at the monastery of Cuxa in Spain, where he later lived as a hermit.

Though the source of authority was from above, the people were far from chattel to be exploited by the nobles:

 . . . It is essential to note that in Eastern Roman society (and until the Carolingian period, Western Roman society as well), the regnum was thought of in terms of a cooperative relationship with the sacerdotium, that is, the Church and Her Patriarch. The development of the coronation ceremony, which became centered more and more on the ecclesial basis of kingly power though it retained the element of popular assent through acclamation, has been misinterpreted in Western scholarship as evidence either of “caesaropapism” or of an abiding “secular” element in the Eastern Roman conception of imperium.26 A quotation from scholar Janet L. Nelson elucidates the profound differences between the Eastern Roman and the later Western conceptions of the imperium:

Of course, the clerical hierarchy existed as a specialist institution in eastern as in western Christendom. But in Byzantium it produced no hierocratic theory, laid no claim to monopolise active participation in the church — which in a sociological sense was coterminous with the community of Christian believers. The divine will was believed to operate directly through all members of this community. Thus sixth-century theorists focussed [sic] not on the coronation…but on election and consent as the crucial elements in imperial inauguration. And in election and consent, leading officials, senators and people… are all involved in the expression of the divine choice, and precisely their coincidence generates a lawful succession’ (ennomos anarresis). In such an inclusive cosmology, the patriarch took his place without friction alongside other channels of divine communication.27

In this conception of the emperor as fulfilling a divine ministry alongside the other ministries of “Church” and “people,” there is no system of “checks and balances” rife with coercive tension as in modern “democracies” nor is there any idea of an autocratic secular ruler who mediates literally between God and Law, as in the later developments of the medieval West.28 Instead, there is a symphonia between the emperor, the Church, and the people, a harmonization of purpose based upon the Orthodoxy of each individual within each tangential sphere. The purity of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy was the basis of all politics, art, and wisdom in the Eastern Roman Empire, because the purity of belief undergirt the proper fulfilling of each charismatic ministry, from the lowliest farmer to the emperor himself. Some may try to refute this notion of an Eastern Roman Orthodox symphonia as a hopelessly idealistic notion that never actually existed in practice. However, just as the notion of a capitalist free market (or a pre-capitalist free market) is based largely upon negations—such as the absence of centralized planning, etc.—which are not absolute but rather indications of aspiration and purpose, so the Orthodox symphonia consists in apophatic principles which gesture toward the correlating ministries of emperor, Church, and people without a cataphatic, positive, and therefore legalistic definition of absolute vectors of power.29 Because of its basis in Orthodox apophasis, the Eastern Romans refused to place ultimate authority in any external body per se, even that of an Ecumenical Council. This is why Westerners, who know only cataphasis in politics and faith, and who thus can point to neat, absolute structures of power, which they mistakenly equate with good order or “rational governance,” see nothing but confusion and disorder in an East Roman society that refuses to accept the many varieties of feudalistic oppression which have developed in the West, instead following the original politeia of Christian Hellenism. This Orthodox view of politics sees society as the coming together of the people of God in an ascetic, communal “work of the people” (leitourgeia) which accepts no final authority save that based in communion with God. Needless to say, the divine-human communion of the Eastern Roman society is opposed to that of the supposedly divine princes of the West, who have become deified through their anointing with uncreated Holy Oil and/or through the simple fact that they have blue Frankish blood in their veins.30 Rather, the Orthodox society places all hope in theosis, the union with the energies of the Holy Trinity achieved by prophets, apostles and saints, some of whom have been emperors, farmers, soldiers, and Patriarchs.

In the cataphatic formulation of Western or Frankish Civilization, sacred kings and imperial bishops—each enthroned on one side of a dialectically opposed, divinely constituted binary of power—locked horns in the notorious Investiture Contest.31 To skip ahead for a moment, let us not forget that Philip the Fair s kidnapping and mauling of Pope Boniface VIII through the offices of William of Nogaret is the last pathetic scene in the drama of Investiture.32 No equivalent to the sorry spectacle of Investiture ever did, nor ever could transpire in the Eastern Roman Empire, for there was no Frankish Civilization (feudalism) in the East, until rapacious Frankish crusaders brought it there in the thirteenth century, perpetrating unspeakable outrages against the Orthodox Romans they tried to enslave there.33 Needless to say, wherever and whenever the Franks were ousted, it was a simultaneous eradication of feudal institutions and feudal law.

 . . .

Source:  James Kelley, Anatomizing Divinity, https://thoughtsintrusive.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/political-theology-east-west/, opened 10 Jan. 2018 (thanks to C for the link)

And although the bishop and king appear to the secular eye to be at the top of the Orthodox social hierarchy, it was in fact the holy saints who were the most influential. 

The powerful humbled themselves before them:  In the West, St Columba of Iona and St Eligius of Noyons (Gaul/France) were guides to kings, St-King Alfred the Great revered St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, St Ambrose of Milan is well-known for his rebuke and excommunication of the Emperor Theodosius (who through his repentance also attained deification in this life), and so on.  In the East, e.g., Sts Symeon and Daniel the Stylites were counsellors to emperors and empresses.  St Constantine the Great and his sons sought the wisdom of St Anthony the Great, the father of organized monasticism:

81. And the fame of Antony came even unto kings. For Constantine Augustus, and his sons Constantius and Constans the Augusti wrote letters to him, as to a father, and begged an answer from him. But he made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages, but was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, 'Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us Hebrews 1:2 through His own Son.' And so he was unwilling to receive the letters, saying that he did not know how to write an answer to such things. But being urged by the monks because the emperors were Christians, and lest they should take offense on the ground that they had been spurned, he consented that they should be read, and wrote an answer approving them because they worshipped Christ, and giving them counsel on things pertaining to salvation: 'not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.' He begged them to be merciful and to give heed to justice and the poor. And they having received the answer rejoiced. Thus he was dear to all, and all desired to consider him as a father.

Source:  St Athanasius the Great, Life of St Anthony, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm, opened 11 Jan. 2018

Their words and deeds likewise inspired the plain folk, whose popular veneration of the holy ones often led to their being recognized as saints by the clergy.

The social life that manifested from all this was as one finds it in Tolkien’s Hobbiton:  Mostly quiet, rural neighborhoods where the same families lived in the same places since time out of mind, where skills were passed down from father to son and mother to daughter, technology was not a tyrant but a lowly servant, the laws were ancient, inherited, and mostly unwritten, and heated political discussions were minimal.


Theology matters.  Departing from right belief has terrible consequences, as one may see in the modern West, where just government and humane living are nearly at an end.  We will try to delve more deeply into this theme in its American context next time.


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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