Christianity is the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world, and its emergence the single most transformative development in Western history. Even the increasing number in the West today who have abandoned the faith of their forebears, and dismiss all religion as pointless superstition, remain recognisably its heirs. Seen close-up, the division between a sceptic and a believer may seem unbridgeable. Widen the focus, though, and Christianity's enduring impact upon the West can be seen in the emergence of much that has traditionally been cast as its nemesis: in science, in secularism, and yes, even in atheism.
That is why Dominion will place the story of how we came to be what we are, and how we think the way that we do, in the broadest historical context. Ranging in time from the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC to the on-going migration crisis in Europe today, and from Nebuchadnezzar to the Beatles, it will explore just what it was that made Christianity so revolutionary and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mind-set of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that has become increasingly doubtful of religion's claims, so many of its instincts remain irredeemably Christian. The aim is twofold: to make the reader appreciate just how novel and uncanny were Christian teachings when they first appeared in the world; and to make ourselves, and all that we take for granted, appear similarly strange in consequence. We stand at the end-point of an extraordinary transformation in the understanding of what it is to be human: one that can only be fully appreciated by tracing the arc of its parabola over millennia.
Tom Holland is an English historian and author. He has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on many subjects from vampires to history.
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.
Holland was born near Oxford and brought up in the village of Broadchalke near Salisbury, England. He obtained a double first in English and Latin at Queens' College, Cambridge, and afterwards studied shortly for a PhD at Oxford, taking Lord Byron as his subject, before interrupting the post graduate studies and moving to London.
He has adapted Herodotus, Homer, Thucydides and Virgil for BBC Radio 4. His novels, including Attis and Deliver Us From Evil, mostly have a supernatural and horror element as well as being set in the past. He is also the author of three highly praised works of history, Rubicon, Persian Fire and Millennium.
He is on the committee of the Society of Authors and the Classical Association.
I have spent the better part of the last 6 months discussing this book with a close friend who happens to be a Catholic priest. I think a summary of that discussion and my conclusion is the best review I can provide.
Tom Holland isn’t a Catholic. But I think he wants to be. This is good news, almost gospel-type good news, because he is able to appreciate fully the paradox that is Christianity. This paradox is what makes Christianity important. And the only way to live it is to recognise how incredibly flawed it is. When it’s inherent contradiction is ignored, it becomes just another oppressive ideology. Being a true Christian means not being entirely convinced that it’s a good idea to be a Christian.
The paradox of Christianity can be expressed simply as the fatal ‘tension’ (as the theologians like to call contradictions) between the Beatitudes and Faith. The Beatitudes are straightforward rules of behaviour. They are very Jewish and simply suggest that the way to live one’s life is by looking out for the lives of others. The Golden Rule of Matthew’s gospel is merely a re-statement of of the command of Leviticus and the then recently dead Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
And not only in Judaism. Exactly the same sentiments are expressed in ancient Egyptian papyri, for example, “If thou be among people make for thyself love, the beginning and end of the heart.” is found in the Instructions of Vizier Ptahhotep of around 2375–2350 BCE, that is, considerably before the Hebrew Scriptures. Sanskrit manuscripts, Persian, Tamil, Hindi, Sikh, Buddhist, and Confucian scriptures, as well as in the aphorisms of Greek and Roman philosophy and the Hadith of the Prophet in Islam express the same ethical command. Has Holland never read Marcus Aurelius or Seneca whose De ira served as a model for Christian ethics? The Golden Rule is the closest thing we have to a universal ethic. And yet it is an ethic which is practiced more as an exception rather than a rule. Those who honour it consistently are generally considered saints; and no one thinks there are many of them.
It was the Christian, arguably the first Christian, Paul of Tarsus, who believed he had found the reason for this inability of mankind to abide by a code of behaviour which was recognised as universally beneficial. The reason for mankind’s failure was simple: a lack of faith. Not faith in the Rule, but faith in that which was the source of the Rule, through which the Rule gained not just its authority but its persistence in human behaviour.
For Paul, this source was Jesus, whom he termed the Christ, the anointed one of God, who not only demonstrated the Rule in his life and death but was the Rule in himself. Based on Paul’s logic, faith in Jesus Christ was the necessary and sufficient condition to carry out the Rule. Without this faith, mankind would continually lapse into its traditional ethical failure. With faith, the behavioural ethic of the Rule would follow. Faith would provide the motive power which the Rule otherwise lacked. As Paul put the matter, the Rule would become internalised, written, as he said, on the heart. The Rule was not to be obeyed but to be lived in light of faith.
This is the theory of Christianity in a nutshell. As Paul put it about himself: we all know what is right but we can’t bring ourselves to do what is right. Faith is the answer, the missing link between ethical principle and action. One can argue with the theory but not before recognising that’s it is a revolutionary concept. Nothing like it had ever been proposed before and certainly nothing as influential has been proposed since. It is an existential metaphysics with a knock-out punch; and it has obviously had enormous appeal historically.
But things get tricky very quickly in a way that Paul apparently hadn’t thought through. Faith in an idea, any idea, even the idea of Christ, is itself contrary to the absolute reign of the Beatitudes. As is clear in the Pauline letters to his congregations, faith in Jesus could and quickly did become myopic, with the result that his congregants were frequently quite horrid to one another - as a matter of faith. Paul had to remind them constantly just what faith was meant to do for them but manifestly hadn’t.
And so it has been ever since in that European civilisation which is frequently called Christendom. Faith becomes an ideology, the ‘truths’ of which are used to justify some particularly inhumane behaviour. Starting with expulsions from the early church, continuing to the persecution of heretics who viewed the truths slightly differently, to the mounting of the Crusades against those who had different truths altogether, through to the ultimate horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent self-righteous smugness of those like the American evangelicals who interpret faith as a mandate to close borders and imprison families, faith has more often than not overcome the behaviours recommended by the beatitudes. Faith collides with the Rule; and the Rule consistently ends up bested.
Holland accepts that this has been the case. Christianity has failed in its own terms. But, he claims, it is precisely those terms by which Christianity redeems itself. Faith is never allowed to forget its practical human import. Even when it does, there are members of the faithful that are there to, as it were, put the ideologies of faith back in their place. This dialectic between Faith and the Beatitudes, he seems to believe, is what is unique to Christianity. So he can therefore claim that the ‘values’ of European civilisation are authentically Christian.
This is clearly nonsense. Faith is susceptible to whatever ideology happens to be around at the moment. Faith drops the demands of the beatitudes as quickly as any other civilisation, rationalises its cruelty, and gets dragged back to humanness only kicking and screaming just like any other ideology. To claim that it is Christianity which keeps the Golden Rule alive in the world is close to an obscenity. It is certainly a gross insult to those who recognise the rule as an inherent part of their own entirely un-Christian culture.
On the contrary, no other culture provides greater temptation to forget the beatitudes than Christianity. Faith itself is an attractive ideology. It presents itself as an irresistible solution to all social as well as spiritual ills, when in fact it is primarily a way of creating tribal identity. Faith is the only unique characteristic of Christianity. All the content - divine incarnation, the suffering and dying god, the return from the dead - derives from ancient cultural tropes. Paul invented faith as the key to life, both here and in the hereafter. Faith is a ready-made container in which to deposit the ideology at hand and to justify it using these tropes.
In short, Faith is easy; the Rule is hard. Faith rationalises self-interests; the Rule subverts them. Historically and empirically, there is no relation between Faith and the Rule except as contradictions. Christian values are oxymoronic. Those principles of behaviour which constitute our cultural ethic come from elsewhere than Christian teaching; and they are obscured by that teaching.
So I think I understand Holland’s position. Pauline Christianity is a daring, wildly hopeful theory of human existence. It attracts those who already are aware of the Rule and are bemused by the inability of human society to abide by it. The brutality and horrors of the Roman Empire were exactly the right conditions for its spread. But Holland is also aware that Pauline faith is a spiritual black hole. Once entered into, faith extinguishes the Rule entirely. Holland therefore sits on the edge of Christianity, quite correctly fascinated by its possibilities but suspicious of its promise.
If Holland’s were the attitude of many, it would be possible to accept Christianity as a force for good in the world. But his attitude is not. His spiritual position is idiosyncratic, eccentric even. Others will understand his history of European Christianity as a smug vindication of their cultural superiority. Dominion will reinforce the tendency of faith to justify all manner of evil. I suspect that he knows that Paul got the causality wrong. Faith does not generate adherence to the Rule. Rather, as the Greeks knew, practice with the Rule encourages both observance of the Rule and confidence that there might indeed be a cosmic benevolence who cares.
This is the story of the molding of the Western Mind, and the main point is that the Western mind is, to a large extent, formed by Christianity. So deeply embedded are Christian assumptions in Western thought that we don't even think of them as Christian, we think of them as universal, self-evident, or we try to credit them to the Enlightenment or ancient civilisations. So in many ways, this is the story of Christianity as much as it is of Western thinking. That's more than two thousand years packed into 650 pages! I suspect there must be a great deal left out in such a compression, but I couldn't tell you what. Either way, this book is definitely worth it for all the wonderful depictions of the eccentrics, heroes, and villains who shaped history; and for Holland's dry humour and wry asides.
It begins, of course, in antiquity, Rome and before, and there's a painful bluntness in Holland's attempt to force you to understand how different the Roman mind really was. A Roman citizen could go down to the slave market, buy a group of children, bring them home and use them sexually in every orifice, and never once think he was a bad man for doing so. *gulp* The only value anyone had was their use-value. The idea that all people had inherent dignity was not considered. Respect was commanded by power. Crucifixion was the punishment reserved for the most reviled, and it was horrifying and shameful.
Christianity really did turn everything on its head. The last will be first. No wonder the pagans thought that Christianity was an obscene perversion. It really was revolutionary. And over the next 2000 years it continued to be revolutionary. The book traces these revolutions as Christians repeatedly overthrew the unjust and unworthy, only to establish new powers, which in their turn would be overthrown by new generations observing and rejecting their hypocrisy, in a long line from Paul, through Donatists, Abelard and scientifc enquiry, Gregory VII and his reforms, Luther and the Reformation, Diggers, Quakers, Voltaire and the Enlightenment, Marx and communism, right down to atheists and social justice. Very few of these revolutionaries gave credit to their enemies for also having been revolutionaries, for the ambivalence of their role as predecessors in progress as well as opponents of further progress. Perhaps there would be more charity if they did.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of various Christian heresies. I really need to read more about the Cathars (they seem nice, I'm sorry they got stamped out). I was highly amused by the image of Dominican monks wandering around Southern France screeching 'DEBATE ME!!!' at heretical peasants just trying to live the good life.
Also interesting was the way Christian ideas have influenced other faiths. The idea of religion as separate from culture, law, ethnicity, and heritage is largely Christian and the Germans managed to encourage a Jewish schism in their attempt to integrate Jewish communities by drawing a firm line between nationality and religion, embracing reform Jews as both German and Jewish, which was anathema to those who saw no division between the nation and religion. On the other hand we have Indian Rajahs manipulating the English into opposing or supporting practices like Suttee, by presenting them as religious or cultural.
It really is a great epic story, spanning continents and millenia. Zooming in on the lives of individual visionaries, monks, Queens, and scholars. Then zooming out to the sweep of philosophy down the ages. It's wildly ambitious, and very enjoyable.
The copy of "Dominion" by author, Tom Holland that was lent to me bears the subtitle 'The Making of the Western Mind' (which is how it appears on Amazon) whereas, at least in Goodreads, it is shown as 'How the Christian Revolution Remade the World'. A sign of the times perhaps, that the publishers decided a subtitle with the word “Christian” in it wasn’t going to sell books. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Whatever the subtitle, "Dominion" stylishly charts the making of society as we know it today, with a breathtaking study that reaches back from 479BC to current day. Holland seamlessly moves from one historical event to the next, each one a link in a 2,500-year-long chain of important steps in the development of mankind. It is an ambitious project that sometimes had my eyes glazing over as there are some periods of history that just don’t stimulate my interest. And there are areas of his work which have been shown to be subject to serious challenge. That said, it does shine a light on many historical events that do interest me and it asserts the influence Christianity has had on the world – whether we like to think so or not. "Dominion" is no light read – there are 526 pages of text and 67 pages of notes, bibliography and index.
Holland's provocative and thought-provoking history of Christianity's intrinsic influence on what we can call "Western thought" is remarkable for its cogency, given the vast sweep of its scope. Every time his narrative seems to be simply rehearsing the history of Christianity, Holland deftly brings it back to his key themes. Over and over again he shows that ideas we consider to be "self-evident" (to use the words of the framers of the US Constitution) are actually nothing of the sort - they are deeply rooted in Christian theology. The idea of fundamental human rights based on the fact that we are all humans and therefore all equal - which we assume almost without thinking - are shown to be based on Christian ideals and utterly alien to pre-Christian cultures like the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Even concepts such as revolutions, reform, championing the poor, the weak and the sick or the coming dawn of a new perfected age are shown to have intrincisally Christian foundations. Paradoxically, Holland shows secularism, humanism and agnosticism also all have their deeper roots in purely Christian concepts.
That paradox will mean this book will be vigorously rejected by many - probably precisely the audience who most needs to grasp its thesis, given the appalling historical illiteracy of most of the vehement advocates of stridently anti-theistic atheism. That the religion that has dominated the western worlds will have a fundamental influence on our culture is a concept that should be so clearly evident that it barely needs saying. That Holland has had to say it tells us something about our culture's historical myopia. And that he has said it with such verve, eloquence, wit and insight is to our benefit and his credit. This is an excellent book.
Tom Holland’s latest book clocks in at over 500 pages; yet manages to miss out several key points.
Ostensibly a history of how Christianity affected the West, we are instead offered Holland’s own selective view of Christianity and the Ancient World. The Pagan emperors of Rome are caricatured as brutal and bloodthirsty while the early Christian emperors get off lightly. For example, a great deal is made of how wicked Nero was for killing his mother and his wife, but there is no mention that the first Christian Emperor Constantine killed both his son and his wife in a similarly brutal fashion, boiling his wife to death. It is therefore no surprise in Holland’s world that caring Christianity with its emphasis on equality triumphs over the Roman aristocracy, despite its little internal spats. Little mention is made of the substantial tax exemptions the Church managed to procure for its aristocratic bishops in these early years, which in some countries are maintained to this day.
Graeco-Roman religion is painted in a warped light. The central role of Pagan temples in banking and civic activities is ignored and instead we are given gruesome descriptions of altars constructed entirely of blood and crazed rapist gods. This conveniently ignores the presence of those such as Asclepius, whose staff is still the symbol of the medical profession, whose temples were the first hospitals, and of the more rational side of Greek religion such as Orphism. Indeed, Orphism and the dying and rising god motif had a significant impact on Plato and Christianity. But Plato, the father of Greek philosophy, is barely given a sentence in this book, with the focus on his student Aristotle. To ignore the influence of the Platonists and Orphism on Early Christianity is like describing Tudor England without mentioning Henry VIII. Only by doing so is Holland able to advance his thesis of Christianity as a unique revolution rather than an evolution of the Graeco-Roman world.
Even the opening chapter, in which Holland reacts with wonderment that Ancient World would bother to acknowledge the execution of a common criminal (Jesus) by the state completely ignores the fact the Trial of Socrates, narrated separately by two literary luminaries of the Ancient World, Plato and Xenophon, concerns exactly that.
Only by obscuring and hiding large portions of history can he present Christianity as a unique moral advance on a world, which, lest we forget, had already conquered from Greece to India (Alexander), invented the steam engine (Hero of Alexandria), built good roads across continents (Rome), calculated the circumference of the earth (Eratosthenes) and improved the lives of millions of its inhabitants, including the slaves that Holland portrays as little more than helpless victims. This was a world which since the Greeks had developed much of what we would recognize as modern law, mathematics, philosophy, science and engineering. The majority of the Western mind is therefore clearly Graeco-Roman rather than Christian.
In the following chapters, we learn that less than two centuries after the Roman Empire had embraced Christianity, its Western half was in ruins, with Rome’s population at 2% of its height, and embroiled in ceaseless conflict. If Christianity was indeed, as Holland indicates, such a pervasive influence on society, and its values were the brotherhood of man and regard for the poor, then that is a damning indictment of those values and indeed the religion as a whole. But by overlooking the successful Christian Empire in the East of Byzantium, he is again only telling half the story. Christianity was not just a religion of crazed ascetics, depressives and martyrs, it was the religion of the state that codified Roman laws under Justinian and which was the largest and richest state in Europe. The Vikings traded with Byzantium and may have become Christian not just for the respect of Rome’s old glory, but also for ease of trading in the East.
And this highlights another flaw in the work- Holland’s background as a fiction author rather than a historian means that assertions can be sloppy. For example, we are told: “Augustine was not the kind of man who was likely to become a Christian”, but this ignores the fact his mother was a devout Christian and that he was raised in a Christian household. Again, emphasis on Graeco-Roman infanticide as the norm in the Ancient World before Christianity ignores the fact that Egyptians refused to allow this practise and would adopt foundlings to prevent it.
Despite disagreeing with its central thesis, I have to admit an admiration for the work. The canvas of history covered is large in scope, the text eminently readable and often entertaining. As the work progresses out of the Ancient World through the Carolingian and Medieval eras, it becomes more compelling. Here we are told how Christianity created the concept of homosexuality, the inquisition and natural law. The idea of natural law is perhaps a stretch as philosophers had been appealing to it as least as far back as Aristotle, but emphasis on (nominal) equality is largely a Christian construct. The work also touches on a few lesser known episodes of history such as the Albigensian Crusade (against French schismatics) and Elizabeth of Hungary, and of course Eloise and Abelard, the perfect Catholic love story.
Yet once the work advances into the modern era, the pacing becomes increasingly rushed and it degenerates into something of a caricature. The British ban on slavery, we are told, was due to Christian moral qualms- rather than advancements in industrialisation rendering it obsolete. Nietzsche’s death of God speech is read as shocking for its admission of atheism- in actuality the people in the town in the speech are largely atheistic anyway (as were many 19th century intellectuals) and the shocking thing Nietzsche points out was that man now needed to step up and create his own values in the absence of God. A brief analysis of Marxism, played up with Lenin looking at a diplodocus for laughs, does not really deal with the resonance of Marx’s concepts of alienation of workers from increasingly manual and repetitive work. This is largely a problem of relying on secondary sources.
And as we get to Nazism, the problem of Christian good vs. evil worsens. The Nazi regime is seen as the work of one evil man, Hitler, who hated Jews and Christians. We are led straight from discrimination against the Jews to the gas ovens as if this was the only logical progression and as if such state-sanctioned racial discrimination did not exist within the British Empire or the US. Links between the Ancient World’s practise of infanticide and Nazi Germany are made explicit, while the fact sterilization of mentally ill was also common practise in non-Nazi countries, such as Sweden, is ignored. By focusing on Hitler and casting the Nazi’s as a complete “other”, he ignores the terrible truth of Nazism- that it many of its features just represented more extreme forms of the governments of its day.
The last two chapters are titled “Love” and “Woke” and represent the author going full virtue-signalling snow-flake. “Love” takes us from the Beatles of Liverpool to Jihadi John via the end of Apartheid in South Africa. There is no doubt that the end of Apartheid was a great achievement, but to portray it as a triumph of Christian brotherhood as opposed to a consequence of the end of the Cold War is naïve at best. Only when the Communists had fallen could the US safely let the pro-Western, but racist, South African regime collapse. And as for this line on ISIS- “The licence they (ISIS) drew upon from their savagery derived not from the incomparable inheritance of Islamic scholarship, but from a bastardised tradition of fundamentalism that was, in its essentials, Protestant.”- it is complete nonsense. ISIS was rooted in Islamic scholarship, misguided scholarship to be sure, but there were intellectuals behind the movement. “Woke” offers even weaker analysis. We are regaled with tales of Trump’s “toxic masculinity” as if an extra-marital sexual appetite in politicians (Clinton, Profumo, even Churchill) is something extraordinary and are told that Christianity had been a useful constraint on aggressive sexuality for 2000 years as if the pagan Romans had never banned Bachanals. I was mildly shocked Greta Thunberg and the climate change evangelicals didn’t get a look in to tick off the virtue signalling list.
How you receive the book in the end will largely depend on your outlook. If you are a middle-class “woke” Christian-influenced liberal like the author, you will probably find yourself nodding along sagely, especially to the last third of the book. If you are, like me, extremely cynical and have read a bit more widely, you may find the work at times exasperating and would probably benefit more from reading Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy”.
Here, Holland resists the idea that the modern, post-Enlightenment West is devoid of Christianity; rather, he uses radioactivity as a metaphor to say that Christianity has affected everything, even if we don't realize it. Instead of using this metaphor, the book says that the West swims in Christian waters.
Glen Scrivener interviews the author here. Breakpoint interview here. Wilson review here. Keller review at TGC. Comments at WORLD.
From Shane Morris: "One of the best takeaways from Tom Holland's 'Dominion': The instincts to 1.) protect the weak, victimized, and marginalized and 2.) to assert human rights as intrinsic and universal--in other words, the two main forces that are currently unraveling realities like marriage, male and female, and mother and father in the West--are Christian instincts that have gone cancerous and metastasized. In their proper place, they changed the world for the better. Unmoored from their parent religion, they're making our civilization desperately sick."
See Brad Littlejohn's review here. Here's a taste: "For years, Christian conservatives have been sounding the alarm about the post-Christian world into which the modern West has lurched over the past generation. The acclaimed British historian Tom Holland begs to differ: a truly post-Christian world would be far darker and more terrifying than the twilight zone we currently inhabit. Our current culture wars, he argues, represent the confused shadow-boxing of rival Christian intuitions, with the woke as well as the born-again representing variants of Protestant fundamentalism." Holland liked the review.
From Nassim Taleb's review: "I am Greek-Orthodox, a rhomoi, but having parents with an indifference to religion, was brought up via Sunday school and summer camps and boy scouts equally in Roman Catholic, Maronite, and Greek-Orthodox settings. I agree with Tom (private conversation) that much of the ideas of this book don't apply to Orthodoxy as it had a different evolution and has not been affected by Protestantism. Literal 'belief' is not something that concerns us too much. Furthermore, in addition to its theology, Orthodoxy distinguishes itself from Western Christianity in its stiff dietary laws, with veganism more than 200 days per annum. This is not a minor detail, as it shapes a certain type of commitment to the religion."
This is the latest, and probably the most accessible, book in the genre of "Christianity in modernity" - the attempt to uncover how (Western) modernity is radically indebted to the tradition of (Western) Christianity for its values and modes of thinking. Living, as we do, in A Secular Age, it is easy to think such a project silly or partisan - but it is perhaps the greatest coup of such histories that secularism itself, and all the claims to universality and neutrality that come with it, are a conceit; that, implicitly, they reveal the sheer dominion of Christian ideas.
The idea that Christianity, the religion (though this, as Holland shows, is a far from neutral term) of the West for a millennium and a half and more, still adhered to by millions in the West, should have had and should continue to have a profound influence on who we are and how we think ought to be prima facie obvious. Yet various ideological movements over the last five hundred years has obscured this. The Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, 19th century and contemporary secular humanism have all either elevated pagan antiquity or denigrated medieval Christendom. The former has always been an imaginative phenomenon, rethinking the ancient Greeks and Romans in contemporary terms, such that they appeared the height of civilisation. The various classicising projects of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, 19th century, and 20th century humanism have all emphasised the "Apollonian" side of antiquity and ignored the "Dionysian". This formulation of the dual nature is of course due to Nietzsche, who began the pushback against such classicising, though the shift in the academy only really occurred in the second half of the 20th century, and I don't think it has had much of an effect on the wider public. Yet we can now say that pagan antiquity is, on any honest reckoning, profoundly and disturbingly Other. Meanwhile, all of the movements listed in some way devalued the world of medieval Christendom. This value judgement is present even in the term "middle ages" - i.e. that which came between antiquity and the Reformation, distinctive more for its negative than positive aspects. Again, the middle ages have only really been rehabilitated in the last century, and it is clear how here too ideological imaginations were operative. Historians no longer look on medieval Christendom as Luther, Gibbon or Nietzsche had. In particular, the "conflict thesis" in the history of science and religion (a double of problematic terms) is now completely debunked, and amongst other things, we have come to understand how fundamental the work of Catholic canon lawyers has been for modern notions of rights, liberty and law, and how much early "experimental philosophy" rested on the natural philosophy of the scholastics. I stress this only to preempt ideologically motivated dismissals of the project.
The book makes two related cases: firstly that the New Testament encapsulates a moral revolution; and secondly that this revolutionary capacity was never exhausted, but has shaped huge contours of Western history through to the modern day, transmuting but not subsiding. To demonstrate the former point, the first two chapters introduce the cultural background of the emergence of Christianity - both pagan antiquity (including Holland's much loved Persians) and Second Temple Judaism. Holland has said in various interviews that as a child his fascination with the ancients evolved out of a love of dinosaurs - it was a sense of the grandiose and the violent which led him, like Nietzsche, to look at their cultures with awe. Nietzsche, indeed, already mentioned here, is one of the most important influences on Holland's thesis. Yet Holland is nearer to being an anti-Nietzschean. Nietzsche idolised the pagans, and lamented the slave morality of Christianity that had usurped the blond beast; for Holland, as well as the awe, is fear and disgust. The opening discussion of pagan antiquity dwells on its methods of punishment, and one in particular - crucifixion. It is easy to forget, now that crosses have been part of Western iconography for close to two millennia, what they actually represent: a gruesome, public death inflicted by might on slaves and criminals. Holland relates at the close of the book how he remembered this in the fullest sense, and how he therefore truly understood the gulf between us and the ancients who used it with abandon. The revelation occurred in a Yazidi village on the frontiers of ISIS territory, a part of the world where crucifixion was still used to mercilessly crush the weak.
Christ is risen; death has been defeated. Blessed are the meek. So the last shall be first. So said the subversive moral revolution that began to spread across the empire that had crucified Jesus of Nazareth in the years of such notorious sadists as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. A moral revolution not only with regard to the pagan world, but also its more immediate context - that of Second Temple Judaism. To the Jews, the Messiah was to be a conqueror, and he was not to be the Son of God. Instead, the early Christians preached that God, the supreme Being and creator of all, had not only sanctified humanity by deigning to become incarnate as a man, being nursed by a woman, and living side by side with his people, but, far from being a conqueror, had stood for the poor, the oppressed, and the discarded, and then died as one of them, at the hands of the world's greatest empire. In doing so God himself set a precedent that is clearly recognisable today in so many ways, which Holland traces all the way through to 21st century progressivism.
That this constituted a moral revolution, seen with jubilation by the Church fathers, disgust by Nietzsche, and relief by Holland, I take to be amply demonstrated in the book. Only ideology can pretend otherwise. The project of the rest of the book is to demonstrate or at least illustrate the second half of the thesis: that the fires lit in the early centuries never burned out. To trace in detail a wide range of processes would have been impossible. Holland's strategy therefore is to write a sort of episodic narrative. In each chapter we are presented with several snapshots of life or belief that illustrate the changes being wrought by Christianity, together with some contextualisation and attribution of its foundations. This is most effective in later antiquity and the early middle ages, when these changes are the most overt. There we get a sense, precisely because the exposition is episodic, of vast convulsions in society and a world made anew. I was struck particularly by the rise of charity in later antiquity. But it also works later on - perhaps most disturbingly in the final two chapters, in which we move from the avowed Christianity of Martin Luther King to the alleged secularism, or even hostility to Christianity, of many of those identifiably building on his legacy.
This is disturbing because it is just one illustration of a thesis that increasingly dominates as we move into the third section, "Modernitas" - that secular humanism, claiming universality and neutrality for concepts such as egalitarianism, individual dignity, human rights, the primacy of conscience and the separation of church and state, is a lie. Or at least a myth. Nietzsche delighted in exposing this elaborate exercise in self-delusion, but this is a rather difficult position to hold today, after the calamities of the last century. Holland holds out hope in the closing pages that "a myth can be true." I am not so certain this is meaningful after hundreds of pages demonstrating the radical idiosyncrasy and contingency of the secularist's ideological toolbox.
Holland's task is to convince the reader that such ideas are non-trivially dependent on the beliefs of Christianity and Western Christendom. I think he is successful in this; because of the nature of the thesis, and also because it never would have been practical to trace in detail these manifold dependences, some will inevitably disagree. But I am sure they will be resting on their own ideology, rather than good history. Holland wants, in his selective telling of Western history, to make us feel the reverberations of the original revolution. So we have various refrains in the book - the activities and writings of the New Testament, Paul, Gregory of Nyssa, Columbanus, Boniface, Gregory VII, Elizabeth of Hungary, Luther, and so on. By constantly looking back at the religious precedences Holland weaves a conceptual unity out of an episodic narrative. The most effective of these refrains is perhaps reformatio - the project of Gregory VII that "set the West on its distinctive course", picking up from Carolingian correctio. Standing in conspicuous italics on so many pages, its power is that we normally think of one Reformation, rather than continual waves of reformatio. If the last third of the book argues that it is particularly Protestant ideas that have come to dominate the language of universal neutrality, this underlines their Catholic precedent. In fact the reformatio refrain could have been more powerful if continued through the modern era.
The fundamental threads of the book are the righteousness of the oppressed and the inherent and radically egalitarian dignity of man. Both burst onto the ideological scene with the early Christians and are clearly familiar today. "Sternly, like the Donatists, the Bolsheviks dismissed any suggestion of compromising with the world as it was. Eagerly, like the Taborites, they yearned to see the apocalypse arrive, to see paradise established on earth. Fiercely, like the Diggers, they dreamed of an order in which land once held by aristocrats and kings would become the property of the people, a common treasury." An implication of these ideas is that once Christianity had come into power there emerged a tension between ruler and ruled, one which Holland shows to have worked out in dialectical fashion through the last millennium. "No people in antiquity would ever have succeeded in winning an empire for themselves had they doubted their licence to slaughter and enslave the vanquished; but Christians could not so readily be innocent in their cruelty." "Repeatedly, though, in the struggle to hold this arrogance to account, it was Christianity that had provided the colonised and the enslaved with their surest voice." We can also trace other dialectics, notably that engendered by the tension between the letter and spirit of the law, already present in Paul.
I found unexpected interest in the contact between modern Christendom and other cultures, in particular Hinduism and Islam in the last two centuries. In both cases we see the exportation of the idea of "religion" - an idea invented in post-Reformation Christendom. That this cultural contact generated new movements within these other "religions" shows just how contingent our understanding of "religion" is. "There was authentic Hinduism, and then there was a Hinduism that had been corrupted by the greed and superstition of malevolent priests... if this all sounded rather Protestant, then so indeed it was." Similarly, "for a century and a half, ever since the first Muslim rulers had been persuaded to abolish slavery, Islam had been on an ever more Protestant course. That the spirit trumped the letter of the law had come to be widely accepted by Muslims across the globe."
These illuminating sections however serve to highlight something missing from the book - comparison with Byzantium and Eastern Christianity. While Holland's thesis is persuasive, more needs to be said on why this is something distinctly true of Western Christendom, as opposed to the realms of the Orthodox Church. The outlines of an answer are certainly in the text - we are told several times of how Gregory VII set the West on its "distinctive course" via reformation, though it certainly goes deeper, even deeper than Charlemagne's correctio. Thus: "The tone of revolution in Paul's cry, the sense that an entire order had been judged and found wanting, still retained a freshness for men like Boniface in a way that it did not in more venerable reaches of the Christian world. So august a presence was the Church in Rome or Constantinople that people there might struggle to imagine that it had ever been something insurgent." So in fact the "Faustian spirit" was that which the Germanic barbarians brought out of the forest, but rather the missionary zeal with which the Christians entered it. However, I think that for completeness this argument ought to have been pursued further, so that by a comparative procedure the specific features of Western Christendom that allowed the revolutionary nature of the New Testament to flourish as it did could be more clearly brought out. But a book can only be so long.
The other omission I noted was that nothing was said on the scientific revolution, the discussion of science/natural philosophy (for again we are in the realm of non-neutral terminology) featuring instead in the discussions of high medieval intellectual life and Victorian natural history - despite the presence of Peter Harrison's The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science having a place in the "General" section of the bibliography. Perhaps this was because Genesis was far more important than the New Testament here; perhaps again a limitation of space. Nevertheless I think this was an unfortunate neglect, as it is one of the most powerful responses to the science and religion conflict thesis. I also was surprised to see no mention of the excommunication of Theodosius I by Ambrose, a powerful foreshadowing of the investiture controversy and humbling of Henry IV.
Holland's fame will hopefully bring a larger readership to Dominion than that enjoyed by any comparable book, and will hopefully shake many assumptions about what Western modernity is and our relation to history. Ultimately the case is a strong one; anyone but the most ideological secularist ought to be provoked by reading the book into examining the supposed coherence and neutrality of so many apparently foundational and universal notions we take for granted - especially in light of the continued recession of Christianity in the West. If Holland is correct in his thesis, and I think he is, secularism is self-refuting. "To evaluate fairly both the achievements and the crimes of Christianity is not to stand outside its moral frameworks, but rather - as Nietzsche would have been quick to point out - to stand within them." "If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity's evolution... how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse?" The grounds and future of the entire edifice of modernity are uncertain.
I have read all of Tom Holland's non-fiction except for 'Dynasty', and have liked and learned something from it all. Not so here: unlike what's written on the cover, this work is not much about the making of the Western mind - at least not in the way that books like 'The Unintended Reformation', 'A Secular Age', and others are. It is a decent, but not first-rate, social history of Christianity in one volume from an agnostic-atheist standpoint, with space constraints leading to superficial coverage and a questionable selection of events to cover vignette-style.
Interlaced with this history in its later parts is a very partial analysis of some political religions with Christian roots, bringing to mind Burleigh's 'Earthly Powers' and 'Sacred Causes', which are cited, alongside the parodic unhistory of Chapoutot in 'The Law of the Blood' (see my review op cit) when it comes time to mention the Nazis.
The history is pretty even-handed overall, though in certain points it amplifies unimportant concerns or passes over seminal events in silence, and at worst in a few places is specious. It is notably so when dealing with the New Testament canon, the life and motivations of St Paul, and Paul's epistles. When analyzing Paul's view of the sexes, he tries to make a canon within a canon by dismissing texts that don't agree with his thesis, like 1 Tim 2-3 and 1 Corinthians 10, as pseudepigrapha.
Later in the book, once WWII and the 60s are reached, the analysis is at best colored and at worst vitiated by constant virtue-signalling, tendentious Zionist propaganda regarding Israel and multiculti leftist propaganda about diversity, etc. regarding the black civil rights movement and the 'movements' of womyn, homosexuals, and other (not yet Designated) Victim Groups that rode its coattails. These issues plague only the final three chapters, and climax in the final chapter entitled 'Woke', which is unsurprisingly about intersectional wokeness, immigration, and SJWs. If you're a lefty-lib Christian unlearned in church history, you'll love it.
Holland does not admit a role for genetics in explaining the differences between people: he is an environmentalist who seems to think a baptized Jew isn't a Jew, and that Africans are in the third world because of imperialism, not high time preference and low IQ.
Finally, the brief is too large to fit in to a 600-page book. A standard high-level church history like that of Schaff runs to 8 volumes and over 3,000 pages. (The standard history of the first seven ecumenical councils alone runs to 5 volumes and 2,400 pages.)
In such a small space, Holland tries to be all things to all people with this work and ends up satisfying none. Whether your interest is in secularization, the development of human rights, the Christian rise of natural science, Christian and Christo-secular moral crusades, Christianity and the development of political economy (both capitalist and Marxian), secular religions, or straight church history, Holland will give you a little here before quickly moving on to the next, without ever putting flesh on the bones. The framework remains that of a chronological narrative social history of Christianity throughout.
Below I will list a suggested alternate reading alongside some selections for further reading depending on what you bought this book looking for, or what most piqued your interest in it.
**In place of 'Dominion', for those with sufficient interest, a short church history like 'Christianity: the first 3000 years', combined with Gregory's 'The Unintended Reformation' to get a better grasp of what exactly is being discussed here, what exactly the thesis is, and stronger evidence for it. Holland runs more along lines of inference, genealogy and family similarity in his arguments.
**If you're interested in how Christianity bred not just secularism and the concept of human rights but 'anti-churches' and secular religions which are very slightly rejiggered forms of Christianity, add Burleigh's 'Earthly Powers' and 'Sacred Causes'.
**For how the secularized Christian legacy of America has bred modern-day Puritanism - called 'wokeness' - with the concomitant moral panics, and witch-hunts (given all of 30 pages here), the aptly named 'Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy' by Gottfried, 'Albion's Seed', and Campbell and Manning's 'The Rise of Victimhood Culture' are far more focused, detailed, and germane.
**If you're interested in how secularism is a necessarily Christian concept and how secularity could arise only in a Christian matrix, read Taylor's 'A Secular Age'.
**For Nietzsche - the first one to see that liberal and secular concepts of society, the state, and ethics were ineluctably Christian in their genealogy - and Christianity: 'Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry' by MacIntyre and 'Beyond Human Rights' by de Benoist.
I'm not the book's target audience (as a trained church historian), and as such (which was not at all apparent from the cover or description), learned nothing that I didn't already know, except for the name of the first person to invent the concept of human rights (Bartolome de Casas) and how the Protestant British Empire forced the matrix of 'religion' as something separable from state, culture, race and descent etc. on other peoples like the Hindus (already knew it did that for the Jews).
All students of secular and political religion, secularization, and modern church history know all of this already. If you're not familiar with church history and how Christianity gave rise to concepts like natural science, secularization, political religions like Marxism, etc. you'll gain more from this work than I did, and likely find it enlightening. If you're a liberal Christian or sympathetic agnostic (the target audience), you'll find yourself nodding at the sage wisdom herein as well.
Tom Holland (not the guy who plays Spider Man!) has written a few of my favorite works of history, specifically on ancient Sparta and Rome. A couple years back he wrote an article explaining how he realized that, as much as he admired Leonidas or Caesar, he was nothing like them in his own morals or ethics. Whether he liked it or not, his morality was distinctly shaped by Christianity. This book is his effort to demonstrate how the Christian revolution totally shaped our modern world.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 begins centuries prior to the birth of Jesus and tells the story of the rise of Christianity. Part 2 takes us through Christendom with the final part being the modern world. Each chapter loosely centers around one geographical locale and time and focuses on a few themes. In general, this book tells a 2500 years history of the rise of and revolution brought by Christianity.
Holland illustrates a tension inherent in Christianity from the beginning between a call to love all people and a desire to have some sort of regulation or barrier that separates. This tension is what led to reform movements throughout history. The first reform movement, the one that created Christendom, was in the 1000s when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor and saw the Emperor on his knees in the snow begging forgiveness. Gregory also reformed the church. Gregory's reforms were so successful that the Church totally changed and when Luther came along, he may have sought a reform akin to what Gregory had brought but he ended up starting the Reformation. Holland tells stories of many other reform movements within Christendom.
The controversial part of Holland's story will be part three, where he draws it all together to demonstrate how Christianity has totally permeated our culture. Even those who reject Christianity do so from Christian presuppositions and cannot get away from Christian assumptions. So we see Voltaire attacking the church with many criticisms echoing Luther, for example. The idea that all humans have rights is rooted not in the evidence of nature but in the teaching of Christianity. When Muslim countries join the United Nations they had to leave behind, or at least reinterpret, their religion to bring it in line with Western values which, again, were rooted in Christianity. The very idea that there is a "secular sphere" grew up in Christendom. The idea there is something called "religion" apart from this was transported by Westerners to India (where Hinduism became a religion for the first time, as opposed to just the Indian way of life).
Some of Christianity's enemies recognize this, and Holland cites the likes of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. Others of Christianity's enemies rebel against Christianity by using the very tools given by Christianity. As Holland points out, even when John Lennon sings "All You Need is Love" he is building that song on Christian assumptions.
One of Holland's starkest points comes in views of sexuality. Christianity has come to be seen as too puritanical and confining in many places in the west. Some want to return to a Greek or Roman view of sex. Holland would quickly warn, no you do not. He talks about how the only people who had freedom in who they had sex with in the Roman were were free men. And such free men could have sex with basically whomever they wanted whenever they wanted. It was Christianity's view that all humans are created in God's image and have rights that changed the world. It was also Christianity, the apostle Paul specifically, who first argued that humans have a nature or orientation (so homosexuality, as an orientation, was a Christian invention). All of this to say that in the final chapter he argues that even the #metoo movement's call for men to control themselves and treat women correctly and that women ought not be abused is rooted in Christian assumptions much more than any Greco-Roman ones.
As far as we believe in freedom of choice and universal human rights we are showing that we are still a decidedly Christian culture.
For the record, Holland is not a practicing Christian. The only time he gets personal is near the end when he shares the impact of his faithful godmother on his life, with his skepticism there is any afterlife when he will see her again. Holland is no Christian apologist trying to win converts. Instead, he is someone who, whatever beliefs about God he may have, realizes he too is an heir of the Christian revolution.
The central thesis of this book devolves into the Goodness Gracious Me sketch about the Indian father. Everyone was Christian! Diderot? Christian! Voltaire? Christian! Karl Marx? Christian! Charlie Hebdo? Christian! (The Nazis were not Christian, but) Harvey Weinstein (yes, really)? Christian! The Women's March? Christian! It is almost always asserted rather than argued for properly, and it makes the last third of the book very dull indeed.
The trick of describing something, somewhere or someone at length before naming it or them, giving the reader a little dopamine hit of making the correct identification, recurs in the first paragraph of every chapter, and it gets repetitive and a little manipulative.
Still, the first half is a pleasant enough romp through the history of early Christianity, told from an unusual angle and enlarging on the usually-neglected period of late antiquity.
Tom Holland, in this lengthy tome, purports to establish that those of us who hold secular, liberal, Enlightenment values are all in fact Christians, whether we realise it or not. The truth, as we shall see, is precisely the reverse: liberalism was not a vehicle for the spread of Christianity; Christianity was a vehicle for the spread of liberalism, which in turn was a vehicle for the spread of utilitarianism, or what we might call sentientism.
The claim that some of the Enlightenment thinkers, in a society in which almost everyone was a Christian, were influenced by the ideas of Christians is as mundane as it is obvious. It is a claim, ultimately, about chronology. But Holland—who documents how Christians themselves owed some of their concepts to classical antiquity—would emphatically repudiate the claim that Christianity is nothing but an extension or synthesis of Greco-Roman or Persian culture. After all, Christians also challenged many of the assumptions of those cultures.
The same is true of modern secular ethics. Christian notions of the sanctity and dignity of human life, of natural law and natural rights, of marriage between a man and a woman, have been replaced by concepts altogether antithetical to them: an emphasis on quality of life; on wellbeing; on rights as instrumental, not intrinsic, goods. This can be seen in a number of domains, from abortion to euthanasia to animal welfare. This process, of picking and choosing the concepts that have the best consequences for society, is described well by Scott Alexander: "every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift… Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products."
This was as true in classical antiquity as it is today. Robin Lane Fox writes: “Lawgivers like Solon did not claim divine inspiration or the gift of prophecy from the gods. Rather, they addressed social crises in the belief that human laws would avert them and that by giving up some of their interests, the protagonists could cohere in a new, sustainable order.”
Thus, it is not the Christianity of St Paul on which humanity was destined to settle; the work of earlier Christians was only accepted by later thinkers insofar as it promoted good consequences, particularly hedonic consequences. And this—the promotion of pleasure and the repudiation of pain—is truly universal, for all humans, all sentient beings, have the ability to experience them. Utilitarianism is a lodestar, as the economist Scott Sumner once put it. During the Enlightenment, “several strands of… intellectual thought led towards the ultimate destination of utilitarianism”, writes the historian Norman Davies. If in the 18th Century one had wished to predict the social and economic changes that would occur around the world over the next two to three centuries, it would not be to St Paul, or to Jesus, that one would turn: it would be to Bentham, Godwin, d’Holbach and the philosophes.
What these (and other) Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers did cannot be overstated: contrary to what Holland and others would claim, their beliefs and values were principally derived from reason, intuition and observation. They reasoned from first principles, questioning the fundamental tenets of morality in Christian Europe, and they, crucially, engaged in introspection. It is true that the hand of Christianity can be seen in the Enlightenment development of natural rights (one of the foundations of liberalism), but the atheistic Bentham famously called such concepts “nonsense on stilts”. And when he writes that nature “has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”, he is engaging in introspection: Christianity has nothing to do with this observation. This is especially clear when he goes on to write that pleasure and pain “govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it."
Many philosophers of the period similarly derived their ethics from first principles. It is true that Godwin was the son of a dissenting Protestant minister and had a Christian upbringing. But it was at the age of 26, when he first read the works of the subversive philosophers d’Holbach and Helvetius, that his entire worldview shifted. He came to believe that society should be formed for human happiness, and to deny the divinity of Christ; he would become an atheist who held that marriage was evil, and the father of anarchism, one of the major political philosophies of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
D’Holbach and Helvetius were certainly not on the fringes of the Enlightenment project: the former maintained one of the key Parisian salons that were frequented by, among others, Diderot, Condorcet, Hume, Beccaria and Franklin. He once informed Hume, who questioned whether atheists actually existed, that he was sitting at a table with seventeen of them. His most famous book, The System of Nature, denied the existence of God, and argued that morality was to be sought not in scripture but in happiness: “so long as vice renders [a man] happy, he should love vice”. (Parts of the book may have been written by Diderot himself, who was of course the editor of the Encyclopedie, the “official corpus” of the Enlightenment.) Similarly, Helvetius postulated that pleasure and pain “are, and always will be, the only principles of action in man”. Beccaria, the father of criminal justice who influenced the Founding Fathers, was largely indebted to Helvetius, and Bentham (as should be obvious) was influenced by him.
True enough, this Enlightenment project happened to occur in Europe, even though there was Enlightenment thinking in other cultures (which was drawn upon by the philosophes), but this was not preordained. In the 10th Century, few would have predicted that the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution would later occur in the backward Christian West as opposed to the wealthiest and most intellectually sophisticated society in the world (the Islamic Caliphate), or the most sophisticated city in Europe (Islamic Cordoba). As the mediaeval historian Chris Wickham puts it: “there was no sign whatsoever that Europe would, in a still rather distant future, develop economically and militarily, so as to be able to dominate the world. Anyone in 1000 looking for future industrialization would have put bets on the economy of Egypt, not of the Rhineland and Low Countries, and that of Lancashire would have seemed like a joke”.
Ultimately, the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism—and the opening it gave for people to challenge all forms of authority—created the conditions that allowed for the Enlightenment to occur in Europe, but this can only be appreciated in hindsight. Had the Enlightenment occurred in the Islamic Middle East or even—had Charles Martel not triumphed in 732—in an Islamic Europe, there would no doubt have been an equivalent of Holland writing today explaining why the Enlightenment could only have occurred in an Islamic civilisation. Similarly, there may be a sophisticated explanation as to why it was predominantly Athens in which philosophy flourished in classical Greece, and not any of the other citizen-states. Or, as I suspect, it could be that cultures of learning and of ideas take hold in often unpredictable ways, and then begin to self-propagate, overcoming innumerable barriers (dogmatism, nationalism, and so on).
In any case, the Enlightenment itself set off a chain reaction from which Christianity could not recover. An unbroken succession of thinkers, from Bentham to Mill to Russell to Parfit to Singer, would come to dominate Western thought, and they were, and are, decidedly atheistic and anti-Christian.
For instance, Singer – who has been labelled the most influential of contemporary philosophers – has a chapter in his seminal Animal Liberation which excoriates the Judeo-Christian tradition on account of its disregard for animals. Its title, bringing to mind the title of this book, is Man’s Dominion. In it, he notes that while Christian doctrine was in many ways progressive “in its application to human beings”, the same doctrine “served to confirm and further depress the lowly position nonhumans had". It was only “the growth of anticlerical feeling” that improved the status of animals in the West; Voltaire drew upon Hindu thinking on the status of animals to advocate vegetarianism, while Rosseau cited the pro-animal views of the philosopher Plutarch – one of a few Roman thinkers, along with Ovid and Seneca, to attack the use of animals for human pleasure. Christians who shout Singer down when he gives public lectures, because he wishes to equate the wellbeing of animals with the wellbeing of humans, are right to fear the radically anti-Christian doctrine that he espouses.
Parfit, meanwhile, has been called the greatest moral philosopher of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Yet, in his Reasons and Persons – perhaps the most significant work of moral philosophy since the 19th Century – Jesus is not mentioned once, whereas the Buddha is mentioned repeatedly. Buddha’s view that the ‘individual’ does not exist, and that we are but a stream of consciousness (citta-santāna), is a profoundly anti-Christian one, but also a profoundly modern one, given that it is consciousness, not the soul, which takes centre stage in the work of Parfit and the other philosophers mentioned here. Of the “four horsemen of New Atheism”, it is Sam Harris who has done the most to articulate a clear alternative to religious ethics – one which is ultimately, however, essentially a rebranding of utilitarianism. And while Pinker includes ‘Humanism’ (which certainly has Christian roots, as Holland establishes) in the subtitle of his pro-reason, anti-religious polemic Enlightenment Now, it is utilitarianism that he goes on to praise in the text.
If ideas and values can, as claimed above, be derived from reason and introspection, we should find elements of Enlightenment thought in pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures. And that is precisely what we see. We have already seen how the primacy of conscious experience was, long before the Enlightenment, stressed by the Buddha and his successors in India. This was also true of Epicurus in ancient Greece, of whom Bentham and Mill were aware. When one reads the mediaeval Indian philosopher Santideva, who lived in the 8th Century, it is hard to distinguish him from Bentham. We ought, he says, to "stop all the present and future pain and suffering of all sentient beings, and to bring about all present and future pleasure and happiness.” Similarly, in ancient China, the Mohist school of philosophy emphasised impartial benevolence and the importance of the general welfare of the population, which its adherents held would be best promoted in a meritocracy. All of this is pretty much the raison d’etre of a modern liberal democratic state (indeed, the idea of meritocracy was imported into Enlightenment-era Europe from China, championed by the likes of Voltaire).
Consistent with this narrative, Holland’s claim that science, charity, universities, human rights and secularism were the exclusive preserves of Christianity (“irredeemably Christian”) is grossly ahistorical. The importance of observation and empiricism was stressed by many schools of philosophy in ancient Greece and ancient India. The scientific method was born in the Islamic world; Muslim scholar-scientists, including al-Haytham and Avicenna, would strongly influence later European pioneers of science, such as Grosseteste and Bacon. The Scientific Revolution could not have taken place in Christendom had it not been for the many advances made in the mediaeval Islamic world, classical India and ancient Greece. As for universities, institutions of higher education flourished in India (Taxila and Nalanda), Greece (Athens) and the Islamic world.
Notions of human brotherhood and generosity were proposed in Greece, Rome, China and India. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, before the Gospels had even been written, that “you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself”. In Ashoka’s Edicts (of 3rd Century BCE Maurya India), we find the supposedly Christian concepts of progress (“thus the glory of Dharma will increase throughout the world, and it will be endorsed in the form of mercy, charity, truthfulness, purity, gentleness, and virtue”) and of tolerance and religious pluralism (“all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions”); indeed, it was the Enlightenment that brought Europe closer to Asian traditions of pluralism and tolerance. The Edicts were arguably a precursor to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they go further than that, for they contain the first laws governing the treatment of animals; veterinary hospitals, as well as hospitals for humans, were maintained by Ashoka. As for charity specifically, has Holland not heard of the Sanskrit term dāna?
Yet countervailing forces, in many cultures around the world, often prevailed. Thinkers who aimed to promote the general wellbeing of humans and of other animals – who looked not to scripture, or to deities, or to notions of honour and bravery and strength and weakness, but to the natural world, and to the nature of consciousness – were often stymied. For every Akbar, there was an Aurangzeb. Even in 20th Century Europe, the ascendancy of counter-Enlightenment thinking brought us Fascism and Communism, and the horrors of the world wars and the camps and gulags. Holland claims that this was all the logical consequence of abandoning Christianity and forgetting the supposedly Christian roots of Enlightenment liberalism. But there is a third way: we can reject Christianity and its conservative and liberal appendages, as well as the kind of Nietzschean nihilism that Holland asserts is the only alternative, and instead adopt an ethic based on sentience.
There can be no doubt that the liberal arm of Christianity – encapsulated in messages such as “humans are all one in Christ Jesus” and “humans are all created equal, in the image of God” – was a force for good: Christianity was for a time the most successful vehicle for promoting utilitarian ends in the human domain; playing a key role, for instance, in the abolition of slavery, as Holland demonstrates. It too, however, has run its course, as modern views on abortion and euthanasia attest to. It has nothing to say, unlike ‘sentientist’ traditions, about the wellbeing of nonhuman animals; nothing to say, indeed, about other beings that may, in time, come to be sentient; those of the digital realm. They, too, will not have souls; they too will be denied the dignity accorded to humans under the Christian schema. So, time to look forward.
Tom Holland has a great easy to read writing style, but the argument in this book was ... not his finest. The first half that explores the origins of Christian ideas and the growth / making of the Catholic Church is very interesting. Well researched, well told. I found the connections between Persian religious tradition and early Christianity especially compelling.
The second half is the work of someone who is cherry picking ideas to fit a predetermined thesis. The argument he is making is simply too big, and the scope of history he's trying to crunch into it is far to vast. I mean the book absolutely skips past the influence of both Byzantine and Arab thought of the formation of philosophical consciousness in the west which is absurd!!! It generalizes the role of Christianity and Christian ideas into one single narrative thread when the reality is far more complex, and claims any outside ideas that were then cannibalized into Christian thought as fundamentally Christian instead of an amalgam of many forces. Christianity did change the path of the former Roman Empire and create the west, but as much it brought revolutionary ideas of equality (that this book does not prove in any way are uniquely Christian) it also brought authoritarian tendencies, apocalyptic fantasies, and the very very very very very damaging evangelizing tradition.
My disagreement is not of course that the west has not been deeply influenced by Christianity, it is the water we swim in, but the way this book tries to spin that influence as somehow a clear single thread from ancient times to present (as though the influences of other cultures, religions, and ideas have not blended to shape any of that tradition into what it became) and that the true Christian inheritance is one that is fundamentally revolutionary and not much more ambivalent and frequently oppressive.
Worse still the second half of this book dragged, Holland can tell ancient history in a sweeping and engaging way, but he writes about Martin Luther like he's nailing the 95 Theses into your eyes. By the end I was dragging my way through the book like a punishment.
If you're a Christian who likes to say that American Evangelicals aren't "real" Christians tho? This book was written for you! As it pulls forth the liberal Christian defence that True Christianity is a revolutionary socialist light in the dark! I do belive this is putting your head in a dark box for your own ego, but enjoy.
Anyway I hope for his next book Holland sticks to ancient history because his writing is better and his arguments less spurious.
P.S. If you're going to write about Abelard and Heloise at least give Heloise the credit for Abelard's thought that she deserves, anyone who has read their letters can see her influence on his radical thought. Just because history gives men sole credit for joint ventures with the women in their lives does not mean we must continue to do so.
There are two important ways to show that the “liberal” and “secular” values of human rights would never have come into being without Christianity: you can show that those values are logical extensions of Christianity and not of other worldviews, or you can trace the history of those values and see whether they ever actually arose in non-Christian lands and how they fared in Christian ones. Holland has done both, but the real strength of his book is the historical tour. It’s relentless. It’s well written. It’s persuasive.
DOMINION is a book I've wanted to read for ages, since it came highly recommended and the same author's book MILLENNIUM had been a very good read on a period of medieval history I'm fairly familiar with.
DOMINION is less a history of Christianity than it is an argument that there is something exceptional about Christianity and its related traditions: that whether we realise it or not, Christianity is the ultimate origin of ideas such as progress, humanism and human rights, secularism, and the special status of minorities and the underprivileged. It's a very difficult book to review, partly because it covers so much ground and partly because, while there are things in it that I enthusiastically agreed with and loved, there is also much that I argued with, especially in the first half. I don't, for instance, fully agree with Holland's take on the Apostle Paul's relation to the Old Testament law.
Many of what I would identify as the book's flaws stem from the fact that Holland is not a believer, but on the other hand I think this makes the book more compelling. Although he acknowledges that he cannot possibly, in a world and from a background so deeply shaped by Christianity, adopt a standpoint of neutrality, Holland attempts to depict his subject impartially - both the crimes of Christians, as well as the ideals of Christianity itself and the powerful influence they have had upon the world for good. In this, Holland seems to me the anti-Jordan Peterson. Both are unbelievers who promote a certain idea of Christianity, but where Peterson values Christanity for what it shares with other myths, many of which prioritise the powerful and the regressive (see: Homer's ILIAD and ODYSSEY, with their overt worship of the divine paternal), Holland values Christianity for what he sees as its uniqueness, with its care for the weak and underprivileged as being the most important of those distinctives.
I don't know if many unbelievers have read this book, but I hope a lot of Christians do. In a landscape where many of the loudest voices on both sides of what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the "culture wars" are currently insisting that to be Christian means to be conservative, imperialist, unfeeling, and obstinately on the side of the entrenched powerful, Holland argues that nevertheless revolution/reformation in defence of the victim is the most venerable of Christian traditions. As long and complex and ugly as our history has been, I hope this book will encourage fellow Christians, as it did me: that it acts as a reminder, not just of the best traditions of our faith, but also of just how far the world has already grown for the better because of it.
Ask my three children about why the sky is blue and you will get three answers: Because it is (primary school); something complicated about light wavelengths and refraction (secondary school science); it isn't (GCSE philosophy and ethics). It occurred to me that Tom Holland in this book asks a similar question as to why modern society still seems so rooted in its Christian past. He attempts the middle answer, though at times the other two might be equally good answers.
Tom Holland is a greatly accomplished writer who more recently has branched out from his focus on the ancient world to tackle bigger themes - the rise of Islam and now the influence of Christianity on the Western mind. A history of Christianity and a discussion of the "Western Mind" is a tall ask. The problem of writing about history is that there is A Lot of It. Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial history of Christianity is at least twice the length of Dominion and he doesn't attempt to describe the Making of the Western Mind. There will be gaps in such an account, the question is whether such gaps significantly detract from the overall argument.
His argument, broadly, is that it is impossible to understand the history and mindset of the West (by West he seems to mean principally Europe with special mentions for America, South Africa and, slightly more improbably, the Islamic world) without appreciating the foundational and continuing role of Christianity. This is not simply making a nod to continuing Christian themes in art and culture or the fading twilight of Judea-Christian morality. He is making a bolder claim that even those, like Charlie Hebdo, who despise Christianity are only able to do so because they are still swimming in Christian waters. Justin Martyr, whom he quotes, can arguably stand as the headnote for all this: "Whatever men have rightly said, no matter who or where, is the property of us Christians." This intellectual imperialism is unlikely to sit well with everyone.
It is one thing to trace a river back to its source. It is quite another to assume that all the water in the estuary has come from the same spring. The biggest criticism that can perhaps be levelled at Holland's ambitious project is that he has ignored the other tributaries.
Tracing the river back to its source, Holland starts in the pre-Christian Persian Empire of Darius where monotheism along with its elements of dualism was forged. He then takes us through the world of ancient Greece and Rome, Paul's missionary journeys, the spread of Christianity and through into the Middle ages. The book is divided into three parts: Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas and each chapter begins with a place and a time, not necessarily connected with the previous narrative. Done badly this can give the impression of archipelago history, island hopping around without an obvious connecting thread, however this is where Holland's skill as a narrator comes to the fore. Each chapter is cumulative, with former people and events coming back as a recurring theme. Above all, Holland cannily takes us back again and again ad fontes to Paul's letter to the Galatians with its theme of freedom and equality. Scripture is not a springboard but a constant companion in Holland's story.
For the most part the thesis is convincing although as he moves into modernity so it begins to stretch out of shape. To continue the river metaphor, modernity feels more like the Nile delta no longer feeling recognisably like the winding river that we have journeyed on so far. It is here more and more questions begin to be raised. Did contact with nineteenth century abolitionists begin to "Protestantise" Islam, infecting the pure legal understand of the Quran and hadiths with a dangerous spiritual interpretation? Was Nazism a recognisably Christian eschatological understanding of the world - what about the northern European and Wagnerian myths of Gotterdammerung? Do modern Woke millennials unknowingly riff upon a theme of Christian puritanism? Yes, no, maybe.
An instructive discussion might have been had on that most pervasive of modern ideologies, free-market capitalism, which barely features in Holland's account. The classic Weberian understanding is that a strong Calvinist emphasis on the responsibility of the individual led to a Protestant ethic that allowed northern European societies to develop economically in a way different to elsewhere. This is one tributary. Others might include the geographically significant Atlantic seaboard of Great Britain and Holland, the displacement through persecution of intelligent and motivated refugees whether they be Jews, Huguenots or Puritans, or even the cataclysmic event of the Black Death that finished off feudalism. Many tributaries, but who would be bold enough to claim to have found the source?
And so it is with much of where Western society finds itself now. Undoubtedly Christianity plays a far greater part in our present understanding than many secularists would wish to admit. Perhaps it is the case that even the way in which we view time, history, purpose, identity and morality cannot escape the Christian framework upon which it has grown. However, the claims that Holland makes for Christianity being the prime way - almost the only way - in which we can understand who we are, feels just a little over-egged. The river rolls on and picking out the individual currents within the whole feels ever more difficult.
Eine umfangreiche, aber sehr interessant erzählte Weltgeschichte der westlichen Welt anhand des Christentums. Der Autor schafft es die lange Geschichte von der Antike bis zum heutigen Zeitalter nicht träge nachzuerzählen, sondern Verknüpfungen aufzuzeigen wie unser Denken und unsere Werte seit der Vergangenheit geformt und beeinflusst wird. Ich fand auch die zusätzlichen Fotos, Quellen und Vermerke am Endes des Buches hilfreich und unterstützend zu seinen Erzählungen. Manche Stellen fand ich etwas überzogen, da der Autor versucht zu allem einen Hinweis zum Christentum zu finden (es wirkt zu bemüht), aber trotzdem es war ein sehr lehrreiches Buch.
** Dieses Buch wurde mir über NetGalley als E-Book zur Verfügung gestellt **
Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD ; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery, the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.
Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.
As expected, the book is well written and stylish, sometimes with too much style; I am not picky about such things but some readers may tire of all his little reveals (a new character is discussed without being named for a few lines, giving readers the opportunity to guess who he or she is, then revealed; this is done in practically every chapter). He has done his research and as far as I could tell, there were no glaring errors of fact. But while he is scrupulous about his facts, he is not shy of cherry picking and framing to fit his thesis. Nero is a pagan monster who killed his own wife and mother; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, also viciously killed his wife and son, but that does not reflect badly on Christianity. Terrible and cruel punishments in pagan Rome are a sign of paganism’s shorcomings, but terrible and cruel punishments inflicted by inquisitors and priests (and described in horrifying detail in this book) are not Christian shorcomings (the thought is that eventually Christian Europe gave them up; why they were given up in a time of anti-clerical and even anti-Christian upheaval and not when the Church was at its mightiest, is assigned to Christian values taking 1800 years to make their mark, and then doing so surreptitiously). By the time the book gets to the modern world the thesis really begins to look like one of those Hindutvvadi posts about how everything was invented in India; no matter what any activists themselves may say, Tom Holland knows their beliefs and motivations are entirely Christian. This is probably partly true, but leaves open the question of where Christianity itself comes from. Unless one believes the Son of God thing, the explanation is likely to be that some mix of human nature and human history created Christianity, just at it created every other ideology. So why stop at Paul (or Christ if you prefer)? Everythying in this world seems to be derived from some combination of earlier things, why not Christianity? And why believe that the same results would not have arisen (somewhere, at some point) even if there had never been a Christ or a Paul? Maybe those impulses are also human universals, and can and do arise repeatedly, not just as an episode in the history of Jewish superstition? And of course there is always the possibility that some of this progress is not really progress at all, but a mistake. Especially with the “woke”, it is by no means universally agreed that they are a good thing, so crediting all of their values to Christ may not be a winning move for Christianity.
Anyway, I dont find his thesis completely wrong; the tension between certain Christian values and various vicious aspects of Christian society is real and those values did lead some Christians to take up the cause of diverse oppressed groups, most spectacularly and successfully, against slavery. Economic explanations of why the British empire not only abolished slavery but expended diplomatic capital, real money and military might to stop the trade of slaves by others, are not sufficient, and are an insult to the memory of countless Quakers and other good Christians who made it their life’s work to fight the good fight and succeeded to the point that no modern society regards slavery as an acceptable institution any more. But Holland insists that Christianity is the ONLY source of most of our modern liberal notions, which seems a bit of a strech. It is also not a unique claim. In fact, there are books written about how the Jews created modern rights, or Islam did, or for that matter, the Native Americans did; and of course Sufis take TomHollandism to another level, with a secret brotherhood using everyone from Abraham and Moses to Ghazali and Rumi to insert progressive ideas into human culture. But the most glaring omission in this book is the “Eastern Religions”; the entire book start and ends in the Middle East and Western Europe (Eastern Christianity gets no love either) and the ideas of India and China are dismissed practically without examination. Mahavir, Buddha, the authors of the Upanishads, the philosophers and thinkers of China, none find any mention in this book or get any credit for any human advance. On the other hand, the Christian West did have a disproportionate role in creating the modern world (for better and for worse), so he does have a case, but maybe not as strong a case as advertised.
But irrespective of what you think of his basic thesis, the book is still a great read. Tom Holland writes well, reads widely and has an eye for fascinating anecdotes that every reader can enjoy even if he or she does not agree with the underlying thesis. In fact, if you do NOT agree with this thesis you should especially read the book to see how well your preferred theory stands up against a well written Christian version. If he is wrong, why is he wrong? Trying to answer that question should be a fruitful exercise for anyone. Well worth reading.
Holland attempts far too much in 600 pages and yet the result is still quite astonishing.
One might quibble about some specific points of historical or theological interest (it is a popular history, after all) but here we have a center-left atheist deftly skipping over landmine after landmine of the usual tripe in order to land a devastating series of blows to contemporary multicultural assumptions.
Secularism, it turns out, is not a phase of human cultural evolution, or the taming of Religion's baser elements, or a coherent philosophical worldview or even a pragmatic contrivance- Secularism is, as a somewhat scandalized Holland finds, a uniquely Christian heresy.
To add insult to injury, each time it tries to escape the bounds of its historical patron, secularism finds itself reverting to the violent barbarism of the ancient pagans.
This is a conclusion that won't be new to many believers, but given the source and the framing it really is a bit startling to watch as Holland makes the ascent.
I should start out by saying I am the choir, I've been making the argument made in Holland's book for years, Christianity is in the air that we breath, the water we drink, we take it for granted and we do so at our peril.
What Tom Holland, who it is worth pointing out is not himself a Christian, has done is painstakingly laid out the case that yes indeed, the West owes many (most) of its ideas and morality to its Judeo-Christian roots, it has been influencing the world from its inception and the world we live in today would look much different had it not been for the influence of Christianity.
Holland starts at the beginning of the faith and tracks it right up to the year of publication of his book including the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement and what Christianity had to do with it. He doesn't shy away from the many stumbles the faith has had but nor does he dwell on those stumbles.
This isn't to say the theory is correct, though the case has never before been so powerfully made.
This is a brilliant book, as many have noted. Holland is a popular historian of the first order and he has mastered vast swathes of church history to such an extent that he is able to pick out not simply ‘les mots justes’ but ‘les scènes justes’ which epitomise an era or major shift.
There are times of possible if not probable overreach, especially towards the conclusion, and it’s a moot point whether or not the progression towards what is best about modern society (in his view) is all down to Christianity’s influence or more the ideals of a contemporary, metropolitan, liberal-inclined historian who is rediscovering his faith. And that's totally fine if it is clear that's what it is.
Nevertheless, this is a tour de force and is so wonderfully readable. I learned a huge amount, especially about the early mediaeval worlds of Charlemagne and Co. This is one of Holland's periods of particular expertise (eg Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom) And his overarching thesis is hard to dispute, despite what sceptics will insist. The contemporary clarion call to defend the rights of all, the weak, marginalised and outcast, as well as the strong and powerful, has only one root: the crucified carpenter from Nazareth. Nietzsche saw that all too clearly. Which is, of course, why he utterly despised him.
A secular church history. Super long but written in narrative, so it's an easy read. Written by an atheist historian trying to find the roots of our modern human rights- that "all men are created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” His troubling findings? They are by no means self-evident. They are not rooted in philosophy; they are only found in Christianity. Our modern world is under the Dominion of Christ - "the formidable—indeed the inescapable—influence of Christianity.”
Tim Keller on Dominion: “It is hard to overstate the importance of Holland’s book Dominion. He makes a readable and extraordinarily well-documented case that the central values and priorities of modern, Western, secular culture have actually come from Christianity.”
Holland is part of the new Christian-leaning secularists (I’d put Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson, John Vervaeke, Luke Burgis, David Brooks, Tara Isabella Burton in that group). Some have come to Christ. Most are merely intrigued and seeking truth that STRONGLY aligns w Christianity.
Erudite but written in a popular style that the author is known for (and sometimes these aspects clash and some awkwardness ensues but one can easily forgive and forget it), though in some ways it points out the obvious in less ideological style that similar other books (whether pro or against Christianity and its influence today). I think that the early parts that really show the huge difference in outlook we have vs say (what we still consider our cultural ancestors, the Greeks and the pre-Christian Romans) are the strongest parts of the book.
After that, the author chooses historical moments he believes illuminate best the evolution of Christianity and while some succeed better, some less so, the book starts having a scattered feel and sometimes bogs down into minutia, sometimes (at least i feel) it forces its interpretation to fit the theme of the book sort of ignoring the time in-between the moments - it is almost like Augustine (4th century) is followed by say Pope Gregory without too much about Justinian's era ( as another and arguably the major weakness of the book is in ignoring Eastern Christianity and forgetting how Constantinople was so much a counterpoise to Rome for 1000 years) for example.
Overall, definitely recommended but based on some very enthusiastic reviews (which in hindsight probably reflect the lack of previous exposure to these types of ideas for the respective readers) I expected more.
In my teenage years, to use one of the many nice turns of phrase in Tom Holland’s Dominion, ‘like a dimmer switch being turned down I found my belief in God fading.’ But despite no longer praying or going to church I still saw myself, even in a militant atheist phase, as a small-p protestant. My upbringing shaped me too much to pretend that Christian ideas did not still influence how I saw myself, how I behaved towards others, and the content of my political beliefs.
Dominion argues for a radical version of this self-perception– that ideas sourced from Christianity are everywhere in the West, ‘like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye’. Western atheists who never step foot in a church think within a conceptual framework Christians created.
Holland’s comparison points in explaining how Christianity departs from other beliefs are the ancient philosophers, the beliefs of the pre-Christian Middle East and West, Jews, Muslims, and Indians and Chinese in the colonial era.
I described these comparison cultures as peoples rather than religions because, Dominion argues, the very idea of religion is Christian. The Latin word ‘religio’ referred broadly to rules, rituals and customs, and not just beliefs about a god or gods. Other non-Christian peoples similarly did not, and do not, make the Christian distinction between beliefs and practices. The Western language of ‘isms’ – Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, etc – over-emphasises belief as a way of understanding other cultures.
Without this distinction between beliefs and practices it is hard to get to the Western categories of the religious and the secular, or to the separation of church and state.
Christianity as a belief, along with Christ’s teachings on treating others well regardless of social status, contributed to its universalist aspirations (very early on, a bishop described the church as ‘katholikos’; Greek for universal). Anyone can hold a belief, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
Universalist beliefs in the value of all people still struggle against the tribal instinct, including in the minds of believing Christians. But Christianity created ideas that transcend tribes and communities that cross cultural, economic and political divisions.
From a modern Western liberal perspective, the implications of these Christian ideas for political practice have been mixed. Slavery was denounced and eventually abolished largely on Christian grounds. But the idea that everyone could be a Christian also segued into the idea that everyone must be a Christian, justifying colonisation and the Inquisition. Christianity both prompted terrible cruelty and laid the foundations for a broader idea of ‘human rights’.
Holland explains how Christianity created a new sexual morality, sanctioning only sex in a monogamous marriage. In Rome, Holland writes, ‘men no more hesitated to use slaves and prostitutes to relieve themselves of their sexual needs than they did to use the side of the road as a toilet’. This kind of behaviour was reclassified as a sin, reducing sexual pleasure but also sexual cruelty. ‘Implicit in #MeToo’, Holland writes, ‘was the same call for sexual continence that had reverberated throughout the Church’s history’.
Christianity promoted marriage for love, rather than to create or cement relationships between families. Priests being able to marry couples without their family’s agreement undermined the power of patriarchs. It made the nuclear family, rather than the extended family, the key unit in society.
Holland notes how ideas based in Christianity often appear on both sides of an argument. In the recent gay marriage debate, biblical verses against men sleeping with other men competed against the Christian idea of monogamous, love-based marriages.
Holland also suggests that modern ‘woke’ politics is based on ideas that come from Christianity. The Christian concern for the weak and downtrodden has turned into the woke celebration of victims. Woke intolerance of other views has, I think, many parallels other than Christian persecution of non-believers, but the similarities are there.
Despite empty pews in Europe and Australia, taking small and big-C Christianity together it seems very much alive. Holland quotes the observation of an Indian historian that ‘Christianity spreads in two ways, through conversion and through secularisation’. Through birth and conversion, it is growing in Africa, Asia and South America. Through the secular descendants of Christian ideas, it is alive and well in the West and influencing the elites, at least, of many other countries. I am still more of a Christian than I realised.
I love history. This is some work, charting the course and effects of Christianity over two millennia. The broad sweep of analysis is masterful, setting up each development with a relatively unknown story that unfolds into the stories and characters many will know. Engaging and wonderful. But also, I love Jesus. Which means to see the effect that this one Nazarene has had on the globe, on the very social, political and moral fabric of the Western World, has been nothing short of exhilarating. While we witness the Eastwards shift of Christian influence, we still in the west ungraciously cry for the morality of the man nailed to a cross. And I shudder at the thought of what may replace it one day.
‘All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.’
Tom Holland made his name as a historian of Greece and Rome but Dominion is his masterpiece. I have some quibbles with him here and there but Holland’s doorstop of a book is remarkably thrilling to read and his argument is, I think, undeniable. Anyone who wants to understand Western values and their origins should read this book. Anyone who thinks they understand Christianity, whether they look at it in a positive or negative light, should read it too.
Bravo, Mr. Holland. Three cheers for intellectual integrity.
Tom Holland, much like myself, is not naturally inclined by aesthetic or intellectual disposition to fasten his imagination to the moribund renunciationism exacted by the bellowing, thrice-pierced God of Christianity. The author of boyish, documentarian expeditions to the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and the Mediterranean basin over which armies of beplumed and iron-shelled legionaries hammered one another to satisfy the rival ambitions of ducal oligarchs, it was only from a sense of incompletion, a conviction that the moral bridge between antiquity and modernity could not be supported in toto by the likes of Pericles and Octavian, that Holland has exchanged the invincible Eagle for the breast-bleeding Pelican.
Far from merely dominating the firmament of the Western mind-life as its most garish and radiant star, Holland contends that the very moral lexicography of modernity has been encoded embryonically in a movement that began with the proposition—outrageous to the most cherished ethical sentiments of the powers of the age—that a thirty-three-year-old tektōn-turned-revolutionary from the rocky wastes of Galilee, who lived in solidarity with the mere and maligned and who evangelized divine favor to the poor and condemnation to the rich, was the very Incarnation of Holy Reason and from eternity a cohabitant of the life of God; and that in the throes of a low, cruciform death, He had won for all humanity a decisive victory over the forces of evil.
The Christian Way inaugurated a transvaluation of values, birthing a new collective identity that superseded the tribalisms of class, sex, and ethnicity. The Ecclesia, as a sort of moral and identitarian abstraction, weighed the traditions and taboos of antiquity against the demanding imperatives of the Kingdom of God, generating a historical rhythm of reformations and holiness movements that have continued to reverberate across those tracts of earth that have felt the influence of Christendom even after the explicitly Christian etymological resonances of our language have been forgotten. Thus did the political revolutions of the twentieth century have as their historical analogue the eleventh-century revolution of Gregory VII, in which the ideological power of the Church was shown to have superseded the “secular” (another Christian concept) authorities of Europe with the humiliation of Emperor Henry IV at Canossa. Thus did the influence of that most mercurial and anarchistic force, the Holy Spirit, through which the pious could access the God of truth subjectively and experientially rather than through the mediations of reason and authority, power the entire sweep of modernity, from the Protestant Reformation, to liberalism and the concept of individual human rights, to secularization itself, to the most insufferable Beatles songs. Thus could the likes of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton have drawn inspiration from Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century scholastic philosopher who argued that God’s universal laws are apprehensible in the order of nature.
These are extraordinary claims—but are they true? It depends in part on whether one regards Christianity as an enclosed and integrated intellectual system, or as an ever-changing constellation of doctrines, practices, and patterns of belief, the grouping of which under a single conceptual title is ultimately arbitrary. To state it another way, would two “Christians”, separated by the passage of centuries, truly be professing a belief in the same Christianity? When Constantine embraced the chi-rho and drove the legions of Maxentius into the Tiber, did he more properly inhabit the ideational continuum of King David and Charlemagne, or that of Caracalla, his imperial predecessor of the previous century, who sought to legitimate his rule with the divine sanction of the Greco-Egyptian syncretistic deity Serapis much as Constantine did with that of Christ? Was the Christ who blinded Saint Paul and toppled him from his horse the same as He who offered His bloody foreskin as a wedding band to Saint Catherine of Siena? And which beliefs or proclivities are peculiarly and distinctively Christian, as opposed to Jewish, neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, or Secular; all traditions of thought with which Christian thinkers enjoyed a prolonged and fruitful engagement? Wherever one stands on the question of Christianity as a spiritual ship of Theseus may be a simple matter of preference, but Holland is less interested in making rigorous metaphysical arguments—his conveyance of Christian theology is fairly superficial—than in titillating the imagination with a work of novelistic panache.
Tom Holland's thesis is that Christianity has gained a shocking and almost absolute dominion over the world over the course of the two millennia since it came into existence. The difference between our world and that of the first Christians is so big that, as a critic put it, "we are as close to them as we are to giant lizards". It goes without saying that this is not merely a history book (though Holland tries his best to be unbiased), but an interpretation of history from someone who was raised Christian, then turned atheist and then turned agnostic. Most (if not all) of our common moral assumptions in the West (the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings, the concern for the voices of those oppressed and marginalized, the idea of religion as something concerning the individual, etc), as well as our intellectual and scientific progress (science, in a real sense, having been born in a thoroughly Christian culture and not anywhere else in the world), Holland claims, are invariably shaped by the fact that a single man died on a cross and (allegedly) rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago, in a remote corner of the world.
Holland does not shy away from Christendom's own internal conflicts and contradictions. I speak here of Christendom, the empire that came into existence in the places touched by the religion, not of Christianity. The latter is the belief that Christ, the Son of God, died, is risen and serves as mediator between man and God until the end of time so that all shall be saved, should they only reach out to grasp what's in front of them. The Christian ethos has grown and matured over the last millennia, with all the struggle that such a progress entails. However, there is no criticism that can be made against the Christian religion that it has not already made against itself, from within. The abolitionist quakers, the feminist nuns of the Middle Ages, the profoundly Christian Martin Luther King, and many other examples serve to take this point across; all these people, however, fought against other Christians (and won). This is to say that the process of consolidating this ethos was a messy one. The following fact is worth special mention: most prominent critics of the Christian religion (Descartes, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Sade, even John Lennon) are driven by thoroughly Christian assumptions and their criticisms are just echos of Augustine, Cathars and various other Christian characters that have come and gone. Of course, this does not mean that their conclusions are in any way valid or correct; rather, it means that these critics would be unable to take on Christianity without appealing to profoundly Christian values. I will resist going into more detail: please read the book. It's worth it.
Tom Holland's work is a serious effort undertaken to try to explain where we are, how we got here and, like any such effort, it is doomed to fall short of this (idealistic) goal. It was eye opening for me to understand how the concepts of progress, of religion, of saeculorum, of equality and so many more have all been born in the Christian sphere of influence. How it's come to be that Christianity's most fervent critics use exactly these concepts to attack it remains an unanswered question. My intuition is that it has much to do with the dreaded marriage of Church and State and with the influence of Christendom as I've explained it above, but I digress.
Do pick up this book. Christian or not, it's worth putting so many of today's politicized issues in their proper historical context.
Disclaimer: not read, but listened to the Audible version of this book, narrated by Mark Meadows (just like the author did not play Spider-Man, the narrator has never served as anyone's chief of staff). I absolutely loved Mr. Meadows' interpretation, but I will buy the physical book as well. It is such a "big" book, with so much information, that I will want to go back to specific chapters that have sparked a special interest in me.
As for style, the book is very beautifully written.
Definitely a 5* experience in terms of magnificent readability, content and just what I have been after for a while. This is, essentially, a broad but comprehensive overview of the major moments in the development of Christianity and modern thought. It goes as far back as the ancient Persians, and even to the font of civilization with the Sumerians and Babylonians around the Fertile Crescent and finishes with Merkel, MeToo and Pulp Fiction. It seems as if the roots of Christianity are deep.
The book is excellent in giving the essential developments of key theologians, and various reformations, as well as providing lots of interesting tidbits and shockers e.g. Luther threw a dog out of a top story window because he thought it was possessed, or how the troops at Tours rallied around the tomb of St. Martin in their defeat of the Arabs in the 8th Century. At the same time, it never dumb down in it's content - it is unafraid to explore the labyrinthine nuances of the various schisms and sects: Donatists, Marcions, Revellers, Levellers, Diggers, etc...etc... It's byzantine, for sure, but it's well expressed and fully explained with proper context and development.
The general argument of the book works well, but rather in patches. I had never thought before that the entire secular vs. religion as seperate magisterium is a Chrstian (Augustinian) view (and how we in the west project this division and understanding of religion onto others e.g. Hinduism and Judaism were Christian projections in their words and in understanding). Nor did I know entirely the sheer important of Paul in creating a church that could be 'all things to all men'. The theological idea of 'love and do as you will' and the notion the law of God is written on the hearts all men (not in a book like in the Sunna of Islam) allows for variation in secular laws. Finally the notion of human rights, and the universal worth of all humans, is rooted in the Christian (Paulian, really) notion that all humans are reflections of Christ. All true, in my opinion, and all well voiced.
If I'm honest, there are sections of the book's argument that fell short for me (but not enough to dent the 5* reading experience). Given how varied and rich the degrees and quantity of 'reformatio' and divergence of views in Christianity, Holland has an easy time in drawing parallels between everything and some Christian thought in 2000 years of writing. For example: he mentions how Marx was indebted to Christianity because "the early Christians were communally minded too!", or he says the Nazi's made 'martyrs of their believers' "JUST LIKE THE CHURCH DID?!", or he argues that every utterance of love (the Beatles), of charity (Live Aid) or of human rights (UN) was said once by some Christian somewhere. Yes, true, and I get that the general thought of the West has been defined by these thinkers, but I'm not sure it's fair to cherry pick like this.
Still a 5* for me, though, as this is critical response which is itself enjoyable. The learning and the pleasure of the reading for me was just what I wanted.