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Dominion: The making of the Western mind, by Tom Holland

by
13 September 2019

G. R. Evans considers a popular history of Western thought

THIS is popular history and readable. It has passages of striking writing and, at more than 600 pages, lots of substance. Its imagery and points of modern comparison often have the vividness that makes excellent broadcast documentary. So there is a good read here.

As its title declares, however, it has a message, as well as a story to tell. This is described at the end of the preface as an attempt “to trace the course” of Christianity as “subversive and disruptive”, and how it “came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom”. Dominion’s subtitle is The making of the Western mind.

But the early Christian centuries, until the de facto separation of the Latin and Greek-speaking linguistic communities of the Roman Empire, were not merely Latin. Only with the Schism of 1054 did the history of Christianity become chiefly a story of the “Latin” mind, and not for long. Greek bishops were present at the Council of Bari in 1098, and Anselm of Canterbury did his best at the Pope’s request to reason them back to agreement with Rome. In the 1130s, Anselm of Havelberg was on a mission to Constantinople, holding talks with the Greeks about restoring Christian unity.

Soon the emerging universities were getting to work on Latin translations of more of the works of Aristotle. The study of classical Greek was restored in the early-modern West, and interest was revived in the Greek text of scripture. Arguably, the “Western mind” was never Latin-only, though it certainly developed characteristics more Latin than Greek.

There is another question surely? The “Dominion” of the West has been that of a civilisation or a way of life to which Christianity has lent much colour, but not necessarily the essential drive. Any modern traveller, able to use English almost everywhere, becomes conscious of the impact of a “Western Civilisation” based certainly on the Christian tradition and carried across the continents partly by the efforts of Christian missionaries.

But “dominion” was also, perhaps principally, commercial. The “West” was also able to take over the world by means of trade. The British Empire at least could not have been built without giant enterprises such as the Hudson’s Bay and the East India Companies (of which there are glimpses in the discussion of Christianity’s largely unsuccessful confrontation with the ancient religions of India).

The book is divided into three “ages”: “Antiquity”, “Christendom”, and “Modernitas”, with the chronological treatment adopted for the chapters forming stepping-stones from one dated episode to another. Each captures the reader’s interest with a close-up of its moment. These have the great strength of high human interest.

The third section on “Modernitas” is perhaps the least successful, because of the degree of compression which it attempts. It begins with 1649 and the rise of dissent. and jumps to 1762 (“Enlightenment”), and then to 1825 to explore mission in India and some encounters with Islam. Then comes 1876 and “Science”, followed by 1916 and the First World War, and 1967 “Love” and the Beatles. Last (2015) comes “Woke”.

It would, of course, be impossible to cover everything over more than two millennia in a single study, and it is easy for a reviewer to focus only on perceived flaws of an ambitious book. But Dominion lacks the conclusion that its opening claim demands, and the final chapter seems to offer only some reproving comments on this and that aspect of lessons to be learned in the temporary fashion of being “woke”. The theme deserves better.

There are good colour plates, notes and a bibliography, mainly of secondary sources.
 

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

 

Dominion: The making of the Western mind
Tom Holland
Little, Brown £25
(978-1-4087-0695-4)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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