Thursday, September 21, 2006

Berkeley's Byzantinist on Benedict's Blunder

The Pope claims he was just quoting. But Berkeley's Prof. Maria Mavroudi has very kindly provided us with some historical context and glossed a few of Palaeologus' words:
If we assume that the Pope's use of Manuel's "Dialogue with Persian" is not the result of scholarly incompetence regarding things Byzantine on the part of the Pope's advisors and speech writers, then it is a (mis)reading of the past in light of the present and an example of how one can take a historical source completely out of context and employ it for the purposes of one's own rhetoric.

Manuel II was an intellectual emperor; he left a whole body of work, generally written in highly rhetorical style and classicizing language. The "Dialogue with a Persian" belongs to an established literary genre of Christian-Muslim polemic that came into existence soon after the rise of Islam. The format of the dialogue is supposed to help communicate complicated thoughts in a simple manner. Such polemical disputes between representatives of the two religions were frequent in the 14th century, not only in literary form, as imaginary works of fiction, but also in reality.

The "Dialogue with a Persian" is a Christian's (=Byzantine's) dialogue with a Turk. "Persian" is how Byzantine sources in classicizing language tend to call the Turks, a fact that the Pope's speech neglects to clarify. The "holy war" Manuel discusses in the dialogue is essentially the war (whether holy or unholy) that the Turks waged successfully towards the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, as a result devouring his empire.

As hostage to the Turks, Manuel had been forced to participate on the Turkish side in the siege against Byzantine Philadelphia and witness its fall. He resided in Thessaloniki (the second largest city of the empire at the time) during the time of its siege and capture by the Turks. He spent a few years in Paris trying to secure military aid (trips away from their territories were extremely unusual for Byzantine emperors, therefore this is indicative of Manuel's desperation); at the same time his capital was besieged by Bayezid, and the Ottomans would have taken it, had it not been for Timur Lenk who defeated them in Ankara. Manuel's surviving letters show him a witness to increased Islamization and Turkification in the territories that he continued to lose to the Turks.

Authoring the "Dialogue with the Persian" is also a call to the Christian flock (Manuel's own conquered subjects) not to convert; under the circumstances, the ideological purpose of the "Dialogue" could not have been aggressive, only defensive.

I will let the readers of your blog draw their own conclusions regarding the reasons why the Pope did not clarify the identity of the "Persian" or the "Dialogue's" context and what he was trying to achieve by not doing so.
I for one think it's very important that the Pope's speech be scrutinized. This isn't a learned pope's fleeting pedantic allusion to a learned emperor. It's actually quite a significant clue as to the part the Vatican will play in the coming "debate" on Civilization, which Tony Blair has, in a sense, inaugurated with his polished oratory.


John said...

Thanks Noah, this is definitely an improvement on what I wrote. The context helps flesh things out. I'm sure that the pope was aware of the historical circumstances in which Manuel II wrote his polemic. Are you suggesting, btw, that the Pope's decision to gloss over the historical background (the Muslim Turkish siege of the "gates to Christian Europe") was an act of half-assed self-censorship?

Amos said...

That the Pope would be citing things without explicating their historical context is hardly surprising. You would be hard-pressed to find many religious leaders who do. The question is what exactly his aims were, and I'm not sure whether is Mavroudi is insinuating something in particular, and I want to hear more about what you think he was trying to accomplish.

Anonymous said...

In a very long,articulated,profound,and complex discourse the citation of Manuel II is made in two lines of scripture and everybody seems that they read only those 2 lines.Please, read all the lesson of the pope,and try to understand with open eyes.Thank you

Noah S. said...

I agree with Amosides that a papal speech is not really the place to look for a history lesson, but I also think that Benedict could have avoided this whole brouhaha had he simply distanced himself more explicitly from (or better yet left out) the most offensive aspects of Manuel II's argument against Islam. To condemn holy war is fine and dandy, but to use a quotation that denies the uniqueness and validity of an entire religion without clarifying his own position vis-a-vis Islam was not the smartest of moves.

As I was reading the speech online, I noticed that Benedict did actually try to put his subject in some context: "It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian," he says. So far so good - Benedict sets himself up as a critical reader. But then this:

"Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he [Manuel II] turns to his interlocutor [the Persian] somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words:

'Show me just what Mohammed brought that
was new, and there you will find things only evil
and inhuman, such as his command to spread
by the sword the faith he preached.'

The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."

Benedict's gentle chiding of the emperor for his lack of attention to the "details" of Muslim theology and for his "somewhat brusque" response was obviously insufficient to allay suspicions regarding Benedict's OWN identification with the belief that Islam contributed "only evil and inhuman" things to the world.

To my mind, Benedict's reference to this medieval disputation reflected his dedication to joining reason with faith. However, it also seems like he was using this speech as an opportunity to sneak in a critique of contemporary radical Islam; most observers agree that he has been seeking to position the Vatican in the "war against terror." If that was his intention, then it was not a bad one... but if I were his speech-writer, I would have left out the quotation about "things evil and inhuman," or at least included copious disclaimers.

lex said...

I don't know much about this post. What I do know is SAY HI TO THE MONKEYYY SAY HII TO THE MONEYY
and that Burtt House has fallen