Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

Costica Bradatan:

Do you know what happened in Lyon in AD 177? Or in Milan in 1300? Or in Baroda in 1825? You probably don’t, but you shouldn’t worry: few do. Whatever happened, it was, by ordinary standards, something quite humble. In Dominion, Tom Holland explores such happenings for precisely that reason. Yet in his telling, the humbleness disguises something more consequential. For all their seeming insignificance, these events – the persecution of Christians in Lyon, a case of heresy in Milan, an instance of suttee in Baroda – proved to be shapers of things to come. In the great scheme of history, they put grander happenings to shame. Holland uses such events (twenty-one in all, one for each chapter) as entry points into the complex narrative of his book, which examines the role of Christianity in shaping the Western mind.

This device reveals one of this book’s finest accomplishments. What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holland’s an all-absorbing story. He did something similar in his earlier books Rubicon, Persian Fire, Dynasty, Millennium. But whereas those works were primarily about events, people and movements, which lend themselves naturally to storytelling, Dominion is concerned with things that normally resist simple narration: philosophical ideas and religious doctrines, theological controversies and intellectual debates, the dissemination and transformation of beliefs. It takes a master storyteller to translate the development of a philosophical notion into a captivating story, and Holland proves to be one.

An expert on the classical world, Holland has a good sense of the fundamental historicity that structures and shapes his subject matter. For all their commonly shared ‘human nature’, people do change in space and time, and it would be wrong to judge behaviour in the ancient past by 21st-century norms. And yet Holland can recognise a meaningful historical connection when he sees one: ‘For a self-professed materialist,’ he writes, Karl Marx was ‘oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil’. He also has a keen feeling for human psychology. Like Abelard, he notes at one point, Luther was ‘a theologian whose capacity for daring speculation was combined with a quite exceptional talent for self-publicity’. In general, Holland has a knack for making the most of the sheer ludicrousness of the human material he is working with. To give one example, in his assessment, Galileo ‘was no Luther’. The astronomer was a compromiser, a self-aggrandiser and, ultimately, a very worldly man. His ‘instincts were those of a social climber, not a rebel’. It takes a gifted writer to detect dark spots like these from such distance.