Justinian was a successful emperor – compared with others in this century of declining empire. He cut a deal with the Sassanids, Persians pushing at the east, which freed up energy to recover the west: Italy from Ostrogoths, Spain from Visigoths, Africa from Vandals. That’s not a bad record for reversing the decline trend, or as traders call it in our age of stock markets, ‘a bounce in a bear market’.
Justinian is not remembered for his wife, a dancer or ‘courtesan’ 20 years his junior, whom he picked up at a circus performance – but for a legal code, Corpus Juris Civilum, which is a key basis for modern civil law in Europe and in the province of Quebec. He didn’t write it, or anything else – he was a politician, good at administration, more than flighty theories.
Justinian’s attempt to negotiate truces extended to theology, and he backed a proposal called ‘Three Chapters’ to compromise between the Byzantine east and the Roman west in theology. The deal pleased nobody, and embarrassed all of us in terms of intellectual consistency. Theology does not operate according to political or market rules alone.
Justinian was a hiccup in the story - or a stumble in the march, a chirp in the dirge of the ‘decline and fall’, or the ‘barbarian invasions’. They call it the Byzantine restoration. Justinian’s a last gasp of a last Roman, till the Lombards sweep in after him, in the next wave of barbarian ascendancy.
Our denominational hierarchy often reminds me of Justinian’s situation. They can huddle in a bunker of national offices, or try to reclaim lost turf or moral or political capital or control – but even if they succeed they are bucking a trend. They churn out reams of paper, like Justinian’s code, legalistic and largely ineffective, if occasionally elegant.
Similarly, civic liberal proceduralism reminds me of Justinian’s plight. Rawlsian ethics may work for academic or political elites of neo-liberal or neo-conservative folks but they are not as rich as Habermas’ ‘thick’ life world. I have written for over 25 years a mantra that ‘the rules of natural justice’ are ‘neither rules, nor natural, nor just’!
Tactics, charm, or unprincipled alliances all work in the short term, and change the longer term. But ultimately there seem to be movements in history with momentum too big to ‘manage’. We may be living in such an age, just as Justinian and the other heretics of this week and this century did. Supposing that we are already on our way to the dustbin of history, how will be live our day and generation?
What examples do you see, of a ‘bounce in a bear market’ –
Religious revivals of ‘back to the bible’?
If we are the ‘last of the Romans’ – How will we be faithful in our turn?