Ideology and Philosophy in Byzantium: The Meanings of Ideology before Modern Times

By Chitoiu, Dan | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Ideology and Philosophy in Byzantium: The Meanings of Ideology before Modern Times


Chitoiu, Dan, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


This work explores the paradigms which generated the state ideology before the modern times in the only case in which the genuine existence of it can be proven: the Byzantine State. Byzantium is the only pre-modern society that has fulfilled the criteria which define the existence of a state that has, among others, a vast bureaucratic mechanism, propaganda instruments and an ideology. This study targets, in particular, the meanings received by the ideological in the Byzantine horizon, the connotations which the high official or the common people had when being the subject for the ideological message. These connotations cannot be understood if we do not take into account the meaning and use which philosophy had in the Byzantine cultural model, a different sense and use from what modernity accredited as philosophy.

Key Words:

Ideology, Hierarchy, Propaganda, Philosophy, Cultural Model, Byzantium.

Ideology before the modern times: arguments

Enunciating a title like the one of the present study could seem quite hazardous considering that the term "ideology" and its connections to philosophic grounds appear to refer only to the horizon and the concerns of modernity. Both terms, "ideology" and "philosophy", received a different approach from what we understand now and this is why an analysis of such perspective regarding the Byzantine cultural paradigm is not forthcoming. The usage of the term ideology is associated with the changes of mentality that accompanied the French Revolution. Destutt de Tracy saw ideology as "a science of ideas", the sources of this vision being Locke's and Condillac's philosophical doctrines. Tracy affirmed that the entire knowledge is knowledge of ideas. In time, the term receives a more specialized and limited usage, so that Britannica defines ideology as a type of theory with practical intention or any attempt to make politics in the light of a system of ideas, with reticence upon the existence of difficulties in the clear definition of the sense. Today the term receives a double connotation: a positive one and one that refers to the negativity of the experiments and social manipulations of the XXth century. The totalitarian experiments and the collective manipulations brought a reaction regarding everything that refers to ideology and a certain adversity towards this term. However, by ideology we must understand more than the totalitarian social experiment. Certainly the evolutions of the society and also of the cultural paradigm in the modern times cannot be explained without identifying the active role that ideologies had. Typical of one which regarded the applications of certain social theories. But could we talk about this kind of attitude before the modern times? If the answer is yes than it is certainly the case of the Byzantine state. For the beginning, it seems too daring to talk about a State, in the full meaning of the word, before modernism. As McCormick said, the term "state" seems almost a historic anomaly in the medieval world. Nevertheless, Byzantium - the only one in the Christian Middle Ages - knew how to maintain a political system based on an institutional class of professional employees which was to define the structure and the final feature of the Byzantine aristocracy by the XIIth century1.

The Byzantine cultural and social paradigm registers the encounter of some decisive elements in the delineation of the possibility of the effective existence of an ideology before the modern times: we are talking about the inheritance of the Greek classicism, the Roman law and the Christian spiritual horizon. The claim of the Byzantine culture from the Greek classicism was present everywhere. Philosophy, as an essential aspect of the Greek cultural inheritance, has as a characteristic note the conceptual usage of words. This manner of using the language implies trust in the capacity of reason to find out the truth with intrinsic instruments, this dimension being essential for the existence of a "science of ideas", of an ideology.

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