The Birth of Utopia

It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.

So far I have been interested mainly in recent history. I would now like to take my readers back beyond the twentieth century, beyond even the past five centuries, to the moment when, in my judgment, an event happened that symbolizes a shift away from traditional Christendom to the modern Christendom that would see a decline in Christianity and the rise of a secularized alternative to it. The event symbolized the decline of a civilization directed toward the kingdom of heaven. It symbolized the end of paradise and the birth of utopia.

The event is little known to historians, and scarcely ever mentioned in textbooks. And indeed, it is largely symbolic, pointing to or suggesting a shift that can be seen more concretely in better documented events from the time. But it is worth pausing to consider, especially as it showcases one of the most significant causes for the rise of utopia and the decline of paradise: the departure of the Christendom of the west from the Christendom of the east.

The year was 1342. A monk and theologian named Barlaam of Calabria was returning from the Christian east to the west–from Constantinople to Italy, the land of his upbringing. Barlaam of Calabria by Maurizio CarnevaliFor many years he had distinguished himself in the illustrious Byzantine court, serving as imperial ambassador to the Pope and conducting negotiations to repair the Great Schism of 1054, when the Roman Catholic west and the Orthodox east were decisively separated.

His greatest notoriety, however, had been gained in theological disputes he provoked with the greatest contemporary mind of the Orthodox Church, Gregory Palamas. Barlaam had first mocked and then actually launched a philosophically sophisticated attack on the leading force in contemporary Orthodoxy spiritual life, a movement called hesychasm. Barlaam, who was an Orthodox Christian with western origins, was thoroughly versed in the rationalism of contemporary western scholastic theology. In particular, he applied what is known as nominalism to attack Gregory’s claim that, due to the incarnation, man may, through the sacramental life of the Church, actually know and even immediately experience the “divine energies” of God. This conviction not only lay at the heart of traditional Christian cosmology, it was fundamental in establishing Christendom’s unique experience of the kingdom of heaven in this world. Barlaam, an agnostic before his time, had scoffed at this and claimed that an unbridgeable divide separates man from an ultimately unknowable God. In 1341 his position was condemned by an Orthodox council of bishops in Constantinople, and the hesychastic tradition Gregory Palamas defended was vindicated.

And so Barlaam, humiliated and dismayed, returned to the west where he quickly converted to Roman Catholicsm. Perhaps he had had it with the Christian east and its apparently strict attachment to traditional Christianity. He traveled to Avignon, France, the current home of the Pope. It was here that the event I would like to pause to reflect on took place.

While negotiating his future in the Roman Catholic Church (he would in fact soon be made a bishop and sent to his native Calabria) he bumped into a young and prodigious scholar at the papal court (himself also just passing through). This man’s name was Petrarch, and he would, in future generations, be known as the father of Renaissance humanism.

For his own part, Petrarch had fallen in love with the culture of pagan antiquity. He found in it a relief from what he considered the oppressively gloomy spiritual culture of the late middle ages. His project to revive knowledge of pagan antiquity came to be known as the “rebirth” of classical civilization, or Renaissance. Desperate for knowledge of Greek–the language of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles–the young Petrarch asked the erudite Barlaam to be his tutor. Barlaam obliged.

We know almost nothing about the actual exchange that took place in 1342 between these fascinating and eminent men, one the self-proclaimed opponent of traditional Christianity’s hesychastic legacy and the other the proponent of what would become modern humanism. By most scholarly accounts very little was discussed, as both soon left the papal court and went their independent ways. But the meeting is surely symbolic of what was to come in the history of Christendom.


Gregory Palamas

The cosmology of traditional Christianity, safeguarded in the east by Gregory Palamas’s claim that man can know God immediately in this life, would now begin to falter, first in the Renaissance west and later in the Russian east of Peter the Great and his successors.

In its place would be a cultural project to establish an alternative to paradise, one that found human fulfillment not in communion with a God who is at once transcendent and incarnate, but in this world alone.

If it was not yet the actual birth of utopia, it was surely symbolical of it.



5 thoughts on “The Birth of Utopia

  1. Thank you for the interesting post, Father John. I think it would difficult to overestimate the intrinsic interest of this controversy even apart from its historical consequences. It does seem to me, however, that it would easy, also, to see it in an over-dramatised manner, as if Barlaam were an outsider from the West and faced on the other side some kind of monolithic and internally uniform Orthodox position. There’s a lecture given in Amsterdam by Andrew Louth where he makes the point that Calbria at this time was within the Byzantine sphere of influence. I don’t know what the actual borders of the Empire were at this time, but that much is certainly true. It would seem to be mistaken, therefore, to see him as, so to speak, of the West. Louth also points out that Barlaam defended the omission of the filioque clause on the basis of what Louth characterises as “theological moderation”. Gregory Palamas, he adds, attacked Barlaam, thinking this the wrong basis on which to defend the traditional doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit, but Barlaam’s arguments were, in fact, the standard arguments that Orthodox clerics and theologians tended to invoke in disputes with Westerners. This seems to have been partly because an influential bishop had stated them in a treatise, using (but not acknowledging) Barlaam’s writings on the subject.

    I also think it easy to see “the Renaissance” in an over-dramatised manner. There’s not necessarily any conflict between the recovery of classical learning and a Christian worldview. I think it has often suited later writers with strongly anti-Christian views to project a view in which Antiquity is idealised, the Renaissance (almost reified into an entity–or even perhaps an actor) is lauded, and everything “in between” is derided as the Dark Ages. Interesting to note in passing that Edward Gibbon idealised the Antonines, but the “civilised” Marcus Aurelius is shown on the famous victory column being offered a severed head! (It’s been suggested that it’s an amusing irony that the film Gladiator makes the Germans headhunters, where the Romans had no qualms about putting something like this on a monument, being far more ruthless than we sometimes realise. The death toll for Caesar’s military adventuring in Gaul hardly bears thinking about.) So there has been this tendency to periodise very strongly and to talk up anything a writer chooses to identify as “renaissance”. However, C. S. Lewis suggested a long time ago now, that the more one is actually familiar with the literature–he, of course, was a professor of medieval and renaissance literaure–the more one sees long continuities.

    I think it is also interesting to consider how much of this schema might have been taken from art historians. The art historian Waldemar Januszczak recently told the BBC that he thinks people have been badly misled by Vasari. In truth some of the most interesting developments in art in the early modern period were taking place in Northern Europe not renaissance Italy and were in no way influenced by techniques or models from Antiquity. Januszczak, not himself a Christian by the sound of it, also says that on actually getting up on his feet and going to see renaissance art in Italy–as opposed to taking Vasari’s word on things–he is struck very forcibly by how religiously orientated much of it is. He also points out that the thinking of many of the artists and other figures of the period that we’re invited to see as renaissance heroes is actually saturated with religious and even apocalyptic and superstitious thinking.

    Here’s the link to the interview at the BBC:


    • Michael,

      Thanks very much for these thoughts. They are excellent. I am looking forward to the interview with Fr. Louth. In any case, I also understood Calabria and southern Italy generally to still be in a Byzantine orbit at the time Barlaam was active. I didn’t mention that in the post and it would have made my thoughts clearer if I had. I don’t think of him as a “western” as such, but certainly one who had had contact with the new scholastic developments there, perhaps more so than fellow Orthodox in Constantinople. I know John Meyendorff made quite a lot out of this, though if I am not mistaken no one has confirmed any direct contact with Ockham. And it is good to recall that he actually worked hard to advance an Orthodox view against the Filioque used in the west. I am intrigued also with the reconsideration of the Renaissance as a period. As you may see in the post (and will certainly see in my podcast:, a long view of developments that led to the Renaissance and beyond is something I’d like to achieve as well!


  2. Reblogged this on PARADISE AND UTOPIA and commented:

    Having released volume two in my history of the rise and fall of what the West once was, I have been writing the first chapters of its sequel. Since this blog is designed to share the ideas that go into this next volume (as well as the one that follows), I will be reposting some of my earlier posts in the weeks ahead. The one I am presenting today tells the interesting but little known story of a philosopher named Barlaam and his impact on the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch.


  3. Pingback: Western Christianity is imploding: Now is the time for all good men to make their stand –

  4. Pingback: The Jackson Press – Western Civilization Is Imploding: Now Is The Time For Christians To Make Their Stand

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