Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Tom Holland. New York: Little, Brown, 2019.
Immediately after Christ’s crucifixion, the Roman soldiers, approaching the condemned thieves beside the Messiah, “brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him”. However. However, ” when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs”. All this so that “that the scripture should be fulfilled”, which says, “A bone of him shall not be broken” (John 19: 32-36). With a wounded but, nevertheless, intact body, Jesus Christ would emerge as the immaculate lamb of God, “which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John’s account echoes over and over throughout Dominion, Tom Holland’s latest book. In this ambitious and multithematic project, Holland seeks to understand what he considers to be the fullest of revolutions, so complete that two thousand years after his birth, it is no longer necessary to believe that “he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable – indeed the inescapable – influence of Christianity”. Armed with his already well-known narrative skills, the British historian uses an almost schizophrenic selection of events to expose this revolution. From St. Anselm to John Lennon, from St. Gregory to Karl Marx, through Tolkien and Friedrich Nietzsche, Dominion is the story of the overwhelming influence of a body that, though injured, was not broken.
The central thesis advanced by Tom Holland is that much of what formed our world was (and is) Christianity. More than that, much of what makes our world good the way we think it is good is the product of Christianity. Principles we now regard as universal – such as equality between men, the separation of church and state, or human rights – are not at all self-evident, as some might think. Rather, they are the product of a very unique but striking civilizational experience that are shared by ” millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian.” “They are all heirs of the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”
It is the advent of the crucifixion that seems to deeply intrigue the British historian. Known to the general public because of works such as Rubicon, Dynasty or Persian Fire, Holland has a broad knowledge of the classical world. However, this knowledge never materializes in familiarity: “The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls, and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.” His values were not those of a Spartan or a Roman, but deeply Christian. At the root of those same values is an event that, because it is so familiar to us, makes us forget its utter strangeness: the crucifixion.
Given his erudition in classical history, Holland is peculiarly apt to recognize this utter strangeness. The idea that a crucified man could be praised as God would seem to any Roman a grotesque obscenity. Only an upside-down world would accept the crucifixion as the ultimate manifestation of the divine. That the report of this torture would become an Euangelion – “Good News” – would never cross the mind of a Roman or a Persian. The idea that Jesus won on the cross is the greatest inversions of all: an instrument of torture became a symbol of love and redemption. The world had really turned upside-down.
As the French anthropologist René Girard would say, the cross is the supreme skandalon, “not because on it divine majesty succumbs to the most inglorious punishment — quite similar things are found in most religions — but because the Gospels are making a much more radical revelation. They are unveiling the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning”. Scandals, for Girard, are permanent conflicting relationships in our lives, if not because of our desire mechanism – what Girard calls “mimetic desire,” according to which some desires do not come from our need for an object, or the object itself, but from the imitation of a model. However, the relationship between subjects and models can provoke feelings of grudge and resentment, escalating into violent action in a context of revenge, as both desire and dispute the same objects. Subject-model rivalry can lead to extremes of mimetic violence that can infect entire groups to widespread violence. Within human groups and cultures, there is a violent potential that must be contained and controlled through the sacrifice of an innocent victim: a scapegoat – a pattern that Girard will find in the most diverse human cultures. The notion of scandal is important to understand the mediation between individual violence and collective violence. Girard believes that the Gospels unveil this mediation, revealing the cycle of mimetic violence. The decision to crucify Jesus was first of all the decision of a multitude soaked in the mimetic conflict, only later accepted by Pontius Pilate. Jesus had become a scapegoat; but in this process the Messiah revealed the very mechanism of scapegoating. In the Gospels, the mobility of scandals, their tendency to unite around a common victim, was narrated from the point of view of the victim, not from the point of view of the perpetrators. It is this representation, of “victimization from the standpoint of the victim and it is this representation which is responsible, ultimately, for our own superior sensibility to violence.” When we condemn, for example, violence in the Old Testament, “it is for biblical reasons, paradoxically, that we criticize the Bible.”
This girardian insight seems to be understood, at least tacitly, by Holland (although some quotations to Girard in his Twitter profile make me believe that the influence of the French anthropologist on his work goes beyond mere tacit knowledge). It is precisely by understanding this unique mechanism of victim exposure that Christianity differs so much from the cultures previously studied by the British historian. Hence Holland’s difficulty in identifying with the values of Leonidas or Caesar. This girardian insight is brilliantly condensed when, in commenting on the communist and Nazi tragedies that plagued the twentieth century, Holland writes in a tragicomic tone: “The measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise”. An atrocity that (literally) violates the idea that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3:28) is far more repulsive to us than an atrocity where “a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23).
The supreme inversion symbolized on the cross is the key to understanding Holland’s book and why the influence of Christianity is so enduring. The Enlightenment itself, for example, with all its anticlericism, could only have arisen in a Christian world. Voltaire’s “dream of a brotherhood of man” finds echoes in St. Paul, who had proclaimed that ” ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. The very liberation of mankind was an idea shared by both the philosophes and Christian missionaries who had been “counting down the hours to an upheaval in the affairs of the earth” that would “redeem humanity from darkness”.
The great merit of Holland’s grand narrative approach is its ability to recognize patterns. Given the preceding chapters, the reader can see how deeply indebted to Christianity certain later episodes are. By the time he reaches the sans-culottes in the French Revolution, the reader already knows that “They were certainly not the first to call for the poor to inherit the earth. So too had the radicals among the Pelagians, who had dreamed of a world in which every man and woman would be equal; so too had the Taborites, who had built a town on communist principles, and mockingly crowned the corpse of a king with straw; so too had the Diggers, who had denounced property as an offence against God”. The idea of fundamental solidarity with the poor and the hungry, the powerless and the oppressed was almost two thousand years old when Karl Marx was born. Indeed, on the Cross, Jesus assumed the very nature of a slave, of the poorest and most persecuted: of the victims. Holland’s point is that even events such as Soviet Communism or the French Revolution depend on Christian historical, civilizational, and moral experience (and in that respect they can be considered Christians), even if they imagine themselves to be perfectly antagonistic to that experience. In a psychological sharpness that reappears throughout the book, Holland notes that “for a self-professed materialist,” 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”.
The Christian revolution was so successful that even criticizing or opposing Christianity would have to resort to its tools. Some of the most anti-Christian, or even openly atheistic, figures from Voltaire to Marx were philosophically dependent on both the position they attacked and, on some objections, and criticisms already formulated by the Christians themselves. According to Holland, the idea that the Bible was full of contradictions, for example, is not an 18th or 19th century invention. In fact, “all had been honed, over the course of two centuries and more, by pious Christians”. Some of the ideas that we think are the fruit of modern secularism have been sprouted in Christian universities or, as in the case of the Salamanca School, fully developed in them. In fact, the very separation between the secular sphere and the religious sphere, according to Holland, goes back to the 11th century reformatio, Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Men or to the scriptures themselves (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”). Although Martin Luther denounced the legacy of Gregory VII, the author of the 11th century reformatio, one of the results of the 16th century reformation was, as Holland tells us, “not to dissolve the great division between the realms of the profane and the sacred that had characterised Christendom since the age of Gregory VII, but to entrench it.”
However, this does not mean that Holland tries to whiten the history of Christianity from all its atrocities. In fact, they are recurrently narrated. The principle of “giving the devil his due” is not forgotten. Holland even notes that anti-Christian movements such as Nazism were motivated by millenarist-apocalyptic impulses (universalists and utopians) that drank from the Christian tradition: “The dream of a new order planted on the ruins of the old; of a reign of the saints that would last for a thousand years; of a day of judgement, when the unjust would be sorted from the just, and condemned to a lake of fire: this, from the earliest days of the Church, had always haunted the imaginings of the faithful”.
Indeed, the very message of universality and equality of all men before the eyes of God has brought with it a new and peculiar evil: an attack (more or less veiled, according to the times) on other faiths. But clearly the problem of “a Church that proclaimed itself universal had, it seemed, no response to those who rejected it, save persecution” was inexistent. Victimary violence may have been, following Girard, denounced on the Cross, but this does not mean that with the advent of Christianity it was expunged from the world.
The universal moral imperative found its expression in the imperative to convert others to Christianity. This was the case of either the Spanish and the Portuguese in the New World or the Teutonic Knights in Eastern Europe. Indeed, this pattern is reborn in the Iraq war, for example, in the idea that Western values were truly universal and therefore universally applicable.
However, and this is a very important point of the book, Holland reminds us that it was the Christian bishops and theologians who opposed the enslavement of indigenous peoples in Latin America, and Aristotle who was invoked to defend it. From Bartolomeu de Las Casas to Benjamin Lay, criticism of Christian behavior was born in the very supper of Christianity. It was Christianity itself that set the high standards by which it should be judged.
Dominion is a book that responds, at the same time, to the idea of the great historian Edward Gibbon (who seduced Holland in his youth) that the triumph of Christianity meant the birth of an “era of superstition and credulity” and, on the other hand, to the rationalist-scientificist thesis that has as its most recent representative Steven Pinker and his book Enlightenment Now. Gibbon’s view that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment represented a revolt of reason against the millennium of Christian darkness has, as Holland notes, origins in the Enlightenment itself. In considering themselves to be representatives of a new age, a rebirth of a glorious past, Enlightenment thinkers did not hesitate to name the thousand years that separated them from that past medievo – that which is in the middle. This idea of a modernity that arises from a kind of spontaneous generation can also be found in Pinker. The main message of Enlightenment Now is that the Enlightenment has produced all the progress of the modern age and none of its crimes. In fact, these same crimes are merely the fruit of archaic thinking, typical of medieval Christians, who owe nothing to Enlightenment reason and freedom – they are the product of Counter-Enlightenment, an amorphous entity that, in Pinker, seems to be like a sack where everything that you do not like can be thrown. Holland would say that it was actually Christian ideas (which Pinker dismisses) that tempered the most destructive impulses of the Enlightenment. Contrary to what many scientificists think, science cannot dictate human values. Moreover, much of the values Pinker thinks arose in the eighteenth century go back to crucifixion and Christian civilizational experience. After all, what prevents us from applying the law of survival of the fittest to society? Nietzsche’s contempt for the weak gained scientific status with the advent of social Darwinism. That Lenin or Mao killed millions in the name of an Enlightenment and Society scientist project does not seem to fit Pinker’s narrative. Holland acknowledges that Christian love was accompanied by the Inquisition. Pinker is unable to recognize that the Enlightenment project was accompanied by millions of deaths. Interestingly, the values by which Pinker judges what he considers to be Counter-Enlightenment are, Holland would say, imminently Christian. The equality of men, the protection of the victims, the separation of church and state, or human rights has neither its foundation in science nor its emergence from a civilizational vacuum that was filled by the Enlightenment. According to Holland, events such as the American Revolution – which Pinker admires – “illustrated a truth pregnant with implications for the future: that the surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity”.
It is noteworthy that Holland’s thesis, although it may seem at first glance, does not state everything and its opposite being, therefore, irrefutable. In saying that even the fiercest critics of Christianity depend on values, ideas, and even non-neutral terminology, Holland does not deny the possibility of effectively attacking the core of Christian thought after the crucifixion. This is the case of both Marques de Sade and Nietzsche.
In Sade, God is a scam. There is only Nature, and it is raw and bloody. In it the weak exist to be enslaved and exploited by the strong. As his sadistic sexual tastes demonstrated: there is no law in the arena. “There is no God, Nature sufficeth unto herself; in no wise hath she need of an author”. Sade’s paganism denied the very essence of Christian thought: concern for the victims. “He is a doctrine of loving one’s neighbors is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature”. And nature knows only the language of power. Slavery itself did not bother Sade. Slave owners seemed to him to be the few of his time who could compare with the ancients. Sade understands the consequences of a world where crucifixion never happened and embraces them.
In a way, so does Nietzsche. But unlike Sade, the German thinker seems, in his own way, to enchant Holland. This is because Nietzsche also fully understood the implications of crucifixion. It is against them that the philosopher battles. Nietzsche understands Christian inversion and intends to reverse it: “What is more harmful than any vice? —Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity.” Holland himself shared in his Twitter profile a phrase by René Girard according to which Nietzsche is the “greatest theologian of modern times”. If he is so, it is by understanding the enormous depth of the Cross. To reject God altogether is to reject the crucifixion and thereby its implications of equality or the intrinsic value of all men. But Nietzsche, like Holland himself, knows that we “swim in Christian waters.” That is why abandoning God requires an effort that goes beyond the mere human (Ubermensch), quasi-divine. An effort that is, we must not forget, bloody:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?
Tom Holland still seems to believe in the power of the cross. Even though God is dead, His shadow is everywhere. The standards by which we are guided are still, in his view, fundamentally Christian, and “even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change”. We remain the product of a body that, though injured, was not broken.
 Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. London: Little, Brown, 2019, pg. XXV.
 Ibid, pg.525.
 Ibid, pg. XVIII
 Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford University Press, 1987, pg. 429
 Girard, René. Violence in Biblical Narrative, Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1999.
 Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. London: Little, Brown, 2019, pg. 524
 Ibid, pg. 379
 Ibid, pg. 382
 Ibid, pg. 342
 Ibid, pg. 376
 Ibid, pg. 308
 Ibid, pg. 454
 Ibid, pg. 385
 Ibid, pg. 391
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus spoke Zarathustra, Section 125
 Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. London: Little, Brown, 2019, pg. 525