A long excerpt from the outstanding The Uses of the Past, written by Herbert Mueller, but emphasis mine:

Pageantry — the purely decorative — is also a conspicuous quality of Byzantine art. The whole culture of the church-state was hidebound by tradition, and the basic tradition was a formalism that always tended to artificiality. It suffered from its greatest achievements, whose forms became fixed, sacrosanct, and arrested further development. Large provinces of culture were so blighted by the tyranny of conventionalism that there was no healthy development at all. […] During the last renaissance of Byzantine culture, its poets and philologists revived the ‘pure’ Attic dialect, and began revising the ancient texts in this wholly artificial literary language.

Herein is the crowning paradox of the most celebrated contribution of Byzantium — its preservation of Greek culture. According to Toynbee, ‘Orthodox Christian piety’ preserved this heritage. Actually this piety was inimical to Greek humanism, and at times openly hostile. Justinian passed a law forbidding anyone ‘infected with the madness of the unholy Hellenes’ to teach any subject; it was he who closed the schools of Athens, ending their history of eight hundred years. Classical learning never disappeared from Constantinople, to be sure. In time greek became the official language of the empire (though to the end it called itself the ‘Empire of the Romans’). Yet Byzantium never caught the essential Greek spirit — free, curious, critical. Piously it preserved its invaluable heritage, without ever really understanding it or benefiting from it. […]

Altogether, it was an essentially static culture, whose apparent energy was rooted in little apparent moral, intellectual, or spiritual initiative. […]

Still, it managed to carry on for a thousand years after Rome fell. The original question remains: What kept this static civilization going? Why was it preserved by a tradition that failed to preserve Rome? I see no very good reasons, or at least none that illustrate a satisfying philosophy of history. Off-hand, the advantages of the Byzantine Empire seem accidental or incidental. […] One is tempted to believe that it was indeed the Virgin who kept saving the empire, for some unfathomable feminine reason.

What, then, does St. Sophia have to tell us? I should not restrict its meaning to the few implications I have chosen to stress in the drama of fourteen hundred years. I should insist only that there is no one simple meaning, and that we must realize the profound incongruities of the drama if we hope to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. St. Sophia remains an inspiring monument, glorious and vainglorious. It is a symbol of humility and pride, of holiness and worldliness, of the power of faith and the limitations of faith. It is an everlasting triumph, of a society that failed. It may epitomize all the great societies and golden ages of the past, which also failed and still inspire. It calls for reverence, and for irony. […]

Here again St. Sophia gives the clue to a basic ambiguity. Pride goeth before a fall — but first it lifts men to real heights. Without pride the tragic hero would not be a hero; without it there would be no tragedy in history because no civilization at all. and without it there would be no higher religions. It was pride that built St. Sophia. It was still pride that led thousands to pray in St. Sophia in the miserable last days of Byzantium.

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