Tom Holland on History, Christianity, and the Value of the Countryside | Conversations with Tyler
Historian Tom Holland explores the profound influence of Christianity on Western liberalism, the revolutionary tradition sparked by the Book of Revelation, and the political differences between Paul and Jesus.
He also discusses America’s pro-technology stance compared to Europe, his admiration for Herodotus, and the fascinating history of the Persian Empire.
Admiration for Herodotus
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, is admired for his ability to see the world through different perspectives.
His attempt to portray the Persians as they see themselves has influenced Holland’s understanding of the world and the privilege of being alive in the modern world with access to vast sources of information.
Understanding the Persian Empire
Our understanding of the Persian Empire has been largely mediated through the Bible and Greek historians.
However, recent decades have seen scholars pooling every conceivable source of information, including Persian inscriptions and archaeology, leading to a better understanding of the Persian Empire than anyone has had since its collapse.
Influence of the Persian Empire on the West
The West is as much an heir of the Persian kings as it is of the Athenians.
The idea that power can be moralized, which was a key aspect of the Persian Empire, has passed into the present and continues to influence Western societies.
Reluctance to Push Technology
Roman elites showed a reluctance to push technology too far.
Inventions like unbreakable glass and labor-saving cranes were rejected due to fears of their impact on traditional industries and employment.
This suspicion of technology as being the enemy of keeping the lower orders busy is articulated in these stories.
The Complexity of the Bible
The Bible is an accumulation of texts, often with two versions of stories stitched together.
This is particularly true for the first five books of the Bible, which are foundational for Jews and Christians.
These books were the most rewritten and contested, reflecting the importance and reverence attached to them.
The Philosophical Tradition of the Persians
The philosophical tradition of the Persians, which was highly influential and eventually institutionalized as Zoroastrianism, was essentially dualist, dividing the world between rival spheres of Good and Evil, light and dark, truth and the lie.
This moralization of power has been hugely influential, passing into the bloodstream of Zoroastrianism, the Christian Empire of Constantine, the Muslim caliphate, and into the present.
We in the west have the conceit that we are The Heirs of Athens but we are at least as much The Heirs of the Persian kings as we are of of of the Athenians and that idea that um that power can be moralized is you know it passes into the bloodstream not just of Zoroastrianism and the zoroastrian the Zoroastrianism of the sasanian Empire but the Christian Empire of Constantine um the Muslim caliphate and has absolutely passed into the present. – Tom Holland
The hugely interesting question is is basically um not how advanced were say the Greeks or the Romans but why why did they not industrialize um so moving on from the Greeks of the Persians and looking at the Roman Empire in the second Century A.D um this was an incredibly economically Advanced Society um it it was it had a vast internal Market um it was starting to create it was starting to recognize that the um the scale of the market enable people to become richer and richer. – Tom Holland
The Influence of Christianity on Holland’s Work
Holland’s work is influenced by his upbringing in the Church of England and his fascination with Lord Byron.
His mother’s elder brother, who had a profound influence on him, was not a churchgoer and introduced him to the world of Lord Byron.
This exposure to Byron’s world of swagger and glamour, combined with his church upbringing, shaped Holland’s perspective on history and the supernatural.
The Lack of Industrialization in Ancient Civilizations
Despite their advancements, ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Persians did not industrialize.
The Roman Empire in the second Century A.D, which was economically advanced, showed a nervousness about allowing technology to go too far.
This reluctance to push technology too far articulates a suspicion of technology as being the enemy of keeping the lower orders busy.