So what made it possible for a nation so great in the arena of world history, with such extraordinary capabilities, to so suddenly begin to lose its life force? What is most interesting is that the problems Byzantium met during its period of decline, aggression from foreign nations, natural disasters, economic and political crises, were nothing new for this over a thousand-year-old government with its proven mechanism for getting out of the most difficult situations. After all, the empire had experienced all these things before, and had overcome them.
Yes, there were many envious enemies both east and west, there were earthquakes, there were plagues; but it was not these which crushed Byzantium. All of these problems could have been overcome if only the Byzantines had been able to overcome themselves.
Byzantium's soul, and its meaning of existence, was Orthodoxy — the unspoiled confession of Christianity, in which no dogmas had changed essentially for a thousand years. The West simply could not endure such demonstrative conservatism, called it undynamic, obtuse, and limited; it finally began with grim fanaticism to demand that Byzantium modernize her whole life in the Western image, first of all in the religious, spiritual spheres, and then in intellectual and material spheres. With respect to the uniqueness and particularity of Byzantium, the West, despite its occasional raptures over Byzantine civilization, pronounced the sentence: it must all be destroyed; if necessary, together with Byzantium and her spiritual inheritors.
In Byzantium, after the end of the 13th century, two parties emerged, one called for reliance upon the country's internal strengths, to believe in them unconditionally, and to develop the country's colossal potential. It was prepared to accept Western European experience discriminately, after a serious test of time, but only in those cases where such changes would not touch the fundamental basics of the people's faith and state politics. The other party—pro-Western—whose representatives pointed to the indubitable fact that Europe is developing more rapidly and successfully, began to proclaim more and more loudly that Byzantium has historically exhausted itself as a political, cultural, and religious phenomenon, and to demand a root-level re-working of all state institutions in the image of Western European countries.
Representatives of the pro-Western party, secretly, or more often, openly supported by European governments, held an undoubted victory over the imperial traditionalists. Under their guidance, a series of important reforms took place, including those economic, military, political, and finally, ideological and religious. All of these reforms ended in total collapse, and lead to such spiritual and material destruction in the Empire that it remained absolutely defenseless before its Eastern neighbor—the Turkish Sultanate.
First of all, the pro-Western party began to re-evaluate its fatherland's history, culture, and Faith. However, instead of healthy criticism, they offered only destructive self-abnegation. Everything Western was exulted, and everything of their own was held in contempt. Byzantine history was distorted, faith and tradition were mocked, and the army was degraded. The whole of Byzantium began to be painted as a sort of universal monster.
Attempting to rely on the West's experience, the state became more and more ineffective. Even so, they stubbornly sought salvation in a new imitation of Western examples.
The final and most devastating blow to Byzantium was the ecclesiastical union with Rome. Formally, this was the submission of the Orthodox Church to the Roman Pope for purely practically reasons. One after another aggressive attack from foreign nations forced the country to make the choice: either to rely on God and their own strengths, or to concede their age-long principles upon which their state was founded, and receive in return military and economic aide from the Latin West. And the choice was made. In 1274, Emperor Michael Paleologus decided upon a root concession to the West. For the first time in history, ambassadors from the Byzantine Emperor were sent to Lyon to accept the supremacy of the Pope of Rome.
As it turned out, the advantages the Byzantines received in exchange for their ideological concession were negligible. The pro-Western party's calculations not only were unjustified, they collapsed. The union with Rome did not continue for long. The Grecophile Pope Leo IV, who had drawn Byzantium into the Union out of better intentions, died soon after the Union was concluded, and his successor turned out to be of a completely different spirit: the interests of the Latin West were first on his list. He demanded that Byzantium change completely, that it re-make itself in the image and likeness of the West. When these changes did not happen, the Pope excommunicated his newly-baked spiritual son, Emperor Michael Paleologus, and called Europe to a new crusade against Byzantium. The Orthodox converts to Catholicism were pronounced bad Catholics. The Byzantines were supposed to get the point that the West needed only complete and unconditional religious and political submission. Not only the Pope was to be recognized as infallible, but the West itself as well.
The crisis in state ideology led to total pessimism. Spiritual and moral decline began to take over, along with unbelief, interest in astrology, and the most primitive superstitions. Alcoholism became a true scourge of the male population. A morbid interest in long-forgotten mysteries of the ancient Greeks arose. An intelligentsia fascinated with neo-paganism consciously and cynically destroyed the foundations of Christian Faith in the people. Processes of depopulation and family crises ensued. Out of the 150 Byzantine intellectuals known to us to have lived during the late 14th, early 15th centuries, only twenty-five had families of their own.
This is only a small part of what came to Byzantium due to the decision amongst the elite to sacrifice higher ideals for the sake of practical advantages. The soul collapsed; in a great nation, who had given the world grandiose examples of flights of spirit, now reigned unbridled cynicism and squabbles.
A new Union signed in Florence, in what was now a completely mad hope for help from the West, did not change a thing. For the Byzantines themselves this was a new moral blow of great magnitude. Now, not only the Emperor, but even the Holy Patriarch shared the faith of the Latins.
However, despite various hierarchs' betrayals, the Orthodox Church stood firm. “All were against the Union,” a Byzantine historian relates.
The West's vengeful hatred of Byzantium and her successors is entirely inexplicable to the West itself; it goes to some deep genetic level, and, as paradoxical as this may seem, continues even to the present day. Without an understanding of this amazing but undeniable fact, we risk misunderstanding not only distant history, but even historical events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.