The Revolution of the Stupid

History, said Ortega, is amusing, unlike Nature, which, mere repetition of itself, is boring. But historical amusement also includes tragedy. At this moment, apart from the fact that everything is degenerating to begin again, according to the law of anakyklosis described by Polybius, and the games with which the capricious goddess Fortuna entertains Clio, what is amusing now are the idiotic simplifiers, who remind us of the schreckliche Simplifikateure (horrible simplifiers)—Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.—whom Jacob Burckhardt saw coming and who “enlived” the 20th century. The new simplifiers, whose destructiveness does not even have any collective purpose, except rhetorically, are legion. They are people who were born stupid, attained the state of stupidity, or stupidity was thrust upon them. As Paul Tabori’s (1908-1974) tell us in his book, The Natural History of Stupidity [published in 1959 as The Natural Science of Stupidity, and then in 1993 as, The Natural History of Stupidity]: “Stupidity is Man’s deadliest weapon, his most devastating epidemic, his costliest luxury.”

Stupidity is also an important historical factor, sometimes the decisive one. But, like boredom and weariness, it has scarcely been studied as a cliopolitical category—perhaps because, as Napoleon is said to have said, surely thinking of his adversaries and enemies, “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” The revolution inspired by stupidity has distorted Karl Popper’s dream of an open society. To begin with, after the implosion of the USSR, stupidity confirmed the possibility of the end of history, naively diagnosed by Francis Fukuyama as the triumph of liberal democracy. In reality, it was what is generically called “social democracy,” disguised as liberalism in which reigns the “market of desire” of the “libertarian liberalism” of May 1968, denounced by the Marxist Michel Clouscard. The result is that many people today share the feeling that ill fare the lands of the West. It is already a cliché that the future of a demoralized Europe, given over to carpe diem, is dark and gloomy rather than disturbing. It is enough to bring to mind the moral and spiritual desertification and the plummeting birth rate, instigated by stupid governments, which will marginalize Europe from history.

[See Guillermo Mas Arellano, “Destruir la civilización: tres pensadores franceses” (“Destroying Civilization: Three French Thinkers”). In the press, it is becoming common to find allusions and articles about the stupidity or nonsense of politicians].

The stupid are narcissistic to a greater or lesser degree, and politics attracts narcissists like a honeycomb of rich honey attracts flies. But not enough attention is paid to their influence on politics and, therefore, on history. Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire and Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” In other words, men make history without knowing what they are doing. The result depends on circumstances, on the protagonists and, fifty percent according to Machiavelli, seventy-five percent according to Frederick the Great, on chance. To say that one is on the right side or with the correct course of history is, then, stupidity (from stupidus, “dazed”), a concept that reduces the DRAE [Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language] to “remarkable clumsiness in understanding things.”

The present time is much more revolutionary than that of the Great French and Soviet Revolutions with the decisive interlude of the revolution of the intellectuals of 1848.

[Olavo de Carvalho: “the really decisive power is, in the long run, that of a priestly or intellectual order.” Once the intellectuals—Auguste Comte’s savants—became the ruling class, they began to spread more or less utopian ideas—beliefs, which ended up becoming ideas—beliefs that dissolved the European tradition of politics and led to totalitarianism: secularism, atheism, radical individualism, Freemasonry, nationalism, statism, interventionism, collectivism, socialism, communism, anarchism, racism, nihilism, etc.].

The present time is so abnormal that it has become normal to speak of the beginning of the reign of the Antichrist—the earthly Jerusalem—of the Apocalypse, of the Great Tribulation, or simply of the end of the world. Contributing recently to the spread of these prognoses are the real or supposed pandemic-business of the coronavirus and the scientistic myth of climate change in which even the singular Jesuit Pope Francis believes, “fascinated,” says Chantal Delsol, “by ecologist religion and post-Christian humanitarianism.”

Douglas Murray begins his widely read book, The Madness of Crowds [the Spanish translation of which bears the subtitle, How identity politics drove the world to madness]., with the phrase “we are going through a great crowd derangement.” Some brief annotations, comments and examples on the nature and importance of stupidity may be worthwhile, simply to draw attention to this possible cliopolitical category, which helps to understand, for example, that of misgovernment, both of which are nowadays practically normalized.

Polybius (200-118 B.C.) judiciously warned against attributing to divine intervention, events whose causes can be discovered to explain their origin and end. It is, therefore, pertinent to relate the existing confusion with the fact that societies that consider themselves “liberal” democratic are beginning to be, or are already, ochlocratic plutocracies, spiritually governed by Stupidita, a little known but very active ancient divinity, to whom Jean Paul Richter (1763-1825) dedicated a valuable essay-homage

[The god of stupidity and insanity in Greece was Κοαλεμος (Coalemos in Latin), of whom little data is known and whose etymology is disputed].

Hans Blumenberg pointed out the craving for novelty as a distinctive feature of Modernity and according to Jacques Barzun, “the new is always the best” is its guiding principle. Parodying Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s mentor, ex novo lux: the critique of customs, usages, the historical past, religious, moral, aesthetic and political traditions by the subjectivist metaphysics of modern rationalism (Heidegger), and the slogan of the French Jacobins who legally proclaimed “1789” the “Year Zero” of the new history of man freed from all the past—prepared the reign of Stupidity. “The vulgar progressivism that considers everything past as essential barbarism” (Ortega).

The cult of their own identity is a defining feature of the narcissism of the stupid. The admirers of themselves (the greatest vice of all is the vice of oneself, said C. S. Lewis—the “identity” politics of fashionable multiculturalism—”all the brains in the world are powerless against whatever stupidity is in fashion” [La Fontaine, 1621-1695])—confuse differences with “diversity.” Combined with the collectivization of idiocy—which makes the most idiotic idiots feel intelligent—it may be the best explanation of what has been called the suicide of Western civilization by auto-narcissism. What Oliver Cromwell said could be applied to progressive politicians—the majority: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.” But, if Richter is to be believed, the triumph of Stupidity could be “the long-sought universal remedy against all maladies”—a search intensified by intellectuals won over by the ideological mode of thought that has been competing with traditional religion since the Great Revolution.

Stupidity is highly contagious. Boileau used to say: “an imbecile always finds another imbecile who admires him.” Hence the mass of optimists—”optimism is the opium of the people” (Milan Kundera)—are prone to think that universal stupidity is the normal state of humanity, and the pessimists, better informed people, maintain that human stupidity is a mathematical constant.

Flaubert, author of the unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, concerned about the presence of stupid people everywhere, concluded, in the manner of Carl Schmitt, that “stupidity is the enemy“—a fact often overlooked by historians, without realizing that history is also, in a way, Koalemos’ fight against common sense. Which, fortunately, as Unamuno warned, was already the least common of senses in his time.

[Flaubert captured early on the essence of political correctness: they are “imbeciles, he said, those who do not think as you do”].

At present, everyone is intently media-watching, whether with censorship, self-censorship or even without censorship, which reveals, in their eagerness to appear transgressive, that Koalemos vincit. That is to say, they corroborate, in the words of Quevedo, that “all those who seem stupid, are stupid; and, moreover, so are half of those who do not seem so”—as it should be in advanced democracy, of which so much is said without knowing what it actually consists of.

The general cause is, as Lucien Jerphagnon recalled in his important book, La… sottise? Vingt-huit siècles qu’on en parle (Stupidity…? Twenty-eight centuries of talking about it), and the one pointed out by St. Augustine—stupidity is a consequence of Adam’s sin, and since man is a sinner, the stupid are the majority. This raises the dilemma of whether stupidity is democratic or that democracy itself is stupid. But given the truth that democracy is the realm of opinion, it can be inferred, for example, that it is the messianic export, urbi et orbi, from North America of the democracy prophesied by John Dewey as the religion of progress—the greatest revolution of all times, since it entails the universal reign of Koalemos, a reign in which the normal, common sense, is condemned, and what was once considered abnormal is innovative and transgressive and is thus praised as correct.

[“If stupidity did not look so much like progress, talent, hope, or improvement, no one would want to be stupid,” said Robert Musil, in “Über die Dummheit,” “On Stupidity” (1937)].

Those who are not on the right side of history, fortunately less and less, protest because the persecution of the sane, the normal, the usual is enforced, and the abnormal imposed, without understanding that it is what, finally, Koalemos gratias, should be normal.

The greatest danger of stupidity consists in politicis, in that it is not incompatible with being “cunning.” For “the probability that a given person is stupid,” judiciously writes Carlo M. Cipolla, “is independent of any other characteristic of the same person.” The stupid can be intelligent and “there are stupid men who possess vast knowledge,” said Tabori. A very serious problem, if Jean-Baptiste Molière was right, for whom “people are never so close to stupidity as when they think they are wise.” In this case, as “every form of intelligence has its form of stupidity” (Robert Musil), if the intelligent person thinks he is wise, he tends to detach himself from the reality in which he lives and to live in unreality. For example, inventing an ideology or ascribing to one, generally, if possible, democratic, as the socialist one claims to be, since every ideology has a utopian objective. This is what Julien Benda called “the treason of the intellectuals,” the modern clerics, who exchange the religious faith of the priests for faith in the uncertain. Today they usually officiate as organic intellectual priests dedicated to fostering collective stupidity.

[Charles de Gaulle said: “You can be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupid things they can think of, as well as some that are beyond imagination.” This is the case of President Biden and his cohort of cretinous leftists. The Mathematical Association of America has declared mathematics to be racist].

The stupid, said Jerphagnon, completing Flaubert’s observation, are those who ignore their own condition and consider stupid those who say or do something that does not please them, “so they are a very large family.” He recalls Plato’s confession to Simonides in the Protagoras, St. Augustine’s acknowledgment that the absolute majority of men—and women—are imbeciles, fools and idiots, and Descartes’ assertion that “we rarely have occasion to deal with completely reasonable people.” In short, “throughout history there have been people, and not exactly insignificant ones, who have denounced stupidity; it is possible to smell it everywhere and it floats in the atmosphere of all times,” with which Jerphagnon concluded his interesting inquiry.

It is necessary to distinguish, however, the normal stupidity of ordinary life, in which we all do stupid things, from the much more serious stupidity of the elites as such. The first, generally harmless, is like the sauce of life. It is a literary and theatrical theme—comedy as a specific genre—elevated to the rank of art by the cinema with Chaplin, Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel (“the Fat and the Skinny”), the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, etc. The second, that of the ruling classes, is on the other hand very dangerous; especially when it affects like a plague the strata of politicians and intellectuals. Then it is revolutionary—it operates as a highly contagious and destructive disease, capable of annihilating peoples suffering from stupid governments, especially if they are trapped in the forma mentis of ideology, which justifies and empowers the will-to-power of the stupid, tendentially narcissistic. Ideology is a partial truth that is presented politically as universal (Antonio García-Trevijano), with the utopian pretension of definitively reconciling with itself the human species, a group, even individuals, anxious to change their social position. As Gómez Dávila wrote in a short extract: “Ideas tyrannize those who have few;” and ideology fanatically guides those who achieve power with the support of the mass of fools who believe others who are less foolish. With the not infrequent collaboration of businessmen who take advantage of the stupidity of others. Ortega’s man-mass is the normal individual, sick with stupidity, led by the most astute.

[Richter: “Those who have most favored and nurtured the Stupidity of the people are those who have profited the most”].

The big problem is when the stupid rule, a revolutionary inversion of natural hierarchies. “The fool will be servant to the wise” (Proverbs 11:29). The inversion of the hierarchical order in public life is the reason why collective stupidity is today an expanding phenomenon, described as infantilization by those concerned with the spread and intensity of the phenomenon in everyday life.

John Paul II recognized that “stupidity is also a gift of God, but we must not misuse it.” A frequent motive is vanity, which often deviates or obscures intelligence. Then, the intelligent person aspires to be what he is not and acts stupidly, because “pride is a fairy that satisfies all the desires of the idiot” (Jean Paul Richter), a creature who always wants to be satisfied with himself. And since vanity, as Hobbes observed, is a frequent affliction of the politician, today we can speak of the predominance of the “idiot genus” because of the large number of politicians, required by bureaucratization in the statist governments, supported by the mass of the stupid. Moreover, idiots prefer the company of idiots. Karl Kraus used to say, “the secret of the demagogue consists in making himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as intelligent as he is.” That is why it does not matter to the professionals of politics, political careerists of the demagogy that is presented as democracy, to promote manipulable fools, or to make themselves look like idiots in order to attract fools and increase their entourage with fools; and with clever people who pass themselves off as fools.

In addition, there is what Wilfredo Pareto said: in every political order, there is always a political, cultural and economic elite. And since the idiot is also his own best friend—stupidity with political and cultural power—today the media, is very profitable for economic oligarchies, especially if it is coupled with a lack of scruples and emotional appeals to humanitarianism. Well, humanitarianism justifies, for example, that the Herodian rulers and the innumerable idiots that inhabit the earth consider abortion progressive, the greatest, by far, of the genocides—it is usually already the first cause of mortality in many “advanced” countries—and euthanasia, another even more humanitarian genocide underway, which only benefits businessmen.

[Added to abortion as a contraceptive resource is the “need” to exterminate before birth those that Álex Navajas calls, “the climate killers,” because as the population increases, the damage to Mother Earth increases].

Carl Schmitt used to say about humanitarianism: Wer Menscheit sagt, will betrügen, he who appeals to humanity wants to deceive. The decadence of Europe, victim of the humanitarianism described by Robert Hugh Benson in 1907, in the apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, is often compared to that of the Western Roman Empire.

[It is curious that Pope Francis recommends this book from 1907, critical of Comte’s religion of humanity, a religion of sentiment. For example, the hymn of the Masons (“The Lord that dwells in earth and sea”) combines feelings and emotions that exalt humanitarianism, a secularization or politicization of Christian charity].

Various causes are adduced. Philippe Fabry argues, incorporating the interpretation of Mikhail Rostovtzeff to that of Montesquieu, that the main cause was the loss of freedom. Hanlon’s well-known principle or law—”one should not attribute to wickedness what is almost always the consequence of stupidity”—completes the explanation. But there is no shortage of evil idiots.

[Ricardo Moreno Castillo rightly adds that stupidity is more harmful: “Stupidity is more harmful than evil because it is easier to fight against the second (because it acts with a certain logic), than against the first (which lacks it ). You can talk to an evil person and even convince him that he could be much happier becoming a good person. A stupid person, on the other hand, is invulnerable to reasoning. If we could suppress the evil in the world it would be a little better. But if we could suppress stupidity, the world would be so much better” (Introduction, p.18).].

Historical experience teaches that men become stupid when their civilizations decay. Ortega recalled this precisely with regard to the Roman Empire. But it is doubtful whether it was stupidity, mainly that of the ruling oligarchies converted into decadent castes, that caused freedom to decay; or whether, on the contrary, it was the decadence of freedom that caused the intensification of collective stupidity. Probably both. What is certain is that the decadence and disappearance of cultures and civilizations owes much to stupidity.

It is written in Ecclesiastes (1:15): stultorum infinitus est numerus (as to fools, infinite is the number), a disputed translation of the Vulgate of St. Jerome, which coincides, however, with the phrase of the pagan Cicero in the Epistola ad familiares (9. 22. 4): stultorum plena sunt omnia, “all things are full of fools.” Assertions corroborated by Albert Einstein: “there are two infinite things: the Universe and human imbecility, but I doubt the former.” The intensity of politicization, driven by ideologization, unconscious or conscious promoter of stupidity as an interpreter of faith in Koalemos, proves it at this moment. Since religions are the key to cultures—a word related to cult—and civilizations, it is obvious that idiocy is incompatible with them and it is necessary to destroy them so that the god of stupidity may prevail. The religious founders, knowing what Ecclesiastes, Cicero, other sages and common sense said, wanted to improve the human condition. It is not strange that the psychiatrist, a lay substitute for the confessor, has become the family doctor, as faith in the biblical God migrated to the State and the market, as the American theologian William T. Cavanaugh says.

The politicization—”even the personal is political”—which substitutes religion for politics, affects first and foremost the ruling classes. The dumbing down by “the antiquarians of ideology” (G. Morán) and the maternal humanitarianism of feminist bio-ideologies (women are the most oppressed class according to Marxist-Leninist neo-faith) is beginning to be as evident as the influence of propaganda (no less humanitarianist, and, I might add, merciful—”the banalization of compassion,” says Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez de la Peña—”without ceasing to be destructive”) of the fourth estate, the media in the hands of “loquacious illiterates” (Alberto Buela). “Compassion, in this century, is an ideological weapon,” said Gómez Dávila in one of his famous scholia. A weapon easy to handle even by the stupidest, it is used by rulers and businessmen without the slightest scruple to attract and convince the masses they exploit.

Once religion, which provides security compatible with freedom, has been superseded by politicization, which creates uncertainty, one of the problems of “affluent societies” (J. K. Galbraith) consists, in fact, in the alliance between the political, cultural and economic elites against the people, at the time when The Revolt of the Masses (Ortega) and The Revolt of the Elites (Christopher Lasch) coincide. This alliance explains the influence of the manqué individual, who, as Michael Oakeshott observed, began to gain popularity and followers with the development of state capitalism—the only real “capitalism”—coinciding with the formation of the new estate of professional politicians, when the State, a technical apparatus, the artificial form of the Political, was affirmed. Professionalization that also explains the political rise of the eternal estate of the idiots. Against the first, the Jesuit Pedro de Ribadeneyra cried out in his Tratado de la religión y virtudes que debe tener el príncipe cristiano para gobernar y conservar sus Estados. Contra lo que Nicolás Machiavelo y los políticos de este tiempo enseñan [Treatise on Religion and Virtues that the Christian Prince must Have to Govern and Conserve his Realms, and Against what Niccolò Machiavelli and the Politicians of that Time Taught] (1595). Against the second, much more numerous, Richter testified in the essay in which he poses as the spokesman for Stupidity. “The begetters have played a role in our revolutions,” lamented Chateaubriand, incapable of understanding “the right side of history,” as former US President Obama, Nobel laureate for the extraordinary merit of being black, although there are hundreds of millions of blacks, liked to say.

Stupidity, said Voltaire, is “an extraordinary disease” of narcissists incapable of perceiving their own stupidity. Its peculiarity consists in the fact that, since “it is not the sick person who suffers because it, but others,” it becomes socially more dangerous than the dominion of the wicked, because, as Ortega pointed out, “the wicked sometimes rest; the fool never.” Indeed, the fool, a character unmistakable with the insane, the ignorant, the narrow-minded, the short-sighted, the illiterate or the uneducated in the conventional sense, has no limits.

[The famous wise Count of Keyserling liked to talk with the shepherds of Gredos and Baztán, whom he considered among the most cultured men in the world].

Cicero said the same earlier: “any man can make a mistake; only a stupid person keeps on doing the same thing.” And Einstein confirmed it: “the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has limits.” A scientific statement by whoever makes it, which excludes normal people guided by common sense, becomes the greatest enemy of stupidity—a reason for the stupid to try to extirpate it, when they achieve power. Hence the fifth rule of Cipolla’s little manual, in agreement with Moreno Castillo: “the stupid person is the most dangerous type of person that exists.” A rule applicable with reservations in private life, which multiplies the danger of fools when they act in public life, in which they are more and more numerous. Perhaps also as a consequence of the combination of humanitarian liberalism with democracy, in which everyone can give his opinion, although his opinion generally reproduces that of stupid people who spread the ideas of others among the multitude of fools by nature.

Indeed, in the democratic context, the stupid easily act as wise men. Heine observed during the German Vormärz: “the wise emit new ideas and the fools expand them.” One explanation may be that, according to the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “almost all new ideas have a certain aspect of stupidity (or foolishness) when they are first produced.” The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa saw it differently: “no intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed with it.” Both views are reconcilable: the English journalist and historian Paul Johnson realized that the spread of moral relativism owes much to the interpretation and dissemination—obviously by fools—of Einstein’s theory of relativity, one of the origins of “post-truth” and the fact that, as the great statesman Felipe Gonzalez said, “in democracy, the truth is what the citizens believe to be true.”

The growing interference of fools in politics is surely the greatest danger to democracy. Almost two centuries ago, Tocqueville grasped that North America did not get along very well with excellence and meritocracy.

[Tocqueville’s fears have been realized. Tocqueville would not come out of his astonishment if he could see that, by one of those unforeseeable twists of history, America – which Hegel saw as an immature nation and Raymond Aron still said was not a nation – is one of the greatest dangers to freedom, while Russia seems to defend it. See Thomas Molnar. Le modèle défiguré: L’Amérique de Tocqueville à Carter (1978); Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008); R. R. Reno, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West (2019); Zbigniew Janowski, Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America (2021)].

And Nietzsche, a critic of mass democracy, warned in 1872 against superficial, popularizing and reductivist pedagogy. But for almost a century now, “the conspiracy of the imbeciles” (the expression is by Jean-Paul Brighelli) has been dedicated to establishing “the predominance of the cretin.” The continuous pedagogical reforms to “democratize” teaching, especially since 1968, when the homo festivus et stupidus appeared on the scene, encourage collective idiocy.

[The pedagogical fashion consists of promoting the emotional and absurd investigations instead of teaching and training students in the fundamentals].

Bureaucratized Universities—bureaucratization, which may be necessary due to technique, idiotizes the administered when it is excessive—cultivate idiocy, which the new media, “the priesthood of the ruling class” (Zbigniew Janowski), spread like a contagious disease. Radio, cinema, television, internet, cell phones, tablets, telephones and the “entertainment industry” multiply infinitely the influence of the press of Heine’s time. Back then, the large number of illiterates protected people from cultural cretinism. Today, “to promote culture is to crown the mediocre,” said a pessimistic Gómez Dávila, who always kept in mind die schrekliche Simplifikateure that Jacob Burckhardt, one of his two “patron saints” (the other was the skeptical Montaigne), feared so much. “Stupidity is always there, one would realize it if one did not always think of oneself,” said Albert Camus, and the simplifiers fascinate fools with a bit of propaganda.

Even Noam Chomsky recognizes that “propaganda is to democracy what a club is to a totalitarian state.”

[Edward Bernays (1891-1995), Freud’s nephew who settled in the USA, is credited with the invention of the technique of public relations, and the origin of propaganda as a method, namely, marketing, to channel and “manufacture thought.” Bernays successfully organized a campaign to make women equal to men by encouraging them to smoke. See Bernays’ Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), Public Relations (1945), The Engineering of Consent (1955), and Philippe Darantière, Le techno-nihilisme. Idéologie du changement de civilization].

Pius XII warned in his Christmas radio message of 1944: “Propaganda models all souls after the same pattern, taking away their peculiarities and almost their very life. Even the differences in psychology and attitude between the sexes tend to diminish as much as possible. For all this, the people, which is essentially a great family of diverse but harmonious souls, gathered around what is common to them, disappears. And the mass emerges, with its great empty, collective, enslaved soul.” A mass composed of subjects—at least in Europe there are no other citizens than the politicians who rule in the parties—who live in a more or less virtual unreality, what has been called “metaverse” or metauniverse, the universe beyond. It is happening with the new generations, more and more infantilized. For the new media not only creates what Heimito von Doderer christened die zweite Realität, the second reality inhabited by “the digital idiot,” but it has exponentially increased the possibility of propagating theories and doctrines whose idiocy knows no bounds, while instilling fear of reality as the only truth.

Although violent totalitarian States or Governments still exist (today we must say patriarchal, masculine or sexist—Machiavelli, for example, is a “sexist” in the feminist new-speak) most, if not all the European States and Governments and those of the exsanguinated Christianity, are Sovietizers (Vladimir Bukowsky). Robert Spaemann marked them as totalitarian “liberals.” Rod Dreher calls “soft” totalitarianism, in Live Not by Lies, that which is being imposed in the United States, encouraged by the government of the left-wing cretins presided over by Biden, whose last resounding feat has been to provoke Russia led by Putin, the “satanic enemy” of the progressivism of the stupid.

[One difference between the USA and Europe and other countries is that, there, “the wicked,” led by former President Trump, another anti-progressive “Satan,” are enemies of the stupid].

Self-proclaimed liberal democrats states and governments promote—and finance—stupidity (not always intentionally but for stupidity’s sake) in education, in the media and through the infinite and increasingly maternal Legislation, which conditions behavior by idiotizing the way of acting and even speech, which, among other things, must be automatically emotive and inclusive.

Peter Sloterdijk does not believe that the capacity to think is being lost. What is happening is that life today does not invite us to think: we live in such a hurry that news is rushed through without giving us time to digest it. He is quite right.

[Karl Steinbuch published, in 1966, Die informierte Gesellschaft. Geschichte und Zukunft der Nachrichtentechnik (The Informed Society. History and Future of News Technology), on the need for society to be sufficiently informed. In 1989, he published Die desinformierte Gesellschaft: Für eine zweite Aufklärung (The Disinformed Society: For a Second Enlightenment), warning that the abundance of news was destroying education, whose disaster he predicted, and bewildering public opinion. In 1992, he published Kollektive Dummheit: Streitschrift gegen den Zeitgeist (Collective Stupidity: Polemic against the Zeitgeist)].

But it is a fact that, due in part to technological advances and sentimental humanitarian pedagogy (unfortunately without poetry, “the voice of the ineffable,” as Juan Ramón Jiménez used to say) collective stupidity is becoming widespread, encouraged and guided by governments which, aided and encouraged by the new technologies, are all practically totalitarian today—states in which, as experience shows, there is an abundance of functional illiterates and idiots in positions of command. But the stupid revolutionaries are generous. Bent on the noblest task of equalizing everyone, they impose educational laws to bring the new generations up to their level.

There are still subjects or administrators who think and complain that their governments treat them as imbeciles. But they do not realize how imbecilic are the supportive rulers, who want them to be equal to them. The skeptics who remain (and seem to be more and more in number because of the authoritarian if not tyrannical measures because of the coronavirus and the increase in taxes to defeat “sinister” climate change) fear that, if the rulers are incriminated for their wastefulness, kickbacks, bribes, vote-buying through subsidies, threats, excesses or other corruptions—defense lawyers could allege, as a mitigating or exonerating circumstance, that they are poor fools.

It is worth clarifying that collective stupidity or dumbing down is a very different phenomenon from the “weak thinking” described by Vattimo. It has been frequently observed since Robert Musil wrote that “freedom and reason… have not been in good health since the middle of the 19th century or a little later.” This was the time when, according to Whitehead, began the destruction of common sense, thanks to which stupidity was bearable. The manipulation of political language by Soviet agit-prop contributed effectively to its destruction. One of the first to notice a great regression in the intellectual level was precisely the Soviet dissident Aleksander Zinoviev (1922-2006), reconverted to communism when the USSR imploded, perhaps shocked by the superior stupidity of the supposedly liberal democracies.

[Cf. Michele Federico Sciacca, L’oscuramento dell’intelligenza; Alain Finkielkraut, The Defeat of the Mind; C. Castoriades, La Montée de l’insignifiance (The Rise of Insignificance). André Glucksmann held postmodernism responsible in La Bêtise (Stupidity), and Giancarlo Livraghi, The Power of Stupidity. On the relationship of postmodernism with the turn of socialism towards modal ideologies, typical of cretinocracy, see Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. The postmodern appears, Ernst Jünger mocked, when a woman puts on a new hat. Fashion, which is frequently a falsification of customs, is also often the cradle of stupidity, for fashionable stupidity is preferred to old-fashioned wisdom].

The propagandistic use of (pseudo)political language as common language, the “inclusive” language—”so a word out of the thought of the heart of man” (Sirach 27:7)—already makes it possible to legally punish the inconvenient or incorrect judgment with the very new and unlawful “hate crimes;” Orwell’s “thought crimes” in 1984. “The corruption of language reveals that of man,” said A. García-Trevijano; and the totalitarian powers want to coercively impose the language of stupidity as a common language, so that its corrupt nature is not noticed.

The rise of revolutionary cretinocracy is not attributable, however, only to the bureaucratization of politics by the ideological mode of thought—whose spirit is totalitarian—typical of the protective States of maternal tendency that treat their subjects as children. “Ideologies render to those who lack ideas the same service as wigs do to bald men” (Ricardo Castillo) and create sectarians and one-sided people who “have only certainties” (Bertrand Russell), while normal intelligent people are full of doubts. Mark Twain advised not to argue with the stupid so as not to be put on their level.

Bureaucracy—”the government of nobody” (H. Arendt)—is consubstantial to the State, a technical apparatus whose ratio, the status ratio, contributes powerfully to impose the quantitative culture of rationalism over the qualitative, aided by the social sciences, which confuse quantity with importance, as if in real politics everything had been decided in advance.

[See, René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. The ratio status, inherently interventionist, turned into l’ordre publique (public policy) of the Napoleonic État de Droit (rule of law), uses governance, a business technique adopted by the technocracy of the liberal Totalitarian State].

Bureaucracy is the form in which the State is personified by governments eager to “protect people from themselves” as Gunnar Myrdal recommended to his government, perhaps inspired by the biblical saying that the number of fools is infinite, even if they are Swedes, to establish the “Empire of Good” described by Phillipe Muray. Unbelieving, Sloterdijk ironizes: “so many civil servants allow the State not to be seen.”

“The fool is greedy, envious, petty,” said Unamuno. And Voltaire and Ortega failed to add that, if the stupid have power, they easily become, without realizing it, scoundrels. To achieve the noble goal of equalizing everyone in idiocy, the bureaucracy commanded by the stupid is concerned about culture and civilization, which reflect the identity of a people with itself. Hence, its direction is entrusted to direct and indirect nomenklaturas in which swarm more or less fatuous fools, madmen [perhaps because there is no shortage of insane people, Alain de Benoist generalizes and considers the stupid to be insane], organic intellectuals and non-venal intellectuals who still believe, no longer in the goodness of socialism, but in that of communism, promoted in part by the UN, and by “experts,” advisors, specialists, convinced of, or feigning, their moral superiority—careerists and crooks, rogues, knaves, criminals and international financial mafias, who exploit emotions. Fools instinctively corrupt culture to assert themselves in power, as is happening at the moment, when children are perverted, for example, with the Bolshevik argument that “children do not belong to their parents.” [Are they res nullius or state property? If they belong to the State, does the State copulate?]

According to Cipolla’s third rule, “a stupid person is a person who causes harm to another person without at the same time obtaining a benefit for himself, or even obtaining a harm.” And since stupidity is now a contagious pathology so widespread that it can be called a pandemic, we are beginning to talk about the urgency of a movement to survive what can be considered the pathological religion of stupidity. Rémi Brague blames the phenomenon on the failure of the modern project, describable as the planning of the future in imitation of Creation, implicit in the Pelagian “New Christianity” of the Count of Saint-Simon, “the father of planners” (Wilhelm Röpke), creditor of Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao and other progressive atheists. The renewing principle of techno-scientific Christianity reads: “Religion must direct society towards the great goal, which consists in obtaining as rapidly as possible an improvement in the lot of the poorest class.” As this religion tends to equalize, this explains its success among the supporters of social justice, despite the fact that there are also degrees of stupidity among equals.

Brague, who suffers from the reactionary disease of preserving common sense, wonders if there is any sense in the existence of human beings in the context of the culture planned by what skeptics call the “international of stupidity,” very well represented by the virtuous tyranny of the stupid “counterculture” of woke bio-ideology. The progressivism of the fools who exploit the clever, which politically functions as the Maoist wing of the “robolution,” as they say in Cuba. Robolutionism that aspires to destroy culture—the key is the “sexual revolution”—by imposing its particular nihilistic, rather than Marxist, conception of morality and culture. Thomas Sowell published in 1999 the very current Barbarians inside the Gates.

Morality, the ethos, depends on the religious beliefs that concretize and fix, in a certain way, the customs and uses, that is to say, the Law, the aesthetics, etc. But the invading morality of our days is not the same as the one we knew, warns Alain de Benoist in Les Démons Du Bien (The Demons of the Good). From the new moral order to gender ideology.

It is possible to synthesize the new morality of the new culture imposed by the stupid ungovernments in that of the aforementioned woke fashion. Spread from California as a “counter-sexuality” to free the human being from sexuality (we must be idiots, agree the reactionaries and libertines), replacing it with other pleasures, such as the love of trees and plants. The devaluation of the body thrives in the environment of the “age of digital dementia,” observes Juan Manuel de Prada.

[The idea of contrasexuality, which already has many followers in the world of idiots, seems to have been suggested by Michel Foucault, who was homosexual].

The new morality of the imbeciles is a mutation of the “anti-fascist” puritanism of the pathological political correctness prevailing in the immature “Imperial Republic” (R. Aron) to which one could apply Dostoyevsky’s phrase “tolerance will reach such a level that intelligent people will be forbidden to think in order not to offend the imbeciles.”

Saul David Alinsky, Tolstoy according to Thomas Mann and other influences adapted Marxism-Leninism to the United States, which is today the champion of “cultural Marxism,” Neo-Marxism that has little of Marx. Marx, who was not an idiot, said he was not a Marxist (je ne suis pas marxiste); and to be a Marxist today is a symptom of incurable idiocy. “The poor,” recognizes the French Marxist Thomas Piketty, “no longer vote for the left,” which is usually the preferred choice of idiots fascinated by the myth of social justice that legitimizes the robolutionaries. But the American mercantile spirit, just as it once led democratic anti-Bolshevism, now exports profitable pathological nonsense, also democratic, such as equating the foolish with the clever through Calvinist political correctness, and revives supposedly Marxist movements such as Black Lives Matter, but in the Nazi version, which substitutes class for race. An amusing trick of Fortuna with the permission of Clio, so that Hitler retrospectively defeats Stalin and the communists clinging to the dogma of the class struggle.

Racist identity movements are subsidized—as before in the USSR of the class struggle—by big businessmen, financiers and multinationals, generally from the US, attracted by the profitable, fashionable stupidity (secular and political ideologies and religions are today fashions) of the “woke culture,” which cultivates the ego of idiots by increasing their self-esteem, and by “cancel culture” of the hyper-individualism of “woke capitalism”—another way to ruin the hated middle classes to control the economy and establish the messianic New World Order of the rich. For, as Cavanaugh says, “the ‘one world’ ideology only really benefits those who own capital, which can move freely across borders.” The stupidity of the fashionable counterculture can be very profitable. On the occasion of the coronavirus pandemic—skeptics call it, Plandemic—there is talk of a political-media-pharmaceutical conspiracy to make multi-million dollar deals by taking advantage of global stolidity.

[The New World Order of globalism seems like a whim of greedy, conceited, stupid or bored billionaires—four things not incompatible—mainly North Americans, grouped around or led by the Zionist George Soros. One of his dangerous diversions is the harassment of Putin, a supporter of the traditional order].

It is worth commenting on the case of Spain, before concluding these notes. It is an unbeatable example of the first fundamental law of human stupidity enunciated by Carlo Cipolla: “each one of us always and inevitably underestimates the number of stupid individuals circulating in the world.” Ungoverned by the successive governments of the Monarchy of Parties, increasingly stupid, Spain constitutes an excellent example of the capacity of political stupidity to move mountains.

[“When the dictatorship disappeared in Spain due to the death of its incumbent, the different species of fools became evident,” writes Moreno. As the stupid are not indifferent to money, encouraged by Mr. Solchaga, minister of Mr. Felipe Gonzalez, a lawyer practicing as a statesman, they began to throw cash around to control the economy and get rich].

Indeed, the Kingdom of Koalemos’ Stupidity managed to establish itself in Spain perhaps more solidly than in other countries, taking advantage of the third reinstatement of the Bourbon Dynasty, by skillfully using the Preamble of the 1978 Carta Otorgada (Charter of Grant), certainly not the Constitution, since, prudently, political freedom was not returned to the people, and replaced by the right to vote ritually for the parties. Renan said that human stupidity is the only thing that gives an idea of infinity. And the Preamble suggests, precisely as a guideline, to establish an “advanced” democracy in order to progress infinitely.

[Reinstatement is not the same as restoration. The first modern Reinstatement was that of Fernando VII, the second that of Alfonso XII and the third that of Juan Carlos. In fact, there was a fourth fleeting Reinstatement, that of Amadeo de Saboya, which implied a change of dynasty. Some believe that the awarding of the Order of Charles III to the podemite Pablo Iglesias and other politicians loyal to Sanchismo by Felipe VI, has dealt the coup de grace to the Crown].

Influential monarchists foolishly recommended the convenience of a “pass to the left”—for which the naive and the foolish instinctively voted—in order to consolidate the Monarchy. [For the third time in less than 175 years and, in fact, at the expense of the Zeitgeist, republican and democratic].

In fact, an oligarchic consensus was instituted, like the social-democratic one existing in Europe, with a modernizing left wing around the Socialist Party, undoubtedly the one preferred by the King, “engine of change,” which included resuscitated separatists and communists, and a contemporizing right wing, of the “center”—judging by the facts, a branch of the socialist party to fix the economic flaws and control the dissenters. The Monarchy of Parties chopped up the Nation in the Charter of Grant according to the principle divide et impera, the “modernization” fostered collective stupidity and reduced politics to a razzle-dazzle between the consensual parties, in fact, a uni-party. Finally, the most idiotic people of the Kingdom have come to power, who surpass in totality the undeveloped stupidity of Dr. Zapatero and his entourage—the incapable Dr. Sanchez and his stupid females and stupid males.

[See, Y. Couceiro, “La superioridad moral de los necios,” La tribuna del pais vasco (13. IX. 2018). The moral superiority of the socialist religion lies in the fact that it conceives politics as a civil war to definitively redeem humanity—a bloodless war, by means of legal revolution in pacifist socialisms, or a bloody war, as necessary, in its most radical varieties, the communist and the anarchist, also with different variants. Mr. Zapatero resumed the Spanish Civil War by inventing the law of Historical Memory and other legislation. Dr. Sanchez aspires to win this civil war definitively, without knowing how far he is willing to go. The precedent that opened the way was the politicization of the judiciary by Mr. Gonzalez, Charlemagne Prize winner in 1985, deservedly praised by Hispanic and many non-Hispanic idiots].

The problem of Spain, which began in 1711 with the Bourbon establishment and worsened since the Spanish War of Independence (the Peninsular War), consists in the fact that, as the stupid men and women in power only know how to play at destroying, in the first place, culture and, with it, the State that supports them, the Nation is finally in a position of religious, moral, aesthetic, political, social, economic, sexual, demographic crisis. And as a Nation about to be extinguished.

[Thanks to the power of the sacralized State—and the complacent failure of the Church—they can declare a sin against Stupidity a crime in civil terms for whatever they can think of. For example, hate crimes or opposition to abortion].

The current misgovernment is “100% integrated by a cast of intellectually disabled people” (F. Jiménez Losantos dixit), practically all of them confessed republicans in a State that is formally monarchic. In order to celebrate them as they deserve in the elephantine, corrupt and absurd State of the Autonomous Communities, new ministries, general directorates, institutions, etc. have been invented. The final objective seems to be to restore Hispanic-American unity by integrating into the 21st century socialism bloc, nostalgic of the much-missed Soviet Union, and as a victim of satanic capitalism, apparently an enemy of Koalemos.

[Cf. Royal Decree 1150/2021 of December 28 (B.O.E. 31. XII. 2021) by which the Sanchez government authorizes itself—just like the famous Ermächtigung Gesetz of March 24, 1933, which granted Hitler full powers—to dictate the measures it deems appropriate to guarantee National Security].

The citizens suppressed for more security by the socialist party’s decree of a civil war nature, like all socialisms, the definitive death of Montesquieu and The Spirit of the Laws [since the division of powers is fictitious, Montesquieu’s fundamental rule is also violated, as in all liberal totalitarianisms: “The tax on goods is the tax of freedom. The tax on persons is the tax of servitude.” A tax against the family, one of the limits that Bodin—the theoretician—placed on state sovereignty, and concentrated in the Marxist social-democratic tax on income]—the objective of the successive monarchical governments seems to be, at least from a certain moment, the Kulturkampf necessary to put the Nation at the forefront of the age, led by progressive ideologies, such as bio-ideologies, enemies of the antiquity of common sense and the ratio status. The main ones are: the misandric or gender one, which, stricto sensu, is limited to defending the legitimate human right of women to be idiots, even if Putin says it is “a perfect phantasmagoria,” and in a broader sense defends, for example, legally regulating the menstrual cycle; the ecologist, defender of the Earth against human perversity that chokes it with CO2-impregnated fumes; the hygienist, health or sanitary (greatly strengthened by the support of the churches—vaccination is “an act of love,” they say in the Vatican) favoring dictatorship (assuming vaccination is necessary) to tyranny (if it is unnecessary) to combat the coronavirus flu.

[Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) has asked for a Covid passport to be required for access to religious services. Where is the Church “on the move” headed? National Socialism invented the “public health policy”—the function of the WHO—which suppresses the natural right or freedom of the individual to decide about his body and the way to heal himself].

These three ideologies are mothers of the LGTB and all the other letters, of the “counter-sexualist”—there is a ministry in charge of an energetic sexual commissar, who sings the truths to the dawn star—the animalist—there is a general direction for everything related to animals (it is not clear if it includes or excludes “politicians,” perhaps because the director has not heard of Aristotle), “ecosexualism” (love to/and with trees and plants), climate change (a branch of ecologism)—the fight against fumes including cow flatus, as well as Pachamamalogy, which enjoys a certain appreciation in ecclesiastical environments, etc. They have the undeniable merit of creating numerous bureaucratic jobs that remedy structural unemployment, which remains fixed as the highest in Europe (at this moment double the European average) since the “transition” began.

Everything points to making Spain the universal example of how collective stupidity can triumph, undoubtedly, the ideal way to advance democracy in order to establish die wahre Demokratie, the true democracy—something like the Kingdom of God in the land of the Puritans of the Fifth Monarchy—dreamt of by Karl Marx as the goal of all socialisms, the desire-mandate to which the Law of the [anti]historical Memory, popularly known as the “Law of the Hysterical Revenge,” points to—the Law that the socialist misgovernment of Dr. Sanchez (of course, a democrat, since the democracy of the stupid can only be socialist or communist) calls with more precision of “Democratic Memory.” Typical laws, with which, as Richter says, “the idiot forbids reason to go beyond memory,” in order to channel peacefully in the correct march of history towards universal stupidity, those who are not yet idiots as they should be and the new generations—if there are any, given the fall in the birth rate, encouraged, with the help of propaganda, by the high taxes that punish families so that they become idiotic and do not procreate.

The nature of the political consensus among the oligarchies is obviously very different from that of Cicero’s consensus omnium, the social consensus determined by the ethos that unifies the peoples. It has ensured that, even if the Nation is not totally idiotized, it is at least in the hands of so many fools, childish people, even for their age, as it has never been before. Without lacking the resentful, delinquent, wicked and everlasting careerists, who always come to the honeycomb of rich honey that are Budgets. O tempora, o mores! The time of stupid apprentices of the customs of Ali Baba and his gang, in “a country,” laments a reactionary journalist, “inert, anesthetized, stupefied, dumbfounded and something like a fool.”

The politics of the transition (“transaction” Jesús Fueyo specified) to the Monarchy in which the Church “became mute,” as Tocqueville said of the French in The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, is, for the reactionaries entrenched in common sense, a mess characterized by the disputes between the traditionally anti-national or anti-Hispanic left—converted, again Koalemos gratias, to Latin Americanism, an expression more stupid and, therefore, more correct than Hispano-Americanism—and the social-democratic left that acts as a centrist “right.” Democracy—”the sovereignty of a people over its destiny” (J. Fueyo)—identified with outdated anti-Francoism, awaits its turn. In the meantime, democracy, Yeah!

The secret of the consensus between the left and the fetish of the center is that, as Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994) perceived, the right and left “have signed against the reactionary [in the sense of the one who reacts] a secret pact of perpetual aggression.” Consensual Hispanics do, in fact, reasonably brand people, groups or parties that are not in tune—those that do not accept, for example, the decomposition of the oldest nation in Europe, or oppose the culture of death—as being extreme right-wing. This is a very logical curse-argument, since the “right” is the right wing of the oligarchic consensus. They are also labeled as Francoists or “faças.” The apothegm, says Amando de Miguel, of historical fascism, “well, there is no other,” “everything within the State; nothing outside the State.” An apothegm from which the anti-politics of the misgovernment (which perhaps borders on criminality, as long as the penal code is not duly modified to adjust it to the ethos of the kingdom of Koalemos) of the rulers, acolytes and plugged-in members of the PSOE Sanchista, standard-bearer of Stupidity, benefits from.

“If there are no completely intelligent men, there are completely stupid ones,” writes Moreno Castillo. Most of the completely stupid have integrated into the new socialism—socialisms attract fools—and the reactionaries, who are not even stupid, since they live in a world apart—perhaps they do not even vote—say that politics has turned Spain into a dunghill. Some scornfully equate the progressive Kingdom of Spain to the solidly established Kingdom of Peronia, laus Koalemos, in Argentina, from where it radiates imperially to the whole world, together with its Venezuelan partner and the Cuban luminary.

Having practically finalized these flash-notes, the leadership of the right wing of the socialist party, led by characters so infantile and stupid that they have committed political suicide, imploded. In principle, it was not a mere incident in the race to advanced democracy. As Dr. Sanchez also imploded the socialist party, not to improve it, which is certainly impossible, but to re-found it as PSOE and Co. [Probably following Peter Drucker’s advice when a business enterprise is going badly, Sanchez has a doctorate in economics]—the disappearance of the monopoly of consensus by the two original dynastic parties leaves the Monarchy of Parties out in the open. The historian Pedro González Cuevas writes in his recent book: “Felipe VI and his descendants have the future against them. And the fact is that, unlike his father, they have nothing to offer either to the left or to the nationalists.” The reaction of the subjects to the crisis of the self-styled popular party, which for many has become unpopular, reveals a certain weariness with the concentration of stupid people in the political class. However, judging by the symptoms, the popular party will continue to be the unpopular coryphaeus of the socialist party and its associates.

Finally, everything is unknown in the struggle between stupidity and common sense. Will neuroscience and the fashionable artificial intelligence intensify the permanent revolution that is leading the West to dumbness and servitude, and will they obtain the universal remedy so that everybody will definitely be an incurable idiot? The traditional magister vitae, history, would cease to be a work of art (Ranke); the new history would finally be the story of the vicissitudes of Stupidity and those still capable of thinking, residing in the paradises of the stupid, would have to console themselves by imagining, like Blaise Pascal, the joy of living in an intelligent hell.

[With corrections to the version published in Razón española, no. 232 (July-August 2022), and with thanks to Arnaud Imatz].


Dalmacio Negro Pavón (Madrid, 1931) has been professor of History of Ideas and Political Forms in the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid and is currently professor emeritus of Political Science at the CEU San Pablo University. He is also a full member of Real Academia de Ciencias Morales y Políticas (the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences). He has translated and edited several classic works of German, English and French political thought. His many books include El fin de la normalidad y otros ensayos (The End of Normality and Other Essays), La ley de hierro de la oligarquía (The Iron Law of Oligarchy), Lo que Europa debe al Cristianismo (What Europe Owes to Christianity), Il Dio Mortale. Il Mito dello Stato tra Crisi Europea e Crisi delle Politica (The Mortal God: The Myth of the State amidst the European Crisis and Crisis of Politics), and La tradición de la libertad (The Tradition of Liberty).


Featured: “An Allegory of Folly,” by Quinten Massys; painted ca. early 16th century.

Of Collective Security: An Interview with Michael Jabara Carley

Michael Jabara Carley is a specialist in 20th century international relations and the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. His research focuses on the Soviet Union’s relations with Western Europe and the United States during the years 1917 and 1945. This research has come together in a three-volume study, first of which, entitled, Stalin’s Gamble: The Search for Allies against Hitler, 1930–1936, will be published by the University of Toronto Press.

He is the author of 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II, Silent Conflict: A Hidden History of Early Soviet-Western Relations, and Une Guerre sourde: l’émergence de l’Union soviètique et les puissances occidentales.

Professor Carley has also written many essays on French intervention in the Russian Civil War (1917-1921), on Soviet relations with the Great Powers between the two world wars, on questions of “appeasement,” the origins and conduct of the Second World War, and on major current issues. He is a Professor of history at the University of Montreal. It is a great pleasure and honor to discuss his work with him in this interview.

The Postil (TP): You have written a trilogy on the Great Patriotic War, that is the Second World War as experienced by Soviet Union. The first part of this magisterial study will be published soon. What is your overall aim?

Michael Jabara Carley (MJC): My trilogy, as I call it, deals with the origins and early conduct of the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War (Velikaia Otechestvennaia voina). The VOV is the name given to the war in Soviet and Russian history arising from the German invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941. My work runs from January 1930 to December 1941. My project was first entitled “A Near-run Thing: The Improbable Grand Alliance of World War II,” supported by an “Insight” research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. My initial objective was to write a narrative history of how the USSR, Britain, and the United States, powers hostile to each other during the interwar years, became allies against Nazi Germany and the Axis. The work evolved from an envisioned single volume into three dealing with Soviet relations with the great and lesser European powers and the United States.

Michael J. Carley.

TP: Is there a difference between a Western historiography of WWII and a Russian one?

MJC: Oh yes, the difference is enormous. During the war, it was clear to all who had eyes to see that the Red Army played the key role in smashing the Nazi Wehrmacht and winning the war in Europe. The United States and Britain played supporting roles. After 1945 the war became an important object of propaganda in the Cold War. The new narrative was that the United States or Churchill single-handedly won the war in which the USSR was practically invisible.

In the western media, histories, iconography, Hollywood films, comic books, more recently video games, the Red Army is invisible. The key moment in the war was operation Overlord, the Normandy landings, when in fact, they were an anticlimax, grand to be sure, in a war whose outcome had already been determined by the Red Army. In the context of the Cold War, it was normal that the United States would seek in various ways to rub out the memories of the Soviet role in the war, for otherwise how could you portray the USSR as a menacing communist enemy.

TP: Would you tell us about the other two volumes in the trilogy?

MJC: Volume 1: Stalin’s Gamble: The Search for Allies against Hitler, 1930–1936, explores the Soviet Union’s efforts to organize a defensive alliance against Nazi Germany, in effect rebuilding the anti-German Entente of the First World War.

Volume 2: Stalin’s Failed Grand Alliance: The Struggle for Collective Security, 1936-1939 covers the period from May 1936 to August 1939. These were the last three years of peace in Europe during which occurred the great crises of the pre-war period (the Spanish civil war, Anschluss and the Munich sellout of Czechoslovakia) and the last Soviet efforts to organise an anti-Nazi alliance.

Volume 3: Stalin’s Great Game: War and Neutrality, 1939-1941 covers the first phase of the war in Europe, notably the disappearance of Poland, the Winter War between the USSR and Finland, the fall of France, the battle of Britain, and the Nazi build-up and invasion of the USSR. All this occurs within the broader framework of Soviet diplomacy and intelligence operations and Stalin’s failures to interpret correctly the signs of Hitler’s intention to destroy the Soviet Union.

TP: Your work has focused on Russian archival records. Were there any surprises, which made you rethink your position(s)?

MJC: My work has focused on Russian archival sources and western archival sources (inter alia French, British, US, etc.). The Russian sources indicate—and this will be a surprise for some people—that Soviet foreign policy as conducted by the Commissariat for foreign affairs (NKID) functioned like that of any other foreign ministry. It sought to define and protect Soviet national interests, as perceived by the NKID, and promoted amongst the Soviet leadership, especially in the Politburo (in effect the Soviet cabinet), which over time became synonymous with a single person, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. In the 1920s this meant seeking to improve political and economic relations with the main western powers. No country was too small to escape NKID attention and wooing. In the 1930s it meant seeking to build an anti-Nazi alliance to contain Hitlerite Germany or to defeat it in war if containment failed. The first generation of Soviet diplomats were well-educated (or self-taught), multilingual, sophisticated, and good at their jobs.

So? What is so surprising about these “discoveries?” Several generations of western historians have maintained that Soviet foreign policy was made by the Communist International or Comintern and intended to pursue world socialist revolution and not the protection of Soviet national interests. These did not exist. My previous book Silent Conflict deals with the complicated interaction of the NKID, Comintern, Stalin, and the Politburo in the 1920s. Suffice it to say that traditional western historiography requires revision based on the study of Russian archives. We now have histories before the opening of Soviet archives and histories after their opening.

TP: The Soviet era is largely dominated by Joseph Stalin. Are there aspects about him that are ignored or misconstrued by Western historians?

MJC: People have been writing books about Stalin since the interwar years. His recent biographer Stephen Kotkin reminds us that he was a “human being.” He was that, but of course human beings can also be serial killers. Stalin was what he was, amongst other things, crude, cynical, vengeful, murderous. He placed little value on human life and freely dispensed with it.

In the realm of foreign policy, he had a more or less normal relationship with the NKID and its leadership until the purges. In the 1930s his principal NKID interlocutor was Maksim M. Litvinov, the commissar or narkom for foreign affairs. Stalin’s interactions with Litvinov were those of a head of government with his/her foreign minister. There was give and take on both sides, but most of the time until 1939 Stalin supported Litvinov’s policy recommendations. Not always but most of the time. It is a “normal” side of Stalin that we sometimes miss because of his ruthlessness and the purges.

TP: In the years leading up to WWII, how did the West view, or understand, Stalin and Soviet Russia? And, likewise, how did Stalin view the West?

MJC: The “west” did not have a uniform view of Stalin. There was the mainstream media view of him as bloodthirsty communist. In some government circles, in the British Foreign Office, for example, he was perceived as a ruthless “realist” looking to secure his own power. Western iconography, political posters, cartoons, etc., are rich in their portrayal of Stalin, amongst other roles, as a vampire feeding on the blood of innocents. This was a consistent view of him during the interwar years with some moderation in the 1930s when western realists—Winston Churchill is the best known of these people— recognised the need to cooperate with the USSR against Nazi Germany. The “realists” were always a minority amongst western governing elites and were never able to impose this policy in government until the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Of course, western communists were more disposed to recognise Stalin as the great leader of the USSR. They had to or were expelled from European parties or purged when Stalin got his hands on them. There were however exceptions to the rule when communists (in France for example) could initiate policy changes accepted in Moscow.

As for Stalin, he remained a communist, but he was willing to cooperate with the western powers against Hitler both in the 1930s and after June 1941. We operate under different social systems, he often said, but this should not prevent us from recognizing common interests and cooperating against common foes.

TP: Then, there is the notorious year, 1932, with its Great Famine, in which 5 to 7 million died. Was this famine “political strategy,” ethnic cleansing (Holodomor), a natural disaster, or something else?

MJC: I only deal in passing with this issue in my work because the famine did not affect foreign policy, but the best recent treatment of the famine is in the second volume of Kotkin’s biography of Stalin. Kotkin argues that the famine was the result of various factors, political, economic, weather, and insect infestations. It was not aimed at the Ukraine as a form of genocide or “ethnic cleansing.” The famine affected the entire Soviet grain belt with Kazakhstan being the hardest hit.

TP: The next year, 1933, brought Adolf Hitler to power. How did Stalin and the Soviets view Hitler?

MJC: The initial Soviet reaction to Hitler’s assumption of power in early 1933 was to try to maintain the “Rapallo” policy of tolerable relations with Germany. Nazi hostility to the USSR in 1933 was so intense that the maintenance of Rapallo became impossible and in December 1933 the Politburo approved a shift in policy to collective security against Nazi Germany. This meant in effect the rebuilding of the World War I Entente against Wilhelmine Germany. Litvinov became the great Soviet spokesperson for this policy, but it was not his personal policy, it was that of Stalin and the Soviet government. Stalin was the Soviet government. No policy, large or small, could pass without his approval.

TP: The years leading up to 1939 are complex and often little understood, especially in regards to the motivations and concerns of Soviet Russia. Did the Soviets see a war coming?

MJC: There is not the slightest doubt that the Soviet leadership saw war coming. Nazi Germany was the great danger to European peace and security. Litvinov and other Soviet diplomats liked to quote to their western counterparts Mein Kampf, Hitler’s best-selling book, outlining his plans for European conquest. France and the USSR were identified as targets of German conquest. Germany needed Lebensraum, additional living space in the USSR. Slavs, Jews, Roma were lower species of human being good only for slavery or death.

TP: What was the role of Britain and France in this regard? Were they more suspicious of Hitler or of Stalin, or of both equally? And why could they not form an alliance with Stalin against Hitler?

MJC: The answer to this question is complicated and is the subject of Stalin’s Gamble, vol. 1 of my trilogy. In France and Britain anti-communism was a driving force, though its intensity fluctuated from time to time during the interwar years. Political and economic elites were largely anti-communist, but not entirely, as I have noted above. This was especially true during the 1930s after Hitler became German chancellor. One Soviet diplomat noted that the great question of the 1930s was who was enemy no. 1, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union? Western elites, with important exceptions, got the answer wrong to this question. Fascism was the great bulwark against communist or socialist revolution, the ideology arising from the crisis of capitalism during the interwar years. Remember, Germany was not the only fascist state, the Duce Benito Mussolini had taken power in Italy in 1922. In France and Britain there were tolerant attitudes toward Italian fascists. If only Hitler would soften the hard edges of Nazism and adopt the “softer” fascism of Mussolini, it would be easier to accept him. For numerous European conservatives Hitlerite Germany was not an enemy but a potential ally against the left.

When Soviet diplomats tried to warn of the Nazi danger, many western counterparts did not buy the argument that Hitler was the problem. This was especially so after the eruption of the Spanish civil war in July 1936. It looked to many conservatives that communism might take root in Spain and then spread to France. What a catastrophe! So, when Soviet diplomats warned of Hitlerite Germany, conservatives, the political right, but also spreading into the political centre and centre-left, saw this as a ruse de guerre to spread communism into Europe. Collective security and mutual assistance against the common foe, did not work as an argument, because European elites did not see or did not want to see Hitler as a common foe. The British Foreign Office was against collective security and against anti-fascism as arguments for unity. Anti-communism was a major impediment to an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance against Hitler, even in 1939 when war looked increasingly inevitable.

TP: Then there is Poland. How would you characterize the Polish view of Hitler, especially given that Poland was allied with Nazi Germany until 1939 (a little-known fact)? What were Poland’s ambitions and motivations?

MJC: Yes, then there was Poland. I call it the skunk in the woodpile of collective security, but it was not the only one. A Polish state reappeared on the map of Europe in 1918 at the end of World War I. It was intensely nationalist. During 1919-1920 Poland sought to reestablish its frontiers of 1772, as a great European power. This led to war with Soviet Russia and a white peace, signed in early 1921 which satisfied neither side. Poland did not re-establish its 1772 frontiers, but obtained important Ukrainian and Byelorussian populated territories, which Soviet Russia saw as lost because of military weakness.

The Polish leadership saw itself situated between two potentially hostile great powers, and so explained its foreign policy as neither one or the other. But when push came to shove the Polish leadership always leaned toward Germany. In January 1934 Poland signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. Soviet offers of rapprochement were rejected. In following years Poland acted as a saboteur of collective security and worked against Soviet diplomacy. Everywhere in central and eastern Europe, diplomats warned that Poland was marching toward its ruin if it continued to pursue a pro-German, anti-Soviet policy. I would not say Poland was a Nazi “ally” but it was certainly an accomplice in 1938 when it cooperated with Germany to bring about the dismemberment of the Czechoslovak state. For its troubles Poland got a small portion of Czechoslovak territory. Incredibly, in 1939 it continued to sabotage attempts to conclude an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance. It did so until the very day the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.

TP: Was the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 the Soviet attempt to thwart war, or was it a reaction to the Munich Conference of 1938, in which the West thought it had won “peace in our time?”

MJC: The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was not a Soviet attempt to thwart war, it was an attempt to stay out of the war and to remain neutral. Yes, in part, it was a reaction to the Munich accords, but it was more than that. It was the direct result of six years of failed Soviet attempts to construct an anti-Nazi grand alliance. One by one, the prospective members of this failed grand alliance fell away: the United States in the spring-summer 1934, France paradoxically in late 1934 (in a more complicated process), Italy, yes, fascist Italy in 1935, Britain in February 1936, and Romania in August 1936. One after the other they fell away; and Poland of course, the spoiler of collective security, the proverbial skunk in the woodpile, never contemplated an alliance with the USSR against Germany. Moscow was always the undesirable ally, the greater enemy, even though, paradoxically, it was Poland’s only option for salvation.

The Soviet Union could not, on its own, organise mutual assistance against Nazi Germany. Collective security had to be a grand political coalition from left to centre-right, a World War I union sacrée, of all-in national defence of all political parties against a common foe. In the west no one wanted it; no one wanted the Soviet Union as an ally (with the exception of communists and “realists”; a Soviet ambassador called them “white crows”) in a potential war-fighting alliance, in a situation where there was no agreement on the common foe. Even Czechoslovakia, the most needy potential ally, would not go all-in with the USSR. No eastern European country would without France and Britain, but France would not march without Britain, and Britain would not march at all.

This is a complicated story related in volumes 1 and 2 of my trilogy. In the great cover-up of the genuine history of the origins of World War II after 1945, it was the necessary corollary of Cold War propaganda to rub out the primary role of the Red Army in the destruction of the Wehrmacht. Early on, revisionist historians began to put the story together, starting with the “Guilty Men,” the appeasers, who prepared the way to catastrophe. It was the release of Soviet government papers in the 1990s, however, which has allowed the emergence of a more complex narrative, constructed with the assistance of Soviet eyes. In this narrative Stalin, the “human being,” understandably could not trust the British and French governments, conniving, manipulative, unwilling, to be all-in allies against Nazi Germany even in August 1939.

As it was, the British and French left their ally Poland to blow in the wind when Germany invaded it. Stalin correctly assumed that France and Britain would sit on their hands while Germany and the USSR fought it out in the east. Would they have been more loyal to the USSR than they had been to Poland? Of course not, if you asked Stalin. However, war is full of the unexpected. The USSR ended up fighting a ground war practically alone against Nazi Germany from June 1941 to September 1943 and even after the Normandy landings still carried the main burden of fighting on the ground. That of course is another story.

TP: World War II, when it broke out, was the result of diplomatic failure on the part of Britain, France, and Poland. Is this a fair assessment?

MJC: I have answered this question in my above responses, but yes, Britain, France, and Poland bear a large responsibility for the failure to organize an early grand alliance in Europe against Hitler.

TP: Could the Allies have defeated Hitler without the Soviets?

MJC: No, and this is not a conclusion made in hindsight. The main argument of western “realists” was that without the USSR, France and Britain could not win a war against Nazi Germany and would certainly lose it. Britain had no army to speak of, two divisions could at once be sent to France in the event of war. The French army could not alone fight off a German invasion. On the other hand, the Red Army could at once mobilise 100 divisions, in fact, more, against Nazi Germany. Churchill and former prime minister David Lloyd George said it plainly in the House of Commons during the spring of 1939. Victory was impossible without an alliance with the USSR. Do the math of relative contributions to boots on the ground: Britain, two divisions; the USSR, 100. This is not to mention 35 Czechoslovak divisions prior to the Munich betrayal. The French and British governing elites liked to count every enemy twice over and potential allies not at all.

TP: In your book, Silent Conflict: A Hidden History of Early Soviet-Western Relations, you discuss Soviet relations with the West. How would you categorize these? And did these early years set the tone for the Cold War?

MJC: With the notable exception of Soviet-German relations and the conclusion of the treaty of Rapallo (spring 1922) which regularised Soviet relations with Weimar Germany, Soviet-western relations were poor. Anti-Communism was an insurmountable obstacle to better relations even though there were “realists,” notably in France, who advocated rapprochement. The Comintern was active in China where a great revolutionary movement was underway. Britain especially had important commercial interests in China threatened by the revolutionary movement. I see this period as the early (or stage 1 of the) Cold War which ended in 1941. Western-Soviet hostility in the 1920s was an impediment to building an anti-Nazi alliance in the 1930s.

TP: The West has long had deep-seated Russophobia. What accounts for this?

MJC: Russophobia is not really a subject directly treated in my work. It is a form of western racism against Russia, motivated these days by the Russian threat to US world domination. This is a topic for another discussion.

TP: Are there other projects that you are researching?

MJC: I am getting on in years, and the publication of my trilogy will take up my time, inshallah, for the next couple of years. I see the trilogy as the capstone of my work as historian and author. After the trilogy is published, as I hope it will be, who knows?

TP: Professor Carley, thank you so much for your time.


Featured: “Europe will be Free!” Poster by Viktor Koretsky, 1944.

The School of Salamanca: Origins of Political Economy and International Law

At the beginning of the 16th century, Salamanca was a city of 20,000 to 24,000 inhabitants, with about 7,000 students (today there are 145,000, of whom 30,000 are students). Founded in 1243, the University of Salamanca is the third oldest university in Europe. In the Golden Age (1492-1681), Spain was the country with the largest number of university students in Europe.

The reputation of the University of Salamanca grew stronger from the 15th century onwards. It became a center of intellectual influence, the symbol of the Renaissance and of Spanish humanism. The great figures, such as Antonio de Nebrija, Fray Luis de Leon, St. John of the Cross, Luis de Gongora and many others studied there. Unlike the Universities of Valladolid and Alcala (the vanguard of Spanish Erasmism), which were mainly focused on theology, Salamanca was also oriented towards legal, political and economic studies. However, the School of Salamanca was above all a theological movement that had as its primary objective the renovation of theology.

[The two most complete works on the School of Salamanca are those of Juan Belda Plans, La Escuela de Salamanca y la renovación de la teología en el siglo XVI, and Miguel Anxo Pena González, La Escuela de Salamanca. De la Monarquía hispánica al Orbe católico].

The theological humanism of the School of Salamanca, and more broadly of the Hispanic Neo-Scholastic school (the scholastic tradition going back to the University of Paris founded around 1200), was an original synthesis of Thomism, Scotism and nominalism, enriched successively by Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans, but also by Augustinians, Mercedarians, Carmelites, secular priests, jurists and laymen. The period of its full flowering was from 1526 to 1604; thereafter, its influence declined and finally died out in 1753. At its peak, the trend in favor of Thomism as an orthodox line was very strong; but in the sixteenth century the intellectual atmosphere was open enough to allow the expression of very different concerns and visions. To illustrate this atmosphere, it is worth recalling that the universities of Salamanca, Alcala, Valladolid and Osuna were familiar with the work of Canon Copernicus, who defended heliocentrism with De Revolutionibus (1543). Its study was optional at the University of Salamanca in 1561 and its teaching was compulsory from 1594 onwards. This situation was not exceptional in sixteenth-century Spain, since the Casa de la Contratación de Indias, an institution created in 1503 to promote navigation, had a large team of royal astronomers and cosmographers fully aware of European astronomy.

[Eugenio Bustos, “La introducción de las ideas de Copérnico en la Universidad de Salamanca,” Revistas de la Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas naturales (67), pp. 235-253].

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), the Master of Masters

It was the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), who first contributed to the prestige of the School of Salamanca. Vitoria came from a family of converts. He first studied at the Universities of Burgos and La Sorbonne. He was thirty years old when he left Paris and returned to Spain. He first went to the University of Valladolid, then arrived in Salamanca in 1526, where he remained until his death.

[Since the 1980s, studies on Francisco de Vitoria have multiplied. In fifteen years (1980-1995), Ramón Hernández Martín (author of Francisco de Vitoria. Vida y pensamiento internacional) estimates no less than one hundred works have been published. See in particular, Francisco Castilla Urbano, El pensamiento de Francisco de Vitoria. Filosofía política e indio americano, and Simona Langella, Teología y ley natural. Estudio sobre las lecciones de Francisco de Vitoria].

The School of Salamanca, or “Hispanic School” (since there were many of its followers in Hispanic America), was not the result of a deliberate plan, or of a well-established project. It was a current of thought that was spontaneously created around a master. And this master-founder was Vitoria. For him, as for all his followers, if power is necessary for the State, its raison d’être and its finality can only be the common good. The Pauline idea that power comes from God was accepted by the whole of Christianity, but it gave rise to two opposing interpretations. For some, the monarch governs and imposes laws in an absolute manner, by direct delegation from God (a point of view later developed by James I of England and by Bossuet). In Spain, however, it was quite different, since the idea outlined by Isidore of Seville (560-636) at the time of the Hispano-Visigoths—that the monarch or the dominant oligarchy does not receive power directly from God, but indirectly through the people. This conception was theorized and concretized by the great masters of the School of Salamanca in the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, for Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, Luis de Molina and so many other Neo-Scholastic authors, God does not grant power directly to the monarch, but only to the people, who freely transmit it to the king by means of a pact that can be modified. The power is “of human right;” it is not directly divine, and it can be more or less ample, according to a free pact. The king is not a mediator between the will of God and the people, but rather the people are.

Vitoria’s freedom of expression from his chair is astonishing. An example: the instrument that Spain brandished to exercise its dominion over the Indies was a bull of Pope Alexander VI, which gave the Crown of Castile a right over the lands and inhabitants of the Indies. However, in two of his famous re-readings (Relectiones) De Indis and De jure belli (1539) [Francisco de Vitoria, Leçons sur les Indiens et sur le droit de guerre. trans. Maurice Barbier, o.p., (Libraire Droz, 1966)], Vitoria simply asserts that the Emperor is not the master of the world and that the Pope is not the lord of the planet either. According to Vitoria, the papal bull does not legitimize either the conquest or the discovery. He asserts that the property of the Indians does not belong to the monarch, nor to the conquistadors, and that the Spaniards do not have the right to get their hands on the gold of America or to exploit the wealth of the continent against the will of the Indians. The emperor, he says, rules over a community of free peoples. Imperial laws are only just insofar as they serve to promote, conserve, and protect the indigenous people.

What are the illegitimate and legitimate titles of domination and conquest according to Vitoria? Illegitimate are the alleged powers of the Emperor or the Pope over the world; the right of discovery; the violation of natural law by the natives (anthropophagi, human sacrifices, incest, homosexuality, etc.); the acceptance of foreign domination by a minority of the rulers and the ruled; and finally, the alleged special gift of God. Legitimate only are: the right of people and the right of natural communication; the right to preach and to announce the Gospel freely; the tyranny of the native rulers, the agreement of the majority of the natives; the alliance and the call for help from friendly peoples; and finally, a point that seems to be debatable—the temporary incapacity of the natives to administer themselves. One sees that paradoxically the arguments that justify today the right of interference (the possibility for international actors to intervene in a State, even without its consent, in case of massive violation of human rights) are not so far from his own.

In short, according to Vitoria, the Indies should be considered a political protectorate. A protectorate justifiable only insofar as it serves the welfare of the indigenous peoples. On the other hand, Vitoria and his followers generally agree that individuals who have never been Christians should not be forced to become so.

The reaction of the Emperor, Charles V, was remarkably debonair and peaceful. He limited himself to sending a letter to the prior of the convent of San Esteban in Salamanca to urge his colleagues to show a little more restraint and caution in expressing doctrines that might offend the dignity of the Emperor and the Pope.

In his 13th lesson, De jure belli, Vitoria redefines the theory of just war, developed until then by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas. He states his three principles: One should not seek the occasions and causes of war, but should live in peace with men; the rejection of the Gospel is not a reason for just war. War should not be waged for the loss of the enemy, but for the defense of one’s country and so that peace may result. It is necessary finally to have a just proportion between the violation of the right and the evils generated by the war, and to benefit from victory with measure and moderation.

If Francisco de Vitoria is often considered the founder of international law, it is not because he invented the notion of the law of nations, the jus gentium (the Greeks and the Romans already used, in the relations between States, elements of a true system of international law, later developed by Saint Augustine, Saint Isidore and Saint Thomas), but because Vitoria was able to discover the fundamental laws of relations between men. His genius was to consider the law of nations as a natural law, common to all men and to all States.

The Disciples of Vitoria

A whole group of scholars soon became part of Vitoria’s lineage. About twenty names are famous, but about 80 deserve to be studied. They soon became the moral conscience of the Empire. Among them: Domingo de Soto, known for his theory of money and his renovation of the law of nation /jus gentium; Melchor Cano, who advised King Philip II to resist the temporal claims of the Pope; Tomás de Mercado, who studied the commercial exchanges between Spain and the Indies; Martin de Azpilcueta, former rector of the University of Coimbra, who was the first economist to correctly analyze the process of inflation caused by the influx of precious metal from the Indies.

To these names should be added those of Juan Gil de Nava, Pedro de Sotomayor, Juan de la Peña, Mancio de Corpus Christi, Bartolomé de Medina, Domingo Bañez, Juan de Guevara, Luis Sarabia de la Calle, Fray Luis de León, Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva, Bartolomé de Medina and Juan de Maldonado. Then, the names of a second generation, to which belonged the Jesuits Luis de Molina (who taught in Madrid and Coimbra), Juan de Mariana, and especially Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). The economic thought of these authors was new and original. Domingo de Soto maintained that the wealth of nations came from exchange and not from the accumulation of precious metals. He was thus clearly opposed to mercantilism.

[Raoul de Scorraille, François Suárez de la Compagnie de Jésus, d’après ses lettres, ses autres écrits inédits et un grand nombre de documents nouveaux, 2 vols.; Joseph H. Fichter, Man of Spain: A Biography of Francis Suárez; José Manuel Gallegos Rocafull, La doctrina política del P. Francisco Suarez (Jus, 1948); Mateo Lanseros, La autoridad civil en Francisco Suarez (IEP, 1949); Reijo Wilenius, The Social and Political Theory of Francisco Suarez (Societas philosophica Fennica, 1963); Jean-François Courtine, Nature et empire de la loi. Études suaréziennes; and A. Couartou-Imatz, La souveraineté populaire chez Francisco Suarez (Faculté de droit de Bordeaux, 1974)].

Luis de Molina explained that the right price is the price of competition, of the game of supply and demand; that the value attributed to things is subjective and not objective, as Marx, and Ricardo before him, would later say. For Molina, the right price is the market price; it is the abundance or scarcity of goods that determines their price and not the costs of production, work or risk, as was believed in the Middle Ages (via Duns Scott).

The masters of the Salamanca school criticized excessive taxation and price controls. Price controls can and should only be exceptional. They also clearly defended property, which is necessary for social peace; to deny it, to refuse it, according to them, is a heresy (Domingo de Soto), but it is not absolute; it can never be detached from its social function.

The thinkers of Hispanic Neo-Scholasticism condemned usury, but accepted moderate interest. They were therefore attacked, on the one hand, by Protestants and Catholics who demanded a return to the purity of the Church’s doctrine and who reproached them for softening the prohibition, and, on the other hand, by secular authors who accused them of hypocrisy because they sought exceptions to the principle.

These thinkers also made a distinction between citizens and foreigners. Luis de Molina is the very example of the scholastic author who today offers arguments to defend restrictions on the international market and immigration.

After the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, the most famous author of the School of Salamanca is the Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). His work was known throughout Europe in his time. It consists of 27 volumes (unlike Vitoria who did not publish anything during his lifetime, his re-readings being notes taken by his students).

Suarez is an anti-absolutist thinker. In his Defensio fidei (1613), he states the fundamental axiom of Neo-Scholastic theology: “No king, no monarch, has or has had according to the ordinary law, the political principate immediately from God or by the act of a divine institution, but by means of human will or institution” [Cited by Couartou-Imatz, L’État et la communauté internationale dans la pensée de Vitoria (Faculté de droit de Bordeaux, 1972), p.16]. Public power always comes from God, but it is given to the people who place it in the hands of an individual or an institution for reasons of historical circumstances. This being the case, only the authority that does not lose sight of its mission is legitimate—that mission being, the attainment of the common good and the respect of human dignity. At the heart of the Neo-Scholastic approach is the integration of theology, ethics, politics and economics. The Dominicans and the Neo-Scholastic Jesuits cannot be described as individualistic thinkers in the contemporary sense, even though their work demonstrates a constant concern for human dignity.

It is only from the beginning of the nineteenth century that several Spanish and European jurists, all specialists in international law, began to recognize the influence of Vitoria and his followers on the Dutch Protestant jurists, Hugo Grotius, and the German, Samuel von Pufendorf, who were then considered the only precursors of international law. Their influence on the works of the Italian jurist, Alberico Gentili, the German philosopher, Johannes Althusius, the French political theorist, Jean Bodin, and indirectly on the group of Scottish economists, headed by Adam Smith, is equally undeniable.

The precursory character of the School of Salamanca was more and more admitted from the turn of the 20th century. In France alone, the pioneering work of Ernest Nys (1894), Alfred Vanderpol (1911), Hubert Beuve Méry (1928) and Louis Le Fur (1939) should be recalled.

In the field of economics, however, it was not until another century later that the thinkers of the School of Salamanca were recognized as the founders of modern economics. For a long time, they were confused with the most vulgar mercantilism (which defended the idea that the possession of precious metals made the wealth and power of nations). It had even been said that the thinkers of the School of Salamanca, guided by their religious principles, had been unable to understand the mechanisms of the market and prices. But this was not true!

The works of Pierre-André Sayous, Joseph Schumpeter, José Larraz Lopez, Luis Martínez Fernández, Andrés Martín Melquiades, José Barrientos, Juan Belda Plans, Murray Rothbard, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, Jesús Huerta de Soto, Raymond de Roover, Alejandro Chafuen, to name but a few, have shown that the thinkers of Hispanic Neo-Scholasticism described and systematized, long before the economists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in an almost complete way, the theory of subjective value, the theory of marginal utility, the theory of prices, the quantitative theory of money, the phenomenon of inflation and the mechanisms of exchange. What is most surprising is that modern economic science has confirmed the conclusions reached by the thinkers of the School of Salamanca through theological and ethical reasoning, as early as the 16th century.

Many ultraliberal supporters of the Austrian School have sought to see in the Salamanca School the origins of the liberal school of economic thought.

[See Alejandro A. Chafuen, Christians for Freedom. Late Scholastic Economics/ Raíces cristianas de la economía de libre mercado ( Buey Mudo, 2009); Thomas E. Woods, The Church and the Market. A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy/ La iglesia y la economía. Una defensa católica de la economía libre ( Buey Mudo, 2010); André Azevedo Alves and José Manuel Moreira, The Salamanca School. For the opposite view, see Daniel Martín Arribas, Destapando al liberalismo. La Escuela Austriaca no nació en Salamanca (SND Editores, 2018)].

Some of the most feverish supporters even went so far as to assert that “God is liberal/libertarian;” perhaps in order not to be outdone by those who, like Camilo Torres or Leonardo Boff, saw in Christ “the first communist.” But this is to forget that the Neo-Scholastic authors never separated the economy from morality, from natural law and from God. And this also forgets that the principles of a just Christian order, juridical, political, economic and social, are in direct opposition to those of a liberalism that idolizes freedom and private property.

The Influence on Power

What was the influence of the School of Salamanca in the 16th century? On the Church it was undoubtedly very important. Members of the School of Salamanca were omnipresent at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). During its three stages, the Spanish participation amounted to a total of almost a thousand people, of whom 245 are known among the most prestigious figures.

What about political power? It is impossible to overemphasize here the close and privileged relationship that existed between the thought of Vitoria and his followers and the Spanish Monarchy. On November 20, 1542, Charles V promulgated in Barcelona the New Laws of the Indies. His decree abolished slavery and the encomienda and ordered that the Indians be considered free vassals of the Crown of Castile. But obviously the ideal ran up against the realities and the interests of the men. The pressure of the Spanish authorities of the Indies and the various insurrections (in Peru) compelled the emperor to modify partially the contents of his decree. But the influence remained however tangible in the more than 3000 laws of the Indies enacted by the kings of Spain.

A word about the Valladolid controversy, which in 1550-1551 pitted the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas against the humanist theologian, also a Dominican, Juan Ginés de Sepulveda. Sepulveda declared the domination of the Indians just in order to civilize them, to teach them religion without doing it by force and to have them respect natural law. Las Casas, on the contrary, was a pacifist. According to him, there was no legal title that could justify the Spanish presence in America. He proposed the restitution of lands, compensation for the Indians and peaceful evangelization. But his pacifism was perceived by the whole School of Salamanca as an unrealistic and irresponsible thought. In this, Vitoria was paradoxically closer to the realist or moderately Machiavellian (and not at all Machiavellic) Sepulveda, a fine connoisseur of Aristotle, than to the utopian Las Casas.

[Machiavellianism refers to a conception of politics that advocates the conquest and preservation of power by all means. The adjective “Machiavellic,” which has passed into common French parlance, refers to the dark and manipulative interpretation of Machiavelli’s best-known work, The Prince (1531). Thus “Machiavellic” is always sinister and nefarious. This is to be distinguished from the term “Machiavellian,” formed by contrast to designate the concepts stemming from Machiavelli’s political philosophy, without passing judgment. Thus, “Machiavellian” is realist philosophy in politics].

Today, scholars continue to argue about the position of the Salamanca School on individual rights. For some, the Salamanca masters represent a resurgence and development of an authentically Aristotelian and Thomistic framework centered on an organicist conception and objective natural law. For others, they are closer to the notion of subjective law centered on individual rights and liberties. For some, they are part of the most orthodox Catholic tradition; for others they break with it and anticipate modernity.

Are Vitoria and his followers at the origin of the modern conception of human rights? No, answers the philosopher of law Michel Villey. “Certainly, the Spanish scholastics had a great desire to impose their theology and their conception of a natural moral law on jurists; but to derive from it duties, obligations to be borne by the individual. They were agents of order. As for deducing from the dignity of nature the ‘rights’ of man, they were not ready for it, not having the taste for anarchy, because of their attachment to tradition.” According to Villey, human rights have their source in a deviated Christian theology; they are the product of modern philosophy, which emerged in the 17th century.

In any case, the legacy of the School of Salamanca is originality of thought, a combination of an organic conception of society, centered on the common good, with a prominent place given to the dignity of man and even to individual rights; a simultaneous defense of the right of the city and the right of individuals.


Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECDHe is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.


Featured: “Francisco de Vitoria,” by Daniel Vázquez Diaz; painted in 1957.

Armenia, A Historical Betrayal

This history should never be forgotten. Its roots go back to myths, in it we find Noah, the universal flood, the beginnings of civilization and human culture, Urartu. Many pages of the Bible refer to all of this. Indeed, the southern mountains of the Western Caucasus were the ancestral home of the Armenian people, and very specifically the valleys and mountains where the so-called Artsakh or Upper Karabakh is located today. It is no coincidence that the Shusha Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Ghazanchetsots, was erected by Simon Ter Hakobyan on the remains of an ancient Armenian chapel. Artsakh is not just any region, it is the place where the founding father of the Armenian people, Hayk, decided that his people should settle forever. The mountains of Artsakh are the symbol of the faith of a people who believe in their destiny.

But let us descend from myths and legends to the harsh reality that the Armenian people are experiencing as they see how their precious cradle is being manipulated in a clear attempt to annihilate historical reality. How could it happen that an essential part of Armenia ended up in the hands of Azerbaijan? What were the motivations and circumstances that, after the Bolshevik revolution, led an ancestral Armenian territory to become an integral part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, and to remain part of that country today? Why did a territory that was Christian to the core, an area where Christianity was established from time immemorial—more than three centuries before the appearance of Islam—come to be dominated by Shiite Muslims? What strange events allowed such a thing to happen? Let us analyze the process.

Nagorno-Karabakh (Credit: The Economist).

From the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution, the relationship of the Supreme Soviet with the Islamic peoples of what had been Tsarist Greater Russia was uneasy, difficult to manage, since the Bolshevik propaganda, Marxist and atheist, seemed to produce any results; not even the creation of the new republics seemed to satisfy the national claims of the various Muslim peoples and their particularities. Communism and Islam have never gotten along, Marxism and Koran are antithetical. Atheism is a declared enemy of Islam, because it denies its own existence. But it was not only the profound differences between the Bolshevik government and the different Muslim peoples of the new USSR. For example, some of the Tatar minorities were Shiites, others were not; while the Chechens were radical Sunnis, the Muslims of the upper Volga were not, and therefore their claims were very different.

But let us analyze the process: in 1918 a committee for the Muslim nationalities existing in Soviet Russia was created, a committee that naturally depended on the Narkomnats, and by a series of circumstances Stalin accepted that the majority of that committee would be in the hands of the Tatars, which would mark his future. Obsessed with securing his power, and as was asserting his will, Stalin tried to manipulate the sub-commissioners, not wanting the internal problem of both sides allying against him.

On the other hand, in those very days, the Armenians had just survived the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks, so they were very weakened from all points of view, including politically, since even within Lenin’s own circle, it was believed that Armenians would be incapable of carrying on the existence of their own Armenian homeland. It should be pointed out that the recently re-founded Armenian state was economically ruined, defenseless, without an army to defend it, unable to feed its own people, abandoned by the advanced nations, and for all these reasons it was an easy prey for Turkey which sought to put an end to “the Armenian problem” once and for all. It should also be made clear that Kemal Atatürk did not modify Ottoman policy one iota, and although he assured Europe that he wanted a modern and secular Turkey, he also wanted it to be free of Christians and above all of Armenians.

The Democratic Republic of Armenia, independent from the Ottoman Empire since 1918, was by force of circumstances transformed on November 29, 1920 into the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, and from that very moment it did not have the slightest autonomous capacity to carry out a process of regulation of its borders based on its historical reality, but became -as all the other Soviet socialist republics- a bargaining chip for the selfish interests of the Soviet protagonists of the revolution, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and the other general secretaries, who, as mentioned above, were carrying out their particular strategy for power, while the socialist utopia remained in the background. Lenin asserted that without power, socialist reality could not be built, which was obvious. Stalin, who at that time was a parvenu without a curriculum vitae, was ready to take the plunge. It is more than demonstrated that he used the Commissariat for the Nationalities as a mere lever to achieve his political ends, and that there was not the least coherence in his decision making, although it was the circumstances that finally made him General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, unbelievably against the resounding will of Lenin, of course also of Trotsky and of the majority of the remaining leaders who at a given moment were coerced and had no alternative but to submit to Stalin, and for that reason almost all of them ended up paying for their indecision or their cowardice with their lives.

Let us see what Trotsky has to say about this, it in his biography of Stalin:

“On November 27, 1919, the 11th Congress of Muslim Communist Organizations of All-Russia and the Peoples of the East was held in Moscow. The Congress was opened by Stalin on behalf of the Central Committee of the Party. Four honorary members were elected: Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Stalin. The chairman of the Congress, Sultan-Galiev, proposed that the Congress salute Stalin as “one of those fighters who burn with a flame of hatred against international imperialism.” But it is very characteristic for the gradation of the leaders at that time, that even at this Congress the Sultan-Galiev Report on political revolution in general ended with the salutation: “Long live the Russian Communist Party! Long live its leaders, comrades Lenin and Trotsky!” Even this Congress of the Peoples of the East, held under the immediate leadership of Stalin, did not think it necessary to include Stalin among the leaders of the Party. Stalin was People’s Commissariat of Nationalities from the time of the Revolution until the dissolution of the Commissariat in 1923, when the Soviet Union and the Council of Nationalities of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.S.R. were created. It can be considered firmly established that, at least until May 1919, Stalin did not have much to do with the affairs of the Commissariat. At first, Stalin did not write the editorials of The Life of the Nationalities [Zhizn Natsionalnostei, a weekly newspaper and then a magazine, published from 1918 to 1924]. Then, when the paper began to be published in magazine format, Stalin’s editorials began to appear one issue after another. But Stalin’s literary productivity was not great, and it decreased from year to year. In 1920-1921 we find only two or three articles by him. In 1922, not a single one. By then Stalin had gone over entirely to machine politics.”

In other words, Stalin used the post as Commissar of Nationalities to guarantee his future within the politburo, knowing that until Lenin disappeared nothing was assured. Trotsky dissects in detail Stalin’s personality in that exciting and dramatic stage.

On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed in Sèvres, France, in the presence of the Turkish representatives. It was the logical consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, in which the Ottoman Empire, still ruled by Sultan Mehmed VI, accepted the de facto situation, and lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Arabia, Iraq, while Asia Minor was cut up according to the demanding criteria of the victors. Armenia, in that treaty, put together as Wilsonian Armenia, became a viable state again with the eastern part of Turkey, recomposing in part—and only in part—the historical Armenia. Naturally Atatürk assured his generals that the treaty would not be carried out, and that they would have to fight to the death to change things. He was a pragmatic man and referred exclusively to Asia Minor, to Turkey itself, knowing that its own existence as a country was at stake.

Immediately the Turkish army attacked the territories under French, Italian and Greek influence, as well as those assigned to Armenia. France did not wish to lose more men or invest more resources in a distant war. Italy could not continue either, and Greece even less. The Turks focused on expelling the Armenians from their cities, until the situation became impossible for the Armenian government, with no funds, no credit, hardly any soldiers, no weapons, although it is true that the British gave some military aid.

Atatürk, who was a good strategist, had made a pact with the SSR of Azerbaijan, which he considered Turkish, and for that reason in June 1920 the Democratic Republic of Armenia was forced to declare a costly truce with the Azeris, since the Turkish army was besieging them and driving them to exhaustion, becoming at that time the SSR of Armenia. It was the overwhelming situation which forced the Armenian government to sign peace with the Azeris, having to cede Zangezur and Nagorno-Karabakh to them, besides recognizing their dominion in Nakhchivan.

But Atatürk’s Turks kept up the war pressure on a practically exhausted Armenia, unarmed, without ammunition, without resources, without a real army that could defend its borders. It simply had no one to turn to. There were no resources, much less financial; no provisions, not for the weak Armenian army, not even for the starving and impoverished civilians. Armenian children continued to die of starvation, without hospitals, without medicine. That is why the Turks took advantage of the situation, the extreme state of the Armenian state, and entered Alexandroupolis, forcing peace.

Let us analyze the circumstances. A few days later, in fact four days later, on December 2, 1920, the Treaty of Alexandropol was signed between the recently created Armenian SSR and Turkey and what is today Gyumri, the beautiful city that during Tsarist Russia had been christened as Alexandropol. Supposedly this treaty was an agreement to end the Turkish-Armenian war, and it dismantled the Treaty of Sèvres, since Turkey demanded Armenia’s renunciation of all the territory that before the Great War had belonged to the Ottoman Empire, besides forcing it to recognize the independence of Nakhchivan.

A few months later, in mid-March 1921, within the framework of the Treaty of Moscow, Lenin decided to reach an agreement with the Great National Assembly of Turkey, whose undisputed leader was now Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the victor of Gallipoli, the only Turkish leader who could face the victors of the Great War on equal terms. It must be emphasized that neither the USSR nor the Republic of Turkey yet existed. The “Turkey” of that time was that of the National Pact, according to the resolution adopted by the Ottoman parliament on January 28, 1920. It should be noted that the northeastern borders of Turkey and those of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were defined without the participation of Armenian and Georgian representatives, while the interests of Azerbaijan were well represented by Turkey, which considered the Azeris as Turkish allies in Atatürk’s Pan-Turkist policy. Therefore, in the Treaty of Moscow it was unilaterally decided that the Kars Oblast would be assigned to Turkey, and at the request of the Turkish leader the autonomous region of Nakhichevan was also created under the protection of Azerbaijan. In compensation, at the demand of Russia, supposedly at the will and discretion of Lenin, Turkey ceded Batumi and the adjacent area to Georgia, and in such a way that the Armenians lost an essential part of their territory, and above all they were deprived of the vital possibility of having an exit to the Black Sea, that is to say, a limited and dependent Armenia was left for strategic purposes, while the Turks guaranteed their relationship based on stability with the future USSR.

At the same time, the 10th Congress of the Communist Party was taking place, where decisions of great importance were taken:

“Every group, fraction or tendency within the Party was suppressed, tendencies that arose as a consequence of the post-war crisis. Everyone had to accept the official orthodoxy under penalty of being expelled. The aim was to achieve loyalty and uniformity. Authority was concentrated in the central organs of the Party. The idea was Lenin’s and was supported by the entire Bolshevik leadership.

“In order to achieve strict discipline within the Party and in all Soviet activity and to attain the highest degree of unity possible with the suppression of all factionalism, the Congress grants the Central Committee full powers in the case or cases of any breach produced in discipline by resurgence or toleration of factionalism, to apply all measures of Party sanction, including expulsion.”

Galiev and Stalin openly confronted each other during the congress. The false, impossible friendship between the two leaders was over, and both were well aware of it. Stalin branded as reactionary the proposal that the Islamic autonomous territories should be incorporated into the Soviet Union as independent republics—in fact the claim of the Muslims not to be linked to the USSR, since Galiev was in fact very suspicious about what the future would hold for the Soviet republics, and feared that Islam would be diluted in the Marxist atheism of the Bolsheviks. Time proved him right.

Recent history has not been consistent with historical reality. Barely three months later, on July 5, 1921, Stalin’s boundless ambition prevailed. It should be remembered that it was Stalin who, without any grounds or historical basis, unilaterally, capriciously, dictatorially, decided to create the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and transfer it to the newly created Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic without any justification for his decision. Why did he carry out such an incoherent act? He was well aware of what could happen with that capricious and absurd decision.

It should be emphasized that at that time Stalin held the post of People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, (Narodny Komissariat po delam natsionálnostei, or Narkomnats). Researcher Stephen Blank maintains that this commissariat was created by the Bolsheviks to control the participation of those non-Russian ethnic groups, supposedly to give voice to the minorities, which were politically grouped in sub-commissariats for each of them: Jewish, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri or Tatar, Latvian, Polish, Buryat, Lithuanian, Estonian, and many others. In reality, what mattered to Stalin was how he could use his strategic position to climb politically and establish himself in power. For Levon Chorbajian, “the creation of Nagorno-Karabakh” was a challenge to history. Stalin, who knew very well the bitterness between Turks and Azeris on the one hand, and Armenians on the other, bet on the former “for political convenience,” that is to say within the context of Soviet-Turkish cooperation, trying to keep the influence of the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus.

Both Stalin and Kemal Atatürk were urged to resolve the burning issue of the South Caucasus, an open ulcer that bothered and harmed both sides, and which generated continuous frictions. For Stalin it was not an unknown or very distant issue; on the contrary, it was something close to him, something he had known well since his youth. No one had to explain to him about the Caucasus and its peculiarities, nor about what had just happened with the Armenians for whom he had never felt sympathy. In Georgia the Armenians had a reputation for being pragmatic people, ambitious, businessmen and good merchants; they were not empathetic with their hosts the Georgians. In Azerbaijan the same thing happened to them. In Baku they ran the main oil companies, import and export warehouses, financial institutions. They did not bother about being nice.

On the other hand, Atatürk had too many open fronts, including the very future of Turkey as a country; and Stalin was also playing for his political prestige—in short to be or not to be. It was evident to the unstable Bolshevik government that Lenin’s distrust of Stalin had already begun. Even so, Lenin allowed Stalin and Atatürk to reach an agreement and take the decision to modify and adjust the Treaty of Moscow in a new agreement to be concluded in one of the towns with the largest Armenian population eliminated during the genocide: the Treaty of Kars, to be signed on October 13, 1921, an agreement that would tie up and finalize all pending issues, especially the borders of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not even three months had passed since the unexpected cession of Upper Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which the Armenian government hoped to reverse and return to the previous situation.

In the new Treaty of Kars, the Georgians were content with the port of Batumi, not because of political sense, nor because of the Bolsheviks’ responsibility towards Georgia, but because Stalin had his own commitments. To the Azeris, Stalin—it had been a personal decision because the commissar of nationalities did not agree on anything—had granted Upper Karabakh, and also Nakhichevan, so the Azeris had nothing to object to, and besides, it was the Turks who were pressing to sign such an agreement.

On the other hand, everyone was well aware that at that very moment razzias and pogroms were being carried out in Baku and all the eastern part of Azerbaijan to eliminate the Armenians and their strong interests in the oil market with Europe. It was not something concealed—that the Turks wanted to annihilate not only the Armenian population in Turkey itself, but also in those nearby countries where Turkish influence was decisive, as was the case of Azerbaijan. The relationship between Istanbul and Baku was already akin to colonialism. But at that time the British, who had troops stationed in the Caucasus, looked the other way, among other things because the Bolsheviks, led by Stalin, allowed all this. There were too many economic and political interests involved.

The situation needs to be told in detail. From the very moment Stalin awarded Upper Karabakh to the Azeris—to their surprise since they were not expecting the present size—the latter decided to carry out an ethnic and cultural cleansing of the oblast. The Armenians protested the decision as incoherent, unjust and sectarian. It was futile. At that time the strong relationship of common interests between the Tatar leader Mirza Sultan-Galiev and Joseph Stalin prevented the incomprehensible decision from being carried out. Both of them needed each other politically; their relationship was based on a false friendship. In reality they were two strong personalities who aspired to achieve their goals at any cost.

However, the pogroms against the Armenian population of Upper Karabakh, the destruction of churches, monasteries, khachkars, of any Armenian vestige existing in the ancestral settlement, were on-going. In spite of this, the stubborn reality of the facts could not be dismissed, since near ninety percent of the population settled in the valleys and mountains of the Upper Karabakh was of Armenian origin, all of them with deep roots that came from many centuries and millennia, in which the Armenians had modeled the hard landscape of what for them was their precious Artsakh. A harsh and difficult land; unkind, yet for them it signified the roots of their ancestral homeland, the place from which Hayk’s descendants came.

On the other hand, the Azerbaijani authorities found it unfeasible to move the Azerbaijani population there and force them to settle, although in certain places of Artsakh there were occasional Azeri settlements representing about 15 percent of the population. Among other reasons, the Azeris moved there considered it a punishment, because a deep knowledge based on hundreds of generations was necessary to survive and prosper in those harsh mountains of the southern Western Caucasus.

But the Armenians resisted pogroms and threats, political coercion, attempts at physical elimination, the destruction of their cultural references. If a hermitage or a monastery was demolished, the inhabitants raised it again, showing a strong will to remain. When the Azerbaijanis decided to destroy even the stones of the resulting ruins, the Armenians returned to the old quarries to carve the necessary stones. The elders remembered even the smallest ornamental and symbolic details of their monasteries and churches, and the skilled stonemasons patiently rebuilt what had been demolished and turned to dust, in an attempt to destroy and change the true history.

It should be remembered that the policy agreed to between Galiev and Stalin was one of selective application of anti-religious propaganda. For Galiev, in those days apparently a very close and loyal friend and protégé of Stalin, who cunningly used him in his service, the religion professed by the Armenians was only a demonstration against the interests of the Bolshevik party, while the Islam of the Tartars—their Islam—was nothing other than the expression of the will of Almighty God.

In the background, Galiev’s political ambition in those days was the creation of a great Tatar-Baskir republic in which Christian Armenia had no place. His secret, unspoken will was to finish what the Ottoman Turks had attempted: the definitive elimination, the disappearance, the expulsion of every last Armenian from the Armenia that had been allotted to them—in the end barely twenty percent of Wilsonian Armenia, of which neither Galiev, nor the administration of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, nor Stalin himself wanted to know anything about.

We say here that the Wilsonian Armenia contained in the Treaty of Sèvres remains intact—intact, complete, no matter how much people try to throw dirt on it, no matter how much they try to erase it from memory, no matter how many intermediate treaties have been signed—for the simple reason that that process was closed falsely. The political representatives of the Armenian people did not sign the Treaty of Lausanne in which an attempt was made to hastily modify the previous Treaty of Sèvres, without the necessary valid agreements, which did include precisely everything agreed upon and signed, including by the authorized representatives of the State of Turkey.

As for the Armenian participation in the Treaty of Moscow, it was null and void; and in the Treaty of Kars, the Armenian representatives were coerced and forced to sign it. However, two years later, in 1923, Galiev was tried and convicted for nationalist deviationism, and although Stalin carried out a series of purges against the Bashkir and Tatar followers of Galiev, he did not want to change his decision to award Upper Karabakh to the Azeris. In 1940 Galiev’s drama ended when he was shot in Moscow on Stalin’s orders, like the vast majority of those who opposed him for whatever reason. However, an essential matter, such as the allocation of an essential part of the historical Armenian territory, such as the Upper Karabakh to Azerbaijan, was not annulled, in spite of energetic Armenian protests.

Many years later—an eternity for the great majority of the peoples subjugated under the USSR—in 1991, the USSR was dissolved and, like all the other republics that made it up, the Soviet Muslim republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were transformed into independent republics, as had been Galiev’s intention seventy years earlier. Within the current Russian Federation itself, we still find the Muslim republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, which had no other choice, or which for their own reasons preferred to remain linked to Russia. In spite of everything, Galiev was not wrong. However, against common sense and logic, producing terrible damage to two peoples who should bury their quarrels forever, Stalin’s spurious decision is still remains, defying historical justice, like a festering ulcer that will only heal definitively with determination and intelligence.


G.H. Guarch is one of the leading writers of historical novels in Spanish. He received the 1997 Blasco Ibáñez Narrative Award for his novel, Las puertas del paraíso [The Gates of Paradise], and in 2007, he received the prestigious AGBU Garbis Papazian Award, for his trilogy of novels about the Armenian genocide: El árbol armenio [The Armenian Tree], The Armenian Testament, and La montaña blanca [The White Mountain]. He has recently been awarded the Movses Khorenatsi Medal, the highest cultural distinction in Armenia. [This article appears through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto].


Featured: Church of Varazgom.

The Continuous Creativity of Western Visual Arts

The white students you have seen recently vandalizing cherished Western paintings likely never read a book about the history of Western art. In academia today, the West is rarely a subject of praise and almost always a subject of derision. Anyone who approaches the history of visual arts from an impartial perspective—concerned only with aesthetics, creativity, and originality—can’t help but realize, as I am about to explain in this article, that Western art stands on a league of its own. Making this claim goes against the relentless promotion of immigrant multiculturalism across the West today, which necessarily comes along with the notion that the art of the diverse peoples of the world is equally good.

Not long ago the celebrated historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto called Kenneth Clark’s judgement that Greek art undoubtedly “embodies a higher state of civilization” than African art a “warped perspective,” “a crude perversion of prejudice.” No civilization can be said to be “better,” Fernández-Armesto insisted, since each culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is adapted to a specific environment. We must abandon, in our increasingly diverse West, the “delusions of self-flattery” by Europeans. Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003) has no such qualms: it enumerates the outstanding contributions of individuals to the arts and sciences of countries across the world from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Murray concludes that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishments in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America.” He estimates that the absolute number of great visual artists in the West is far higher than the combined number of the other civilizations: 479 for the West as compared to 192 for China and Japan combined (with no significant figures listed for India and the Arab World). Murray relies on the judgments of the knowledge community in his statistical inventories. He defines excellence in the sciences in a pragmatic and objective manner in relation to whether the scientific idea empirically reflects significant aspects of “reality” according to the methodologies now accepted cross-culturally in the world.

But what about excellence in the arts, where different peoples don’t rely on cross-culturally accepted standards? Murray defines “high aesthetic quality” differently. While acknowledging that it is difficult to apply a uniform standard of excellence, he adds that the ability to appreciate the quality of a work of art “varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it.” Those who know most about an artistic field have a deeper understanding of the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the works produced. The consensus one finds among art critics, notwithstanding some variations in individual judgements, reflect qualities that are inherent in the work of art. There is a strong degree of consensus about the greatest paintings and painters. The compilation of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books about the best art and artists reflects this consensus within each respective civilization.

My disagreement with Murray is that the numbers of 479 and 192 leave out a most peculiar characteristic of Western art: its exhibition of a continuous proliferation of highly original artists with new artistic styles, new ways of projecting images on a flat surface, new conceptions of light, new standards of excellence, and new conceptions about nature and man—in contrast to a nonwestern world where aesthetic norms barely changed or where artists were invariably inclined to follow an established convention without breaking new aesthetic paths. To appreciate the achievement of the West it is not enough to have separate lists comparing great artists across civilizations. Among the 479 great painters compiled for the West one will find a much higher number of original artists than among the 192 artists compiled for China and Japan.

I don’t need to be an expert to know this. Reading some of the best histories of art has been enough to convey to me this startling contrast between the West and the Rest. This article compares the artistic greatness of civilizations in painting by examining great books in the history of art. I have in mind four of the most widely read and authoritative books: H. W. Janson’s History of Art, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Arnold Hauser’s four-volume book, The Social History of Art, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. I also examine the highly regarded book, The Arts of China, by Michael Sullivan, in partial combination with James Cahill’s Chinese Painting (1960), to get the perspective of admirers of Chinese art. The focus will be on whether China really saw new “isms” or merely continuous refinements and slight alterations within an unbroken tradition set in the past. For the purposes of this article, China is the one civilization that can be compared to the West in having exhibited the highest number of great painters as well as some noticeable changes in artistic styles. This article will then try to convey the novelties of Western art by citing the judgements of Gombrich, Clark and, to a lesser extent, Hauser. Unless one is very knowledgeable about the aesthetics of painting, it is very difficult to express exactly what makes a particular painting or painter truly great and original. Time consuming as it has been, I have thus decided to rely on the aesthetic judgments of these authors, citing their words regularly.

H.W. Janson

H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962, with a sixteenth printing in 1971, which I am using, and numerous new editions thereafter, is an encyclopedic treatment of the history of art, with millions of copies sold in fifteen languages. Janson came from a Lutheran family of Baltic German stock. His criterion for choice of great art is “ORIGINALITY.” “Uniqueness, novelty, freshness” are the “yardstick of artistic greatness.” “An original work must not be a copy, reproduction, imitation, or translation.” But be careful: Janson warns against a flimsy understanding of what “originality” entails, making the key point that “without TRADITION…no originality would be possible.” Absorbing “the artistic tradition” of one’s time, learning the “established ways of drawing, painting, carving, designing” and the “established ways of seeing,” is a precondition for creativity (pp. 12-15) .

This criterion underpins Janson’s magisterial book. This book has three opening chapters on “The Art of Prehistoric Man,” “Egyptian Art,” and “The Ancient Near East.” The rest of the book, with the exception of a short chapter on “Islamic Art” and a short “Postscript” with the title “The Meeting of East and West,” is entirely about Western art. These traditions really interest him insofar as they “contributed to the growth of the Western artistic tradition” (p. 569). He ignored China, Japan, and India until the end because they were not a “vital source of inspiration for Western art” except in contemporary times. New styles of art, new techniques and schools, was a uniquely Western phenomenon. Short sections on Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Islamic art are sufficient to convey the aesthetic qualities of these traditions, with their ceremonial forms and eventual repetitiveness after a period of creativity. The East Asian tradition had a “refined style” characterized by “many centuries of continuous development” (p. 569).

It can’t be denied, however, that this marginal treatment of Chinese art is a limitation of Janson’s book. We will see that there were some variations in artistic styles in China, and truly great painters. But Janson had to make choices. It is a large size book of 600+ pages in small print because the originality of the West is persistently great. Conveying this originality required full separate chapters on Greek Art, Roman Art, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Romanesque Art, Gothic Art, Late Gothic Painting and Sculpture, The Early Renaissance in Italy, The High Renaissance in Italy, Mannerism and Other Trends, The Renaissance in the North, The Baroque in Italy and Germany, The Baroque in Flanders, Holland, and Spain, The Baroque in France and England, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture. History of Art was determined to convey to students precisely what stood out about the Western tradition: its continuous freshness and ability to generate one artistic epoch after another, rather than a relatively continuous and monotonous tradition.

Arnold Hauser

Arnold Hauser (1892-1978) was a Hungarian Marxist with Jewish ancestry, an admirer of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, writing at a time when students were educated without diversity and equity mandates. The Social History of Art, first published in 1951, the product of thirty years of labor, opens with eight short chapters on prehistoric, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian art, covering less than fifty pages in a four-volume book that is close to 1000 pages long. This rightfully valued book argues that art became more realistic and naturalistic as Europe became less aristocratic and hierarchical, more bourgeois, urbane and cosmopolitan. A “naturalistic style” actually prevailed through to the end of the Paleolithic Age in the way animals were depicted in a realistic way, although the art was concerned as well with the performance of magical rituals. This naturalistic attitude, which was “open to the full range of experience,” gave way in the Neolithic Age to a “narrowly geometric stylization” in which the “artist tended to shut himself off from the wealth of empirical reality.” This “formalistic” and “ornamental style” persisted through the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with minor variations (Vol 1: pp. 8-21).

The profound changes that accompanied the rise of these civilizations did not occasion fundamental changes to the Neolithic geometrical and formalistic style other than the addition of a monumental quality. We should not “underestimate the spirit of conservatism” of Egyptian art. In Egyptian art, “the person of the artist himself disappeared almost entirely behind his work.” Painters and sculptors remained “anonymous” and “undistinguished” craftsmen, “in no way obtruding their own personalities” (Vol. 1: p. 27). The art of the early period of Egyptian history was “stereotyped” and “stylized” in the Middle Kingdom (2040 -1782 BC), characterized by “conservatism and conventionalism.” “Ancient-Oriental art…is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette” (Vol. 1: p. 31-35).

There was a bit of naturalism during the reign of Akhenaton (1351–1334 BC), known as the “first prophet” and the “discoverer of monotheism.” But while one sees representations of everyday scenes and some aversion from the old monumental style, the art remained “thoroughly ceremonial and formal.” The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylonian and Assyrian, despite their more dynamic trade, industry and finance, were “more rigidly disciplined, less changeable” in their art than Egypt. One would have expected the higher urbanity of the Babylonians to have encouraged less rigid forms of art, but Hauser infers that the persistency of despotic rule and “the more intolerant spirit of religion” likely countered any individualistic and naturalistic impulses (Vol. 1: pp. 42-43).

It is only in ancient Crete that Hauser finally encounters a “colorful, unrestrained, exuberant life” in art. Hauser’s argument is not that from this point on Western art is persistently creative, never rigid and traditionalist. New artistic epochs emerge (Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism) in opposition to prevailing conventions with increasing acceleration from the Renaissance onwards, led by artists who purposely wanted to break away from the prejudices of their age, innovate and experiment, and demonstrate thereby their own artistic genius. Hauser’s heavy focus on social history and literature is the reason why I will be citing him less than Gombrich and Clark.

E.H. Gombrich

The Story of Art, originally published in 1950, is currently in its 16th edition. Wikipedia says that “over seven million copies” of this book “have been sold, making it the best-selling art book of all time.” It “has been translated into approximately 30 languages.” Unlike Hauser, who follows a Marxist conception of progress in the arts, Gombrich, born in Vienna into an assimilated family of Jewish origin, carefully rejects the idea of progress, believing that “each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value” (p. 3). Achieving originality in one age usually entails sacrificing aesthetic qualities emphasized by preceding generations. At the same time, Gombrich thinks it is possible, much like Charles Murray, to make judgements about the quality of art, as long as it is a critic with aesthetic sensibilities developed through years of education.

The Story of Art is a history of art from the beginnings to the present. Gombrich estimates that three chapters, out of twenty five, are enough to cover the achievements of primitive and nonwestern art. His reason for doing this is simple:

Western Europe always differed profoundly from the East. In the East [artistic] styles lasted for thousands of years, and there seemed no reason why they should ever change. The West never knew this immobility. It was always restless, groping for new solutions and new ideas (p. 131).

Among European painters there was an “urge to be different,” do something new, find a new way to enhance the aesthetic effect of the work, convey something different about the world, new life experiences along with permanent aspects of human nature. Using originality and restless creativity as his central criterion, Gombrich could not but pay far less attention to an Eastern artistic tradition that remained continuously the same through the centuries. He writes about Egypt’s “art of eternity.”

No one wanted anything different, no one asked him to be “original.” On the contrary, he was probably considered the best artist who could make his statues most like the admired monuments of the past. So it happened that in the course of three thousand years or more Egyptian art changed very little…True, new fashions appeared, and new subjects were demanded of the artists, but their mode of representing man and nature remained essentially the same (p. 42).

About Chinese and Japanese art, he observes:

The standards of painting remained very high…but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known. It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that the Japanese dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects (p. 108).

Gombrich has a keen eye for what was distinctive about each epoch of Western art and what was original about each of the major painters. And so does Kenneth Clark. What I will do next is make a few introductory remarks about Clark’s book Civilisation, then write about the historical essentials of Chinese painting, before I return to what Gombrich, Clark, and Hauser say about Western originality.

Kenneth Clark

Clark’s book, as he says in the Foreword, “is made up of the scripts of a series of television programmes given in the spring of 1969.” The series, produced by the BBC under the same name as the book’s title, consisted of thirteen programmes, each fifty minutes long, singularly focused on European art from the end of the Dark Ages to the early twentieth century. Many were surprised by the “unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and 5 million in the US.” Everyone was impressed. Civilisation was “the first magnum opus attempted and realised in terms of TV”—”setting the standard for later documentary series.”

But complaints were inevitable in the thoroughly multicultural and feminist Britain of recent times. Overtly the objections came down to Clark’s “all men” and “all European” cast of great painters. They were upset as well by Clark’s identification of the word “Civilisation” with the creation of great art, combined with his belief that the West produced the greatest art. This may explain why the BBC announced in 2015 a new ten-episode sequel to Clark’s series to be called Civilisations (plural), with three presenters: “the committed feminist and anti-racist” Mary Beard, the Nigerian immigrant David Olusoga, and the Jew Simon Schama. This new series would emphasize “non-European cultures” to “convey a message of globalism” by “revelling in the variety of our species’ ingenuity on an international scale.”

Couldn’t these resentful conformists produce a series with a different title on the artistic achievements of women and nonwhites? No. The aim of equity and inclusion is to undermine the greatness of European culture by mixing it up with other cultures. Although Clark does not compare Western to non-Western art, and starts with the Dark Ages rather than ancient Greece, the following words in the beginning of Civilisation would have disqualified him today from any public appearance:

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of Civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world — that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony… There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world. But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium… Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in ancient Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted unchanged for six hundred years.

It is this conviction that Western art expresses the highest man has achieved in aesthetics that irks the new diversity-controlled Britain. Civilisation is a joy to read for its high minded learning and its enthusiastic appreciation of the sublime originality of Western art in its incessant striving for new forms of aesthetic perfection. Other civilizations remained content with reenacting the perfection they had achieved in the past. The West was different:

The great, indeed the unique, merit of European Civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration (p. 74).

What about Chinese Painting?

To assess Chinese painting I will rely on Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China, a comprehensive study of Chinese art and a long standing text for university students, now in its sixth edition. I will make some references to James Cahill’s beautiful book, Chinese Painting (1960), with its numerous color transparencies of paintings in plates. I can’t disagree with Cahill that “the Chinese tradition of painting [is] the richest and most diversified in world art outside Europe” (p. 5). Sullivan is also a keen admirer of Chinese art. The claim that Chinese art was relatively observant of tradition, or attached to old ways, is an interpretation Sullivan would deny as a matter of principle. Cahill less so. Yet, the overall message I take from Sullivan’s The Arts of China is that this art was very traditional. Much of Chinese “art,” it should be said, consisted of bronze casting, ceramics, and jade carving. This “art” was highly sophisticated in technique and decoration, but I hesitate to call it art. It should be categorized as applied art, the work of highly skilled craftsmen. As H.W. Janson writes, “originality is what distinguishes art from craft.”

While paintings with human figures were common from the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) until the end of the Tang (618 to 907), by the eleventh century landscape painting was the characteristic product until the end of dynastic rule in the twentieth century. Both the human figure and landscape painting operated within a stable craft-like tradition, occasionally exhibiting interesting variations, without epoch-making redirections. There is less individuality and self-consciousness in Chinese portraits. As Cahill observes about the painting below, which is a 12th century remake of an earlier 8th century original, the characters are conscious in their sidelong glances, their postures, the way the hands are poised and the heads tilted, but the picture “tells us nothing about the participants beyond defining their roles in this particular scene… nor is there any of the extraneous overlay—humor, drama, pathos, sentiment—that is so often present in Occidental genre art” (pp. 20-21).

Landscape painting occurred within a cultural matrix that encouraged standardization and regularity, rather than unpredictability and freshness. Sullivan tells us that the “Six principles of Chinese painting,” which the painter and art critic Xie He wrote in the 6th century, “remained the pivot around which all subsequent art criticism in China has resolved” (p. 95, my italics). These six elements were: “spirit harmony,” the way of using the brush, “fidelity to the object in portraying forms,” “conformity to kind in applying colors,” “proper planning in placing of elements,” and “transmission by copying.” The sixth principle “indicates reverence for the tradition itself, of which every painter felt himself to be a custodian” (p. 96). Overall this manual told prospective painters that:

Making exact copies of ancient, worn masterpieces was a way of preserving them, just as, at a later date, working “in the manner of” great painters of the past, while adding something of oneself, was a way of putting new life into the traditions (p. 96).

This passage sums up the underlying nature of Chinese creativity. New trends consisted in breaking from the regimented traditions of one’s age by reviving and putting new life into early traditions. Of course, within any tradition, painters were expected to add something of their own, otherwise they would have produced mere replicas. Not just in art but in philosophy, as I have argued elsewhere, every “new” philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism” or through different mixtures of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Sullivan mentions Daoist painters who deviated somewhat from “the rigidly traditional way of art and literature” and painters who were influenced by Buddhism late in the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), who nurtured a “new” tradition in Chinese sculpture that “contained a rich mixture of native and foreign elements” (133).

According to Sullivan, the “great masters of the tenth and eleventh centuries are sometimes called classical because they established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which later painters were to return again and again for inspiration” (p. 169). Likewise, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) “occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese landscape painting” because “he united a direct, spontaneous expression of feeling with a deep reverence for the antique” (203). He is said to have gone “beyond the orthodox Song styles” by rediscovering “the brushwork of the long neglected southern manner of [the painters] Dong Yuan and Juran” from the earlier Southern Tang dynasty (937–975). In doing this, Mengfu, “opened the way…for almost all subsequent scholarly landscape painting up to the present day” (203). The “urge to penetrate the unknown,” identified by H. W. Janson as a hallmark of Western originality, was lacking in Chinese painting.

Sullivan indeed tells us that “up until the Yuan, each painter had built upon the achievement of his predecessors in enriching his pictorial vocabulary and drawing closer to nature.” But after Mengfu this “succession was broken, as artists began to range back over the whole tradition, reviving, playing variations upon, and painting in the manner of the great masters, particularly those of the tenth and eleventh centuries” (207). Sullivan calls this “a new and indeed revolutionary attitude to painting”—yet it was just a return to an older tradition. Again, we observe this same type of “revolutionary attitude” in Chinese intellectual history: breaking from a stultified Neo-Confucian tradition by going back to the original Confucian tradition, or by integrating Daoist elements into the Confucian tradition.

With continuous generations perfecting landscape painting, refining and elaborating different variations, Chinese painting could not but be masterful. Since landscapes are inherently diverse, there was always room to paint different things, pictures of flowers, birds, insects and animals. We find Bian Wenjin (1400-1440) specializing in painting birds in fresh ways. Chinese painters also portrayed scholars seated on mountain ledges gazing at some landscape or meditating. All in all, however, these variations occurred within an established tradition. In his Qingbian Mountains of 1617, Dong Qichang affirmed his philosophy that “the great Southern tradition must be not only revived and preserved, but creatively reinterpreted, for only thus could it live” (p. 229). A new generation would go back to an older tradition to find ways to express it in new ways. Once the “new” way became a tradition, stultification would set in. “The most characteristic intellectual achievement of the Qing dynasty was, like of the Ming, not creative as much as synthetic.” The Qing age was “an antiquarian age,” and not just in painting but in its overall obsession with the collection of classic books as well as paintings, porcelain, and archaic bronzes” (246).

Western Originality: From Ancient to Gothic Times

If you asked someone what exactly makes Greek art great, what was original about the art of Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Rembrandt, or what’s the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting, or what’s new about Mannerism, Rococo, Naturalism, Impressionism, and Surrealism—you will invariably get answers full of generalities without proper distinctions. It is for this reason that I have decided to go through the very time-consuming task of distilling some of the best passages from Gombrich and Clark (and a few ones from Hauser) that, in my estimation, bring out what was novel and truly great about particular Western artists and particular works of art.

Gombrich sees a “great wakening” in Greece:

It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit…in the sixth century BC. We know that before that time the artists of the old Oriental empires had striven for a peculiar kind of perfection. They had tried to emulate the art of their forefathers as faithfully as possible, and to adhere strictly to the sacred rules they had learned…[With the Greeks] it was no longer a question of learning a ready-made formula for representing the human body. Every Greek sculptor wanted to know how he was to represent a particular body. (p. 52, his italics).

One of the greatest artistic accomplishments of the ancient Greeks was “the discovery of foreshortening,” which relates to the way we perceive an object in space depending on the angle from which we see it. It was in Greece that “artists dared for the first time in all history to paint a foot as seen from in front.” It may seem exaggerated to dwell for long on such a small detail, but it really meant that the old art was dead and buried. It meant that the artist no longer aimed at including everything in the picture in its most clearly visible form, but took account of the angle from which he saw an object (pp. 53-4).

Then came Hellenistic art with its realistic portrayals of particular characters.

It is a strange fact…that the Greek artists…avoided giving the faces a particular expression…Greek statues, of course, are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull and blank, but their faces never seem to betray any definite feeling…It was in the generation after Praxiteles, towards the end of the fourth century, that this further great discovery was made in art. By the time of Alexander the Great…the heads of the statues usually look much more animated and alive than the beautiful faces of earlier works. Together with this mastery of expression, artists also learned to seize the individual character of a physiognomy and to make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of portraiture (p. 72).
This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient Oriental art had no use for landscapes except as settings for their scenes of human life…For Greek art at the time of…Praxiteles, man remained the subject of the artist’s interest. In the Hellenistic period, the time when poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasures of the countryside for sophisticated town-dwellers (p. 77).

One should not presume, however, that the creativity of Hellenistic art was bound to continue. “The Hellenistics,” as Arnold Hauser observes, eventually “reached a dead end and simply went on repeating worn-out formulas” (97). Similarly, after Byzantine art expressed its own original style in the fourth century AD, it became rigid and inflexible, and while it experienced a “second golden age” in the ninth and tenth centuries, with some magnificent mosaic paintings, it became “formally stereotyped again…so conservative in fact that in essentials the icons of the Greek Orthodox monasteries were still being painted in the same manner in the seventeenth as in the eleventh century” (p. 128).

Gombrich—who starts with ancient Greece, in contrast to Clark who starts with the “Dark Ages”—ignores the contributions of Roman art, particularly the way in which Roman portraitures raised to a higher level the portrayal of the “real” personality of individuals. But it can’t be denied that this art, too, became stereotyped and conventional, including Rome’s unique architectural forms of the arch, vault, and dome, although through the passage of time the potential of these forms were fully exploited in the construction of a wide range of engineering structures, theatres, aqueducts, bridges, circuses, and temples.

The term “Dark Ages” is restricted to the period from about AD 400 to AD 1000, rather than covering the full Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Franks, who brought Rome down, and later the Northmen or Vikings who raided and pillaged Christian villages and monasteries, included highly skilled craftsmen capable of finely wrought metalwork and excellent wood carvings with intricately beautiful patterns. At the court of Charlemagne the tradition of Roman architecture was resurrected in the Palatine Chapel built in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) around AD 800, a copy of the famous the Basilica of San Vitale that had been built in Ravenna 300 years before. The notion of creating something different or original was still absent. Gombrich senses, however, an emerging disposition among medieval Christian artists “to express” what they “felt, beyond the Egyptian predilection to express ceremonial and stereotypical images, and the Greek-Roman predilection for a style that alternately emphasized realistic and idealizing elements.” While the painter of the figure of St. Matthew writing the gospel (dated AD 800) expressed his talent by copying an original copy as “faithfully as possible,” the painter of the same figure (dated AD 830), Gombrich thinks, “must have aimed at a different interpretation.”

Perhaps he did not want to represent the evangelist like any serene scholar, sitting quietly in his study. To him St Matthew was an inspired man, writing down the Word of God. It was an immensely important and immensely exciting event in the history of mankind that he wanted to portray, and he succeeded in conveying something of his own sense of awe and excitement in this figure of a writing man (114-15).

The Romanesque period did not simply resurrect the Roman art of vaulting large heavy buildings but through the eleventh and twelfth centuries was characterized by “ceaseless experiment” and the realization that “it was not really necessary to make the whole roof so heavy.” It was possible to fill the intervals between a number of firm arches with lighter materials, “arches or ribs crosswise between the pillars.” This revolutionary idea in architecture can be traced as far back as the Norman cathedral of Durham (p. 123).

Among the great works of art Kenneth Clark includes from the Dark Ages is the Cross of Lothair (about AD 1000), “one of the most moving objects that has come down to us from the distant past… an image of worldly imperium at its most civilized” (p. 19). It was “about the year 1100” that western Europe saw “an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence” with the “triumph of the Church” playing a major role. The Chartres Cathedral was a “masterpiece of harmonious proportion.” The main portal of the Chartres “is one of the most beautiful congregations of carved figures in the world. The longer you look at it, the more moving incidents, the more vivid details you discover” (p. 55). “One must remember,” Clark continues, “that to medieval man geometry was a divine activity. The Chartres, indeed, “was the centre of a school of philosophy devoted to Plato, and in particular to his mysterious book called the Timaeus, from which it was thought that the whole universe could be interpreted in the form of measurable harmony” (p. 52). God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles.

For Gombrich, the Gothic style further revolutionized the Romanesque vaulting method by means of crosswise arches “much more consistently and to much greater purpose.” For Clark, Gothic vaulting and the device known as flying buttresses “remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements.”

Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture, say the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to make them transcend it by means of proportion or by the colors of precious marbles, he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. Now by the devices of the Gothic style…he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit (59-60).

For Hauser, “the rise of Gothic style marks the most fundamental change in the history of modern art.”

The interior of the Romanesque church is a self-contained stationary space that permits the eye of the spectator to rest and remain in perfect passivity. A Gothic church, on the contrary, seems to be in process of development, as if it were rising up before our very eyes; it expresses a process, not a result (Vol. 1: pp. 175, 220).

The Gothic sculptor, writes Gombrich, “approached his task in a new spirit,” imbuing his statues with “an individual dignity” beyond portraying individuals as representatives of “sacred symbols” copied from religious texts. Gothic statues “look immensely energetic and vigorous.” Gothic “knowledge of the human body…was infinitely greater than that of the painter of the twelfth century miniature” (pp. 137, 139). Clark connects the Gothic world to a new world of chivalry, chastity, and courtly love.

Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the Civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. It was entirely unknown in antiquity. Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was too great, that a whole lifetime might be spent paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf, this would seem to the Romans or to the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature—from Chrétien the Troyes to Shelley (p. 64).

The “cult of ideal love” found expression in the “ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the thirteenth century” identified as “the Gothic Virgin and Child in ivory.” Clark notes that Gothic artists also took pleasure in leaves, flowers, and, most of all, birds in manuscript illustrations; “artists drew them with such obsessive accuracy, and I think the reason is that they had become symbols of freedom…Birds were cheerful, hopeful, impudent, and mobile.”

Gombrich says that the painting Faith (1306) by Giotto, born near Florence in about 1265,

gives the illusion of a statue in the round…[E]arly Christian art had reverted to the old Oriental idea that to tell a story clearly every figure had to be shown completely, almost as was done in Egyptian art. Giotto abandoned these ideas…He shows us so convincingly how each figure reflects the grief of the tragic scene…Giotto begins an entirely new chapter in the history of art. From this day onwards the history of art, first in Italy and then in other countries also, is the history of the great artists (pp. 144-148).

Clark thinks that before Giotto “Italian painting was really only a less polished form of Byzantine painting. It was flat, flowing linear style based on traditional concepts which had changed very little for five hundred years. For Giotto to break away from it and evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of the feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art” (p. 80).

Italian Renaissance

What was new about the Italian Renaissance? According to Clark:

Medieval architects had designed on a mathematical basis, but it seems to have been of immense complexity, as elaborate as scholastic philosophy. The Renaissance architects used much simpler geometrical figures – the square, the circle, forms which they believed to have some ultimate perfection – and they entertained the idea that these forms must be applicable to the human body: that each, so to say, guaranteed the perfection of the other…The same approach was applied to painting, in the system known as perspective, by which it was through that with mathematical calculation one could render on a flat surface the precise position of a figure in space. This too seems to have been invented by Brunelleschi, but we can see it best in the works of this two friends, Ghiberti and Donatello…The belief that one could represent a man in a real setting and calculate his position and arrange figures in a demonstrably harmonious order, expressed symbolically a new idea about man’s place in the scheme of things and man’s control over his own destiny (p. 96-99).

Gombrich says that with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

we see at once that it [the Capella Pazzi) has little in common with any classical temple, but even less with the forms used by Gothic builders. Brunelleschi has combined columns, pilasters and arches in his own way to achieve an effect of lightness and grace which is different from anything that had gone before…To him, it seems, is due another momentous discovery in the field of art…that of perspective. We have seen that even the Greeks, who understood foreshortening, and the Hellenistic painters who were skilled in creating the illusion of depth, did not know the mathematical laws by which objects diminish in size as they recede into the background (pp. 163-5).

For Clark, “the invention of the individual” was the source of the Renaissance’s creativity. In medieval art, “people were presented to the eye as figures that symbolised their status” but in Renaissance portraits the personalities of individuals are revealed with details of their daily lives. Giorgione, “the passionate lover of physical beauty,” painted (1500-1510) a picture of an old woman with extreme realism, titled Col tempo, “with time,” of a woman who “must have once been a beauty,” her face ravaged by time.

Hauser makes an important observation about the “individualism” of the Renaissance: while “strong personalities already existed in the Middle Ages, yet to think and act individually is one thing and to be conscious of one’s individuality, to affirm and deliberately to intensify it, is another” (Vol. 2: p. 62). For Gombrich, it was Masaccio (1401-1428) who “brought about a complete revolution in painting.”

This revolution did not consist only in the technical trick of perspective painting…We can imagine how amazed the Florentine’s must have been when this wall painting was unveiled and seemed to have made a hole in the wall through which they could look into a new chapel in Brunelleschi’s modern style (p. 165).

There was something “entirely new” in the painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), says Gombrich.

He was the inventor of oil painting… What he achieved was a new preparation of paints before they were put on the panel… For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term (pp. 170-4).

In Piero della Francesca, Gombrich continues, “light not only helps to model the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth” (p. 189). In the equestrian statue which Andrea del Verrocchio made in 1488 of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni,

we see how minutely he studied the anatomy of the horse, and how clearly he observed the position of the muscles and veins. But most admirable of all is the posture of the horseman, who seems to be riding ahead of his troops with an expression of bold defiance (p. 213).

It is said that this statue was not a portrait of Colleoni but of the idea of a strong and ruthless military commander “bursting with titanic power and energy.”

In Leonardo da Vinci,

there was nothing in nature which did not arouse his curiosity and challenge his ingenuity. He explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting more than thirty corpses. He was one of the first to probe the mysteries of the growth of the child in the womb; he investigated the laws of waves and currents; he spent years observing and analysing the flight of insects and birds…Never before had the sacred episode [The Last Supper] appeared so close and so lifelike. (pp. 214, 216-17).

Clark believes that Leonardo “belongs to no epoch, he fits into no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes…he was the most relentlessly curious man in history…Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s note-books, one is absolutely worn out by this energy” (135). According to Gombrich, what stands out about Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in history,

is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her…Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is the effect of every great work of art (p. 218-19).

No artist before Michelangelo, adds Gombrich

had even come near expressing the greatness of the mystery of creation with such simplicity and force…It is one of the greatest miracles in art how Michelangelo has contrived thus to make the touch of the Divine hand the centre and focus of the picture, and how he has made us see the idea of omnipotence by the ease and power of this gesture of creation (pp. 224-7).

In stark contrast to most current academics who agree with Fernández-Armesto’s dogma that survival and woke politics are the qualities that define a civilisation, Clark sees “the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man” for having extended in his art the “powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.” For Hauser,

Michelangelo rises to absolutely unprecedented heights…He is the first example of the modern, lonely, demonically impelled artist—the first to be completely possessed by his idea and for whom nothing exists but his idea—who feels a deep sense of responsibility towards his gift and sees a higher and superhuman power in his own artistic genius (Volume 2: p. 60).

Raphael, says Gombrich, possessed a unique artistic capacity to achieve

constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced. It is for this supreme mastery of arranging his figures, this consummate skill in composition, that artists have admired Raphael ever since…Raphael was seen to have accomplished what the older generation had striven so hard to achieve: the perfect and harmonious composition of freely moving figures (p. 234).

Clark devotes considerable attention to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) a “very strange character,” “intensively self-conscious and inordinately vain.” “No man has ever described natural objects, flowers and grasses and animals, more minutely; and yet, to my mind, something is missing – the inner life” (151).

But if Dürer did not try to peer so deeply into the inner life of nature, as Leonardo did, nor feel its appalling independence, he was deeply engaged by the mystery of the human psyche. His obsession with his own personality was part of a passionate interest in psychology in general, and this led him to produce one of the great prophetic documents of western man, the engraving he entitled Melancholia…The figure is humanity at its most evolved with wings to carry her upwards…holds in her hands the compasses, symbols of measurement by which science will conquer the world. Around her are all the emblems of constructive action: a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, a melting pot, and two elements in solid geometry, a polyhedron and sphere. Yet all these aids to construction are discarded and she sits there brooding on the futility of human effort. Her obsessive stare reflects some deep psychic disturbance (152-55).

In The Holy Night (1530), says Gombrich, we can see how Correggio (1489-1534), more so than Titian,

exploited the discovery that colour and light can be used to balance forms and to direct our eyes along certain lines. It is we who rush to the scene with the shepherd and who are made to see what he sees — the miracle of the Light that shone in darkness of which the Gospel of St. John speaks (p. 247).

Catholic Baroque and Mannerism

As you read the following passages, think about Leonardo da Vinci’s remark about the indomitable desire of the “wretched pupil” to “surpass his master.” This attitude is singularly European, completely absent in China, where the aim was to imitate, reproduce the perfection already believed to have been attained in the past. Clark sees the Baroque as a product of the Catholic revival of the sixteenth century, the counter-Reformation movement that, in the realm of art, “gave ordinary people a means of satisfying, through ritual images and symbols, their deepest impulses, so that their minds were at peace.” The Catholic Church, in its portrayal of the Virgin, unlike the Protestant North, gave “the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male.” It also had “another strength which one may say was part of the Mediterranean Civilisation—or at any rate a legacy from the pagan Renaissance: it was not afraid of the human body.”

Clark writes that “late Baroque artists delighted in emotive close-ups with open lips and glistening tears. The huge scale, the restless movement, the shifting lights and dissolves—all these devices were to be rediscovered in the movies. The extraordinary thing is that Baroque artists did it in bronze and marble, not on celluloid.” He says of Bernini that “was dazzlingly precocious,” “the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal… He not only gave Baroque Rome its character, but he was the chief source of an international style that spread all over Europe, as Gothic had done, and as the Renaissance style never did” (182). The Ecstasy of St. Teresa “is one of the most deeply moving works in European art. Bernini’s gift of sympathetic imagination…is used to convey the rarest and most precious of all emotional states, that of religious ecstasy” (191). Similarly, Gombrich judges that Bernini achieved an intensity of facial expression which until then was never attempted in art” (328).

There are so many great painters—Holbein, Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, van Dyck, Grünewald—and countless works of art one could spend countless hours thinking about. Hauser groups “late Baroque” artists under the label “Mannerism,” which retained the “passionately expressionistic aims of baroque, while showing “bodies struggling to give expression to the mind…turning and twisting, bending and writhing under the pressure of the mind.” Within Mannerism, he sees “two opposed currents—the mystical spiritualism of El Greco and the pantheistic naturalism of Brueghel” (Vol. 2: p. 92).

Gombrich says that Caravaggio (1571-1610), whom Clark views as “the greatest Italian painter of the period,”

was of a wild and irascible temper, quick to take offence…He had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal beauty’. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art afresh… Consider his painting of St. Thomas: the three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking with his finger into the wound in His side, look unconventional enough. One can imagine that such a painting struck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds—here they looked like common labourers, with weathered faces and wrinkled brows. But, Caravaggio would have answered, they were old labourers, common people (pp. 290-292).

One drawback in Clark’s book is that he ignores Spanish painters including one of the greatest ever, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), about whom Gombrich says that he “devoted his art to the dispassionate observation of nature regardless of conventions.” Of The Water-seller of
Seville
, he says:

No one who stands before this picture feels inclined to ask whether the objects represented are beautiful or ugly, or whether it is important or trivial. Not even the colours are strictly beautiful by themselves. Brown, grey, greenish tones prevail. And yet, the whole is joined together in such a rich and mellow harmony that the picture remains unforgettable to anyone who has ever paused in front of it (306).

In Rubens’s Head of a Child, Gombrich says,

there are no tricks of composition here, no splendid robes or streams of light, but a simple en face portrait of a child. And yet it seems to breathe and palpitate like living flesh. Compared with this, the portraits of earlier centuries seem somehow remote and unreal — however great they may be as works of art […] joy in exuberant and almost boisterous life in all its manifestations saved Rubens (1577-1640) from becoming a mere virtuoso of his art. It turned his paintings from mere Baroque decorations of festive halls into masterpieces which retain their vitality within the chilling atmosphere of museums (pp. 299, 302).

Dutch “Bourgeois” Painting

The seventeenth century, according to Clark, “saw a revolutionary change in thought” most visibly in the Netherlands “that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation” (p. 194). “Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism” with the “first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy.” Unlike the art produced in the past, which was feudal, aristocratic, and at the service of a Church that was rich and powerful, the “numerous group-portraits of early seventeenth-century Holland” are of individuals “who are prepared to join in a corporate effort for the public good” of their cities. While excessive capitalist wealth can produce a “defensive smugness and sentimentality” in art, it generated for some time a society in Holland were leading citizens came together to take “corporate responsibility” because they could “afford to do so” because they had “leisure” because they had “money in the bank.” Clark sees these new bourgeois individuals in such portraits as Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662).

Clark believes that “almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals” who are “to some extent a kind of summation of their times.” He includes Rembrandt among “the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe.” “Rembrandt was the great poet of that need for truth and that appeal to experience which had begun with the Reformation…Rembrandt, although in fact he was a profound student of the classical tradition, wanted to look at every episode [in the Bible] as if it had never been depicted before, and to try to find an equivalent for it in his own experience” (p. 203). Among the seven paintings he shows of Rembrandt is Bathsheba at her Bath (1654). He writes:

The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings goes beyond that of any other artists who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer-picture making. In the Bathsheba he makes use of studies from nature and from antique reliefs to achieve a perfectly balanced design. We may think we admire it as pure painting, but in the end we come back to the head. Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings as she ponder on David’s letter are rendered with a subtlety and a human sympathy which a great novelist could scarcely achieve in many pages (p. 205).

Gombrich agrees,

Rembrandt (1606-69)…one of the greatest painters who ever lived…Other portraits by great masters may look alive, they may reveal the character of their sitter through a characteristic expression or a striking attitude. Creations such as Mona Lisa…are convincing and impressive, but we feel that they can only represent one side of a complex human being. Not even Mona Lisa can always have smiled. But in Rembrandt’s portraits we feel fact to fact with real human beings with all their tragic failings and all their sufferings (p. 313, 315).

Included among other great Dutch painters are Frans Hals, Paulus Potter, who painted animals within landscapes with “uncanny realism,” Jacob van Ruisdael, “a master in the painting of dark and sombre clouds, of evening light when the shadows grow, of ruined castles and rushing brooks,” and Vermeer of Delft. “With Vermeer,” writes Gombrich,

genre painting has lost the last trace of humorous illustration. His paintings are really still lives with human beings. It is hard to argue the reasons that make such a simple and unassuming picture picture [The Milkmaid] one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. But few who have been lucky enough to see the original will disagree with me that it is something of a miracle (p. 324).

Clark prefers Vermeer’s landscape painting, “View of Delft,” about which he says:

His work is without a single parti pris, or a prejudice arising from knowledge, or the convenience of a style. It’s really quite a shock to see a picture that has so little stylistic artifice as his View of Delft. It looks like a coloured photograph, and yet we know that it is a work of extreme intellectual distinction. It not only shows the light of Holland, but what Descartes called “the natural light of mind” (209).

Rococo, Naturalism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism

Rococo “represented a real gain in sensibility…and captured new and more delicate shades of feeling,” “an art of elegance rather than greatness,” writes Clark. For Gombrich, it reflected “the taste of the French aristocracy of the early eighteenth century…The fashion for dainty colours and delicate decoration…which expressed itself in gay frivolity.” The paintings of Watteau, a sick man who died of consumption at the age of 37, is seen as the best expression of this new style, with his “visions of a life divorced from hardship…a dream life of gay picnics in fairy parks where it never rains, of musical parties where all ladies are beautiful and all lovers graceful in which all are dressed in sparkling silk without looking showy,” in the words of Gombrich (341).

With Naturalism the painter “lost all consciousness of an independent self” by immersing himself into the totality of nature to gain “thereby a more intense consciousness of being,” writes Clark as he examines Rousseau, the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the painters Turner and Constable (272, 291). He admires Turner above everyone else.

He was a genius of the first order—far the greatest painter that England has ever produced… No one has ever known more about natural appearances, and he was able to fit into his encyclopedic knowledge memories of the most fleeting effects of light—sunrises, passing storms, dissolving mists, none of which had ever been seen on canvas before… [Turner’s] new approach to painting… consisted of transforming everything into pure colour, light rendered as colour, feelings about life rendered as colour. It’s quite difficult for us to realise what a revolutionary procedure this was. One must remember that for centuries objects were thought to be real because they were solid. You proved their reality by touching or tapping them…And all respectable art aimed at defining this solidity…Turner declared the independence of colour and thereby added a new faculty to the human mind (284-5).

To sustain their originality, and find new ways of conveying our perception of reality, and surpass Turner, the “three great lovers of nature” of the late nineteenth century, Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh, “had to make a more radical transformation”—giving way to a new ism: Impressionism. “An impression of what?”—asks Clark. “Of light.” Monet, for Clark, was the “original unswerving Impressionist,” with his view that all a painting can do is give an impression of light. In Monet’s words: “light is the principal person in the picture.” He shows Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, painted from his garden grounds.

Gombrich is fascinated by Impressionism. He believes it was Manet (with an “a”) and his followers who “brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tones which blend in our eye or really in our mind” (p. 388). The painting The Balcony illustrates Manet’s intentions. Compared with earlier paintings, say Ruben’s Head of a Child, or Velazquez’s Infant Prince, “Manet’s heads look flat.” “But the fact is,” adds Gombrich, “that in the open air, and in the full light of day, round forms sometimes do look flat, like mere coloured patches. It was this effect which Manet wanted to explore. The consequence is that as we stand before one of his pictures it looks more immediately real than any old master” (388).

A novelty about Monet (with an “o) that Gombrich brings up is the “idea that all painting of nature must actually be finished ‘on the spot'” which “demanded a change of habits and a disregard of comfort.” “‘Nature’ or ‘the motif’ changes from minute to minute as a cloud passes over the sun or the wind breaks the reflection in the water. The painter who hopes to catch a characteristic aspect has no leisure to mix and match his colours…He must fix them straight on to his canvas in rapid strokes, caring less for detail than for the general effect of the whole” (392).

For Hauser, perspective painting reaches its culmination in Impressionism, in “the reproduction of the subjective act instead of the objective substratum of seeing.” “Everything stable and coherent is dissolved…and assumes the character of the unfinished and fragmentary.” Impressionism was indeed an “urban art,” a reaction to “external impressions with the overstrained nerves of modern technical man…it describes the always ephemeral impressions of city life…it implies an enormous expansion of sensual perception” (Vol. 4: p. 158).

[T]he quivering, trembling dots and the happy, loose and abrupt strokes of the brush, the whole improvised technique with its rapid and rough sketching, the fleeting, seemingly careless perception of the object, and the brilliant execution merely express…that feeling of a stirring, dynamic, constantly changing reality” (Vol. 4: p. 159-60).

Renoir’s A Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, shows an open-air dance, which appears ‘sketchy’ and unfinished but the intention, according to Gombrich, was “to conjure up the gay medley of bright colours and to study the effect of sunlight on the whirling throng.” The figures remain the focus, however—how the “forms are increasingly dissolved in sunlight and air.” “We realize without difficulty that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but is the outcome of great artistic wisdom” (394-5).

Where do we fit Goya? As Gombrich writes:

The most striking fact about Goya’s prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical, or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions. Some are meant as accusations against the powers of stupidity and reaction, of cruelty and oppression, which Goya had witnessed in Spain, others seem to just give shape to the artist’s nightmares (p. 366).

Clark seems to associate Goya with a new Romantic “pessimism” that emerge in the early 1800s, showing Goya’s famous painting of a firing squad called The Third of May 1808, and pointing to the poet Byron as the main spokesman of this new feeling, which he contrasts to the romantic naturalism or sentimentalism of Rousseau, his “belief in the beauty and innocence of nature,” and Wordsworth’s “daisies and daffodils,” found in such painters as Constable. Romantic pessimism eulogized the “great forces of nature,” the roaring of lions, cataracts, and colossal storms—with the sublime. “Consciousness of the sublime was a faculty that the Romantic movement added to the European imagination,” says Clark (307). He pays respect to Théodore Géricault, whose most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was of a disaster at sea he had read about in the newspapers, prompting him to study corpses from the local morgue.

Hauser, from a perspective that includes the study of literature, thinks that Romanticism “represented one of the most decisive turning points in the history of the European mind.” With Romanticism “all individual expression is unique, irreplaceable and bears its own laws and standards within itself.” The “intellectual atmosphere created by the [French] Revolution” nurtured an image of the artist as “the lonely human being…who feels himself to be different, either tragically or blessedly different, from his fellows” and the idea that art is “an activity of self-expression creating its own standards” (Vol. 3: p. 144). Were the Romantics, then, responsible for starting a dynamic that would eventually undermine (in the twentieth century) the standards of art, with their excessive subjectivism and preoccupation with their own feelings, with “everything dark and ambiguous, chaotic and ecstatic”? It has to be acknowledged that Romanticism was one of the most creative movements in Western history, combining the seemingly contradictory motivations of losing oneself in the unknown, the mysterious natural forces that overwhelm the confidence of the rational self, which Clark also saw in Naturalism, and an individual artist who feels, in the words of Hauser, that sincerity and creativity only comes through the creation of one’s standards “against the very principle of tradition, authority, and rule” (Vol. 3: p. 142).

Delacroix is the “pessimistic” painter Clark most admires. Delacroix “had the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived, for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress; and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it” (313). “The abyss did not horrify Delacroix: on the contrary, he gloried in it.” To escape from European Civilisation, he went to Morocco; and despite “many sordid and grotesque incidents in his life there,” he made us believe in the “nobility, dignity, and timelessness” of life in Morocco, with his painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

After Delacroix, the one artist Clark holds in the highest esteem is the sculptor Rodin, “the last great Romantic artist,” with “abundant animal spirits, creator of the greatest piece of sculpture “since Michelangelo.” Before the Romantic pessimists, he mentions the French painter Jacques-Louis David, as an artist already living, in the midst of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror, at a time that would “darken the optimism of the early Romantics.” He shows his famous painting, La Mort de Marat, 1793. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, a radical faction during the Reign of Terror. “Few propaganda pictures made such an impact as a work of art” (300). What he says about David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps reveals much about what Clark really thinks about “Civilisation”:

With the appearance of General Bonaparte the liberated energies of the revolution take a new direction—the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. But what has this to do with Civilisation? War and imperialism, so long the most admired of human activities, have fallen into disrepute, and I am enough a child of my time to hate them both. But I recognize that, together with much that is destructive, they are symptoms of a life-giving force (300).

Ruskin’s sentence—”No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers”—strikes Clark as “historically irrefutable.” He mentions a few more impressionists, Renoir, for painting “two of the most beautiful pictures of the period,” and, “the greatest of them,” Paul Cézanne, as well as van Gogh, showing a painting from each; and Georges Seurat for one of the “greatest pictures of the nineteenth century,” Baigneurs, “for the way it unites the monumental stillness of a Renaissance fresco with the vibrating light of the Impressionists” (341). He writes a bit about the “social realism” of Gustave Courbet and Jean Francois Millet, and says that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is “an impressive example of sympathy with ordinary people…By abandoning all pictorial artifice, which must inevitably involve a certain amount of hierarchy and subordination, and standing his figures in a row, Courbet achieves a feeling of equality in the presence of death” (339).

Clearly, for Clark, artistic greatness and originality were still visible in some works of the nineteenth century, although the art of this century, he also says, can be written “in terms of tunnels, bridges, and other feats of engineering.” A new age of machines had arrived, dedicated to the “glory of mammon,” money and gain, to which was eventually added a humanitarian feeling, as industrialization brought increasing affluence. Humanitarianism was “one of the greatest civilizing achievements of the nineteenth century.” This feeling that “kindness matters most in human conduct” was unprecedented in history. Tragedy and lofty subjects for painting were gone. Clark recognizes that the post-WWII decades brought us a pleasant atmosphere of “well fed” people along with many public schools and universities producing a “well read” public, though “there has been a little flattening at the top.” Of great art there can be no more.

Gombrich takes his survey up to his own time, the first half of the twentieth century. The period of the “Great Revolution in France” of 1789 “put an end to so many assumptions that had been taken for granted” for centuries. Essentially, there was a decisive break with lofty, aristocratic, sublime subjects, leading to a focus on ordinary or everyday subjects. To be sure, in the past, painters like Chardin (1699-1779) had started “to look at the life of the ordinary men and women of their time” (353), and in the sixteenth century we already had the paintings of Brueghel depicting scenes from daily life, and in some paintings we have shown above. At the same time, while some painters like Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) continued to exhort artists “to strive after lofty and dignified subjects,” “grand and impressive” art, Goya examined the faces of the aristocracy “with a pitiless and searching eye, and revealed all their vanity and ugliness, their greed and emptiness” (365). Great paintings continued, but the “foundations on which art had rested throughout its existence” were being undermined at an accelerated speed as the Industrial Revolution was added to the French revolutionary destruction of monarchical rule, the authority of the Catholic Church—by a new middle class “which often lacked tradition” and viewed art as a “perfect means of expressing individuality against all the rules and conventions.”

The history of Western art has always been characterized by individual expression and the creation of new possibilities for art. The difference now was that artists had no ideals of perfection, no sense of loyalty to their ancestors, no traditions to limit their pursuit of the truth solely through their personalities. The purpose of art was merely to express one’s personality, leading to a state of “permanent revolution” as artists “contested with each other over who was the most “creative.” It is in the twentieth century, however, that Gombrich sees artists who “proposed to make a clear sweep of all conventions…which ultimately led them to a rejection of the whole Western tradition” (427).

We saw his admiration for Impressionists, who “did not differ in their aims from the traditions of art that had developed since the discovery of nature in the Renaissance…Their quarrel with the conservative masters was not so much over the aim as over the means of achieving it” (407). He values the originality of van Gogh, who “liked the technique of painting in dots and strokes of pure colour, but under his hands it became something different from what these Paris artists had meant it to be” (408).

Van Gogh liked to paint objects and scenes which gave this new means full scope — motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just as a writer who underlines his words. That is why he was the first painter to discover the beauty of stubbles, hedgerows and cornfields, of the gnarled branches of olive trees and the dark, flamelike shapes of the cypress (417).

He views Cézanne (1839-1906), like Clark, as one of the greatest of this period: “he was constantly engaged in a passionate struggle to achieve in his painting that ideal of artistic perfection after which he strove” (408); while adding that Cézanne “had decided to start from scratch as if no painting had been done before him. The Dutch master [Willem Kalf] had painted his still life to display his stupendous virtuosity.”

In his tremendous effort to achieve a sense of depth without sacrificing the brightness of colours, to achieve an orderly arrangement without sacrificing the sense of depth—in all these struggles and gropings there was one thing he was prepared to sacrifice if need be—the conventional ‘correctness’ of outline. He was not out to distort nature; but he did not mind very much if it became distorted in some minor detail provided this helped him to obtain the desired effect (413).

Seurat “studied the scientific theory of colour vision and decided to build up his pictures by means of small regular dabs of unbroken colour like a mosaic.”

This, he hoped, would lead to the colours blending in the eye (or rather in the mind) without their losing in intensity and luminosity. But this extreme technique which became known as pointillism, naturally endangered the legibility of his painting by avoiding all contours and breaking up every form into areas of multicolored dots (414).

Conclusion

It is in the “experimental art” of the 20th century—in the quick succession or simultaneous movements of Surrealism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Abstract Art—that Gombrich sees a complete break with the Western tradition. The sole task of the artist was now to create “something new.” Many relied on non-Western sources for inspiration, African primitivism, Zen Buddhism, Chinese calligraphy, or “Egyptian principles.” Abstract and cubist painters wanted “to become as little children” in order to revitalize a spontaneity threatened by mechanization, to reproduce “the memory of childish scrawls.” The disregard for harmony and beauty was justified on the grounds of “honesty” for the truth. I agree with Gombrich that there was still great talent. I would mention such painters as Edward Munch, Picasso, Matisse and Dali. Gombrich mentions Kokoschka’s Children Playing, 1909, as a painting that “looked at children with a deep sympathy and compassion. He has caught their witfulness and dreaminess, the awkwardness of their movements and the disharmonies of their growing bodies” (431-2). But he struggles to find real greatness, as he moves swiftly from one movement to the next, without persuading us that Nicolas de Stael’s painting, Plage à Agrigente consists of “simple yet subtle brush strokes [which] often give us a sense of light and distance without making us forget the quality of the paint” (460).

I believe that Western art was bound to decline partly for the reasons Clark gives. Fundamentally this decline was a product of the culmination of the Western individualism that nurtured this greatness in the first place until it ceased to be sustained by any traditions. H.W. Janson is correct: “without tradition” the “uniqueness, novelty, and freshness” of Western art would have been impossible. Modern artists came to the conclusion that standards cannot be set by prior generations but are the self-expression of individual artists who are in a war of liberation against the very principle of tradition, authority, and standards. This very attitude has now led to the denial that Western art was “better” than the art of any other culture. We can’t restore the world of the past with its standards and world views. As Spengler told us: “Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” We can at least, however, recognize the artistic greatness of the Western past, and teach our students about the history of painting, so they realize what a horrendous crime it is to destroy great art.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar,” by Willem Kalf; painted in 1669.

What Ukraine Tells Us about the Coming War

At the end of 2021, Bernard Wicht published Vers l’autodéfense : le défi des guerres internes (Towards Self-Defense: The Challenge of Internal Wars). His reflections remain highly topical, despite the recent return—apparently—of “inter-state” conflicts. We asked him a few questions in order to better understand the new front lines.

In his review of this book, the philosopher Eric Werner stressed the most worrying aspect of war in the 21st century—its irruption into the internal space of societies, its transformation into a war of “all against all,” without limits and without rules. As a historian and strategist, Wicht “does not content himself with describing the transformations in question, but links them to the overall evolution of our societies, showing that they are the consequence of more profound upheavals.”

We are now direct witnesses of these deep-seated upheavals, on a daily basis. Since the publication of his book, events of tectonic proportions have occurred. We thought it would be useful to take stock of the spirit and modalities of self-defense at a time when “conventional” warfare between armed forces is returning. [This interview is conducted by Laurent Schang, who runs the publishing house Éditions Polémarque, in Nancy, France, and Swiss-based Slobodan Despot, who publishes the magazine Antipresse.

A huge thank-you to Arnaud Imatz and Jean-Cyrille Godefroy, who made it all possible.

In the current scientific literature on post-9/11 armed conflicts in general, and on the war against the Islamic State in particular, it is customary to draw a more or less explicit line between the protagonists involved. This principle of distinction is based on the presupposition that contemporary conflicts are between two sides, one of which is good and the other bad by default. This moralization of the study of conflicts, which is original on the scale of the history of war, or more precisely on the scale of the ways in which so-called “Western” nations think about war, nevertheless poses a number of theoretical problems. This tendency is detrimental to the study of war on the one hand, and to the development of an appropriate response on the other (Olivier Entraygues, Regards sur la guerre: L’école de la défaite—Views on the war: The School of Defeat).

Laurent Schang and Slobodan Despot (LS-SD): First, a necessary preliminary question. In a context of almost complete disinformation, on both sides, is it possible to think of deciphering the military operations in progress?

Bernard Wicht (BW): If one day we manage to arrive at the difference, the war in Ukraine will undoubtedly be taught first as the greatest maneuver of disinformation ever carried out in the history of the art of war. Let’s recall in this regard that since the First Iraq War (1990-1991), disinformation has been an integral part of the strategy implemented by the United States and its Western allies.

Bernard Wicht.

On that occasion, it was the case of the incubators of the maternity hospital in Kuwait City, which was given to the media. These incubators were allegedly disconnected by Iraqi soldiers when they invaded Kuwait, causing the death of the newborns who were in them. It was the post-conflict investigation of a team of Danish journalists that exposed the lie—the hospital in Kuwait City does not have a maternity ward and women do not go to give birth there. In addition, the young woman who denounced this apparent war crime before the UN authorities in New York turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, a student for several years at an American university. For Washington strategists, the aim of the maneuver was then to provoke an “emotional shock” within the international community, making it unavoidable to give a UN mandate for the military liberation of Kuwait.

Then, in 2002, before the outbreak of the Second Iraq War, the famous “proof” of the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein possessed was brandished before the same UN bodies, in the form of a small vial, by the American Secretary of State at the time, the former Chief of Staff of the American army, General Colin Powell. Again, the aim was to convince the world of the grave danger posed by Iraq to international stability. Up to now, these weapons of mass destruction have not yet been discovered.

This strategy of disinformation is currently being pursued on a global scale, mainly by the European and American media and a handful of experts close to NATO circles. This maneuver has so far succeeded in preventing any coherent analysis of the Ukraine conflict. The Ukrainians keep issuing victory communiqués, while the Russians are very discreet. In other words, in the words of the famous detective (created by Agatha Christie) Hercule Poirot, “in this case everyone is lying,” forcing our man to reconstruct events according to his experience of crime, common sense and basic questions (cui bono, motive, opportunity and means).

In this particular war, we find ourselves in a very similar situation to Poirot, and we are forced to try to reconstruct the course of operations according to some bits of reality and using knowledge of the art of war and military history. This is why we must ask ourselves, beyond the successive narratives that the United States and NATO have sought to impose since the beginning of the conflict (victorious resistance by Ukrainian forces; then Russian war crimes; and, more recently, a vast Ukrainian counter-offensive and retreat by the Russian army), what can be said with a minimum of certainty at this stage:

  • At the end of 2021, on the eve of the outbreak of war, the Ukrainian army was in a state of decay (See insert: “Ukraine, A Failed State?”).
  • In June 2022, senior Ukrainian officials acknowledged that their troops were suffering appalling losses in the face of the firepower of the Russian army, with around 100 dead and 500 wounded per day.
  • On the ground, since the end of the summer, we see a Russian army that does not seem to be in any hurry to end things, taking its time by advancing in some places and retreating in others. Although largely mechanized and with complete control of the sky, it does not launch the great decisive offensive aimed at the capitulation of the Zelensky government. On the contrary, it has allowed the Ukrainians to retake some towns and villages.

Should we therefore accept the official Western narrative of a decisive counter-offensive, thanks to the miracle weapons delivered by NATO (including the mercenaries to serve them) and the general withdrawal of Russian forces unable to react?

This version of the facts could be acceptable if we were facing the Russian army of the 1990s, the one that got bogged down in Chechnya and whose decay was then equivalent to that of the Ukrainian army on the eve of February 24, 2022. It took Vladimir Putin more than a decade to restore an effective and competent military whose qualities were seen during the intervention in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad, starting in September 2015.

Ukraine, A Failed State?

In his 2017 study, Emmanuel Todd gave a pessimistic diagnosis of Ukraine. He considers it a nation “which has not been able to build itself in a state since its separation from Russia.” He adds that the country is dangerously empty of its population: “above a certain threshold of emigration… in Ukraine, for example… flows can destabilize societies… without being able to predict much more than the appearance of sociological black holes.” In this regard, he evokes “the appearance of a zone of anarchy” and recalls that the massive departure of the Ukrainian middle classes to Europe or Russia, makes it very unlikely that this country will be politically stabilized because, precisely, “the construction of a state is only the institutional crystallization of the supervision of society by its middle classes.”

Since 2014 (Euro Maidan), the Ukrainian political class has disintegrated into internal quarrels between the pro-Russian and the pro-European, leaving the field open to far-right paramilitary organizations.

LS-SD: How would you explain this “game of cat and mouse” that the Russian army is engaged in?

BW: I think that this expression itself gives us the “key” needed to decipher what is happening at the present time:

  • For the record, Russia’s objective is not primarily Ukraine, but to stun and unbalance the EU and NATO (energy crisis=> economic crisis=> inflation, recession. See insert: “The Legacy of Soviet Operational Thinking”).
  • On the other hand, under pressure from his Western mentors, President Zelensky withdrew his February-March peace proposals, so the war can continue until it is exhausted. This is most likely the game that the Russian cat is playing with the Ukrainian mouse. Since a negotiated solution seems impossible today, only the (demographic) exhaustion of Ukraine can guarantee Russia relative long-term “tranquility” on its southwestern border.
  • This cat-and-mouse dialectic could explain the Russian attitude of “not wanting to end it all.” Such a strategic posture is not unheard of in military history.

Let’s explain this with a historical example.

The case of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is particularly emblematic from this point of view. General Franco, commander-in-chief of the nationalist forces, was considered for a long time, certainly as a very shrewd politician, but as a poor strategist on the ground. Despite the military superiority at his disposal, he made poor operational choices, giving the Republicans the opportunity to carry out desperate counterattacks, prolonging, in this way, the war by at least two years.

Then recently, historical research revealed that these “wrong choices” were made knowingly in order to exhaust the human potential of Republicans in battles of annihilation, where the firepower of the nationalist army could reach its full potential. For example, even in September 1936, rather than seizing Madrid, then very little defended, and thus obtaining the capitulation of the Republican government and ending the war in two months, Franco opted for the capture of Toledo—a city certainly very symbolic, but whose strategic importance was limited. Franco wanted a long war to destroy the demographic pool of the Republicans and thus “cleanse” the conquered regions of populations favorable to the regime in place. He felt that he could not have the stability necessary to rebuild the country if a young and sufficiently large pro-Republican generation survived the war. He said it explicitly in an interview: “In a civil war, it is better to systematically occupy the territory, accompanied by the necessary cleansing, than a rapid rout of the enemy armies that would leave the country infested with adversaries.”

The Legacy of Soviet Operative Thought

Thinking in terms of the “Ukraine” objective is too narrow. It is important to bear in mind that, geographically speaking, Russia is a world country (in the Braudelian sense). Neither Western Europe nor the United States are. Russian strategic thinking unfolds at a macro-spatial and macro-cultural level. It takes up the achievements of its big sister, Soviet strategic thought, which developed and conceptualized what is called the operational level of war, which no longer primarily targets tactical military objectives (troops, equipment, infrastructure, etc.), but the adversary as a system.

Operative thought does not view the enemy from a strictly military angle, unlike the classical Clausewitzian doctrine of destroying enemy armed forces in a great battle of annihilation deemed as the key to victory. Soviet and then Russian operative thinking approaches the adversary from a systemic perspective—it aims at its collapse, not in a great decisive battle, but by actions in depth.

It should be noted that this notion covers different aspects: the term depth does not necessarily refer to the defensive device of the adversary (fortifications, logistics centers, communication networks), but to all political, socio-economic and cultural structures as well as the infrastructures which allow the enemy country to function. Therefore, from the perspective of Russian operative thought, the objective pursued is rarely specific; it is holistic.

Russia is not simply seeking to bring a recalcitrant neighbor to heel, it is the “systemic enemy” that it is aiming at by showing in concrete terms that it is not only ready, but above all capable of waging war, including nuclear war. This systemic enemy is obviously the EU and NATO. Russia was able to become aware at the latest with the war in Syria (from 2011 onwards) of the meagre capacities of Western intervention which, in this case, were limited to sending a few contingents of special forces to support the Kurdish militias. It was able to get a concrete idea of the severe operational limits and the inability of the Atlantic Alliance to conduct a large-scale military operation due to a lack of manpower and logistics.

After that, Vladimir Putin and his staff were able to plan their intervention in Ukraine. But Ukraine is not the main objective of the war; it is only a battlefield, i.e., a place where military operations take place. The Russians have other effects and targets.

As for the effects, Russia wants to demonstrate that it can declare a conventional war and bring it to an end. In the face of this show of force, it must be noted that NATO and the European Union (EU) are militarily “absent.”

LS-SD: Do you think that the Russians also want a long war? Do they really have an interest in it?

BW: Mutatis mutandis, this could be the calculation of the Russians in the face of the war (by proxy) that the United States and NATO are waging against them through the Ukrainians. This war will eventually end because of a lack of fighters. But we must hasten to add that, on the Russian side, everything is not simple either. The shock caused by the partial mobilization of the young generation does not bode well. Indeed, a part of the society of this great country has been tasting for more than twenty years the “delights” of the consumer society—possibility to travel abroad, a certain feeling of freedom linked to the consumerist way of life, etc. For all of them, suddenly, everything has changed. For all them, suddenly, everything has stopped and closed. The specter of war and death now haunts their daily lives—hence the question, is a war that is prolonged and begins to affect the young Russian generations themselves, still acceptable—and especially bearable?

Under these conditions, we can hypothesize that Russia and Ukraine are both at risk of a mutual collapse. A bit like the dialectic between Greece and Rome in antiquity, the antinomy between these two worlds being summarized by the famous formula— Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror—expressing the fact that, militarily defeated, Greece nevertheless managed to completely Hellenize the Roman world. In this case, a militarily destroyed Ukraine would provoke, as a shock in return, a collapse of Russia because of the sacrifices required or, at least felt, by a part of the Russian people. The recent attacks perpetrated on the Russian soil could reinforce this feeling of sudden fragility?

LS-SD: What is the relevance of your study on self-defense when war is raging on our doorstep?

BW: As its title indicates, my latest little book is devoted to self-defense, which I consider to be the operational concept instead of that of “national defense,” which became obsolete with the decline of the nation-state (marked in particular by the concomitant and exponential return of mercenarism.

[Weberian sociology regarding the formation of the modern state (Max Weber, Norbert Elias, Otto Hintze, Charles Tilly, to name the main ones) focuses on the construction of the state monopoly of coercion—also called monopoly of legitimate violence. It thus highlights the evolution of the military apparatus and its progressive control by state authorities. From the point of view of this conception of state-building, the recourse to mercenaries represents an intermediate stage between the feudal age (characterized by the absence of the state as well as by an anarchic chivalry practicing private warfare—Faustrecht), and the contemporary period with the advent of national armies completely controlled by the state. The current return of mercenarism, via the recourse to private military companies, tends to signal a “return to the past,” and consequently a relative de-construction of the state monopoly. On this subject, see Yves Déloye, Sociologie historique du politique.]

That is why, when war broke out in Ukraine, I thought that my study had also ipso facto become obsolete, for the Russian attack seemed to indicate the great return of conventional war between states and that of regular armies. My working hypothesis, based on “molecular civil war” type threats, with a predominance of non-state actors, such as narco-gangs, narco-terrorists and Islamo-jihadists, seems therefore compromised. As my friend Laurent Schang said to me on the evening of February 24, “this time it’s the end of war 2.0” (referring to sub-war challenges).

LS-SD: Are the Western/European nation-states still capable of waging war?

BW: It is apparent that apart from a few scattered battalions, NATO no longer has any effective military power; that the German army is in an advanced state of decay; that the French army (although still very operational) has only seven days’ worth of ammunition in the event of a high-intensity confrontation, and it is the same with all the rest.

All this means that in Western Europe, the nation-state is no longer capable of “making war,” a function that was its main regalian attribute and the driving force behind its historical construction (according to Charles Tilly’s famous formula, “war makes the State.” (See insert “War as the Driving Force behind Nation-State Construction”).

Today, the nation-state is huddled over its sole penal-carcenary privilege. Moreover, the storm of media disinformation, orchestrated since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, shows that citizenship has lost all substance and that it is no longer important to inform free and responsible men and women, but to keep a populace, always on the verge of a riot or revolt, calm.

War as the Driving Force behind Nation-State Construction

In his approach to state-building, Charles Tilly highlights two factors that contribute to the formation of the state monopoly of legitimate violence—on the one hand, constraint (the capacity to impose order and, above all, to mobilize the human resources necessary to wage war); and, on the other hand, capital (the capacity to finance and equip armies through taxes and the profits of foreign trade).

Thus, Tilly demonstrates that it is the combination of these two factors (hence the title of his work) that determines the type of state organization in force, at a given historical moment—that is, the one capable of “making war.” In our case, from the 16th century onwards, the transformations in the art of war (systematization of the use of firearms, recourse to professional soldiers, exponential growth in the number of soldiers) led to the need for the existing political units in Europe to have sufficient financial resources to be able to “afford” this new military tool.

Hence the institutionalization of taxation, in place of the old local feudal dues. The foundations of the modern nation-state were thus laid (a bureaucracy in charge of levying taxes, a standing army). From then on, the constraint-capital dynamic was set in motion—the more wars succeeded one another in Europe, the more the above-mentioned nation-state phenomenon was strengthened in the geographical areas concerned (the Netherlands, France, Spain, and later on, Prussia and Sweden). And thus we come to the famous formula: war makes the State.

Today, this analysis remains fully relevant for understanding the evolution of military-political units. However, the dynamics described above have changed scale—with globalization, capital is no longer located at the national level. As a consequence, states are emptied of their substance and depend on global finance for their functioning.

Nowadays, at the junction of constraint (mobilization of human resources) and capital (mobilization of financial resources), we no longer find regular armies, but two types of non-state military organizations—on the one hand, mercenarism in the form of private military companies (PMCs), and, on the other hand, armed-paramilitary-criminal groups. The former are generally financed by global capitalism, the latter by the grey economy. On the one hand, there is the combination of Wall Street and PMCs, and on the other, the combination of drug trafficking and various irregular armed groups.

LS-SD: So, your analysis remains relevant?

BW: Vanitas vanitatis… Yes. It is that of a nation-state emptied of its substance by disaster capitalism, of post-national societies subjected to an internal violence that is no longer channeled by the now obsolete state monopoly. If it were still necessary, the war in Ukraine and the decisions it has generated (in particular the sanctions of which we are the first victims) demonstrate that European states are no longer concerned with the well-being of their peoples; that their political elites are sucked in by the dynamics of global capitalism and by those who hold the control levers.

Fernand Braudel said: “Capitalism only triumphs when it identifies itself with the State; when it is the State.” Moreover, its regulation no longer goes through the nation-state (welfare), but through war (welfare => warfare), whether it is internal or against an enemy, designated by the media apparatus (Russia in casu). It is important to keep this reality in mind and to make it the starting point of any effort to understand the mechanisms of the present world—in the framework of global capitalism, the empty-shell nation-state is no longer the subject of war; it is only the theater (the setting, one might say), the geographical space where the confrontations take place. If we try to study it beyond the media noise, the war in Ukraine reveals this new state of affairs.

LS-SD: Yet this conflict marks the return of war between nation-states. So, isn’t it contradictory to say that the nation-state is no longer the subject of war?

BW: No, and this question allows me to clarify my point. Roughly speaking, one can say that until February 24, 2022, many analysts (myself included) considered that infra-state warfare represented the major risk in Europe: 1) confrontations at the molecular level (suicide attacks, machete attacks, shootings); 2) taking place below the technological threshold; 3) involving armed groups, gangs and terrorist cells; 4) financed via drug trafficking and other channels of the grey economy. In other words, a representation that follows directly from Martin van Creveld’s observation: “Modern armaments have become so expensive, so fast, so indiscriminate, so impressive, so cumbersome, and so powerful that they are sure to drive contemporary warfare into dead ends, i.e., into environments where they do not work. (The Transformation of War, p. 52).

As I said at the beginning, the outbreak of the war in Ukraine has shattered this threat picture by making us think of a return to conventional warfare in Europe (battles between regular armies, tank engagements, artillery, aviation and long-range missiles, the specter of the use of tactical nuclear weapons). However, on closer inspection, the reality of combat is not so obvious. Certainly, conventional warfare is well and truly present on the Russian side, with a disciplined, well-equipped, well-commanded army practicing joint maneuver.

On the Ukrainian side, on the other hand, the situation is much more blurred, as the regular conscript army was already in disarray before the conflict broke out, thus forcing the Zelensky government to rely on paramilitary groups, in particular the sinister Azov battalions, whose abuses against the civilian population are now well known. Nevertheless, they are the only real fighting forces on which the “failing” Ukrainian state (let’s be honest and use this term) can rely to confront the Russian offensive. Let us specify that these units are not directly dependent on the Ukrainian state; they have their own mode of financing, based on trafficking and mafia racket of the local populations whom they do not hesitate to use as human shields. However, they were completely decimated in the fighting around Marioupol and the Azovstal steelworks. From that moment on, it must be considered that they ceased to exist as constituted troops.

[It would seem that since the outbreak of the conflict, the Ukrainian authorities have issued eight calls of mobilization to make up for the heavy losses suffered. It is therefore worth asking why the younger generation is still responding to these calls when they are almost certain to die on the battlefield. The following hypothesis can be evoked: Ukrainians from the working classes did not have the possibility to flee abroad for lack of means; in a destroyed country where the economy is exsanguinated, it is not unreasonable to think that a “nice” bonus for the commitment (financed by the dollar) can represent for them a sufficient motive, because the sum thus received makes it possible to guarantee the survival of the remainder of the family. As is often the case in military history, it is the poor who pay the blood tax.]

Today, after the frightening human losses suffered by Ukrainian troops, it is mercenaries who seem to bear the brunt of the fighting—but who, above all, are taking over the predatory role previously played by the Azov battalions. These mercenaries are obviously not paid by Ukraine, which does not have the means, but by the American-NATO military-media complex. Capitalism is at work! We can therefore already say that at the moment, a weakened (failing) state—Ukraine in this case—is no longer able to wage war with its own national forces. It is obliged to call upon external forces that it does not control. We are thus in line with our previous observation on the incapacity of the nation-state to wage war.

[According to the analysis of the available videos, they would be mercenaries of Latin American origin, probably recruited by the services of Erik Prince (founder of the infamous SMP Blackwater). The latter had been called, at the time of the Arab Spring, by the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, to provide them with military police battalions, composed of Colombian mercenaries. The latter had no qualms about firing on the crowd, whereas the Tunisian and Egyptian armies had refused to do so in their respective countries. Erik Prince has the necessary connections for this recruitment pool].

Let us digress a little to note how much we find here the scenario of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This war is a perfect illustration of the above-mentioned developments: the confusion between internal and inter-state warfare; the relative weakness of the states involved; and, as a result, the exponential recourse to private military contractors (mercenaries). For the record, the young European kingdoms (France and Sweden) sought to take advantage of the temporary weakness of the Holy Roman Empire to increase their territory and their influence in Europe. For the latter was entangled in an internal struggle against the Protestant princes who were challenging the imperial power.

First France, then Sweden entered the war to take advantage of this momentary fragility of the Empire. But, neither the king of France nor the king of Sweden had the means for their policy. They did not have sufficient nation-state apparatus to maintain such a war over a long period of time and over vast territories; their bureaucracy, still in its infancy, did not allow them to raise taxes in an efficient and sustainable manner, nor to recruit the necessary troops from among the population.

The Holy Roman Emperor had the same limitations. This is why all of them called upon military entrepreneurs (Wallenstein, Tilly, Saxe-Weimar in particular). In addition to their skills as great captains, these military entrepreneurs were also talented businessmen with the appropriate networks to recruit soldiers and maintain their armies. From then on, and precisely because of the implementation of this business model, this war became a “commercial affair,” largely determined by the interests of these entrepreneurs and their financial backers. It was they who decided on the goals, not so much according to the politico-strategic priorities of the States, but rather according to the “commercial” interests of their respective companies (the armies of mercenaries made available to the European princes in struggle). To do this, and given the insufficiency of public funding, they relied on the first “transnational financial system”—the Bank of Amsterdam. However, no matter how clever the Batavian bankers were, the credits provided were never enough to cover all the needs, especially in terms of logistics. As a result, mercenary armies continued to “live on the land,” looting and pillaging almost all of Central Europe.

The duration of the conflict can also be explained by this reason—in a Europe emerging from feudal economy and entering the so-called “first capitalism,” military entrepreneurship brought really juicy profits.

In short, the Thirty Years’ War offers an example of a confrontation that can be described as “pre-Clausewitzian,” i.e., a confrontation in which, although initiated by states, war quickly ceased to be the continuation of politics by other means, for lack of adequate state resources. Mutatis mutandis, it is a similar situation that we find today in Europe with the war in Ukraine.

LS-SD: So, are we witnessing (or not) the return of conventional war in Europe?

BW: Certainly, but this statement requires some explanation, because if there is a return to conventional warfare, we must hasten to say that it is a conventional NG (new generation) war in which, on the Ukrainian side, the paramilitary and mercenary forces, charged with defending the country are proving to be more dangerous for the Ukrainians than the Russian army that is attacking them.

From this point on, the following parameters seem to be emerging concerning this “new generation conventional war”: 1) at the core level, a weakened (failing) nation-state which is no longer able to ensure its defense by means of its national armed forces; 2) which has to call upon irregular forces, paramilitary and mercenary; 3) these forces are “living off the country” through racketeering and predation; 4) and are massively financed and equipped by global capitalism. Moreover, it appears that Ukraine is by no means a precursor in this matter—at the beginning of the war in Syria (2011), it was the intervention of Lebanese Hezbollah irregulars that saved the weakened state of Bashar El Assad from collapse.

In the same way, the case of Azerbaijan points to a similar situation—it is thanks to the arms and mercenaries made available by Turkey, as well as to the contingents of Arab-Muslim fighters, all paid for by Azeri oil revenues, that this country manages to achieve the successes that we have seen in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But despite all their differences, Ukraine, Bashar’s Syria and Azerbaijan are not strong states. This is not the case in the United States, which is the only country in the world that has a strong social cohesion and a prosperous economy that benefits all its citizens. Nor do any of these countries have a genuine national political elite on which the nation-state apparatus can rely; power is held by clans or mafia-like cliques seeking above all to monopolize wealth for their own benefit.

LS-SD: As a result, for the Ukrainians, it is “a war within a war?”

BW: Yes, and this is not surprising, if we follow the grid of Hobbes’ Leviathan: in the absence of the State, it is the war of all against all—which, in the age of global capitalism, can last indefinitely because it represents a very lucrative business—hence the concept of “disaster capitalism.”

In other words, conducted by fighters from paramilitary and mercenary units, this NG belligerence is “limitless” and itself becomes the objective; civilians supposedly defended become the main objective of the aforementioned armed groups, and the war effort is financed by global capitalism in its “disaster” declination. Such a war does not respect the distinctions of civil/military, front/back, war/crime. It is mixed [I will not use the term “hybrid” because it is so overused and misunderstood]: conventional on the battlefield, criminal in its functioning, terrorist in its acts and targeting populations. Let me emphasize how we get to the characteristics of sub-state warfare described above.

LS-SD: From this vantage point, what further general perspective can be drawn from the Ukrainian situation?

BW: The Ukrainian case highlights the profound transformation of Europe and the Western world (in fact its disintegration) through two specific dimensions: one macro-economic and the other macro-geographic. The first reminds us of the relevance of the principle that war is waged in the same way as wealth is produced: the mode of economic production at a given time has a determining influence on both the type of war and the configuration of the military tool. Thus, wars between states in the 19th and 20th centuries were essentially based on a three-term equation: Nation + Industrial Revolution = mass armies. Industrial capitalism has formatted national spaces (nation-states) and increased competition between them in a paroxysmal way.

Today, the era of regular national armies financed and equipped, thanks to the progress of the Industrial Revolution, is definitively over. Capital has mutated; it has become entirely financialized and has migrated to the supranational level, leading to what is usually called globalization. It is at this level that wealth is now produced and the conduct of war is irrevocably modified. This means, as we have already said above in reference to the return of mercenarism, that states are no longer masters of their own defense. A regular army, even if it remains apparently financed by a state, has become de facto a tool at the service of global capital, as illustrated by the (almost surreal) eagerness of European governments to empty their meager arsenals, disarming their own armed forces to send weapons to Ukraine, some of which are already being sold on parallel markets. The analysis of this war reveals such a reality which was is both unprecedented and unimaginable before.

[In such circumstances, and following the announcement that the Bundeswehr (German army) had only a two-day supply of ammunition, a German commentator questioned this state of affairs and its official recognition by the authorities. He went so far as to formulate the hypothesis of a “de facto surrender,” explicitly admitted, in order to preserve Germany from destruction in the event of the war spreading westwards. According to him, by declaring itself “bankrupt” due to the liquidation of its very modest stocks of arms and ammunition in favour of Ukrainian forces, the country could avoid “becoming the next battlefield” once Ukraine is destroyed. While this may be a bit far-fetched, it does highlight the extent of Western European disarmament in the current conflict.]

As regards the macro-geographic dimension, the Ukrainian case underlines the value of the analysis delivered by David Cosandey in his monumental study published in 1997 and entitled, Le secret de l’Occident: du miracle passé au marasme présent (The Secret of the West: From the Past Miracle to the Present Morass). In his quest to understand this “past miracle,” Cosandey focuses on the geographical factor as the decisive element of European dynamism. Europe being a priori only a promontory of Eurasia, it is its coastal perimeter, in the north as in the south, which is jagged, meandering and irregular, which allows for the establishment of very diverse socio-political entities, but intensively practicing commercial exchanges among these entities first, then with the rest of the world.

It is thus because of this specificity of the European geographical space that Cosandey proposes his explanation of “the” miracle based on two neologisms of his creation: “mereupory” and “thalassography.” The first term aims at explaining the scientific progress of Europe by its stable political division and its commercial dynamism. The second term specifies that the commercial dynamism as well as the diversity and the stability are favored by this very particular coastal contour, compared to the other continents. Therefore, based on this mereuporico-thalassographic articulation, Cosandey examines the contemporary evolution of our continent.

In casu, it is not a question of subjecting the theses of Cosandey to criticism, but to consider what they say to us of Europe in the framework of the war in Ukraine. Cosandey indeed thinks that the power of the armaments developed since the Second World War fundamentally questions the morphology of Europe. In other words, space is no longer sufficient to absorb military force. It is now too small to be able to form a stable geopolitical zone.

Consequently, Cosandey argues that the European geographical advantage is now obsolete because of the power of armaments: “Because of the progress of military technology, the thalassography of the European continent, however extraordinary it may be, no longer allows a system of states to establish itself there durably.” This insight obviously deserves some explanation.

The reference to the progress of military technology refers mainly to the continental and intercontinental reach of modern weapons (ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft capable of striking any point on the continent). Faced with these capabilities of force projection over very long distances, the meteoric and thalassographic qualities of Europe become ineffective—the specificity of its coastline is no longer sufficient. The continent becomes once again a simple tongue of land, a Eurasian promontory, which can be crossed very easily, and in all directions (migratory flows seem to confirm this). Hence the impossibility, under such conditions, of maintaining a stable and dynamic chessboard of states, since these no longer have the capacity to protect themselves, and their geographical borders no longer fulfil a defense function.

Following Cosandey on this trajectory, the war in Ukraine seems to indicate that the future of Europe in terms of states can only be that of a large-scale disorder—a kind of new Middle Ages in which the Church is replaced by the dollar.

LS-SD: To conclude, let us return to the initial question. Is self-defense still relevant in such a state of chaos and disorder, of war without limits?

BW: Now more than ever—especially in a Western Europe incapable of defending itself, where the Ukrainian pattern is likely to be repeated. For, if the nation-state is no longer the subject of war, then it is the individual himself who becomes the subject of war (hence self-defense). Moreover, this individual is no longer a citizen, but a “naked man” stripped of all protection, without a city (a-polis) and liable to be put to death by the police as well as by the gangs or the aforementioned actors of the conventional NG war without limits. For this naked man, from now on, self-defense represents the only horizon in terms of residual freedom and security, the last means of preserving some snippets of the status of political animal that citizenship in arms (the hoplitic polis) previously conferred on him.

[Several factors argue not only for a prolongation of the war, but for its possible extension to the European region: the attitude of Russia, which is ready to continue the fighting as long as the Ukrainian government does not make a peace proposal; the possible involvement of Belarus; the clumsiness and blunders of the Poles and Lithuanians with regard to the enclave of Kaliningrad; the activism of the EU, the United Kingdom and the United States to prevent any end to the hostilities; and, last but not least, the blind eagerness of Germany to empty its arsenals and send their contents to Ukraine.]

Let us specify that the notion of self-defense understood here goes beyond the simple technique of fighting with bare hands. It represents the reverse side of self-defense because it is not a legal concept protecting the citizen, but a state of affairs, a defensive tactic, a survival reaction. In this sense, it constitutes the ultimate barrier of the banished and the proscribed against the violence they are subjected to. For them, it is the means to rebuild themselves, to become human persons again and not only bodies (homo sacer) that can be violated at will.

The philosopher Elsa Dorlin speaks in this respect of the construction of a “martial ethic of the self,” through practices that the disarmed individual, without citizenship, uses to protect himself physically from aggression. And, given the generalized chaos and the collapse looming on the horizon of European societies, in the wake of the war in Ukraine, it is important to insist on this reconstitutive function of self-defense. To defend oneself is to exist—the insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto are an emblematic example!

Let us also point out however that even in this scenario of re-empowerment, the margin of maneuver of homo sacer remains very narrow. This is why the putting into perspective of events (according to the method of long historical time), that is to say the narrative, occupies a strategic place. This allows for the definition of a space, an “alternative” reality to the narrative imposed by the military-media complex of global capitalism. The philosopher Eric Werner seeks to articulate this minority narrative with the triptych—autonomy-crisis-proximity—in response to that of the dominant discourse—insecurity-crisis-resilience. For the record, this last notion does not mean to resist, but “to meekly accept one’s fate, however bad it may be.”

Autonomy, proximity, self-defense, understood as “defense as close as possible,” will, in all likelihood, constitute the new reference points in a European world where the war in Ukraine marks the ultimate end of the Western historical cycle: “The time of revolutions is over. We are living in the time of extermination; and, by implication, the time of survival and self-defense. This is the era of pockets of autonomy.”

Having qualified the world-system by the state of insecure governance, we can begin by defining the new framework of war. It is part of the abatement of national sovereignties. The European nation-state no longer seems to be relevant to solve the security problems of its citizens. The latter, a historical legacy of the Westphalian state (1648), and theorized by Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), geographically delimited, is in decomposition… Moreover, the degradation of the nation-state model sees its military sovereignty put under the tutelage of another form of sovereignty, non-military, that is to say economic, carried by global capitalism (Olivier Entraygues, Regards sur la guerre: L’école de la défaite—Views on the war: The School of Defeat).

Bernard Wicht is a lecturer at the University of Lausanne, where he teaches strategy. He is a regular speaker at military institutions, including the Ecole de Guerre, and think-tanks abroad. He is the author of several books, including Vers l’autodéfense: Le défi des guerres internes (Towards Self-Defense: The Challenge of Internal Wars), Les loups et l’agneau-citoyen. Gangs militarisés, Etat policier et desarmement du peuple (The Wolves and the Citizen-Lamb: Militarized Gangs, the Police State and the Disarmament of the People); Citoyen-soldat 2.0, Mode d’emploi (Citizen-Soldier 2.0: A User’s Guide); Europe Mad Max demain ? retour à la défense citoyenne (Mad Max Europe Tomorrow? A Return to Citizen Defense); Une nouvelle Guerre de Trentre Ans ? Réflexion et hypothèse sur la crise actuelle (A New Thirty Years War: Reflections and Hypothesis on the Current Crisis); L’OTAN attaque : la nouvelle donne stratégique (NATO Attacks: the New Strategic Order); L’Idée de milice et le modèle suisse dans la pensée de Machiavel (The Idea of the Militia and the Swiss Model in Machiavelli’s Thought).


Featured: “Defenders of the Brest Fortress,” by Pyotr Krivonogov; painted in 1951.

Condemnation of Abortion in the Age of the Church Fathers

The condemnation of abortion by followers of Christ is not new. From the earliest days of Christianity, it has been considered a sin and preached against. Although the truth of this teaching has not changed, some seem to want to redefine both truth and sin. On Women’s Equality Day 2022, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called restricting abortion “sinful.” Specifically, on August 26, this U.S. representative twisted the idea of sin, stating, “The fact that this is such an assault on women of color and women [in] lower income families is just sinful. It’s wrong that they would be able to say to women what they think women should be doing with their lives and their bodies. But it’s sinful, the injustice of it all.” Pelosi’s idea of sin regarding abortion is the opposite of Church teaching. Her postmodern thinking has made her believe, or present as her belief, that rather than abortion being sinful, the restriction of it is “sinful.”

We will look at what the early church fathers had to say regarding the issue of abortion. For the record, this author has looked, but could not find, any church father that agreed with the U.S. Speaker Pelosi. In fact, every church father that addressed the issue roundly condemned it.

The Jews in the ancient world forbade abortion. The Jewish historian Josephus described the Mosaic law with respect to abortion. In his work Against Apion, Book 2, written circa 80 AD, he stated: “The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have done so, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.” Christianity, rooted in the Mosaic law to which Josephus referred, did not change this understanding of the fetus as a living child, and of the deliberate destruction of it as murder.

In ancient pagan Rome, abortion was legal. Some people at the time thought that the soul was introduced into the body after the birth of a child. The church father Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD) refuted this idea. As part of his refutation, he described in chilling detail the process of the abortion procedure, which does not seem to have changed much in two thousand years. In chapter 25 of his work A Treatise on the Soul, he writes:

“Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted and covered hook, wherewith the entire foetus is extracted by a violent delivery. There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in the furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function, the name of ἐμβρυοσφάκτης, ‘the slayer of the infant’, which was of course alive.”

Tertullian made it clear the fetus was alive, even if unborn. (For more details on abortion in ancient Rome and the Christians, see here).

One of the earliest Church Fathers who spoke on the topic of abortion was St. Barnabas. Writing between 70 and 100 AD, he exhorted “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall you destroy him after it is born.” St. Barnabas clearly views the fetus as a living human child, and equates abortion with “slaying,” that is, murdering, the child. Notice also that St. Barnabas addresses abortion and infanticide in the same sentence, considering them equivalent sins.

St. Hippolytus, writing around 225 AD, explained in his work Refutation of all Heresies, Book IX, that “Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!” Clearly, the practice of sidelining one’s religion [“reputed believers”] in order to accommodate [“for the sake of their family and excessive wealth”] or approve of pet sins did not originate recently.

St. John Chrysostom states that abortion is worse than murder. His Homily 24 on Romans, written in the late 300s AD, asked: “Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do you abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?” His heartfelt preaching against sin arose from certain conviction of the Gospel of life. How striking, and how current it seems, when Chrysostom upbraids those who “follow after a curse as if a blessing.”

Other early church fathers who spoke out against the sin of abortion were St Cyprian of Carthage (c. 210 – 258 AD) in his letter to Cornelius, (number 48, numbered 52 in some sources); St. Basil the Great (329 -379 AD), in his epistle 138; St Jerome (c. 347 – c. 419) in his epistle 22; and St Ambrose (339 – 397 AD), in his work On the Hexaemeron. The practice of abortion is likewise forbidden in the Didache also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles which was written in the first century or at the latest, the first part of the second century.

From the historical record, it is clear that the early church fathers condemned abortion as a sin. To speak otherwise is to confuse reality.


Phillip Cuccia is a retired army officer, who served in armored and cavalry units, and then taught Military History at West Point, before joining the Army attaché corps, and serving in Italy at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. He has a Master’s degree in security studies from Sapienza University in Rome and a Master’s and Ph.D. in Napoleonic Studies from Florida State University. He currently teaches history for Liberty University. He established the Eusebius Society in 2019.


Featured: “Kronos devouring his Children,” by Goya, ca. 1797.

The 50 Greatest Philosophers are Western

It could be that the most important historical question that points to a monumental contrast between the West and the Rest is the following: why did Western civilization produce all the greatest philosophers in history? If we agree that philosophy, at least until the first half of the nineteenth century, covered every branch of knowledge and dealt with the ultimate questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, being and becoming, why there is anything rather than nothing, what is good and evil, what is the difference between knowledge and opinion, it follows that identifying the nationality of the greatest philosophers may be a most revealing factum in our evaluation of the comparative achievements of civilizations. One does not have to agree with Aristotle that the “highest good” is the pursuit of wisdom to take seriously his claim that, if “all men by nature desire to have knowledge,” and if the highest form of knowledge is expressed by philosophers, because, as Heraclitus said, “they are inquirers into many things,” then it can be reasonably stated that the civilization that produced the greatest philosophers is the civilization that achieved the highest.

The History of Philosophy = The History of Western Philosophy

When scholarly histories of philosophies began to be written after the mid-1750s, that is, histories based on a relatively comprehensive study of the sources, it was agreed that true philosophy began in sixth century BC in Greece when a group of men known as the Pre-Socratics introduced a new way of inquiring for the “causes and principles” of the natural world grounded on rational judgements rather than on legends, myths, or gods responsible for the happenings of the world. They generally agreed with Aristotle’s confident claim that Thales of Miletus (623-545 BC) is the first known “inquirer into nature” who can be distinguished from earlier poetical “myth-makers” such as Hesiod and Homer.

It is not only that histories of philosophy began their accounts with ancient Greece. These histories were almost entirely, if not completely, about the contributions of Western philosophers in the conviction that philosophy as a venture that relies on reasoned arguments for its truth claims—even in philosophers like David Hume who believed that “reason is the Slave of the passions”—is a uniquely Western achievement. G.W.F. Hegel’s “Lectures on the History of Philosophy” (1819–1831), which were given to students, and recently published by University of Nebraska Press in three volumes, devote a brief opening section on “Oriental Philosophy” and thereafter the three volumes are entirely dedicated to European thinkers, starting with Thales. For Hegel, the history of Western philosophy “shows us a succession of noble minds, a gallery of heroes of thought, who, by the power of Reason, have penetrated into the being of things, of nature and of spirit, into the Being of God, and have won for us by their labours the highest treasure, the treasure of reasoned knowledge.”

This conviction that philosophy was almost entirely a Western phenomenon was held by historians of philosophy from every school of thought until recently. The neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband, believing that philosophy concerns the “independent and self-conscious work of intelligence which seeks knowledge methodically for its own sake,” began his two volume classic, A History of Philosophy, published in 1892, with the ancient Greeks, without mentioning a single non-Western philosopher. Windelband believed that “the history of philosophy is the process in which European humanity has embodied in scientific conceptions its views of the world and its judgments of life” (p. 9). The historicist and existentialist Julián Marías, in his Historia de la Filosofía (1941), which went through countless editions, and was translated into English, also starts with the Pre-Socratics and ends with José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) without a word about a non-Western thinker—even though he says that “philosophy is a way of life,” which seems to fit with the “Eastern” tradition of seeing philosophy in terms of an inner or spiritual religious quest. The difference is that Marías thinks that philosophy is also about “knowledge” that “justifies itself [and] constantly demonstrates and proves its validity.” Therefore, philosophy is a way of life “that consists precisely of living according to a certain knowledge; therefore, this way of life postulates and requires this certain knowledge. It is this knowledge which determines the meaning of the philosophic life.” Of course, the word “knowledge” is also used in Eastern philosophies, but Marías agrees with the standard Western view that it was with the Pre-Socratics that “a completely new human attitude” emerged: a theoretic instead of a mythical attitude. The “mythic man” is enveloped by the surrounding world, lives in a world of things he can’t differentiate in terms of their properties and contrast to the thinking self. In contrast, the “theorizing” philosopher differentiates the knowing self: “instead of being among the things, he is opposite them, alienated from them, and thus things acquire a meaning of their own which previously they did not have” (1967: pp. 2-4).

The liberal-minded Will Durant, in his popular book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (1926), profiles only Western philosophers. In a “Preface to the Second Edition,” written in 1962, we see the first inklings of multiculturalism, however, as Durant faults his book for leaving out “Chinese and Hindu philosophy,” even though he adds that Chinese philosophers were “averse to epistemology” or to inquiries into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired. The analytical-empiricist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his widely known book, History of Western Philosophy (1945), which was cited as one of the books that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, took it for granted that the history of philosophy should be about Western philosophers. Philosophy began with the Pre-Socratics because it is only then that we see speculations on the nature of things with “appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.” Russell offered a chapter on “Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy” only to the extent that Muslims wrote commentaries on Aristotle. The Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston, in his magisterial work, A History of Philosophy, published in nine volumes between 1946 and 1975, began with Greece and stayed in Europe, including a volume on Russian philosophy, right to the end.

This Western-centric attitude was unquestioned until recent times. It was the typical perspective of texts for university students. Konstantin Kolenda’s Philosophy’s Journey: A Historical Introduction (1974) says that it was the ancient Greeks who “were able to think through to new, unorthodox questions.” “Mythical accounts about gods and about the world…do not necessarily concern themselves with the question of truth. Myth is something that is told and need not call for critical scrutiny, examination, justification. The idea of possibly discovering the true nature of reality behind the multiplicity of appearances and behind conflicting opinions is a most original and revolutionary idea in the intellectual history of man” (p. 5). It is not only that the ancient Greeks posed critical questions—“Is there some substance or some basic stuff out of which everything is made?”—but that their answers consisted of “reasoned” arguments. Not a single Eastern philosopher is included in Kolenda’s book.

In 1991, Norman Melchert published The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, in which he tells students that the value of philosophy is that it teaches you “to believe for good reasons.” Opinions are as good as the reasons behind them. “That’s what philosophy is”: teaching students how to think “clearly and rationally.” Every philosopher in Melchert’s “great conversation” is Western. But didn’t Nietzsche say that the “will to power” lies behind the grandiose claims of reason? And didn’t Heidegger deny reason’s ability to reveal the nature of being? Both Melchert and Kolenda include these two great philosophers for their originality and immense impact on contemporary thought. These thinkers, I will add, did not rely on mandates and conventions, educated in a world of myths and fables. The Nietzschean argument that behind the claims of philosophical reason lay a primitive unconscious will to power, archetypes inherited from the past long before any rational consciousness, articulated in-through an education in the rationalist tradition of the West. Heidegger attempted to access being (Sein) by means of a rigorous phenomenological analysis of human existence in respect to its temporal and historical character, conducting meticulous exegeses of philosophical texts from the Pre-Socratics onwards through the writings of medieval and modern philosophers.

The Great Philosophers, a 1987 BBC television series presented by Bryan Magee, which was made available in a book of the same name, only discusses Western philosophers in its 15 episodes, beginning with Socrates and ending with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is true that in recent decades there have been noticeable attempts to accentuate the word “Western” in book titles in order to make it clear that it is not a history of philosophy per se. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, edited by Richard Popkin and published in 2006, explicitly states that the book “has assembled 63 leading scholars to forge a highly approachable chronological account of the development of Western philosophical traditions”—from Plato to Wittgenstein and from Aquinas to Heidegger. At the same time, it says that “the Columbia History significantly broadens the scope of Western philosophy” to reveal the influence of non-Western contributions. There is a chapter “dedicated to Jewish and Moslem philosophical development during the Middle Ages, focusing on the critical role of figures such as Averroës and Moses Maimonides in introducing Christian thinkers to classical philosophy.” The book also acknowledges the influence of the Kaballah upon Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton, and the influence of Moses Mendelssohn upon the work of Kant. Nevertheless, the focus remains entirely on the Western tradition; Muslims and Jews are included insomuch as they were shaped by this tradition and contributed to it.

The book, A New History of Western Philosophy, which consists of four separate volumes published between 2004 and 2007, by the British philosopher and theologian Anthony Kenny, also focuses on those works in the Jewish and Islamic tradition that became important to the Western tradition. I am certain that if Popkin and Kenny really believed there were Eastern, or African, or Aztec philosophers, who had made philosophical contributions as significant as Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke, they would have included them. Using the term “Western” was likely in response to politically correct pressures to avoid identifying philosophy per se with “Western philosophy.” There have indeed been very strong pressures since about the 1990s for a more “inclusive” history of philosophy—in a Western world dedicated to multicultural immigration. A recent, highly publicized book is Taking Back Philosophy (2017), by Bryan Van Norden. It condemns American universities for “failing their students by refusing to teach the philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and other non-Western cultures.” Without a background in Western philosophy other than reading a few books by members of the Frankfurt School, Van Norden demanded that Western philosophy be seen as merely one current among many equally gifted ones. In a much commented NYT’s article, under the threatening title, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” he called upon universities “to look beyond the European canon in their own research and teaching.” As if aware that he lacked reasoned arguments to back his claim that Inca philosophy was as profoundly significant, Van Norden embraced Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive intolerance” idea in another New York Times article. We should tolerate leftist views only, for “justice dictates that access be granted to opinions and people…[that] benefit the community”—that is, multicultural communities. Those who disagreed with him were complicit with “nationalism” and “racism.” In support of him, Patricia McGuire, the President of Trinity Washington University, was direct in stating that inclusiveness in philosophy had nothing to do with the quality of non-Western philosophy: “Let’s face facts: there’s a Muslim Mayor in London, signifying the fact that even those who revere All Things British need to catch up with the now-settled reality of great diversity in contemporary life. The canon of learning should reflect that, including Philosophy.”

These mounting pressures to avoid “racist” exclusions of non-Western philosophers clearly account for A.C. Grayling’s decision in his otherwise great book, The History of Philosophy (2019), to include a “Part V: Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African Philosophy.” Grayling tries to argue that India, China, and Arabic-Persia developed schools of thought that discussed such perennial questions as what is truth, meaning, existence, and value – the truth, however, is that he has a hard time showing they did so in “intellectually rigorous ways.” At most, using his own criteria of what constitutes philosophy (which excludes religion, casuistry, apologetics, or beliefs devoid of sound reasoning) he shows that there was an incipient philosophical tradition in India, China, and, due to the influence of Aristotle, in medieval Islamic civilization. He does not demonstrate that in these civilizations (again with the exception of Islamic Aristotelians) there were sustained inquiries “into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired.” While there were “inquiries into the nature of reality and existence” and into “what is good,” there were no treatises on what constitutes valid and sound reasoning. Moreover, it is implicitly obvious that Grayling’s account of these civilizations concerns an ancient or medieval period of creativity, consolidation of a few basic outlooks, followed by repetition or decline.

When it comes to “African philosophy,” Grayling finds himself in a quandary of his own making: “are there philosophical schools of thought in Africa that are distinguishable from traditions, religions, folklore, mythology, poetry, art and collections of maxims?” He can’t avoid suggesting that Africa did not produce a philosophical tradition. Only “if one attaches an extended and very loose sense to the label ‘philosophy'” it is possible to talk about African philosophy. But he cautions not to equate “denials of its existence” with “an implicit dismissal of Africa.” “There is much to discover in Africa, for example the rich and deeply attractive concept of Ubuntu.” This term stands for “kindness, goodness, generosity, compassion, caring.” While these virtues are not unique to Ubuntu, “it is appropriate that as humankind itself came out of Africa, so one of the best ideas about how it can flourish—the idea of Ubuntu—should emanate from there too.” This is actually how this otherwise very intelligent history ends: with a childish call upon whites to think about Ubuntu and with the implication that if whites want to go far, they need to practice Ubuntu towards the African migrants invading Europe.

The First and the Second List of the Greatest 50 Philosophers

Below is my list of the 50 greatest philosophers, all from the West. There are very strong reasons to exclude non-Western philosophers from this list. However, I have created a second list of the next fifty greatest, which do include a reasonable number of non-Western thinkers—insomuch as they had a profound impact on their respective cultures, and did contribute the best philosophies outside the West. How did I come up with these two lists? I did by trusting the authority of the histories of philosophy I have referenced above, including additional histories of both the West and the East to be cited below. Throughout my student days, undergraduate and graduate, and as a professor, I have read a sizable number of primary philosophical works in combination with many secondary books and articles. My own philosophical views have influenced to some degree the choices I have made, but overall I have relied on histories written by authors from a wide variety of perspectives, Kantian, Hegelian, materialist, phenomenological, empiricist, pragmatic, existentialist, analytical – and specialists in non-Western philosophies. I have also tried to bring out the best from ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

First List

  1. Abelard (1079-1142)
  2. Anaximander (b. 610 BC)
  3. Anselm (1033-1109)
  4. Aquinas (1225-1274)
  5. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
  6. Augustine (354-430)
  7. Bacon, Roger (1214-1292)
  8. Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)
  9. Bentham (1748-1832)
  10. Berkeley (1685-1753)
  11. Carnap (1891-1970)
  12. Democritus (460-360 BC)
  13. Deleuze (1925-1995)
  14. Derrida (1930-2004)
  15. Descartes (1596-1650)
  16. Fichte (1762-1814)
  17. Frege (1848-1925)
  18. Hegel (1770-1831)
  19. Heidegger (1889-1976)
  20. Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
  21. Hobbes (1588-1679)
  22. Hume (1711-1776)
  23. Husserl (1859-1938)
  24. James (1842-1910)
  25. Kant (1724-1804)
  26. Leibniz (1646-1716)
  27. Locke (1632-1704)
  28. Marx (1818-83)
  29. Mill (1806-73)
  30. Nietzsche (1844-1900)
  31. Ockham (1285-1347)
  32. Parmenides (b. 501 BC)
  33. Peirce (1839-1914)
  34. Plato (428-348 BC)
  35. Plotinus (204-270)
  36. Pythagoras (570-495 BC)
  37. Quine (1908-2000)
  38. Rawls (1921-2002)
  39. Reid (1710-1796)
  40. Rousseau (1712-1778
  41. Russell (1872-1970)
  42. Sartre (1905-1980)
  43. Schelling (1775-1854)
  44. Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
  45. Duns Scotus (1266-1308)
  46. Socrates (470-399 BC)
  47. Spinoza (1632-1677)
  48. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  49. Zeno of Lea (b. 489 BC)
  50. Žižek (1949 -)

This is a remarkable statistical fact. It needs to be emphasized this is not a comparison of the West against three or two other civilizations groups, but a competition of the West versus the Rest. Aside from the Muslim, Chinese, and perhaps the Indian world, no other culture in the world, not the Mayas, not the Aztecs, not the Khmer Rouge Cambodians, not the Tibetans, not the Aksum civilization, not the Egyptians, not the Assyrians, not the Bantus, not the Babylonians, not the Japanese, not the Koreans—NO other culture in the world, produced any great philosopher. Let it be repeated: this is not a list based on arbitrary, idiosyncratic, purely personal, or politicized assumptions. It is based on solid, widely recognized histories of philosophies. Before I go on commenting on this list, let’s take a look at my second list, created for the purpose of finding a way to include non-Western thinkers, for the sake of argument.

Second List

  1. Al-Farabi (870-950)
  2. Alghazali (1058-1111)
  3. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)
  4. Aurelius (21-180)
  5. Averroes (1126-1198)
  6. Bonaventura (1221-1274)
  7. Bergson (1859-1941)
  8. Böhme (1575-1624)
  9. Boethius (480 – 524 AD)
  10. Brentano (1838–1917)
  11. Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC)
  12. Comte (1798-1857)
  13. Confucius (551-479 BC)
  14. Collingwood (1889-1943)
  15. Davidson (1917-2003)
  16. Dewey (1859-1952)
  17. Diderot (1713-84)
  18. Dilthey (1833–1911)
  19. Dugin (1962 -)
  20. Dummett (1925-2011)
  21. Empedocles (490-430 BC)
  22. Epicurus (341-271 BC)
  23. Erasmus (1469-1536)
  24. Gadamer (1900-2002)
  25. Grotius (1583-1645)
  26. Habermas (1929-)
  27. Hempel (1905-1997
  28. Herder (1744–1803)
  29. Hsun Tzu (Xunzi) (298-238 BC).
  30. Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  31. Kojève (1902 –1968)
  32. Lao Tzu (604-532 BC)
  33. Lucretius (96-55 BC)
  34. Luhmann (1927-1998)
  35. MacIntyre (1929 -)
  36. Malebranche (1638-1715)
  37. Mencius (372-289 BC)
  38. Montaigne (1533-1592)
  39. Mo Tzu (479-438 BC)
  40. Merleau-Ponty (1907-1961)
  41. Ricour (1913-2005)
  42. Rorty (1931-2007)
  43. Schmitt (1888-1985
  44. Scruton (1944-2020)
  45. Seneca (4 BC –65 AD)
  46. Sextus Empiricus (ca. 200)
  47. Spencer (1820-1903)
  48. Strauss (1899-1973)
  49. Thales (624-548 BC)
  50. Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) (1130-1200).

If there is a bias in my lists, it is that I neglected philosophers of history (Spengler, Vico), philosophers of science (Kuhn, Nagel, Feyerabend), of mathematics (Hilbert, Lakatos), of language (Jakobson, Austin, Searle), of law (Pufendorf, Kelsen, Hart), of logic (Boole, Turing, Gödel), and social theorists that are no less philosophical than Chinese thinkers like Confucius (Montesquieu, Sorokin, Weber).

The Score

The score for the two lists combined is:

  • Europeans 80.5 = 80.5%
  • Jews 9.5 = 9.5%
  • Chinese 7 = 7%
  • Muslims 3 = 3%

If we add Jews to the European list, insofar as they were all educated in Europe, then the Western score is 90 = 90%. Augustine was a Berber according to Gerald Bonner’s authoritative biography Augustine of Hippo: “There is no reason to suppose that he was of any but Berber stock” (p. 36). Augustine was thoroughly educated in the West. The top four philosophical nationalities are the ancient Greeks, the Germans, the English, and the French. The fact that Indian philosophy can’t be divorced from India’s major religious traditions, or was never conceived as a separate intellectual pursuit, explains why I could not include Indian philosophers, great as they may have been as religious thinkers. Surendranath Dasgupta’s impressive five-volume work, A History of Indian Philosophy, published between 1922 and 1955, is fundamentally about Buddhism, Jainism, “the six systems of Hindu thought,” including the Bhagavadgita, the “most revered of all the Hindu texts,” the philosophy of Srikantha, which argues that the Shiva and the Brahman are the one and the same, and Saiva philosophy, which posits “the soul’s bondage within the fetters of existence.” Sue Hamilton, an expert in Indian philosophy, acknowledges that “what Westerners call religion and philosophy are combined in India, and that its philosophies are correctly referred to as soteriologies, or ‘system of salvation.’” The Indian philosophical tradition holds that “understanding reality has a profound effect on one’s destiny.” The attempt “to understand the nature of reality” is a “spiritual undertaking, an activity associated with a religious tradition.” The aim of Indian philosophy was to escape from consciousness, to obliterate the thinking self; and every philosopher, or every philosophical outlook, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, were preoccupied with the notion of reincarnation, the process of birth and rebirth, the transmigration of souls and the “release” of the soul from that process.

We know that a belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historical figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. But as Russell qualifies, the very Pythagoreans who believed that the “soul was subject to a sequence of transmigrations… gave rise to a scientific and more especially a mathematical tradition… in spite of the mystical element arising from the orphic revival.” Sue Hamilton agrees, adding that while in Western medieval philosophy the existence of God was taken to be true as an article of faith, attempts were made to separate truths established by means of reason alone, and to even establish the existence of God by means of reason. In modern times, Kant, a devout Christian, would go further by insisting that “what one could know for certain was strictly limited to what could be ascertained by means of reasoning…one could never have certain knowledge about issues of faith” (pp. 1-12). Nevertheless, Sue Hamilton, as is generally the case with Westerners who study Eastern thought, misleads readers with her view that Western philosophy “tends to be concerned with detailed and technical questions about kinds of logic and linguistic analysis” – whereas Indian philosophy is a “spiritual undertaking” about “big metaphysical questions” concerning the meaning of life and how to live one’s life in order to have an effect on one’s destiny. Van Norden also criticizes the notion that the West discovered the “one universal method of rationality.” Chinese philosophy has its own modes of reasoning and its own way of searching for the truth.

Let’s leave aside the fact that both India and China have now embraced the scientific rationality of the West, apparently with the conviction that this rationality is universally useful. The Western philosophical tradition contains the most reasoned critiques of the pretensions of reason in favor of alternative ways of finding meaning and making sense of the universe—intuitive, poetical, artistic, archetypal ways. The difference is that those philosophers who pointed to the limitations of reason would go on to develop alternative methodologies, or fully articulated philosophies, such as hermeneutics, phenomenology, and existentialism—by individuals well educated in the Western rationalist and empiricist traditions. I will return to this point below. Jacob Böhme, whom Hegel called “the first German philosopher,” and is included in my second list, had a major influence on Schelling, and German thinking in general, with his idea that an irrational force, the Ungrund, a groundless will, was the primary fount of being, not reason.

Seven Chinese philosophers out of 100 is more than enough. In China there are five major philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Mohists, and the Yin-Yang school. All these traditions emerged in ancient times, and thereafter, in what we called the “medieval” and “modern” eras, all we get are “neo” developments of these schools: “Neo-Confucianism” and “Neo-Taoism,” or philosophers who combined aspects of the various schools to produce slightly different ideas. The highly respected sinologist, Frederick Mote, goes as far as to say that every major philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism”—notwithstanding the role of Daoism and Buddhism. This is why I included only one philosopher that is not from ancient times, namely, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Xi is indeed seen as the philosopher who “exercised the greater influence on Chinese thought,” except for Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Hsun Tzu. He synthesized most currents within Chinese philosophy within a grand Neo-Confucian system, with his “most radical innovation” being the selection of “the Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean…as the Four Books, commenting on them, and making them the orthodox foundation of the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 to 1905 (1963: p. 588-90).

Including other Neo-Confucians in the list would have been the same as including notable European philosophers who followed in the footsteps of prior great philosophers, such as the so-called Cambridge Platonists: Henry More (1614–1687), Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), John Worthington (1618–1671), George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630–1679) and John Norris (1657–1711). Including Neo-Taoists would have required including many gifted Cartesians: Antoine Arnauld, Balthasar Bekker, Tommaso Campailla, Johannes Clauberg, Michelangelo Fardella, Antoine Le Grand, Adriaan Hereboord, François Poullain de la Barre, Edmond Pourchot, Pierre-Sylvain Régis, Henricus Regius, Jacques Rohault, Christopher Wittich.

Should We Really Include Chinese Philosophers?

We may indeed ask: Is Confucius really a philosopher? After all, Confucianism is a “doctrine of worldly social-mindedness,” a guide for proper moral behavior for the scholar gentry class of China’s despotic bureaucratic state, a doctrine that, in the words of Joseph Needham, became a “cult, a religion, based on a kind of hero worship and borrowing from the cults of nature-deities and ancestor worship” (1997: p. 79). Confucius never asked questions about the ultimate nature of reality. The Confucian term “all under heaven” does not refer to the universe, the infinite, but is a term that denotes the geographical area associated with the political sovereignty of the emperor.

One could seriously argue that China produced individuals better described as writers of guidelines on how best to rule, how best to meditate, contemplate nature, combined with some allusions and illustrations about the “boundless” and about the ways of nature, without “elaborate reasoning and detailed argument.” These last quoted words are from Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Yu-Lan, after stating that China has a rich philosophical tradition with contributions in logic and metaphysics; and after clearly stating that a “philosopher must philosophize…must think reflectively on life, and then express his thoughts systematically… [and offer] theories [that are] the products of reflective thinking,” (p. 2) goes on to say:

“The fact is that Chinese philosophers were accustomed to express themselves in the form of aphorisms, apothegms, or allusions, and illustrations. The whole book of Lao-tzu consists of aphorisms, and most of the chapters of the Chuang-tzu are full of allusions and illustrations. This is very obvious. But even in writings such as those of Mencius and Hsun Tzu, when compared with the philosophical writings of the West, there are still too many aphorisms, allusions, and illustrations. Aphorisms must be very brief; allusions and illustrations must be disconnected” (p. 12).

He adds that this way of thinking is “not articulate enough,” but that this “insufficiency” (“briefness and disconnectedness”) is “compensated” by the “suggestiveness” of the allusions (pp. 11-12). Yu-Lan is right that this lack of “elaborate reasoning” is “obvious” to anyone who reads Chinese philosophers. I will go further in saying that Chinese philosophy never rose beyond the pre-rational, mystical, poetical, bureaucratic, style of writing that prevailed in all cultures up until the ancient Greeks singularly discovered the faculty of reasoning and came to realize that there is a mind that reasons, and that this mind can generate its own rules of reasoning in conscious distinction to presuppositions from extra-philosophical beliefs.

This conscious differentiation of reason from its object, and appearance of free self-determination, this awareness by reason of itself as both tool and object of reasoning, reached its culmination in post-Kantian idealism, but it was Aristotle who did the most in ancient times to delineate what constitutes a proper philosophical statement about what there is and what constitutes a valid form of reasoning about why something is so. He invented formal logic, a precise language about reality, about what things can be said to be substances and the reasons why they are as they are. He showed that true philosophical statements are composed of basic categories—substance, quantity, quality, relationship, place, time—which express the various ways in which being is, and that these statements can be formulated to be subject-predicate statements. This is just a little part of what this incredible philosopher did.

In some ways Chinese philosophers resemble Pre-Socratic philosophers. Aristotle criticized the Pre-Socratics for failing to articulate fully criteria for differentiating faulty arguments from good arguments. This is what Aristotle sought to provide with his formal logic and the syllogism. Chinese philosophical statements are devoid of demonstrative reasoning. Chinese arguments lack clearly stated primary premises, with precisely defined categories. Actually, in fairness to the Pre-Socratics, even though they did not invent syllogistic reasoning, they did discover logos, that there is a rational order in the world and that humans have a faculty, nous, which they can employ in contradistinction to beliefs handed down without reasoned debate.

The words from Needham I cited above about Confucianism come from The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China: 1, which is an abridgment in three volumes of Joseph Needham’s magisterial project with the same title, which consists of twenty seven books dealing with the history of science and technology in China. Needham, still recognized as the most impressive scholar of Chinese culture, is the author of most of these books. While he was not keen about Confucian philosophy, he wrote admiringly about the Taoists, Mohists, and Legalists, claiming they made fundamental contributions to scientific knowledge, empiricism, and to a “mechanistic-naturalistic” conception of the world. He thinks that members of these schools rose above the “metaphysics” of philosophy. (Needham, by the way, was a Marxist who believed that science had rightfully displaced philosophy, and this is why he wanted to portray Chinese thinkers as harbingers of modern scientific thought. I reject this positivist downgrading of philosophy). As it is, all the passages that Needham brings up from Chinese philosophers strike me as poetical, mystical, and alchemical statements. The founding text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (300 BC) consists of a string of impressionistic statements about “the Way.” This book of five thousand words is as long as a magazine article. He claims that Lao Tzu wrote in a language similar to the proto-scientific language of the Pre-Socratics, citing the following:

“The ways of men are conditioned by those of the earth, the ways of Earth by those of Heaven, the ways of Heaven by those of the Tao, and the Tao came into being by itself” (90-1).

He cites many similarly worded passages from later Taoist texts; for example:

“All phenomena have their causes. If one does not know these causes, although one may happen to be right, it is as if one knew nothing, and in the end one will be bewildered…The fact that water leaves the mountains and runs to the sea is not due to any dislike of the mountains and love of the sea, but is the effect of height as such” (93).

But these statements are not at all “mechanistic” in outlook. They are not even at the level of the Pre-Socratic search for naturalistic causes. The way Taoists write about the Tao, the being that came to be by itself, lacks rigor; it is really a mystical way of apprehending a oneness that is complete onto itself, which they describe in hazy words, asserting that it is, but not deducing it. In contrast, when Parmenides wrote about “the One” he tried to deduce it from prior statements. Parmenides contrasts the expression that something is to the expression that something is not. He then argues that saying that something is not does not make sense since you cannot know what is not, and you can’t even express it. He writes:

“There are only two ways of inquiry that can be thought of. The first, namely, that it is (and that it is impossible for it not to be), is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other way of inquiry, namely, that it is not (and cannot be), is a path that none can learn at all. For you cannot know what is not, nor can you express it.”

Having said this, Parmenides follows up with his main point that only that which is can be thought about in a meaningful way, and only that which can be thought about can be:

It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. What can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be…One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is.
From here he infers that what we can say about the One is that it is eternal, indivisible, unmoving, that is, uncreated and indestructible. He offers a rational reason for making this inference, saying that if we say that the One became, or came into existence, or will cease to exist, then this would be the same as saying that it was not before it became, and that it will not be after it ceases to be, which would amount to making expressions about things which are not, which is impossible since you cannot know or say anything about what is not. Therefore:

[The One is eternal], for how can “what is” be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, then it is not. Nor is it, if it is going to be in the future. Thus, is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.”

Needham says that the paradoxes of the Mohist Hui Shih are similar to the paradoxes of Zeno. He cites this paradox from Shih: “The South has at the same time a limit and no limit.” But as I have argued elsewhere, paradoxes come in different degrees of difficulty; some paradoxes are “weak or shallow,” based on unfounded suppositions, faulty reasoning, or ostensibly vague wording. The philosophical evidence shows that Europeans conceptualized all the sophisticated paradoxes in history. The Western mind did so because it has a peculiar inclination to seek truths that don’t violate the self-legislated laws of reason, the law of contradiction, the law of excluded middle, and the law of identity. If a claim is illogically inconsistent, in violation of these laws, then the claim or the reasoning behind it must be reevaluated or rejected. This is why Europeans took Zeno’s paradoxes seriously, for they seem to suggest that one could reach a logically unacceptable conclusion on the basis of sound reasoning from apparently sound premises. They wondered whether these paradoxes revealed deficiencies in the way we reason, calling for improvements in our reasoning powers, a better system of logic and a more precise usage of language.

At the same time, however, some European thinkers did not conclude that paradoxes were mere expressions of faulty reasoning but a testimony to the limited nature of the human mind in its capacity to offer rationally consistent answers about the ultimate questions of the universe and life. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that reality was inherently contradictory and thus paradoxical. The intellectual culture of paradoxes in China was fundamentally different in degree of sophistication, the reaction of intellectuals to paradoxes, and the absence of philosophical reflections about the contradictory nature of the universe. The School of Names was the only one that brought up some paradoxical expressions, and this School remained an isolated moment in China’s intellectual history. The Confucians in control of intellectual discussions dismissed the paradoxical expressions of the School of Names as “bizarre expressions” that discouraged young minds from the proper use of language and the obligation of educated gentlemen to promote “ritual propriety and righteousness.”

Should we even include any of the major members of the Legalist school? As Frederick Mote says:

“Legalism is not a movement in philosophy. It is not concerned with truth. It is not reflective thinking on the great individual and social problems of life. It does not seek the general principles under which all facts can be explained. It is a system of methods and principles for the operation of the state, and even the state is given only the barest of ideological foundations. Legalists were content to justify their system by the single comment: “It works” (p. 108).

So, it looks like Hsun Tzu (298-238 BC), the founder of legalism, should be taken out from this list. Confucius too, and the Taoist mystics and the not so impressive Mohists. If we include the Legalists, then we should include many other European political philosophers I left out, starting with Machiavelli, Bodin, Cicero, Thoreau, Bakunin, Hooker, Calvin, Lenin, Harrington, Blackstone, Paine, Jefferson, Burke, Godwin, Constant, Madison, Gentile, Sorel, Oakeshott—to name some. Honestly, the 50+50 list is very conciliatory.

The Transcendental West Stands above the Embedded Chinese

Some sinologists believe that Chinese philosophers came to the realization—long before Western philosophers—that thinking inevitably occurs within a context and that it is not possible to transcend the culturally-specific context from which all thinking emerges. Among the publications which have made this case, the most comprehensive is Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture (1997), by David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames. This book draws a fundamental contrast between the “transcendentalism” of European philosophers and the “embeddedness” of Chinese thinkers. Early on in their history, this book tells us, Chinese intellectuals came to the “pragmatic” realization—well before Western pragmatism and hermeneutics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—that all thinking is “embedded” to a time and a place. Chinese abstained from the “naïve Western supposition” that intellectuals could transcend with their ideas the social context from which they emerged.

I believe it was precisely the transcendental capacity of Western thinkers to reason in terms of universal concepts independent of context that gave them eventually the “pragmatic” or “hermeneutic” ability to understand the ways in which knowledge-claims are culturally embedded. The West’s transcendental capacity did not spring out of the “human mind” as such, but out of its unique historical experience. The Chinese mind was embedded to its particular traditions and historical contexts without being self-aware of this, because the Chinese mind lacked a transcendental capacity. The transcendental capacity of Europeans did not emerge without historical conditions, outside a particular context, but developed over time, beginning in ancient Greece. The ability to generate “transcendental concepts” is the product of a culturally specific mind, which can only be understood by situating it within the specific background of Western history.

Hall and Ames believe there are no “universally human, culturally neutral grounds to which we can appeal as a basis of comparison of particular cultures” since any account will necessarily “presuppose something of the theoretical stance of the tradition from which the analysis and evaluation begins” (xii). Only a “pragmatic method” provides us with an escape from the Western arrogance of a “disembedded” or detached “I” capable of adjudicating over different traditions. We should rely on pragmatic thinkers such as George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, for an appropriate vocabulary for understanding how the self is socially constituted. This pragmatism, they argue, fits right in with the Chinese perspective that the person can never be identified in abstraction from the social roles that define and constitute the person. Besides pragmatism, Hall and Ames mention hermeneutics and poststructuralism, as forms of thinking that allow us to overcome the dualistic thinking of the West with its separation of mind and matter, self and society, and its pretensions to a view that is objectively valid.

Don’t these two academics realize that pragmatism, hermeneutics, and poststructuralism are Western products? They acknowledge this in a low-key way, stating that these schools of thought arose late in Western history; and yet their entire argument is that Westerners have been unable to understand Chinese thinking because they have relied on dualistic ways of thinking. Their pragmatic and “historicist” method are the best way to apprehend the meanings of Chinese words and writings, against Western-centric readings, which judge other cultures in terms of such Western concepts as “mind,” “self,” “transcendence,” “person,” “subject,” “object,” which lack corresponding terms in the Chinese language or have very different meanings within Chinese culture. So, implicitly, without wanting to draw attention to the irony of it all, and perhaps without even knowing what they are doing, Hall and Ames rely on Western schools of thought to criticize Western-centric readings of Chinese culture.

The very academics who claim that we need to contextualize our thinking, because it is impossible to have a view from nowhere, fail to contextualize the particular historical roots of their way of thinking. What Hall and Ames fail to realize, and this includes every Western academic condemning Western logocentrism, is that the Chinese have never self-consciously thought about the way knowledge is context-bound, the way the consciousness, will, desires, and ideas of individuals are culturally situated. The Chinese mind has been unable to stand back from its cultural surroundings to reflect upon the ways it has been culturally situated. In contrast, the Western mind was able to develop methodologies to understand texts from different eras and different cultures, because this is the only culture that learned how to draw ontological distinctions between mind and matter, individual and society, the three parts of the soul, and so on, in the course of which this mind eventually developed particular sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, botany, sociology, economics, etc.—to explain different aspects of reality, and newly emerging properties, while also realizing that the concept of “man in general” is limited by historically determinate factors. The prior ability of ancient Greek philosophers to discover the distinctiveness of the faculty of the mind, the distinction between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom) nurtured a transcendental outlook that allowed Western thinker to stand back from their context and view other cultural contexts in their own terms.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that all knowledge is historically situated, the expression of a particular people. If all knowledge is contextual, then all knowledge claims are equally valid. We have to ask why the West developed all the theories about how knowledge is context-bound, and why the West produced all the modern sciences. Self-conscious cultural relativism—a relativism in which subjects are not completely absorbed by their culturally specific world views—presupposes a subject that has come to a transcendental understanding of the relativistic views of other cultures, and is thus able to understand its own relativism, and in this way transcend it.

From a Piagetian perspective, as I argued elsewhere, we can say that the Chinese mind did not rise above the concrete operational stage, that is, above the third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. While the Chinese mind showed signs of formal operational thinking in some of its mathematical operations and rationalization of state bureaucracy, it did so only at an elementary level. In stark contrast to Hobbes, who conducted a thorough study of Euclid’s Elements and the mechanistic science of Galileo in order to reach generalizations about the nature of political power, the ideas espoused in The Analects of Confucius, for example, are tied to actual historical times and personalities. As Burton Watson notes: “In the Analects, therefore, the reader will find no lengthy discussions of terminology or expositions of ideas. Instead, moral and political concepts are presented in terms of particular individuals, the teacher Confucius and the disciple or other persons with whom he is conversing and the particular circumstances under discussion” (2007: p. 7). Like the concrete operational mind, the Confucian mind was limited to thought concerning things that were available to immediate perception about past virtuous rulers; it did not seek to reach general rules, or understand cause-effect relations detached from particular contexts. The writings of Confucius consist of aphorisms advising future rulers and officials how the ideal gentleman should comport himself if he is to meet the established conventions set in the past, the roles and rituals the ideal gentleman must follow in order to rule properly according to the Way.

In conclusion, if I may end on a realistic-pessimistic note on the current situation in the West: as immigration replacement accelerates, and as the populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, United States and other European nations, become thoroughly diverse, and the universities fulfill their current mission for “inclusiveness, diversity, and equity,” the teaching of philosophy will include as equally substantial names from all over the world. Already, as it is, research on the racism of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Aristotle, and many other philosophers, is one of the most lucrative, grant collecting activities in academia. These philosophers will be taught less for their philosophies than for their sins in racism and their threats to an open, tolerant, and inclusive Western world. As Karl Popper had already insisted, “we should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” While Popper did not call for the intolerance of these thinkers, he condemned and dismissed the philosophies of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as nationalistic, xenophobic and intellectually worthless. It was only a few steps for Herbert Marcuse to construct his argument that any views that don’t accept the spread of cultural Marxism should be suppressed and outlawed.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Seven Sages of Greece,” or “Plato’s Academy.” Roman mosaic, from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus, in Pompeii; ca. 100 BC to 79 AD.

My Friend Paul Veyne

Paul Veyne (1930-2022) passed away on September 29. Honorary professor at the Collège de France, he was one of our most knowledgeable scholars of ancient Rome. A tribute.


“Dear colleague, I have read your letter. You are right, the state of Latin is getting worse and worse.” Ten years ago, when I was entering the first year of my studies, I received, by way of reply, this letter from Paul Veyne, so touching, so personal and so pleasant. Imagine the effect it had on a young greenhorn lad who was destined for literature. Imagine today my emotions at the announcement of the death of this professor, and myself, still as green as ever, now a Latin teacher.

“Am I going to follow in the footsteps of my elders? Yes, but I allow myself to choose my own path,” recalled Seneca in a letter to Lucilius. Veyne shared very different ideas from mine. Some would perhaps regard them bitterly. Veyne was a man of the left; rather relativistic, it is true; neither patriotic nor anti-patriotic; a Communist in his youth; a Gaullist in 1969; then a liberal and progressive. He had very early broken with Catholic practice, which he judged to be ancient folklore, and remained suffused with the memory of the war, the collaboration, and the anti-Semitism that he pinned on the old France of his parents. Paul Veyne did not accept any absolutes. “Nihil amirari“: everything passes away: human rights, ideas, Christianity, the Roman Empire and the American Empire. Everything passes away, yes, but everything makes sense in the course of history where nothing is lost, nothing is created but everything is transformed.

For all that Paul Veyne was an atypical gentleman, who has written a classic on the history of Rome. While I was talking to him with admiration about his work, he raised his arms heavenward, cursing his fate: “What I have written is particularly bad, confused and really only slog-work. I have no work. What I have written will be replaced in fifty years by others and will be unusable.” When you read his books from a long and general view, you realize with interest that they oscillate between a clear lesson and a light and exquisite exposé—unlike at times his unreadable peers, whose books are heavy as elephants, tangled in jargon, twisted like Lacan’s language.

There are so many Marmorean figures of Latin letters in France and yet Veyne easily stands out among them. Men such as Pierre Boyancé, Pierre Grimal or Jérôme Carcopino who was a minister under Vichy and the writer of a life of Julius Caesar which is still a milestone. All this has the odor of good black ink in school notebooks. The tireless music of rosa, rosae always sends us back to the same bed of roses. Grimal touched ancient Rome with white gloves. As for Paul Veyne, he was part of the serious avant-garde.

Belles-lettres shook precisely when historians, at the beginning of the 1950s, coming from the Annales school, wanted to take a complex look at history. They no longer sought to produce books that went date-by-date, event-by-event, and by conventional biographies. They found refuge under the aegis of Fernand Braudel who, in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, expounded his ideas: the layering of temporalities, the longue durée, or even material civilization as prisms through which the historian observes the world and goes far beyond traditional history by opening up to sciences such as geography, economics, ethnology, sociology, or archaeology.

Paul Veyne had his sight on all Latin literature, from Appius Claudius Caecus to Boethius, including also the inscriptions and epitaphs of Romanity, for which he combed the manuals and syllogi of the great libraries. Such certainly was the master’s background and backroom work for half a century. This was also the influence of the archivism of ideas that the obscure and marginal Michel Foucauld defended as intangible proof of the real and the concrete. But before going over to Harald Fuchs, Veyne attended sociology classes at the Collège de France taught by Raymond Aron and applied the theories of the humanities and economics, oriented towards liberalism, from Simmel to Schumpeter, to Roman society, at a time when the class struggle was foolishly plastered onto history by the passive Trostko-Maoist bourgeoisie.

Veyne had a talent for unfolding phenomena, trying methodically, with a strong lucidity close to skepticism, to understand appearances, types, behaviors in Roman society. This rigorous observation went hand-in-hand with a keen sense of historical narrative. In Comment on écrit l’histoire (How We Write History), Veyne did not consider his discipline as a raw and crude science but as “a true novel.” A novel exposes reality, takes refuge in Danton’s phrase in The Red and the Black, “the truth, the bitter truth,” and, at the same time, hits you in the gut, touches you, makes you sensitive, agitates you, fascinates you. In his writing, so many such comparisons and analogies have been carried out with seriousness and accuracy while denoting much originality.

Veyne did not try to tell us that the Romans were superior to us, exotic or grandiose. He did not sigh with ecstasy at the mere name of Rome. He demythologized and even demystified the Romans, placing them in the spotlight. He stopped admiring them, and instead wanted to understand them. Roman society was its own organism, had its own special functioning, its principles, its totems and its taboos. The role of the historian is to deconstruct the strata of society. At the term “deconstruct,” one might gladly take out his magnum 44, ready to do some serious damage. But it is best to put it away, and out this term to use in the same way that Lévi-Strauss did— by understanding that it is not a question of deconstructing our own society but to undertake a disassembling of an ancient society, to disentangle what is complexus-entangled—in order to understand its mechanics; to detach the cogs of the machine, and to observe (as one would take out an organ from a body) the specific purpose of this ancient society.

In Bread and Circuses (1976), Veyne brought out the little-known and crucial role of the euergetes in that complex mechanism present in Roman society. The euergetes was the notable par excellence who, in his city, financed the games, the theater, the baths, with a view to social cohesion—a symbol of Romanity in the face of the barbarians: “imagine a city where the big bourgeois in the corner finances the cinema, the theater, the casino and offers you an aperitif as a bonus, and well, that’s how Roman cities functioned.” One must read the articles in L’empire gréco-romain (The Greco-Roman Empire) [2005] to understand the full complexity of the ancients in relation to their tastes, religion, the idea of faith, entertainment, economics and social class differences. Veyne enlightened us on the status of the gladiator, on the intellectual preoccupations of an intelligent pagan like Plutarch, the splendor of Palmyra, the morality of the couple in the second century even before the advent of Christianity, the existence of a middle class in Rome, between the great families and the plebs sordida. The chapter on Trimalchio in Roman Society (1991) is a true painting of the parvenu, embodied by the degenerate nouveau riche of Petronius’ The Satyricon, who rises by cunning, gets rich by speculating on land, and shows off his flashy wealth.

Veyne was interested in literature. We owe him some splendid pages full of pragmatism on Seneca. We owe him the L’Elégie érotique romaine (Roman Erotic Elegy) [1983], a book in which he explains that ancient poets, such as Tibullus, Catullus, Propertius, are not romantics before the term was invented, or even beatniks, but poets who only seek to play with the codes and conventions of their society, formulating love stories invented from scratch. In the last years of his life, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid crowned a remarkable work in which one can savor the Swan of Mantua as one would listen to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. A freshness of air, a gracefulness, a precious accuracy that buries the unhealthy translation of Jacques Perret of the Belles-lettres.

It will certainly become necessary to write a beautiful book on the life of Paul Veyne. Of all the men I have known, Veyne was the gentlest, the most generous. Not a word against any other. Treat others as equals and call the woman you love with “vouvoie.” Veyne was concerned with the little people until the end of his old age. A local celebrity in Bédoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, not far from the friendly monks of Le Barroux, he was among his own people. He was not imperious in any way, always very polite, replying with, “Thank you, master” to anyone who called him by the same title. He did not play the role of the wise old man, scowling and lecturing, and never quick to play the role of the intellectual for women readers on holidays. He always shirked merits and honors without ever refusing them. There was a great humility to the man.

What impressions do I have of him? I see him offering his housekeeper champagne to congratulate her on an ethereal dessert. I still see him offering a glass of whisky to his dog, Clover; making the sign of the cross while talking about General Leclerc; driving a two-wheeler at night while reciting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the original. I still admire him telling me, at eighty-seven years old, the “Voyage to Cythera” at the dinner table, the living room caught in the sunset like a beetle in amber, with a glass of red wine resting on his cheek: “What is this sad and black island? It is Cythera, we are told, a country famous in songs, a banal Eldorado for all old bachelors. Look at it. It is a miserable land after all…” I always imagine him in his office, a great clutter, manuscripts on the floor; on the shelves, broken-backed books, volumes of poems, and a parade of trinkets that ranged from a postcard of Santa Maria Maggiore to a plastic woman’s leg that lay in front of Augustine and Cyprian of Carthage, a Mongolian knife and a photograph of his late son.

Veyne was a friend of Michel Piccoli, whom he met during a conference in Tunis. The actor knocked on the door of his room, the professor opened: “Mr. Veyne, excuse me. You know, I did not study. I am a little ashamed to appear next to you.” And Veyne replied: “You know, you create; through your performance, you participate in works. I do not create anything. I am unable to. I try to understand what guys more or less like you have done in a distant era. I have no merit.”

The master of Bédoin was a lover. When he received the Femina prize for his memoirs, I congratulated him, saying. “I imagine that you don’t care.” And he replied, “Of course I don’t care, but it pleases my wife, and if it pleases her, then it pleases me too.” That was pure Veyne. There was in this small, cramped, hunchbacked man, a sensual temperament. “Since you write love poems,” he wrote to me, “we can be on familiar terms.” He loved women, he who was ugly as a louse, because of a facial deformity. He loved the arts, the poetry of René Char who sometimes succumbed to an ecstasy on the telephone and sometimes to a tantrum; the paintings of Pignon-Ernst and Paul Jenkins, his contemporaries. He loved Italy, Stendhal and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, which he could recite by heart, and all the art of which Italy is capable—Giotto in Assisi, the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, the Parmigianino Madonna of the Long Neck, Piero della Francesca and his Flagellation, Jupiter and Io by Correggio, the Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio in Naples.

Paul Veyne was not like other academics, who are often full of vinegar and proud. He was not prim and proper. He had this crazy side that made him eccentric and unpredictable, always ready to play a prank, a dare, a joke. At the University of Aix, he used to hang out on the tenth floor of the building during breaks, to prepare for his passion—mountaineering. He knew the summits of Europe, felt the vertigo of the crevasse, the shortness of breath of the altitude, the illusion of the snow and the perfume of the ice. He knew also the summits of his institution, the Collège de France, plus all the honors that the Americans, the English, the Italians and even the Turks gave him.

And how Veyne suffered in a stoic silence at seeing the people die around him—his son, who committed suicide, his son-in-law who died of AIDS. His marriages were long agonies, recounted in his memoirs—the abortion by his first wife; the hysteria of a Hellenist, daughter of a specialist in Plutarch; a notable village woman, suffering from dementia and depression, the love of his life; and a last marriage, three years ago, cut short because of the cancer of his wife. Beneath the appearance of a grandfather with a singing accent, kind and gentle, there must have been torments, storms and regrets that in ten years of friendship I was never able to pierce. Perhaps a liver sickened by the libertarian intoxication of post-1968.

My old and faithful friend is now on the other side. One morning, at breakfast, with coffee and foie gras, we talked about eternity. Veyne did not believe in God and was sorry not to believe in Him. He wanted to, but could not. For a long time, he had thought of suicide, as a practical exercise in getting all in a tizzy. But he would end up an old man. Eternity, the passage between the world of the living and a filled nothingness, inhabited or not, titillated his mind. It took courage, then, to cross the great cold without hope, with his eyes on death. May the Lord welcome him into His wide-open arms. Last Thursday, he joined Virgil, Seneca and Damien, his son. He will not be bored.


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

The Last Monarchy

The German Empire (1871-1918) was an original and effective regime that sank with the continental monarchies in the defeat of 1918, marking the irretrievable end of the “world of yesterday” (Stefan Zweig).

Proclaimed on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the German Empire sealed the federal bond, uniting twenty-five states (twenty-two of which had a reigning dynasty and three republics: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck), under the preponderance of the most active and powerful of them, the Prussia of the Bismarcks and the Moltkes—which alone covered 65% of the surface area of the new Reich and brought together sixty-two percent of its inhabitants. Moreover, since the emperor was at the same time the king of Prussia, head of the house of Hohenzollern, as in his function, the imperial chancellor, who was also the Prussian prime minister, enjoyed the assistance of his own government, as in the Bundesrat (where the plenipotentiaries, nominated by each of the princes and each of the three cities, sat and voted in their own right), the said Prussia, thanks to its blocking minority, had the leisure to neutralize decisions judged to be inopportune—one can indeed speak of a hegemonic influence.

But it is also necessary to be specific. Having lost their oft-illusory sovereignty, the medium and small federated states enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, kept their own constitutions and governments, and in short, preserved their distinctive features within the Reich—the latter having a constitution and a government common to all. Thus, in addition to the emperor and the chancellor, the Reichstag or Chamber of Deputies and the Bundesrat or Federal Council, there were assemblies which made the law and, like the chancellor, had authority. However, although elected by universal suffrage, the Reichstag could not overrule the chancellor, who was chosen by the emperor and was responsible only to him. As for the Bundesrat, which was charged with arbitrating as the supreme court in disputes between the Reich and the states, its approval was necessary to declare war and dissolve the Reichstag.

In any case, by force of circumstance, and although the princes were allies of the emperor, not subjects, the central government became more complicated, more substantial, and more and more powerful at the expense of the federated states. Initially embodying the entire ministry, Bismarck was led to recruit several senior civil servants from the pool of the senior administration, subordinate to his authority, to whom he entrusted the direction of offices (foreign affairs of the empire, justice, railways, post office, navy, etc.) outside of a close collegial structure. To sum up, as a result of the synchrony between the growing importance of Prussia in the Reich and the development of the latter’s competences, the Hohenzollern kingdom tempered unitarism wherever the maintenance of Prussian prerogative required it, while strengthening it by giving it the management of Germany (increased since May 10, 1871 by Alsace-Lorraine).

Social Advances

Wilhelm I died in his nineties on March 9, 1888, and his son and successor Frederick III, suffering from cancer of the larynx, died on June 15 of the same year, giving way to Wilhelm II. There followed, the presumptive young monarch on one side, Bismarck on the other, twenty-two months of increasingly difficult collaboration which, from January to March 1890, turned into a real crisis, resulting in the forced resignation of the old and illustrious chancellor. A struggle for power? From the very beginning. But it was the social question that was the cause of the rupture. At the Council of the Crown on January 24, Wilhelm, after a series of large strikes, presented two memoranda, forwarding an obligatory weekly day of rest, a number of measures in favor of women and children, the creation of works councils and savings banks, the construction of hospitals, orphanages, etc. Then on February 3, he signed two ordinances, without the chancellor’s countersignature, announcing the preparation of a labor law and the establishment of workers’ representatives to negotiate with employers and the administration. Indeed, the emperor, taking seriously his Christian duty to help the oppressed, dared to say of the bosses at that time that they only thought of squeezing the workers “like lemons” and that he wanted to be “the king of the beggars.”

Opposed to the prepotency of elective assemblies, Bismarck had basically paved the way for the “personal regime” of Wilhelm II, who was now, as he wrote to the princes, “the watch officer on the ship of state.” Significant words. Then, the emperor, “an instrument chosen by Heaven” and the supercilious leader of the army, appointed officers, decided on their promotion, punished them, and dismissed them. He was the active head of the military and of naval command, fond of beautiful uniforms, reviews and impressive parades (revenge for a disability—his left arm was too short and ankylosed—which humiliated him); and he was the comrade of soldiers. Nevertheless, despite noisy sorties on dry powder and sharpened sword, for twenty-six years, from 1888 to 1914, the Wilhelmine Reich, except for the expedition against the Boxers, remained at peace with the world.

A Tyranny?

But a tyranny, many have claimed, hidden under a constitutional veneer. Indeed, neither a flat parliamentary monarchy of the dualist type (or a regime with a decision-making body with a simple monarchic executive), nor, much worse, a spurious regime in monarchic form, an evanescent image, therefore negating royalty, but a system based on das monarchische Prinzip, alien to the recognition of a duality of principles and even more to the total sabotage of the royal function. One had thus, in this case, and distinct from the old absolute monarchy, which realized, with the theoretical unity of the State power, the permanent unity of the exercise of this power, a limited monarchy which, while ensuring the supremacy of the king (of Prussia) and the emperor (German) in the exercise of this power, subjected the said exercise (according to a gradation of techniques proper to the kingdom and proper to the empire), initially in the legislative area, to certain dependences likely to obstruct the ruler’s will—without ever, essential point, constraining it positively.

Blessed with a very good memory, great facility for learning, real qualities of an orator, Wilhelm II, until the war, had a great influence on his subjects. Proof of this magnetism—on June 15, 1913, during the silver jubilee of his reign, addresses, ceremonies, commemorative works, and erections of statues multiplied. Better than the primus inter pares of the Bismarckian era, than the first of all German princes, the emperor henceforth symbolized, in the eyes of the masses, the constancy of a Germanic nation in full development of its economy, in full demographic expansion (67 million inhabitants in 1914), maritime and industrial, almost without unemployment, and benefiting from laws on health insurance, on accident insurance, on old-age insurance, to which nothing in any other country came close (and certainly not in republican France, with its insignificantly low birth rate—41.5 million inhabitants in 1914—the red lantern in terms of social rights).

The War

Unfortunately, then came that terrible conflict, announced on June 28, 1914 by the criminal act of Sarajevo, consequence of the Balkan crises of 1908 and 1912-1913. After that, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia; Russia was mobilized from July 29; and on August 1, in the evening, Germany declared war on Serbia, then on August 3 on France. And on August 4 it was Britain’s turn to declare war on Germany. Of course, Wilhelm immediately became the prominent figure of the Burgfriedenspolitik, cheered on with his wife, as they drove through the Brandenburg Gate on July 31. The next day, August 1, he was cheered on the balcony of the Berlin castle, and his words were reproduced on postcards with his image, which were widely distributed.

But in November 1918 came the defeat. The Emperor and King of Prussia had to abdicate. And so did the kings of Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, the grand dukes of Baden, Oldenburg, etc.—in a word, all the crowned heads of Germania. Final catastrophe, according to the Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero, for the principle of authority that dominated the greater part of Europe—for the principle “already shaken by incredulity, rationalism, egalitarian doctrines” and “uprooted completely by the world war.”


Michael Toda is a historian and author of Henri Massis, un témoin de la droite intellectuelle, Louis de Bonald, théoricien de la Contre-Révolution, Parcours français. De Corneille à Jean Guitton. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef.


Featured: “Inauguration of the Reichstag, June 25, 1888,” by Anton von Werner; painted in 1893.